Introduction: As we approach this text, it is good to remember the preceding context. Earlier in this passage, our Lord Jesus warned us against hypocrisy in giving and called upon us to be concerned about giving for the glory of God rather than men (6:1-4). Then He warned us against hypocrisy in praying and called upon us to be concerned about praying for the glory of God rather than men (6:5-8), and He even gave us an example of what sincere, heartfelt prayer will look like (i.e. the Lord’s Prayer, 6:9-15). Next – in the passage before us today – Jesus warned us against hypocrisy in fasting and called upon us to be concerned about fasting for the glory of God rather than men. Sadly, however, as John Stott has observed concerning this text:
Here is a passage of Scripture which 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 stress on fasting. (The Message of the Sermon on the Mount, p. 135)
A 2004 issue of The Barna Update, entitled “Faith Has a Limited Effect On Most People’s Behavior,” reported findings then that I cannot imagine have gotten any better in the past 16 years:
The study also indicated that even though the Bible and churches encourage fasting for religious reasons, the people most likely to engage in religious fasts are adherents of non-Christian faiths. In fact, the non-Christian people of faith are twice as likely as Christians to engage in fasting. (May 24, 2004 https://www.barna.com/research/faith-has-a-limited-effect-on-most-peoples-behavior/)
If my own experience is any indication, both Stott and the Barna Group have gotten it just about right. I hope that we are the exception to the rule, but I suspect that we need a strong reminder on the matter ourselves. In fact, I suspect that the text before us should prove quite convicting for many of us. In this passage we will see that 1) Jesus assumes that we will fast, 2) Jesus warns us against hypocritical fasting, and 3) Jesus admonishes us to heartfelt fasting.
I. Jesus Assumes That We Will Fast (vs. 16a)
NKJ Matthew 6:16 Moreover [δέ], when [ὅταν, as often as, every time that] you fast [νηστεύω], do not be like the hypocrites [ὑποκριτής] ….
Notice that Jesus says to the disciples “when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites.” He clearly presupposes that they will fast, even if not until a later time, as He discussed with the disciples of John the Baptist on another occasion:
NKJ Matthew 9:14-15 Then the disciples of John came to Him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but Your disciples do not fast?” 15 And Jesus said to them, “Can the friends of the bridegroom mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? But the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast.”
So, Jesus did not expect that His disciples would fast while He was still with them, but He clearly did expect that they would fast after He was “taken away from them,” which must refer to the days following His death, resurrection, and ascension. Not, surprisingly, then, the Bible clearly shows that Jesus’ followers did indeed fast after His resurrection and ascension. For example:
NKJ Acts 13:1-3 Now in the church that was at Antioch there were certain prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. 2 As they ministered to the Lord and fasted, the Holy Spirit said, “Now separate to Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” 3 Then, having fasted and prayed, and laid hands on them, they sent them away.
Here we see a couple of purposes for our fasting. First, fasting helps us to seek the Lord’s guidance and can even be done as a group. Second, fasting can accompany praying for and setting apart certain people for ministry. This no doubt involves praying for God’s empowerment and protection for them as they embark upon such an important ministry.
NKJ Acts 14:23 So when they [Paul and Barnabas] had appointed elders in every church, and prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed.
Again we see that fasting is a part of committing men to service for the Lord. Observe that they prayed and fasted in every church when they appointed elders there. In other words, this was commonly done when setting men apart for ministry in the early church. It is the example the Apostles have left us.
NKJ 1 Corinthians 7:3-5 Let the husband render to his wife the affection due her, and likewise also the wife to her husband. 4 The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. And likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. 5 Do not deprive one another except with consent for a time, that you may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again so that Satan does not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.
Notice that fasting can involve abstaining from more than just food. In this case Paul assumes that married couples might wish abstain from marital relations during a fast. He only stresses in such cases that it be with the consent of both the husband and the wife. The late J. I. Packer, appropriately expanding the application of this principle has observed:
We tend to think of fasting as going without food. But we can fast from anything. If we love music and decide to miss a concert in order to spend time with God, that is fasting. It is helpful to think of the parallel of human friendship. When friends need to be together, they will cancel all other activities in order to make that possible. There’s nothing magical about fasting. It’s just one way of telling God that your priority at that moment is to be alone with him, sorting out whatever is necessary, and you have canceled the meal, party, concert, or whatever else you had planned to do in order to fulfill that priority. (Your Father Loves You, devotion for June 14, https://bible.org/illustration/purposes-fasting)
Another example may be seen in Paul’s description of his sufferings as an Apostle:
NKJ2 Corinthians 6:4-5 But in all things we commend ourselves as ministers of God: in much patience, in tribulations, in needs, in distresses, 5 in stripes, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labors, in sleeplessness, in fastings ….
