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.

       In this passage we see Jesus continuing to identify for His listeners how to perform acts of righteousness.  His whole purpose in this section of the Sermon on the Mount is to emphasis that we are not to perform acts of righteousness to be seen of men.    

       Matthew 6:1: Be careful not to do your `acts of righteousness' before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.

       Jesus then goes on to discuss how that when we give to the needy we are not to do so ostentatiously, with pretense. He used the example of the hypocrites of His day who would call attention to themselves when giving to the poor so they could be seen by men as having performed a good deed.   He went on to speak of those who make a show of praying in public so that others will see them and think nice things about them instead of focusing on communication with our Father in Heaven. 

       Now He addresses fasting, not the act of fasting itself which is assumed, but the attitude associated with fasting. In all three of the behaviors Jesus addresses, giving, praying and fasting, He does not address the behavior itself but what our attitude must be in carrying out the behavior.  The behavior itself is assumed.  It is assumed we will give to the needy, we will pray and we will fast.  Jesus is not specifically addressing the behavior of fasting in 6:16-18 but addressing our approach to the behavior.

       He teaches that when we fast we are not to do so to be seen by men.  We are not to, as in giving to the needy and praying, do so in a way that brings attention to ourselves.  Jesus wants us to be selfless in our behavior.  When we give to the needy Jesus wants us to focus all our attention on the needs of the needy and not on our need to be stroked for our giving.  Jesus says our Father in heaven will take care of that.  When we pray, Jesus wants us to focus all our attention on our heavenly Father and become centered on our relationship with Him, becoming virtually oblivious to those around us.  Jesus says he will reward us for that.  As I explained in a previous sermon, Jesus was not teaching that we should never pray in public but when we do we should pray as if no one else is around.     

       It is interesting that Jesus teaches that our heavenly Father will reward us openly for acts of righteousness.  We may ask why there should be a reward for behavior that is a necessary and expected expression of our Christianity.  Why should there be reward for doing what we should be doing?  If you look at the manner in which God relates to his human creation, He has always promised and carried out reward for doing good.  It is His will to reward righteousness and punish sin.  When Israel behaved in sync with God’s will they were rewarded with good crops, absence of disease and joyful living.  When they behaved contrary to God’s will they lost these blessings.  In many ways reward for behaving righteously is simply the automatic positive consequences of such behavior. 

       When you give to the needy there is personal satisfaction that you have helped someone and there should by rejoicing that you were able to make someone happy and whole. When we communicate with God in prayer and use fasting as a vehicle to draw closer to God there will be the automatic consequences of experiencing a closer relationship with God.     

       On the other hand, if we do such behaviors to look good in the eyes of men, we are doing them to receive recognition which amounts to seeking a wage. In effect, this is what Jesus is saying in the Sermon on the Mount.  When Jesus says that those who do things to be seen of men have received their reward He is virtually saying they have earned and received wages for what they have done.  The Greek word translated reward here is misthos and literally means dues or wages paid for work done.

       When Jesus speaks of the reward that comes from our Heavenly Father, a different Greek word is used which has nothing to do with being paid wages for work done.  This word means to give away what is one's own, to give away from one's own profit.  This Greek word implies reward not as an obligation for work done but as recognition of the word done.  Jesus is simply teaching us to leave recognition for the good things we do up to God and not explicitly do things for the reward of recognition.

       This doesn’t mean we can’t acknowledge recognition for things we do.  For all we know such recognition is God’s way of acknowledging good deeds.  The point Jesus is making is we are not to do good deeds and behave righteously for the purpose of receiving recognition.  As Christ said earlier in the Sermon on the Mount, "don’t let your right hand know what your left hand is doing. Do good deeds out of pure motive."

       Now what about fasting itself?  It almost seems like a foreign word to us.  I can’t remember the last time I heard a sermon on fasting.  I don’t remember ever personally giving one on this subject.  The word almost sounds scary. Fasting?  Going without food!  Won’t we die?  Almost seems like an un-American activity there ought to be a law against. 

