June 3 – Proper Fasting and Prayer

But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face so that your fasting will not be noticed by men, but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.—Matt. 6:17–18

Jesus’ statement “when you fast” indicates that fasting is normal and acceptable in the Christian life. He assumes His followers will fast on certain occasions, especially in times of testing, trial, or struggle.

Fasting is appropriate during times of sorrow. On occasions of deep grief, fasting is a natural human response. Most people don’t feel like eating at those times. Other things that motivate fasting have included overwhelming danger, penitence, and the receiving or proclaiming of a special revelation from God. And fasting often accompanied the beginning of an important task or ministry.

In every scriptural account, genuine fasting is linked with prayer. You can pray without fasting, but you cannot fast biblically without praying. Fasting is an affirmation of intense prayer, a corollary of deep spiritual struggle before God. It is never an isolated act or ceremony or ritual that has some inherent efficacy or merit.

Fasting is also always linked with a pure heart and must be associated with obedient, godly living. This is the attitude that will motivate the one fasting not to attract attention to his deprivation and spiritual struggle. Fasting is not to be a display for anyone, including God. Genuine fasting is simply a part of concentrated, intense prayer and concern for the Lord, His will, and His work. Jesus’ point is that the Father never fails to notice fasting that is heartfelt and genuine, and He never fails to reward it.

ASK YOURSELF
Has fasting ever been a part of your life and relationship with God? If so, what have those experiences taught you about Him … and about yourself and your need for Him? If you’ve never actually participated in fasting, what might be some appropriate times and ways for you to practice it?[1]


  1. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face. Jesus does not say that his followers must fast, neither does he forbid them to fast if that is what they wish to do. In certain circumstances he seems to regard fasting as entirely proper. Did he not himself fast also, though, as has already been indicated, for an entirely different reason? The point Jesus stresses is that when his followers think they ought to fast they should, by anointing their head and washing their face, make this voluntary observance of a religious exercise as inconspicuous as possible. This admonition parallels that with respect to giving to charity (6:2–4) and praying (6:5, 6). All such practices should take place “in secret,” that is, away from the eyes of men. They should be sincere acts of devotion to God, to him alone. Concluded: 18. that not men but (only) your Father who is in secret may see that you are fasting. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you (for explanation see on 6:4).

With the passing of the day of atonement, fasting is no longer a religious requirement (Col. 2:14). Are there, nevertheless, lessons here that hold today as well as they did yesterday? I suggest the following:

  1. Intemperance in eating, as well as in everything else, is warned against in Scripture. See N.T.C. on I and II Timothy and Titus, p. 122. The lazy gluttons of Crete, sluggish and sensual gormandizers, do not remain unrebuked (Titus 1:12). A mark of the enemies of the cross is that “their god is their belly (Phil. 3:19; cf. Rom. 16:18).” Instead of striving to keep their physical appetites under control (Rom. 8:13; 1 Cor. 9:27), realizing that our bodies are the Holy Spirit’s temple, in which God should be glorified (1 Cor. 6:19, 20), these people surrendered themselves to gluttony and licentiousness. They worshiped their sensual nature. The Bible forbids this. In this connection it is interesting to note that the physical advantage in cutting down the intake of animal fats is not a modern medical discovery (see Lev. 3:17; 7:22–25).
  2. Nevertheless, in Scripture it is not the salutary effect which a moderate amount of fasting may have on a person’s physical welfare that is especially in view. It is rather the spiritual benefit that is basic. As has already been indicated, often fasting was an expression of sorrow for sin or was observed in order that mind and heart might concentrate not on material matters but wholly on God and on the tasks which he assigns. That there is a close connection between fasting and spiritual meditation and contemplation is widely recognized.
  3. The indispensability of sincerity in worship is, however, the main thrust of this entire section (6:1–18).

