Lesson 98—January 17, 2016
Audio Commentary by David Daniel
Look How Spiritual I Can Be Scripture: Matthew 6:16-18
Lesson Goal: To gain an understanding of Jesus’ teaching on the subject of fasting with a pure heart.
Introduction: We have looked at two of the three areas of practical righteousness which Jesus spoke of in Matthew 6:1-15—giving (charitable deeds) in verses 1-4, and prayer in verses 5-16. Today we look at fasting—the third specific subject of practical righteousness. Jesus gives His followers the correct manner in which giving, prayer and fasting are to be done, as opposed to the hypocritical religious practices of the Pharisees. Jesus’ authority calls for His followers to be different from the Pharisees in life and practice.
How are Jesus’ followers to be different from the Pharisees and scribes? List and explain some of these differences.
(V16) The word “moreover” refers to what follows. In this context, it is the subject of fasting.
Before we move into the specific instructions concerning fasting, it may be helpful to briefly look at the definition of fasting. John Stott explains:
Strictly speaking, [fasting] is a total abstention from food. It can be legitimately extended, however, to mean going without food partially or totally, for shorter or longer periods. Hence, of course the naming of each day’s first meal as breakfast, since at it we “break our fast” of the night period during which we ate nothing. There is no doubt in Scripture that fasting has to do, in various ways, with self-denial and self-discipline.
John MacArthur adds:
Legitimate fasting always has a spiritual purpose and is never presented as having any value in and of itself. During Old Testament times, many faithful believers fasted—Moses, Samson, Samuel, Hannah, David, Elijah, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Daniel, and others. The New Testament tells of the fasting of Anna, John the Baptist and his disciples, Jesus, Paul and others. But the only fast commanded in Scripture is the one connected with the Jewish Day of Atonement (see Leviticus 16:29, 23:27).
Although fasting was not explicitly commanded for the followers of Jesus, it is not wrong to fast, if done in the right way with pure motives. Fasting must be done in devotion to God and worship of Him.
(V16) “when you fast”—It is taken for granted in the Sermon on the Mount that we, followers of Jesus, will fast.
“do not be like the hypocrites”—The word “Pharisee” literally means “pretender.” Once again Jesus instructs His followers on how not to fast (as the Pharisees), but also on how to fast. The Pharisees fasted each Monday and Thursday (see Luke 18:12) and did so in such a way that people knew they were fasting. The purpose of their fasting was to gain the attention of men, and in so doing to make themselves appear impressive before men. The fact is our fasting should be done differently than the Pharisees who called attention to themselves giving the appearance of spirituality “with a sad countenance.”
When we serve Jesus, do we want people to notice us? This question does not speak of a godly witness to the lost, but to the need for selfish recognition by others. The Pharisees desired to be seen by men.
As already stated, the Pharisees fasted two days of the week.
This was done because they believed that on these days Moses made the two separate trips to receive the tablets of law from God on Mount Sinai. But those two days also happened to be the major Jewish market days when cities or towns were crowded with farmers, merchants and shoppers. They were, therefore, the two days where public fasting would have the largest audiences (MacArthur).
In order to be recognized by people, the Pharisees called attention to their fasting with gloomy facial expressions. To make sure they were noticed, they wore old clothes, not their daily wardrobe. Often, they purposely covered themselves with ashes. All of this was done “that they may appear to men to be fasting.” They give the appearance that they are fasting, but God knows the heart. This fasting, exemplified by the Pharisees (hypocrites), may seem impressive to men but has no spiritual significance. This fasting is approved only by men and not by God. All that is gained is the applause of men. Heaven is not impressed.
Christians, followers of Jesus, must examine the purity of their own hearts by constantly asking themselves: Why am I doing what I am doing?
What is the difference between pride and humility? Please explain your answer.
(V17) “But you, when you fast, anoint your head, and wash your face” Jesus very directly addresses His instruction to His followers, “But you…”
“When you fast,” you should not be like the Pharisees in manner or motive. In manner, you are not to put on the garments or the facial expressions that become a sign of your fast. You are not to take the position of an “ash wearer.” In motive, you are not to pronounce a fast in order to draw men’s attention to yourself. Appearing spiritual to impress others is not the purpose of a true fast.
In contrast to those things the Pharisees do, you “anoint your head and wash your face.”
As with almsgiving and prayer, those who fast must not advertise their piety by visible signs of suffering and deprivation. Otherwise a person again gains accolades from people rather than from God. Instead people must groom themselves according to their cultural norms in order to appear joyful and content (Bloomberg).
Basically, Jesus instructs that we, as His followers, when fasting should not change ourselves (our appearance) from that of our daily norm or routine of life. We should not broadcast our fast to others in a way to draw attention to ourselves. In fact, Jesus makes this very clear in the final verse of this section.
(V18) “so that you do not appear to men to be fasting”
In a true and pure fast, the majority of the multitudes will not observe any appearance of a fast.
Please read Matthew 6:4, 6, and 18.
What is the common thread woven throughout these verses?
What is the important biblical truth presented in these verses?
As we close this section, I want to share some thoughts, found in both the Old and New Testaments, concerning biblical fasting.
1. “When you fast” helps us to understand that fasting is biblical for us even today. There are certain times and occasions when fasting is certainly acceptable and needed.
2. As I previously mentioned, the only direct command for fasting was for the Day of Atonement in the Old Testament. When Jesus, the Lamb of God, became the once-for-all sacrifice on the cross (see Hebrews 10:10), that prescribed occasion for fasting (the Day of Atonement) ceased to exist.
3. Please read Matthew 9:14-15. The question was asked by John the Baptist’s disciples concerning Jesus’ disciples: “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but Your disciples do not fast?” Jesus’ response to them was in the context of “mourning, or other times of consuming spiritual need or anxiety” (MacArthur).
6. Fasting is often associated with brokenness over one’s own sin (1 King 21:27; Jonah 3:5 and 7).
7. Fasting is a natural accompaniment for the one who is desperately and honestly seeking the will of God (Daniel 9:2-3; 9:21-22; 10:3).
8. Fasting was done before an important task or ministry was undertaken. Can you remember a time in
Jesus’ life when this was the case? On another occasion, the early church responded by fasting (Acts 13:2-3; 14:23).
The last important truth I share with you today is the fact that fasting and praying are linked together. We can certainly pray without fasting, but we cannot fast without praying. Fasting is truly taking prayer to the gut level. Fasting is always done in the biblical sense with a pure heart. Without purity of heart, fasting is just another vain action.
Please read Zechariah 7 verses 5, 9, and 10. What is the lesson of these verses?