Living for the Praise of God - Pure-Hearted Fasting - Matthew 6:16-18

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Introduction – A Warning from Jesus  

In Matthew 6:1 we get a warning from Jesus. This verse serves as the heading for the entire section (6:1-18). What’s clear is that Jesus knows our weaknesses and that we will be tempted to live for our own praise and to long for the approval of men rather the approval of God. 

In 6:1-18 Jesus deals with three areas of righteous living that He saw being used for the praise of men rather than for the praise of God. Giving to the poor, praying and fasting are all things that God calls His people to do, but they are also things that can easily be used for selfish gain.

Using these three acts of piety as examples, Jesus calls us to avoid hypocrisy. He calls us to live for the praise of our heavenly Father instead of living for the praise of people. He wants us to recognize how subtle sin is and that we can take good things and use them in sinful and selfish ways. 

Understanding Fasting

While the first two examples that Jesus gives (giving to the poor and prayer) are things that we all understand as things God expects us to do, fasting is something that doesn’t get talked about as often. Before we consider Jesus’s warning about fasting for the wrong reasons it’s worth considering what fasting is and what else the Bible says about it.

A simple definitionFasting is voluntarily abstaining from eating food for a particular period time for spiritual purposes

A Brief Survey of Fasting in the Bible

  • Fasting in the Old Testament – In the Old Testament we have many examples of fasting. The first mention of fasting is when Moses fasts on Mount Sinai (Exodus 34:28) and there are many other examples including Samuel, David, Ezra, Nehemiah and Daniel. The reasons for fasting are varied, but most often they are a way of showing repentance or sorrow before God (Daniel 9:3-5; Jonah 3:4-5). Fasting is also used to seek God before significant events, as a sign of humility before God and as a means of showing devotion to God. 
  • Only commanded once – While we have many positive examples of fasting, there’s only one time when God commanded or instructed His people to fast. Under the Old Covenant God instructed His people to fast annually on the Day of Atonement as sign of repentance for sin.
  • Fasting in the New Testament – While fasting is mentioned less in the New Testament than in the Old Testament, the examples all seem to affirm pure-hearted fasting as a positive sign of devotion. Jesus fasted for forty days just before the start of His public ministry and we also have two examples fasting in the early church (Acts 13:2-3; 14:21-23).
  • Jesus’s teaching on fasting – Jesus addresses fasting two times in the Gospels. Once when the Pharisees ask Him why His disciples aren’t fasting according to their customs (Matthew 9:14-15) and then here in Matthew 6. In neither case does Jesus command or instruct people to fast, but in both cases He seems to acknowledge that fasting is a normal practice for the people of God. While the Scriptures don’t command or require fasting, it does seem like a normative way for the people of God to come before Him in particular situations or seasons of life.

The Wrong Way to Fast – Don’t fast to be seen by others (6:16)

  • The way of the hypocrites – The religious leaders of Jesus’s day went out of their way to make it known when they were fasting. They presented themselves in unkempt and somber ways in order to make their fasting apparent to all.
  • Their motivation – While Jesus isn’t condemning fasting, He is condemning fasting with the wrong motivation. The scribes and the Pharisees, according to Jesus, fasted for the purpose of being seen by others rather than for the purpose of being seen by God (Isaiah 58:3-6).
  • Their reward – Those who live for the approval of men will receive the praise and approval of men as their reward.

The Right Way to Fast – Fast to be seen by the Father (6:17-18)

  • The way of the godly – While the hypocrites changed their appearance when they fasted, Jesus says that when we fast we should present ourselves as we normally would. Instead of going unkempt, Jesus says to wash up and get dressed as you normally would.
  • The motivation – The motivation for fasting should not be so that we can be seen by others, but in order to be pleasing before God. His approval and His pleasure should be what we are seeking. 
  • The reward – What is the reward that comes from God for those who seek Him rightly? Our Father in heaven is the One who forgives sinners, comforts the sorrowful and who draws near to the brokenhearted. He gives rest, answers prayers, and works all things together for good for those who love Him. He is the giver of every good gift and can do more than all we can ask or think. It’s clear, His approval and His favor should be what we desire above all else.