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27. How To Fast Properly (Matthew 6:16-18)

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“When you fast, do not look sullen like the hypocrites, for they make their faces unattractive so that people will see them fasting. I tell you the truth, they have their reward. When you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others when you are fasting, but only to your Father who is in secret. And your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you.

Matthew 6:16-18 (NET)

In Matthew 6, Christ deals with three commonly abused religious practices in Israel—giving, praying, and fasting. The religious leaders had made things that were good in and of themselves into bad things. The rituals of giving, praying, and fasting had become a form of self-worship. They did those acts to be seen and praised by men instead of to honor God and receive his approval.

It is appropriate that right after teaching about proper prayer, Christ focuses on fasting. One can pray without fasting, but one cannot fast biblically without prayer. They go together. Therefore, in one sense, Christ is continuing his teaching on prayer.

Fasting literally means “not to eat.”1 It is giving up food to focus on seeking God over some matter. It is to be so consumed with this matter that it becomes more important than food.2 Fasting, therefore, is a way to enhance our prayer life and our relationship with God.

Though fasting was very common in Israel, the Day of Atonement was the only required fast. On that day, they were called to “deny” themselves (Lev 16:29, 23:27), which was a Hebrew expression that included forsaking food.3 In addition, during the exile, Jews added specific months of fasting. They would fast on the fifth and seventh months (Zech 7:5)—probably as a way of seeking God to restore them to the land. Also, it is clear from at least four scribal additions of the word “fasting” in the New Testament, which are not in the earliest and best manuscripts (cf. Matt 17:21, Mark 9:29, Acts 10:30, 1 Cor 7:5), that it was strongly practiced and possibly overemphasized by early Christians.4

Obviously, in the New Testament, we no longer practice the Day of Atonement, as Christ paid for our sins once and for all on the cross. With that said, though we are never commanded to fast in the NT, it is clear that Christ expected believers to fast. In Matthew 6:16, he said, “when you fast,” implying that we would. Also, in Matthew 9:15, Christ declared that while he was alive, his disciples had no reason to fast, but after his death, they would fast. As many great saints before us fasted, including Moses, Samuel, Daniel, Christ, and the apostles, we must fast also.

In this study, we will consider how to properly fast.

Big Question: According to Matthew 6:16-18 and the rest of Scripture, what does proper fasting entail?

Proper Fasting

“When you fast, do not look sullen like the hypocrites, for they make their faces unattractive so that people will see them fasting. I tell you the truth, they have their reward. When you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others when you are fasting, but only to your Father who is in secret. And your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you.

Matthew 6:16-18

Observation Question: According to Jesus, what practices were associated with the hypocrites and their fasting?

In Matthew 6:16, Christ describes how the religious leaders commonly abused the discipline of fasting. They would purposely look sullen by disfiguring their faces. “Disfigure their faces” literally means “covering their faces.”5 They commonly would do this with dirt and ashes—so that everybody could see. In addition, they would wear their oldest and dirtiest clothes during their fasts to be noticed by others.6

The Pharisees fasted on Monday and Thursday. They claimed that the reason was because Moses ascended and descended from Mount Sinai, where he received the law, on those days.7 However, those days just “happened” to be major market days, where people from the country would crowd the towns and cities to buy and sell.8 Clearly, those were the days the religious leaders had the biggest audience. Christ called them “hypocrites,” which was a word used of actors (v. 16). Their fasting was about putting on a show and receiving applause. They had received their reward in full, which was the praise of people, but they would receive no reward from God. Therefore, Christ warned his disciples to not fast like them.

Application Question: How should we practice proper fasting?

  1. When fasting, we must practice secrecy. Of course, when we choose to not eat, others may notice. But we should practice, as much as possible, not sharing this discipline with others. Why? It’s not because telling others is bad; it’s because our hearts are bad. They are too prone to spiritual pride and loving the praise of others. We practice secrecy to protect our sin-filled hearts. Certainly, there may be times to share that we are fasting—such as with a corporate fast or for accountability sake—but as a general principle, we must practice secrecy.
  2. When fasting, we should act normal. When Christ said that the disciples should put oil on their heads and wash their faces, he was not describing extravagant practices. These were normal acts of body care and grooming in ancient times. Oil was often scented and used, at least partially, as perfume. 9
  3. When fasting, we must focus on God alone and not others. He is the purpose of our fast—to seek his face in a special way. As we do this, God will reward our faithfulness.
  4. When fasting, we must fervently pray. As mentioned, one can pray without fasting, but not fast without praying. In every biblical account, the two are linked together.10 If we have no extra prayer and time in God’s Word, we are just not eating—which, by itself, brings no spiritual benefit.
  5. When fasting, we must practice obedient living. In Zechariah 7:4-5 and 8-10, God rebukes Israel for fasting without the accompanying righteousness. The text says,

The word of the Lord who rules over all then came to me, “Speak to all the people and priests of the land as follows: ‘When you fasted and lamented in the fifth and seventh months through all these seventy years, did you truly fast for me—for me, indeed? …Again the word of the Lord came to Zechariah: “The Lord who rules over all said, ‘Exercise true judgment and show brotherhood and compassion to each other. You must not oppress the widow, the orphan, the foreigner, or the poor, nor should anyone secretly plot evil against his fellow human being.’

