June 2 – Jesus and Fasting

Whenever you fast, do not put on a gloomy face as the hypocrites do, for they neglect their appearance so that they will be noticed by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full.—Matt. 6:16

The Greek word for “fast” literally means not to eat, to abstain from food. But by the time of Christ, fasting had been perverted and twisted beyond what was scriptural and sincere. Fasting had become a ritual to gain merit with God and attention before men—it was largely a hypocritical religious show.

Many Pharisees fasted twice a week (Luke 18:12), usually on the second and fifth days of the week. They picked those days supposedly because on them Moses received the tablets of Law from God on Mount Sinai. But they also happened to be the two major Jewish market days, when cities and towns were crowded with farmers, merchants, and shoppers, where public fasting would have the largest audiences.

Those wanting to call attention to their fasting would “put on a gloomy face” and “neglect their appearance in order to be seen fasting by men.” They would wear old clothes, sometimes purposely torn and soiled, mess up their hair, cover themselves with dirt and ashes, and even use makeup to look pale and sickly.

But this kind of fasting is a sham and mockery. Those whom Jesus condemned for fasting “in order to be seen by men” were pretentiously self-righteous. God was of little concern in their motives or their thinking, and so He had no part in their reward. The reward they wanted was recognition by men, and that’s what they got.

ASK YOURSELF
Are you sometimes guilty of feeling superior to others by the faithful way you observe various spiritual disciplines and religious expectations? What do these prideful feelings and comparisons take away from the purity of your times with God? How do they complicate your worship?[1]

6:16 The third form of religious hypocrisy that Jesus denounced was the deliberate attempt to create an appearance of fasting. The hypocrites disfigured their faces when they fasted in order to look gaunt, haggard, and doleful. But Jesus says it is ridiculous to attempt to appear holy.[2]


16. And whenever you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, looking glum, for they make their faces unsightly in order that (other) people may see that they are fasting. Fasting, as here meant, refers not to a condition that is forced upon a person (2 Cor. 6:5; 11:27), but to voluntary abstinence from food as a religious exercise. It served various purposes, either singly or in any combination. Thus, it might be an expression of humiliation, that is, sorrow for, and in connection with confession of, sin (Lev. 16:29–34; 23:26–32; Num. 29:7–11; Deut. 9:18; 1 Kings 21:27; Neh. 9:1 ff.; Dan. 9:3, 4; Jonah 3:5), or of lamentation over ill, either already experienced—defeat in battle (Judg. 20:26), bereavement (1 Sam. 31:13; 1 Chron. 10:11, 12; 2 Sam. 1:12), the arrival of sad tidings (Neh. 1:4), a plague (Joel 1:14; 2:12–15)—or threatened (2 Chron. 20:3, 5 ff.; Esther 4:3; 9:31). In the case of David, when the threatening death of the child becomes a reality he ceases to fast (2 Sam. 12:16, 21–23). There was a natural basis for the fasts mentioned so far, since overwhelming grief or distress produces loss of appetite (cf. 1 Sam. 1:7).

Sometimes a fast was ordered and/or observed in order to promote concentration on an important religious act or event, such as the commissioning of missionaries (Acts 13:2, 3), or the appointment of elders (Acts 14:23). See also Exod. 34:2, 28; Deut. 9:9, 18. In this connection, what is perhaps the most beautiful chapter on fasting in the entire Bible (Isa. 58) deserves special mention (especially verses 6–12). It may well be that here in Matt. 6:16–18 Jesus had that chapter in mind, as a comparison will show. In both cases the wrong kind of fast (cf. 1 Kings 21:9, 11; Zech. 7:3–5) is condemned and the right kind commended.

The law of God suggests only one fast in an entire year, namely, on the day of atonement (Lev. 16:29–34; 23:26–32; Num. 29:7–11; cf. Acts 27:9). In course of time, however, fasts (not always total; see the text in each instance) began to multiply, so that we read about their occurrence at other times also: from sunrise to sunset (Judg. 20:26; 1 Sam. 14:24; 2 Sam. 1:12, 3:35); for seven days (1 Sam. 31:13); three weeks (Dan. 10:3); forty days (Exod. 34:2, 28; Deut. 9:9, 18; 1 Kings 19:8); in the fifth and seventh month (Zech. 7:3–5); and even in the fourth, fifth, seventh, and tenth month (Zech. 8:19). The climax was the observance of a fast “twice a week,” the boast of the Pharisee (Luke 18:12).

As an expression of lamentation over sorrowful circumstances Jesus did not encourage fasting on the part of his disciples. On the contrary, he wanted them to rejoice because of his own presence among them (Matt. 9:14–17; Mark 2:18–20; Luke 5:33–35). He himself, as has been indicated, observed a fast of lengthy duration, probably for the purpose of concentration on the work which the Father had given him to do, and which he, Jesus himself, had voluntarily taken upon himself (see the explanation of Matt. 4:2).

Here in Matt. 6:16–18, however, it is the fast as an expression of humiliation, whether feigned (verse 16) or genuine (verses 17 and 18), that is in view. The hypocrites, that is, the scribes and Pharisees (5:20; 15:1, 7; 23:13), put on a dismal look, making their faces unsightly, perhaps by covering them with ashes (1 Kings 20:38), in order that to the people round about them they might look O so sorry for their sins; hence, O so pious! They were putting on an act.

