08.03.05 Mt. 6:16-18
THE PRINCIPLE OF FASTING
16 “Whenever you fast, don’t be sad-faced like the hypocrites. For they make their faces unattractive so their fasting is obvious to people. I assure you: They’ve got their reward! 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head, and wash your face, 18 so that you don’t show your fasting to people but to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
Fasting originated as a single day event – the Day of Atonement – as written by Moses. These are a few of his words:
29 “This is to be a permanent statute for you: In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month you are to practice self-denial and do no work, both the native and the foreigner who resides among you. 30 Atonement will be made for you on this day to cleanse you, and you will be clean from all your sins before the Lord. 31 It is a Sabbath of complete rest for you, and you must practice self-denial; it is a permanent statute.
Prior to the exile in Babylon, the Jews were required to fast only on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:29-31; 23:27-32; Num. 29:7). However, during the exilic period, regular fasts were introduced (Zech. 7:3-5; 8:19). In both the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, fasting is associated with a specific purpose, such as the confession of sin although fasting was prescribed in the Torah for only one day in the year, the Day of Atonement.
“Whenever you fast.” Many Jews believed that fasting was a form of self-punishment that would ward off divine punishment. They did not realize or acknowledge that biblical fasting is the denial of food for a period of time during which the believer is in pursuit of a deeper relationship with God. This pursuit was to be in the privacy of one’s home or a secluded area.
Centuries earlier, during the days of Isaiah, God rebuked the Israelites, because they fasted without a changed life (Isa. 38:1-7; cf. Mt. 6:16-18). Somehow, the religious leaders missed the lesson and had a distorted view of it. In this passage, Jesus applied the imagery of the theater to the actions of the Pharisees who were anything but private with their fasting. The Pharisees did not literally paint their faces when fasting, but they gave the appearance they were suffering and in severe discomfort. As they walked throughout the city in bare feet, un-bathed, and with ashes sprinkled on their heads; their procession was similar to actors of the Greek theater who painted and disfigured their faces to portray the characters they played. The Pharisees prided themselves on fasting twice a week (Lk. 18:12) – on Mondays and Thursdays, when the markets were open and everyone could see them. Jesus opposed this and desired prayer and worship to be in spirit and truth and, therefore, in secret rather than in any form of public display.
“Put oil on your head, and wash your face.” Jesus said the tradition of ashes, appearance of sorrow and discomfort should be set aside and a mood of joy should accompany the one fasting. The placement of oil on the head and the face washing were social indicators of joyful events. Finally, ever since Moses wrote his passage in Leviticus, fasting had been instituted for several reasons as follows.
- Fasting was connected with mourning when a loved on passed on.
- The Jewish people fasted after everyone suffered from the results of a civil war (Jg. 20:26). Likewise, it was an expression of sorrow concerning personal or national loss (cf. the destruction of Jerusalem in 2 Kg. 25:8; Jer. 52:12).
- The prophet Samuel required a fast of repentance because the people strayed from their God and worshipped Baal (1 Sam. 7:6).
- Moses referred to fasting as an expression of remorse and penitence over sin (Lev. 16). Nehemiah called for a fast of confession of sin, repentance, and asking for forgiveness (Neh. 9:1).
- Fasting draws the attention of God to the one who is afflicting himself.
- Fasting is proof that repentance is real, but the potential problem is that fasting can become a substitute for repentance. Ultimately, the proof of repentance is a changed attitude and lifestyle.
- Fasting can be vicarious, meaning that it is not for the benefit of the one petitioning God, but for the benefit of another person, church, or nation.
- Fasting increases spiritual awareness which results in one’s ability to hear from God. Amazingly, members of the Sanhedrin were to pray and fast for the court decisions they were about to render. The purpose of prayer and fasting has always been to passionately ask for God’s guidance and blessing with thanksgiving.
- Fasting can be a means of strengthening prayer. It was a way to prepare for entering the presence of Almighty God (Ex. 34:28; Dan. 9:3; 10:2-3). Prayer and fasting not only brings one closer to God, but should also reinforce a sense of holiness as evidenced by a changed life.
The fast is a physical expression of a heart-felt sorrow. A true fast must be done with an honest and pure heart. Note the words of an Inter-Testamental writer.
The man who fasts to get rid of his sins, and goes again and does the same thing – who will listen to his prayer, and what profit is there in his humbling himself?
Ben Sirach 31:30
. Neh. 9:1-2; Ps. 35:13; Isa. 58:3, 5; Dan. 9:2-20; 10:2-3; Jon. 3:5; Acts 9:9.
. Lev. 16:29; 23:27; Num. 29:7.
. Lang, Know the Words of Jesus. 176.
. Ex. 34:28; 1 Sam. 7:6; 1 Kg. 19:8.
. Earle, “Luke” 2:79; Vincent, Word Studies in the New Testament. 1:405; Mishnah, Taanith 1:4-7; See also Didache 8:1.
. New International Version Study Bible footnote on Mt. 6:17.
. As is shown elsewhere in this study, the leading Pharisees fasted on Mondays and Thursdays which were the market days in Jerusalem. This permitted everyone to see that they were fasting, which was little more than a public display of self-righteousness that Jesus condemned.
. Examples are found in these extra-biblical books: Reuben in The Testament of Reuben 1:10; Simeon in The Testimony of Simeon 3:4; and Judah in The Testament of Judah 15:4. These are found in a larger literary work known as The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs. See Appendix 22 for further information.
. Jer. 14:12; Neh. 1:4; Acts 13:3; 14:23.