When to Fast

Matthew 6:16-18

16 “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. 17 But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, 18 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. (Matt 6:16–18)

Today we are going to talk about fasting

As we do, I want to make several general statements about fasting so that we will all be a the same place in understanding what Jesus is talking about here.

Before I do, just a comment about how this passage relates to some of the previous verses that we have studied.

In chapter 6 Jesus gives 3 illustrations of hypocrisy. This is the 3rd of the three. The first was concerning giving from verses 1-4. The second was about prayer in verses 5-8. And now this last illustrations from verses 16-18. We can gather from all three that Jesus was and is very concerned about hypocrisy, or pretending to be spiritual when one is not inclined to love and obey God.

I would venture to say that we are more familiar with giving and prayer than we are about true biblical fasting so here is some things that may help.

First, food is a huge blessing from God. When we talk about biblical fasting it is not a statement that somehow food is bad or that we should not enjoy food. I like to eat, I like to eat good food. And I’ll bet you like to eat good food too. And the great thing is there is such variety when it comes to food that even if our taste are dramatically different we can still both find food that we really like to eat.

This is a testimony of the creativity of God and of His grace in how He provides for us. Variety is tells of His creativity. He gives us tests and texture and color and variety. And He even gives us an ability to think and for us to be creative in how we (well, not me) but in how some people can combine this ingredient with that ingredient, all sorts of combinations to make new tastes to appeal to our senses in a good way.

In fact I was reading a book last week on productivity from a Biblical standpoint and there was a short section where the theologian Wayne Grudem talked about what it means in Genesis when God says that we are to Gen. 1:28

28 And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Gen 1:28)

“The word translated ‘subdue’ implies that Adam and Eve should make the resources of the earth useful for their own benefit, and this implies that God intended them to develop the earth so that they could come to own agricultural products and animals, then housing and works of craftsmanship and beauty, and eventually buildings, means of transportation, cities, and inventions of all sorts.”

we glorify God when we are productive we are not only obeying him but imitating him.

He makes things beautiful, pleasant to the eye, adds color to things and even makes food that taste good. We can imitate Him in this instance by making food taste good. This is good, we don’t have to eat plain old bland bad tasting things. God has made provision and has been gracious even with the food we eat, and food that we make that taste good.

Food is good.

What does this have to do with fasting? I am just making the point that fasting is not to be normative. What is normal is to eat with thanksgiving what God has graciously provided and what skilled people make for us to eat and enjoy.

But there are times when we will set aside these things for a time of fasting.

Let me say this too. When the Bible speaks to us about fasting it is a spiritual issue. What I mean is that you know today there are many type of fasts that people do for health reasons. Fast to cleanse the body of toxins, fasts to lose weight, some even fast thinking that they are depriving the body as a way of punishing themselves, like a way to relive guilt.

None of these things are reasons for fasting biblically speaking, the Bible does not talk about fasting for the physical benefits of it.

And you may find this interesting, the Bible does not ever command that we fast.

The only command for fasting is found in Lev. 16 which is a command for a general fast for Israel which is the day of Atonement. This was a time of fasting, a time when their sins were remembered, a time of sorrow and yet of hope. Besides this, there is not a general command given in the OT or NT to fast.

And yet in our passage this morning it is assumed that God’s people will fast. How do we know? Because Jesus says in verse 16

16 “And when you fast (Matt 6:16)

Not if you fast, but when you fast. And so though fasting is not commanded it is assumed. I find that interesting.

What is the purpose for fasting why would someone fast?

Well, some for the wrong reasons. The Pharisees for instance in the first century time frame would fast 2 times per week. We see this in Luke 18 where Jesus tells a parable of two men who went to the Temple to pray. The Pharisee says

11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; (Luke 18:11-12)

Many Pharisees did this, apparently fasted 2 times per week on the 2nd and 5th day. But as Jesus says in our passage this morning, the reason they fasted was not spiritual but was to get something, namely to gain positive attention from others.

16 “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others” (Matt 6:16)

Their motive was to be seen, to be recognized to be praised by others. That is not a good reason to fast, that is a selfish reason to fast. This motive turns fasting, an act of humility into a selfish act of pride.

Any outward religious act can become like this. Praying, teaching, serving. All of these can be done out of pride in a way that says, look at me, look at how spiritual I am, look at what I am doing for God! Even evangelism can become this. I remember taking a class once on evangelism where we learned some verses and techniques and then we went out into the city to practice what we had learned by approaching strangers and witnessing to them. At the end of the day we got back together and everyone told, like how many people they won to Christ. It seemed over the top to me, a little bragging by some. Almost anything that seems spiritual can turn into a proud moment. We have to be careful.

In this case even fasting became that.

But there are reasons to fast and I want us to take a look at some of those reasons today.

First, let me say, and I will show you this, fasting is associated with an affliction of the soul. This was true when the Hebrews were commanded to fast in Lev. 17, their fasting was due to sorrow over sin, it was to be a deeply spiritual time.

