When You Fast (Matthew 6:16-18)
Topic: One Truth: Walk in Truth Passage: Matthew 6:16–6:18
When You Fast
(One Truth: Walk in Truth)
March 31st, 2019
I. Fit By Fast?
You may or may not have heard about what Del Hall has given up this Lent. Lent (which began on March 6 of this year) is a forty-day period of preparation before Easter that's been celebrated by certain Christian traditions, starting sometime in the 4th century AD (although some period of preparation seems to go all the way back to apostolic times). In most traditions, Lent involves fasting or giving up certain foods as an act of devotion.
But back to Del Hall. The Ohio man has decided to give up everything for lent, except... beer. That's right, his Lenten observance is a beer fast. Nothing but beer for forty days. The Cincinnati resident, Army veteran, and brewery work was inspired by something certain monks did in 16th century Europe during Lent, something called a bock beer fast. But for those of you who like beer, it gets even better. As of last Tuesday, Hall had dropped 25 pounds as a result of his beer fast.
So don't be surprised if Hall comes out with a book or video soon, something like the “Be Fit Beer Fast”. I think that could be an extremely popular diet program.
But all this begs the question: what is fasting? According to God, what is the purpose of fasting? Is it really a divine diet program, or maybe just a yearly Easter ritual?
Let's hold onto those questions as we dig into God's word together. This morning, we return Matthew chapter 5-7, to what we might call Jesus' kingdom manifesto; his design for discipleshiple; his 'mountain message', or as many know it, his 'Sermon on the Mount'.
II. The Passage: "Your Fasting" (6:16-18)
Look with me, if you would, at Matthew 6. We're picking up where left off last time. Follow along as I read verses 16-18 of chapter 6. This is how Jesus instructs his followers...
“And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.  But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face,  that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
To make sense of the whole of this passage, let's take a closer look at the parts. I'd like to focus on three ideas that I see at work in these verses. All of them revolve around the topic of fasting. So let's start by looking back at the broader context. I think when we do that, and then come back to verse 16, I think we see that Jesus is addressing the issue of...
1. Man-Centered Fasting (v. 16)
Look at how the opening verse of this section points us back to the opening verse of this chapter. In Matthew 6:1, Jesus tells his disciples...
“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:1)
So, as we've talked about before, throughout the first half of chapter 6 we find Jesus explaining, we find him unpacking this warning in the context of three key areas of Jewish religious practice: giving to the needy, prayer, and finally, in this section, fasting. We also see in all these passages that Jesus points to the Jewish religious leaders as examples of what not to do.
Now, in terms of fasting, even if you knew nothing about fasting, verse 16 does give us some clues. Notice the words Jesus uses in reference to the “hypocrites”: “gloomy” and “disfigure”. Clearly, this practice of fasting involved some kind of physical heaviness or affliction. We know that because it's precisely what these religious leaders wanted others to see when they fasted. Their strategy was to use the apparent depths of their physical suffering to reveal the apparent depths of their spiritual 'awesome-ness'.
But like actors, these hypocrites were only playing a part. What they presented did not match what was present in their hearts. And as Jesus makes clear in verse 16, the acclaim, the approval, the respect of others is the only thing these leaders will receive from what's supposed to be a spiritual exercise, rather than a social exercise.
To correct this man-centered approach to fasting, not surprisingly, in verses 17 and 18, Jesus encourages his followers in what we might call...
2. God-Centered Fasting (vs. 17-18)
Just as Jesus had taught in regard to giving and prayer, in verses 17 and 18, we find an emphasis on God as the only audience any true disciple needs to consider when it comes to living out his or her faith. Look at those verses again:
But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face,  that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
You see, if their practice of fasting was to be sincerely and purely God-centered, if they truly fasted only for him, then it should mean 'business as usual' for their everyday lives. When Jesus says “anoint your head and wash your face” he's saying, “enjoy your day and allow others to see that very thing”. Many of the Pharisees and Sadducees and scribes did exactly the opposite. They worked hard to give off a 'woe is me' kind of vibe, rather than a 'it's just an ordinary day' kind of vibe.
