“Emmanuel’s Piety” – Matthew 6:16-18

February 22nd, 2015    FMC – Freedom Sunday

Matthew 6:16-18 (see also: Isa 58:1-12; Jer 36:6-10; ; Zech 7:3-10; Lk 18:9-14)

“Emmanuel’s Piety”

 

Service Orientation: Most Americans do not know what kind of a stranglehold other gods have on our hearts and lives until those gods are stripped from us.  That is why Jesus expects us to fast from everything from food to video games; and from work to entertainment.  Once you see the power and influence those other gods have on your lives, you can begin to more effectively destroy their stranglehold on your heart and mind and worship and serve to True God of the Universe.

 

Bible Memory Verse for the Week: “Everything is permissible for me”—but not everything is beneficial. “Everything is permissible for me”—but I will not be mastered by anything.  — 1 Corinthians 6:12

 

Background Information:

  • Fasting is here put last, because it is not so much a duty for its own sake, as a means to dispose us for other duties. Prayer comes in between almsgiving and fasting, as being the life and soul of both.  (Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Vol. V, 77)
  • Fasting was thought to strengthen prayer by demonstrating how serious was the supplicant’s approach. According to the Didache, the “hypocrites” (by the second century A.D. this derogatory title had become a standard epithet for the Jews) fasted Mondays and Thursdays (market days!), and therefore Christians were to fast Wednesdays and Fridays (8:1).  (Robert H. Mounce, New International Biblical Commentary: Matthew, 58)
  • In the OT, fasting had been commanded only on the Day of Atonement, but during the Babylonian exile, regular fast days for remembrance of past disasters had been instituted and had become a major part of Jewish religion. A question about whether these fasts should continue after the return to the land of Israel was raised and answered in Zechariah 7 and 8.  Significantly, Jesus answers it the same way here!  The issue is not how often we should fast, he implies.  It is how we fast and why.  (James Montgomery Boice, The Gospel of Matthew, Vol. 1, 101)
  • The Jewish days of fasting were Monday and Thursday. These were market days, and into the towns and villages, and especially into Jerusalem, there crowded the people from the country; the result was that those who were ostentatiously fasting would on those days have a bigger audience to see and admire their piety.  There were many who took deliberate steps to see that others could not miss the fact that they were fasting.  They walked through the streets with hair deliberately unkempt and disheveled, with clothes deliberately soiled and disarrayed.  They even went the length of deliberately whitening their faces to accentuate their paleness.  This was no act of humility; it was a deliberate act of spiritual pride and ostentation.  (William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible Series: Gospel of Matthew, 235)
  • (v. 16) Fasting was practiced regularly twice a week among some sectarians (cf. Lk 18:12), usually on Monday and Thursday, because Moses is said to have gone up on Sinai on those days. In fasting on those days, they felt they were emulating Moses’ rigorous approach to God and his holiness.  But this can also lead to a deceptive trap of self-aggrandizement when people attempt to elevate their religious status in the eyes of the people and their peers by broadcasting their religious accomplishments.  (Michael J. Wilkins, The NIV Application Commentary: Matthew, 282)
  • (v. 16) The hypocrites, that is, the Scribes and Pharisees (5:20; 15:1, 7; 23:13), put on a dismal look, making their faces unsightly, perhaps by covering them with ashes (1 Kgs 20:38), in order that to the people round about them they might look O so sorry for their sins; hence, O so pious! They were putting on an act.  (William Hendriksen, New Testament Commentary: Matthew, 341)
  • (v. 16) The hypocrites pretended fasting, when there was nothing of that contrition or humiliation of soul in them, which is the life and soul of the duty. Theirs were mock-fasts, the show and shadow without the substance; they took on them to be more humbled than really they were, and so endeavored to put a cheat upon God, than which they could not put a greater affront upon him.  The fast that God has chosen, is a day to afflict the soul, not to hang down the head like a bulrush, nor for a man to spread sackcloth and ashes under him; we are quite mistaken if we call this a fast, Isa 58:5.  (Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Vol. V, 77)
  • (v. 16) Few Christians today would use makeup to communicate piety in fasting.  Rather, a testimony service or conversation offers the opportunity to mention casually that we have been fasting.  When we do so, God pulls out His stamp in heaven and marks paid in full.  (Roger L. Hahn, Matthew: A Commentary for Bible Students, 102)
  • (v. 17) In verse 17 Jesus uses the emphatic “you” to say that in contrast to the way in which hypocrites fast to impress people, you, when you fast, do so in the proper manner. (Myron S. Augsburger, The Communicator’s Commentary: Matthew, 90)
  • (v. 17) When he bids them anoint their head, and was their face, his language is hyperbolical: for Christ does not withdraw us from one kind of hypocrisy, to lead us into another. He does not enjoin us to counterfeit splendor, or exhort us to temperance in food in such a manner, as to encourage the luxuries of ointments and of dress: but merely exhorts us to preserve moderation, without anything new or affected;–in short, that the fastings, in which we engage, should make no change in our accustomed way of living.  (John Calvin, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, 331)
  • (v. 17) Anointing, like the washing of the face, represents normal cosmetics, (Lk 7:46; cf. Ruth 3:3; 2 Sm 14:2; 2 Chr 28:15; Dn 10:3), not an artificial show of gaiety; everything is to be outwardly normal. Fasting, like almsgiving and prayer, is to be between the disciple and God.  No one else should know.  (Perhaps that is why we know so little of early Christian practice in this regard!)  (R.T. France, The New International Commentary on the NT: Matthew, 255)
  • (v. 18) This kind of anointing and washing is social, not religious. It signifies that a person has prepared herself or himself to enjoy life, similar to the expression in Ecclesiastes, “Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for it is now that God favors what you do.  Always be clothed in white, and always anoint your head with oil” (Eccl 9:7-8).  Rather than making a public display of fasting, which would destroy any spiritual value, Jesus’ disciples are to celebrate life while fasting.  Other people do not need to know of their religious discipline.  (Michael J. Wilkins, The NIV Application Commentary: Matthew, 282)
  • When you fast, Jesus was saying, go about your normal daily routine; don’t make a show of it. Putting olive oil on one’s head was like putting on lotion; it was a common part of daily hygiene like washing one’s face.  No one but God would know they were fasting.  Jesus commended acts of self-sacrifice done quietly and sincerely.  He wanted people to adopt spiritual disciplines for the right reasons, not from a selfish desire for praise.  As with the other disciplines, the reward would come from God, not from people.  (Bruce Barton, Life Application Bible Commentary: Matthew, 119)
  • This matter of fasting was carried so far that one historian tells us it was mimicked and mocked in the Roman theater. At one play, the audience being seated and in expectation of the performance, a camel was led across the stage, and that camel was in such a lean and miserable condition, looking so utterly dejected and forsaken, that voices called out, “What is the matter with the camel?” and the dramatic answer was, “This is fasting-time amongst the Jews, and the camel has been observing the fast.” This is what our pharisaical impiety always comes to; it is the tempting, sniveling hypocrite that is put upon the boards of our novels, and not the earnest and loving and true soul.  (Joseph Parker, The Inner Life of Christ, Studies in Matthew 1-7, 164)

 

The question to be answered is . . . Why is Jesus making such a big deal about such an obsolete spiritual discipline?

 

Answer:  It has only been in the last 150 years that Western Christians have viewed fasting as obsolete.  Jesus knows that fasting puts us face to face with the gods to which we have loyalties in our hearts and minds.  Fasting is promoted by God to allow God to have more power over you.  Not for you to have more power over God.  Jesus expects us to fast so we should make it a point to do so.

