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Monday, March 24, 2014

Creating Our Own Stumbling Blocks (or The Seeking Shepherd and Unending Mercy)

Matthew 18

Matthew 18 caught my attention when I read verses 7-9. This is a hard saying. Would we want to cut off our hand or foot or pluck out our eye? What was Jesus saying? People often write this teaching off because they think it impossible. People consider it one of the “hard sayings” of Jesus. When we look at it closer in context, we see the overall lesson,  verse 11, “For the Son of Man has come to save that which was lost.” What occurs when Christ saves people? They accept that He is the Son of God who died to take away their sins and they ask for forgiveness of their sins. In Matthew 18, Jesus gave us several types of people as well as the temptations that cause people to sin, from which they need saving.

            The occasion that began Jesus’ teaching was when the disciples questioned Him about who is greatest in heaven. Jesus called a child to himself and said, “Unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (vs. 3). That appears easy and straightforward. Each person who wishes to enter heaven must be humble, recognize God’s supremacy, recognize Jesus as the Savior, and with a sincere heart ask for forgiveness. People who are converted and humble are children of God and will be great in God’s kingdom because they are His children and co-heirs with Christ. Jesus went further when He said, “Whoever receives such a child (a believer in Jesus) receives Me, but whoever causes one of these little ones (a child of God) to stumble, it would be better if he or she was drowned in the sea” (vs.5-6). Wow, what a statement! Causing a person, a believer, to stumble by tempting them (to sin) is such a great sin on the tempters part. Jesus had set the stage for what He next taught the disciples. Children of God receive the kingdom of heaven and are “great” because they are children of God. Great sin occurs when a person causes a believer to fall into sin by deliberate tempting or wrong teaching. Jesus said it would be better for that person to tie a millstone around their neck and drown. That is extreme, too. Jesus wanted the attention of the disciples so exaggerated the statement.

            In verses 7-10, Jesus spoke of the person who creates the stumbling blocks. Because we live in a fallen world, stumbling blocks come. Jesus said, “Woe to the man through whom the stumbling block comes!” Jesus was serious when He said this. He became even more serious in the next two verses. He said,

If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it from you. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than to have two hands or two feet and be cast into the eternal fire. If your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out and throw it from you. It is better for you to enter life with one eye, than to have two eyes and be cast into the fiery hell. (vs. 8-9 [NASB])

Jesus changed the recipient of the stumbling block in these verses. He now spoke of the person providing the stumbling block as being the one who stumbles. He spoke of the person’s own inclinations creating temptations for him or herself. Jesus recognized that two people stumble from one temptation, the one providing the temptation or stumbling block and the one who stumbled. These two people could be the same and we know this to be a proper diagnosis of sin. Often our desires cause us to act upon temptation and sin. Jesus added a further note to the one creating the stumbling block. He said, “Do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you that their angels in heaven continually see the face of My Father who is in heaven” (vs. 10). Sometimes we create stumbling blocks for God’s children because we are jealous of their piety or favored-ness of God. We need to be aware that whatever we do to make them stumble, their guardian angels in heaven are aware of and bring before the Father so He can give the child strength of spirit to stand against the temptation. We can have this, too, so do not despise them, but seek the Father.

            The first two sections of chapter 18 (Jesus spoke of who a child of God is) warns those who make stumbling blocks for God’s children, made the disciples aware that these people create stumbling blocks for the child and for themselves, and angels go before God intervening for the child of God to stand strong during the times of trial. The children of God, because of Jesus dying for them, have strength available from God to withstand temptations to sin, whether the sin to create the temptation or succumb to the temptation. In the next three stories, Jesus gave further details about what He came to give us.

Verses 12-14 speak of a shepherd, who, upon noticing one sheep of the hundred has gone astray, chose to find the lost one. Jesus does not give up on any of us. He came to save us all. In verses 15-20, Jesus told us how to correct a sinning brother or sister first gently then with much greater effort. He reminded us that we can go to the Father in prayer to help lead the person, the sheep, back to the fold of God. Jesus said, “If two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst” (vs. 19-20). We need to confront the sinning believer as to his or her sin. If this does not work then Jesus provided two other steps to approach the person about their sin. These should be done while at the same time praying to the Father. The believers pray for the confronted person and for themselves - that they will not fall to temptation while confronting the person, for the ability to love the confronted person, and for the return of the person, the lost sheep, to the fold.

