Fasting according to Jesus
Sad to say, most Christians have neglected the discipline of fasting. There are probably a thousand little reasons this is the case, but there appears to be three big reasons:
- Ignorance: Few sermons are preached on it. Few Bible studies address it. Therefore, few Christians know what it is and why it is important.
- Fear: Perhaps some Christians fear being called a “weirdo” or being associated with a religious group outside their own. Many, however, seem to fear failure
- Hedonism: Hedonism is basically a love for pleasure that is rooted in sinful desires. Hedonism is the opposite of fasting. It is self-gratifying rather than self-denying.
One Bible teacher, Donald Whitney, has said, “Christians in a gluttonous, denial-less, self-indulgent society may struggle to accept and to begin the practice of fasting. Few Disciplines go so radically against the flesh and the mainstream of culture as this one.”
The most basic truth of all about fasting is that Jesus expects us to fast.
Matthew 6:16-18—“And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 17 But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, 18 that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
Jesus clearly taught use about the legitimacy of godly fasting. Not only did Jesus Himself fast (Matt.4:2), but in verses 16 and 17, He says, “When you fast,” two times. Therefore, the expectation is that Christians are to fast. Jesus goes on to affirm this even more plainly later in Matthew’s Gospel.
Matthew 9:14-15— Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” 15 And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.
What is biblical fasting? Fasting is a Christian’s voluntary abstinence from a basic need or some other desirable pleasure. The point of fasting is to withhold something from the body and the mind that will be sorely missed, especially things that are fundamental to life. Food and certain drinks are the most commonly withheld items because they are extremely needful, extremely craved after on a daily basis, and extremely missed when withheld. There are few greater tests of mankind’s character than taking away food and fluids
What kind of fasts are there? The Bible teaches at least eight different kinds of fasts:
- Normal fast: Abstaining from all food but not water (Mt.4:2)
- Partial fast: Limitation of the diet but not abstention of all food (Dan.1:12)
- Absolute fast: Abstaining from all food and fluids (Ezra 10:6; Esth.4:16; Acts 9:9)
- Supernatural fast: Moses on Mt. Sinai (Deut.9:9) and Elijah’s journey to Horeb (1Kgs.19:8)
- Private fast: Not publicized (Mt.6:16-18)
- Congregational fast: A group of God’s people fast together (Joel 2:15-16; Acts13:2)
- Regular fast: Scheduled on specific days (Lev.16:29-31; Lk.18:12)
- Occasional fast: Observed on special occasions that arise (Mt.9:15)
What’s the point of fasting? When we fast, we are saying that we need and desire God more than whatever we are fasting from. If it is food, we are saying we hunger more for God than bread. If it is coffee, we are saying we thirst more for God than any pleasure caffeine can bring. Fasting helps us to remember our relationship with Jesus more throughout the day. Every hunger pang and every frustrated desire reminds us that Jesus is better. The result of genuine fasting is greater victories over the flesh. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “Fasting helps to discipline the self-indulgent and slothful will which is so reluctant to serve the Lord, and it helps to humiliate and chasten the flesh.” Do ever feel like you will never win the battle of overeating, losing your temper, or giving in to internet pornography? Fast and pray, and see what the Holy Spirit will do in your life.
With this foundation built, Jesus warns us not to fast in a way that glorifies man (vv.16-17). Apparently, people in Jesus’ day used fasting as an opportunity to really put on a show. They would put on a gloomy face. The word translated “gloomy” can also be rendered as “sad” or “dark.” Many interpreters believe Jesus may be alluding to how some people were even using makeup to change their appearance. At the least, they were making themselves look miserable. In verse 16, Jesus confirms this when He says, “for they disfigure their faces so that they may be seen by others.” The word translated “disfigure” in this context is related to cleanliness, which makes sense because Jesus tells us in verse 17 to wash up when we fast. In that culture, the daily routine of anointing your head with oil and washing your face constituted the bulk of personal hygiene.
What does this mean? It means whatever personal hygiene you practice when not fasting is the same personal hygiene you should practice when fasting. It means, while fasting, we should get up, wash our bodies, wash our hair, shave, put on deodorant, put on clean clothes, and do whatever else that we normally do.
If we fast for the wrong reasons, the consequences are serious. One consequence is that Jesus calls such people “hypocrites.” As we have already learned, a “hypocrite” refers to a person that pretends to be one thing but in reality is someone completely different. Of course, we all must admit we all have some hypocrite in ourselves. But we must understand that Jesus is using the word here of people who know they are hypocrites and they don’t care.
A second consequence is that such hypocrites “have received their reward” (v.16b). Now don’t pass over that too quickly. For a Christian, this means that fasting to be seen of men causes a loss of reward but not of eternal life itself. For a non-Christian, however, fasting to be seen of men means the only reward they will ever receive is man’s applause and a one-way ticket to hell.
On the other hand, fasting that glorifies God is righteousness (vv.17-18). Christians are to fast in a way that it brings God all the glory, all the credit. When we fast, we are to go about our daily routine as if we are not fasting at all, especially regarding our personal hygiene. Jesus says that secret fasting is the best kind of fasting because it’s strictly between you and God (v.18a). Obviously, there will be a few people in our lives who might have to know about our fasting—wives, children, close fellow employees. But for the most part, fasting is something we can do without many people knowing at all.
And what is the result of this kind of fasting? Jesus says, “And your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (v.18b). Man’s applause and approving words will no longer be of any concern of yours so long as God gets the glory!
Soli Deo Gloria,