 

Fasting has been practiced for various reasons throughout history.  Many ancient pagans believed that demons could enter the body through food.  When they felt they were under demonic attack they would fast to prevent more evil spirits from gaining access to their bodies.  The yogis of most eastern religions and cults have always been committed to fasting–often for long periods of time, in society fasting has become popular for purely physical and cosmetic reasons, and is recommended in some diet programs.  (John MacArthur, The MacArthur NT Commentary: Matthew 1-7, 399)

 

Some have exalted religious fasting beyond all Scripture and reason; and others have utterly disregarded it.  –John Wesley

 

In a culture where the landscape is dotted with shrines to the Golden Arches and an assortment of Pizza Temples, fasting seems out of place, out of step with the times.  In fact, fasting has been in general disrepute both in and outside the church for many years.  For example, in my research I could not find one single book published on the subject of fasting from 1861 to 1954, a period of nearly one hundred years.  More recently there has developed a renewed interest in fasting, although it is often dogmatic and lacking in biblical balance.  (Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline, 41)

 

In most Christian circles you will rarely hear fasting mentioned, and few will have read anything about it.  And yet it’s mentioned in Scripture more times than even something as important as baptism (about 77 times for fasting to 75 for baptism).  (Donald S. Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, 151-2)

 

During the early days of our nation, Congress proclaimed three national fasts.  Presidents John Adams and James Madison each called all Americans to fast, and Abraham Lincoln did so on three separate occasions during the War Between the States.  (Donald S. Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, 154)

 

The Word for the Day is . . . Fast

 

A study of relevant NT Scriptures reveals that it was a matter on which there was liberty, and that it was not a premeditated and pre-arranged exercise.  It was usually the spontaneous outcome of some deep spiritual concern, which made eating a matter of secondary importance.  Or it was the expression of a yearning for a closer walk with God.  (J. Oswald Sanders, Bible Studies in Matthew’s Gospel, 39)

 

Fasting is valuable because it allows you to see beyond your deceitfully wicked heart and define what it is that you are truly  living for. — Pastor Keith

 

Because fasting has fallen out of disuse in the last 150 years, here are some basics you need to know about fasting:

1-  Most of the spiritual giants of the past have fasted.   (Ex 34:27-28; Dt 9:18; 1 Sm 1:7; 7:6; 31:13; 2 Sm 1:12; 12:16-23; Jdg 20:26; 1 Kgs 19:8; 1 Chr 10:11-12; 2 Chr 20:3-37; Est 3:4-16; 9:31; Ez 8:21-23; 10:6; Neh 1:4; 9:1; Dn 9:2-3; 10:3)

 

The saints of God in all ages and in all places have not only believed in fasting, they have practiced it.  It was true of the Protestant Reformers, it was certainly true of the Wesleys and Whitefield.  I admit that they tended to do it more before they were truly converted than they did afterwards; but they did nevertheless continue to fast after their conversion.  And those of you who are familiar with the life of that great Chinese Christian, Pastor Hsi of China, will remember how Pastor Hsi, when confronted by some new or exceptional difficulty or problem, invariably had a period of fasting as well as of prayer.  God’s people have felt that fasting is not only right, but is of great value and of great importance under certain conditions.  (D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, 313)

 

During OT times many faithful believers fasted–Moses, Samson, Samuel, Hannah, David, Elijah, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Daniel, and many others.  And the NT tells us of the fasting of Anna, John the Baptist and his disciples, Jesus, Paul, and numerous others.  We know that many of the early church Fathers fasted, and that Luther, Calvin, Wesley, Whitefield, and many other outstanding Christian leaders have fasted.

But the only fast commanded in Scripture is the one connected with the Day of Atonement.  (John MacArthur, The MacArthur NT Commentary: Matthew 1-7, 400)

 

We often fail to understand God’s Word as fully as we ought simply because, unlike those great people of God, we do not seek to comprehend it with their degree of intensity and determination. Skipping a few meals might be the small price we willingly pay for staying in the Word until understanding comes.  (John MacArthur, The MacArthur NT Commentary: Matthew 1-7, 403)

 

Fasting, of course, is not an exclusively Christian Discipline; all the major religions of the world recognize its merit.  Zoroaster practiced fasting as did Confucius and the Yogis of India.  Plato, Socrates and Aristotle all fasted.  Even Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, believed in fasting.  Now the fact that all these individuals, in and out of Scripture, held fasting in high regard does not make it right or even desirable, but it should give us enough pause to be willing to reevaluate the popular assumptions of our day concerning the Discipline of Fasting.  (Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline, 42)

 

John Wesley sought to revive the teaching of the Didache and urged early Methodists to fast on Wednesdays and Fridays.  He felt so strongly about this matter, in fact, that he refused to ordain anyone to the Methodist ministry who did not fast on those two days.  (Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline, 44-5)

 

2-  There are basic biological and physiological reasons why fasting can be effective for spiritual growth.   

 

Man is body, mind and spirit, and these are very intimately related to one another and interact very closely upon one another.  We distinguish them because they are different, but we must not separate them because of their interrelationship and interaction.  There can be no question whatever but that physical bodily states and conditions do have a bearing upon the activity of the mind and of the spirit, so that the element of fasting must be considered in this peculiar relationship of body, mind and spirit.  What fasting really means, therefore, is abstinence from food for spiritual purposes.  (D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, 314)

 

There is no doubt whatsoever that fasting, purely on the physical and bodily level, is something which is good for one’s  physical frame as long as it is done properly; and there is no doubt that clarity of mind and brain and understanding does result from it.  But we must always be very careful that we do not attribute to the spiritual what can be adequately explained by the physical.  Here again is a great general principle.  It is what some of us would say to those who make claims in the matter of faith and holiness, as also to those who are over-ready to claim something as miraculous when it is not certainly or unmistakably so.  We do harm to the cause of Christ if we claim as miraculous something which can be easily explained on a natural level.  The same danger is present in this question of fasting–a confusion between the physical and the spiritual.  (D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, 317)

 

With the passing of the day of atonement, fasting is no longer a religious requirement (Col 2:14).  Are there, nevertheless, lessons here that hold today as well as they did yesterday?  I suggest the following:

  1. Intemperance in eating, as well as in everything else, is warned against in Scripture.  The lazy gluttons of Crete, sluggish and sensual gormandizers, do not remain unrebuked (Ti 1:12).  A mark of the enemies of the cross is that “their god is their belly (Phil 3:19; cf. Rom 16:18).”  Instead of striving to keep their physical appetites under control (Rom 8:13; 1 Cor 9:27), realizing that our bodies are the Holy Spirit’s temple, in which God should be glorified (1 Cor 6:19, 20), these people surrendered themselves to gluttony and licentiousness.  They worshiped their sensual nature.  The Bible forbids this.  In this connection it is interesting to note that the physical advantage in cutting down the intake of animal fats is not a modern medical discovery (see Lv 3:176; 7:22-25).
  2. Nevertheless, in Scripture it is not the salutary effect which a moderate amount of fasting may have on a person’s physical welfare that is especially in view.  It is rather the spiritual benefit that is basic.  As has already been indicated, often tasting was an expression of sorrow for sin or was observed in order that mind and heart might concentrate not on material matters but wholly on God and on the tasks which he assigns.  That there is a close connection between fasting and spiritual mediation and contemplation is widely recognized.
  3. The indispensability of sincerity in worship is, however, the main thrust of this entire section (6:1-18).  (William Hendriksen, New Testament Commentary: Matthew, 342-3)

