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4.Grrrr. Ohhh! (Matthew 6:16-18)

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Kingdom Worship

Doesn’t that make you hungry? Today we want to finish up our study about our motives for worshipping God. People perform acts of worship for many different reasons. But those who belong to the kingdom need to watch their motives. It’s not just an issue of what you do to worship God; the reason why you do it is crucially important.

A General Principle

Do you remember the general principle that Jesus taught about worship at the beginning of Matthew 6?

Be careful not to do your 'acts of righteousness' before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.

The general principle expressed in that verse means something like this:

If you perform religious acts

to impress other people

then you’ll miss God’s reward.

When you do something to worship God, make sure that you’re doing it for God and not just to put on a show for the people around you. In our day, just like in Jesus’ day, there are people who do good religious things, not because they are devoted to God, but because they are interested in looking good in front of others.

But Jesus says that if you’re involved in a lot of religious activity just to show people how spiritual you are, then that has no value to God. That’s not what it’s all about. If your motive for going to church, or doing some good deed, or helping the poor, or praying to God or even fasting—if you’re doing those things to gain the recognition and admiration of the people around you—then it doesn’t mean anything to God.

That’s the general principle of Matthew 6:1, and to illustrate what he’s talking about, Jesus gives us three examples: giving, praying, and fasting. We’ve already talked about giving and praying.

Grrrr. Ohhh!

Today we come to fasting. Jesus says, let’s not just talk about what you do to show your devotion to God. Let’s talk about why you do it. Let’s talk about your motives for fasting.

What is Fasting?

Before we go any further, I think it would be good to talk about what fasting is and why people do it. Some of you might not be familiar with fasting. And even if you are, there are a lot of different ideas out there about what it is and why you should do it. So I thought it would be good for us to take a look first at what the Bible says about fasting itself.

Fasting means to give up something that you normally enjoy. Usually it refers to skipping one or more meals, or limiting the kinds of food you eat. Now, unfortunately, we are probably all too familiar with this concept of passing up food. But here in America, we call that dieting, not fasting. Really, the idea isn’t much different. Fasting from food simply means not eating what you’d normally eat when you’d normally eat it. It might last part of a day, all day or several days. It might mean abstaining from all food and water, or just certain foods or beverages.

Sometimes the word “fasting” is used in the Bible of missing a meal because you simply don’t have a choice. For example, some people don’t eat more because they’re poor and they can’t afford it.

Sometimes people stop eating because they just don’t feel like eating. That’s especially true when people are weighed down by some tragedy or anxiety. They are so sad or so worried or so upset that they simply forget to eat. Food is not the most important thing on their mind, because they are completely preoccupied with a huge problem. I bet you’ve experienced that. Have you ever been so troubled by something that you felt sick to your stomach? Or, so focused on a problem that you lost your appetite?

That is the kind of fasting most frequently mentioned in the Bible: people so preoccupied with problems that they just didn’t think about eating. Compared to whatever they were worried about, food was unimportant.

In the Bible, fasting is often about expressing deep sorrow or mourning. In the cultures of that day, someone who was terribly sad would set aside their regular clothes and wear sackcloth—kind of like a gunny sack. In fact, feeling extreme sorrow, some of them would actually rip up their clothes into shreds and then put on these burlap rags. They would take ashes from the fire, shake it on their head, and smear it on their face, their arms, and their legs. And that told everybody that they were incredibly sad and worried about some terrible news. It might have been the death of their closest friend, the death of a beloved national leader, or a major defeat in battle where a lot of soldiers were killed. It might have been terrible news of some impending disaster. But this wasn’t the normal reaction for an everyday tragedy. This was something sparked by a special, deeply significant event—something on the order of the attack on 911. In the Bible, fasting is very often associated with wearing sackcloth and ashes. Fasting is another expression of deep pain, sorrow and regret. People were so upset, they just didn’t think about eating.

There are many times in the Bible where these drastic expressions of deep sorrow are the result of people realizing the depth of their sin—finally understanding the horror of what they have done and what they deserve. And their response to that new insight into their own vile depravity is fasting, sackcloth and ashes. In several passages in the Old Testament, fasting is associated with humbling yourself before God, turning from your sin, and seeking his forgiveness and protection.

When people are in pain, or in trouble or when they recognize how ugly their sin is, it’s natural for them to turn to God and pray. And in the Bible, we also see fasting associated with prayer. This is especially true when someone had a very critical, deeply emotional request (like Hannah who wanted a baby, but couldn’t get pregnant, or David whose infant son lay dying). The idea wasn’t that their prayers were more powerful if they fasted. The idea was that they were so occupied with praying to God for their needs, that food was just no longer important to them. They were so concentrated on prayer, that they had no interest in eating.

