The Christian and Fasting: Matthew 6:16-18
Of all the things that our Lord could have highlighted when it came to one’s “righteousness” (ver. 1), he chose giving, prayer, and fasting. He could have mentioned reading and studying Scripture, for example, but he didn’t. Why did he choose these three religious activities? One possible answer is that each of these three activities underlines a key element in our devotion to God. Righteousness is incomplete unless it relates to others (giving), to God (prayer), and to oneself (fasting). Jesus’ teaching here implies that he expects his followers to exhibit a complete righteousness in their lives. Of course, the main emphasis of the text is against hypocrisy in one’s religious duties. It would be a false deduction from this text, however, that the key to killing hypocrisy is to stop doing these things. We may be liable to hypocrisy in prayer, but that doesn’t mean that we should stop praying. We are supposed to give, and we are supposed to pray. And we are supposed to fast.
Now this has been disputed by some. It has been argued that fasting was appropriate for the Old Covenant era, but that it is inappropriate for the New Covenant era. And this seems to have support from Paul’s writings. For example, in writing to the Colossians, Paul argues against asceticism in religion: “If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations – ‘Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch’ (referring to things that all perish as they are used) – according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh” (Col. 2:20-23). Or consider what he says to Timothy concerning those who would “require abstinence from foods.” Paul says that those who teach such things are promoting “teachings of demons,” and he goes on to say that “everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer” (1 Tim. 4:1-5).
However, Paul is not rejecting fasting in those passages. One reason we know this is that he was part of a group of men who fasted together in the church at Antioch (cf. Acts 13:1-3). Paul is not rejecting fasting as part of the discipline of the Christian life. In his letter to the Colossians, he is rejecting an ascetic lifestyle that replaces Christ as the way to approach God. In his letter to Timothy, he is rejecting a teaching that forbids certain foods all the time (not just at certain seasons), a requirement which is extraneous to Scripture, and which also probably operated in a way to minimize the work and worth of Christ in light of one’s own striving and achieving. And of course anyone who sees fasting as meritorious is misusing it. Fasting does not make us right with God, it does not purge our sins, and it does not replace Christ.
Just because fasting is misused does not mean we should avoid it. Anything in religion can be misused. Our Lord here notes the danger of hypocrisy. A duty which is meant to point our souls to God can be used to point people to ourselves. Hypocrisy is dangerous and it turns the act of fasting on its head. But our Lord does not tell us to avoid hypocrisy in fasting by not fasting. Rather, as it has often been observed, Jesus assumes that we will fast. He doesn’t say, “If you fast;” he says, “When you fast.”
It could be argued that the words “when you fast” still doesn’t come up to a requirement to fast. Jesus doesn’t say here that we must fast, he just says that when we fast we must do so without hypocrisy. We must do it unto God and not unto men. However, in Matthew 9:14-17, Jesus answers a question about fasting, and in his answer he makes it clear that his disciples – Christians – are going to fast once he has returned back to heaven. In these verses he clearly refers to himself as the bridegroom and his disciples as the wedding guests. And in verse 15, he says, “The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.” John Piper calls this the most important word in the New Testament on fasting because here we have an unmistakable reference to our Lord’s expectation that his disciples will fast when he is “taken away” – a reference to his return to the Father’s right hand. And since we still live in the time when our Lord is “away,” we belong to that group of disciples who are expected to fast.
When we look at the New Testament as a whole, we see that the early church certainly believed in the legitimacy of fasting. We’ve already seen in Acts 13 that when the church at Antioch was seeking direction in the ordination of men to the ministry of missions, they fasted and prayed. And God was pleased to answer this way of seeking him by showing them that Paul and Barnabas were to be sent as missionaries from the church.