The final story in the lesson is on forgiveness. Jesus told Peter that His disciples must forgive a brother or sister his sin up to seventy times seven. Since the number seven is a complete number in the Bible, Jesus could have said seven times seven, but He wanted to be emphatic and said ten times that. Jesus said His disciples are to forgive people an infinite number of times, unending forgiveness, just as He forgives us repeatedly. Jesus gave an example of this great forgiveness. He said, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he had begun to settle them, one who owed him ten thousand talents (A talent was worth more than 15 years wages of a laborer.) came before him. Since he did not have the means to repay, the lord commanded him to be sold along with his wife and children and everything he owned, and repayment be made. The slave fell to the ground and prostrated himself before him saying, ‘Have patience with me and I will repay you everything.’ The lord of the slave felt compassion and released him and forgave him the debt” (vs. 23-26). Upon receiving the lord’s mercy and having his debt cleared from his name, the servant went to collect debts owed to him. One slave begged for mercy to have more time to repay. The forgiven slave threw the fellow slave into prison until he could pay back what he owed. When the lord heard this, he summoned the forgiven slave, gave him an account of his own mercy to him, and told him he should have learned from the lord his master. The lord in anger handed the slave over to the torturers until the slave could repay the debt that he forgave him . This slave met the lord, but did not give all of himself to him; he had not learned from the lord. By his actions, the servant/slave showed he was not a part of the lord’s true household because he did not extend mercy and forgiveness as his master did.

Each of these stories speaks of forgiveness. The stories give us glimpses into God’s character and the characters of humankind. The first story of the lost sheep shows us God’s determination to save humankind. He goes to great lengths to save each of us, which includes unconditional forgiveness and mercy. The second story shows us that God is determined to find and confront us with His love, mercy and forgiveness because He wants each person to come to have a personal and saving relationship with Him. God is persistent in seeking us. It also shows us, believers in Jesus Christ, how we are to approach a sinning brother or sister in love and with the grace and power of God. The third story tells us we are to forgive infinitely. No matter how often we have to forgive a person for causing harm against us, we are to forgive them. Jesus forgave our past sins and will forgive future sins when we come to him confessing and asking His forgiveness.

There is another part to these stories; Jesus tells us who we are to be, to love, and to forgive. The small child in verses 1-6 represents each believer in Jesus Christ. We must remember children of God who are younger in the faith than we and to whom we are more accountable to teach and not cause to stumble. In verses 7-10, the person causing the stumbling block is of whom Jesus spoke. We need God’s strength and forgiveness, too. Verses 12-14 speak of sheep, those who are in the fold of God (current disciples) and the one Jesus is determined (the person not yet a disciple) to follow and bring to safety. Jesus forgave them of their sins and went to great lengths to bring them to His fold. We used to be that lost sheep. As sheep in His fold we can still stray and Jesus will still seek for us to take us home. Jesus spoke of disciples leading other disciples in His name in verse 15-20. He also spoke about following His way and calling upon Him to help the sinning brother or sister return to God’s way. The final story speaks of a lord, symbolic for God, and a servant who supposedly is a devoted follower of the master’s ways. This servant received great mercy and forgiveness, but then showed his true beliefs by exacting from a fellow servant vengeance when he could not repay him. This servant proved his lack of devotion to the master by his lack of following the master’s example and teaching.

In each of these stories, Jesus showed the Father’s forgiveness. To the humble child, He gave forgiveness upon confession and acknowledgement of Him as Lord and Master. To the one who causes stumbling blocks, Jesus gave advice to remove from them that that causes temptation for them and creates temptation for others. Jesus loves so much as to teach His disciples to beware of their own sinful selves and remove from themselves whatever causes temptation. In the third story, Jesus purposely sought for the lost one because the Father’s will is that no one should live an existence separate from Him. Jesus went out of His way to find and forgive. In the fourth story, Jesus taught that He forgives every time a person asks and His disciples should forgive infinitely, too. Finally, Jesus taught that the Father wants everyone to come to Him so much that He will forgive them no matter what they have done. Yet, when that person, such as the first servant, turns out not to be a true son of God, God’s righteousness and justice prevail, especially when it causes one of His children harm or makes them stumble in their own faith. Because the second servant borrowed from the first, I assume the first servant had seniority over the second. The first should have been one to teach, as the master/lord taught him; but, he had not learned well and caused harm to the second servant. By putting the second servant into prison, mercy would not be taught and the servant and his family would be harmed.

