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True Religion, Part 4: Fasting

Series: Matthew

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Aug 10, 1997

Matthew 6:16-18

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May all our hearts be drawn to God as we meditate on that vision of the glory of the new heavens and the new earth. If you have your Bibles, I would invite you to turn with me to Matthew chapter 6. We have been studying in the Sermon on the Mount and in the last few weeks, have been particularly noting Jesus’ contrast between true religion and false religion. In Matthew chapter 5, Jesus took issue with the teaching with the theology of the Pharisees. In Matthew chapter 6, Jesus takes issue with the practice of the Pharisees. Their manner of living, their displays of religiosity which were without substance. And we have seen Jesus contrast the actions of hypocritical Pharisees with the actions which He desires from His disciples at the beginning of Matthew 6. We saw Him immediately talk about the practice of charitable giving among the Pharisees and tell Christians in contrast, His disciples, how He wanted them to give. Not for show, not for the praise of men, but for the glory of God, to the Father who sees in secret. And then in the middle section of this chapter, we began to see Him teach on the issue of prayer. Not praying so that people will think that we are pious, but praying to our heavenly Father, who sees in secret. And the Lord Jesus even gives instruction on the content of prayer.

Then, the last time we were together in this passage, we discussed the fact that He links together very closely our forgiving people of their sins against us, and our practice of prayer. Because the Lord Jesus wants to make it clear that the only person who can truly pray to the merciful heavenly Father is a person who has received mercy, who has received forgiveness, himself, or herself, and therefore, has become a forgiving person. People who forgive are people who know what it means to be forgiven and it develops in them a gracious spirit which is ready to forbear with those who have done harm to them. And so the Lord Jesus teaches, in contrast to the Pharisees false religion, how He wants His disciples to live the Christian life.

Today we come to the subject of fasting. Not a subject that you hear much about in evangelical churches, or in Protestant churches of any sort these days. In fact, it was only a few years ago that a Quaker wrote a book called, Celebration of Discipline. His name was Richard Foster. And he perhaps brought to the mind of the evangelical world the issue of fasting and some of the other disciplines as well. And since then, there have been a number of books written about various spiritual disciplines, including fasting. But I would venture to say that at least in our practice, in our local, there has not been a major impact or change in the way in which we have conducted ourselves in Christian experience. There has not been an explosion of the practice fasting. But I want to commend to you this word of the Lord today beginning in Matthew 6, verse 16. Let’s hear the inerrant word of God:

Matthew 6:16-28

Our heavenly Father, we ask that You would bless Your word to our spiritual nourishment this day. Perhaps we come to a subject, to a passage that not many of us have considered to be integral to the living of our Christian life. Perhaps we have neglected herein a blessing. And perhaps we are somewhat skeptical of this matter. Break down our skepticism. Lay our hearts open before you. Give us the will power to enter in to this means of blessing which you have ordained and appointed in Your word. Speak to us by Your holy scripture. Apply it to our hearts by Your Holy Spirit and receive all the praise and all the glory as You do so. For we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.

The Lord Jesus Christ in this passage is addressing the current practice of the Pharisees in His time, in Israel. They made great pretense about their practice of fasting. Fasting was a time-honored tradition in Israel. And these Pharisees we are told, for instance in the Gospel of Luke, many of them fasted twice a week. And they made a great show of it as they fasted. And in so doing, they were missing the whole point of the exercise of fasting. In that context, the Lord Jesus Christ gave instruction to His disciples about their practice of fasting, and in this passage before us today, we find out what He says.

I. Christians must avoid the performance of spiritual disciplines for the sake of notice by people. 

    There are many truths to be gained from this passage, but I want you to look particularly at two or three of them. The first thing we learn from Christ in this passage is that Christians must avoid the performance of spiritual disciplines for the sake of notice by people. Christians must avoid the performance of our spiritual disciplines, whether it be fasting or giving, or praying, or church attendance, whatever obligations we have in the Word to do as believers, we should not do in order to be noticed by men. Jesus addresses, in verse, 16 the issue of hypocrisy and He institutes a stern warning against it.

