Godly Sorrow

12 “Yet even now,” declares the Lord,
    “return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
13  and rend your hearts and not your garments.”
Return to the Lord your God,
    for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love;
    and he relents over disaster.
14 Who knows whether he will not turn and relent,
    and leave a blessing behind him,
a grain offering and a drink offering
    for the Lord your God?

15 Blow the trumpet in Zion;
    consecrate a fast;
call a solemn assembly;
16 gather the people.
Consecrate the congregation;
    assemble the elders;
gather the children,
    even nursing infants.
Let the bridegroom leave his room,
    and the bride her chamber.

17 Between the vestibule and the altar
    let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep
and say, “Spare your people, O Lord,
    and make not your heritage a reproach,
    a byword among the nations.
Why should they say among the peoples,
    ‘Where is their God?’” Joel 2:12-17 ESV

The locusts have come and gone. But the threat of invasion and annihilation at the hands of a massive foreign army still looms on the horizon. News of this pending disaster had left the people of Judah demoralized and in fear of their lives. So, God takes the opportunity to call them to repentance. He has already called for a sacred assembly, a gathering of the people for the purpose of fasting and mourning.

Put on sackcloth and lament, O priests;
    wail, O ministers of the altar.
Go in, pass the night in sackcloth,
    O ministers of my God!
Because grain offering and drink offering
    are withheld from the house of your God.

Consecrate a fast;
    call a solemn assembly.
Gather the elders
    and all the inhabitants of the land
to the house of the Lord your God,
    and cry out to the Lord. – Joel 1:13-14 ESV

Even the priests were to have exchanged their robes for sackcloth. And since the locusts had left no grain or wine to offer as sacrifices, the people were to offer up their tears and prayers of contrition instead.  God, in His omniscience, had seen this day coming. Hundreds of years earlier, when Solomon had completed construction of the temple, he had gathered the people of Israel for a special dedication ceremony. And, in response to Solomon’s prayer of dedication, God had responded with a promise. Notice the details found in God’s response:.

“When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command the locust to devour the land, or send pestilence among my people, if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” – Deuteronomy 7:14-15 ESV

The locusts had devoured just as God had commanded them to do. Now, it was the peoples’ turn to respond. Judgment had come, but were they ready to turn to God in humility and contrition? Better yet, were they prepared to reject their sinful lifestyles and return to God’s original call to holiness? Long before the people of Israel ever set foot in the land of Canaan,  God had called them to live according to His commands, a clearly articulated legal code of conduct that would set them apart from every other nation on earth. But their faithful adherence to His commands would not only distinguish them from the rest of mankind, but it would also bring God’s blessings. God had given them His word, communicating it through Moses, their deliverer and leader.

“If you fully obey the Lord your God and carefully keep all his commands that I am giving you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the world. You will experience all these blessings if you obey the Lord your God:

Your towns and your fields
    will be blessed.
Your children and your crops
    will be blessed.
The offspring of your herds and flocks
    will be blessed.
Your fruit baskets and breadboards
    will be blessed.
Wherever you go and whatever you do,
    you will be blessed.

“The Lord will conquer your enemies when they attack you. They will attack you from one direction, but they will scatter from you in seven!

“The Lord will guarantee a blessing on everything you do and will fill your storehouses with grain. The Lord your God will bless you in the land he is giving you.

“If you obey the commands of the Lord your God and walk in his ways, the Lord will establish you as his holy people as he swore he would do. Then all the nations of the world will see that you are a people claimed by the Lord, and they will stand in awe of you. – Deuteronomy 28:9-10 NLT

But God’s promise of blessing had been accompanied by a set of curses. If the people failed to obey God’s commands, there would be ramifications. Disobedience would bring divine discipline.

“But if you refuse to listen to the Lord your God and do not obey all the commands and decrees I am giving you today, all these curses will come and overwhelm you.” – Deuteronomy 28:15 NLT

And God had provided them with graphic details concerning the nature of the curses they would have to endure. He had also left no doubt about the cause of the curses when they came.

“If you refuse to listen to the Lord your God and to obey the commands and decrees he has given you, all these curses will pursue and overtake you until you are destroyed. These horrors will serve as a sign and warning among you and your descendants forever. If you do not serve the Lord your God with joy and enthusiasm for the abundant benefits you have received, you will serve your enemies whom the Lord will send against you. You will be left hungry, thirsty, naked, and lacking in everything. The Lord will put an iron yoke on your neck, oppressing you harshly until he has destroyed you.” – Deuteronomy 28:45-48 NLT

Now, generations later, the people of Judah experiencing first-hand the unpleasant consequences of their refusal to obey God. And this was not a knee-jerk reaction on God’s part. He had endured centuries of unfaithfulness on the part of His chosen people. But His patience had run out. He would no longer allow His people to drag His name through the mud and destroy His reputation by their rebellious behavior.

But God does give them an opportunity to repent and return. It was not too late. Yet, don’t miss the conditions He establishes for them.

return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments…” – Joel 2:12-13 ESV

God’s focus was on the inner condition of their hearts, not any outward signs of remorse or regret they might display. He knew that the judgment they were having to endure might cause them to beg for His forgiveness, hoping for relief from the pain and suffering. He was well aware that any sorrow they expressed over their sin might be nothing more than regret, not true repentance. The apostle Paul points out the difference between what he calls godly sorrow and worldly sorrow.