To seek the Lord by fasting or any other religious act and yet to continue in unrepentant sin is worthless. Why seek the Lord in fasting if we plan to continue in sin and unrighteousness? That is exactly what the Pharisees were doing. It was just hypocrisy! Fasting must be accompanied by righteousness. David said if he cherished iniquity in his heart the Lord would not hear him (Ps 66:18).

Application Question: What has been your experience with fasting? How have you found it beneficial or not?

Reasons to Fast

Interpretation Question: What are some common reasons for fasting, as seen in Scripture?

1. Fasting is appropriate when mourning over some great pain or loss.

In Matthew 9:15, Christ said this in reply to the question of why his disciples didn’t fast, “‘The wedding guests cannot mourn while the bridegroom is with them, can they? But the days are coming when the bridegroom will be taken from them, and then they will fast.” When Christ died, the disciples would fast and mourn. Often when people are hurting over the loss of a loved one or some great pain, they don’t desire to eat. This is totally normal. But to biblically fast while mourning, we must direct those emotions and thoughts to the Lord, as we mourn in hope.

2. Fasting is appropriate when mourning over sin.

In Ezra 10, when the Israelites were intermarrying with unbelieving Gentiles, Ezra confessed their sins and mourned with fasting. Ezra 10:6 says, “…he did not eat food or drink water, for he was in mourning over the infidelity of the exiles.” He was hurting over their sins and desiring for them to repent.

At times, we also see fasting with national repentance. When Jonah called Nineveh to repent, they responded with mourning and fasting. The Ninevite king commanded for both people and animals to abstain from food and water, as they called upon the Lord and repented (Jonah 3:7-9). In addition, when Ezra and Nehemiah led Israel in repentance, the nation corporately fasted and confessed their sins together (Neh 9:1-3).

Similarly, when our family members, churches, and nations are in great sin, it is appropriate to mourn, confess their sins, and fast—seeking for God to turn them back to himself. It is also appropriate to mourn and fast when we are struggling with habitual sin.

Fasting is a natural response to mental, spiritual, or physical pain. Our problem is that sin often doesn’t deeply affect us. Sadly, we’re often too comfortable with it; therefore, we eat, drink, and continue as if nothing is happening. Matthew 5:4 says, “Blessed are those who mourn.” God blesses those who mourn, fast, and repent because of their sin and that of others.

3. Fasting is an appropriate means of seeking to conquer sin and temptation.

Similar to the last point, Isaiah 58:6 (NIV) says, “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?” Certainly, we should fast as a means of conquering sin and temptation in our own lives. Christ was fasting when he conquered Satan’s temptations in the wilderness (Matt 4). We should consider this when constantly plagued by a reoccurring depression, a stronghold of lust, or an addiction. Fasting is also a great way to confront cultural and societal evils like abortion, trafficking, government corruption, and discord in the church and family. God desires for fasting that loosens the chains of injustice, unties the cords of a yoke, and sets the oppressed free. Lord help us to fast in such a way.

4. Fasting is appropriate when seeking God’s favor in a desperate situation.

When David’s first child was ill unto death, he fasted and prayed that God would spare the infant (2 Sam 12:16). Similarly, in Nehemiah 1, Nehemiah fasts and prays for God to forgive Israel’s sin and that God would give him favor with the Persian king, as he desired to help rebuild Jerusalem. Likewise, when Israel was about to be slaughtered in Persia, Esther asked the people to fast as she sought the King’s favor. Esther 4:15-16 says:

Then Esther sent this reply to Mordecai: “Go, assemble all the Jews who are found in Susa and fast in my behalf. Don’t eat and don’t drink for three days, night or day. My female attendants and I will also fast in the same way. Afterward I will go to the king, even though it violates the law. If I perish, I perish!”

When we encounter desperate situations, it is appropriate to seek God’s favor through fasting and prayer.

