THE PRESCRIPTION FOR CHRISTIAN FASTING
Whenever you fast, do not put on a gloomy face as the hypocrites do, for they neglect their appearance so that so that they would be noticed by men when they are fasting. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full.
But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face so that your fasting would not be noticed by men, but by your Father who is in the secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you (NASB).
There was a godly Christian woman who startled her friends by saying, “There isn't a sin of which I am not capable. I could be a prostitute; I could murder; I could embezzle.” Most of her friends were not impressed with her frankness. Instead they thought that she was displaying a false humility. Then she added, “You don't really believe what I just said. I mean it—because I realize that any particular sin that crops up in someone else's life expresses itself in me, but in different ways. Until I accept that, I am self-righteous, proud, and arrogant.”
Charles Haddon Spurgeon said, “There are many people who would not kill a mouse without publicizing it. Samson killed a lion and said nothing about it. Say much of what the Lord has done for you. Say little of what you have done for the Lord. Do not speak a self-glorifying sentence.”
A proud lawyer asked a farmer: “Why don't you hold up your head in the world? I bow my head before neither God nor man!” Answered the wise farmer: “Do you see that field of grain? Only the heads which are empty stand upright. The well-filled ones bow low!”
The wise farmer put the prideful lawyer in his place.
In our present text, Jesus concludes the teaching that He began from Matthew 6:1. In these verses, Jesus contrasts three religious practices of the Pharisees with authentic Christian practices, and these are: giving, praying, and fasting. In verses 9-13 Jesus spends time to teach His disciples how to pray. We spent two Sundays on the Model Prayer. In verses 16-18, Jesus concludes His teaching on these three noble religious practices.
I. A HYPOCRITICAL FAST V. 16
Some years ago, I spent about four Sundays preaching on fasting and the types of fasting that are found in the Bible. The question is: “Why has the Western church so often remained silent on the subject of fasting? How has Satan managed to silence so many Christian leaders today on the subject of fasting? The only preacher that I have heard recently preach on fasting is Dr. Tony Evans. This Christian practice has almost become extinct. But many of the men and women that God used to change the course of history have been people of prayer and fasting. For instance, Moses fasted twice for forty days (Deut. 9:9, 18) till his face shone with the glory of God. Joshua fasted after the defeat at Ai (Josh. 7:6). In the time of the Judges and in the time of Samuel all Israel fasted (Judges 20:26; 1 Sam. 7:6, 12). Queen Esther in the OT and Anna, a prophetess in the NT all fasted. Jesus Himself fasted for forty days (Matt. 4). Before the launching of Gentile missions, the church of Antioch waited on the Lord in prayer and fasting (Acts 13). Francis of Assisi, Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Wesley, George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Spurgeon, Charles G. Finney, D. L. Moody, and Dr. Billy Graham all made fasting, a part of their Christian discipline. There is no wonder God used them mightily to advance the cause of Christ in their time.
In the Old Testament all the Jewish people fasted on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:29-31; 23:27-32). The Pharisees fasted twice a week (Luke 18:12). They fasted on Mondays and Thursdays. John the Baptist and his disciples fasted regularly. To be frank with you Jesus did not prohibit fasting or command it. However, Jesus assumed that His followers, thus Christians for that matter would practice fasting.
What is fasting? Fasting is a deliberate abstinence from some or all of food for a spiritual purpose. Fasting is a form of self-denial for the sake of Jesus and His kingdom. Fasting is God's chosen way to deepen and strengthen our prayer life. Before I give you the types of fast in the Bible, let us deal with the text before us. Throughout the Sermon on the Mount, you can find out that Jesus is contrasting two kinds of righteousness, pharisaic and Christian. Pharisaic piety is ostentatious, motivated by vanity and rewarded by men. Christian piety is secret, motivated by humility and rewarded by God. What are the causes and effects of pharisaic and Christian piety or righteousness? First, let's see the effect. Hypocritical religion is perverse because it is destructive. In these series we have seen that praying, giving, and fasting are all authentic activities in their own right. To pray is to seek God; to give is to serve others; to fast is to discipline oneself. But the effect of hypocrisy is to destroy the integrity of these practices by turning each of them into an occasion for self-display.
What then, is the cause? If you can isolate this, you can also find the remedy or solution. Although one of the phrases that run through Matthew 6 is before men in order to be seen and praised by men, it is not men (people) with whom the hypocrite is obsessed, but himself/herself. Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones writes, “Our only reason for pleasing men around us is that we may please ourselves.” The remedy then is obvious. You have to become so conscious of God that you cease to be self-conscious. And it is on this that Jesus concentrates.
As a matter of fact, absolute secrecy is impossible for any of us. We are always around people and people are around us. So it is not possible to think or say anything in the absence of spectators. For even if no human being is there; God is watching us. However, God is not watching us as a celestial policeman snooping in order to catch us out, but as a loving heavenly Father always looking for opportunities to bless us. So the question is: which audience matters to you the most, earthly or heavenly, men or God? The hypocrite performs his rituals to be seen by men. The Greek verb is theathēnai. That is, they are performing in a theater. Their religion is a public spectacle. Two extremes are to be avoided in worship. Worship is not entertainment or concert. Neither is worship a funeral observance. For worship to be authentic it must have tow ingredients--celebration and reflection.