For the kind of sorrow God wants us to experience leads us away from sin and results in salvation. There’s no regret for that kind of sorrow. But worldly sorrow, which lacks repentance, results in spiritual death. – 2 Corinthians 7:10 NLT

Expressing their sorrow for their sin was not going to be enough. Fasting, mourning, and weeping were not to be seen as some kind of magic, get-out-of-jail-free card. Their heart had to be in it and behind it. Regret over sin is not the same as regret over the loss of a relationship with God. Which is why God says, “Return to the Lord your God.” This was all about their broken relationship with Him. They had abandoned Him. They had turned their back on Him. And God wanted them to return because they longed for Him. Running from pain and suffering is not the same thing as running to God.

The people of Judah had made a habit out of running from one false god to another. They were fickle and unfaithful. And God wanted them to return to Him because they longed for Him. To come to God just to get something from God is not an expression of love. It reveals a mindset that views God as some kind of Genie in a bottle, who exists to do our bidding and to fulfill our wishes.

But God is “is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love” (Joel 2:13 ESV) to those who return to Him wholeheartedly. The interesting thing to note is that God desires their return to Him, whether He relents from judgment or not. Yes,  He does offer them the hope of relief, but He does not guarantee it.

Who knows whether he will not turn and relent,
    and leave a blessing behind him,
a grain offering and a drink offering
    for the Lord your God? – Joel 2:14 ESV

Again, the goal of their repentance was to escape the pain and suffering they were having to endure. They deserved all that was happening to them. It was the righteous judgment of God for their rebellion against Him. But the point is that, along with God’s judgment, they had lost their ability to commune with Him. Their sin had separated them from God and His blessings. The blessings of God are not the point. It is the presence of God that should be the heartfelt desire of every believer. Loss of communion with Him should be our greatest fear, not the thought of judgment from Him.

It is essential that we see that restoration to a right relationship with God is to be our highest priority. God tells them that if they return to Him in true repentance, one of the blessings they may receive is “a grain offering and a drink offering for the Lord your God.” The locusts had made these offerings impossible. But God was willing to restore them if the people would only restore their commitment to Him. The blessings of God are to be secondary to a restored relationship with God.

This entire chapter is about the people being made right with God. Joel has called the entire community to gather together and to express their desire to return to God. And the focus behind their fasting, mourning, and weeping is not to be the relief of their suffering, but the glory of God’s name.

“Spare your people, Lord!
    Don’t let your special possession become an object of mockery.
Don’t let them become a joke for unbelieving foreigners who say,
    ‘Has the God of Israel left them?’” – Joel 2:17 NLT

A truly repentant heart will express a longing for the glory of God. It will communicate a deep desire to be restored to a right relationship with God, not just escape from the judgment of God.

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.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

 

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Self-Denial vs Self-Sacrifice

1 “Cry aloud; do not hold back;
    lift up your voice like a trumpet;
declare to my people their transgression,
    to the house of Jacob their sins.
Yet they seek me daily
    and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that did righteousness
    and did not forsake the judgment of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgments;
    they delight to draw near to God.
‘Why have we fasted, and you see it not?
    Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?’
Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure,
    and oppress all your workers.
Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
    and to hit with a wicked fist.
Fasting like yours this day
    will not make your voice to be heard on high.
Is such the fast that I choose,
    a day for a person to humble himself?
Is it to bow down his head like a reed,
    and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him?
Will you call this a fast,
    and a day acceptable to the Lord?

“Is not this the fast that I choose:
    to loose the bonds of wickedness,
    to undo the straps of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
    and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
    and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him,
    and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
Then shall your light break forth like the dawn,
    and your healing shall spring up speedily;
your righteousness shall go before you;
    the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
    you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’
If you take away the yoke from your midst,
    the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness,
10 if you pour yourself out for the hungry
    and satisfy the desire of the afflicted,
then shall your light rise in the darkness
    and your gloom be as the noonday.
11 And the Lord will guide you continually
    and satisfy your desire in scorched places
    and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
    like a spring of water,
    whose waters do not fail.
12 And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
    you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
    the restorer of streets to dwell in.

13 “If you turn back your foot from the Sabbath,
    from doing your pleasure on my holy day,
and call the Sabbath a delight
    and the holy day of the Lord honorable;
if you honor it, not going your own ways,
    or seeking your own pleasure, or talking idly;
14 then you shall take delight in the Lord,
    and I will make you ride on the heights of the earth;
I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father,
    for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” Isaiah 58:1-14 ESV

Something is wrong with this picture. In this chapter God is going to paint a somewhat confusing image of His people. On the one hand, He describes them as transgressors of His ways. They are disobedient and rebellious, failing to live up to the standards He had provided through His law. And he pulls no punches in pointing out their guilt.

“Tell my people Israel of their sins!
   Yet they act so pious!” – Isaiah 58:1-2 BNLT

There is a palpable dissonance in the outward behavior of the people of God. At times, they appear to be enthusiastic seekers of God. From all outward appearances they seem to be genuinly excited about growing in their knowledge of God. They even display a certain allegiance to God, in the hopes of winning His favor.

They fast. They pray. The offer sacrifices. In other words, the display all the right evidence of being faithful followers of God. But then, God reveals the disconnect between their actions and His judgment against them. Even they can’t understand why God seems so upset with them. From their perspective, the were doing all the right things to win God’s favor and earn His assistance in time of need. They even ask God:

“Why have we fasted, and you see it not?
    Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?” – Isaiah 58:3 ESV

They are at a loss as to why God would ignore such obviously righteous behavior. So, God explains His evident inattention and inaction.