As to the relation of 6:19–34 to the sermon as a whole, and specifically to the immediately preceding verses 1–18, see pp. 263, 318. Righteousness in relation to God requires not only the sincere devotion of the heart to the heavenly Father (6:1–18) but also unlimited trust in him under all circumstances. We turn, therefore, to the sub-theme:

Unlimited Trust (6:19–34)

This truth is made clear, first of all, by the condemnation of its opposite, namely, lack of trust in God, that is, feverish anxiety. The latter:

a mounts to idolatry,

for its accompanying attachment to mammon means detachment from God (verse 24);

b lurs vision,

for, by being preoccupied with piling up material wealth, it obscures the real goal of our existence (verses 22, 23);

c onfuses values,

for it attaches primary significance to that which is secondary, and vice versa, as if food were more important than life, and clothing than the body (verse 25); and

d efies all reason,

for it barters away heavenly for earthly treasures, the imperishable for the perishable (verses 19–21); forgets that it cannot even add one cubit to a person’s life-span (verse 27); borrows tomorrow’s troubles as if today’s were inadequate (verse 34); and, worst of all, refuses to consider that if, even as Creator, God feeds the birds and clothes the lilies, then certainly, as heavenly Father, he will care for his children (verses 26, 28–32).

Secondly, this truth (the necessity of unlimited trust in God) is also stated positively; for over against the negative commandments (“Do not gather.… Do not be anxious.… Do not become anxious”) of, respectively, verses 19, 25, and 31, 34, stand the positive (“But gather.… Look at.… Consider”) of, respectively, verses 20, 26, and 28, climaxed by the powerful and very comforting words of verse 33, “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be granted to you as an extra gift.”[2]


Proper Fasting

But you, when you fast, anoint your head, and wash your face so that you may not be seen fasting by men, but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will repay you. (6:17–18)

Fasting is mentioned some thirty times in the New Testament, almost always favorably. It is possible that fasting was even overemphasized in some parts of the early church. At least four times a reference to fasting seems to have been inserted into the original text where it is not found in the earliest and best manuscripts (Matt. 17:21; Mark 9:29; Acts 10:30; 1 Cor. 7:5). The other favorable accounts, however, both in the gospels and in the epistles, show that proper fasting is a legitimate form of spiritual devotion.

Jesus’ statement when you fast (cf. v. 16) indicates that fasting is normal and acceptable in the Christian life. He assumes His followers will fast on certain occasions, but He does not give a command or specify a particular time, place, or method. Because the validity of the Day of Atonement ceased when Jesus made the once-for-all sacrifice on the cross (Heb. 10:10), the single prescribed occasion for fasting has ceased to exist.

Jesus’ disciples did not fast while He was with them because fasting is associated primarily with mourning or other times of consuming spiritual need or anxiety. When the disciples of John the Baptist asked Jesus why His disciples did not fast like they and the Pharisees did, He replied, “The attendants of the bridegroom cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they? But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast” (Matt. 9:14–15). Fasting is there associated with mourning.

Fasting is never shown in Scripture to be the means to heightened spiritual experience, visions, or special insight or awareness-as many mystics, including some Christian mystics, claim. Fasting is appropriate in this age, because Christ is physically absent from the earth. But it is appropriate only as a response to special times of testing, trial, or struggle.

Fasting is appropriate during times of sorrow. When God caused the first child born to Bathsheba by David to be taken ill, David fasted while he pleaded for the infant’s life (2 Sam. 12:16). He also fasted when Abner died (2 Sam. 3:35). David even fasted on behalf of his enemies. “When they were sick, my clothing was sackcloth; I humbled my soul with fasting; and my prayer kept returning to my bosom” (Ps. 35:13).

On such occasions of deep grief, fasting is a natural human response. Most people do not then feel like eating. Their appetite is gone, and food is the last thing they are concerned about. Unless a person is getting seriously weak from hunger or has some specific medical reason for needing to eat, we do them no favor by insisting that they eat.

Overwhelming danger often prompted fasting. King Jehoshaphat proclaimed a national fast in Judah when they were threatened with attack from the Moabites and Ammonites (2 Chron. 20:3). From a human standpoint they could not possibly win, and they cried out to God for help, forsaking food as they did so. Queen Esther, her servants, and all the Jews in the capital city of Susa fasted for three full days before she went before the king to plead for the Jews to be spared from Haman’s wicked scheme against her people (Esther 4:16).

