Sermon on the Mount: Fasting – Matthew 6:16-18

“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.

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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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2 thoughts on “Sermon on the Mount: Fasting – Matthew 6:16-18”

  1. Recently, I joined a group on Facebook called IF(intermittent fasting) dedicated to supporting each other in a fasting regimen for health purposes. Studies have revealed that many of the rules set out in early Israelite times were for the protection of the people. Although there was little or nothing known about micro-organisms, still the consumption of pork was prohibited as a religious practice. Trichinosis was a dangerous disease caused by a worm that took up residence in pigs. The parasite did not kill its host, but could infect whoever ate the flesh of the pig.

    Fasting is believed to be an effective practice among humans to allow for their bodies to have time to concentrate on healing itself of inflammation. In our society, we tend to eat often resulting in our bodies being required to concentrate on digestion of the food rather than healing the areas of our bodies that are in distress. I have found intermittent fasting to be a very positive exercise with many benefits both physically and mentally. If a person is running around moaning and groaning while fasting, he or she is missing the point altogether. Fasting is a discipline but, once again, God is showing us how we are being blessed when we incorporate this discipline into our lives. I love giving Him the glory for healing me even in the midst of my sin of gluttony…. and the Best in yet to come!

    Reply
    • I wholeheartedly agree that much of the Old Testament law code was for our own good, keeping us healthy and enhancing the state of the poor and helpless. I have been practicing intermittent fasting for over a year. Not for weight loss or religious reasons. But, as you expressed, to give my body adequate time to digest. I am not overly aggressive with it though, only doing 12 on 12 off. .

      Reply

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