Though the apostle James does not explicitly mention fasting in his letter, I do think it is clearly implied in chapter 4. In his call to repentance from the love of this world, he writes: “Draw near to God and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched (“be afflicted” - KJV) and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he will exalt you” (Jam. 4:8-10). Again, this is not an explicit call to fasting, but I don’t think the early church would have heard verse 9 without thinking of it as a call to fasting. One reason I think this is because it is recognized that the Day of Atonement was a day of fasting, although God did not explicitly tell the Israelites to fast, but to afflict themselves (cf. Num. 29:7). Thus, in the NT, the Day of Atonement is probably what is referred to in Acts 27:9 as “the Fast.” So Israel saw the call to afflict oneself as synonymous with a call to fasting. That is why I think the apostle’s call to afflict oneself as part of repentance is a call to fasting.
Another reason I think this is that in the book of Joel, a similar call to repentance is also accompanied with an explicit call to fasting. In 2:12-13, we read, “’Yet even now,’ declares the LORD, ‘return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.’ Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster.” What makes this even more compelling is that we must remember that the Bible of the early church was the OT Scripture, so that passages like this would certainly have informed the early church as to how to apply exhortations such as the one that the apostle James gives in his epistle.
In other words, I don’t think either our Lord or his apostles lets us off the hook by placing fasting in the category of spiritual disciplines that passed away with the coming of Jesus. Fasting is as relevant for us today as it ever was for the OT saints.
If we are to fast, then there are some obvious questions that need to be answered. For example, what then is the purpose of fasting, and how should we fast? These are the questions that I want to explore with you this morning.
What is the purpose of fasting?
First of all, hear the words of Jesus. We need to beware of the temptation of fasting for the purpose of being seen by men: “Moreover, when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward” (ver. 16). If the reward we seek in fasting is the good opinion of others and the applause of men for our spirituality, then that’s all we will get.
The problem is that this reward is so seductive. We are all tempted to opt for the quicker reward of human approval. It’s what drives so much of what people do, not only in religion but in all of life. It is the fire behind so much of the ambition in the world. But it is nothing compared to the reward that we have in the approval of God: “But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head and wash thy face; that thou appear not unto men to fast but unto thy Father which is in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.”
Now Jesus is not telling us here to fast only in private. As with prayer, the point is that our object in giving, prayer, or fasting is to please God, not men.
Nor, as we’ve already pointed out, is the purpose of fasting to merit God’s favor, or to make him beholden to us. Nothing that we do can ever put God in our debt. We are forever his debtors.
Nor is the purpose of fasting the real physical benefits that can be achieved, especially if it is done right. But its physical benefits are nowhere given in Scripture as the reason to fast. The Biblical reason to fast is fundamentally oriented toward our relationship with God. We see that in our text. You don’t fast for men but for God. And God is not primarily concerned with your physique. He is concerned with your heart towards him.
Nor must we see fasting as an automatic guarantee of God’s blessing us in some particular way. Some have a vending machine view of God, and they look at spiritual disciplines such as prayer and fasting in this way. If you pray hard enough or if you fast long enough, God will shower your life with blessings. What makes this so plausible is that there are so many stories – and they are true stories for the most part – of believers who have fasted for blessing and have seen God answer their fast with the asked for favor. In some sense, this is exactly what we see in Acts 13:1-3. Now I don’t want to deny the fact that God often ordains fasting as a gateway to blessing. But we must always put everything under the sovereignty of God. As in prayer, we must always submit everything to God’s will. Even so in fasting. We may be seeking a particular blessing, and we may legitimately fast in seeking this blessing, but we must always recognize that it may not be God’s will to grant it. And if we don’t keep this perspective, we are going to end up seeing God as a mere cosmic genie whose only purpose is to grant our wishes and who can be cajoled into granting any wish as long as we follow the right program. Such a view of God will not only inevitably disappoint us, but it is small and demeaning to him, and we should always beware of falling into such false ideas of our Lord.