 

3-  Fast for spiritual maturity and growth—not to lose weight or to join the crowd or to impress others.  (Mt 6:16-18)

 

Fasting means an abstinence from food for the sake of certain special purposes such as prayer or meditation or the seeking of God for some peculiar reason or under some exceptional circumstance.  (D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, 314)

 

If I make fasting an end in itself, something of which I say, “Well now, because I have become a Christian, I have to fast on such a day and at such a time in the year because it is part of the Christian religion,” I might as well not do it.  The special element in the act goes right out of it when that is done.  (D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, 315)

 

Anything we do merely for the sake of doing it, or as a matter of rule or rote, is surely an entire violation of the scriptural teaching.  We must never regard fasting as an end in itself.  (D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, 315)

 

It should always be regarded as a means to an end, and not as an end in itself.  It is something that a man should do only when he feels impelled or led to it by spiritual reasons.  It is not to be done because a certain section of the Church enjoins fasting on a Friday, or during the period of Lent, or at any other time.  (D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, 317)

 

What our Lord is saying here is, “When you fast be natural.”  (D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, 319)

 

Fasting is not going without food; that is dieting, and that’s not spiritual at all.  Fasting is setting aside time that you normally would spend doing bona fide things such as eating, watching television, and other things and substituting for them prayer and study of the Word.  It’s not the doing without food that is important; it is getting into God’s Word that is important.  (Bob Yandian, Salt & Light, The Sermon on the Mount, 91)

 

4-  Reasonable, Spirit guided, wise fasting is good for the body, not harmful.  (1 Cor 9:25-27)

 

Do you have a mild case of fasting-phobia?  It’s silly when you put it in perspective.  We think about missing a meal or two for the sake of becoming more like Jesus and we get anxious.  And yet we willingly miss meals sometimes while shopping, working, recreating, or otherwise occupied.  Whenever we believe another activity is at that moment more important, we will go without food fearlessly and without complaint.  We need to learn that there are times when it can be not only more important, but much more rewarding to feast on God than food (Mt 4:4).  We should not fear the blessings of fasting.  (Donald S. Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, 170)

 

Fasting is good for health.  Many of us live a life in which it is easy to get soft and flabby.  It is even possible for a man to reach the stage when he lives to eat instead of eating to live.  It would do a great many people a great deal of physical good to practice fasting far more than they do.   (William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible Series: Gospel of Matthew, 237-8)

 

First, fasting has developed a bad reputation as a result of the excessive ascetic practices of the Middle Ages.  (Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline, 41)

 

There is a second reason why fasting has fallen on hard times in the past century.  The constant propaganda fed us today has convinced us that if we do not have three large meals each day, with several snacks in between, we are on the verge of starvation.  (Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline, 41)

 

5-  The Bible reveals that fasting can be a response to loss, threats, sin and a lack of spiritual sensitivities.  But it was only commanded in the OT one day per year and in the NT not at all. (Lv 16:1-31; 23:27-32; Nm 29:7-11; Dt 9:18; 32:15-16; Jer 14:12; 36:6-10)

 

What was the purpose of fasting in OT times?  Fasting always was connected with mourning for sin and repentance of it.  Thus, the entire Hebrew nation was to fast on the Day of Atonement, for this was the day in which they were to mourn for their sin and look for the reconciliation which God had provided through the sacrifices.  This was the only occasion in the OT on which Israel was specifically commanded to fast.  (James Montgomery Boice, The Sermon on the Mount, 208-9)

 

For the Jew, in the time of Jesus, there was only one compulsory fast, the fast on the Day of Atonement.  On that day from morning to evening, all men had “to afflict themselves” (Lv 16:31).  The Jewish scribal law lays it down:  “On the Day of Atonement it is forbidden to eat, or to drink, or to bathe, or to anoint oneself, or to wear sandals, or to indulge in conjugal intercourse.”  Even young children had to be trained to some measure of fasting on the Day of Atonement so that, when they grew up, they would be prepared to accept the national fast.  (William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible Series: Gospel of Matthew, 233)

 

The true purpose of fasting was intended, however, for deep contrition and spiritual communion.  Fasting was especially emphasized as an effective means of dealing with temptation (cf. Isa 58:6).  (Edward Hindson and James Borland, Matthew: The King is Coming, 72)

 

The Bible provides a number of reasons for fasting–it might be an expression of humiliation and sorrow over one’s sin (Lv 16:29-34; Jon 3:5) or of bereavement over a great loss (1 Sm 31:13; 2 Sm 1:12).  As we see in Acts, fasting occurs in conjunction with the appointment of elders (14:23) or the commissioning of missionaries (13:2, 3).  But the main reason we fast is “to nourish our hunger for God and to reduce our hunger for the world.”  (Douglas Sean O’Donnell, Preaching the Word: Matthew, 153)

 

6-  Fasting is to verify one’s repentance and make us more righteous—not less.  (Isa 58:1-12; Zech 7:1-10)

 

God says that ceremonial fasting means nothing.  The only fasting that is of any value is that which involves repentance of sin resulting in a transformed and charitable life.  This is what fasting implied before Christ’s coming.  (James Montgomery Boice, The Sermon on the Mount, 209)

 

It is fair to say that Jewish thought saw no value in fasting apart from repentance.  The fast was only designed to be the outer expression of an inward sorrow.  (William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible Series: Gospel of Matthew, 234)

 

Fasting was a deliberate attempt to prove that penitence was real.  Fasting was a guarantee of the sincerity of words and prayers.  It is easy to see that there was a danger here, for that which was meant to be a proof of repentance could very easily come to be regarded as a substitute for repentance.  (William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible Series: Gospel of Matthew, 234)

 

High as the ideal of fasting might be, the practice of it involved certain inevitable dangers.  The great danger was that a man might fast as a sign of superior piety, that his fasting might be a deliberate demonstration, not to God, but to men, of how devoted and disciplined a person he was.  That is precisely what Jesus was condemning.  (William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible Series: Gospel of Matthew, 235)

 

One thing for which we should lay aside our normal routine is Bible study–both individual Bible study and that with other Christians.  This is much to the point.  For it is in Bible study more than in other ways that God speaks to us and reveals his way to us.  (James Montgomery Boice, The Sermon on the Mount, 211)

 

Fasting is also always linked with a pure heart and must be associated with obedient, godly living.  The Lord told Zechariah to declare to the people, “When you fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh months these seventy years, was it actually for Me that you fasted? . . . Thus has the Lord of hosts said, ‘Dispense true justice, and practice kindness and compassion each to his brother; and do not oppress the widow or the orphan, the stranger or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another’” (Zech 7:5, 9-10).  Seventy years of fasting means nothing to the Lord, because it was done insincerely.  (John MacArthur, The MacArthur NT Commentary: Matthew 1-7, 404)

 

Religious abstinence in Scripture often is accompanied by the putting on of sackcloth and ashes.  This self-affliction seems to have as its basic psychology to say to the Deity, “I am penitent; I am not high and mighty.  You need not afflict me further.”  Perhaps also an appeal to the pity of the Deity is involved.  The one case where a specific motive is supplied is that of David:  “I fasted and wept; for I said, ‘Who knows whether the LORD will be gracious to me, that the child may live?’” (2 Sm 12:22).  There is the humbling of oneself before God:  “Have you seen how Ahab has humbled himself before me?  Because he has humbled himself before me, I will not bring the evil in his days” (1 Kgs 21:29).  (Merrill C. Tenney, The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, Vol. 2, 502)

