When You Fast

Matthew 6:16-18

It’s a great joy to get back to our study of the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew. Because we spent so many weeks on the Lord’s Prayer, you may have forgotten that Jesus’ teaching on prayer is part of a larger section of His sermon where Jesus is confronting hypocritical religion (Matthew 6:1-18). Remember that Jesus gave the overall principle of this section in Matthew 6:1 “Take heed that you do not do your charitable deeds [or “righteousness acts”] before men, to be seen by them. Otherwise you have no reward from your Father in heaven.

Having stated the principle, Jesus then gives three examples that deal with three very important areas of spiritual life: giving, praying, and fasting. First, He warned us of hypocrisy with respect to our dealings with other people – particularly, when we perform charitable acts (Matt. 6:2-4). He called His disciples to give for the glory of God rather than the praise of men. Second, He warns us of hypocrisy with respect to our dealings with God Himself – particularly, when we pray our prayers (Matt. 6:5-8); and He even gave us an example of what sincere, heartfelt prayer will look like (i.e. the Lord’s Prayer, Matt. 6:9-15). And now, we see that He warns us of hypocrisy with respect to the third main relationship—that is, toward our own selves, when we fast in an act of self-denial (Matt. 6:16-18).

Fasting is a topic about which many of us are inexperienced. John Stott has observed concerning this text:

Here is a passage of Scripture that is commonly ignored. I suspect that some of us live our Christian lives as if these verses had been torn out of our Bibles. Most Christians lay stress on daily prayer and sacrificial giving, but few lay any stress on fasting.[1]

Maybe you have questions about fasting. Is it something that we should do? If so, why? And how? In Jesus’ day, fasting was not such a mystery. It was a practice that was woven into the culture. It was expected, and it was a part of almost everyone’s life,

In the Jewish culture of Jesus’ day, everyone was expected to fast once a year on the Day of Atonement. It was a day that God commanded the Israelites to “afflict” their souls (Lev. 16:29-31; 23:27-32), that is, to humble themselves before God. The Jewish people understood this Old Testament command to mean that they were to fast; and so, it eventually came to be called “the day of fasting” (Jer. 36:6), or by the time of the New Testament, simply “the Fast” (Acts 27:9).

Of course, the Pharisees always wanted to outdo everyone else in their religion, so they regularly fasted twice weekly (Luke 18:12). The problem was that their fasting had degenerated into hypocrisy—doing it merely to be seen and praised by other people—not doing it for God. They wanted to appear to be ‘very spiritual.’

Even though our culture is quite different from that of Jesus’ first disciples,  we also need to heed the warning that He gives. When we fast, we must be very careful that we do not do it to be seen and admired by men. This principle applies to all the things that we might do to deny ‘self’ out of reverence to God.

But before we understand Jesus’ warning and correction regarding fasting, we first need to understand . . .

1. What does it mean to ‘fast’? (Matt. 6:16)[2]

The word for “fast” literally means “without eating.” So, for a simple definition, fasting means to voluntarily go without food. In our culture people sometimes fast for personal health, or for dietary reasons. But fasting in the Bible refers to voluntarily going without food or drink as a religious rite or a means of personal self-denial before God.

The important question for Jesus is “Why do you fast?”

Just as with giving and with praying, fasting can be done for the wrong reasons, with the wrong motive. No doubt some look at fasting similar to the way the pagans looked at prayer in Matthew 6:7. There Jesus taught, “And when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words.”

The heathen looked at prayer as a purely manipulative tactic where they would literally wear God out until He finally had enough and chose to answer. It was manipulation and we talked about why that is not true prayer. But some people look at fasting in exactly the same way. “I’m going to go without food, and when God sees how serious I am, then He will hear me and answer me.” Even some Christians think about fasting as a way to manipulate God in that way.

That’s the way some in Isaiah’s day thought about fasting. The people complained to God, “‘Why have we fasted,’ they say, ‘and You have not seen? Why have we afflicted our souls, and You take no notice?’” (Isaiah 58:3). They thought if they afflicted their souls, God would be impressed. But God wasn’t interested in their manipulative fasting. Isaiah says to them, “In fact, in the day of your fast you find pleasure, And exploit all your laborers. Indeed you fast for strife and debate, And to strike with the fist of wickedness. You will not fast as you do this day, To make your voice heard on high.” (Isa 58:3-4). What God wanted was for them to refrain from sin, not food.

Fasting cannot earn God’s favor or manipulate Him into answering your prayers. God answers prayer for His glory because He is good, not because He is forced. Going without food is not a means to righteousness. Would it surprise you if I told you that fasting is never commanded anywhere in Scripture? We are commanded to pray. We are commanded to give. But we are never commanded to fast.