“It’s because you are fasting to please yourselves.
Even while you fast,
    you keep oppressing your workers. – Isaiah 58:3 NLT

It was all about themselves. Their fasting was nothing more than an outward display of righteous-looking behavior that was intended to win brownie points with God and impress other men. And Jesus addressed this kind of hypocritical fasting.

“When you fast, do not look sullen like the hypocrites, for they make their faces unattractive so that people will see them fasting. I tell you the truth, they have their reward” – Matthew 6:16 NLT

They were fasting to get noticed. And all the while they fasted, they were taking unjust advantage of the people who worked for them. Their outward display of morality had a certain inconsistency about it that God found unacceptable. Everything they did was intended to impress. But God was having none of it. He could see into their hearts and knew full well that they were simply going through the motions. They were expecting God to reward their actions, but Jesus made it clear that the only reward these kinds of people were going to get for their efforts was the praise of men.

Fasting was intended to reflect a repentant and remorseful heart. It should have been an outward display of their inner desire to turn from all other things in life and seek God only. But their brand of fasting was meant to satisfy their own selfish desires. Their fasting wasn’t a reflection of a changed heart. It was simply meant to change how others thought about them.

And just so they don’t miss His point, God points out the difference between their kind of fasting and His.

“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 58:6-7 NLT

God expected a change in behavior. He demanded that their outward displays of self-denial be true reflections of a heart that was selfless rather than selfish. They were fasting to get God’s attention and to garner His help. But God had no intention of responding to their hypocritical charade. Going through the motions and feigning a false commitment to God was not going to cut it. Seeking His assistance while remaining unwilling to follow His commands was not going to cut it.

But if their fasting became sincere, and their display of humility were to reflect a truly repentant heart, they could count on God’s assistance.

“Then your salvation will come like the dawn,
    and your wounds will quickly heal.
Your godliness will lead you forward,
    and the glory of the Lord will protect you from behind.
Then when you call, the Lord will answer.
    ‘Yes, I am here,’ he will quickly reply.” – Isaiah 58:8-9 NLT

He would show up in a big way. And their fasting would bring about significant change in their own lives. Fasting that is accompanied by true self-denial that puts the will of God and the needs of others first, brings about true godliness. It also brings the favor and glory of God. He steps in and answers us when we call. He delivers the salvation we desperately need.

At the end of the day, God is far more interested in self-sacrifice than self-denial. Giving up food for a season is nothing when compared to sharing your food with the needy. Fasting from buying new clothes means little if you are unwilling to clothe those who have nothing to wear. Giving up something you enjoy for a predetermined period of time bears little merit when compared to giving what you have to care for those who have nothing.

Near the end of His earthly life, Jesus taught a timeliness lesson to His disciples. It had to do with the end times, during a period known as the Great Tribulation. There will be those on earth who find themselves persecuted for their relationship with God Almighty. And yet, there will be those who step in and provide these individuals with food and shelter. And Jesus announces that these gracious individuals will be blessed by God for their generosity. He claims that their actions to help the helpless were just like they had been extending the same courtesies to Him. But they will ask Him:

“‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’” – Matthew 37-39 NLT

And He will answer them:

“‘I tell you the truth, just as you did it for one of the least of these brothers or sisters of mine, you did it for me.’” – Matthew 25:40 NLT

And God tells the people of Judah that, if they will practice true fasting, sacrificing themselves for the well-being of others, He will reward them.

your light will shine out from the darkness – vs 10

The Lord will guide you continually… – vs 11

You will be like a well-watered garden – vs 11

you will rebuild the deserted ruins of your cities – vs 12

“the Lord will be your delight…” – vs 14

I will give you great honor and satisfy you with the inheritance I promised to your ancestor Jacob – vs 14

Physical fasting accomplishes little, if the heart is not sincere. But selfless sacrifice is always in keeping with the will of God and always brings with it the rewards of God. Going through the motions may impress others, but it will never impress God. Jesus provided His disciples with the key to receiving the reward of God.

“When you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others when you are fasting, but only to your Father who is in secret. And your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you.” – Matthew 6:18 NLT

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.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Starved for Attention.

“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 understand its role in their cultural context. Otherwise, we will try to apply our modern understanding of fasting and miss the intended application. For us, fasting is probably a rather foreign concept. Most fasting we hear about seems to be tied to dieting and weight loss. And fasting has also become a popular form of cleansing the body of toxins 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 to turn to God to meet your needs. It was a spiritual exercise that was usually accompanied by prayer and the 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 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 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 praise of men, not confess their sins before God. This was not the kind of fasting God desired. He wanted 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 sack clothe 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, their 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 from wrong motives or in a hypocritical manner.

Like any spiritual discipline, fasting can be abused. It can also be misunderstood and used for the wrong reasons. Reading the Bible is a good thing. 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 convicted by the prophet Samuel about 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 the reward you seek, 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. But if I truly want to deny myself something for the sake 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 what is in our heart. If our hearts are prideful and self-focused, our fasting will end up being done for our own glory, not 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 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 with 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.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

More Than a Man.