       We use to observe what we considered a mandatory fast.  We observed the Day of Atonement which under the Old Covenant was a commanded observance which involved abstinence from all food and water for a twenty-four period.  For many this was the one and only time during the year fasting was done.  Others fasted at other times as well and for a variety of reasons. 

       What is the purpose of fasting?  Physically, fasting can be very beneficial. It gives the body’s organ systems a chance to relax and rejuvenate. A physical fast can help to release toxins from the body’s tissues and facilitate detoxification.  Fasting can have a pronounced healing effect on the body and virtually invigorate both mind and body.  Fasting can help shed unwanted pounds.

       Fasting for physical reasons, however, is not what Jesus is talking about in the Sermon on the Mount.  Jesus is talking about fasting for spirituals reasons.  What is a spiritual fast?  Why would we fast for spiritual reasons?

       Let’s first look at reasons not to spiritually fast.  Fasting is not to be used as a manipulative tool to twist God's arm or to win His approval. God doesn't respond to pressure. One group of people in the book of Acts tried to get God on their side by manipulative fasting:

       Acts 23: 12-14: The next morning the Jews formed a conspiracy and bound themselves with an oath not to eat or drink until they had killed Paul. More than forty men were involved in this plot. They went to the chief priests and elders and said, "We have taken a solemn oath not to eat anything until we have killed Paul.

       These folks were convinced that they were in God’s camp and with a little bit of fasting they could elicit God’s help in killing Paul.  Little did they know that Paul was the one in God’s camp and all their fasting would accomplish were some hunger pangs and maybe the loss of a few pounds.

       We must never think of fasting as a hunger strike designed to force God's hand and get our own way! God cannot be strong armed into acting in the way we want Him to act. Don't use fasting to try to push God into a corner. God just may let you starve. On the other hand, scripture shows that God will respond positively to a sincere and contrite heart that is demonstrated to be so by fasting.  More on this later.

       In Jesus' time fasting had become a very important part of Jewish life. Perhaps overly important would be a better way of putting it. Based on what we read in Luke 18:12, the Pharisees apparently fasted twice a week.

       Luke 18:9-14: To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.  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.' "But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, `God, have mercy on me, a sinner.' "I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted."

       The Talmud, Rabbinic discussion of OC law and custom, tells us the Pharisees actually did fast twice a week and it was specifically on the 2nd and 5th day of the week they fasted which was a Monday and Thursday. Why those days? According to the Pharisees it was because Moses went up on Mt. Sinai to get the Law on the 2nd day and returned on the 5th day. At least that's what they said.

        But if you look closely into Jewish history, you find another possible reason for the Pharisees fasting on Monday and Thursday. Market day in the city of Jerusalem was on the 2nd and 5th day of the week. Everyone from the countryside came to town on those days. It was on these two days that the Pharisees chose to hold their fasts. They would walk through the streets with their hair disheveled; they would put on old clothes and cover themselves with dirt; they would cover their faces with white chalk in order to look pale; and they would dump ashes over their head as a sign of their humility. For them fasting had become an exercise in pure self centered aggrandizement.  They were, for all good intents and purposes wearing a sign that said, "look-at-how-spiritual-I-am" It was pure hypocrisy.

       Biblical fasting is not hypocrisy. It is not a manipulative tool. It is not a physical discipline.  What is Biblical fasting?   The Greek word for fasting is neestuo. This word simple means to abstain from food and drink.  But what does abstinence from food and drink mean in a spiritual sense?  Why would you do such a thing?  We find a clue in Leviticus 16:29 in instructions pertaining to the Day of Atonement.

       Leviticus 16:29: "This is to be a lasting ordinance for you: On the tenth day of the seventh month you must deny yourselves (NIV).  Ye shall afflict your souls (KJV).