II. A RIGHT APPROACH TO FASTING VV. 17-18A
Jesus does not condemn the practice of fasting anymore than giving and praying. As He assumed that His disciples would give and pray, so He assumed that they would fast. Jesus is saying that when you fast, go about your normal daily routine, don't make any show of it. Putting olive oil on one's head in Jesus' day is like putting on lotion today. It was a common part of daily hygiene like washing one's face. This text and many others reveal to me that Jesus was a neat person. Jesus kept Himself clean. If you are a person who has a great number of people following you, you have to keep yourself and your environment clean. You don't have to be rich to keep yourself and your house clean. Cleanness is next to godliness. If Jesus were unkempt, shabby, and dirty He would have turned people off by His mere presence. Jesus' teaching here presupposes that the Pharisees neglected personal hygiene and grooming in their days of fasting. In neglecting this basic hygiene, the Pharisees were drawing attention to themselves. But Jesus says, as we do not give or pray to parade ourselves so must we not fast to gain personal accolades that says, see how spiritual I am. Jesus says that if that is your motivation, you have already received your reward. Jesus is saying that when you fast, you must groom yourself according to cultural norms in order to appear joyful and content. The Pharisees may have neglected personal hygiene, or covered their heads with sackcloth, or perhaps smeared their faces with ashes in order to look pale, pallid, melancholy, and so outstandingly holy. They went through all these troubles so that people would take notice of them. Jesus says that when you do that the admiration of the onlookers would be all the reward you get. What Jesus is teaching you and me is very simple. He is saying that we are to groom ourselves and keep the same demeanor as we do every day so that nobody will suspect we are fasting.
III. THE AUDIENCE OF CHRISTIANS V. 18B
What Jesus is teaching here is that Christians, unlike the Pharisees dance to a different drummer, who is God the Father. The true Christian is aware that he/she is being watched, but for him/her the audience is God. Somebody would ask: “Why is it that a different audience causes a different performance?” The answer is that you can bluff or show off to a human audience; they can be taken in by your performance. You can fool them into thinking that you are genuine in your giving, praying, and fasting, when in reality you are only acting. But God is not mocked; you cannot deceive Him. For God looks on the heart and not on outward performance. That is why to do anything in order to be seen by men is bound to degrade it, while to do it to be seen by God is equally bound to be accepted and exalted. So you must choose your audience carefully. If you prefer human spectators, you will lose your Christian integrity. The same will happen if you become your own audience. As Bonheoffer puts it: “It is even more pernicious if I turn myself into a spectator of my own prayer performance. . . I can lay on a very nice show for myself even in the privacy of my own room.” So you must choose God for your audience. As Jesus watched the people putting their gifts into the temple treasury, (Mk. 12:41ff.) so God watches us as we give, as we pray, as we fast secretly, He is there in the secret place. God hates hypocrisy but loves reality. That is why it is only when we are aware of His presence that our giving, praying, and fasting will be real.
Today fasting is unpopular because we prefer feasting. I like what Andrew Murray says in his book, The Believer's School of Prayer: “Prayer needs fasting for its growth. Prayer is the one hand with which we grasp the invisible; fasting, the other, with which we let loose and cast away the visible.” In prayer we discipline the soul but in fasting we discipline the body. However, fasting is not a means by which you earn God's blessing and God's answer to prayer. Fasting is not a way to bypass obedience nor is it an automatic way to secure a miracle. Fasting does not accumulate power to your heavenly account, so that you can display it at your pleasure. How can you fast properly? Here are some suggestions. 1. Keep the purpose of fasting in mind—to please God (Zech. 7:5; Matt. 6:18). 2. Understand that the call to fast is from God (Joel 1:14, 2:15; Luke 5:33-35). 3. Realize that fasting is a humbling experience before God because it includes repentance (1 Kings 21:27; Psalm 35:13; 1 Peter 5:6). 4. Place fasting in its proper perspective—it is not a substitute for obedience (Isaiah 58:3-5). 5. Avoid fasting legalistically, for when it becomes mostly form and ritual it becomes empty of meaning. 6. Vary the times of fasting. 7. Employ good medical advice before serious fasting. If you have a medical condition, seek the advice of your physician before engaging in a fast. 8. Avoid strenuous exercise while fasting. 9. Keep fasting as a matter between you and God. If you must tell, give the glory to God.
Now let me give you just a synopsis of various forms of fasting in the Bible. First, is the normal fast. In a normal fast you avoid food that is either solid or liquid. You drink only water (Matt. 4:2). The second type of fast is absolute fast. It is the same as normal fast but you do not drink even water. This fast normally lasted for three days at most (Acts 9:9). The third is partial fast (Daniel 10:3). This deals with diet restriction. The fourth is regular fast (Jeremiah 36:6, also during the Day of Atonement; Luke 18:11-12, twice per week at a set time). The last but not the least is the public fast (Joel 2:15). This could be regular or called.
I would like to call you to a time of prayer and fasting asking God to do a personal work in each of our lives and the life of our churches. I challenge you to make fasting a part of your Christian practice and your life won't be the same. However, remember that in giving, praying, as well as in your fast you have one audience, who is your heavenly Father. And when you please Him with your genuine religious practices as well as your moral lifestyle, He who sees in secret will surely reward you. You will know His peace, which you have not known in your life. You will experience deepened humility. You will receive a holy boldness and confidence that you have not known. Your prayers will be answered and you will have your needs met.