And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written,

“‘Man shall not live by bread alone,
    but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written,

“‘He will command his angels concerning you,’

and

“‘On their hands they will bear you up,
    lest you strike your foot against a stone.’”

Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’” Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10 Then Jesus said to him, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written,

“‘You shall worship the Lord your God
    and him only shall you serve.’”

11 Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and were ministering to him. Matthew 4:2-11 ESV

Jesus has just received the anointing of the Holy Spirit and an audible and verbal testimony from God Himself confirming Him to be the Son of God. His long-awaited earthly ministry is about to begin and the very first thing we see Him doing is heading into the wilderness, under the direction of the Holy Spirit, to be tempted by Satan himself. God has just expressed His pleasure with Jesus and, yet, God’s immediate plan for Him was going to be a period of severe temptation at the hands of the enemy. There is a seeming dissonance in this narrative that should leave us feeling a bit uncomfortable and uncertain. Why was this the first major act of Jesus’ earthly administration as the Son of God and the King of the Jews? Why was there no grand announcement to the people of Israel concerning His arrival? His unique genealogical record and virgin birth established Him as the legitimate heir to the throne of David. His baptism illustrated His willingness to fulfill the righteous will of God and confirmed His status as God’s Son and His role as the promised Messiah. But instead of beginning His ministry with a speech or a gran entry into Jerusalem, Jesus was led by the Spirit of God into the vast emptiness and stark loneliness of the Judean wilderness. And there was a singular purpose behind this strange inaugural act of Jesus’ earthly ministry: To be tempted by the Devil. For a period of 40 days, Jesus went without food and water, while suffering a direct onslaught  from the enemy. And Matthew simply matter-of-factly states that, at the end of 40 days of fasting, Jesus was hungry. But Luke reminds us that Jesus was not alone. He had entered the wilderness “full of the Holy Spirit” (Luke 4:1 ESV). It had been the Holy Spirit who had led Jesus into the wilderness and He would be with Him throughout this long ordeal. 

The immediate temptation of Jesus, His battle with the spiritual forces of wickedness, reveal that His earthly ministry was going to be met with intense opposition. Satan, the prince of this world, was not going to stand back and allow Jesus to enter into his domain unopposed. It is important to remember how John the Baptist had described Jesus upon seeing Him: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29 ESV). John had recognized that Jesus was coming as more than just a physical, earthly king. He was the Messiah, the Savior of the world and because of His coming, “all flesh shall see the salvation of God” (Luke 3:6 ESV). Satan recognized the significance of Jesus’ arrival on the scene and was ready to do everything in his power to thwart God’s plan of redemption by eliminating His agent of redemption.

The apostle Paul knew well the spiritual battle that is waging on this planet because of the incarnation of Jesus Christ. He wrote, “we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12 NLT). The entrance of the Son of God into a world long dominated by Satan and his demonic forces was destined to result in a battle of epic proportions. And Satan tried to eliminate any potential threat by personally attacking the God-appointed means of man’s salvation. If he could dissuade Jesus from doing the will of God, Satan knew he could thwart the plan of God. 

Satan appears to question the validity of Jesus’ Sonship, saying, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread” (Matthew 4:3 ESV). But this was probably less an expression of doubt concerning Jesus’ deity than a vain attempt on Satan’s part to appeal to the pride of Jesus by tempting Him to flaunt His divine power as the Son of God. He was trying to get Jesus to use His divine attributes to satisfy self rather than submit to the will of God. Satan appealed to Jesus’ physical need of hunger by stressing His divine power to create. But Jesus responded, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4 ESV). For Jesus, obedience to the will of God took precedence over His own physical well-being. He found nourishment in doing what His Father commanded rather than in meeting His own needs. Which is why He would later tell His disciples, “My nourishment comes from doing the will of God, who sent me, and from finishing his work” (John 4:34 NLT). It is why He could say in His Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied” (Mathew 5:6 ESV). Jesus had come to do the will of God, even when that will meant suffering pain and enduring an undeserved and unbearable death on the cross. In the garden on the night He was betrayed, Jesus pleaded with His Father, “if you are willing, please take this cup of suffering away from me. Yet I want your will to be done, not mine” (Luke 22:42 NLT). And Paul records that Jesus did the will of His Father and “humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8 ESV).

But Satan was not done. Again, he seems to question Jesus’ deity, stating, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down…” (Matthew 4:6 ESV). He was really trying to get Jesus to flaunt His power and position by testing His Father’s love for Him. In a classic case of showmanship, Satan took Jesus to the temple in Jerusalem and tried to get Him to leap from the highest point. What a great way to attract a crowd and make an impression. Surely, this kind of dramatic miracle would convince the people of Israel that He was their Messiah. But the problem with Satan’s scenario was that it was not God’s plan. Jesus saw Satan’s ploy for what it was: An attempt to get Him to test His own Father’s love for Him. Which is why Jesus simply responded, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test” (Matthew 4:7 ESV). Satan wanted Jesus to test the faithfulness of God. He wanted Jesus to question the Father’s love for Him by putting His life on the line. But Jesus knew that He had no reason to test God’s love. His relationship with His Father had never been in question. His confidence in His Father’s care and concern for Him had never been in doubt. Jesus had heard His Father say, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” and He had believed Him. No questions asked. No tests required.