5. Fasting is appropriate when seeking wisdom and revelation from God.

In Daniel 9 and 10—on two separate occasions—Daniel fasted, and God gave him revelation through an angel. Also, in Exodus 24, Moses received the law from God while fasting on Mount Sinai. Similarly, it was while the elders in Antioch were fasting that the Holy Spirit called Paul and Barnabas to global missions (Acts 13). It was that revelation that led to much of the Gentile world being reached. Certainly, we should employ fasting and prayer when seeking God’s guidance, making a big decision, and even trying to understand God’s Word. Our lack of fasting often shows how little we desire to know God’s will and understand his Word. MacArthur shares:

We often fail to understand God’s Word as fully as we ought simply because, unlike those great people of God, we do not seek to comprehend it with their degree of intensity and determination. Skipping a few meals might be the small price we willingly pay for staying in the Word until understanding comes.11

In what ways is God calling you to seek wisdom for a current situation, the future, or understanding from his Word through fasting?

6. Fasting is appropriate when preparing for some great ministry or task.

In Luke 4, Jesus fasted for forty days before beginning his ministry. After finishing, he left the wilderness in the Spirit’s power (cf. Lk 4:14). In addition, when elders were set apart for ministry in the early church, it was commonly done with prayer and fasting. Acts 14:23 says, “When they had appointed elders for them in the various churches, with prayer and fasting they entrusted them to the protection of the Lord in whom they had believed.” Fasting and prayer was preparation for their great work—it was a recognition that ministry could not be effectively done in human power. We need God’s grace for ministry, and we should seek it through prayer and fasting. No doubt, we often lack power for ministry because we lack intense times of prayer and fasting.

7. Fasting is appropriate for developing self-control.

In describing how Christians must be like spiritual athletes, Paul said, “Instead I subdue my body and make it my slave, so that after preaching to others I myself will not be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:27). William Barclay’s comments are helpful in considering how fasting can be helpful for discipline:

There are not a few of us who indulge in certain habits because we find it impossible to stop them. They have become so essential that we cannot break them; we develop such a craving for certain things that what ought to be a pleasure has become a necessity; and to be cut off from the thing which we have learned to desire so much can be a purgatory. If we practiced a wise fasting, no pleasure would become a chain, and no habit would come to rule our lives. We would have control over our pleasures, and not our pleasures over us.12

Fasting can help us avoid becoming slaves of our desires, and instead have control over them.

8. Fasting is appropriate in helping us extend mercy to others.

This might be implied by Isaiah’s rebuke in 58:6-7:

No, this is the kind of fast I want … I want you to share your food with the hungry and to provide shelter for homeless, oppressed people. When you see someone naked, clothe him! Don’t turn your back on your own flesh and blood!

It is appropriate to not eat out or abstain from some other luxury, so we can share with those who have needs. It seems Israel was fasting and yet there were people around them without food and clothes. God says that type of fasting is useless. We should fast in order to practice mercy.

Application Question: Which reason for fasting was new to you or stood out the most? Is there a specific purpose or matter you feel God is calling you to fast about?

Practical Tips for Fasting

Application Question: What are some practical tips to be applied when fasting or initially trying out fasting?

1. When initially beginning to fast, start out small.

Don’t try a forty day fast for your first time. Try skipping a meal or two. After skipping a meal or two, try fasting for a day or more. Typically, during the first day of fasting, one experiences headaches as the body gets rid of toxins. However, after the first day or so, one begins to experience a fasting high where they feel like they can keep going. As one feels more comfortable with the discipline of fasting or compelled to seek the Lord in a greater way, then he or she can gradually increase the time given to fasting.

2. When beginning a fast, one must decide what type of fast they will perform.

In Scripture, there are all types of fasts: (1) Most people will employ some type of partial fast—like drinking water but not eating food. People can only survive around thirty to forty days without food. In a partial fast, one must consider what types of food/drink to abstain from. In Daniel 1:12, the four Hebrews chose to eat only vegetables and drink only water. This is often called a Daniel fast. (2) Others practice absolute fasts—without food and water. People can only survive without liquid for a short period of time—only about three days—so that type of fast should be limited.

3. When fasting, it must be remembered that fasting is not simply giving up something—it is giving up something to pursue something greater, which is God.

Therefore, one must consider how he will spend that time with or for God that would normally be given to eating and drinking. It should be used to pursue God through prayer, worship, Bible study, service, etc.

Application Question: What are some other tips or practices you have found helpful or not helpful when fasting?

Fasting from Other Things

Application Question: Can believers fast from things other than food and drink?

In Scripture, fasts only included giving up food and drink. However, if we consider the ‘essence’ of a fast—giving up something important to focus more on God—then certainly giving up things other than food and drink might be more beneficial.13 We must ask ourselves, “Is there anything that is keeping me away from devotion to God or serving others?” There are many things that can distract us from God—some of them being good things, like social media, TV, sports, video games, relationships, etc. It is good for us to ask the Lord if he is calling us to fast from something in order to better seek him.