Paul clearly saw fasting – and fasting often (implied by the plural and the context) – as one sign of the genuineness of His Apostolic ministry. Fasting was simply one of the things a true Apostle did! This point is further emphasized later in the same epistle, where Paul described himself as being …
NKJ 2 Corinthians 11:27-28 … in weariness and toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness – 28 besides the other things, what comes upon me daily: my deep concern for all the churches.
Notice that fasting is mentioned separately from other times of hunger and thirst. Paul may have had to suffer hunger and thirst at times through no choice of his own, but fasting is different because it is an active choice.
So, in the early Church – especially if Paul may be taken as an example – fasting was common, just as Jesus assumed it would be. In fact, based on His teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus assumed fasting would be a common practice for Christians just as as praying and giving would be common practice for them.
But what about you and me? Can we say that fasting has been a common part of our Christian lives? Would we think of fasting as an ordinary practice just as we would think of praying or giving as common practices? I hope so! But, if not, then we should all be encouraged to include fasting as an important spiritual discipline in our lives. However, we should be careful about the way we do it, as Jesus teaches in this passage by comparing wrong fasting with right fasting. He begins with the former, which brings us to our second main point.
II. Jesus Warns Us Against Hypocritical Fasting (vs. 16)
In first part of verse 16, Jesus describes hypocritical fasting by stressing both its goal and its reward.
1. The Goal of Hypocritical Fasting
NKJ Matthew 6:16a Moreover, when [ὅταν, as often as, every time that] you fast [νηστεύω], do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance [σκυθρωπός]. For they disfigure [ἀφανίζω] their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting [νηστεύω].
The hypocrites liked to go around looking like they were fasting so that other people would notice how spiritual they were. As Jesus describes them, they would go around with a sad countenance, and they would disfigure their faces so that they would appear to be fasting to others. But what precisely does Jesus mean when He says that they would disfigure their faces? He uses the Greek word aphanízō, which is defined as follows in the Linguistic Key to the Greek New Testament:
… to render invisible or unrecognizable, of one’s face, to disfigure, that is, with ashes and by leaving the hair and beard unattended or by coloring the face to look pale as though fasting. (p. 18)
Instead of trying merely to look sad, these hypocrites should have actually been saddened by their own spiritual bankruptcy, and they should have repented of their sinful pride! They should also have known better, because the Old Testament Scriptures warned about such insincere fasting just as Jesus did:
NKJ Isaiah 58:3-8 “Why have we fasted,” they say, “and You have not seen? Why have we afflicted our souls, and You take no notice?” In fact, in the day of your fast you find pleasure, and exploit all your laborers. 4 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. 5 Is it a fast that I have chosen, a day for a man to afflict his soul? Is it to bow down his head like a bulrush, and to spread out sackcloth and ashes? Would you call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the LORD? 6 Is this not the fast that I have chosen: To loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, to let the oppressed go free, and that you break every yoke? 7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out; when you see the naked, that you cover him, and not hide yourself from your own flesh? 8 Then your light shall break forth like the morning, your healing shall spring forth speedily, and your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.
In the early Church Christians took such passages – and especially Jesus’ teaching – so much to heart that they wouldn’t even fast on the same days of the week as the Pharisees typically fasted. For example, The Didache, a late first century document, teaches: “But do not let your fasts coincide with those of the hypocrites. They fast on Monday and Thursday, so you must fast on Wednesday and Friday” (8:1, The Apostolic Fathers 2nd Edition, p. 153).
2. The Reward of Hypocritical Fasting
NKJ Matthew 6:16b Assuredly, I say to you, they have [ἀπέχω] their reward [μισθός].
When our Lord Jesus said that they have their reward, He didn’t use the Greek words that He typically used that mean either to have (ἔχω) or to receive (such as δέχομαι or λαμβάνω). Instead, the word He used here is one that He occasionally employed in similar contexts in order to stress that the reward was received in full. In fact, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature says that the primary meaning of this word “to receive in full what is due” (BAGD3 #870, BibleWorks). This more nuanced meaning of the word is certainly implied in the context here, but it is actually reflected explicitly in several modern versions.
NAU Matthew 6:16b Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full.
NIV Matthew 6:16b Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.
NLT Matthew 6:16b I tell you the truth, that is the only reward they will ever get.
So, the point Jesus was making couldn’t be any clearer, could it? The hypocrite aims at impressing men with his supposed “spirituality” in order to selfishly pat himself on the back, but in doing so he receives the only reward he will ever get! As John Piper has helpfully observed:
Jesus says in the last part of verse 16, “Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full.” In other words, if that is the reward you aim at in fasting, that is what you will get and that will be all you get. In other words, the danger of hypocrisy is that it is so successful. It aims at the praise of men. And it succeeds. But that’s all. (https://www.desiringgod.org/messages/fasting-for-the-fathers-reward)
This is a situation our Lord Jesus would have us avoid, which brings us to our third and final main point.