       When you fast you deny yourself food and drink. Since our bodies crave food and drink, to deny such is to create affliction.  To fast is to deny the body what it craves.  It is a conscious effort to put something else above the desires of the body.  It is putting something else above ones bodily needs.  It is an act of self denial.  But it is self denial with a spiritual purpose.  The purpose of spiritual fasting is to facilitate communication with God.  How do we know this?

       If you look up legitimate God orientated fasting in the scriptures, it is always done in association with prayer and prayer is communication with God. Fasting is not just an act of self denial.  It is a proactive behavior directed to facilitate a greater and more in-depth communication with God for the purpose of strengthening ones relationship with God.    

       You can certainly pray without fasting.  But spiritual fasting without prayer is to virtually nullify the purpose and the results of spiritual fasting. We see Christ fasting and praying during His 40 day fast.  In Acts 10 we have a record of Cornelius fasting and praying when being told to send for Peter. In Acts 14 we see prayer associated with fasting in the ordaining of new elders. In 1 Corinthians 7 apostle Paul instructs husbands and wives to not refrain from normal sexual activity except it be for a period of fasting and prayer.

        Acts 10:30: And Cornelius said, Four days ago I was fasting until this hour; and at the ninth hour I prayed in my house, and, behold, a man stood before me in bright clothing (KJV).

       Acts 14:23: Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust (NIV).

       1 Corinthians 7:5: Defraud ye not one the other, except it be with consent for a time, that ye may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again, that Satan tempt you not for your incontinency (KJV).

        You may notice that I quote from the KJV for Acts 14 and 1 Corinthians 7. Some of the oldest Greek manuscripts do not show the word fasting in the Cornelius account or in Paul’s instruction to husbands and wives.  Only the word prayer appears. Therefore the NIV has chosen to not include this word in their translation.  This is also true of the RSV, ASV, New Jerusalem Bible and other more modern translations.  Therefore there is question whether fasting is being referred to in these passages.  Whether or not fasting is actually alluded to in these passages, we do find fasting practiced by people throughout scriptural history.

       I said earlier that fasting should not be for the purpose of trying to twist God’s arm. Fasting can, however, when combined with sincere repentance, result in God’s forgiveness and the removal of penalties incurred through sin. In Joel chapter 2 are apocalyptic utterances of great judgement upon Israel.   Yet what do we read that God tells the people through Joel:

       Joel 2:12-13: Even now, declares the LORD, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning. Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity.”

       God speaks of rendering ones heart and not ones garments.  The religious leaders of Jesus’ day were more concerned about rendering their garments and doing so in full view of others.  God is not interested in such things.  God is interested in what takes place in the heart.  Fasting is a dynamic of humbling oneself before God which is associated with repenting.

       Ahab was an extremely wicked king of Israel.  His wife was the wicked Jezebel.  Ahab returned idol worship to Israel.  1 Kings 21:25-26 records, “There was never a man like Ahab, who sold himself to do evil in the eyes of the LORD, urged on by Jezebel his wife. He behaved in the vilest manner by going after idols, like the Amorites the LORD drove out before Israel." God became fed up with Ahab and pronounced great judgement against him through the prophet Ezekiel.  It definitely got Ahab’s attention.

       1 Kings 21;27-29: When Ahab heard these words, he tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and fasted. He lay in sackcloth and went around meekly. Then the word of the LORD came to Elijah the Tishbite: "Have you noticed how Ahab has humbled himself before me? Because he has humbled himself, I will not bring this disaster in his day, but I will bring it on his house in the days of his son."

       You notice how the dynamic of fasting is associated with humbling oneself before God.  You find this association frequently in scripture. Ahab was the worst of the worst.  Yet by humbling himself, which included fasting, God spared him the disaster that was to come upon him.  The purpose of fasting is to demonstrate we are seeking God with all our heart. Fasting puts things in proper focus. It is a physical way of saying, that food and the things of this life are not as important as developing a closer relationship with God.