This last story brings us back to verses 6-9. Jesus told the disciples not to create stumbling blocks for His children, themselves or other believers. He forgives infinitely a person who confesses his or her sin with a sincere heart. Jesus forgives each of God’s children and goes out of His way to seek the lost so that no one is lost for eternity. There are people, though, who intentionally create stumbling blocks and temptations for God’s people or who allow themselves to live in such a way that they distract themselves from the proper devotion due to God.

What came most to my attention while studying is the hard saying Jesus taught in verses 7-9. What is it that causes you to remove you devotion from God? Is your drive for climbing the ladder at work keeping you from reading the Bible daily? Is your desire for the newest edition of a car or a bigger house keeping you from seeking God’s face and worshipping Him? Is your desire for just a little wine keeping you from praying to God? Is your mental occupation of food keeping you from thinking about God? Possibly the eye, foot, or hand that is causing you to sin are these or a myriad of other things you allow to take priority in your life. Could you live with a smaller or older house or car so that you did not have to work so much and could go to church or Bible study? Could you move to another location so you are not as close to the bar or pub? Could you use the money God gives you to buy less for yourself and buy food for another family who does not have enough? Instead of allowing your eye, hand or foot (things close and dear to you) to guide you, allow your concentration on God and His will for your life to guide you. Do not let your desires drive you away from God as the non-believers do. It is better not to have these reminders of desires that distract your devotion to God than keep them and have to fight the temptation each day. Remove yourself physically from these temptations. Do as Jesus taught in Matthew 6:33 “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things will be added to you.”

What is your millstone? What is it that occupies your mind and drives you?

Is it God or

your next meal,

your next house,

your next car, or

your next drink?

Many things can become stumbling blocks. Do not let Satan deceive you into believing you want and need them.

Jesus came to seek and save the lost. Are you lost?

Seek the kingdom of God and He will give you His righteousness and all you need.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Give Us Our Daily Bread

There will not be the regular blog post this week as I have been super busy with ministry. However, I came across a particular Proverb that I had never caught by eye before. I think this is the best way to consider our circumstances and what we pray for. It is Proverbs 30:7-9:

 "Two things I ask of you, O LORD; do not refuse me before I die: Keep falsehood and lies far from me; give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, 'Who is the LORD?' Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonor the name of my God."

I have seen and found this to be true. When we have enough and do not need anything, our human tendency is to grow slack in our praying to God. When we are in need, that is when we call upon God the most. This prophet Agur, son of Jakeh, was teaching his people and his students.

We should keep in touch with God, in a daily relationship with Him, through prayer. When we pray we praise Him, thank Him, and ask for what we need. As we do this, we become grateful and content. If we do not keep in touch with God daily, we become discontent and want more or grumble that we don't have enough. The prayer should be, as Agur said, "give me neither poverty nor riches, but only my daily bread." It takes a wise person to recognize this about human inclinations and instruct that our prayers and requests to God be only what we need knowing that we are greedy and inclined to take the glory instead of giving it to God.

Take this thought with you today and through the week as you prepare for Easter. God did not provide just a sacrifice to cover us for our daily sin, like the rams and bulls of the Old Testament. He provided more abundantly that we could ever think or imagine (Ephesians 3:20) by providing His one and only Son, Jesus, as the ultimate once-and-for-all sacrifice for all our sins for everyone in the world for all time. God loves us that much that He would give the ultimate for us. Since that is the case, God will definitely provide for our daily needs. Consider the Israelites in the wilderness; God gave them manna for each day. When they tried to hoard it, it went rancid. When we try hoard money to provide our needs, we become spoiled, too. We set ourselves up to be like God providing for our own needs. We turn away from His as our ultimate provider.