Jesus tells his followers, “there's no reason to let anyone else know, in any way, what you're doing”. Why is that? So that you won't be tempted to fast for the wrong reasons.
Now this might be a good time to stop and define that term. What is fasting? Yes, the doctor might tell you to fast, to not eat, the night before or day before you have blood work done. But not eating is only part of the biblical practice. I think based on God's word, here's what I hope is an easy-to-remember definition of fasting. Fasting is...
A deliberate deprivation of food designed to deepen my devotion to and dependence on God. (2x)
It's not just to deprive someone of food. It's a deliberate choice to go without. And no, it's not a diet program. It's a discipline aimed at directing us devotionally. How? By developing our dependence on God; that is, by turning our attention, in those times of physical longing, to the spiritual provision only God can give.
Let me give you a biblical snapshot of fasting:
The meaning of the word “fast” is clear from Esther 4:13: “Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, ‘and hold a fast on my behalf, and do not eat or drink for three days, night or day.” Fasting can be seen throughout the Old Testament. Moses fasted on Mount Sinai when he received the law from God (Exodus 34:28). Under Samuel’s leadership, Israel fasted in the face of the Philistine army (I Samuel 7:6). David fasted while the life his and Bathsheba’s son hung in the balance (II Samuel 12:16). Why did God’s people fast? In most cases, they fasted in order to seek God’s favor or forgiveness (cf. Ezra 8:21-23; Nehemiah 9:1). Sometimes they fasted because they were in mourning (cf. II Samuel 1:12). Sometimes fasting was simply an act of devotion to God (cf. Deuteronomy 9:9). The only mandated time of fasting was on the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur (Leviticus 16:29).
But is fasting just an OT or strictly Jewish practice? What about the New Testament? Well, we do hear about fasting in the book of Acts. In Acts 13 and 14, we read about how the church of Antioch was “worshiping the Lord and fasting” (13:2), how they fasted and prayed for Barnabas and Saul before God sent them out (13:2), and how Saul and Barnabas appointed elders “with prayer and fasting” in the new churches they established on their mission (14:23). Even though the remainder of the New Testament does not mention fasting, as we've seen this morning, Jesus does not question the validity of the practice. He simply instructs his disciples about a proper perspective when it comes to fasting.
So keep all that in mind as we think about one last idea that I see at work in our main passage. I believe it's also appropriate, in light of this passage, to talk about...
3. Christ-Centered Fasting (v. 18)
Okay, we know Christ is the one teaching them here about God-centered fasting. But other than that, where exactly do we see a suggestion of Christ-centered fasting? Well, I think there's a single word that points us in that direction. It's a word, a term, a title, that we've talked about on multiple occasions throughout our study of Matthew chapter 6. It's the word, “Father”. In fact, of the seventeen occurrences of “Father” in Jesus' 'mountain message', twelve of those are found here in chapter 6. For example, we know from verse 9 that Jesus, in regard to prayer, taught his disciples to approach God and address God as Father.
But how is that sinners like us can address such a holy and just God as Father?
Well, remember, we just heard about fasting in the book of Acts. But other than what we read in Matthew 6, what else do we know about fasting and the first followers of Jesus? Well, listen to the account Matthew records only a few chapters later in 9:14–17...
Then the disciples of John came to him [to Jesus], saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?”  And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.  No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch tears away from the garment, and a worse tear is made.  Neither is new wine put into old wineskins. If it is, the skins burst and the wine is spilled and the skins are destroyed. But new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.”
What point is Jesus making here? Why would the disciples seek God through fasting when God is present among them in the person of Jesus? But after his resurrection, when he returns to the Father, Jesus makes it clear that his disciples will fast. And just as he taught them in Matthew 6, that fasting should be God-centered and not man-centered.
But as we just heard from Matthew 9:16, 17, there will also be something different about that fasting. Just as no one in Jesus' day would put new wine in an old wineskin, it would also be unwise to combine old ideas about fasting with the new spiritual realities Jesus Christ makes possible. Because of Jesus, no longer would these men seek and serve God as sinners separated from a holy King and a just Judge. Therefore, because of Jesus, no longer should these men be tempted to think of fasting (or any other practice) as a religious ritual through which God can be appeased.