 

From early times the wearing of sackcloth and ashes accompanied by fasting indicated self-abnegation.  (Geoffrey Bromiley, The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Vol. 2, 284)

 

We must never try to immerse ourselves in a Spiritual Discipline as an attempt to drown out God’s voice about forsaking a sin.  It is a perversion of fasting to try to use it to balance self-punishment for a sinful part of life we want to continue feeding.  (Donald S. Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, 163)

 

In vain will ye fast, and pretend to be humbled for our sins, and make confession of them, if our love of sin be not turned into hatred; our liking of it into loathing; and our cleaving to it, into a longing to be rid of it; with full purpose to resist the motions of it in our heart, and the outbreakings thereof in our life; and if we turn not unto God as our rightful Lord and Master, and return to our duty again.  (Thomas Boston, The Works of Thomas Boston, 347)

 

Remember that fasting itself is not humility before God, but should be an expression of humility.  There was no humility in the Pharisee of Lk 18:12, who bragged to God in prayer that he fasted twice a week.  (Donald S. Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, 164)

 

7-  Fasts can have an infinite variety of lengths, intensities, scopes, and objects (that from which one is fasting).   (Ex 34:27-28; Dt 9:18; 1 Sm 1:7; 7:6; 31:13; 2 Sm 1:12; 12:16-23; Jdg 20:26; 1 Kgs 19:8; 1 Chr 10:11-12; 2 Chr 20:3-37; Est 3:4-16; 9:31; Ez 8:21-23; 10:6; Neh 1:4; 9:1; Dn 9:2-3; 10:3; Joel 1:14; 2:12-15; Jon 3:5-9; 1 Cor 7:5)

 

To abstain from food but to drink water or perhaps fruit juices is the most common kind of Christian fast.  (Donald S. Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, 153)

 

If this is what fasting is–not an external religious exercise but a period of abstinence in which the Christian can seek God’s will–then it also is true that the essence of fasting can be achieved also in other ways.  It can be achieved by abstaining from things.  What is more, for us this may be far more important than not eating.  (James Montgomery Boice, The Sermon on the Mount, 210-1)

 

Fasting is not confined to abstinence from eating and drinking.  Fasting really means voluntary abstinence for a time from various necessities of life, such as food, drink, sleep, rest, association with people and so forth. . . Fasting in the Christian sense does not involve looking upon the necessities of life, which we have mentioned, as unclean or unholy . . . Fasting implies merely that our souls at certain times need to concentrate more strongly on the one thing needful than at other times, and for that reason we renounce for the time being those things which in themselves, may be both permissible and profitable.  (O. Hallesby, Prayer, 113)

 

In many cases fasting was an act of national penitence.  So the whole nation fasted after the disaster of the civil war with Benjamin (Jdg 20:26).  Samuel made the people fast because they had strayed away after Baal (1 Sm 7:6).  Nehemiah made the people fast and confess their sins (Neh 9:1).  Again and again the nation fasted as a sign of national penitence before God.  (William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible Series: Gospel of Matthew, 234)

 

Sometimes fasting was a preparation for revelation.  Moses in the mountain fasted for forty days and forty nights (Ex 24:15).  Daniel fasted as he awaited God’s word (Dn 9:3).  Jesus himself fasted as he awaited the ordeal of temptation (Mt 4:2).  This was a sound principle, for when the body is most disciplined, the mental and the spiritual faculties are most alert.  Sometimes fasting was an appeal to God.  If, for instance, the rains failed and the harvest was in jeopardy, a national fast would be called as an appeal to God.  (William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible Series: Gospel of Matthew, 234)

 

Another example of fasting would be if you gave up watching the news.  There is nothing wrong with the news.  What if you did without the news every night for a week and you substituted for it the study of the Word of God and prayer?  That would be three and one half hours more you would get in the Word that week.  (Bob Yandian, Salt & Light, The Sermon on the Mount, 92)

 

The more obvious form of fasting is in dieting, and may have health benefits as well.  But the purpose is to transcend distraction or sensual gratification for the sake of enhancing meditation. Sexual abstinence on the part of a married couple for a time may be a form of fasting.  Or for youth to forego certain pleasures in sports of recreation for a period for the sake of a spiritual retreat may be another form of fasting.  (Myron S. Augsburger, The Communicator’s Commentary: Matthew, 90)

 

Sometimes a fast was ordered and/or observed in order to promote concentration on an important religious act or event, such as the commissioning of missionaries (Acts 13:2, 3), or the appointment of elders (Acts 14:23).  See also Ex 34:2, 28; Dt 9:9, 18.  In this connection, what is perhaps the most beautiful chapter on fasting in the entire Bible (Isa 58) deserves special mention (especially verses 6-12).  It may well be that here in Mt 6:16-18 Jesus had that chapter in mind, as a comparison will show.  In both cases the wrong kind of fast (cf. 1 Kgs 21:9, 11; Zech 7:3-5) is condemned and the right kind commended.  (William Hendriksen, New Testament Commentary: Matthew, 341)

 

The law of God suggests only one fast in an entire year, namely, on the day of atonement (Lv 16:29-34; 23:26-32; Nm 29:7-11; cf. Acts 27:9).  In course of time, however, fasts (not always total; see the text in each instance) began to multiply, so that we read about their occurrence at other times also: from sunrise to sunset (Jdg 20:26; 1 Sm 14:24; 2 Sm 1:12, 3:35); for seven days (1 Sm 31:13); three weeks (Dn 10:3); forty days (Ex 34:2, 28; Dt 9:9, 18; 1 Kgs 19:8); in the fifth and seventh month (Zech 7:3-5); and even in the fourth, fifth, seventh, and tenth month (Zech 8:19).  The climax was the observance of a fast “twice a week,” the boast of the Pharisee (Lk 18:12).  (William Hendriksen, New Testament Commentary: Matthew, 341)

 

There is a “discipline” that has gained a certain popularity today which is akin, but not identical, to fasting.  It is called “watchings,” stemming from Paul’s use of the term in connection with his sufferings for Christ (2 Cor 6:5; 11:27, KJV).  It refers to abstaining from sleep in order to attend to prayer or other spiritual duties.  There is no indication that this has any central connection to fasting; otherwise we would be confined to very short fasts indeed!  While “watchings” may have value and God at times may call us to do without sleep for specific needs, we must take care not to elevate into major obligations things that have only the slightest biblical precedent.  (Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline, 45)

 

It is well to know the process your body goes through in the course of a longer fast.  The first three days are usually the most difficult in terms of physical discomfort and hunger pains.  The body is beginning to rid itself of the toxic poisons that have built up over years of poor eating habits, and it is not a comfortable process.  This is the reason for the coating on the tongue and bad breath.  Do not be disturbed by these symptoms; rather be grateful for the increased health and well-being that will result.  You may experience headaches during this time, especially if you are an avid coffee or tea drinker.  Those are mild withdrawal symptoms which will pass, though they may be very unpleasant for a time.  (Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline, 51)

 

During and after the Exile certain fasts commemorated the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem.  The fasts were:  the ninth day of the fourth month, for the fall of Jerusalem (2 Kgs 25:3f.); the tenth day of the fifth month, for the destruction of the temple (cf. Jer 52:12f.); the second day of the seventh month, for the murder of Gedaliah (2 Kgs 25:23-25); and the tenth day of the tenth month, for the first attack on Jerusalem (2 Kgs 25:1).  Zechariah prophesied (8:19) that these fasts would be transformed into times of joy.