       Ezra was a leader in leading a group of Israelites out of Babylonian captivity back to rebuilding Jerusalem. These Israelites had been in captivity for some 70 years and they were primed to respond to the leading of God in bringing them back to their promised land.  They knew they had been taken captive because of their many sins and failure to obey God.  Now they knew God was in the process of restoring to them their land and they wanted to insure they remained humble before God in this process.

       Ezra 8:21-23: I proclaimed a fast, so that we might humble ourselves before our God and ask him for a safe journey for us and our children, with all our possessions. I was ashamed to ask the king for soldiers and horsemen to protect us from enemies on the road, because we had told the king, "The gracious hand of our God is on everyone who looks to him, but his great anger is against all who forsake him."  So we fasted and petitioned our God about this, and he answered our prayer. 

       Here we see fasting associated with petitioning God to grant protection.  While we shouldn’t go to God in fasting to twist God’s arm, we certainly can fast before God with a spirit of humility and seek specific guidance and assistance from God in specified situations.   

       In Jeremiah 29:13-14: God said, "When you seek me with all your heart, I will be found by you" When a man or woman is willing to set aside the legitimate appetites of the body, whether that be the desire to eat, engage in sexual relations or whatever, and spends the time normally devoted to such activities in communication with God, they are demonstrating that they mean business, that they are seeking God with all their heart. Fasting is an expression of wholeheartedness..

       Fasting on a particular day is commanded only once in scripture and that is in association with the Day of Atonement  This fast on the Day of Atonement was connected with a yearly repentance by the people of Israel and subsequent granting of forgiveness by God.  Under the New Covenant, Jesus Christ has become our atonement offering, so we no longer need to observe the Day of Atonement. In all the rest of scripture you will not find a command to fast.

       Some believe that a requirement to fast is assumed in the NT because Jesus said in Matthew 6:16 “when you fast” and not “if you fast.”  Saying “when you fast,” however, does not constitute a command to fast.  Jesus is simply saying that when you do fast don’t do it like the Pharisees do it.  At one point during His ministry, Jesus was asked why His disciples did not fast as did the disciples of John.  Jesus replied that while He was with them they did not need to fast but that they would fast after He departed.  Today Jesus is not physically with us as He was with the disciples in the first century but He is with us through the Holy Spirit. 

       Does this mean we don’t have to fast today?  As already stated, nowhere in scripture do we find a command to fast under the New Covenant.  We do find in scripture, however, a number of examples of fasting and we find instruction from Jesus as to how to and how not to fast.  Therefore, fasting, while never being an end in and of itself, is certainly a suitable and useful dynamic of worship and drawing closer to God.    

       So when should a Christian fast? The occasion for fasting is a totally voluntary decision. Basically we can say a Christian may decide to fast whenever there is a perceived spiritual concern or struggle where communicating with God becomes a more intense dynamic of our relationship with our heavenly Father.  There may be other times when we simply desire to spend more quality time with God and remind ourselves of our dependence upon God for our sustenance.  While the ideal may be to devote all our time to prayer during a fast, this often is not possible because of the responsibilities of a job, family obligations etc. Maintaining a fast while carrying out our normal responsibilities is certainly acceptable.  This approach to fasting is actually modeled in what Jesus said in Matthew 6 when he showed we can be out and about during a fast but we should not let on that we are fasting.

       Fasting should always be accompanied by an examination of our hearts to insure our attitude is in sync with the law of love.  Fasting will be of no value if we are in a hostile attitude toward our neighbor, have failed to repent of sin or are trying to impress God with our righteousness.  This was the wrong kind of fasting that Jesus spoke against in the Sermon on the Mount.

       In speaking to Israel, God through the prophet Isaiah in Isaiah 58:4 said, “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.”

       Fasting must be in humility with the goal being to become more responsive to the will of God.  That is the kind of fast God is looking for.