We are allowed to choose. Will we choose Yahweh God to follow and trust Him to provide for us or will we choose to rely upon ourselves and lock God out of our lives? It is our choice. What do you choose?

Monday, March 10, 2014

Cloth and Wine: A New Life

Matthew 9:14-17

Jesus’ first teaching on fasting was in Matthew 6. In that chapter, Jesus taught that other people should not notice when a person fasts. Fasting should only be visible to God because it is a method of humbling self before God. So that we are not mistaken on this teaching, Isaiah 58 and Zechariah 7 both said this. God told the Israelites through these prophets that if their fasting was just motions they went through and they were not taking care of the hungry, poor, naked, and unsheltered, then He would not hear them. God requires a whole life given over to His service, not just outward actions. God looks at a person’s heart behind the actions. Jesus repeated this in Matthew 6. The Pharisees showed they were fasting by not bathing, anointing their heads with oil, and by wearing sackcloth and ashes. They were seeking acknowledgement by people. Jesus told them they received what they desired, public acknowledgement. On the other hand, they did not receive acknowledgement from God. They received and earthly reward, not heavenly.

In Matthew 9:14-17, the topic of fasting arose again. This time John's disciples asked Jesus directly about fasting. John’s disciples approached Jesus and asked why His disciples did not fast like the Pharisees and them. We need to understand this situation better. John’s disciples were still Jews. The disciples were sad and at a loss of what to do about John being imprisoned by Herod (Matthew 4:12). In the past (the Old Testament), people often fasted when seeking God’s guidance or expressing grief. John’s disciples acted as most Jews did when they fasted. They did not know a new day had come with a new covenant, even though John testified to it when he said “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). They did not hear Jesus’ teaching on fasting or the new covenant.

What is interesting is that the Pharisees are involved in this passage. Often when people challenged Jesus on a point of Jewish religious life, the Pharisees were the challengers. We note that the scribes and Pharisees were near when Jesus spoke to John’s disciples. (See 9:3, 11.) The Pharisees probably instigated this questioning so that John’s disciples spoke the challenge to Jesus. The Pharisees forever tried to catch Jesus in blasphemy or breaking Jewish religious laws. Another thing in this passage we need to note is Jesus made a point that showed His disciples are different from John’s disciples and the Pharisees. He called His disciples “attendants of the bridegroom” (vs. 15). “Attendants of the bridegroom” means sons, descendants, or heirs of the bridegroom. Jesus called His disciples his descendants, His heirs. His disciples are new children in Him and are heirs of the Father now. They will receive God’s love, grace, and salvation, as well as live with Him for eternity. Paul said this in Romans 8:17. We can imagine the slap the Pharisees felt when Jesus said this. They felt Jesus slapped them by saying they would not inherit eternal life with the Messiah. This may have enraged them. We do not know for sure how they took Jesus’ words at this point. We do know they never gave up their relentless pursuit to trip Jesus. They wanted to imprison and kill Jesus. Jesus told them the attendants of the bridegroom do not fast. He separated His disciples from the Pharisees and John’s disciples. By Jewish religious law, people at a wedding did not fast. Weddings lasted seven days and they did not fast for those seven days. Jesus’ disciples are not like John’s or like the Pharisees at this time. Jesus equated His disciples with being wedding attendants, but not just any wedding attendants; they were co-heirs with the bridegroom, with Christ.