Fasting is connected to mourning…a deep spiritual struggle/anxiety

It can be more of a spontaneous thing rather than a planned event, depending on what is going on spiritually in one’s life. Paul fasted often, and it is assumed in Matthew 9 that this fasting will continue among Christians.

14 Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” 15 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. (Matt 9:14-15)

This again speaks of fasting when Christ is gone and we all are dealing with life, anxiously awaiting HIs return.

Now let’s get specific, what should urge us to fast?

When we are afraid

We see this in Joel chapter 2. A fearful time. Syria would come upon them as a fire, mighty horses and would descend on them, a time of great fear and trembling as a people, as a nation. Spiritual anguish. And God says,

12 “Yet even now,” declares the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;

Fear is present with them and fasting here is combined with weeping and mourning. Anguish of the soul, it was a time to fast. By the way, when speaking of spiritual anguish, anxiety, mourning. These are times when we don’t really want to eat. It is not that we have to force ourselves not to eat really, but at times we are so troubled that we don’t eat, that is what I meant earlier when I said fasting can be really spontaneous.

Another time to fast is like what I mentioned earlier too when the nation of Israel fasted on the day of Atonement in that case it was a time of humiliation, a time of guilt over sin, repentance and a desire for cleansing.

So fasting in fearful times and fasting over humiliation and guilt because of sin.

Another time to fast that we see in the Bible is when there is a special desire to receive revelation from God. Perhaps you have experienced this. You pour over God’s word, you are trying to understand it, you long to see it as God has delivered it and so fasting may come, you may fast in your study. In Daniel 9:2 we see this:

2 in the first year of his reign, I, Daniel, perceived in the books the number of years that, according to the word of the Lord to Jeremiah the prophet, must pass before the end of the desolations of Jerusalem, namely, seventy years. 3 Then I turned my face to the Lord God, seeking him by prayer and pleas for mercy with fasting and sackcloth and ashes. (Dan 9:2-3)

Daniel had received from God truth about the future and wanted to understand more. What did he do, he fasted and prayed.

Or we even see fasting when the Word of God will be declared to others. Jesus fasted for 40 days and nights and when did he do this? He did this just prior to His earthly public ministry. He fasted before he ministered the Word to a lost world.

Some fasted out of fear of diving judgement.

We see this in places like Jonah. The people of Nineveh received the Word of God from Jonah and it was frightening. They would be judged by God unless they repent. What did they do, they fasted in prayer.

In acts we see fasting when there is an important decision to make. We see this in Acts 13

13 Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a lifelong friend of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. 2 While they were 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.” 3 Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off. (Acts 13:1-3)

It was a serious matter to appoint others to specific ministry . The church as fasting when they set Barnabas and Saul on their journey.

Do you have a major decision to make, perhaps you should fast as you pray.

So we see fasting when in fear, fasting to understand God’s word, fasting when proclaiming God’s Word, fasting when divine judgment is near, fasting when decision are to be made and one more I want to mention.

Fasting when sorrowful, sorrowful over sin, over one's own plight, or over someone else troubles.

When David sinned against the Lord and a baby was conceived and born as a result. The child was ill.

In 2nd Samuel 12 we read this of David:

15 And the Lord afflicted the child that Uriah’s wife bore to David, and he became sick. 16 David therefore sought God on behalf of the child. And David fasted and went in and lay all night on the ground. 17 And the elders of his house stood beside him, to raise him from the ground, but he would not, nor did he eat food with them.(2 Sam 12:15-17)

David had sinned terribly and this child conceived in sin was ill, seriously ill and David sought God and fasted, he prayed and fasted on behalf of this child. David was in deep spiritual anguish and sorrowful for the child.

How often do we fall on our faces, fast and pray for people who are afflicted with sorrow? For the sick, for the suffering, for the lost, for others who are dealing with great spiritual serious grief?

There is so much of all of this around us, we cannot go a day without hearing a story of sorrow and grief and yet, have we become callous or are we moved by it to pray and fast at times? It is easy with so much information at our fingertips to gloss over great sorrow, suffering and pain, that is easy. But we can pray, we can call upon the Lord and we can fast.

When deeply moved to sorrow fasting comes easy, who wants to eat right? But are we ever really deeply moved anymore?

Fasting, I believe should be a part of our lives. And it is always associated with prayer. It is us moving into the presence of God through prayer seeking Him in special ways and acknowledging the He is able to move heaven and earth if necessary to bring about His perfect will. It is not just relying on Him but trusting in His decisions for us and others.

As we are moved more deeply I wonder if fasting will naturally become more a part of our lives?

And so fasting is not an outward show. The hypocrites wanted everyone to know they were fasting, they would look gloomy mark up their faces, they would say look at me, look at how spiritual I am.

Jesus says, don’t let others know you are fasting, it is not for show, it is deeply personal. So if you fast, clean up, look nice, be joyful, it is a secret between you and God. And God will honor that and He will reward you!

16 “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. 17 But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, 18 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. (Matt 6:16-18)

Not to become spiritual but as a response to concern or compassion We don’t fast as in days past

It is biblically voluntary and usually spontaneous