The other time fasting is mentioned in the Bible has to do with the beginning of a significant new spiritual movement or ministry.

For example, Moses fasted for 40 days before receiving the 10 commandments.

Jesus fasted for 40 days before choosing his apostles and starting to preach. The church in Antioch fasted and prayed before selecting and sending Barnabas and Paul to evangelize Galatia. And they fasted and prayed before appointing elders in the new Galatian churches.

In the experience of the early church, there were many, many new ministries started and many new spiritual movements. I’m sure that they all began with prayer. But there are only a handful that began with prayer and fasting. It was an unusual event and in the New Testament, it seems to be much more spontaneous than planned. People were just so wrapped up in talking to God about spiritual things that they simply stopped thinking about food.

Now that might be a little different picture than what you’d expect to hear about fasting—especially if you’ve read any Christian books or articles that encourage people to fast. It’s easy to get the impression that fasting is a program that you can follow to super-charge your prayers. Somehow when you don’t eat, God is bound to listen to you better. Some think of fasting as a way to earn spiritual brownie points with God. It’s a sacrifice that we might make in order to be really spiritual or mature. I’ve even read articles that promote the physical benefits of a regular fasting regimen and one that touted fasting as God’s solution to America’s problem of obesity! It might surprise you to hear that none of those ideas come from the Bible. Some of them originated in Greek mythology; some came from the ancient Jews; other ideas crept into the church after the second century; and we even added in some of our own modern health theories.

I’m not here to say whether or not fasting is healthy. I have no idea!

I know it doesn’t FEEL healthy to me! But fasting in the Bible doesn’t have anything to do with better physical health or racking up points with God or empowering your prayers. Fasting in the Bible happened when people were so occupied with how much they needed God that they simply failed to remember that they also needed to eat.

Jesus fasted before his ministry began, but we never hear of him fasting after that. Jesus assumed that his followers would fast, but he never instructs us to do so. We see a handful of examples of fasting in the experience of the early church in the book of Acts, but the New Testament epistles are completely silent about the subject. Fasting in the Bible is something that is described, not something that’s commanded.

There is one example in the Old Testament of God commanding Israel to fast. That was the Day of Atonement, an annual, national day of mourning about sin. But the ancient Jews were lovers of holiday tradition and so over the course of their history, many more organized days of fasting were added to the calendar. By the end of the Old Testament, there were at least four national days of fasting every year. Through the prophets, God told the people that he wasn’t at all interested in their fasting if they didn’t bother to obey him. The way they treated the poor, the way they massacred justice—these actions spoke much louder about their spiritual devotion to God than their repeated days of fasting ever could.

In addition to the national days of fasting, some of Jews practiced a regular regimen of personal fasting. The Pharisees, who were the conservative religious leaders in Jesus’ day, fasted twice a week. And apparently when they fasted, they must have also put ashes on their heads as a sign of sorrow and penitence. These are the people Jesus is talking about as he begins to speak with his disciples about their motives for fasting.

Ostentatious Fasting

[16] "When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting.

Jesus uses a couple words here to describe the way these showoffs were fasting. First the word “somber” means simply that they put on very sad faces. They looked terrible. It also says they “disfigured” their faces which sounds like they cut themselves or something. But literally the phrase means that they made their faces “invisible”. You know what that’s probably talking about is the ashes that often accompany mourning and fasting. In other words, they smeared ashes all over their faces, which made their faces invisible, but made their fasting very visible. It was obvious to everyone what they were doing. And that’s the point. They wanted it to be obvious they were fasting, so that people would notice them and recognize what wonderfully spiritual people they were.

But Jesus says, they are completely missing the point of fasting:

I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full.

When people noticed them fasting, that was the only reward they got. They wanted the recognition of men and that’s what they got. That’s all they got. Their fasting was not sincere worship; it was ostentatious. They were showoffs. And that’s not the kind of worship God desires.

That is ostentatious worship, religious acts designed to impress people instead of serving God. Notice the key elements in this type of fasting:

Ostentatious Fasting

Action: It is public suffering: visibly sad and pitiful.

Motive: It is done for man’s praise.

Result: The reward is paid in full. You receive human praise.

By contrast, Jesus tells us in verse 17 how we should fast:

Secret Fasting

[17] But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, [18] so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen;

The point here is the opposite of letting everyone know you’re fasting. The oil he’s talking about here is just a regular part of hygiene in that day.