Finally, Satan gave one final try to distract Jesus from His God-ordained mission. And this one was aimed at getting Jesus to circumvent God’s plan for His future exaltation by avoiding the crucifixion. Satan was offering Jesus “all the kingdoms of the world and their glory” but without any need for suffering on His part. And all Jesus had to do was worship Satan instead of God. He had to swear allegiance to the enemy and, in doing so, He could have glory without cost. But that was not God’s plan. That was not God’s will. And the apostle Paul made it perfectly clear that the exaltation and glorification of Jesus, which were rightfully His as the Son of God, would come only after Jesus had done the will of God.

8 …he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. – Philippians 2:8-11 ESV

There are no short-cuts to glorification. There would no salvation apart from the crucifixion. There would be no resurrection apart from Jesus willing obedience to suffer humiliation. Worship of Satan brings no one glory but himself. His tempting offer of self-glorification is a lie that benefits no one but himself. And Jesus saw through Satan’s lie, shouting, “You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve” (Matthew 4:10 ESV). And at that, Satan left Him. The enemy had failed. He had met his match. In Jesus, Satan had met a man like no other man he had ever encountered. He was the God-man, filled with the Spirit of God and willing to live in perfect obedience to the will of God. He was not tempted by self-gratification, self-preservation or self-glorification. His will was subordinate to that of His heavenly Father. And Satan, out of tricks and out of his league, left Jesus alone. But as we will see, the battle was far from over.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

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.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

God Saves.

The word reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. And he issued a proclamation and published through Nineveh, “By the decree of the king and his nobles: Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything. Let them not feed or drink water, but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and let them call out mightily to God. Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.”

When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it. Jonah 3:6-10 ESV

Nineveh was the capital city of the Assyrian empire. It was a large city and it is believed that it contained a population of at least 1 million people. The Assyrians were known for their military prowess and their cruelty. They were far from being barbarians, though. Nineveh was a great city and its inhabitants would have been civilized and somewhat sophisticated. Yet, God had deemed them as wicked. And He had told Jonah to warn them of their coming destruction. That message had made a dramatic impact on the people, leaving them in a state of mourning, wearing sackcloth and ashes. And when the king of Nineveh, who would have been the king over all Assyrian, heard the message of Jonah, he too reacted the same way. We’re told, “removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes” (Jonah 3:6 ESV). This great king who ruled over one of the most powerful nations of that time, took the warning of God seriously, and he issued a decree that was sent throughout the entire city.

No one, not even the animals from your herds and flocks, may eat or drink anything at all. People and animals alike must wear garments of mourning, and everyone must pray earnestly to God. They must turn from their evil ways and stop all their violence. – Jonah 3:7-8 NLT

He proclaimed a city-wide fast that was to include even the animals. Everyone and everything was to be covered in sackcloth and ashes. But not only that, the people were to “stop all their violence”. In other words, they were to change their ways. And that word, translated “violence” is the Hebrew word chamac and it means “violence, wrong, cruelty, injustice” (“H2555 – chamac – Strong’s Hebrew Lexicon (KJV).” Blue Letter Bible). It was used of someone who misused their power over others in an unjust and cruel manner. The Assyrians were conquerors, and they were known for their extreme cruelty toward the nations they defeated. But there were probably all kinds of “violence” and injustice taking place within the walls of the city. And the king knew that this was the basis of God’s warning of impending destruction. They were going to have to change their ways. So, he issued a proclamation.

The prophet, Nahum, would later pen these words regarding the city of Ninevah, as part of God’s words against them.

What sorrow awaits Nineveh,
    the city of murder and lies!
She is crammed with wealth
    and is never without victims.
Hear the crack of whips,
    the rumble of wheels!
Horses’ hooves pound,
    and chariots clatter wildly.
See the flashing swords and glittering spears
    as the charioteers charge past!
There are countless casualties,
    heaps of bodies—
so many bodies that
    people stumble over them. – Nahum 3:1-3 ESV

Violence and cruelty were part of their DNA. It was in their nature. And it was through violence and cruelty that they had become a great nation. And yet, the king of Nineveh knew that what they were guilty. He was well aware that their behavior was wrong and they were far from innocent. And he hoped that their change in behavior would garner them the favor of God.

Who can tell? Perhaps even yet God will change his mind and hold back his fierce anger from destroying us. – Jonah 3:9 NLT

The prophet, Isaiah, wrote some very harsh words to the people of Israel regarding their practice of fasting.

“‘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?” – Isaiah 58:3-5 NLT

The people of Israel were guilty of going through the motions. They were prone to act like they were sorrowful, while continuing to do the very things for which they were supposedly fasting and mourning over. But in the pagan city of Nineveh, the king and his people vowed to change their ways. They were willing to repent, to change their minds and their actions regarding the very things that had made them a great nation and a formidable city. They were known and feared for the cruelty. And yet, they were willing to give it all up in order to escape the wrath of God.

It is important to point out that this was probably not a repentance leading to salvation. They were simply wanting to escape death. But they believed the word of the prophet and took seriously the threat that Yahweh, the god of the Jews was powerful enough to do what He said He would do. And so they bowed in reverence and awe to Him. This was not a wholesale conversion of the population of the city of Nineveh. But it was a transformation or turning of their hearts from the pagan gods to the one true God. During this point in time, they knew that their hopes of salvation were in the hands of the Hebrew God, not their own. So they called out to Him, and God spared them.