Fasts varied in length from one day (1 Sm 14:24; 2 Sm 3:35) to one night (Dn 6:18), three complete days, (Est 4:16), seven days (1 Sm 31:13; 2 Sm 12:16-18), or forty days (Ex 34:28; Dt 9:9; 1 Kgs 19:8).  In Nineveh the Assyrians made even the animals fast (Jon 3:7), and Jth. 4:10-13 records this practice among the Jews.  Isa 58:5; Joel 2:13; Jer 14:12 discourage ostentation in fasting.   (Geoffrey Bromiley, The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Vol. 2, 284)

 

What is Jesus teaching us about fasting in this passage from the Sermon on the Mount?

I-  Jesus assumes you will fast. (Mt 6:16-17)

 

Just as Jesus did not demean almsgiving and prayer, so likewise does he refrain from speaking against fasting per se: he assumes his disciples will fast.  On the other hand, in another context he is found defending his disciples for not fasting (Mt 9:14-17).  In any case, here in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus is interested in condemning the abuses of the practice and in exposing its dangers.  (D. A. Carson, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, 77)

 

Fasting presents a physical example of the painstaking aspects of spiritual growth.  Jesus expected his disciples to fast, but he forbade self-centered and attention-seeking exercises.  This kind of discipline may, in fact, be a key to the renewal of the church today.  Are you willing to give up a mealtime or set aside other major activities to devote to prayer?  What sacrifice would you be willing to make to spend even one day alone with the Lord?  (Bruce Barton, Life Application Bible Commentary: Matthew, 119)

 

It is a subject about which we find no direct command in the NT.  It seems to be left to everyone’s discretion, whether he will fast or not. In this absence of direct command we may see great wisdom.  Many a poor man never has enough to eat, and it would be an insult to tell him to fast:  many sick people can hardly be kept well with the closest attention to diet, and could not fast without bringing on illness.  It is a matter in which each person must be persuaded in their own mind, and not rashly condemn others who do not agree.  (J.C. Ryle, The Crossway Classic Commentaries: Matthew, 42-3)

 

II-  Fasting is promoted by God to enable you to better identify and shed the competing affections in your heart and mind; and through repentance enable you to better connect with God alone in prayer.  (Mt 6:18; Mt 17:21 {KJV & NAS}; Mk 9:29 {KJV & NAS}; 1 Cor 9:25-27; Phil 3:19; 2 Tm 2:22; Ti 2:12)

 

Private fasting is supposed, 1 Cor 7:5.  It is an act of self-denial, and mortification of the flesh, a holy revenge upon ourselves, and humiliation under the hand of God.  The most grown Christians must hereby own, they are so far from having any thing to be proud of, that they are unworthy of their daily bread.  It is a means to curb the flesh and the desires of it, and to make us more lively in religious exercises, as fullness of bread is apt to make us drowsy.  (Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Vol. V, 77)

 

In every scriptural account genuine fasting is linked with prayer.  You can pray without fasting, but you cannot fast biblically without praying.  Fasting is an affirmation of intense prayer, a corollary of deep spiritual struggle before God.  It is never an isolated act or a ceremony or ritual that has some inherent efficacy or merit.  It has not value at all–in fact becomes a spiritual hindrance and a sin–when done for any reason apart from knowing and following the Lord’s will.  (John MacArthur, The MacArthur NT Commentary: Matthew 1-7, 404)

 

During your fast, pray often.  Be sure not to make a big public event of it, telling friends or moaning to your family about hunger pangs.  Just pray.  Open yourself to God.  Tell him how much you want his love and guidance.  Read some psalms, refreshing your heart with food from God’s Word.  (Bruce Barton, Life Application Bible Commentary: Matthew, 119)

 

Remember, fasting, praying and giving are not done to move God.  A lot of people think that you can change God through fasting.  That would make God subject to you.  God’s blessings would be subject to our works.  That’s blasphemy.  You cannot bribe God with fasting.  You cannot fast and make God do anything.  Neither can you give and make God do anything.  God is unchangeable.

All these things–fasting, praying and giving–are to change you, not God.  If you become more liberal in your giving, you change.  If you become more effective in prayer, you change.  If you fast, it will change you.  (Bob Yandian, Salt & Light, The Sermon on the Mount, 91)

 

A person that eats and drinks too much does not feel such effects from it as those do who live in notorious instances of gluttony and intemperance; but yet his course of indulgence, though it be not scandalous in the eyes of the world nor such as torments his own conscience, is a great and constant hindrance to his improvement in virtue; it gives him eyes that see not and ears that hear not; it creates a sensuality in the soul, increases the power of bodily passions, and makes him incapable of entering into the true spirit of religion.  (William Law, A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, 191-2)

 

What other gods could we have besides the Lord?  Plenty.  For Israel there were the Canaanite Baals, those jolly nature gods whose worship was a rampage of gluttony, drunkenness, and ritual prostitution.  For us there are still the great gods Sex, Shekels, and Stomach (an unholy trinity constituting one god:  self), and the other enslaving trio, Pleasure, Possessions, and Position, whose worship is described as “The lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life” (1 Jn 2:16).  Football, the Firm, and Family are also gods for some.  Indeed the list of other gods is endless, for anything that anyone allows to run his life becomes his god and the claimants for this prerogative are legion.  In the matter of life’s basic loyalty, temptation is a many-headed monster.  (James Packer; Your Father Loves You)

 

Who do you think about more throughout the day–the God of Heaven or the god of your gut?  Are you counting your blessings or are you counting your calories?

Fasting is what we need, for in fasting we essentially say, “I do not live for my appetites–my physical appetites, my sexual appetites, my material appetites.  Therefore, with self-control, which is a fruit of the Holy Spirit, I’m going to stop all this incessant ‘nibbling at the table of the world.’  I do not live for my appetites.  But much more than that, I live for God and for his blessing.”  That’s what we say when we fast.  (Douglas Sean O’Donnell, Preaching the Word: Matthew, 153)

 

In NT times fasting was a channel of power.  As spirituality waned and worldliness flourished in the churches, the power and gifts of the Spirit were withdrawn.  With the loss of that inward power men could only cling to what they had left, its outward accompaniment.  More and more emphasis was placed upon the outward act of fasting though bereft of the inward spirit that alone could give it value.  Asceticism became the mark of piety and spirituality.  Paul’s prediction about “the form of religion but denying the power” (2 Tm 3:5) was being fulfilled.  (Arthur Wallis, God’s Chosen Fast, 11)

 

So much of our thinking is ruled by that self-centered principle, “What do I get out of it?”  Even in our spiritual desires and aspirations self may still be enthroned.  The cross must work in us if the life is to be centered in God.  Only so can our spiritual motivation be radically altered and become Christward instead of self-ward.  “He died for all, that they which live should no longer live unto themselves, but unto him” (2 Cor 5:15).  (Arthur Wallis, God’s Chosen Fast, 32)

 

More than any other single 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 us with food and other good things, but in fasting these things surface.  If pride controls us, it will be revealed almost immediately.  David said, “I humbled my soul with fasting” (Ps 69:10).  Anger, bitterness, jealousy, strife, fear–if they are within us, they will surface during fasting.  At first we will rationalize that our anger is due to our hunger; then we know that we are angry because the spirit of anger is within us.  We can rejoice in this knowledge because we know that healing is available through the power of Christ.  (Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline, 48)