Jesus punctuated this proclamation with two parables, the parables of the new cloth and the new wine. In these parables, Jesus did not speak specifically to fasting, but to the new covenant and new life in Him. He said, “no one puts a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch pulls away from the garment and a worse tear results. A couple of things we should notice here are the old garment needed a patch and patches came from shrunk cloth. First, the garment needed patching. The garment needing a patch was the old way of relating to God. Prior to Christ, the Israelites came to God through sacrifices for sin, which never took away all sin. They had to repeat sacrifices regularly. Also, within the religious life of the Israelites, there were arguments and divisions over how to live before Yahweh. The strict Jews required obedience to 613 laws. The stringency of these laws often did not allow for giving of mercy or compassion on the Sabbath. A chasm between the different forms of Judaism occurred because of their interpretation of the Law. The people did not need their old ways, the old garment, mended. They needed a better way to be in a right relationship with Yahweh God. Jesus came to earth to bring that better way, the New Covenant. The new cloth represented the better way. Trying to sew a patch of new unshrunk cloth onto old cloth will not work. These disciples of Jesus were new disciples. They had not had a chance to wear the cloth, their new life long enough to allow it to fit them well. The cloth/life was not yet tried, tested, and shrunk to become a familiar, loved garment. They were just learning about the new garment. Also, the patch of unshrunk cloth will pull away from the old cloth, but new life in Christ is not to be an add-on to an already existent life. Jesus came to bring a new way and a new covenant with God. He fulfilled the old covenant. The old has gone the new has come, as Paul said in 2 Corinthians 5:17. When a person becomes a follower of Jesus, the person has a new life and it does not fit with the old life. The habits of the old life do not go with the new life Jesus gives us. A person must choose which life they will lead. The Pharisees and other Jews could not realistically expect the new believers in Christ to follow their old methods of coming before God and of living on the earth. Thus, Jesus stated, they will not fast according to the old customs of the Jews. (Remember, nowhere in the New Testament does God mandate His children must fast. Fasting is one way of humbling oneself and seeking God, but God does not mandate it. The Jews must realize Jesus wove a new cloth to make them a new set of clothes, not something just to patch an old cloth. Jesus provided a better way, the new covenant. He fulfilled the old covenant.

With regard to the parable of the new wine, we must understand the method used in Bible times for making wine. The wine bag/bottle is just as important as the wine. People made the wine by pouring fresh grape juice into fresh skins/bottles. They skinned and tanned goat hides. The neck of the goat became the neck of the bag. After the person poured the fresh grape juice into the skins, over time the juice would ferment. As it fermented, it produced gases. The need for new bags was most necessary for this part of the process. The new bags were fresh, young, and expandable. They grew with the production and increased pressure of fermenting gases. Old bags were dry and inflexible. They could not withstand the pressure of the fermentation gases, but were not supple and expandable. Old bags could not grow. This analogy is what Jesus meant when He spoke to John’s disciples and others who listened. The message Jesus brought of the new covenant, the new way of relating to God, must go into new wineskins, lives made new by Christ. As people grow more in the knowledge of Christ and grow more like Him, they expand and grow just as the fermentation gases from the grape juice expand the new wineskins. The new wineskin is the new life Christ gives to people. The old way of life was stagnant, insufficient, and could not bring a person into a right relationship with God. A person must choose between their old way of life - religious and secular life - or the new life Christ gives. If we try to put the new covenant (the wine) Jesus brought into an old lifestyle (wineskins), it will not fit. The old life fights against the new wine, the new covenant, Christ brings and bursts the old wineskin, then both the old life and the new message will be lost to the person. The person will become confused and drift in life. When we allow Christ to pour the new life He brought (salvation and life with Him forever) into new wineskins (a new way of living/the new man) both are preserved, the Gospel given to the person and the person’s life.

Jesus made 4 points. One, His disciples are co-heirs with Him of eternal life with the Father in heaven. This meant that the Pharisees were not co-heirs. However, Jesus told them in verse 12, “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick.” Jesus came for everyone, but only persons who recognize he or she is sick, who realize he or she is a sinner, will receive salvation. The Pharisees as a group did not recognize their sickness. Second, Jesus came to give a completely new life/cloth, not have some of what He brought for humankind added onto what they already did in life. Christianity is not a patch for our lives. It is the only way to have abundant life, to be made right before God (have salvation), and to have eternal life in God’s Kingdom. Third, the new wine must go into new wineskins. Jesus gave a new way, the new covenant, to be in relationship with God and that requires we accept and live out a new life and no longer live as we did previously. We cannot continue to live our old sinful lives and expect that since we say we believe, we will be all right with God. Our acceptance of His grace and forgiveness must bear fruit in our lives. Fruit will show by the way our lives changed from what they were to a new way of living, a life of mercy, compassion, and devotion to God. The fermentation gases represent this growth. Fourth, fasting is a personal issue. For John’s disciples, they mourned the imprisonment of John and fasted humbly to go before God asking Him to intervene for John. For the Pharisees, they fasted to advertise their piety hoping to gain praise from other people. For Jesus’ disciples at that particular time, fasting was not needed because God, in the form of Jesus Christ, was in their midst. He already acknowledged them and chose to be with them. There would be a time later, after Jesus ascended to heaven, when they might want to fast to humble themselves, recognize and repent of their sin, and ask to be in God’s presence. Fasting is just one method of coming before God. God does not mandate it. By definition, fasting is a religious exercise of abstaining from food or drink. It removes our focus from our wants and needs to focus on God. Every time we think of eating or drinking the item from which we are fasting, we remember our fast and that we are seeking God. We remember not to focus on our self, but on God. We are seeking God’s presence, His will, and His way.