Notice His Words, whenever you fast, do not put on a gloomy face as the hypocrites do, for they neglect their appearance so that they will noticed by men when they are fasting. Truly, I say to you, they have their reward in full. In the days of ancient Israel, one of the things that the people of God often did when they fasted, was they actually donned sack cloth and ashes as if they were at a funeral. Because fasting was supposed to be visible display of humiliation and humility. And so one of the ways that they would display that humility was that they would actually don mourning clothes and go around in mourning because of their own sin. Grieving over their own sin. Desiring God to grant them repentance. Desiring God to respond to their prayers of contrition. But Jesus says that by His time, the Pharisees have warped that ancient and venerable practice. And they do not don sackcloth and ashes out of a spiritual interest or concern. They don sackcloth and ashes, because they know that everyone in the religious community is going to say, 'How holy that man is. O how pious he is, why twice I week I see him in his sackcloth and ashes, fasting in the streets. O the obedience of that man. O the piety. O that we could emulate such great heights of holiness.' And the Lord Jesus has nothing but derision for that kind of practice.

In fact, he attacks two types of hypocrisy that are present in the Pharisees as they do this type of behavior. He attacks them first because of the hypocrisy of pretended humility. Fasting is to be display of humility. Fasting is to show that our hearts have been humbled before God. But these Pharisees are proud of their humility. If I could use such a ridiculous phrase. They are so proud of their humility, that they want everyone to see that humility. And so they practice that humility in the streets where everyone can see it and give them pats on the back, and great spiritual veneration and respect and the Lord Jesus says, this is false humility, not true humility. And it undercuts the very nature of fasting itself.

Secondly, the Lord Jesus condemns them not only for their pretended humility, but because of the fact that their fasting is really not directed towards God. Their fasting is not directed towards the heavenly Father. Their fasting is not an auxiliary help, that God has appointed to help us have that extra earnestness in prayer when coming to Him about some serious matter, whether it a private matter, or a corporate matter. For them, that is not what fasting is. Fasting is something whereby you get people to admire you. So instead of aiming their spiritual devotions towards God, they aim those spiritual devotions towards the people. They desire to be praised by men rather than heard by the living God in their fasting. Both of these things Jesus condemns these hypocritical Pharisees for.

I want you to note that the Lord Jesus does not condemn them for fasting. You will never find in the New Testament, the Lord Jesus saying to His disciples, and make sure that you don’t fast like the Pharisees did. You will find one occasion, and we are going to be looking at the passage a few months hence, in the Gospel of Matthew where Pharisees come to Him and ask why His disciples don’t fast? And Jesus responds to them saying, why it is very clear. The bridegroom is here. The Lord Jesus was very subtly saying, the Messiah is here. You don’t fast when the Messiah is here, you feast.

But then He went on to say, when I go, they will fast. The Lord Jesus never condemns fasting in the New Testament. Fasting is never condemned anywhere in the New Testament, but the Lord Jesus contends, prideful, false fasting in the practice of the Pharisees. And we are reminded here again, that our performance of all our religious duties, whether we are going to a prayer meeting, whether we are going to church, whether we are giving our tithes and our offerings, whether we are lifting up prayer, corporately or privately, none of those things should be done in such a way that they result in smug self satisfaction. Fasting isn’t supposed to result in smug self-satisfaction. It is supposed to result in an open display of real humility that reminds us of just how dependent upon God’s grace we are. And so it is not puff us up. It is to have us brought down low, so that we might be picked up by God Himself. Not picking ourselves up, not exalting ourselves. But allowing ourselves to be dependent upon the grace of God.

We are also reminded that in our performance of religious duties, no matter what we are doing, no matter whether God has commanded us to do those things in the Word, explicitly or not, we are never to do them so that people will praise us. It is very tempting, isn’t it sometimes? To engage in service in the church, to engage in worship in the church, because we know what people will think of us if we don’t do it. Why if I don’t participate in that project, what will they think of me? Well, if I don’t go to that service, what will they think of me. And when we begin to think like that, we are joining in with those venerable old hypocrites of old, the Pharisees, and we must be careful that our religious practice, commanded in the Word is done with a view to God, and not to men. Jesus makes it clear in verse 16, that all of our practice of religion ought to be for God and not for the notice of others.

II. Christian fasting is a normal part of the healthy spiritual experience.

    And then He teaches a second thing in verse 17. He teaches that Christian fasting is a normal part of healthy spiritual experience. Here he gives to His disciples instruction in the spiritual discipline of fasting. Notice His words in verse 17. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face. Notice, by the way, the phrase,. When you fast, is actually repeated from verse 16. In verse 16 He has said, whenever you fast.

Note that Jesus does not say, if you fast, He says, when you fast. The Lord Jesus expects His disciples to be engaging in the spiritual work of fasting. Now since fasting in not one of those things that a lot of us spend a lot time reading about or contemplating, let me begin by giving a brief definition of fasting. Fasting is a Christian’s voluntary abstinence from food, and or drink for spiritual purposes.