As the exiles were about to leave Babylon for the adventurous return to Jerusalem, Ezra declared a fast, “that we might humble ourselves before our God to seek from Him a safe journey for us, our little ones, and all our possessions” (Ezra 8:21). Ezra continues, “For I was ashamed to request from the king troops and horsemen to protect us from the enemy on the way, because we had said to the king, ‘The hand of our God is favorably disposed to all those who seek Him, but His power and His anger are against all those who forsake Him.’ So we fasted and sought our God concerning this matter, and He listened to our entreaty” (vv. 22–23).

Penitence was often accompanied by fasting. David fasted after his double sin of committing adultery with Bathsheba and then having her husband Uriah sent to the front of the battle to be killed. Daniel fasted as he prayed for God to forgive the sins of his people. When Elijah confronted Ahab with God’s judgment for his great wickedness, the king “tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and fasted, and he lay in sackcloth and went about despondently” (1 Kings 21:27). Because of Ahab’s sincerity, the Lord postponed the judgment (v. 29). Centuries later, after the exiles had returned safely to Jerusalem, the Israelites were convicted of their intermarrying with unbelieving Gentiles. As Ezra confessed that sin in behalf of his people, “he did not eat bread, nor drink water, for he was mourning over the unfaithfulness of the exiles” (Ezra 10:6).

When the people of Nineveh heard Jonah’s preaching they were so convicted that they believed in God and “called a great fast and put on sackcloth from the greatest to the least of them. … By the decree of the king” they would “not let man, beast, herd, or flock taste a thing” (Jonah 3:5, 7). Rather than resent the warning of judgment and damnation, they repentantly turned to God and sought His forgiveness and mercy.

Fasting was sometimes associated with the receiving or proclaiming of a special revelation from God. As Daniel contemplated Jeremiah’s prediction of the seventy year’s desolation of Jerusalem, he gave his “attention to the Lord God to seek Him by prayer and supplications, with fasting, sackcloth, and ashes” (Dan. 9:2–3). As he continued “speaking in prayer,” he reports, “then the man Gabriel, whom I had seen in the vision previously, came to me in my extreme weariness about the time of the evening offering. And he gave me instruction and talked with me, and said, ‘O Daniel, I have now come forth to give you insight with understanding’ ” (vv. 21–22). A short time later, just before receiving another vision, Daniel made a partial fast-by forsaking “any tasty food, … meat or wine”-for three weeks (10:3). It is important to note that, though fasting was related to the revelations, it was not a means of achieving them. Daniel’s fasting was simply a natural accompaniment to his deep and desperate seeking of God’s will.

We often fail to understand God’s Word as fully as we ought simply because, unlike those great people of God, we do not seek to comprehend it with their degree of intensity and determination. Skipping a few meals might be the small price we willingly pay for staying in the Word until understanding comes.

Fasting often accompanied the beginning of an important task or ministry. Jesus fasted forty days and nights before He was tempted in the wilderness and then began His preaching ministry. Intensity and zeal over proclaiming God’s Word can so consume the mind and heart that food has no appeal and no place. Though abstaining from food has absolutely no spiritual value in itself, when eating is an intrusion on that which is immeasurably more important, it will be willingly, gladly, and unobtrusively forsaken.

Both before and after the Holy Spirit directed the church at Antioch to set apart Barnabas and Saul for special ministry, the people were praying and fasting (Acts 13:2–3). As those two men of God ministered God’s Word they prayed and fasted as they appointed elders in the churches they founded (14:23).

Only the Lord knows how much the leadership of the church today could be strengthened if congregations were that determined to find and follow the Lord’s will. The early church did not choose or send out leaders carelessly or by popular vote. Above all they sought and followed God’s will. Fasting has no more power to assure godly leadership than it has to assure forgiveness, protection, or any other good thing from God. But it is likely to be a part of sincere dedication that is determined to know the Lord’s will and have His power before decisions are made, plans are laid, or actions are taken. People who are consumed with concern before God do not take a lunch break.

In every scriptural account genuine fasting is linked with prayer. You can pray without fasting, but you cannot fast biblically without praying. Fasting is an affirmation of intense prayer, a corollary of deep spiritual struggle before God. It is never an isolated act or a ceremony or ritual that has some inherent efficacy or merit. It has no value at all-in fact becomes a spiritual hindrance and a sin-when done for any reason apart from knowing and following the Lord’s will.