No. Through his death on the cross, Jesus Christ would appease the righteous wrath of that holy King and just Judge. He would accept our penalty, and in do doing reconcile separated sinners to God. Gloriously, through the death of God's Son, we can live as children of God.
And that changes a practice like fasting. How? By reassuring me in the midst of my physical hunger, that God has and will ultimately satisfy every true longing, every genuine need in Jesus. The fasting of one who follows Christ is a deliberate deprivation of food designed to deepen my devotion to and dependence on the One we now call Father, whose...
...divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence,  by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises... (II Peter 1:3-4a)
Remember, those are promises ratified through the righteous blood of Jesus, the one who stood perfectly firm after fasting for forty days and nights; the One who declared in the midst of His hunger: “It is written, “‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” (Matthew 4:4)
III. The Glorious General and Your Unique Specifics
Brothers and sisters, as we attempt to move from understanding God's word to living out God's word, I think we need to grapple with what may be the most challenging part of this passage.
I think for most of us, the most challenging part of this passage is found in the first four words of the passage, the first four words of Matthew 6:16... “And when you fast”. If we're honest about those words, for a majority of Christians, Jesus has already lost us. His words assume that we do fast, when in reality, most of us don't. Is fasting required? Is it a command? I don't think we can say that. But even if we aren't required to fast, why wouldn't we? Why wouldn't we follow in the footsteps of our spiritual ancestors and take advantage of such a powerful practice? Why wouldn't we follow Christ's example?
When it comes to fasting, I want to leave you with a view of both the general and the specific.
In general, what we've seen from God's word is that fasting is a spiritual discipline through which we can draw near to God in a unique way. As Jesus reminded us, it isn't something we do to impress others. And it isn't something we do because we believe it will earn us more stars on some heavenly star chart. No. If we fast, we fast in order to deepen our devotion and dependence on God; to grow in a new way; to hear from Him in a new way; to intercede, to wrestle, to hope in Him, in a new way.
What does that mean in terms of the specifics, and specifically for you? Well, as Jesus emphasized in Matthew 6:16-18, that's between you and God. But I would leave you with this challenge: as I mentioned at the outset of our study, this pre-Holy Week, this pre-Easter season has, from ancient times, been a season of spiritual preparation. And in one way or another, fasting has been a part of that preparation. So why not this year, for you and me?
Here's my challenge: sometime in the next three weeks, choose a day on which to fast. Unless you have to for the sake of 'personal logistics', decide now not to tell anyone. In terms of the 'how', I would recommend that your do a 'sun up' to sundown fast. That means no food during daylight hours (but please drink water). But remember, sacrificing food is not simply a 'look what I'm doing God' kind of gesture. No. Throughout that day, every time you think about food or feel your stomach rumbling, use that as a prompt to direct your attention to God; to go to him in prayer; to praise Him; to confess sins; to rehearse his word, his promises.
Now, that day may revolve around a theme. You may want to seek clarity for a difficult decision. You may want to focus on a particular struggle. Or you may commit yourself to interceding for others throughout the day, maybe for brothers and sisters in Christ, or for those in your circle who do know Jesus, ...or both! Or you may focus on a particular passage throughout the day, or maybe on specific Good Friday and Easter verses. However you approach that day, the overall goal is to set aside a day in which you are devoted to God and trusting him for your strength and sustenance, both physically and spiritually.
Now, if you have medical issues that make a food fast difficult, then I'd suggest you find something else you can do without that day, something that you would normally depend on in your everyday routine. Maybe that's screens. Maybe that's driving. I don't know. But to hold on to the biblical spirit of fasting, it needs to be a lack, an absence that prompts you to look to God instead of to that... fill in the blank.
If you haven't ever fasted in this way, or if it's been a long time, then let me encourage you: you will not regret your decision to dedicate a day to God in this way. And hopefully, that commitment will lead to a more regular practice of God-centered, Christ-centered fasting... not as end in itself, but as a pathway into deeper walk with Christ, for the glory of God. Amen?