Now we could give a broader definition of fasting. Fasting could actually include the voluntary abstinence from any normal function for a specified period of time for spiritual purposes. We might refrain from some activity or some particular thing that we like to do for a period time for the sake of devoting ourselves to religious practice and reflection. But fasting is the abstinence from food for spiritual purposes. And it is often misunderstood and certainly neglected in evangelical churches today. Some people think it is weird. Some people think that is what Monks do. Monks fast. Or maybe Hare Krishnas. Or other people who dress strange. They fast. That is something that John the Baptist did. He wore strange clothes and lived in the wilderness and that is not just something that we do.

Other people think of fasting as very legalistic. Oh, I mean that sounds like something that a legalist would tell you to do-to go out and fast. But fasting my friends is mentioned in scripture more often than baptism. Fasting is explicitly described and discussed and enjoined over seventy seven times in the holy scriptures of the Old and the New Testaments. But how many of you have recently heard a sermon on fasting? How many of you have friends, Christian friends, who regularly fast? How many of you, yourselves are fasting? Remember that Jesus expects His followers to give themselves over to fasting. He says when you fast. There are various kinds of fasts in the Bible and perhaps you will want to keep you Bibles handy and we will look at some examples of fasting over the next few moments.

The most common kind of fast that we find in the Bible is what we might call a regular fast. What do you have in your mind when you think of a fast? Do you think of going for a week without food? Do you think of going twenty-four hours without food? Well, the regular fast in the Scriptures would have been abstaining from food, but not from water for a specific period of time. The most common amount of times was for the daylight hours of a day. So it was a partial fast of food, but not of water, for the period of the daylight hours of a day. And that, by the way, has been the most commonly used fast in the history of the church. Christians would set aside the three regular meals of a regular day, and they would not engage in eating from sun up to sun down. Though they would take water or some sort of a fruit juice or a liquid. And then they would resume their regular practices when the sun had set.

There are examples of the common fast that fast in which the person abstains from food, but not from water in the Scriptures. One that comes to mind is in Matthew 4, verse 2, and also Luke 4, verse 2. You remember there that Jesus is being tempted in the wilderness and we are told twice both in Matthew 4, and in Luke 4 that Jesus became hungry after fasting for forty days. Now it does not say that He became thirsty. Now we may be reading a little too much into that. But unless there was something supernatural going on there, and there are at least two examples of supernatural fasts going on in the Bible, we may assume that the Lord Jesus was abstaining from food, but not from water. Normally we can’t last very much longer than three days without water. We die if we don’t have water in three days. And so when you see forty-day fasts without food and water in the scriptures, you see a supernatural event. It happened to Moses, it happened to Elijah. And we will look at that later. But we are not given any indication necessarily that Jesus went without water during that time. He may have, but the text just doesn’t tell us that. If that is the case, if Jesus was simply abstaining from food, but not from water or some other liquid, then He was engaging in what might be called the common or the regular fast.

A second kind of fast that you find in the Bible is a partial fast. A partial fast is the kind of fast that you find in Daniel chapter 1, verse 12. In a partial fast, you abstain not from all food, but from certain kinds of food. So there is a limitation of food and of drink. For instance, in Daniel chapter 1, Daniel took certain vegetables and water, but he did not take what the other youths were being fed in the court of the king. So there was limitation of his diet. He wasn’t all kinds of food, he was only eating certain types of food. In his case vegetables. And he was taking water. That is a partial fast.

There are examples in the Scripture of a third kind of fast. That is an absolute fast. That is a fast where one actually does not take any food or any drink, even water. Ezra tells us about that kind of fast in Ezra chapter 10, verse 6, when he himself engaged in a fast in which he took no food and no drink for a period of time. As we mentioned before, there are supernatural fasts recorded in the Scriptures. In Deuteronomy 9 verse 9, we are told that when Moses received the Ten Commandments, he stayed on the mount for forty days and forty nights without food or water. Now Moses could not have done that unless the Lord God Himself had enabled him to do that without dying. Notice that Moses did not call himself to that fast, God called Moses to that fast. We can’t call ourselves to such a supernatural fast. Only God can do that. And He did it in the case of Moses and He apparently did it in the case of Elijah. Because in I Kings chapter 19, verse 8, when Elijah went back to the place where Moses had gone to his fast, apparently Elijah also for forty days and for forty nights went without food and water.

Of course the passage that we are looking at today in Matthew 6, verses 16 – 18 is a private fast. That is another type of fast that we find in the Scriptures. A private fast is not a public fast, something that the whole congregation or nation is taking a part in. But it is when an individual, secretly and discreetly abstains from food and drink in some form or another for some period of time.

