“When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, 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 others 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.Matthew 6:16-18 NIV
Through this sixth chapter of Matthew, Jesus has been teaching about how to do our ‘acts of righteousness’. He started with giving to the poor. Then moved to prayer. And now he takes up the topic of fasting. Fasting is not something that many people practice today. At least not that I am familiar with. But in Jesus day, and throughout the Old Testament, it was a common practice.
The Practice of Fasting
We see Moses fasting while he is on Mt Sinai (Ex. 34:28). And Jesus fasted for 40 days while in the wilderness (Matt. 4:2). In both testaments you can find numerous other examples of people who fasted. Sometimes they fasting because of morning (2. Sam 12:16). Other times they are seeking wisdom from God (Dan. 9:3). And it was an act of worship and commissioning (Acts 13:2-3).
In Jesus day fasting seems to have become a routine part of being a faithful Jew. It is nowhere commanded in Scripture, but practiced by many. In Luke 5:33, Jesus is asked why his disciples do not fast like the disciples of John and the Pharisee’s. And in Luke 18:12, Jesus tells a parable about a Pharisee and a tax collector who go to pray. And in the parable the Pharisee boastfully claims to fast twice a week. It is likely that this was actually a common practice.
Fasting was not a requirement of the Law. Not did Jesus mandate that we fast. But he does seem to assume that we will. Or at least that those in his day would fast. And that his disciples would fast after he was gone (Matt. 9:15).
How to Fast?
Many people will have questions about the mechanics of fasting. What, if anything, can they eat or drink? Or, how long should a fast last? And, why should I fast? But Jesus does not answer any of these questions. His concern is not with the mechanics, but with the motive.
Like the other ‘acts of righteousness’ Jesus has talked about, fasting is a personal exercise that no one else needs to know about. When you fast, don’t be telling everyone that you are fasting. Or how hungry you are. And don’t go around looking for pats on the back. Instead, dress and act like you normally do. A proper goal in fasting is not to impress others, but to make a connection with God.
Of course it may be that you find yourself fasting as a part of a group. And, if that is the case, I believe it would be OK to share the experience among that group.
Should We Fast Today?
Is fasting only something from biblical times? Or should fasting be a part of following Christ today? When Jesuis is asked about fasting later, in Matthew 9:14-17, he indicates that it would be appropriate for us to fast once he is gone. But I do not believe that is a commandment to fast. Only that fasting is appropriate for believers.
The reasons given above for fasting, morning, seeking direction, and worship are are still valid reasons to fast. And you might fast simply to deny yourself in order to focus more completely on God.
But, whenever you fast, if you do, Jesus’ admonition in this passage is still valid. If you fasting is going to be an acceptable act of worship then it should be a private affair. Don’t wander around looking like you are starving. Rather, look and act as though you were not fasting. And God will notice your fast and find pleasure in it.
Other Posts in the Sermon on the Mount
- An Introduction to the Sermon on the Mount
- Sermon on the Mount: The Beatitudes – Matthew 5:3-12
- Sermon on the Mount: Salt and Light – Matthew 5:13-16
- Sermon on the Mount: Understanding the Law – Matt. 5:17-20
- Sermon on the Mount: Resolving Conflict – Matthew 5:21-22
- Sermon on the Mount: Committing Adultery – Matthew 5:27-30
- Sermon on the Mount: Divorce – Matthew 5:31-32
- Sermon on the Mount: Taking Oaths – Matthew 5:33-37
- Sermon on the Mount: Turn the Other Cheek – Matt. 5:38-42
- Sermon on the Mount: Love Your Enemies – Matthew 5:43-48
The views expressed here are solely mine and do not necessarily reflect those of any other person, group, or organization. While I believe they reflect the teachings of the Bible, I am a fallible human and subject to misunderstanding. Please feel free to leave any comments or questions about this post in the comments section below. I am always interested in your feedback.
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