“When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have 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.”
(Matthew 6:16-18 NIV)
In Chapter 6 of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus gives practical examples of righteous living. How do we conduct our lives in this new hyper-righteousness that he described in Chapter 5? Jesus addressed giving to the poor and prayer; now He turns to the subject of fasting.
Before addressing these specific topics, however, Jesus reminds us of the most important aspect of righteous living:
In every observed practice, beware of hypocrisy.
The best way to avoid hypocrisy? perform our core practices (giving to the poor, prayer, fasting) in private.
Fasting was never meant to be a punishment or self-affliction for our sins; rather, it was meant to help us focus on our spiritual self and our relationship with the Lord. Some Jewish customs stated that by fasting (refraining from sensual pleasures such as food and drink, perfumes and oils, marital relations, etc.), humans resemble angels and experience their spiritual life much more intensely. Other Jewish traditions stated that fasting reminded them of their mortality as humans before an immortal God. In that mindset, some would actually wear a white burial robe as if dead.
Fasting was first commanded by God in Leviticus 16:29, 31 and 23:27. These passages were describing what was to happen on the annual Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), when the High Priest would go in to the Holy of Holies to offer sacrifices for the nation of Israel. This sacrifice in Old Testament times was a covering, a temporary relief from the nation’s sins.
When Messiah (Jesus) came, his death was the ultimate Day of Atonement, when all our sins were taken away forever. The author of the book of Hebrews reminds us that Jesus entered the Holy of Holies “once for all” and made atonement for our sins forever, not just covered them over as in the past (Hebrews 9:12).
With that background of fasting in mind, what was Jesus teaching? Was He telling His disciples not to fast any longer? Not at all, in fact, just the opposite.
Jesus was telling His disciples that fasting was good. Notice that Jesus said “When you fast…”, not “If you fast…”.
Jesus was simply telling His disciples that fasting, like giving to the poor and prayer, was to be done in private, not in public so others would notice. Jesus’ command was not being hypocritical; rather, Jesus gave the command to keep His disciples focused on God, not the reactions of others.
Today, Jesus’ command would likely cover our normal daily personal hygiene routines (shave, shower, hair, etc.) as He spoke with His disciples. His command would also cover not taking pictures of ourselves and posting all over social media that we are fasting, or posting all over social media Bible verses about our fasting.
Fasting has tremendous spiritual value, but for its value to be long-lasting, it must be done in private, to focus all our attention on the Lord and our relationship to Him. Otherwise, Jesus says, we have our reward in full. Words from others, no matter how sincere, never fill the ache we have in our souls for a relationship we desire with Almighty God.
Check-up time… When was the last time I added fasting to my prayer time for spiritual breakthrough, to listen to the Lord and consider His direction and guidance? Admittedly, fasting is not top-of-mind as a spiritual discipline like prayer or Bible reading is… definitely time to re-think the impact and value of this important spiritual exercise.