There is also mentioned in the Scriptures, congregational fasts. We are told for instance that the church at Antioch held a fast before the missionaries were sent out. They were devoting themselves to prayer and committing themselves to sending those men out.

There are also national fasts recorded in the Bible. And not only the Children of Israel participate in those national fast, but even unbelieving nations. Ninevah, did you know that Ninevah called for a national fast after the preaching of the Gospel through Jonah? God’s word was heard by the Ninevites. Jonah’s preaching resulted in conversion and the Ninevites believed in God and the very thing that their governor did was call for a national fast for everyone in Ninevah to fast, again reflecting their repentance and humility before the Lord.

There was only regular fast appointed by God Himself for Israel. All other fasts were voluntary. They were, as it were, free will fasts. In other words, God appointed but one fast. It was the fast on the Day of Atonement. It occurred every year and every one in Israel was to participate in that fast. All the other fasts were up to you in your relationship with the Lord to determine whether you were going to enter in on them. It is amazing how much flexibility, even in the Old Covenant, is given for fasting. Only one appointed fast, the fast of the Day of Atonement. It is recorded for us in Leviticus 16, verses 29-31.

Occasional fasts, however, are the fasts that we read about most in the Bible. Those fasts are the fasts that people enter into in special circumstances. Perhaps a person has contrite because of particular sin. That person might enter into an occasional fast. Perhaps there is a situation of grave danger that is impinging upon a person or people and they enter into a fast. Those occasional fasts are compelled by special circumstances and we say example of those all through the Bible.

You see there is much in the Scripture about fasting and we haven’t done justice, we have just touched the surface of what the Scriptures teach about fasting. But this in and of itself ought to teach us to expect fasting to be a part of our religious experience. The Lord Jesus didn’t have to tell His disciples that fasting was normal. For them it was. For us it has become strange. We don’t know very many people that do fasting and the ones that do, they are just a little bit odd, we think. But we ought to expect fasting to be a regular part of our religious experience and we ought to cast off our fasting phobia. I mean, the words, I am not going to eat today strike fear into the hearts of moderns. And of course, they are supposed to. It is a solemn thing to go without. But understand that fasting is an exercise that reminds us of the truth of Jesus’ words. Man cannot live by bread alone. When we fast, we are saying that there is something in our life more important than bread itself. We can’t live very long without food, but we are saying when we fast, that there are priorities more important to us than the very stuff that sustains our life. And that priority is God, our fellowship with Him, our relationship with Him, and our work for His kingdom. When we are fasting, we are purposing ourselves to devote ourselves to God above everything else, even those things which are necessary for us to live physically.

Jesus in fact teaches in verse 18 why Christians are to fast. Christians are to fast for the pleasure of the heavenly Father and for the good of their own souls. We are not to fast for the approval of men, He has said, we are to fast for the pleasure of the Father and the good of our own souls. Jesus is teaching in verse 18 what the proper motivation for fasting is and what the proper goal of fasting is. Christ is concerned not only that His disciples fast, but that they fast for the right reasons. They should not fast so that people will think that they are holy. They should fast as a token for their humility as their humble before God. They are to fast as a token of their earnestness that they are deadly serious about the matter they are bringing to the Lord in prayer. And they should fast because they desire the heavenly Father’s blessings on their prayers and on their spiritual endeavors.

You know it is interesting that fasting in the scripture is never an isolated duty. It is always combined with some other spiritual responsibility and almost always explicitly mentioned directly in connection with fasting is praying. Fasting, above all else, is a help to prayer. It is not something that manipulates God into hearing our prayer. But it is something that reminds us of how seriously we are taking the matter that we are taking to the Lord in prayer. It is a way of impressing upon ourselves, it is a way, by the way, appointed by God for impressing upon ourselves the importance of the matter that we take to Him in prayer. Fasting is not so much a duty for its own sake, but it is a means to dispose us to other duties, usually prayer. Now we don’t have time to cover all the examples that the scriptures give us of the different reasons that Christians are to fast for, but let me attempt to share a few of them with you this morning.

First of all, very clearly, the Bible says that we are to fast as a strengthening, as an aid for prayer. Daniel, in Daniel chapter 9, prayed one of the most important prayers ever prayed in the Old Testament. In that prayer, He asked God to send a Messiah. In response to that prayer, in the grand sovereignty of God, God sent His Son. Now as an aid to that prayer, Daniel engaged in fasting as we are told in Daniel chapter 9, verse 3.