Yet even though Jesus does not command us to fast, He assumes we will. Listen to the way He teaches, “Moreover, when you fastBut you, when you fast …” (Matt. 6:16-17). He doesn’t say, “If you fast” but “When.”

But if fasting doesn’t gain us righteousness, if it is not a tool to get God to answer my prayers, then why fast?

Here is what I have learned about fasting: Fasting is not something you deliberately do to please God; fasting is something you naturally do when you are seeking God.[3]

Jesus is not only our teacher, He is our example. In Matthew 4 it says, “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And when He had fasted forty days and forty nights, afterward He was hungry.” (Matt. 4:1-2). Let me ask you, why do you think Jesus fasted? Was He starving Himself in order to get something from God, His Father? No. Was He commanded to fast? No. Did He fast to gain righteousness? No. So what was Jesus doing in that wilderness? He was led by the Spirit. Finally, He would be tempted by the devil. But that didn’t come until He was there forty days and nights. Then, “afterward He was hungry.” Then the tempter came.

What was Jesus doing over those forty days? Being led by the Spirit. During those forty days, Jesus was seeking God, and during that time He was so intent on being led by God, that He wasn’t even hungry. And that answers our question as to why we fast. When we get to a place where we are seeking God wholeheartedly, the spiritual becomes so important that the physical literally fades away.

The Bible tells us a lot about the reasons why someone would fast before God in this way. For one thing, it is associated in the Bible with sorrow over sin and repentance from it. In the book of Judges, when the people of Israel were forced to fight against the tribe of Benjamin because of its idolatry and wickedness, they wept before the Lord and fasted all day until evening (Judges 20:26). After Saul and his son Jonathan died in battle, the people of Israel “took their bones and buried them under the tamarisk tree at Jabesh, and fasted seven days” (1 Sam. 31:30). Some of the great heroes of the Bible, who led others in repentance from sin, did so with fasting. Nehemiah led the people in confession of national sin by first calling them to assemble “with fasting, in sackcloth, and with dust on their heads” (Neh. 9:1). Daniel, when he prayed his great prayer of national confession for his people, made “request by prayer and supplications, with fasting, sackcloth, and ashes” (Dan. 9:3). God, through the prophet Joel, called the people to repentance from sin; telling them, “Now, therefore . . . turn to Me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning” (Joel 2:12). When Jonah preached to the Ninevites that God’s judgment was coming, national repentance occurred in which they “proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest to the least of them” (Jonah 3:5).

Even Saul of Tarsus (that is, the apostle Paul), when he was confronted by the Lord on the road to Damascus because of his murderous rebellion against the message of the gospel, repented and “was three days without sight, and neither ate nor drank” (Acts 9:9). This kind of fasting illustrates the seriousness with which we are to grieve over sin, and how nothing else, not even eating and drinking, is as important as turning completely away from it. Consistent with all those accounts is that these people wanted God, and they wanted God so badly that they didn’t even think about eating.

And not only is fasting associated with sorrow and repentance from sin but it’s associated with a humbling of oneself in general. David wrote in Psalm 35:13 that, when he heard that his enemy was sick, “I humbled myself with fasting“.

Fasting is usually associated in the Bible with prayer. King David, when it appeared that his infant son was going to die, “pleaded with God for the child, and David fasted and went in and lay all night on the ground” (2 Sam. 12:16). Queen Esther, before she went before the king to appeal for the life of her people, asked her cousin, “Go, gather all the Jews who are present in Shushan, and fast for me; neither eat nor drink for three days, night or day” (Esther 4:16). Ezra led the people in a prayer to God for protection, “proclaiming a fast there at the river of Ahava, that we might humble ourselves before our God, to seek from Him the right way for us and our little ones and all our possessions” (Ezra 8:21). In the New Testament, the Gentile centurion Cornelius prayed to the God of Israel with fasting (Acts 10:30). He received the message of the gospel through God sending Peter to him and his household in answer to his prayer.

Similarly, fasting is associated in the Bible with times in which God’s wisdom was sought by the church or when crucial things were about to happen. Jesus, before He began His public ministry, preceded that ministry with forty days of fasting in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-2). In Acts 13, when the church “ministered to the Lord and fasted,” the Holy Spirit called forth Paul and Barnabas as the church’s first missionaries.

Fasting is the spiritual response when we earnestly seek God. We may be moved to do this because of personal sorrow, or because we need to repent of sin. It may be because we are giving intense attention to prayer or seeking God’s leading and guidance. It may be that out of love for the Lord we fast in order to give our time and energies and resources to meet someone else’s needs. It may be simply because we love God and are seeking to know Him more. But the key to fasting is that it is a spiritual response to seeking God—not a means of manipulating God.