Jesus continues, I solemnly declare to you, they have already received their reward in full. For explanation see on 6:1 and 2. They tried hard to look glum so as to impress the fickle crowd. Well, they attained their goal! As if to say, “How utterly ridiculous, such a reward!” How absurd to prefer it to the real reward (6:1)![3]


Pretentious Fasting

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. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. (6:16)

The phrase and whenever you fast supports the understanding that fasting is not commanded. But when it is practiced it is to be regulated according to the principles Jesus gives here.

Nēsteia (fast) literally means not to eat, to abstain from food. Fasts were sometimes total and sometimes partial, and ordinarily only water was drunk.

Two extreme views of eating were held among the Jews of Jesus’ day. Many, like the ones mentioned in this passage, made an obvious display of fasting. Others believed that, because food is a gift from God, each person would have to give an account to Him on the day of judgment for every good thing he had not eaten. The first group not only was more prevalent but was more self-righteous and proud. Their fasting was not a matter of spiritual conviction but a means of self-gratification.

By the time of Christ, fasting, like almost every other aspect of Jewish religious life, had been perverted and twisted beyond what was scriptural and sincere. Fasting had become a ritual to gain merit with God and attention before men. Like praying and almsgiving, it was largely a hypocritical religious show.

Many Pharisees fasted twice a week (Luke 18:12), usually on the second and fifth days of the week. They claimed those days were chosen because they were the days Moses made the two separate trips to receive the tablets of law from God on Mount Sinai. But those two days also happened to be the major Jewish market days, when cities and towns were crowded with farmers, merchants, and shoppers. They were, therefore, the two days where public fasting would have the largest audiences.

Those wanting to call attention to their fasting would put on a gloomy face, and neglect their appearance in order to be seen fasting by men. They would wear old clothes, sometimes purposely torn and soiled, dishevel their hair, cover themselves with dirt and ashes, and even use makeup in order to look pale and sickly. As we have seen in previous chapters, hypocrites comes from a Greek word for the mask used by actors to portray a certain character or mood. In regard to fasting, some Jewish hypocrites literally resorted to theatrics.

When the heart is not right, fasting is a sham and a mockery. Those whom Jesus condemned for fasting in order to be seen by men were pretentiously self-righteous. Everything they did centered around themselves. God had no place in their motives or their thinking, and He had no part in their reward. The reward they wanted was recognition by men, and that reward, and only that reward, they received in full.

Unfortunately, throughout the history of the church fasting has most often been viewed in the two extremes that were common in Judaism. John Calvin said, “Many for want of knowing its usefulness undervalue its necessity. And some reject it all together as superfluous, while on the other hand, where the proper use of fasting is not well understood, it easily degenerates into superstition.”[4]


16 Under Mosaic legislation, fasting was commanded only on the Day of Atonement (Lev 16:29–31; 23:27–32; Nu 29:7); during the exile regular fasts of remembrance were instituted (Zec 7:3–5; 8:19). In addition to these national fasts, both OT and NT describe personal or group fasts with a variety of purposes, especially to indicate and foster self-humiliation before God, often in connection with the confession of sins (e.g., Ne 9:1–2; Ps 35:13; Isa 58:3, 5; Da 9:2–20; 10:2–3; Jnh 3:5; Ac 9:9) or to lay some special petition before the Lord, sometimes out of anguish, danger, or desperation (Ex 24:18; Jdg 20:26; 2 Sa 1:12; 2 Ch 20:3; Ezr 8:21–23; Est 4:16; Mt 4:1–2; Ac 13:1–3; 14:23). It may belong to the realm of normal Christian self-discipline (1 Co 9:24–27; cf. Php 3:19; 1 Pe 4:3), but already in the OT, it is bitterly excoriated when it is purely formal and largely hypocritical (Isa 58:3–7; Jer 14:12; Zec 7:5–6)—when, for instance, men fasted but did not share their food with the hungry (Isa 58:1–7).

In Jesus’ day, the Pharisees fasted twice a week (Lk 18:12; cf. Str-B, 2:242 ff.), probably Monday and Thursday (m. Taʿan. 1:4–7). Some devout people (e.g., Anna) fasted often (Lk 2:37). But such voluntary fasts provided marvelous opportunities for religious showmanship to gain a reputation for piety. One could adopt an air that was “somber” (or “downcast,” Lk 24:17, the only other place in the NT where the word skythrōpos is used) and disfigure oneself, perhaps by not washing and shaving, by sprinkling ashes on one’s head to signify deep contrition or self-abnegation, or by omitting normal use of oil to signify deep distress (cf. 2 Sa 14:2; Da 10:3). The point is not that there was no genuine contrition but that these hypocrites were purposely drawing attention to themselves. They wanted the plaudits of men and got them. And that’s all they got.[5]


[1] MacArthur, J. (2008). Daily readings from the life of Christ (p. 162). Chicago: Moody Publishers.

[2] MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (p. 1225). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

[3] Hendriksen, W., & Kistemaker, S. J. (1953–2001). Exposition of the Gospel According to Matthew (Vol. 9, pp. 340–342). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.

[4] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (pp. 400–401). Chicago: Moody Press.

[5] Carson, D. A. (2010). Matthew. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew–Mark (Revised Edition) (Vol. 9, pp. 209–210). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

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