What then is the purpose of fasting? I think we get a clue by looking more closely at our text. Our Lord tells us that if we fast for the sake of being seen by others – if the goal of fasting is the reward we receive when others praise us for our piety – then we have failed to fast in a way that God approves. Rather, just as it is with giving and with praying, we ought to fast for God, with a view to his approval and blessing and reward. Thus, though we must always submit our desires to heaven, yet we are right to seek God’s blessing by fasting.
In fact, our Lord’s own example shows the way. Did he not begin his own ministry by spending 40 days fasting in the wilderness? We argued when we considered that text that it was not only given to show us that Jesus conquers the devil for us, but that it was also given as a pattern to us. And though that does not mean that every detail of Jesus’ pilgrimage in the desert was given for us to mimic, surely the fact that he began his public ministry by fasting is instructive. Am I saying that we should spend 40 days in fasting? No. But I am saying that a person cannot go amiss who follows their Lord’s example in fasting.
But we need to be careful here. First of all, when we say that we seek the blessing of God in fasting, we are seeking God himself above all things as the blessing. The reward we seek is not God’s gifts, but God himself. And even when we fast so that we might be more holy, more spiritually minded, more disciplined, or if we are fasting for direction, we do all of this because we want to experience more of God’s fullness in our lives. To fast for God’s blessing without an ultimate desire to know more of God and to glorify him with our lives is to make God serve our idolatry of lesser things. I think John Piper has pegged it when he says that fasting is our way of telling God, “This much, O God, I want you.” When we take something as important as food and put it aside for a time that we might know more of God, that glorifies God. It demonstrates that we consider God more important even than our necessary food. Piper writes, “. . . fasting is peculiarly suited to glorify God . . . . It is fundamentally an offering of emptiness to God in hope. It is a sacrifice of need and hunger. It says, by its very nature, ‘Father, I am empty, but you are full. I am hungry, but you are the Bread of Heaven. I am thirsty, but you are the Fountain of Life. I am weak, but you are strong. I am poor, but you are rich. I am foolish, but you are wise. I am broken, but you are whole. I am dying, but your steadfast love is better than life.’ . . . The final answer is that God rewards fasting because fasting expresses the cry of the heart that nothing on the earth can satisfy our souls besides God.”
We all know what it is like to lose our appetite because of the pressing nature of a particular concern. Perhaps it was an exam that we felt unprepared for, or perhaps it was an unexpected problem with an automobile, or a problem at work, or relational difficulties. Whatever it was, the worry of it all robbed us of our appetite. As important as food was, for a time this was more important and we bent all our energies to solving the problem. Is it not therefore appropriate from time to time to lay aside food that we might bend all our energies to seeking God? Are the problems at work or home more important to us than having more of God in our lives? Thus, we ought to fast for God’s blessing upon our lives, for more of his presence, fullness, and joy.
There is another reason why fasting is so appropriate to signal a heart hunger for God’s presence. It is because food itself along with all God’s other legitimate and good blessings to us can become a stumbling block in our walk before God. We so easily and so often take legitimate pleasures and make them illegitimate by turning them into idols. And the fact that they are good gifts of God make it so easy for us to miss the fact that we have poisoned them with misplaced expectations. We seek from them what we should only be seeking in God. As Piper puts it, “The greatest enemy of hunger for God is not poison but apple pie. It is not the banquet of the wicked that dulls our appetite for heaven, but endless nibbling at the table of the world. It is not the X-rated video, but the prime-time dribble of triviality we drink in every night.”
Fasting is a way to awaken ourselves afresh to the reality that God alone can fill us with real joy and peace and that everything else is a cheap and ultimately futile substitute. Of course, it is not the only way to do this, but it is certainly one way to do it.
