Matthew 6:16-18

I said, a number of weeks ago when we began chapter six, that Jesus was about to lay down a fundamental principle of life for His disciples.  And that fundamental principle is that acts of piety and righteousness are not to be done with a view toward others seeing us do them so we can look good, and feel good about ourselves.

In the first verse of chapter six, Jesus says this – “Beware practicing your righteousness before men, with a purpose to be observed by them, for, indeed, you have no reward with your Father in the heavens.”

The point is here, that if we’re looking for some way to bring esteem to ourselves, then we certainly aren’t trying to give glory to God!  And we learned that the drive for self-esteem was the greatest evil, since it is the very opposite of the purpose of our being created!  Self-esteem is the opposite of Christ-esteem!  In fact it is anathema to His Glory.

And, as I continued to introduce this chapter, I mentioned that Jesus gives three examples of pious things with are done by people in order to gain respect and honor from other men.  And these examples cover the whole of Christian piety.

They are, first, acts of charity and compassion – which represent the whole of our relationships with others; and second, our highest duty, prayer – which represents worship; and, third, fasting – which represents the mortification of the flesh.

And, of course, you already know that we’ve covered the first two examples and now are faced with the third.  And these three really do cover the whole of our lives.  This chapter is truly an awful and ugly chapter for us, because it exposes us to the world.   It exposes us to us!  It makes us see and admit to ourselves what we really are.  We are sinfully self-centered and self-concerned individuals, who would rather have our egos bolstered than to see God and His Kingdom glorified.

And James says, “Beware exercising your piety before men in order to be seen by them.”  Beware.  That’s not My disciples who do that.  That’s those sons of the devil – the Pharisees.  That’s those whitewashed tombs – pious on the outside but rotting on the inside.

1)  My disciples are merciful and compassionate – not retaliatory, but giving.  And they do their works of compassion without trying to impress other people. 

2)  And My disciples worship the Father without seeking public praise and honor.  They want the Father to receive public glory!  When they pray, they pray “Our Father in the heavens, holy is Your Name.  Arrive Your Kingdom.  Be accomplished Your will.”


So, when you do alms, don’t sound a trumpet for yourself.  And when you pray, don’t stand on a busy street to be seen by men. 


“And, when you’re fasting,” verse sixteen, “don’t be sour faced like the hypocrites; they deform their faces that they might be recognized as fasting by men.  Amen I say to you, they have their reward in full.  But you – when you fast, anoint your head and groom your appearance, that you might not be seen fasting by men, but the Father in secret!  And the Father Who sees in secret will recompense to you.”


When you do merciful things, do them in secret, and God will recompense to you.  When you pray, do it in your own closet, and God will recompense to you.  When you fast, do it secretly, and the Father will recompense to you.

When you give, don’t do it so men can see you.  When you pray don’t do it so men can see you.  When you fast, don’t do it so men can see you.  These are acts of piety –compassion, prayer, fasting.  And they represent the entire range of Christian piety.  They are for God’s glory, and not to build your self-esteem.

Now, I want to spend some time on fasting, per se, and then we’ll come back to the text in a few minutes and set the word firmly in its context – and then we’ll make sure we understand that it represents a pious mortification of the flesh, which is required of all of us who are disciples of Christ.

But all through the Scriptures, we find that fasting is a duty of God’s people.  It is a suitable and very important accompaniment of special humiliation and prayer.  Now, it isn’t a stated duty, such as the rigorous attendance at worship on the Lord’s Day; and there’s no commandment in Scripture which enjoins us to observe a certain number of fast days every year, or a certain number of hours in a day, or a certain food that must be abstained from routinely.

This is an occasional duty – a special duty – which, like seasons of special prayer, are to be regulated only by the circumstances in which we find ourselves!

And, although the times and seasons of fasting are to be left up to the consciences and judgments of each of us, or our families, or our Church as a group, we may confidently affirm that it is, indeed, a Divine Institution, and a duty to which all of us are bound, at the proper time, to attend.

Now, the Scripture abounds with the exercise of this duty; and, before I begin to give you a quick overview of it, let me say that the times and seasons of fasting ought never to be fixed in ritual – but they ought to come about from hearts which cry out to God in repentance and humiliation.  Prayer and the mortification of self just go together during times of trouble.  And, for a disciple of Christ, trouble means humiliation, repentance, and a request for mercy.