It means basically that when you fast, wash your face and comb your hair. Don’t try to make sure that everyone knows you’re fasting, like the guy in the video. Are you fasting to concentrate on God? Great! Then it’s really just between you and him. No one else needs to know. So don’t be obvious about it.

Always “in secret”?

Does that mean that you must keep all fasting a secret? I don’t think so. I don’t think this verse means that all fasting MUST be done in private. There are examples in the New Testament of groups fasting together. And as we saw earlier, Jesus doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with people knowing that you give, that you pray, or that you fast. The problem is when you do those things SO THAT people will know you’re doing them.

Jesus is not saying that you have done wrong if people know you’re fasting. He’s not saying it’s wrong if people are impressed by your fasting. What he’s saying is that it is wrong to fast for the purpose of impressing people. It’s not an issue of who knows about it or what they think about it. It’s all about your motive. Why did you do it? For people? Or for God?

So, even if you’re fasting with other people, keep your fasting a personal thing, just between you and God, and then your motives won’t be in question. God sees even what no one else can see.

The reason it’s so important to guard our motives in fasting is because the reason WHY we fast will determine how it effects our lives. Jesus urges us to fast in secret, so that our motives will be completely pure.

and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

Those who fast from pure motives will be rewarded by God.

What “reward”?

Just what is this reward? The Bible doesn’t promise a specific reward for fasting. But I think we can make a pretty good guess. In the Bible, the thing that drives people to fast is their deep concern, their profound need for God to hear them and act. Perhaps that is the reward of fasting. If you are so intent on connecting with God that you skip a meal or two, then you will connect with God. It’s not because you were fasting. It’s because you were sincerely seeking God. And those who really seek him will find him. However, those who pretend, those who put on a show of seeking God, just so that people will admire them, they won’t connect with God. All they get is human admiration. The one who fasts will be rewarded. But that reward is only for those who fast with a pure motive.

Now we can see the complete contrast between ostentatious fasting and secret fasting:

Secret Fasting

Action: is not a public performance, but a private discipline.
You are so focused on God that you’re not thinking about eating. It’s fasting for an exclusive audience of one.

Motive: The reason for fasting is not to get recognition from
men, but rather to honor God and concentrate on him.

Result: The result is not praise from men, but rather
a reward from God. You really do connect with him.


Kingdom Worship

This last act of worship, fasting, is a little bit different than the other’s we’ve talked about: giving or praying. God wants you give and he wants you to pray. Those are commands. But you know what, I don’t think God really cares if you fast or not. What he wants is your complete devotion. And at times, that devotion may be so focused that you don’t care about eating. And that honors God—not because you went hungry, but because you evidently cared so much about him that food—something you need to survive—was just not that important to you.

So if that’s why you’re fasting—because you desperately want to worship God—then go ahead and skip your meals. God is honored by that kind of devotion.

That’s why it’s so important that you fast with the right motives. You can go without food for 40 days for all the wrong reasons—so that people will praise you—but then that’s all you will get—people’s praise.

On the other hand, you can skip a single meal—only because you truly want to honor God—and for that God will reward you. The question is not, “Are you fasting? The important question is, “Why are you fasting?”


The other idea about fasting is that it helps to exercise the spiritual muscles that allow us to refuse to indulge the desires of the flesh. The desire for food is a bodily desire (though not forbidden). Saying “no” to that bodily desire may help us learn the discipline of saying “no” to other bodily desires that are forbidden. I think in practice this works. However, there is no biblical support for this purpose in fasting unless there is a deeply veiled allusion to fasting in 1 Cor. 9:27, “I beat my body and make it my slave.” In the same way, fasting may indeed have a health benefit. But that does not make it either a biblical or a legitimate reason to fast.

The other popular idea, that fasting supercharges prayer, is based in part on a textual variant of Matt. 17:21 and Mark 9:29 which says some exorcisms can only be accomplished “by prayer and fasting”. This idea is not in the autographs. There is no biblical support for fasting in order to empower your prayers. Once again, in practice this may work. God may indeed be more likely to answer the prayers of those who fast. The reason, however, is not because they are fasting, but because they are sincerely and wholeheartedly seeking God. That kind of seeking—with or without fasting—is going to get God’s response.

1 Copyright © 2004 by Lewis B. Bell III. This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 4 in the Kingdom Worship series delivered by Chip Bell at Fellowship Bible Church Arapaho in Dallas, TX on August 29, 2004. Anyone is at liberty to use this lesson for educational purposes only, with credit.

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