Matthew 6:16-18: The Fast that Feeds the Soul

Here are some notes from last week’s message from our series on the Sermon on the Mount.

Whereas in chapter 5:21-48 Jesus provided six examples of the deficient biblical interpretation of the scribes and Pharisees, in 6:1-18 He cites three examples of their hypocritical application of their laws and traditions (1).  In verses 2-15 He spoke regarding hypocrisy in charitable giving and in prayer.  Verses 16-18 deal with what has become a lost spiritual discipline: fasting.    

I.          Jesus condemned man-centered fasting 16

            A.        Its ultimate goal is pleasing people, not God 16a

16 “And whenever you fast, do not put on a gloomy face as the hypocrites do, for they neglect their appearance in order to be seen fasting by men.

            B.        Its reward from people is shallow and passing 16b

Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full.

II.         Jesus commended God-centered fasting 17-18

            A.        Its only focus is on God 17-18a

17 “But you, when you fast, anoint your head, and wash your face 18 so that you may not be seen fasting by men, but by your Father who is in secret;

            B.        Its reward is therefore from God alone 18b

and your Father who sees in secret will repay you.

APPLICATION:  What shall we do with this passage?  Answer: APPLY it to our lives!!!

What is fasting? 

  • It is the purposeful abstention from eating. (Usually other pleasures are avoided during a fast, too.)
  • It is NOT simply giving up something that you really enjoy, to make yourself unhappy or unsatisfied for a while.  The Bible never commends fasting for the sake of spiritual or physical self-improvement!

Why do people fast?

  • For Political reasons, to force an issue to be recognized and addressed by a particular power: Gandhi, Bobby Sands, Cameron Whitten
  • For Physical reasons, to lose weight, increase health and [often in unhealthy circumstances] improve appearance.
  • For Spiritual reasons:
  • Every major religion in the world has fasting rituals. (Ramadan, Yom Kippur, etc.)

In the Bible:

            1.         Crisis/Clarity Fasting: When faced with crisis, or a need for forgiveness, clarity in purpose or mission, people fast and pray.  (Nehemiah 1:4, Esther, David, many kings in national emergencies, Jesus, the leaders of the Antioch church (Acts 13)).

             2.         Planned, scheduled Fasting:  Day of Atonement (the only prescribed day in the law), various days of commemoration after the exile (cf. Zech 8:16ff) In Jesus’ time, observant Jews observed fasting up to twice a week.

Why Fast?  David: An example of finding God in the midst of hunger…

His circumstance…

2 Sam 17: 27 Now when David had come to Mahanaim, Shobi the son of Nahash from Rabbah of the sons of Ammon, Machir the son of Ammiel from Lo-debar, and Barzillai the Gileadite from Rogelim, 28 brought beds, basins, pottery, wheat, barley, flour, parched grain, beans, lentils, parched seeds, 29 honey, curds, sheep, and cheese of the herd, for David and for the people who were with him, to eat; for they said, “The people are hungry and weary and thirsty in the wilderness.”

His response…

Psalm 63:1 A Psalm of David, when he was in the wilderness of Judah. O God, Thou art my God; I shall seek Thee earnestly; My soul thirsts for Thee, my flesh yearns for Thee, In a dry and weary land where there is no water. 2 Thus I have beheld Thee in the sanctuary, To see Thy power and Thy glory. 3 Because Thy lovingkindness is better than life, My lips will praise Thee. 4 So I will bless Thee as long as I live; I will lift up my hands in Thy name. 5 My soul is satisfied as with marrow and fatness, And my mouth offers praises with joyful lips.

  • David’s literal hunger drove him to a deeper appreciation of his need and desire for God alone.  When we fast, we create a small wilderness experience, to open us up to the blessings and priority of God’s blessing, even over our needs and desires for food.

Big Idea: Fasting is a way for believers to escape to a wilderness right at home, to focus on God alone.

How shall we begin this spiritual discipline of fasting?

1.         …be purposeful in it.

  • Chose consistency over intensity! = schedule it/plan ahead, and plan for a reasonable, do-able approach to your fasting.
  • One (sample) plan:  Starting with one breakfast per week would result in an 18 hour fast.  After a few weeks, fasting through breakfast and lunch would result in just under 24 hours of fasting.

2.         …be practical as we fast.

  • Don’t overdo it: better to fast and pray for one meal per week than to starve yourself once a year in a dramatic, health-risking fast!
  • Cancel the fast if something important comes up, or the needs of people present make it wise to do so.

3.         …be prayerful when we fast.

  • REALLY use the time for PRAYER!  It’s easy to get so focused on the fasting that you disregard its most critical component: spending time with God!
  • Open up your Bible, and seek God’s voice there.
  • Journal, and be ready to learn… when you fast, you’ll learn things about yourself that are key for your spiritual growth, quite likely God will use the fast to expose areas of your character that require repentance and attention.