Matthew 6:16-18

Setting and Overview
Of the three areas of public piety that Jesus addresses in the Matthew 6, there is little question that fasting is the one with which Protestants today are least familiar. Because of that, the danger today is likely less that we will fast in the wrong way, but rather that we will never fast at all. This is unfortunate, because even though it receives relatively little attention in the New Testament, the foundation of its description in the Old Testament, combined with the examples that there are in the New Testament of fasting by the early church, should make us take Jesus’ words of “when you fast” to heart as much as we do His assumption that His listeners will give and pray. Yes, we are expected to fast, and while that does raise many practical questions that may give rise to disputes, there is far more that is clear, and that is where our attention should go first.
 
Exposition

The word translated here as “fast” means literally to “not eat.” Fasting could take different forms, such as not eating but drinking, not eating or drinking, giving up a specific type of food, or even giving up something other than food. Broadly, we can understand fasting as a temporary abstinence from a legitimate physical thing for spiritual purposes. While that may not always be food, most commonly it will at least include that. Fasting in the Old Testament was done for a variety of reasons, including repentance (Joel 1:14, 2:12), mourning (I Samuel 31:13, Nehemiah 1:3-4), appealing to God (II Samuel 12:16-23, Psalm 35:13, Ezra 8:21-23) to support those in need (Isaiah 58:3-7), or because it is mandated (Leviticus 16:29-31.) In the last case, the only example of a day being given in Scripture for all Jews to fast (the Day of Atonement, or Yom Kippur) the word fast is interestingly not even used. Rather, they are told to “afflict/humble themselves.” While that would have meant more than just fasting, it included fasting, and helps us to understand some of the reason for fasting (also in Psalm 35:13, Ezra 8:21, and Isaiah 58:3-5.) Fasting humbles us, and through the affliction and weakness that we experience, allows us to grow in endurance and strength (James 1:3-4, Romans 5:3-4) and to grow in power in Christ (II Corinthians 12:9-10.) Fasting was still practiced by pious Jews in Jesus’ time (Luke 2:37) and was done twice a week by Pharisees (Luke 18:12.) John the Baptist’s disciples fast, and Jesus implies that His disciples will fast after He is gone (Matthew 9:14-15.) We also see fasting in the early church (Acts 13:2-3, 14:23.) So, fasting would have been understood by Jesus’ audience and was likely practiced by most.
Jesus calls out the hypocritical practices of many who do fast. They make sure that everyone knows how much they are suffering physically and even take steps to make it seem like they are suffering even more than they are. Jesus calls His followers to instead take steps to look normal, so that people won’t even be able to tell. Again, this doesn’t necessarily mean that every fast is meaningless if someone else finds out about it. Rather, if our focus is what other people think, rather than what God thinks and how it draws us closer to Him, then it is of no spiritual benefit.
 
Examination and Application
While this passage doesn’t command us to fast, it does seem to imply that we will, and taken with other Old Testament and New Testament passages, should challenge us to consider how we might utilize it as a means for spiritual growth. Further, between the clear teaching here and elsewhere, we get a clear contrast of a right and wrong way to fast. Fasting should be private (when possible) rather than public, sincere instead of routine, for spiritual purposes rather than physical, and done while focused on God, rather than on when we can eat again. If we do it in the right way, it is a unique tool for us to grow spiritually. If it is a foreign idea to us, then we should start by studying what the Bible teaches about it. If we are familiar with the practice, then we are challenged to return to it with a fresh perspective, and eager to draw closer to God through it.
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