“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 when they are fasting. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. 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.” (Matthew 6:16–18, NASB95)
In these verses Jesus spoke again about another area of our worship where He challenges His hearers to consider their motives. Here we have another instance of worship gone wrong—being done for the recognition of others. This time it is about fasting, or purposely going for a period of time without food. People today do this for any number of reasons. They might fast and give what they would have spent on food in money to a charitable cause. They may have some blood work or some medical procedure in the morning and they are required not to eat for a period of time prior to the appointment. But the fasting of Jesus’ focus was done in order to set aside eating for the purpose of focused worship. The problem is that there were those who emphasized what they had given up so that they might be recognized by others for their actions. When fasting they apparently tried to look more hungry or haggard than they really were just to draw attention to themselves. Jesus said that people who fast in this way receive their reward there on the spot. The adoration and/or sympathetic attention of others would be all they ever got.
There is a classic picture played out with so many variations. It’s the setting where a husband pulls a frozen pie out of its box from the store, carefully hides the box away in the trash, and bakes the pie. Then he spills a little flour on the counter, maybe a little on his shirt and a powdering of his face. As his wife walks into the house she smells the fresh baked pie and walks into the kitchen where she greatly admires him for the loving dessert he had slaved over just for her. In the end it’s generally a commercial for the pie, or whatever product may be the subject and the purpose is to pull the pride and recognition strings of the viewer so that he or she might run out and purchase the product. But the actual picture is of someone pretending to go to great lengths for the admiration of another. It is a picture of sacrificial deception.
Fasting is an act of worship. It is something done demonstrating our waiting and dependence on our powerful God. It is done in times of repentance and mourning as we seek His restoration and His healing, as we might see on a National Day of Prayer. We see that it is linked to prayer over time. It can be done corporately as we see in the Bible, and it can be done individually as we also see, but it is never to be done for show. Like the areas of giving and prayer, fasting as an act of worship is something that we are to do unto God alone. Jesus said that it fasting is to be so private that we are even to take measures to make sure that we look as perky as possible to avoid the attention and even sympathetic sorrow of others. God sees and He knows as these verses again tell us, “your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.”
Fasting in the Old Testament is often associated with brokenness and mourning, particularly for Israel and its people. Nehemiah asked a visitor about the Jews who had escaped captivity and about the city of Jerusalem. Scripture records, “When I heard these words, I sat down and wept and mourned for days; and I was fasting and praying before the God of heaven. I said, “I beseech You, O Lord God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who preserves the covenant and lovingkindness for those who love Him and keep His commandments, let Your ear now be attentive and Your eyes open to hear the prayer of Your servant which I am praying before You now, day and night, on behalf of the sons of Israel Your servants, confessing the sins of the sons of Israel which we have sinned against You; I and my father’s house have sinned….” (Nehemiah 1:4–6, NASB95) Nehemiah’s prayer continued to not only show his own remorse but to also confess the sins of His people while he called upon God for forgiveness and restoration. Here we see fasting as a part of Nehemiah showing his great remorse before God. Everything else at that point did not matter. It was all about crying out to God. Mourning with fasting is regularly seen in Scripture, and in many of these instances we find that the fasting continued for days, even leading to weakness as a result.
Fasting is also seen as a part of worship and consecration. In Acts 13 we read, “And Barnabas and Saul returned from Jerusalem when they had fulfilled their mission, taking along with them John, who was also called Mark. Now there were at Antioch, in the church that was there, prophets and teachers: Barnabas, and Simeon who was called Niger, and Lucius of Cyrene, and Manaen who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. While they were ministering to the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then, when they had fasted and prayed and laid their hands on them, they sent them away.” (Acts 12:25–13:3, NASB95) After Barnabas and Saul (Paul) had returned from Jerusalem they gathered together with other believers and were sharing together in a time of prayer and fasting when the Holy Spirit spoke to them and set Barnabas and Saul apart for ministry. The passage goes on to tell us that those gathered continued their prayer and fasting, and when the finished they laid their hands on Barnabas and Saul and sent them out.
Barnabas and Paul were set aside for ministry by the Holy Spirit in a time of prayer and fasting. Scripture records that this same practice continued as they went out and established churches throughout the various regions. In the next chapter of Acts we read, “After they had preached the gospel to that city [Derbe] and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying, “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” When they had appointed elders for them in every church, having prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed.” (Acts 14:21–23, NASB95)
We have the example of the prophetess Anna, in Luke, who as a widow continued until she was 84 worshiping in the temple with prayer and fasting. She was there the day that Jesus was presented in for circumcision on the eighth day. Scripture records her response, “At that very moment she came up and began giving thanks to God, and continued to speak of Him to all those who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.” (Luke 2:38, NASB95) She knew that the Redeemer had come and that the answer to her prayer and the purpose of her fasting was being answered by God.
Even our Lord is seen fasting when He is led by the Spirit into the desert for 40 days to be tempted. Being hungry the devil tried to take advantage of Jesus’ weakened condition to which Jesus responded, “But He answered and said, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.’ ”” (Matthew 4:4, NASB95)
While we have this example of Jesus fasting, we also have an accusation by the Pharisees and teachers of the law concerning His disciples’ lack of fasting. Scripture records that the interaction went like this, “And they said to Him, “The disciples of John often fast and offer prayers, the disciples of the Pharisees also do the same, but Yours eat and drink.” And Jesus said to them, “You cannot make the attendants of the bridegroom fast while the bridegroom is with them, can you? “But the days will come; and when the bridegroom is taken away from them, then they will fast in those days.”” (Luke 5:33–35, NASB95; also in Matthew and Mark) Jesus told them that those who were fasting were looking to someone. When He was present with His disciples there was no need. But when He left then fasting would again resume. One day we will be united with Him forever. This is our great hope. In the meantime, as we see in the early church, fasting remains as we wait on and call out to our God.