When God saw what they had done and how they had put a stop to their evil ways, he changed his mind and did not carry out the destruction he had threatened. – Jonah 3:10 NLT

Did their actions change God’s mind? Was God somehow convinced to alter His plans and go from destroying the city of Nineveh to sparing it? One of the main messages contained with the book of Jonah is the sovereignty of God. He is in control. Jonah could try and run from Him, but God controlled the wind, waves and the sea. Jonah could try and end his own life in an attempt to thwart the plan of God, but God controlled the creatures in the sea. And when God had originally told Jonah to “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me” (Jonah 1:2 ESV), it was a clear indication that He was fully aware of all that was going on within the walls of the city of Nineveh. God is omniscient. God is omnipresent. And God knew exactly what was going to happen before it happened. Yes, He had given Jonah a message.

“Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” – Jonah 3:4 ESV

But as we saw before, that word, “overthrown” has a variety of meanings in the Hebrew. While it can mean “destruction,” it can also mean “to turn or transform”. When God told Jonah what to say, Jonah and the people of Nineveh heard one thing only: God was going to destroy them. But God had something else in mind. He was going to transform them. He was going to take a great city, known for its cruelty, injustice, and polytheism, and have them bow before Him, changing their behavior in the process.

But wait, doesn’t the text clearly say, “God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it”? Yes, it does. But that does not mean that God was always aware that they would repent. He knew all along that His word of warning, spoken through Jonah, would have the very effect that it did. It is from our finite perspective as men, that the outcome looks as if it was dictated by the actions of men. They repented, therefore, God spared them. But this would make God far less than sovereign and His will left up to the whims of men. What if they had failed to repent? Would God have been forced to destroy them? Was their future in God’s hands or their own? The overarching message of the Bible is that God is in full and complete control. And while that may be hard for us to accept as men, it is the reality of God’s character and the nature of the universe He has created. God leaves nothing up to chance. H. L. Ellison explains it this way:

“We may know the character of God only from what he does and the words he uses to explain his actions. When he does not do what he said he would, we as finite men can say only that he has changed his mind or repented, even though we should recognize, as Jonah did, that he had intended or desired this all along.” – Ellison, “Jonah,” pp. 383-84. Cf. Feinberg, p. 37.

Why would God spare a pagan city like Nineveh? The text doesn’t tell us, but it would be easy to assume that God was using the repentance of this immoral, wicked city to shame the people of God. He sent one prophet, and a reluctant one at that, to share a single message of coming destruction. And He sent him to a people who were not His own. And yet, they heard, they listened and the repented. They believed God. It is similar to what God did in the New Testament, when He took His gracious offer of salvation to the Jewish people and they refused to accept it. Instead, they crucified the messenger. So God took His message to the Gentiles, the non-Jews, and they heard and believed. Paul would later write:

God has appointed me as the apostle to the Gentiles. I stress this, for I want somehow to make the people of Israel jealous of what you Gentiles have, so I might save some of them. For since their rejection meant that God offered salvation to the rest of the world, their acceptance will be even more wonderful. It will be life for those who were dead! – Romans 11:13-15 NLT

God was using the Ninevites to shame the Israelites. But He was also showing His sovereign power to save anyone He might so choose. There is no sinner too great that God cannot redeem him.

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.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Ask. Seek. Knock.

“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!– Matthew 7:7-11 ESV

As Jesus begins to bring His message to a close, we must keep in mind that He is still addressing those who are blessed or approved by God. Many of these individuals, including His disciples, are in His audience, but have not yet embraced Him as their Savior. But they will. In a way, Jesus is speaking prophetically, talking in a future sense of those who will come to faith in Him as their Messiah. But it is still early on in His ministry and most are not yet aware of who He really is. They view Him as a rabbi or teacher, and a worker of miracles, but have not yet understood His claim to be the Son of God and their Messiah. But the day will come when many will believe and express as Peter did. “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16 ESV). It is to these individuals Jesus is speaking when He says, “Keep on asking, and you will receive what you ask for. Keep on seeking, and you will find. Keep on knocking, and the door will be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7 NLT). Jesus is describing an intimate relationship with God the Father that provides His children with constant access into His presence. With three simple words: ask, seek, and knock, Jesus is letting them know that all who are approved by God will enjoy a special relationship with Him that will be far greater than any earthly relationship they have known.

There are those who try to give these verses an evangelistic interpretation, turning them into an invitation to salvation. But if kept in their context, it is clear that these verses are not inviting anyone into a saving relationship with Jesus. Instead, they are encouraging those who have already been approved by God, because of their faith in Christ, to take advantage of their newfound relationship with Him. “For everyone who asks, receives. Everyone who seeks, finds. And to everyone who knocks, the door will be opened” (Matthew 7:9 NLT). We can ask of God and receive from Him. We can seek Him, and find Him. We can knock, and He will open the door to us. Gone are the days of trying to win access into God’s presence through keeping the law. There is no longer any need to try to win God’s approval and get His attention through human effort or achievement. Jesus was letting His audience know that the day was coming when the blessed or approved by God would have unparalleled intimacy with God. And I think His use of these three words: ask, seek, and knock; are directly tied to His words regarding fasting, prayer and alms-giving. If you think about it, fasting was intended to give up something earthly in order to focus one’s attention on God. It was an attempt to seek intimacy and fellowship with God by denying oneself the pleasures of this life. Prayer was a means by which men could come to God and petition Him for their needs. And alms-giving was a mercy-based generosity to those who came to you with their needs. Jesus is telling us that we can knock at God’s door and receive mercy from Him. He opens His door and invites us into His presence.