 

You will probably feel some hunger pains or discomfort before the time is up.  That is not real hunger; your stomach has been trained through years of conditioning to give signals of hunger at certain hours.  In many ways your stomach is like a spoiled child, and spoiled children do not need indulgence, they need discipline.  Martin Luther said “. . . the flesh was wont to grumble dreadfully.  You must not give in to this grumbling.”  Ignore the signals or even tell your “spoiled child” to calm down and in a brief time the hunger pains will pass.  If not, sip another glass of water and the stomach will be satisfied.  You are to be the master of your stomach, not its slave.  If family obligations permit it, devote the time you would normally eat to meditation and prayer.  (Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline, 50)

 

Fasting does not ensure the certainty of receiving clear guidance from God.  Rightly practiced, however, it does make us more receptive to the One who loves to guide us.  (Donald S. Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, 159)

 

Fasting can be an expression of finding your greatest pleasure and enjoyment in life from God.  That’s the case when disciplining yourself to fast means that you love God more than food, that seeking Him is more important to you than eating.  This honors God and is a means of worshiping Him as God.  It means that your stomach isn’t your god as it is with some (see Phil 3:19).  Instead it is God’s servant, and fasting proves it because you’re willing to sublimate its desires to those of the Spirit.  (Donald S. Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, 168)

 

Like all the Spiritual Disciplines, fasting hoists the sails of the soul in hopes of experiencing the gracious wind of God’s Spirit.  But fasting also adds a unique dimension to your spiritual life and helps you grow in Christlikeness in ways that are unavailable through any other means.  If this were not so, there would have been no need for Jesus to model and teach fasting.  (Donald S. Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, 171)

 

Man’s fall was his turning from God to himself; and his regeneration consisteth in the turning of him from himself to God…(Hence,) self-denial and the love of God are all (one)…The very names of Self and Own, should sound in the watchful Christian’s ears as very terrible, wakening words, that are next to the names of sin and Satan. (Peter Marshall & David Manuel; The Light and the Glory, 149)

 

I fast so I can learn how to be sweet when I’m denied something I want.”  – Dallas Willard

 

“One part of repentance is to set the will against sinful behavior.  But in spiritual renewal, your eyes are opened to deeper forms of “flesh” in the heart from which sinful behavior springs—root attitudes and values that serve as forms of works-righteousness and self-will.  All Christians maintain ways to keep mastery of their own lives through residual schemes of self-salvation, ways of continuing to seek to earn our acceptance.  To do this, we fix our hearts on created things such as work, love, possessions, romance, acclaim, and so on . . . . Revivals always require a relinquishment of idols (Jdg 10:10-16; Exs 33:1-6).  As this deeper work of repentance proceeds, the Christian begins to hunger for the love and presence of God.”  —Tim Keller

 

The self-denial of the ascetic is in a subtle way intense self-assertion.  True Christian self-sacrifice signifies hardship, loss undergone, not for its own sake, but for Christ’s sake, and for truth’s sake, at a time when truth cannot be maintained without sacrifice.  But the self-sacrifice of the ascetic is not of this kind.  It is all endured for his own sake, for his own spiritual benefit and credit.  He practices self-denial after the fashion of a miser, who is a total abstainer from all luxuries, and even grudges himself the necessaries of life because he has a passion for hoarding.  Like the miser, he deems himself rich; yet both he and the miser are alike poor: the miser, because with all his wealth he cannot part with his coin in exchange for enjoyable commodities; the ascetic, because his coins, “good works,” so called, painful acts of abstinence, are counterfeit, and will not pass current in the kingdom of heaven. (A. B. Bruce; The Training of the Twelve, 279)

 

III-  There is a great reward in fasting.  Especially connecting in an unpolluted, unfettered, and more intimate way with the God of the Universe.  (Mt 6:18; Lk 2:37; Jn 4:31-34; Acts 13:2-3; Rom 6:16-22; Gal 4:3-8; 5:1; 14:23; 1 Pt 2:11; 2 Pt 2:19 )

 

Self-indulgence is the enemy of gratitude, and self-discipline usually its friend and generator.  That is why gluttony is a deadly sin.  The early desert fathers believed that a person’s appetites are linked:  full stomachs and jaded palates take the edge from our hunger and thirst for righteousness.  They spoil the appetite for God.  (Cornelius Plantinga, Jr.  The Reformed Journal; November 1988)

 

We think that idols are bad things, but that is almost never the case.  The greater the good, the more likely we are to expect that it can satisfy our deepest needs and hopes.  Anything can serve as a counterfeit god, especially the very best things in life.  (Timothy Keller, Counterfeit Gods, Introduction p. xvii)

 

We also need to be redeemed and liberated from what the Bible would call false masters.

If , and we all do, if you feel the need to prove yourself, because we have this sense (as Kafka said of being a sinner) we turn to our job, we turn to academia, some of us were good students, some of us were going to try and be professors, we’re going to be scholars, some of us are going to go into career and we’re going to make money, or have professional success.  Some of us go into relationships, and if this person loves me and I have a family.  But, if we are looking to those things as our significance and security; they are not just a job, not just a school, they are not just a family; then they become a master.

Here is what a slave master is.  A slave master is someone who has no boundaries and someone who beats you up if you fail.  You see we often say, “O my boss who is here in New York City is a slave master.  Well, you don’t know what a slave master is.  A slave master has no boundaries and they can do anything they want to and they do.  And when you fail a little bit, they beat you.

And how do you know whether your family, how do you know whether your career, how do you know whether your school, is a slave master or just a family, a career or a school?  The answer is . . .  You can’t say no to them.  They are slave masters.  You work too hard.  You can’t stop them.  If you are enslaved in a relationship that means you can’t say no.  You can’t walk away.  You’ve got to have them.  They are your significance, your self, your security.  Same thing with making money.  Same thing with your career.

This isn’t just a job, not just money, this isn’t just school, this isn’t just a relationship; they are slave masters.  And if you don’t live up . . .  They beat you.  (Tim Keller sermon, “By the Blood of Jesus”)

 

If we would know the continuance of the spirit’s power, we need to be on guard to lead lives of simplicity, free from indulgence and surfeiting, ever ready to “endure hardness as a good soldier of Jesus Christ” (2 Tm 2:3).  I frankly confess I am afraid of luxury–not as afraid of it as I am of sin, but it comes next as an object of dread.  It is a very subtle but a very potent enemy of power.  There are devils today that “go not out but by prayer and fasting.”  (R. A. Torrey, The Baptism with the Holy Spirit, 76-7)

 

In so many ways I can’t explain, fasting puts me in a position to not only hear from God but to be formed by God.  It takes me to a place where I feel a heightened sense of vulnerability and a diminished sense of power.  I’ve come to believe that equates to a certain availability to hear and obey God.