In every instance where prayer and fasting were used by God’s people, they were either in deep trouble, or they anticipated deep trouble.  And the reputation and fame of God and His people seemed to be the central issue!  That’s not to say there weren’t other side issues, but that was the main one!

But I’m going to give you a very brief overview of some examples of fasting in the history of God’s people.  And just from these few, let’s see if the Lord doesn’t lay it on your heart that this is a duty to which you are bound to attend.  And that it is a duty that we ought to attend now because of the state of the Church as a whole – and our great needs in this one.  For when there is distress – national, church, personal, there ought to be fasting to prayer.

At the beginning of the conquest of Canaan, the nation of Israel was soundly defeated by a few men at a place called Ai.  I won’t go into the reasons for that defeat, but suffice it to say that Joshua and the elders of Israel then kept a solemn fast, remaining prostrate on their faces before the ark of the covenant, in the exercise of the deepest humiliation and prayer.

King David fasted and prayed as he humbled himself under a heavy judgment of God sent upon him for his sin in the matter of Bathsheba and her husband Uriah.

Even the hard hearted Ahab fasted and cried for mercy when the judgments of God were pronounced against him by the prophet Elijah.

The public-spirited Nehemiah also fasted and prayed while in captivity in Babylon when he heard of the desolations of the city of Jerusalem.  After the captivity ended and Nehemiah came back to Jerusalem, he proclaimed a public and solemn fast, deploring the state of religion in Israel, and to pray for mercy, forgiveness and restoration.

Jehoshaphat, king of Judah, as recorded in Second Chronicles chapter twenty, appointed a day of fasting and prayer throughout his kingdom when the forces of Ammon and Moab came up against him.

When the prophet Jonah preached the approaching judgment, the people of Nineveh, even though they were a pagan city, immediately set apart a season of fasting in which, not only all the adults, but all of their infants and all of their animals were required to receive no food or drink.  That’s in Jonah chapter three.

When Queen Esther saw that she and all of the Jews were in danger from the conspiracy of Haman, she set apart a season of solemn prayer and fasting for three days in succession.

The inspired prophet Ezra, when he set out on his important mission to Jerusalem, assembled the returning captives at the River Ahava, and “proclaimed a fast, that they might afflict themselves before God, and seek of Him a right way for themselves and their little ones, and for all their substance.”  Ezra eight, twenty-one.

And let me say here, that it is a remarkable thing that the blessing of God attended the exercise of fasting in every one of these cases!  The armies of Joshua were victorious; David, although the child for whose life he prayed died, was forgiven his great sin; Nineveh, though exceedingly guilty, was spared; Jehoshaphat was made to triumph over his formidable enemies; and even the impenitent Ahab was favored with the delay of that dreadful judgment which had been pronounced against him.  Esther and her people experienced a startling deliverance; and Ezra obtained the blessing that he sought so humbly.

After the advent of Christ, we find the same practice continued, and being intrinsic to almost every extraordinary season of devotion.  The Lord Jesus Himself entered into a long and miraculous season of abstinence before He began His public ministry and Calvary.

The apostles accompanied the setting apart of candidates to public office with fasting, lending great weight to the importance of the office and the process of choosing and ordaining.  We have two offices – the elder and the deacon.

When the Lord appeared to Cornelius, the centurion, and imparted the knowledge of His will to him, we are informed that Cornelius was engaged in fasting and prayer.

In Second Corinthians chapters six and eleven, the apostle Paul speaks repeatedly of his habit of waiting on God by fastings, prayer and other duties.

In fact, we can hardly find, in all the Word – both Old and Newer Testaments, an extraordinary season of humiliation and prayer, which is not accompanied with fasting!

Now, I ask you, do you suppose that a fact so frequently repeated concerning pious people – in so great a variety of situations, from early periods of the Scriptures to its close – could have occurred by accident or by human logic or reason?

This activity is sanctioned by God Himself, attended by blessings from God, and practiced by God’s people from the beginning, the examples of which are given to us by God in His Holy Inspired Word.  It is not a human device, but an institution of heaven!  It is a Divine Institution!

