Tonight I want to discuss a subject that is not often discussed which is fasting. Fasting is denying us food and food has been a temptation from the very beginning. Satan tempted Eve such that the whole human race fell with food. Noah became drunk when he drank too much wine from his vineyard, so too much eating and drinking have caused much harm.
When someone gives in to their passion for food and drink, it might have an influence on other elements of their spiritual life as well. In Jeremiah 5:7 it says, “When I had fed them to the full, then they committed adultery and assembled themselves by troops in the harlots’ houses.”
In other words, when they got what they wanted and began to live to saturate their desire for food with fullness, they couldn't restrain themselves from other lusts which also took over. On the one hand you have the sins of gluttony. On the other hand, you have this concept of fasting.
So we have to be very aware that God has given us a wonderful gift in food, but we have pushed it way too far the wrong direction. Instead of overdoing it, we ought to be underdoing it and drawing ourselves into a proper biblical perspective on fasting.
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus teaches us that God’s standards are much higher that the Pharisees. We have discussed not to be hypocritical in giving, and in praying and now we have come to the subject of fasting. Often times the best way for us to understand clearly what Jesus meant specifically is to know what not to do.
In Matthew6: 2, He says, "When you do a charitable deed, do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites." In verse 5, "And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites." And in verse 16, "Moreover, when you fast do not be like the hypocrites." These are the three illustrations of hypocritical religion our Lord gives.
Let us now focus on Matthew 6:16-18, “Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. 17 But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, 18 so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.”
Jesus teaches us here to fast based only on reasons that are from your heart, and not to fast to impress others as to how religious you are. God can see right into your heart and He knows your thoughts and your motives and He even knows what you will do next. So you cannot and should not try to fool Him.
The Pharisees and the scribes and the Jews were involved in many fasts, it was a very common part of their religious system. But it needed to be corrected; however, before we understand how, we must understand first what fasting is all about. Fasting in the church of Jesus Christ now is a little understood part of the religious or spiritual experience.
Now fasting in general is a very popular today, but do not confuse it with what the Bible is teaching about fasting. So let's approach our study of this text this evening by looking at the background to give you a frame of reference relative to fasting.
Worldly fasting focuses on the physical benefits. The ones that seem to be sought after most are fasting to lose weight. And then there are ones about feeling better physically and mentally, looking and feeling younger, saving money.
Benefits touted are: Resting your system, cleaning out the body, lowering your blood pressure, lowering your cholesterol level, relieving tension, sleeping better, sharpening your senses, gaining control of yourself, sharing with those who are hungry and even receiving spiritual revelations.
But be that as it may what is physical is not spiritual and the Bible never tells us in the entire Scripture that fasting is for physical reasons. All of the benefits of fasting in the Scripture are indirect, not direct.
There's only one fast commanded in the Bible. And it was a general public national fast. Leviticus 16, God said, on the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, when sacrifices of the nation are given for the sins of the people for the year past. On that day from sunrise to sunset, you will fast. That is the only compulsory fast given by God in Scripture.
But notice it is a fast connected with a deep mournful spirit in confessing sin. Now that should give you a hint of what fasting is all about. It is connected to a great sense of spiritual anxiety. In that case it was a time of confession of sin and seeking forgiveness from God.
In fact on the Day of Atonement, it is forbidden says the Talmud, to eat, to drink, to bathe, to anoint oneself, to wear sandals or to engage in conjugal intercourse. And even the little children on the Day of Atonement couldn't eat. They had to learn that that was a prescribed fast and they had to learn it young so they would maintain it when they became older.
The definition of fasting is total abstinence from food, that's the idea. In fact, the Greek word is a very simple word, nestea, from nea which means “not” and estea, which means to eat. It means not to eat.
There is a sense in which a modified fast or a partial fast can be taken where you don't totally fast and totally abstain from food, but you abstain from going to a banquet. You abstain from rich foods; you eat rather common and simple food.
Daniel did that as he wouldn't touch the delicacies of the king's meat, but said he only wanted to eat what was called pulse and water. So it was not a total fast, but it was a restricted fast for spiritual priority reason. But basically speaking, those are the rare ones; it is usually abstinence from food for a specific period.
In Scripture this abstinence from food was connected with a very troubled spirit or a very anxious heart. Fasting is almost the equivalent to humble oneself before the Lord. As Leviticus 16 says, fasting is the same as inflicting one's soul. So fasting first is based on that principle of mournful anxiety.
Some times fasting was done by the nation, some times by a small group of people and sometimes by one individual, this was a part of their life. But in Jesus’ time, this thing had gone beyond its bounds. What started as a true, heartfelt fast became a hypocritical, self-righteous demonstration in front of men.
The Talmud tells us that they fasted on the second day and the fifth day of the week. And they will say that it was because of Moses who went up to Sinai to get the law on the fifth day of the week. And he came down on the second day of the week. But, as spiritual as that sounds, if you look at Jewish history, the market day was the second and fifth day. And those were the two days when everybody came to town and the best time to show everyone how pious you were.
Secondly, there is the period of fasting. People have discussed and debated much how long a fast should be. And some have said well, if you're really spiritual you fast for 40 days and 40 nights. If you're not so spiritual, you fast for one day only.
Listen, the Bible does not prescribe how long one should fast; never. The time depends on the person, depends on the circumstance, depends on the situation, and the need. For example in 2 Corinthians 6:5 and in 2 Corinthians 11:27, Paul mentions fasting twice there.
