Fasting! – Matthew 6:16-18
By Pastor Lee Hemen
April 14, 2019
There are some Christian disciplines that have gone by the wayside in our day and age. Of course becoming a hermit and forcing every bit of personal contact out of your life is not what Jesus meant when he said for us to “go into all the world”. And I confess I like zippers, buttons, and running water. However the disciplines of giving and prayer should be practiced. Today we are going to look at the discipline of fasting and why Jesus spoke about it.
I remember the first time I led a group of youth to fast. After the first four hours some of them were already going into fits about being hungry and that it was not such a good idea for them to do. We did it to focus on world hunger and our fast was only for 24 hours. You would have thought it was for 24 days! Let’s discover what Jesus taught about fasting…
We have to understand why Jesus mentioned fasting here and what it meant for the Hebrew people before we can make assertions as to whether we as believers should in fact fast. We live in a self-indulgent society where we hardly ever allow ourselves to go without anything and in Jesus’ day fasting was often a way to commemorate national disasters and they had over 21 different fasts! So Jesus tells his audience…
I. Be sure you are fasting for the right reasons! (v. 16)
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.
1. There are two major fast days and four minor fast days that are part of the Jewish year. The first major fast is Yom Kippur, also known as the Day of Atonement, is the holiest day of the year in Judaism. Its central themes are atonement and repentance. Jewish people traditionally observe this holy day with an approximate 25-hour period of fasting and intensive prayer, often spending most of the day in synagogue services. Tisha B’Av is an annual fast day in Judaism, on which a number of disasters in Jewish history occurred, primarily the destruction of both Solomon’s Temple by the Babylonians and later Herod’s Temple by the Romans. Tisha B’Av is regarded as the saddest day in the Jewish calendar and it is thus believed to be a day which is destined for tragedy. It lasts nine days in all! Major fasts begin before sundown, when it is still light outside, and end after the next sundown, when it is dark outside and three stars can be seen in the sky. Major fasts are absolute. The faster may not eat food, drink, brush his teeth, comb his hair, or take a bath. Turns out there are 25 holidays and events throughout the year associated with a tradition of fasting! No food or drink is taken from dawn until nightfall. It doesn’t seem that Jesus fasted often. In fact, his critics condemned him for “eating and drinking” (Matthew 11:19) instead of fasting. There is only one example in Scripture of Jesus fasting. It immediately followed Jesus’ baptism (Matthew 3:13), which began his public ministry. Jesus was led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness in order to fast for forty days and nights. During that time of fasting, Jesus was repeatedly tempted by the devil. This testing time prepared him for the three-year ministry that would change the world. Jesus’ forty day fast is not an example for us to follow because it was strictly for Jesus to do as God directed him! Jesus therefore tells his listeners, “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.” Fasting had become so common it had lost its sacredness to focus the individual on God! The Pharisees would often put on special make up or announce that they were fasting to show the crowds how pious they were! Like prayer and giving, fasting for Jesus was to be done for the right reasons!
EXAMPLE: Today is when many churches will celebrate Palm Sunday in recognizing when Jesus rode into Jerusalem and the crowds tossed their cloaks and palm branches on the ground to signify Jesus as the coming Messiah. Interestingly it was a time of the Passover celebrating when the Angel of Death passed over the Hebrew houses who had painted their doorposts and lintels with the blood of a sacrificed lamb.. What a great time to think about fasting to refocus oneself on Jesus! Perhaps you could do without certain things in your life that get in between you and your relationship with Jesus? Whatever you decide to do, be sure you are fasting for the right reasons!
Should believers fast in our day and age and if so what kind of fasting should we observe? These are great questions and deserve some consideration. However, if you decide to fast you not only should make sure you are doing it for the right reasons but Jesus also taught that we should…
II. Be sure we are fasting so that others do not notice! (Vv. 17-18)
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.
1. Fasting is deciding to go without or restrict oneself of certain things such as food, electronics, or outside things that would distract us from trying to focus ourselves on what God desires. The observance of Lent for some denominations helps them to focus on the time leading up to the crucifixion of Jesus. Most evangelicals, like Baptists, do not observe Lent because of the connotation of the person trying to earn favor with God by depriving themselves of certain things. Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and ends before Easter. The purpose of Lent is to prepare the believer for Easter through prayer, doing penance, mortifying the flesh, repentance of sins, almsgiving, and denial of ego. This event is observed in the Anglican, Eastern Orthodox, Lutheran, Methodist, Moravian, Oriental Orthodox, Reformed, and Roman Catholic Churches. There is no sacrifice we can make that draws us any closer to God than Jesus! Can we fast or should we fast? Believers can fast but it isn’t something we do in order to gain spiritually. We can to focus ourselves on the Lord. If you are not already spending time daily with God, fasting may make you more irritable. And in fact when we decide to go without something in order to fast others should not be aware. Jesus remarked, “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.” Fasting is to be between us and the Lord. I believe we would do well to fast not just food but perhaps television, electronics such as cell phones, video games, texting, and computers for a period of time in order to refocus ourselves on the Lord. We have far too many distractions in our day and age. There is some evidence that early Christians fasted on Wednesdays and Fridays as well as on other occasions, and this is still practiced in Eastern Orthodoxy today but there is no scriptural suggestion we should do so. Be sure you are fasting so that others do not notice!
EXAMPLE: A Summer Missionary we had years ago loved to read. So much so she often excluded family and friends in order to immerse herself in her books. She made the conscious decision to not read and instead spend that time in getting to know people around her better. She spent the next week having tea with friends, talking to her family, and introducing herself to new people. It was a life-changing “fast” for her! She ended up meeting her future husband and made closer ties to her family and friends. She decided not to let anyone know what she was doing but everyone who knew her saw the change and how it impacted her life! Jesus knew that fasting for the Hebrews had lost its true focus and so he related that should be sure they were fasting so that others do not notice!
Be sure you are fasting for the right reasons! Be sure you are fasting so that others do not notice!
This article is copyrighted © 2019 by Lee Hemen and is the sole property of Lee Hemen, and may not be used unless you quote the entire article and have my permission.