“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. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, 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.” – Matthew 6:16-18 ESV
After having provided His listeners with a model for how to pray, Jesus turns His attention to the topic of fasting. In order for us to understand what Jesus is trying to say about fasting, it’s essential that we discern its role within the Hebrew cultural context. Otherwise, we will try to apply our modern perception of fasting and miss Jesus’ intended application.
For many of us, fasting is a rather foreign concept. The kind of fasting of which we are familiar seems to be tied to dieting or weight loss. And fasting has also become a popular form of cleansing or purging for health reasons. But that is not what Jesus is talking about. In Jesus’ day, fasting was a religious rite, practiced in conjunction with a particular feast day or religious festival. For instance, fasting was a regular part of the yearly celebration of the Day of Atonement.
Now on the tenth day of this seventh month is the Day of Atonement. It shall be for you a time of holy convocation, and you shall afflict yourselves and present a food offering to the Lord. And you shall not do any work on that very day, for it is a Day of Atonement, to make atonement for you before the Lord your God. For whoever is not afflicted on that very day shall be cut off from his people. – Leviticus 23:26-29 ESV
The phrase “afflict yourselves” is a reference to fasting. The people were to fast or deny themselves their normal intake of food, while at the same time presenting a food offering to the Lord. Fasting, in this case, was intended to be an expression of one’s complete dependence upon God. But it was also a way of focusing your attention solely upon God. Rather than seeking your sustenance from food, you were turning to God to meet your needs. It was a spiritual exercise that was usually accompanied by prayer and confession of sins (1 Samuel 7:5-6). Fasting was not done for its potential health benefits or cleansing properties. While it may have had beneficial side effects, fasting was meant to focus one’s attention on God, not on self. In fact, fasting was, at its core, a denial of self.
But once again, the Jews had managed to turn fasting into an external show of self-righteous piety and religious one-upmanship. And this had been going on for some time. God had confronted the Israelites regarding their false view of fasting before. He had spoken harsh words to them through the prophet Isaiah.
“Shout with the voice of a trumpet blast.
Shout aloud! Don’t be timid.
Tell my people Israel of their sins!
Yet they act so pious!
They come to the Temple every day
and seem delighted to learn all about me.
They act like a righteous nation
that would never abandon the laws of its God.
They ask me to take action on their behalf,
pretending they want to be near me.
‘We have fasted before you!’ they say.
‘Why aren’t you impressed?
We have been very hard on ourselves,
and you don’t even notice it!’
“I will tell you why!” I respond.
“It’s because you are fasting to please yourselves.
Even while you fast,
you keep oppressing your workers.
What good is fasting
when you keep on fighting and quarreling?
This kind of fasting
will never get you anywhere with me.
You humble yourselves
by going through the motions of penance,
bowing your heads
like reeds bending in the wind.
You dress in burlap
and cover yourselves with ashes.
Is this what you call fasting?
Do you really think this will please the Lord?
“No, this is the kind of fasting I want:
Free those who are wrongly imprisoned;
lighten the burden of those who work for you.
Let the oppressed go free,
and remove the chains that bind people.
Share your food with the hungry,
and give shelter to the homeless.
Give clothes to those who need them,
and do not hide from relatives who need your help.” – Isaiah 58:1-7 NLT
So, when Jesus confronts the Jews in His audience with their false concept of fasting, He is simply reiterating the concerns of His Father. Once again, He refers to “the hypocrites,” a clear reference to the Pharisees and other religious leaders. They had taken fasting, a form of self-denial and self-humiliation, and turned it into a means of self-promotion. They fasted to get noticed. They fasted to garner the praises of men, but not to confess their sins before God. This was not the kind of fasting God desired. He desired fasting that came from the heart. He wanted them to deny themselves the sins they so deeply enjoyed committing. In the case of the Isaiah passage, God expected the Jews to free the wrongly imprisoned, to lighten the burdens of their workers, to let the oppressed go free, and remove the chains that held people bound. While they were busy wearing sackcloth and denying themselves food in an attempt to get God’s attention, they were also busy practicing all kinds of moral and ethical injustices. And God was not impressed.
For the Jews in Jesus’ audience, the problem was even worse. The kind of fasting they were exposed to was not even intended to get God’s attention. It was aimed at men. Jesus accuses them of trying “to look miserable and disheveled so people will admire them for their fasting” (Matthew 6:16 NLT). Fasting had become all about the outward impression it left on those around you. But throughout His message, Jesus has been talking about those who are approved by God. And just as we have seen in the Isaiah passage, God does not approve of fasting that is done with wrong motives or in a hypocritical manner.
Like any spiritual discipline, fasting can be abused. It can also be misunderstood and practiced for all the wrong reasons. Reading the Bible is a good thing. It is proper for God’s children to spend time in His Word. But we can make Bible reading a badge of honor and a means by which we show others just how spiritual we really are. The same thing can be said of prayer, Scripture memory, Bible study, and giving. These spiritual disciplines can be twisted and misused, becoming nothing more than outward signs of piety that do not reflect the true condition of the heart. It was King David who wrote these powerful words after having been confronted and convicted by the prophet Samuel regarding his affair with Bathsheba.
For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it;
you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. – Psalm 51:16-17 ESV
The external practice of offering sacrifices meant nothing if the heart remained unchanged and unrepentant. Fasting that was merely an outward show done to convince others of our spirituality will never impress God. He sees our hearts. He knows our motives. And Jesus says that if you fast to garner the praise of men, you will get all the reward you are seeking, but you won’t have the approval of God. You won’t know what it means to be blessed by God. Like the Jews in Isaiah’s day, you will find yourself saying, “I have fasted before you! Why aren’t you impressed?”
Seeking the praise of men is a dangerous game to play. It means we value their opinions over that of God. We care more about their perceptions of us than we do about how God sees us. And Jesus warns us that if the reward we seek through our acts of spiritual discipline is the praise of men, we will get exactly what we want, but no more.
Let’s bring it into a modern context. If I tell others I am fasting in order to impress them with my spirituality, but my real intent is to lose weight, I may impress my friends and drop a few pounds, but I will not gain favor with God.
If I truly want to deny myself something as a means of humbling myself before God, Jesus would recommend that I do it in secret. He would tell me to hide what I am doing from others because they don’t need to know. I don’t need to advertise my fast because God sees my heart. I don’t need to tell others how much I read my Bible or how many Scripture verses I have memorized. God knows, and that is all that matters. But it is important to remember that God also knows my motives. He knows why I read my Bible and memorize Scripture. If I do these things while ignoring sin in my life, I am nothing more than a hypocrite, a play-actor. I am attempting to cover up my sin by doing righteous things. But God wants a broken and contrite heart. Listen to the words of God spoken through the prophet Isaiah:
“Remove the heavy yoke of oppression.
Stop pointing your finger and spreading vicious rumors!
Feed the hungry,
and help those in trouble.
Then your light will shine out from the darkness,
and the darkness around you will be as bright as noon.
The Lord will guide you continually,
giving you water when you are dry
and restoring your strength.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
like an ever-flowing spring.
Some of you will rebuild the deserted ruins of your cities.
Then you will be known as a rebuilder of walls
and a restorer of homes.” – Isaiah 58:9-12 NLT
Fasting should be an outward expression of the inward condition of the heart. If our hearts are prideful and self-focused, our fasting will end up being done for our own glory, and not for God’s. If our hearts are broken, humble, and dependent upon God and His mercy, our fasting will be done for His glory and His approval, not for the praise of men. God knows our heart, and He will reward us according to the intention of our heart. Our Father, who sees in secret, will reward us.
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.