Biblical Fasting – Matthew 6:16-18

In this lesson we’ll look at Jesus’ instructions to His disciples on how to fast.

16 “Whenever you fast, don’t be sad-faced like the hypocrites. For they make their faces unattractive so their fasting is obvious to people. I assure you: They’ve got their reward! 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head, and wash your face, 18 so that you don’t show your fasting to people but to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (HCSB)

Before diving into this short passage, the one key term, fasting, must be defined to properly understand what Jesus is telling His disciples.

Fasting differed in purpose and practice between the Old and New Testaments. In the Old Testament, there were three general types of fast:

  • Normal – no food was eaten for a predetermined period of time, but liquids may be permitted.
  • Partial – eating food was limited but not completely forbidden.
  • Absolute – no food or liquids of any form were consumed during the fast.

And Old Testament fasts were done calm God’s wrath and move Him away from executing judgment. Fasting was always associated with a mournful attitude.

  • During times of emergencies, the people fasted to prevent disaster:
    • Judges 20:26 – The whole Israelite army went to Bethel where they wept and sat before the Lord.  They fasted that day until evening and offered burnt offerings and fellowship offerings to the Lord.
    • 1 Samuel 7:6 – When they gathered at Mizpah, they drew water and poured it out in the Lord’s presence.  They fasted that day,  and there they confessed, “We have sinned against the Lord.”  And Samuel judged the Israelites at Mizpah.
    • 1 Kings 21:9 – In the letters, she wrote: Proclaim a fast and seat Naboth at the head of the people.
    • 2 Chronicles 20:3 – Jehoshaphat was afraid, and he resolved  to seek the Lord. Then he proclaimed a fast  for all Judah.
    • Jeremiah 36:6 – so you must go and read from the scroll—which you wrote at my dictation —the words of the Lord in the hearing of the people at the temple of the Lord on a day of fasting. You must also read them in the hearing of all the Judeans who are coming from their cities.
  • Liberation from trouble. 
    • 2 Samuel 12:16-20 – 16 David pleaded with God for the boy. He fasted, went home, and spent the night lying on the ground.  17 The elders of his house stood beside him to get him up from the ground, but he was unwilling and would not eat anything with them. 18 On the seventh day the baby died. But David’s servants were afraid to tell him the baby was dead. They said, “Look, while the baby was alive, we spoke to him, and he wouldn’t listen to us. So how can we tell him the baby is dead? He may do something desperate.” 19 When David saw that his servants were whispering to each other, he guessed that the baby was dead. So he asked his servants, “Is the baby dead?” “He is dead,” they replied. 20 Then David got up from the ground. He washed, anointed himself, changed his clothes, went to the Lord’s house, and worshiped. Then he went home and requested something to eat. So they served him food, and he ate.
    • 1 Kings 21:27 – When Ahab heard these words, he tore his clothes, put sackcloth over his body, and fasted. He lay down in sackcloth  and walked around subdued.
    • Psalm 35:13 – Yet when they were sick, my clothing was sackcloth; I humbled myself with fasting, and my prayer was genuine.
    • Psalm 69:10 – I mourned and fasted, but it brought me insults.
  • Commitment to prayer.
    • Ezra 8:21 – I proclaimed a fast  by the Ahava River,  so that we might humble ourselves before our God and ask Him for a safe journey for us, our children, and all our possessions.
    • Nehemiah 1:4 – When I heard these words, I sat down and wept. I mourned for a number of days, fasting and praying  before the God of heaven.
  • On the Day of Atonement to mourn their sins and reconcile with God.

However, fasting became abused and turned into a public spectacle instead of a humble submission, and Yahweh rejected such fasts:

  • Jeremiah 14:12 – “If they fast, I will not hear their cry of despair. If they offer burnt offering and grain offering, I will not accept them. Rather, I will finish them off by sword, famine, and plague.”
  • Isaiah 58:1-10

By the time of Jesus, fasting had developed into a rabbinic tradition to demonstration piety that was largely ritualistic. However, Jesus’ understanding of fasting is significant in that it represents a shift in the role of fasting. His initial attitude undoubtedly reflected the fact that he grew up participating in the regular fasts and therefore shared the prevailing teachings of his day. Yet, his mature teaching about fasting breaks with the rabbinic tradition.

  • Jesus’ first concept of fasting is from the viewpoint of dependence on God during the temptation in the wilderness.
    • Matthew 4:2 – After He had fasted 40 days and 40 nights,  He was hungry.
    • Luke 4:2 – for 40 days  to be tempted by the Devil. He ate nothing during those days, and when they were over,  He was hungry.
  • Jesus ushers in the beginning of eschatological times, breaking the power of the evil age. Old Testament fasting is no longer consistent with the spirit of thanksgiving and joy that Jesus brings. However, the Kingdom is not fully here, and fasting still has its place.
    • Fasting must be done in the context of joyful thanksgiving of our new life in Christ.
    • New Covenant fasting should be done in the context of our prayer life: quietness before God, from a sense of gratitude, expressing thanksgiving, grounded in faith, leading to spiritual growth.

Now that fasting has been defined, let’s look at what Jesus is telling His disciples about fasting.

Verse 16  “Whenever you fast, don’t be sad-faced like the hypocrites. For they make their faces unattractive so their fasting is obvious to people. I assure you: They’ve got their reward!

Notice the first word of the passage, “whenever.” This implies that Jesus’ followers are to fast. This isn’t descriptive; it’s prescriptive. At the same time, it is essential to fast with the proper attitude.

  • Privately before God.
  • Not in public.
  • Jesus is telling His disciples how not to fast in verse 16.
  • Those who make fasting a public display have already received their reward from others; no further reward will come from God.

Verse 17-18   17 But when you fast, put oil on your head, and wash your face, 18 so that you don’t show your fasting to people but to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

Verse 17 This is basically a call to appear “normal” and not as one who is fasting. For someone to wash their face and put oil on their head was to act in a manner that would not indicate to others that they were fasting.

Verse 18  Only God should know that a follower of Christ is fasting. Of course, there are exceptions to this:

  • A church-wide fast.
  • A fast by members of a small group.
  • A family fasting together.
  • This list is not exhaustive but should give you an understanding of principles.

Fasting done with the proper attitude and in private is honored and rewarded by God.

Let’s a quick look at five reasons fasting is a positive thing to do.

  • Good for your health. Let’s be honest; the modern western world is overfed and under-exercised. Enjoying food is not a sin, within reason, but do you live to eat or eat to live?
  • Good for self-discipline. This is the counter to the self-indulgent world in which we live where self-denial is frowned upon.
  • Prevents us from becoming slaves to a habit. We can fast from more than food. The modern habit that is enslaving the world is our connection to cellphones and social media.
  • Preserved the ability to do without things. What things or items in your life are really essential? The smaller the number, the more independence you will have.
  • Makes us appreciate what we do have all the more. Are we so used to being “satisfied” that we’ve become dull to what we consider normal while people in other parts of the world live day-by-day?

How do we apply this short passage to our lives?

  • Do you fast? Jesus makes it clear that fasting is not optional. Fasting doesn’t have to be from food. It can be from anything you have placed a dependence on: cellphone, television, computer, social media, or anything else that fits the criteria.
  • When we fast, do we do it with the proper attitude? Do we do it to draw closer to God, help with our prayer life, or to bring a petition of an area of our life before God?
  • This section on the Sermon on the Mount is addressing an inside-out change. Examine yourself. Are you more concerned with external appearance or inner transformation? One leads to spiritual growth and relationship with God, and the other leads to spiritual decay and death.

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