My experience is that when I surround myself with all of the things that make me comfortable, I require little if any power from God.  Surrounded with everything I think I need, involved with my own means, methods, strategies, and plans, I become a product of my own will and wisdom.  (Pete Wilson, Empty Promises, 178)

 

The greatest adversary of love to God is not his enemies but his gifts.  And the most deadly appetites are not for the poison of evil, but for the simple pleasures of earth.  For when these replace an appetite for God himself, the idolatry is scarcely recognizable, and almost incurable.  (John Piper, A Hunger for God: Desiring God Through Fasting and Prayer, 14)

 

The one who would have God’s power must lead a life of self-denial.  There are many things which are not sinful in the ordinary understanding of the word sin, but which hinder spirituality and rob men of power.  I do not believe that any man can lead a luxurious life, overindulge his natural appetites, indulge extensively in dainties, and enjoy the fullness of God’s power.  The gratification of the flesh and the fullness of the Spirit do not go hand in hand.  “The flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other” (Gal 5:17).  Paul wrote: “I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection” (1 Cor 9:27; see ASV, Greek; note also Eph 5:18).  (R. A. Torrey, The Baptism with the Holy Spirit, 75-6)

 

Then the exhortation is:  “If you want a blessing, fast.”  That seems to me to be a most dangerous doctrine.  We must never speak like that about anything in the spiritual life.  These blessings are never automatic.  The moment we begin to say, “Because I do this, I get that,” it means that we are controlling the blessing.  That is to insult God and to violate the great doctrine of His final and ultimate sovereignty.  No, we must never advocate fasting as a means of blessing. . . . We should never advocate, indulge in, or practice fasting as a method or a means of obtaining direct blessing.  The value of fasting is indirect, not direct.  (D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, 316-7)

 

Our Lord’s principle is always this:  “Forget other people altogether.”  In order to avoid looking sad, don’t put a grin on your face.  Forget your face, forget yourself, forget other people altogether.  It is this interest in the opinions of other people that is so wrong.  Don’t worry about the impression you are making; just forget yourself and give yourself entirely to God.  Be concerned only about God and about pleasing Him.  Be concerned only about His honor and His glory.  (D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, 319-20)

 

What were the two major advances of the gospel after it had been first proclaimed and the Holy Spirit had come on the believers?  Certainly the first was the opening of the gospel to the Gentiles through Cornelius by the ministry of Peter.  Was fasting connected to that great opening?  Yes, it was, according to the words of Cornelius. . . . The other great example is found in the thirteenth chapter of Acts, which recounts the start of Paul’s missionary journeys.  Here we read that as the church at Antioch was “worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’  So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off” (Acts 13:2-3).  In other words, out of that prayer meeting with fasting there came a revelation from God that resulted in Paul’s lifelong ministry to the Gentiles throughout the Roman world.  (James Montgomery Boice, The Sermon on the Mount, 210)

 

One of the finest things ever said is the Rabbinic saying, “a man will have to give an account on the judgment day for every good thing which he might have enjoyed, and did not.”  (William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible Series: Gospel of Matthew, 236)

 

Fasting preserves the ability to do without things.  One of the great tests of any man’s life is the number of things which he has come to regard as essential.  Clearly, the fewer things we regard as essentials, the more independent we will be.  When all kinds of things become essentials, we are at the mercy of the luxuries of life.  It is no bad thing for a man to walk down a street of shop windows, and to look in at them, and remind himself of all the things that he can do without.  Some kind of fasting preserves the ability to do without the things which should never be allowed to become essentials. . . . Fasting makes us appreciate things all the more.  It may be that there was a time in life when some pleasure came so seldom that we really enjoyed it when it did come.  It may be that nowadays the appetite is blunted; the palate is dulled; the edge is gone off it.  What was once a sharp pleasure has become simply a drug which we cannot do without.  Fasting keeps the thrill in pleasure by keeping pleasure always fresh and new.  (William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible Series: Gospel of Matthew, 237-8)

 

Fasting was mandatory for the Jewish people once a year, on the Day of Atonement (Lv 23:32); however, people could fast individually or in groups while praying for certain requests (see, for example, Est 4:16).  The purpose of fasting is to provide time for prayer, to teach self-discipline, to remind God’s people that they can live with a lot less, and to help them appreciate what God has given. (Bruce Barton, Life Application Bible Commentary: Matthew, 118)

 

Fasting is a spiritual discipline, like prayer and giving.  All three remind us of a primary relationship–God and us.  All three require that we give up something to gain something better.  (Bruce Barton, Life Application Bible Commentary: Matthew, 119)

 

The only pat on the back I want is from God.  If I seek after favor with God, then favor with men will come.  If you’re trying to please men, you’re going to be so frayed after awhile because you can’t please everyone.  But, if you seek God, you’ve only got to do one thing–follow His Word.  (Bob Yandian, Salt & Light, The Sermon on the Mount, 93)

 

Jesus does not say we should fast for the purpose of being seen even by God.  Fasting is not to be a display for anyone, including God.  Genuine fasting is simply a part of concentrated, intense prayer and concern for the Lord, His will, and His work.  Jesus’ point is that the Father never fails to notice fasting that is heart-felt and genuine, and that He never fails to reward it.  (John MacArthur, The MacArthur NT Commentary: Matthew 1-7, 405)

 

Only the Lord knows how much the leadership of the church today could be strengthened if congregations were that determined to find and follow the Lord’s will.  The early church did not choose or send out leaders carelessly or by popular vote.  Above all they sought and followed God’s will.  Fasting has no more power to assure godly leadership than it has to assure forgiveness, protection, or any other good thing from God.  But it is likely to be a part of sincere dedication that is determined to know the Lord’s will and have His power before decisions are made, plans are laid, or actions are taken.  People who are consumed with concern before God do not take a lunch break.  (John MacArthur, The MacArthur NT Commentary: Matthew 1-7, 404)

 

Religious fasts, if rightly kept, will shortly be recompensed with an everlasting feast.  (Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Vol. V, 78)

 

Deny yourself a meal, and when your stomach growls “I’m hungry,” take a moment to turn from your emptiness to the nourishment of “every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Mt 4:4).  Feed on Jesus, the bread of life.  Skip the radio or TV for a day and become aware of how fidgety you are when you aren’t being amused or diverted.  Then dodge the remote, and embrace Jesus and his words “my food. . . is to do the will of him who sent me” (Jn 4:34).  Taste the difference between what truly nourishes the soul–the living bread and the life-giving water–and what is simply junk food.  (Adele Ahlberg Calhoun, Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, 220)

 

CONCLUSION/APPLICATION: What should we do with what we have learned about fasting?

A-  Be open to the Spirit’s leading to fast.

 

Contact your doctor if you have health issues.  Find out what he would suggest.  Discern what it is you hope to discover about yourself or from God.

 

B-  When you discover the number and the strength of the competing loyalties or gods you have in your heart and mind, bask at an even greater knowledge of the mercy, grace, patience, forgiveness and love of Christ for you.  (Lk 7:47; Acts 9:9; Rom 13:14; 1 Cor 6:12; 1 Jn 4:19)

 

The Gospel is always more  compelling to people who know their own inadequacies.  (Tim Keller message, “Injustice: Hasn’t Christianity Been and Instrument of Oppression?”)

 

One who is ruled by his appetites is a barbarian.