Fasting is also always linked with a pure heart and must be associated with obedient, godly living. The Lord told Zechariah to declare to the people, “When you fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh months these seventy years, was it actually for Me that you fasted? … Thus has the Lord of hosts said, ‘Dispense true justice, and practice kindness and compassion each to his brother; and do not oppress the widow or the orphan, the stranger or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another’ ” (Zech. 7:5, 9–10). Seventy years of fasting meant nothing to the Lord, because it was done insincerely. Like the hypocrites that Jesus would later condemn, those Israelites lived only for themselves (v. 6).

After chastising the people in a similar way for their pretentious and unrighteous fasting, the Lord declared through Isaiah,

Is this not the fast which I chose, to loosen the bonds of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free, and break every yoke? Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into the house; when you see the naked, to cover him; and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? Then your light will break out like the dawn, and your recovery will speedily spring forth; and your righteousness will go before you; the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry, and He will say, “Here I am.” (Isa. 58:5–9)

There can be no right fasting apart from a right heart, right living, and a right attitude.

But you, when you fast, Jesus tells those who belong to Him, anoint your head, and wash your face so that you may not be seen fasting by men. To anoint the head with oil was commonly done as a matter of good grooming. The oil was often scented and used partly as a perfume. Like washing the face, it was associated with day-to-day living, but especially with more formal or important occasions. Jesus’ point was that a person who fasts should do everything to make himself look normal and do nothing to attract attention to his deprivation and spiritual struggle.

The one who sincerely wants to please God will studiously avoid trying to impress men. He will determine not [to] be seen fasting by men, but by God the Father who is in secret. Jesus does not say we should fast for the purpose of being seen even by God. Fasting is not to be a display for anyone, including God. Genuine fasting is simply a part of concentrated, intense prayer and concern for the Lord, His will, and His work. Jesus’ point is that the Father never fails to notice fasting that is heart-felt and genuine, and that He never fails to reward it. Your Father who sees in secret will repay you.[3]


17–18 Yet Jesus, far from banning fasting, assumes his disciples will fast, even as he assumes they will give alms and pray (vv. 3, 6). His disciples may not fast at the moment, for the messianic bridegroom is with them and it is the time for joy (9:14–17). But the time will come when they will fast (9:15). (Observe in passing that here Jesus assumes the continued existence of his disciples after his departure.) What he condemns is ostentation in fasting. Moreover, he forbids any sign at all that a fast has been undertaken, because the human heart is so mixed in its motives that the desire to seek God will be diluted by the desire for human praise, thus vitiating the fast.

Washing and anointing with oil (v. 17) were merely normal steps in hygiene. Oil does not here symbolize extravagant joy but normal body care (cf. Ru 3:3; 2 Sa 12:20; Pss 23:5; 104:15; 133:2; Ecc 9:8; Lk 7:46; cf. NIDNTT, 1:120). The point of v. 18 is not to draw attention to oneself, whether by somber mien or extravagant joy. Jesus desires reticence, not deception. And the Father, who sees in secret, will provide the reward (see comments at v. 4).

Reflections

The three principal acts of Jewish piety (vv. 1–18) are only examples of many practices susceptible of religious hypocrisy. Early in the second century, the Christian document Didache (8:1), while polemicizing against the Monday and Thursday “fasts of the hypocrites,” enjoins Christians to fast on Wednesday and Friday. Christian copyists added “fasting” glosses at several points in the NT (17:21; Mk 9:29; Ac 10:30; 1 Co 7:5). Hypocrisy is not the sole preserve of Pharisees. The solution is not to abolish fasting (cf. Alexander’s remark that mortification of the flesh “can be better attained by habitual temperance than by occasional abstinence”) but to set it within a biblical framework (see references at v. 16) and sincerely to covet God’s blessing. For if the form of vv. 1–18 is negative, the point is positive—namely, to seek first God’s kingdom and righteousness (cf. v. 33).[4]


[1] MacArthur, J. (2008). Daily readings from the life of Christ (p. 163). Chicago: Moody Publishers.

[2] Hendriksen, W., & Kistemaker, S. J. (1953–2001). Exposition of the Gospel According to Matthew (Vol. 9, pp. 342–343). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.

[3] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (pp. 401–405). Chicago: Moody Press.

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

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