I do not know if you are fasting this Lent. If you are, why are you doing it? Do you want to be part of the crowd who does? There is a better reason to fast. Being a part of the crowd will not get you acknowledged by God. See Isaiah 58 and Zechariah 7. Do you want to be in God’s presence? God desires a continual relationship with us. He created us to be in relationship with us. God created us in His image, the crowning glory of creation. We are the only ones of His creation into whom He breathed His life. It is for us that He sent His Son, Jesus, to be the once and for all sacrifice, the only sacrifice ever needed for our sin, so that we could have a renewed relationship with Him.

Are you ready to accept His love and sacrifice? Are you ready to become new wineskins for the new wine? Are you ready to put on the whole new garment that Jesus gives to you, not just the patch? What do you need to do to come before God today? Maybe fasting? We must always come to God in humility, recognizing His greatness and our sinfulness, and asking for His forgiveness, and then we can be in a renewed relationship with Him.

Christians observe Lent for forty days before Easter. At Lent Christians prepare for the celebration of Easter by humbling themselves before God with repentance, moderation in life, and spiritual discipline, some include fasting in the latter. Lent is a time to reflect on Jesus Christ’s suffering and sacrifice. Have you taken the time to consider God’s great love for you? He allowed His Son, Jesus the Christ, to be beaten and crucified for your sins. That thought is humbling. Take this time now and consider what Jesus did for you so you could be in a renewed relationship with the Father and have eternal life with Him. Whatever it takes for you to consider God’s great love for you do it because He gave everything He had to show you how much He loves you.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Seeking God Through Fasting

Matthew 6:16-18

            These three verses are part of a famous sermon by Jesus. It is part of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). Jesus taught the disciples and other of His followers important things - how to pray, how to give, how to fast, how to have a relationship with Yahweh. This week, God caught my attention with the fasting part of the passage, verses 16-18. The verses say,

16 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. 17 But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face 16 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. 17 But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face 18 so that your fasting will not be noticed my men, but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.

            I always read this part of the sermon as not to be as the Pharisees who seek attention. That is one of the lessons taught here though not the only lesson. In the fifteen verses before this, Jesus taught His disciples how to give and pray. He preceded this with His thematic statement in verse 1, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven.”

            Jesus told His disciples to give in secret so that no one other than God knew who gave. He said to pray to the Father in their inner/secret room so that no one other than God knew they were praying. In these verses, 2-8, Jesus contrasted those who gave and prayed in the open so other people would see and hear them to the redeemed, righteous ones of God. He told them the people who acted so others saw sought acclamation from other people; thus, they already received their reward on earth. These hypocrites did not do these things from their heart for God, but from their need of approval by people. Jesus, in verses 9-13, taught His disciples how to pray. The prayer He taught put God’s will first, their relationship with God second, and their relationship with other people third. God is to be the priority if you are a disciple of Christ. Later in chapter 6, Jesus taught God’s love and provision for His children by showing them how much He cared for the sparrow. The analogy is that if God cares even for a sparrow, how much more does He care for His creation made in His image.

            With this setting placed before us, in this week’s study, God brought my attention to verses 16-18. These verses are on fasting. I have never studied fasting, nor have I ever fasted for my faith. When I read this, God piqued my interest. I delved into the Biblical history of fasting. My questions were: 1) What is fasting, 2) Why do we fast, 3) How do we fast, and 4) Does God mandate fasting as a part of the religious life of a church, to be on the church calendar.