James Boice shares a powerful story about Pastor David Wilkerson’s time of fasting, which was the beginning of a famous ministry to gang members and troubled youth called Teen Challenge. This ministry has outlived its founder and is spread throughout the world. Boice shares:

Sometimes our fasting will lead us away from such things as entertainment, perhaps from television. This was the experience of David Wilkerson whose story is told in The Cross and the Switchblade. Wilkerson had been the pastor of a small Assemblies of God church in Philipsburg, Pa. Although the church had grown and the congregation had been able to erect several new buildings, the pastor himself was restless. One night as he sat watching the “late show” on television the thought came to him that he might profit from spending the time which he usually spent watching television, praying. In other words, he might “fast from television” and then see what happened.

Immediately he came up with a number of excuses. He was tired at night; he needed the relaxation. It was good for him to be in touch with the things most people were seeing and talking about. But his excuses were not entirely convincing. So he prayed, “Jesus, I need some help in deciding this thing, so here’s what I’m asking you. I’m going to put an ad for that [television] set in the paper. If you’re behind this idea, let a buyer appear right away. Let him appear within an hour … within half an hour … after the paper gets on the streets.”

His wife was not very impressed with the idea when he told her about it the next morning, but he went ahead and put the ad in the newspaper anyway. It was a humorous scene in the Wilkerson home the next day after the newspaper appeared on the streets. Wilkerson sat on the couch with the TV set on one side, his wife and children on the other, and the clock and the telephone before him. After twenty-five minutes, just as he was saying, “Well, Gwen, it looks like you’re right. I guess I won’t have to …” the telephone rang.

“Do you have a TV set for sale?” a man’s voice asked.

“That’s right. An RCA in good condition. Nineteen-inch screen, two years old.”

“How much do you want for it?”

“One hundred dollars,” Wilkerson said quickly.

“I’ll take it,” was the reply. “Have it ready in fifteen minutes. I’ll bring you the money.”

Well, that was the beginning. Out of the times of prayer that followed, David Wilkerson was directed by God to the plight of the teenage gang members in the heart of New York City. Out of his efforts to help them came a work that God has blessed and is continuing to bless not only in New York but in many other cities also.

I do not know how all of this will apply to you. But whatever your daily routine or habits, there are undoubtedly some things that you may want to lay aside temporarily to spend time with God. Probably you will not tell people about it. That is all right, but you have the promise of Jesus that the Father, who sees in secret, will reward you openly.14

Christ promises a ‘reward’ for those who seek the Lord with fasting and a right heart (Matt 6:18). What is God calling you to give up, so he can lead you into a deeper intimacy with him and service for his kingdom?

Application Question: If you were to begin a fast of something other than food, what would it be and why? How much time would be available if you did so?

Conclusion

Christ did not say “if you fast,” but “when you fast.” He expects his followers to fast. We live in a world that vies for our attention and affection. It is so easy to neglect the best thing for not only the good but also the bad. Fasting assures that the best thing stays the first. Are you practicing the discipline of fasting, so the best thing can remain the first thing? When you do this, God, who sees your secret sacrifices, will reward you in the open. Lord, draw your people to deep seasons of fasting and reward them with yourself and your righteousness. In Jesus Name, Amen!

Copyright © 2019 Gregory Brown

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1 Guzik, D. (2013). Matthew (Mt 6:16–18). Santa Barbara, CA: David Guzik.

2 Preacher's Outline and Sermon Bible - Commentary - The Preacher's Outline & Sermon Bible – Matthew I.

3 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (p. 400). Chicago: Moody Press.

4 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (p. 401). Chicago: Moody Press.

5 Radmacher, E. D., Allen, R. B., & House, H. W. (1999). Nelson’s new illustrated Bible commentary (p. 1152). Nashville: T. Nelson Publishers.

6 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (pp. 400–401). Chicago: Moody Press.

7 Guzik, D. (2013). Matthew (Mt 6:16–18). Santa Barbara, CA: David Guzik.

8 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (pp. 400–401). Chicago: Moody Press.

9 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (pp. 404–405). Chicago: Moody Press.

10 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (p. 404). Chicago: Moody Press.

11 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (p. 403). Chicago: Moody Press.

12 Barclay, W. (2001). The Gospel of Matthew (Third Ed., p. 274). Edinburgh: Saint Andrew Press.

13 Boice, J. M. (2002). The Sermon on the Mount: an expositional commentary (pp. 210–211). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

14 Boice, J. M. (2002). The Sermon on the Mount: an expositional commentary (pp. 211–212). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

Related Topics: Christian Life, Kingdom

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