God is good and loving. He is gracious and kind. We can ask of Him and He will answer. We can seek Him and find Him. We can knock and find access into His presence. All because of what Jesus Christ has accomplished on our behalf. And Jesus reminds His listeners that God is far more generous and loving than any earthly father. Even a human father, in his sinfulness, would never give something harmful in response to his child’s request. It would be ludicrous to think of any dad giving his child a stone rather than bread, or a snake instead of fish. And our heavenly Father is far more loving, gracious and good than any earthly father. We can ask, seek and knock, knowing that He will answer us, reveal Himself to us and give us access into His presence.

For the average Jew, God was a distant deity. He was not viewed as easily accessible or approachable. The entire sacrificial system pointed to a God who demanded cleansing from impurity before access could be granted. Sin was a constant barrier to God for the Jews. And they were required to go through the priests in order to have their sin forgiven and their relationship with God restored. But Jesus is introducing something radical and new. With His coming death on the cross, the veil in the temple will be torn in half, symbolizing the barrier between God and man having been destroyed and eliminated once for all. With the shedding of His own blood, Jesus will eliminate the need for the blood of bulls and goats. He will act as both the sacrificial lamb and the high priest, offering His own life as a sacrifice for the sins of mankind. And those who place their faith in His sacrifice will enjoy unbroken fellowship with God.

These verses tie directly back to the opening lines of Jesus’ sermon. Those who are approved by God, though they be poor in spirit, they will be citizens of God’s kingdom. Though they will experience days of mourning in this life, they will receive comfort from God. And their willing meekness or submission to the will of God for their lives will garner them the earth as their inheritance. When they hunger and thirst for the righteousness of God, they will be completely satisfied. When they choose to show mercy to others, they will continue to receive mercy from God. And their purity of heart will allow them to see God in their lives. When they seek to be at peace with men and introduce them to how to have peace with God, they will be recognized as the sons of God. And finally, any persecution they face in this life because of their faith will be well worth it, because they have been guaranteed a place in God’s kingdom.

Ask, seek, and knock. Three words of invitation to all those who have been approved by God. And they should produce in us a joy that is unparalleled and unsurpassed. Like the psalmist we should say:

Come, let us sing to the Lord!
    Let us shout joyfully to the Rock of our salvation.
Let us come to him with thanksgiving.
    Let us sing psalms of praise to him.
For the Lord is a great God,
    a great King above all gods.
He holds in his hands the depths of the earth
    and the mightiest mountains.
The sea belongs to him, for he made it.
    His hands formed the dry land, too.

Come, let us worship and bow down.
    Let us kneel before the Lord our maker,
    for he is our God.
We are the people he watches over,
    the flock under his care. – Psalm 95:1-7 NLT

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.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

False Fasting.

“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 understand its role in their cultural context. Otherwise, we will try to apply our modern understanding of fasting and miss the intended application. For us, fasting is probably a rather foreign concept. Most fasting we hear about seems to be tied to dieting or weight loss. And fasting has also become a popular form of cleansing 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 is was also a way of focusing your attention solely upon God. Rather than seek 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 mean to focus one’s attention on God, not 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 quite 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 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 praise of men, not confess their sins before God. This was not the kind of fasting God desired. He wanted a 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 sack clothe and denying themselves food in an attempt to get God’s attention, they were also busy practicing all kinds of moral and ethical injustice. And God was not impressed.

For the Jews in Jesus’ audience, their 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 from wrong motives or in a hypocritical manner.

Like any spiritual discipline, fasting can be abused. It can also be misunderstood and used for the wrong reasons. Reading the Bible is a good thing. It is a proper thing for God’s children to do. 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 convicted by the prophet Samuel about 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. But if I truly want to deny myself something for the sake 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 what is in our heart. If our hearts are prideful and self-focused, our fasting will end up being done for our own glory, not 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 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 with 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.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Isaiah 57-58, Revelation 12

God, Our Healer.

Isaiah 57-58, Revelation 12

“I have seen his ways, but I will heal him; I will lead him and restore comfort to him and his mourners, creating the fruit of the lips. Peace, peace, to the far and to the near,” says the Lord, “and I will heal him.” Isaiah 57:18-19 ESV

The Israelites of Isaiah’s day were marked by idolatry and spiritual adultery. Over time the numbers of truly righteous individuals dwindled, leaving a spiritual vacuum among the people. But rather than mourn the loss of the righteous, the majority of the Israelites failed to even notice their passing. They continued to practice their idolatry and forsake God. When faced with difficulty or trouble, they turned to their false gods or sought help from foreign kings. Yet they also continued to hedge their bets, turning to God in times of trouble, going through the religious ritual of fasting in the hopes of gaining favor from God. But God wasn’t interested in watching His people go through the motions of false humility. He would not tolerate their false acts of piety. “Yet they seek me daily and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that did righteousness, and did not forsake the judgment of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments; they delight to draw near to God” (Isaiah 58:2 ESV). They wanted God to do the right thing, but they were unwilling to do what was right in His eyes. And they couldn’t understand why God wouldn’t answer their prayers and take notice of their acts of humility. But God informed them, “Fasting like yours this day will not make your voice to be heard on high” (Isaiah 58:4 ESV). It wasn’t enough for them to look the part of the humble, repentant servant, wearing sackcloth and bowing down before God. He wanted to see true heart change. God wanted their fasting to be accompanied by acts of justice, compassion, kindness, and a reverence for the things of God

What does this passage reveal about God?

