When you fast, do not look sombre as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have their received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
Not surprisingly, these few verses have the heading in my bible of ‘Fasting.’ And we can see, as previously in the Sermon, that the section follows a pattern that Jesus repeats through a few different subjects. We saw this with the Beatitudes, where each verse gave us a quality of character that should be developing in the life of those who love Jesus. And these characteristics each had a ‘consequence’ or a ‘reward.’
After that we had a section where Jesus quoted the Old Testament, and then explained what it meant – and in the process showed how literalism and legalism were going to leave you falling far short of the standards required of the Father. We saw that there is only one who fulfils the Law and the Prophets, and that One is Jesus. So we need to identify with the work of the Cross in our lives, so that we can be clothed with the holiness and righteousness of Jesus and so be acceptable to the Father.
And now in this section of the sermon, Jesus deals with several subjects and asks His followers not to act as the hypocrites do. He explains clearly what you should be doing instead.
I have dealt before with what is meant by being a hypocrite. These are people wanting to please men and women, rather than wanting to please God. They want praise from others, and to be thought of as holy and special by others. They want the attention of others, and would most likely be the first to judge the actions and behaviour of others. This is not ‘telling the truth in love,’ but rather it is pride and self-righteousness. It is a way of showing themselves to be better than others.
Jesus always says that these people have received their reward in full. It is not a reward from God, of course. These people want to look good to others, want praise of others, and even some control or authority over others (and, sadly, these unworthy ones often get exactly that). So they achieve this, but what reward from the Father? None. And what is stored up for them in heaven? Absolutely nothing.
In the subject of today’s scripture, they would probably be applying the sacrament of fasting legalistically, and doubtless they would pour scorn on those who either do not realise that this is a sacrament and even more scorn on those who fast less than they do.
Once again, risking to be sounding like a stuck record, I need to point out again that no degree of legalism about anything will win any points for you with the Father. It will not make you more acceptable to God, although you may win the approval of some other believers. To try to win your way to heaven in this way is doomed to failure, as Jesus pointed out a few times already in this Sermon. It is to clothe yourself in filthy rags (soiled menstrual cloths is the literal translation of this description from Paul) and think that this is acceptable before the King of Heaven, because you will dare to walk into His presence in the righteousness achieved from your own works. This is not good enough.
There is only one who is righteous and good and who has already fulfilled all the Law and the Prophets. That one is Jesus. It is His righteousness and holiness that you need to be clothed in. Anything else just will not do.
But one thing that this passage of scripture does bring up is one simple question: do you fast? And then the second: did you know that it is a sacrament?
Please note that Jesus said, “But when you fast…” and not “But if you fast…” And so the language strongly assumes that fasting will be a part of your Christian life. And so, it is a sacrament – because it is divinely appointed by the Father through His Son. In one way, you should consider it as much a part of the Christian life as you would the sacrament of Holy Communion. But it does not mean that you need to do it every week on a Sunday.
Fasting is often used alongside prayer. But one thing it is not: it is certainly not a way to twist God’s arm behind His back! You will not persuade God of anything by Fasting! But, in a big way, it can help your prayers. Not by making God listen more carefully – because He knows what you want before you even utter the first word of a prayer. But because you will be praying in greater faith.
I have heard from many believers, and found this to be true myself, that fasting is a good way of fighting against three of the biggest problems in every Christian’s life: fear, doubt and unbelief. Fear can begin to be transformed into trust. Doubt will become expectation. And unbelief will become belief. This will make you stronger as a spiritual person and ‘clear many blocked channels.’
I have read articles that study various scriptures to show that this is true, but to be honest I can’t remember all. So I am writing from my own testimony and that of others. As such, it does not have the authority of the scriptures, but I would say to try it and see…
But, there is one other thing that, to me, seems very obvious as a benefit of fasting. I have been like a stuck record about the Cross of Christ and reckoning ourselves as dead with Him, so that we are raised in the new life with Him. This is the gospel, and it is the best news that any person can be told. But, as the apostle Paul in particular speaks of often, we are not yet in our new sanctified and glorious body. We still have the old body with its addictions and habits.
Here’s where fasting gives you an extra tool. You are, by the act of fasting, telling your body that you are in control, by God’s grace, and not conceding control to the sinful nature of the flesh. Listen, don’t confuse this with legalism. Fasting is a sacrament, and so during the time of fasting certainly find lots of time to be alone with the Lord, reading scripture, praying, praising, praying in tongues, and all the rest. And in public look the same way as you always do and behave as you always do.
It is not a way, on its own, of overcoming sin. And it is not to be applied to your life legalistically. I don’t think it makes any difference to God if you have not fasted for a year. But I think you are missing out if you do not give it a place in your Christian walk a bit more often than that!
And through fasting, you will have increased confidence. This is the big benefit. You will simply know that you can rule your body and not the other way round. You can trust the Lord more to help you to walk in righteousness as you take up your cross daily.
Fasting does not work as a penance if you are feeling guilty about sin. That guilty feeling may even be richly deserved, but again may I point you to the cross? It is Satan or one of his minions who will be telling you that you will never succeed, that you will always fail in this sin, that the Lord must be angry with you because you have done it again….
Listen, if you have been confessing your sins to the Lord and asking His forgiveness, approaching Him clothed in Christ and not clothed in your own filthy rags of non-righteousness – then the scriptures tell us that He has separated us from our sin as far as the East is from the West, and has chosen to remember it no more. So go to the Lord. Remember that the work of the Cross is effective. And confess your sin and ask to be forgiven and cleansed and given the strength to walk in a way befitting a child of the Father. Fasting will not make this happen any easier. It is not a part of the process of finding forgiveness.
Fasting, as I have already said, is a sacrament. Something that should be thought of in a similar way to holy communion, although you will rarely do it as often. It is a help in gaining confidence that you do not need to feel controlled by the sinful nature of the body. It can also deal with the problems of fear, doubt and unbelief.
And of course, if you have something placed on your heart that needs much prayer, then this is the time that you least need the problems of fear, doubt and unbelief. So for special times of prayer, it may be worth having at least a day of fasting.
Lastly, if you are doing an extended fast, then you need to be sensible about it. What I mean is a fast of longer than one week. You will not die from a week long fast unless you have a pre-existing medical condition that will be made worse by this. But – you will have less energy. So even for a week long fast I would recommend that you have a holiday from daily jogging, or the gym, if you do such things. And if you are taking a fast longer than a week, I would recommend that you take a holiday from work. And if you have any physical weaknesses, or if you are elderly, maybe you need also to take some medical advice first. (Praise God that there are some Christian doctors out there!) And certainly the fast will achieve much more for you if you keep it as something between yourself and God – without telling others about it.
There is one exception to this that I can think of. Sometimes churches or groups have something specific that they need to offer many prayers for and have special prayer meetings for. In this case, the church or group could suggest that people fast for a day or two before the meeting. (And they should not be legalistic or demanding or over-authoritative about this.) Or even if this has not been suggested, you could take it on yourself to fast before the meeting (and remember that you do this in secret, and so you do not show off about it or tell others to join you).
Above all, allow this sacrament to give you more joy in your walk with the Lord your God!