Fasting is also used in the Scriptures, along side prayers to seek God’s guidance. In Acts chapter 14, verse 23, Paul and Barnabas, we are told, before they appointed elders, prayed and fasted. Why? Because they recognized that that appointment was of the utmost importance. Who would be the elders of God’s people? Who would be their shepherds? This, they needed the guidance of the Holy Spirit for. And so they prayed and they fasted before those elders were appointed, because they knew how significant it was that God’s guidance be gained. David Brainard, the great missionary, also practiced the pattern of fasting and praying when he needed guidance. In his journal on Monday, April 19, 1742, he recorded this: "I set apart this day for fasting and prayer to God for His grace especially to prepare me for the work of ministry, to give me divine aid and direction in my preparation for that great work. And in His own time to send me into the harvest."  Brainard was preparing to decide whether he should go to the fields of missions.  He fasted and he prayed and tells us what he experienced on that day of prayer and fasting: "I felt the power of intercession precious immortal souls, for the advancement of the kingdom of my dear Lord and Savior and the world and with all a most sweet resignation and even consolation and joy in the thoughts of suffering hardships and distresses and even death itself in the promotion of the Gospel. My soul was drawn out very much for the world, for multitude of souls. I think that I have more enlargement for sinners than for the children of God, though I felt as if I could spend my life in cries in prayer for both. I enjoyed great sweetness in communion with my dear Savior. I think that I never in my life felt an entire windiness from this world and so much resigned to God in everything. Prayer and fasting before we seek God for guidance."

Fasting also expressed grief in Judges chapter 20, verse 26. You remember that the Children of Israel, the eleven tribes had gone up to Benjamin to punishment of that unspeakable crime that they had committed. Twice they attacked the Benjamites with a greater army than the Benjamites, but the Benjamites wiped them out. Twice. Forty thousand Israelites lay dead in the field as they attempted to administer the justice of God upon wicked Benjamin. The third day, they fasted in grief for their fallen ones and for guidance from God, and they went and they conquered the Benjamites.

Fasting is also used with prayer for protection and deliverance in the Bible. It is used to express repentance and return to God. It is used to express our humility before God, to express a concern for the work of God, a desire to minister to others, to overcome temptation and to dedicate ones self to God and it is even used to express ones love and worship of God. Many of you remember the story of Anna. Depending upon how old she was when she got married, you remember she had only been married for seven years when she was widowed, depending on exactly how old she was, it is able to estimated from Luke chapter 2, verse 20 something and following that Anna had ministered in the house of the Lord for about a half a century. And we are told that she did it with fasting and prayer. For a half a century, she had been rejoicing in the house of the Lord by fasting, she had expressed her love and her worship from God.

Cornelius Plantinga says this, "Self-indulgence is the enemy of gratitude, and self-discipline is usually its friend and generator." That is why gluttony is a deadly sin. The early desert fathers believed that a person’s appetites are linked. Full stomachs and jaded palettes take the edge from our hunger and our thirst for righteousness. They spoil the appetite for God. And that is one reason why God appoints fasting as something as a regular part of our spiritual disciplines.

Have you ever engaged in the practice of fasting with your prayer? Have you ever sat back and thought, you know the marriages of our congregation of my dear friends are under assault. It is tremendous pressure upon these people, tremendous responsibilities, burdens, and I see families coming a part. I will devote myself to fasting and praying for the marriages of our congregation. Have you ever thought you know, there is an officer election coming up, why who knows but that the men who will shepherd the souls of our children in the generation to come will be appointed in this great election. I will fast and pray that God would pour out the men that He has chosen and them alone to be our officers. Have you ever thought, you know the work of missions is so vital, we need to send missionaries out from our own congregation to the far-flung corners of the earth. I will fast and pray regularly that God would raise up missionaries from our midst and that He would protect the ones and give them a door of opportunity as they are on the field. Have you ever thought, O, I would love to see more people converted in the services of worship here at First Presbyterian Church. I will fast and pray that God would give us conversions under the preaching of the Word. Have you ever thought, we need revival? We need renewal, we need to find our first love again. I will fast and pray that God does a work of renewal in our hearts at First Presbyterian Church. Join me in fasting. Give yourselves to this spiritual discipline. As your Lord has counseled, and watch heaven’s hand of blessing unfold. Let us pray.

Our Lord and our God, we thank You for Your Word. And we ask that You would bless it to our spiritual nourishment for Christ’s sake. Amen.

© First Presbyterian Church.

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