And by the way Paul in all of the directives that he gave never gave one regarding fasting. It is an individual and personal thing. The only compulsory public fast was the Day of Atonement, but after Christ died on the cross, there was no longer a need for a day of atonement. Jesus once and for all paid that price.
Fasting remains a personal, private, spontaneous and voluntary act that happens when you need it. And notice in our text in verse 16, Jesus says, "When you fast." Then again in verse 17, "When you fast..." Now this shows that Jesus knew this would happen again. Jesus says that this should be a part of the life of a person who represents the kingdom or who is a part of it.
And He explains the priority of it in Matthew 9: 14 and 15. The disciples of John the Baptist came to Jesus and they said "why do we," the disciples of John the Baptist, "who are righteous people, and the Pharisees, who were unrighteous people, fast often? But your disciples do not fast."
"And Jesus said to them, “Can the friends of the bridegroom mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? But the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast.” Did you get that? Now listen to me, fasting is connected to mourning, some deep spiritual anxiety.
Now beloved, we are living in the period when the bridegroom is taken from us. The marriage supper of the lamb will occur when we are joined with Christ, but until that time says our Lord, there will be fasting. Why? Because He says there will be spiritual struggle and there will be anxiety and in my absence it will not be as it is in my presence.
So let us look at all the reasons we fast. Number one, fasting is a result of lamentation and sorrow.
When the plague hit, the people of God in Joel 1:14 it says that there was a fast. In Nehemiah 1: 4, when Nehemiah heard the word that the walls of Jerusalem were broken down his heart was broken. "And it came to pass when I heard these words," he says, "I sat down and I wept and I mourned for days and I fasted and I prayed before the God of heaven."
When David’s child by Uriah's wife, Bathsheba, was struck with a terrible and fatal disease, the Bible says in 2 Samuel 12:16, "David therefore pleaded with God for the child and David fasted and lay all night on the ground."
Anxieties in the mind often times affect the stomach, don't they? And you go to that parent who is weeping and praying over a child whose life is hanging in the balance and they are not even interested in food. Their heart is poured out to God in prayer.
God's people fasted at the death of Jonathan. So sometimes the lamentation was very personal. Sometimes they lamented over someone else, a friend. Sometimes there was lamentation for a whole group of people that were killed.
Fasting is a very natural response to the heart and the soul of anxiety that comes in the midst of a mourning time or a sorrowing time. We identify with it when death comes to our own life or our own family.
Jesus Christ, who knew everything there was to know, who understood every suffering there was to suffer, that same Jesus, can sit over the city of Jerusalem and have tears can run down His face. He also stood beside the grave of Lazarus and wept for one person who died. We would also fast more if we were sensitive to things that ought to be concerns of ours.
Secondly, need for protection is another reason for fasting in the Bible. There were times when people were in such severe danger that their fear forced them to fast. They would literally cry out to God under severe danger and severe trial knowing that their only deliverance would come from Him.
Remember Esther, the lovely Jewess who had reached the place of favor with the king Ahasuerus. And then found out that Haman had developed a plot to slaughter all the Jews. And so she said: “tell my people that I will go to him and I will put my life on the line and if I perish, I perish.” But I will go in behalf of my people and the people were afraid and the Bible says they fasted for three days.
Ezra is about to lead the people out of the Babylonian captivity. And as he approaches the journey, in Ezra 8:21, he says, "I proclaim a fast there at the river of Ahava," Why? “That we might humble ourselves." That's what a fast does. It is humbling ourselves "before God," why, "to seek of Him a right way for us." "And for our little ones," that our children could cross that desert. That our children would be safe. "And for all our substance,"
Why? Because there were many bad guys and robbers and thieves and wild nomads and enemies and those who hated Israel. And then Ezra says in verse 22, "I was ashamed to ask the king for a band of soldiers and horsemen to protect us against the enemy on our way since we had told the King, “the hand of our God is for good on all who seek Him, and the power of His wrath is against all them who forsake Him.”
I will depend on God and in fear it says in 8:23, "so we fasted and implored our God for this, and He answered our prayer." You see? Protection, again a time of fear, anxiety, where fasting was very much a response that could be understood.
And thirdly, humiliation. In fact, on the Day of Atonement, according to Leviticus 23, the reason they were to fast was that they were to confess their sin. Confession and humiliation go together. Have you ever experienced a time where you have sinned against the Lord and you have been so deeply disturbed by what it has done in your hearts that you cannot eat? We can only pour out our hearts to God.
There were many times when God's people confessed sin and fasting was part of it, because they hungered for the joining together of a severed fellowship with God. David said I humbled my soul with fasting.
The people at Nineveh repented of sin at Jonah's preaching and they fasted while they confessed. Daniel prayed to God and he confessed the sins of his people and fasted. Listen, it's amazing. Daniel actually even became so absorbed with the sins of others that he fasted.
I want you to ask God to give you the kind of a compassionate heart that'll make you care so much about sorrowful things in your life and the lives of others, about sin in your life and the sins of others that the lamentation and the need for protection and the humiliation, will drive you to the point of compassion where it will cause you to fast.
When you're in a spiritual struggle and you're consumed with the things of God, then it's right to abstain from food to continue your focus on that which is spiritual and divine. Let us continue to look at some more reasons where God wants us to fast next Sunday. Let us pray.