III. Jesus Admonishes Us to Heartfelt Fasting (vss. 17-18)
Just as with hypocritical fasting, so also with true, heartfelt fasting Jesus stresses both its goal and its reward.
1. The Goal of True Fasting
NKJ Matthew 6:17-18aBut [δέ] you [σύ, emphatic], when you fast [Pres. Act. Part. > νηστεύω], anoint your head and wash your face, 18 so that you do not appear to men to be fasting [νηστεύω], but to your Father who is in the secret place;
The goal of true fasting is to fellowship with God and to be concerned with what He thinks first of all rather than what other people may think. It is about bringing glory to Him rather than to ourselves. Again John Piper is insightful when he writes that:
If someone finds out you are fasting, you haven’t sinned. The value of your fast is not destroyed if someone notices that you have skipped lunch. It is possible to fast with other people—for example: our staff fasting together on a planning retreat to seek the Lord [or as we saw that the early Christians did in Antioch, Acts 13:1-3]—it is possible to fast like that and NOT to fast “to be seen by men.” Being seen fasting and fasting to be seen are not the same. Being seen fasting is a mere external event. Fasting TO BE SEEN is a self-exalting motive of the heart. (https://www.desiringgod.org/messages/fasting-for-the-fathers-reward, italics mine)
This is why Jesus says that His disciples should go about their day of fasting just like they would go about every other day by washing their faces. But He also says they should anoint their heads, which most likely refers to an extra effort to look happy. As New Testament scholar Donald A. Hagner has pointed out:
In view here is a special instance of grooming (cf. 2 Sam 12:20; Eccl 9:8) and personal enjoyment, a sign of happiness that was forbidden on fast days. Jesus thus exhorts even an extra measure of care to one’s appearance, so that it could not give the slightest hint that one was fasting. (Word Biblical Commentary, p. 154)
So, the goal of true fasting is to be faithful to our heavenly Father, desirous of pleasing Him rather than men, knowing that He looks not merely on outward appearance but upon the heart. This was a lesson the Prophet Samuel learned when he thought David’s older brother Eliab looked more like a king than David did:
NKJ 1 Samuel 16:7 But the LORD said to Samuel, “Do not look at his appearance or at the height of his stature, because I have refused him. For the LORD does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.”
This is a lesson the hypocritical scribes and Pharisees had clearly forgotten, but one which we should never forget. When we fast to be seen by God rather than men, He sees what they cannot see. He sees what is in our hearts.
2. The Reward of True Fasting
NKJ Matthew 6:18b and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.
What reward does Jesus have in mind? Might it be in this life? I suppose that is possible. Certainly we will find it very rewarding when we see God’s name being hallowed and His Kingdom being advanced through our prayer and fasting. But I think the focus in the context is on future, heavenly rewards. Recall, for example, what Jesus said earlier in the Sermon on the Mount:
NKJ Matthew 5:12 Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
And notice what Jesus says immediately following His teaching on fasting:
NKJ Matthew 6:19-21Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; 20 but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
As we fast, we should remembered that we are seeking heavenly treasure.
Conclusion: If I may quote John Piper once more in closing, I think you will agree that he puts his finger on an important issue raised by this text:
What Jesus does here is test the reality of God in our lives. O, how easy it is to do religious things if other people are watching—preaching, praying, attending church, reading the Bible, acts of kindness and charity, etc. The reason for this is not only the commendation we might get, but more subtly the sense that the real effectiveness of our spiritual acts is on the horizontal axis among people, not the vertical axis with God. If the kids see me pray at meals, it will do them good. If the staff sees me fast they may be inspired to fast. If my roommate sees me read my Bible he may be inspired to read his. In other words, we feel that the value of our devotion is the horizontal effect it has on others as they see us.
Now that’s not all bad. But the danger is that all of our life starts to be justified and understood simply on the horizontal level for the effects it can have because others see it happening. And so God can become a secondary Person in the living of our lives. We think that he is important because all these things are the kinds of things he wants us to do. But he himself is falling out of the picture as the focus of it all. (https://www.desiringgod.org/messages/fasting-for-the-fathers-reward)
This is the kind of thing Jesus wants us to avoid when we give, when we pray, and when we fast. He never wants us to lose sight of God as the center of our lives when we get so busy living before and with other people. He never wants us to forget that hypocrisy always begins with a selfish desire to be thought well of by others, with a tendency to crowd God out of the very things we are trying to do for Him. I hope today that we will all leave off considering this teaching of our Lord Jesus with a renewed desire that He be first in all that we do. And I hope we will be encouraged to think of fasting as one way to help us in this regard.