When fasting is not a spiritual response of a heart that is seeking God, it can easily degenerate into hypocrisy. When fasting is separated from its source and taken out of its proper context, then it becomes a means of drawing attention to ourselves. And when that happens, it is being practiced with an evil motive that God the Father cannot honor.

This leads us, then, to consider . . .

2. HOW WE ARE NOT TO FAST (Matt. 6:16).

I don’t think there is any question–we would all admit that we do not often seek God with as much seriousness as fasting would imply. I think we would also admit that if we knew someone who did, we would be impressed. And this was something the Pharisees realized as well. That is why they made a big production of their fasting. Just like in their giving and just like in their praying, they saw fasting as yet another opportunity to impress people.

Jesus says (Matt. 6:16), “Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward.” This is a picture of self-denial turned into self-exaltation.

Again, it is not that Jesus is commanding fasting. He isn’t. However, it is highly understood that those who desire God would fast. The issue wasn’t IF you do it, but HOW you do it.

How did Jesus say that hypocrites performed their fasts? Their phoniness isn’t found in whether or not they refrain from eating. Instead, He said that it was in the way they carry themselves before others when they fast. He said that they walk around with a “sad countenance“. They affected a pathetic, drained look as a way of drawing attention to their suffering. In fact, some of the Jewish writings describe how some would often darken their faces with ash in order to accentuate the visible display of their misery. Jesus even uses a play on words; saying they “disfigure” (aphanizousin, literally to remove the shine from) their face in order to be “seen” (phanõsin) by men. You could say they made their face “not shine” in order to “shine” before men.

And Jesus’ warning is that those who do such things in order to get the applause of men have all the reward they’re going to get. They are literally actors performing for tips. They are no different than a man who performs on a street corner and then passes his hat for donations. They have the attention of men, which was what they were after. But they will receive no reward from the Father. Don’t expect God to be impressed by your pathetic religious display.

I believe this can even apply to times of worship. There are times when people seek to draw this improper kind of attention to themselves when they sing or preach or pray in church. They can pretend to be deeply moved emotionally, or deeply impacted by something spiritually. Who it is that you’re seeking to impress when you do that . . . and why? May our worship be real and genuine in God’s house; and may God keep us from anything artificial when we present our worship to Him.

And this leads us, finally, to . . .

3. How we are to fast (Matt. 6:17-18)

Jesus says, “But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face…” These were typically actions associated not with fasting but with feasting. To clean up and care for yourself gives the exact opposite impact of disfiguring your face in a public display of agony because of fasting.

Now we also have to be careful of this. It would be very easy to slip into the opposite kind of hypocrisy—that of making a display of our self-anointing and self-washing to show how much we are avoiding making a display of our misery. Our hearts are very sinful and deceitful, and we have to be on guard all the time.

And so, Jesus says that we’re not to display an affected misery when we fast, but to do what we would normally do to care for ourselves and clean up our outward appearance before others; “so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.”

I believe the key to all of this is to simply forget about yourself and to forget all about other people. And the way we forget about ourselves and others is to keep the Lord always in sight. When we are simply seeking the Lord, we will have no need for the applause of men.

Let me put it to you another way. If you do the things of God, but you don’t delight in God, then there is a problem in your heart. When we do righteous things like giving or praying or fasting or any other religious duties (witnessing, Bible reading, Church attendance)—if we do these things with any other motive than love for God, then there is a problem.

The Pharisees did all the deeds, but they did them for the wrong reasons. They did them to impress and please other people. They did them because they loved themselves, not because they loved God. God is only pleased when people do those things because they love Him.

Let’s let God search our hearts in this area. Let’s allow Him to teach us where we have pretended to love God, but we really just loved the attention it got us; when we suffered for God in the sight of others in order to gain their admiration or attention. Let’s instead learn to forget about ourselves completely at such times, and to keep God always before our thoughts.

Let’s learn to make this our practice in all our acts of spiritual devotion: not just fasting, but also in the giving of alms, or in our prayers. Let’s do these things before the sight of God alone and not before the eyes of men. Then we will be much more like to do them out of love for the Lord than out of love for ourselves. The reward is that when we truly seek the Lord, we will find Him. God Himself, the One who loved us and redeemed us, the One who is all glorious, the One we long for in the depths of our transformed hearts—He will reward us with Himself. There is no greater reward.


[1] John R. W. Stott and John R. W. Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7): Christian Counter-Culture, The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1985), 135.

[2] Greg Allen, Fasting Without Fanfare, https://www.bethanybible.org/archive/2005/021305.htm. I am grateful to Allen for his outline, which  I have adapted, and for his thoughts on some key points.

[3] Rory Mosley, Hypocritical Fasting, https://fbcspur.org/hypocritical-fasting-matthew-616-18/

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