As I began my study, I looked up every instance of fasting in the Bible. I found that the words “fast” and “fasting” in the Old Testament Hebrew are tsowm and tsuwm. These Hebrews words mean abstaining from foods (Old Testament Hebrew Lexicon). The prophets, priests, and kings/queens called fasts for their people. Individuals sometimes chose to fast of their own accord. These leaders called fasts to humble themselves or their people before God, to confess their sins, and to pray to God because of their need for forgiveness, guidance, God’s presence, to know God’s will, and to express their grief to God. We find these passages in Judges 20:26; 1 Samuel 7:6 and 31:13; 2 Samuel 1:12 and 12:16; 1 Kings 21:9, 12, and 27; 1 Chronicles 10:12; 2 Chronicles 20:3; Ezra 8:21 and 23; Nehemiah 1:4, and 9:1; Esther 4:3,16, and 9:31; Psalm 35:13, 69:10, and 109:24; Isaiah 58:3-6 and 10; Jeremiah 14:12, 36:6 and 9; Daniel 9:3; Joel 1:14, 2:12, and 15; Jonah 3:5; and Zechariah 7:5 and 8:19. In the New Testament, fasting and fasts, in Greek, are nesteuo and nesteia. These Greek words mean to abstain as a religious exercise from food and drink as a part of private or public religious devotion (New Testament Greek Lexicon and Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary). These words are found in Matthew 4:2, 6:16-18, 9:14-15; Mark 2:18-20; Luke 5:33-35, 18:12; and Acts 13:2-3, 14:23. These passages show the reasons people fasted in the New Testament era – to be in commune with God, to know His will, to be in His presence, and to bless and send out God’s called messengers, such as Saul and Barnabas in Acts 13:3 and 14:23.

In one of the above passages it seems God mandated a fast. Zechariah 8:19 stated the LORD declared a fast four different times a year. These fasts appear to commemorate times when the Israelites fasted previously because they were being attacked, Jerusalem destroyed, and people taken into captivity. God told the Jews that historically these four fasts were because of sadness and desperation, but now they would be for joy and gladness. Jewish rabbis, priests, and historians stated that God mandated a fast before the time of Zechariah on the Day of Atonement in Leviticus 16:29. The Hebrew word used in that instance is ‘anah and means to humble oneself, be downcast, and be afflicted. ‘Anah can be used for “humble” and other words, such as “afflicted.” The Jewish leaders stated this affliction could be the afflicting of the soul by abstaining from food, drink, anointing of the head, or bathing. The Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible) does not explain specifically what this “affliction” should be though. Since the Hebrew words tsowm and tsuwm specifically mean a fast or to fast, abstaining from food for a purpose, 'anah of Leviticus 16 is not the same. As evidence to this interpretation, that afflicting is fasting and thus fasting is required for the Day of Atonement, Jewish leaders refer to Psalm 35. Yet, when I study Psalm 35, David used ‘anah in verse 10, “Lord, who is like You, Who delivers the afflicted from him Who is too strong for him.” Later in verse 13, David used the word tsowm to speak of fasting. Since David differentiated the two words, afflicted and fasting, I do not believe we can say ‘anah in Leviticus 16:29, Leviticus 23:27-32, and Exodus 30:10 refers to a God mandated fast for the Jews on the Day of Atonement. Fasting is a purposeful humbling of one’s self before the great and majestic Yahweh. We will see, though, in Matthew 6, Isaiah 58, and Zechariah 7 that performing a fast does not make a person acceptable before God. Humbling oneself does not come from the act of fasting. Being humble before God comes from being in a relationship with Him so that our actions on earth glorify Him.

In studying the passage, the word for fasting used in Matthew 6:16-18 is nesteuo. Jesus explained to the people that when they fast they were to “anoint their heads and wash their faces so their fasting would not be noticed by men, but by their Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you” (vs. 17-18). The hypocrites purposely neglected their appearance so men would notice them. Jesus said the hypocrites already received their reward, which was recognition by men of their supposed devotion to God. He implied the Father does not recognize hypocrites. This continued Jesus’ theme from giving and praying in the preceding verses.