God is holy and cannot tolerate sin. He had made it clear to the nation of Israel, that their unique status as His chosen people came with a non-negotiable expectation: They were to be holy. “You shall be holy to me, for I the LORD am holy and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine” (Leviticus 20:26 ESV). Their lives were to be lived according to His exacting standards, not those of the world. His people were to keep His law and maintain their moral and ethical purity through the ongoing use of His sacrificial system. But sacrifice without true repentance and sincere heart change was meaningless. Earlier in the book of Isaiah, God had declared that the Israelites were simply going through the motions: “this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men” (Isaiah 29:13 ESV). They seemed to say and do all the right things, but their hearts weren’t in it. They had given their affections to other things. But God told them what His idea of true fasting and mourning looked like. “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?” (Isaiah 58:6-7 ESV). God had nothing against fasting and mourning, but He wanted the act to be accompanied by changed attitudes and heartfelt expressions of love for others. This kind of fasting would result in God’s favor. “Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard” (Isaiah 58:8 ESV). The psalmist expressed it succinctly. “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” (Psalm 51:17 ESV). God told Isaiah, “I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit” (Isaiah 57:15 ESV).  

What does this passage reveal about man?

But men find it hard to express humility. Even those of us who claim to love and follow God have a difficult time coming before Him with a contrite and lowly spirit. Our pride gets in the way. We refuse to see ourselves as He sees us. We justify our sin and rationalize our behavior. We compare ourselves to others and deem ourselves somehow worthy of God’s favor. But God sees us differently. “Yet they seek me daily and delight to know my ways, as if there were a nation that did righteousness and did not forsake the judgment of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments; they delight to draw near to God” (Isaiah 58:2 ESV). Just like the people of Israel, we can so easily find ourselves seeking God and acting as if our so-called righteous deeds somehow earn us favor with Him. We go through the religious motions, showing up at church and doing our daily allotment of pious activities that make us look good to others, but do little to impress God. All the while we fail to realize that we can do nothing to earn God’s favor or live up to His exacting standards. Holiness is impossible for us to pull off, just as it was impossible for the people of Israel. We can’t maintain a lifestyle of righteousness in our own strength. The Israelites knew what they were supposed to do, but just couldn’t muster up the determination to do it on an ongoing basis. And we find ourselves in the same boat. If we are not careful, even as believers, we will find ourselves attempting to live the spiritual life in the strength of our own flesh. We will attempt to live up to God’s standards without His help. Our own pride will convince us that we can somehow pull it off. But like Paul, we simply need to reach the point where we cry out daily, “Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death?” (Romans 7:24 NLT). We simply need to confess our insufficiency and turn to God for the help He has provided through His Son. “Thank God! The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 7:25 NLT).

How would I apply what I’ve read to my own life?

One of the amazing aspects of God’s great redemptive plan for mankind is revealed in His faithful, consistent and loving interaction with the people of Israel. In spite of their rejection of His sovereign rule over their lives for generations, He never gave up on them. Even when they failed to accept His Son as their Messiah, instead demanding His death on the cross, God did not turn His back on them. While they have never been able to live up to His standards or maintain the life of holiness He demanded of them, He still has plans for them. He is still going to keep His promise to them. In the book of Revelation we get to see into the future where God reveals how He is going to redeem and restore His people. There is a day coming when He will heal them. He will do for them what they could never seem to do for themselves. Even in the midst of the Great Tribulation, when the people of Israel will suffer the most intense persecution they have even had to endure, God will be there. John is given a vision of a woman who is pregnant. She will give birth to a baby, “a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to his throne” (Revelation 12:5 ESV). The woman represents Israel. The baby is Jesus Christ. After His death and resurrection, God literally “raptured” or snatched up Jesus, taking Him to heaven where He awaits His second coming at the end of the Great Tribulation. But during the last three and a half years of that great time or tribulation, Satan will wage war against the people of Israel. They will have to run for their lives. Jesus warned of this day. “For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be. And if those days had not been cut short, no human being would be saved. But for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short” (Matthew 24:21-22 ESV). But God will protect His own. “…and the woman [Israel] fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, in which she is to be nourished for 1,260 days” (Revelation 12:6 ESV). God will miraculously protect His own. He will care for them, even during one of the most difficult times the earth has ever known. And ultimately, God will bring healing to His people. He will redeem and restore them. God promises, “I have seen his ways, but I will heal him,; I will lead him and restore comfort to him and his mourners” (Isaiah 57:18 ESV). God is the great healer. He is the redeemer and restorer. He will do for Israel what He has promised. He is faithful, trustworthy and true to His Word.

Father, thank You for the reassurance of Your faithfulness. You have not abandoned Your people Israel and You have not and will not abandon me. You have even made it possible for me to live uprightly and righteousness in this life. You have given me the capacity, through the power of Your indwelling Spirit, to live humbly and to practice acts of justice, compassion, and kindness – not in my own strength, but Yours. You have made it possible to experience Your healing and help in this life and You have promised me complete healing in the life to come. Amen

Ken Miller
Grow Pastor & Minister to Men
kenm@christchapelbc.org