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?