 

The opposite of covet is contentment.  —Tim Keller

 

Fasting is good for self-discipline.  It is easy to become almost completely self-indulgent.  It is easy to come to a stage when we deny ourselves nothing which it is in our power to have or to pay for.  It would do most people a great deal of good to cease for some time each week to make their wishes and their desires their master, and to exercise a stringent and an antiseptic self-discipline. . . . .  Fasting preserves us from becoming the slaves of a habit.  There are not a few of us who indulge in certain habits because we find it impossible to stop them.  They have become so essential that we cannot break them; we develop such a craving for certain things that what ought to be a pleasure has become a necessity; and to be cut off from the thing which we have learned so to desire can be a purgatory.  If we practiced a wise fasting no pleasure would become a chain, and no habit would become a master.  We would be masters of our pleasures, and not our pleasures masters of us.   (William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible Series: Gospel of Matthew, 237-8)

 

Fasting is an opportunity to lay down an appetite–an appetite for food, for media, for shopping.  This act of self-denial may not seem huge–it’s just a meal or a trip to the mall–but it brings us face to face with the hunger at the core of our being.  Fasting exposes how we try to keep empty hunger at bay and gain a sense of well-being by devouring creature comforts.  Through self-denial we begin to recognize what controls us.  Our small denials of the self show us just how little taste we actually have for sacrifice or time with God.  (Adele Ahlberg Calhoun, Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, 220)

 

To the mind of the apostle there was not merely the danger of temptation, if the body was not buffeted, but of loss to power in the great contest of life, just as an athlete who failed to train seriously would be hampered on the day of the race and lose the prize.  He therefore made it his business to take what practical steps should be necessary to subdue the appetites and desires of the body, that the spiritual might be kept in the ascendancy.  How could he expect to win the wreath of the conqueror while continually conquered by his own insatiable appetites?  (Arthur Wallis, God’s Chosen Fast, 68)

 

We are indeed to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” by faith, but we are also to “make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (Rom 13:14).  It is essential that “we know that our old self was crucified with him” (Rom 6:6) nearly two millenniums ago, but the nails of the cross do not absolve us from the need of disciplining the appetite.  The NT Epistles are careful to emphasize this latter aspect as well as the former.  “Shun youthful passions” (2 Tm 2:22)–“renounce. . . worldly passions” (Ti 2:23)–“abstain from the passions of the flesh” (1 Pt 2:11)–“lest Satan tempt you through lack of self-control” (1 Cor 7:5).  (Arthur Wallis, God’s Chosen Fast, 69)

 

The Church of England Homily (1562) suggests that the first end of fasting is “to chastise the flesh, that it be not too wanton, but tamed and brought in subjection to the spirit.”  (Arthur Wallis, God’s Chosen Fast, 69)

 

Worship Point:  Worship the God of the Universe who continues to love you and be committed to you even though your heart and mind have legion of competing loyalties, affections, and gods.

 

It is a mark of spiritual barrenness in the church when people come to worship to fulfill a duty or keep a habit rather than satisfy an appetite. (Eric Alexander, Truth for Life tape 65562)

 

When Joel cried, “Sanctify a fast,” he meant “Set it apart for God.”  This is absolutely basic if our fasting is to be acceptable to Him.  Then there will be times when we shall forget the matter of our personal gain, when we shall be caught up on wonder, love and praise, as we fast unto God.  We shall find ourselves like Anna the prophetess, “worshiping with fasting” (Lk 2:37), or like those leaders of the church in Antioch who “ministered to the Lord, and fasted” (Acts 13:2 RV, AV; “worshiping the Lord, RSV). This is surely the loftiest conception, that it is a worshiping or ministering to the Lord, a giving of ourselves to God, and only secondarily a means to secure certain spiritual ends.  (Arthur Wallis, God’s Chosen Fast, 34)

 

The question is raised in its most practical form: Whom am I trying to please by my religious practices?  Honest reflection on that question can produce most disquieting results.  If it does, then a large part of the solution is to start practicing piety in the secret intimacy of the Lord’s presence.  If our “acts of righteousness” are not primarily done secretly before him, then secretly they may be done to please men.

The negatives of these verses are actually an important way of getting to the supreme positive, namely, transparent righteousness.  Genuine godliness, unaffected holiness, unfeigned piety–these are superlatively clean, superlatively attractive.  The real beauty of righteousness must not be tarnished by sham.

God help us.  (D. A. Carson, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, 79)

 

Gospel Application:  Comprehend that none of these competing gods can save you.  It is Christ alone.  Christ plus nothing.  Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.  (Acts 4:12)

 

Spiritual Challenge:  Allow fasting from food, work, entertainment, the computer, TV, the news, books, and any other competing affections and loyalties you can imagine you might have help you to recognize the influence and power these gods have in your life.  Commit yourself to look to God alone and not to these other gods for life.

 

All human things are trivial if they exist for nothing beyond themselves.”   The real value of anything depends on its aim.   If we eat simply for the sake of eating, we become gluttons, and it is likely to do us far more harm than good; if we eat to sustain life, to do our work better, to maintain the fitness of our body at its highest peak, food has a real significance.  If a man spends a great deal of time on sport simply for the sake of sport, he is at least to some extent wasting his time.  But if he spends that time in order to keep his body fit and thereby to do his work for God and men better, sport ceases to be trivial and becomes important.  The things of the flesh all gain their value from the spirit in which they are done.”  (William Barclay ; Commentary on John Vol. 1; 227)

 

But what began as spiritual self-discipline was prostituted into an occasion for pompous self-righteousness.  Some would wear glum and pained expressions on their faces, go about their business unwashed and unkempt, and sprinkle ashes on their head, all to inform peers that they were fasting.  What was once a sign of humiliation became a sign of self-righteous self-display.

Tragically, we do similar things today.  At one time people wore nice clothes on Sunday as a sign of respect and reverence before the Lord.  It was not long before the quality of the clothes became more important than the reverence; and pretty soon people were competing to look better than their neighbors.  Small wonder many youths finally rejected every trace of this clothes contest and started wearing blue jeans to church.  Many of them may have done so for unworthy motives, but their parents’ motives for dressing up were equally unworthy.  (D. A. Carson, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, 78)

 

Grateful people overflow a little, especially with thanksgiving and passed-on kindnesses.  But they do not therefore lack discipline.  In fact, self-indulgence tends to suppress gratitude; self-discipline tends to generate it.  That is why gluttony is a deadly sin:  oddly, it is an appetite suppressant.  The reason is that a person’s appetites are linked:  full stomachs and jaded palates take the edge from our hunger and thirst for justice.  And they spoil the appetite for God.  (Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be, 35)

 

 

PROCLAMATION OF A NATIONAL FAST DAY

March 30th, 1863

President Abraham Lincoln

It is the duty of nations as well as of men to own their dependence upon the overruling power of God; to confess their sins and transgressions in humble sorrow, yet with assured hope that genuine repentance will lead to mercy and pardon; and to recognize the sublime truth, announced in the Holy Scriptures and proven by all history, that those nations only are blessed whose God is the Lord . . .

We know that by his divine law nations, like individuals, are subjected to punishments and chastisements in this world; may we not justly fear that the awful calamity of civil war which now desolates the land may not be but a punishment inflicted upon us for our presumptuous sins, to the needful end of  our national reformation as a whole people?   We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of Heaven.  We have been preserved, these many years, in peace and prosperity.  We have grown in numbers, wealth , and power as no other nation has ever grown; but we have forgotten God.  We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace, and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us; and we have vainly imagined, through the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us:

It behooves us, then, to humble ourselves before the offended Power to confess our national sins, and to pray for clemency and forgiveness:

Now, therefore, in compliance with the request, and fully concurring in the views, of the senate, I do by this my proclamation designate and set apart Thursday, the 30th day of April, 1863, as a day of national humiliation, fasting, and prayer.  And I do hereby request all the people to abstain on that day from their ordinary secular pursuits, and to united at their several place of public worship and their respective homes in keeping the day holy to the Lord, and devoted to the humble discharge of the religious duties proper to that solemn occasion.

 

 

 

It’s not the doing without food that is important; it is getting into God’s Word that is important.

— Bob Yandian

 

 

Christ:

the Fast

Mentor

 

 

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