The Sermon on the Mount
by E.H. “Jack” Sequeira

20 – True Fasting

Matthew 6:16-18:

“When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting.  I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full.  But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”

I want to remind you that, in Chapter 6, Christ moves from the general aspects of Christianity to specific items on Christian piety.  And the three areas which we are covering in Chapter 6 is almsgiving, which has to do with our relationship to one another; praying, which has to do with our relationship to God; and now He is dealing in verses 16-18 with fasting.

If you read the whole passage, you will notice that Christ is contrasting these three areas with the practices and teachings of the scribes and Pharisees.  For example in verse 1, Christ says:

“Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them.”

That is how the Pharisees were doing it.  Then He gives His counsel on praying.  Verse 5:

“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men.”

Then, in verse 16, He goes to fasting:

“When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting.  I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full.”

I want you to notice that Jesus is in harmony with all three of these areas concerning piety.  But He is dealing with an area that has to be done correctly.  Our almsgiving, our praying, and our fasting must be done in a true Christian way.  And so I would like, first of all, to look at the text itself.  We’ll go on with verses 17 and 18:

“But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”

First of all, what does the word “fast” mean?  The Greek, as used here, actually means “abstinence from food.” That, basically, is what the word means.  According to Luke 18:12, we know that the Pharisees fasted twice a week [Mondays and Thursdays]:

“I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.”

It became a tradition.  But when we look at scripture, we discover that they went far beyond God’s requirement.

When Moses gave them the Law, God required (through Moses) that the Jews fast only once a year and that was on the Day of Atonement.  Then, after the Babylonian captivity, one or two more fast days were added.  But then tradition began to add and add and add until twice a week they were fasting.  Christ is not dealing here with the number of times.  He is dealing with two things.  He is dealing with the method of fasting and the reason for fasting.

I would like to show you the wrong reason and the wrong method for fasting and the right reason and the right method.  First, let me say something about fasting.  While most Christians lay stress on almsgiving and on praying, there has been a kind of departure from the emphasis on fasting.  This was partly because of the way the Catholic Church handled fasting.  Fasting became a requirement to attain salvation.  Fridays you could not eat any meat.  The Orthodox churches followed the same route and the result of this was that many felt that fasting was eliminated in the New Testament.

But if you read your New Testament, you will discover that Jesus did not do away with fasting; the Christian church did not do away with fasting.  Let me give you a couple of examples.  Right here in the passage that we just read, Jesus said, “When you fast.”  He didn’t say, “don’t fast.”  He said, “don’t fast like the hypocrites.”  Also, we know that Jesus Himself fasted for 40 days before He entered the second phase of His ministry which was pointing Him toward the cross.

As another example, the Church at Antioch, when they were about to send Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey, spent a period of time in prayer and fasting.  So fasting is clearly taught in the New Testament.

Let’s look now at the wrong reasons.  Number one, we must never fast for an ulterior motive.  In other words, we must not fast hoping that God will give us some extra blessing.  We must not use fasting as a means of twisting God’s arm (“See, I am fasting.”)  That is not taught in the New Testament.  We do not fast because we want a favor of God.  God has already blessed us with all the gifts.

By the way, the same can be said about tithe paying.  We don’t pay tithe because we want our bank account to increase.  God has not promised that.  He has promised to make our bread and water sure.  We must not fast for any self-interest.  Fasting must be based on a spiritual relationship with God.

Let’s look at the wrong method now.  Number one, we must not fast mechanically.  This is what the Catholic and Orthodox churches did.  They set aside certain days for fasting.  We have Lent (40 days before the cross); we have weekly fasts.  In the Anglican Church, the Catholic Church, the Orthodox churches, they fast mechanically; it is one of their requirements.  It is part of their religious formula.  We shouldn’t just go through the motions of fasting, for that is of no real benefit.

Number two, we must never fast for outward show.  This is what Christ is condemning here.  When the Pharisees fasted, they disfigured their faces, they put ashes on their bodies, and they looked as if they were half dead to show people that they were fasting.  And Christ is saying that if they fast so that people may see them, they have their reward:  they have been seen.