There is more to fasting than the act of giving, praying, or fasting. Isaiah 58 gives council on fasting. God spoke through Isaiah to the house of Jacob in this chapter. God told them it was because of their sins that He did not heed their prayers nor acknowledge their fasting. The Israelites’ lack of confession kept Him from hearing and acting for them. Jews not seeking His righteousness made Him turn His ear from them. The house of Jacob fasted and on the same day, they drove their workers hard (vs. 3). God told them He desired a fast where a person humbled himself or herself (vs. 5). God wanted a fast where the “bonds of wickedness were loosed,” “the bands of the yoke” were undone, and “the oppressed went free” (vs. 6). The “house of Jacob” was to “divide their bread with the hungry, bring the homeless poor into the house,” and cover the naked (vs. 7). God desired their righteous actions and then He would be “their rear guard” (vs. 8). He would answer when they called and their light would shine in the darkness. God would be the light of the Israelites if they sought to follow Him and His righteousness (vs. 9-10). God promised He would guide them, satisfy their desires in desolate places, give them strength, and provide them with everything they need, if they made Him their light (vs. 11).

 Matthew 6 and Isaiah 58 say that acts performed out of duty while fasting is not what God accepts as humility and righteousness. God requires His righteousness to show through by His children giving to the hungry, sheltering the homeless, releasing the captives, and clothing the naked, without drawing attention to themselves. By being in such a relationship with God that His love is enacted by His children for the less fortunate and hurting, people show God’s righteousness and their faithful following of Him. Our care of others and humility of self is what God requires even today. (As an aside, ‘anah does not show care of others, just concern of self before God.) When we are in a relationship with God, then our fasting as a method to humble ourselves and seek Him will be accepted by Him. James wrote on faith in action in James 2:18. He stated that faith is what you do for others because of God living in you.

Jesus spoke on hypocrites in Matthew 6. They gave, prayed, and fasted to be seen by other people. God did not give mandated fast days during Bible times since the time of Zechariah. God does not mandate fasting for the church calendar. When we want to come before God, we must humble ourselves, be penitent, and seek to follow God’s will on earth. One way to remind us to be humble is fasting, abstaining from food or drink. Some Christians, during Lent, choose to fast from a food or drink that does not help their bodies, the temple of God. When they think of or want to consume that item, fasting reminds them to focus on God, be humble before Him, and seek His will. Fasting at Lent also reminds each of us of God’s great love for us as expressed through the life, death, and resurrection of His Son so that we can be forgiven of our sins and live with Him forever in heaven. We fast to humble ourselves before almighty God, to be in His presence, and receive His acknowledgement.

Jesus summed up the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 6:33, “But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.Whether you believe fasting should be on the religious calendar or not, what is most important is your relationship with God. Are you coming humbly before God? Are you seeking Him and His righteousness and acting it out on earth? As God said in Matthew 6, and Isaiah 58, if you are not living a righteous life, secret from the eyes of other people, then your act of fasting is not done with humility and will be rejected and go unheard by God.

This Lenten season, whether you fast or not, are you in a right relationship with God? Is it obvious by your heart actions of caring for the “least of these” that you act because of submission to God’s will? Or, do you act as if by remote? Fasting is a state of mind and includes actions that acknowledge your humility before God. This humility shows as actions lived out toward other people because of your relationship with God – actions of giving clothes, food, shelter, and freeing the oppressed and enslaved. These actions glorify God. Christ is the supreme example of living a righteous life and having a relationship with the Father. Christ showed us how to pray to God (Matthew 6:9-13), how to be humble (John 13:12-17), and how to care for the “least of these” (Matthew 25:34-40, Isaiah 61:1-3, and Matthew 11:5).

Seek God with utmost humility, confession, and prayer. Be genuine and He will hear and respond to you. Enact out of obedience God’s righteousness, which comes from a relationship with God through His Son, Jesus Christ, and you will be heard by God and have your reward in heaven (vs. 1).

Are you seeking God, His kingdom, and His righteousness?