The Lord Jesus Christ allowed no fasting among His apostles while He was with them, but He sanctioned the institution for all of His people for that period of time  between His ascension and the second coming.  Listen to Him again, here in the sixth chapter of Matthew: 


“Moreover, when you fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance:  for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast.  Truly I say unto you, they have their reward.  But you, when you fast, (taking for granted that it was a duty to do so), anoint your head and wash your face; that you appear not unto men to fast, but unto your Father who is in secret; and your Father who seeth in secret shall reward you openly.”


And Paul, in First Corinthians chapter seven, adds great weight to the duty of fasting when he said, concerning the sacred bedroom of married couples, that the only reason for them to be apart physically is for special seasons of prayer and fasting!

So, now that we’ve seen how saturated the history of God’s people is with this practice, let’s go back to the text and see what it says.  Jesus says, “Whenever you’re fasting” – assuming that we will – “whenever you’re fasting, don’t be sour faced like the hypocrites; they deform their faces that they might be recognized as fasting….”

So, whatever they did, the Pharisees did it to let others know that they were deep into the process of fasting.  They took on the dour appearance.  They probably marked themselves.  They maybe wore special clothes.  They might have even put ashes on their faces, I don’t know.  But they took on this haggard, disheveled and self-deprecating appearance so that other people would look at them and see how holy they.  And Jesus says they have their reward – the admiration of men.

But then He turns to the subject of His disciples and says, “But you – when you fast, anoint your head and groom your appearance, that you might not be seen fasting by men, but the Father in secret!  And He will recompense to you!”

In other words, put away the desire for self-glory and attend to this special duty to the honor and glory of God.  Jesus makes it clear, here, that this is the third category of piety – compassion, prayer and now fasting.  And it is clear that this important subject is representative of a much larger subject – which is the mortification of the flesh.  In other words, the putting down of the needs of the body reminds us of, and is symbolic of, the mortification of the desires of the flesh.

You remember the Pharisees appeared to be holy, but, in actuality, they twisted the Law of God so that they could satisfy the lusts of the flesh!

What fasting is, when it’s done in secret, is a denial of self – not a denial of things, a denial of self!  For the disciple of Christ, it represents the putting to death of the deeds of the flesh.  It shows the requirement of the mortification of our depravity.

It also reminds us of our hunger and thirst for the righteousness of God.  And it reminds us of our utter reliance upon God for food and drink and clothing and His immediate causing of all of it.  All of our comforts are caused by the imminent working of God.

And one of the biggest benefits of this duty is that it reminds us to pray.  Staying hungry – and thirsty – drives us to prayer, which is our highest duty.  When your body tells you it’s not getting what it normally indulges in, whether that be food or coca-cola or tobacco, or whatever else you normally may use, then it reminds you that this day is for mortification of the flesh, confession and prayer.  The emptiness constantly tells you what you ought to be doing – it won’t let you stray away from your purpose for very long!

Now, contrary to the last time we fasted, I won’t bind your consciences to a particular day of fasting.  I think we have to remember that we might attend to this duty in vanity if we aren’t sincerely engaged in it.  But if you have the same concerns for the state of the Church that I have, then please join me – a whole day, or part of a day – or several days - without food or coffee or tobacco or wine or anything else except maybe water or juice – a period in which we mortify the needs of the body and pray for our Lord’s Church and our nation.

There are some side issues which should be taken to our Father in ultimate recognition of our total dependence upon God.  But my day will primarily be spent in being reminded to pray for a new Reformation, and our nation and others.

Here’s a couple of points to remember, and we’ll quit:

1)      Because of the special season of prayer and fasting being a solemn duty, a hypocritical fast is a double insult to God.  If you will not be seriously engaged with God, then don’t do it.

2)      Secondly, don’t do anything differently in order to alert other people to what you’re doing.  Keep it between you and God.

3)      Thirdly, get away by yourself as much as you can.  I know that with all your duties that might be difficult.  But, as much as is possible, be alone with God for confession, repentance and prayer.  And thankfulness is a major aspect of fasting – because of all our physical requirements being met by Him.  And if you engage Him as you ought, then there will be reformation in your life – which is where a reformation is supposed to begin anyway!

4)      Lastly, put self-righteousness out of the way.  Put the ego, or the self, away, and no matter how much you want to eat and drink, deny it.  And that will teach you to deny the self when it wants to sin.  Fasting is true humiliation before God – not self-righteousness.