Let’s go now to the right reason.  What is the reason for fasting?  It must be a spiritual reason.  For example, the Day of Atonement was a very solemn day for the Jews.  It was a day of judgment.  That is why the Lord admonished the Jews to fast on that day.  When Christ was about to enter the second phase of His ministry, which pointed Him to the cross, He realized that this involved God-abandonment and He wanted to spend much time in fasting because He wanted to dedicate Himself to this cause.

If you look at all of the fasting in the New Testament, you will notice that all of it involves, to some degree, self-denial.  Let me tell you why.  When you become a Christian, no change takes place in your nature.  Your nature remains sinful.  Because this body of sin (Romans 6), the body of this death (Romans 7), this body of ours is controlled by the law of sin.  Paul says, “sin that dwelt in my members.”  Romans 7:23:

...But I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members.

In Christian living, that body controlled by the law of sin is a great stumbling block to our Christianity.  It is a hindrance to spiritual growth.  Christ is saying that fasting is often an expression that we are taking up our cross and following Jesus Christ.  There are two basic drives that are found in our bodies through the law of sin.  Number one is our appetite and Number two is greed.  Both of these need to be kept under subjection and fasting is simply turning to God and saying, “God, I want to humble myself before you; I want You to take over; I want to put myself completely in your hands.”  And fasting is one form of self-discipline.  Not to earn heaven, not to gain merit, but to remind yourself, to impose upon yourself that our bodies must not control us.  It is our converted mind that must control the body.

Real fasting must do something to us.  If you will turn to Isaiah 58, you will notice what God said through His prophet concerning fasting.  If fasting makes you self-righteous and proud then you are not fasting in the correct way.  True fasting should make you humble and concerned about others.  Let’s read Isaiah 58:1-8.  Verses 1-2:

Shout it aloud, do not hold back.  Raise your voice like a trumpet. Declare to my people their rebellion and to the house of Jacob their sins.  For day after day they seek me out; they seem eager to know my ways, as if they were a nation that does what is right and has not forsaken the commands of its God.  They ask me for just decisions and seem eager for God to come near them.

Verses 3-4:

“Why have we fasted,” they say, “and you have not seen it?  Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?” Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers.  Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists.  You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high.

Please notice that they were fasting for the wrong reason.  We are not fasting to change God’s mind.  Verses 5-8; this is God replying:

Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for a man to humble himself?  Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying on sackcloth and ashes?  Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?  Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:  to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?  Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter — when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?  Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.

You can see how God right there in Isaiah 58 was correcting the Jews but, at the time of Christ, they had not changed.  They were the same.  They were fasting to brag before the people and to brag before God.  You remember the Pharisee who prayed, “Dear God, I thank You that I am not like the publican.  I fast twice a week” [far more than you have requested God; aren’t I good].  Luke 18:11-12:

The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself:  “God, I thank you that I am not like other men — robbers, evildoers, adulterers — or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.”

And Jesus is condemning that kind of fasting.

Fasting must come as a deep, heartfelt relationship with God and a desire to live according to the will of God.  Do you remember what Paul said? “I keep my body under subjection.”  As long as we are living in this sinful world, we have to discipline this body.  When God says, “I want to give you victory and blessings of the Christian life,” it will always involve the cross.  There has to be self-denial and fasting is one way that we express our self-denial.

What is the right method of fasting?  Go back to Matthew 6 and Jesus makes it very clear how should we appear before others when we fast.  And Jesus says, “Please appear normally.  Let nobody know that you are fasting.  It is between you and God.”  In the history of the early church you will discover that whenever they had something very earnest to pray about, whether as a church collectively, or as individuals, they would spend their time in fasting and prayer.  And when we have certain concerns we need also to spend time in fasting and prayer.

I received a letter one day that requested the churches in the valley where I preached to spend a coming Sabbath in fasting and prayer because on Sunday they are going to choose who will be the president of the college there.  That is a deep concern because that is the future of our young people.