Lloyd-Jones in his commentary on this passage goes to great lengths to guard against the notion that fasting is just a part of normal Christian self-discipline. Fasting is something extraordinary. Self-denial isn’t. It’s something that we ought to practice every single day. From time to time we may go without any food, but we should never serve our bellies. Fasting on Monday doesn’t give us the right to gorge ourselves on Tuesday. And Lloyd-Jones is absolutely right in this insistence. However, fasting does serve our everyday practice of self-denial. Fasting provides a stark contrast to our indulgence and reminds us of the need for self-control. So though fasting is extraordinary and different from the daily discipline of self-control, it nevertheless serves it by strengthening discipline and by calling our attention to its importance.
Fasting is also good because it helps to unmask our personal lack of grace and spiritual maturity. Fasting unmasks sin because we tend to hide it with food. Often, instead of confronting the problem within we will turn to other things like food to hide the hurt we are feeling. Richard Foster writes, “More than any other discipline, fasting reveals the things that control us. This is a wonderful benefit to the true disciple who longs to be transformed into the image of Jesus Christ. We cover up what is inside of us with food and other things.” Instead of dealing with our sin, we medicate it with food. And as Piper point out, this is not an isolated phenomenon: we all do it. So we need fasting to help us see what truly has our hearts. Do we long for God enough that we will give up food? Have we really dealt with the sin of pride and anger or do we cover it up with life’s little pleasures?
Thus we fast because fasting is a fitting vehicle for a heart that seeks its good alone in God. We fast because fasting serves the daily discipline of self-denial and by helping to uncover hidden sins. And in so doing, we are enabled by grace to draw nigh unto God. In fasting, we seek the blessing that is God.
Secondly, in fasting we seek God’s blessing by seeking his direction for our lives. Again, this is the reason that the elders in the church of Antioch were fasting. And God blessed their fasting and praying for this purpose. It was as Cornelius was fasting that the angel of the Lord appeared to him and gave him instruction concerning his need to hear the gospel (Acts 10). Now this doesn’t mean that God only gives direction through fasting and prayer. But it is clear from Scriptural example that this is a valid approach to take when we are faced with some weighty decision and we aren’t sure which path to take. If that is the case, then we are surely validated in pursuing direction through fasting.
In our day, we can get information so easily. I remember when I was in school that to do a research paper you had to go to the library and spend a good deal of time sifting through books and articles to find relevant material. Now you can get the same information (and more) after a few seconds with Google. Knowledge has been trivialized in our culture. I think a lot of people transfer this approach to knowledge to seeking God. And so God has been trivialized.
But when we fast, we signal that God is not trivial and that seeking God is not a trivial thing. And God will not be sought as though he were something as common as a rock on the side of the road. He is more precious than gold. In fasting we indicate that God is our greatest treasure and more important than our daily bread. As we fast for direction, we are indicating that God is not just another cosmic Google and that we earnestly desire his leadership in our life more than anything else. So it is no wonder that God often blesses fasting with the desired direction.
Thirdly, we fast for victory over sin in our life. This is, I think, the point of James 4:9. What am I willing to give up to get victory over a particular sin in my life? We might be willing to do everything except to afflict ourselves to draw near to God. But James puts this as part of the way we repent. It’s part of what it means to humble ourselves in the sight of the Lord (ver. 10).
In 2 Chronicles 20, when Judah was surrounded by enemies who were preparing to attack them, “Jehoshaphat was afraid and set his face to seek the LORD, and proclaimed a fast throughout all Judah” (ver. 3). Together with the people of Judah, the king prayed for God’s deliverance from their enemies. And God heard their prayer and responded to their fasting, delivering them and giving them victory. Now I realize that we are not called as Christians to fight military battles and that we don’t wage war against flesh and blood but against principalities and powers, against spiritual wickedness in high places (Eph. 6:12). But the principle is the same. Do you want victory in your life? Is there some sin that has a powerful grip over your life? Then humble yourself in the sight of the Lord and he will lift you up.
 John Piper, A Hunger for God: Desiring God through Fasting and Prayer (Crossway, 1997), page 180-181.
 Piper, page 14.
 From his book A Celebration of Discipline, qtd. in Piper, page 19.