We are living in the Day of Atonement.  We are living in a time in this world when things are rapidly coming to an end.  We are living in very serious times and we need to spend time in fasting and prayer but we must do it in a way that nobody knows.  Because if you are fasting that people may see you, then where is the cross?  There is no cross in that kind of fasting.  Let me read to you what Christ said.  Matthew 6:17-18a:

But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting....

The thing is this, that the Jews, when they fasted, would not comb their hair and this was an outward sign that they were fasting.  Sometimes they would rub ashes on their face and beard.  They looked dismal and disfigured.  Jesus is saying, “Please be normal.  Behave normally.”  Fasting is between you and God.  Fasting is a vertical relationship.  You are not denying yourself that you may appear better to God.  You are denying yourself so you may walk in the steps of Christ.  Christ lived a life of self-denial.

And when you humble yourself, when you deny yourself, it has to affect your relationship to others.  That is why, in Isaiah 58, God says that what true fasting must produce is a relationship with others.  You can sympathize with people who go hungry.  You don’t have to starve, but you know there are people who don’t have food and you can sympathize with them and help them out.  Today, 40% of the population will go to bed with an empty stomach.  They have no choice.  They are not fasting because they want to but because they are in a position where they don’t have food.  When we hear and read about them, then we can sympathize with them because we know what it feels like to go hungry.  Not because we were in their circumstances but because we have fasted and know what it is.  That is why Isaiah says that, when you fast, it has to create in you a concern for others in every area.  Fasting is one way of carrying the cross and getting closer to Christ.

What Jesus is doing in Matthew 6 is not dealing with all that I mentioned today on fasting.  I went into other areas.  But the reason I have done this is because we, as a people, need to stress fasting a little more than we do.  I think, as we see the end approaching, as we see crises coming upon us, we will have to spend more time in fasting.  I want to make it clear that fasting is still part of the New Testament teaching and that is why I gave you some examples.

At the moment we are living in a wonderful country with lots of blessings.  You remember, when Jesus was here on this earth, one of the accusations that was made was, “Why is it that the disciples of the Pharisees are fasting and the disciples of John the Baptist are fasting but your disciples are not fasting?”  Mark 2:18:

Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting.  Some people came and asked Jesus, “How is it that John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees are fasting, but yours are not?”

And some have taken that statement and said that Jesus did away with fasting.  But you need to listen to Jesus’ reply.  Mark 2:19-20:

Jesus answered, “How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them?  They cannot, so long as they have him with them.  But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them, and on that day they will fast.”

We are having a great time here; things are going well, but soon this country also is going to face a crisis.  Fasting will cause us to realize that we need to be on our knees and we need to fast in order to draw closer to God because of our own problems.  You will also remember that, when Jesus came down from the Mount of Transfiguration, there were some disciples who were trying to cast out the devil and they failed.  Mark 9:28-29 [NKJV]:

And when He [Jesus] had come into the house, His disciples asked Him privately, “Why could we not cast it out?”

So He said to them, “This kind can come out by nothing but prayer and fasting.”

Fasting and prayer does not change God’s mind; it does affect us.  The purpose is not to change God.  God is always loving; God always wants to bless us.  He doesn’t fluctuate; His love is everlasting.  He changes not.  But we need to change.  And fasting and prayer is one way that we can make ourselves more readily available to God.  God wants to come and dwell in us and He wants to walk in us.  But God is not a dictator.  He doesn’t say, “Move aside, I will take over.”  He wants us to put self aside by surrendering ourself to the cross of Christ.  He wants us to deny self and make room for the Holy Spirit to take over.  That is why fasting is one way of disciplining ourselves in a way that we are making ourselves available to God.

When God takes over, then we, too, will perform miracles like the disciples did after Pentecost.  We, too, will be able to do great exploits for God because we have made ourselves totally available to God.

It is my prayer that we will keep in mind that there is in the New Testament, teaching that includes fasting.  Not only almsgiving, not only praying, we should also be a fasting people.  I know it is hard to fast when there is such plenty.  But when the crisis comes, when you are facing individual problems, remember that fasting is one way of drawing us closer to God.  Not because God won’t come close to us but because we are making ourselves more available to Him.

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