This article is a Bible study on Matthew 6:16–18.

Source: The Outlook. 2 pages.

Matthew 6:16–18 - Fasting

The manner in which the believers worshipped their God during the Old Testament dispensation was quite different from that of New Testament times. The altar occupied the central position in Old Testament days. Daily sacrifices were brought which were types of the one great sacrifice to come. Copies of the Word were scarce. In the earlier times there was no written Word. The believer gave expression to his devotion to God in sacrifices, in prayer, and by means of fasting.

Time and again we read of the people fasting during the days of the Old Testament. When one studies this matter a little more closely, he comes to the conclusion that virtually all those fasts were self-imposed. On only one occasion is a fast commanded, and that is a matter of interpretation. Some say (L.S. Jongsma) that fasting was never commanded. However, on the great Day of Atonement the people were commanded to “afflict your souls” (Leviticus 16:29, 23:27, Numbers 29:7). The word “fasting” is not used but it is clearly implied. None of the other “Cast days” were introduced by divine commandment.

The purpose of fasting was indeed to afflict the soul. It meant the partial or total abstinence from food for a time. It was used for the purpose of giving expression to sorrow for loss of a dear one, for sins committed, for calamities, etc. It was used for the mortification of the body. The desires or appetites of the body are not to rule. In fasting the body was neglected in order that all the attention might be given to the needs of the soul.

Although only one day of fasting had been commanded the people, many fast days were introduced. The rending of one’s garments, donning sackcloth, sprinkling ashes on one’s head, and fasting were all used to give expression to sorrow. The Old Testament manner of worship contained within itself the danger that it would become mere external form. Prophets were sent again and again to warn the people of this danger in regard to the sacrifices. Sacrifices could so easily be brought out of custom only. The same danger resides in fasting. At the time of Jesus’ ministry, the Pharisees fasted two days every week (Luke 18:12). On these two days (Monday and Thursday) Moses was supposed to have gone up to mount Sinai and to have returned again with the law.

Despite the fact that but one fast day had been commanded, the Bible looks with favor on fasting on other occasions. Jesus fasted forty days and forty nights while he was in the wilderness prior to his active ministry. Paul fasted immediately after his conversion (Acts 9:9). Paul speaks of other times when he fasted (Acts 13:2–3, 14:23, II Corinthians 6:5). The disciples of John and of the Pharisees asked Jesus why his disciples did not fast (Mark 2:18, Luke 5:33). His reply was that they should not fast while he, the bridegroom, was still with them; but that the days would come, after the bridegroom was taken away, that they would fast. The fast of the great Day of Atonement has no place after the atonement wrought by Christ, but there will be other occasions to fast even in the New Testament dispensation!

Jesus does not condemn fasting but he does condemn a certain manner of fasting. The fasting of the Pharisees was not done in sincerity. They disfigured their faces. They were “of a sad countenance.” They sought to make it apparent to everyone they met that they were fasting. Their sad and disfigured faces were to leave the impression on everyone of their great piety. Their fasting was not an expression of their own humility. The effect on others was their primary purpose. This practice Jesus condemns. The believer may not make a show of his righteousness before men (Matthew 6:1). Righteousness is a matter of the heart!

How should the believer fast? He should do it in such a way that no one is aware of it except his Father who is in heaven. This is very important. True fasting is an indication of humility. As soon as humility is paraded before men it becomes its direct opposite — pride. These Pharisees were proud of their humility! Take every precaution, says Jesus, that you do not fall into this error. Anoint your head and wash your face. Don’t give anyone the impression that you are fasting. Your Father knows it! He is the only One who has to know it. God will recompense that humility which comes to expression in fasting.

The manner of fasting approved by Jesus is very much like the approved manner of giving alms of which he spoke in the first part of this chapter. Alms should be given in such a way that it remains true giving. Fasting should be done in such a way that it remains the true expression of humility. The manner of performing one’s religious exercises will, in large measure, determine the blessing he will receive. One may do all that he is commanded to do and still receive only condemnation for all his efforts.

Is there still a place for fasting in the New Testament Church? It is still common in Roman Catholicism. Calvin, A. Kuyper, and H. Bavinck believed that it would be of great profit to the church if fasting would again have an honored place in the religious exercises of God’s people. Kuyper especially urged the people of his day to engage in fasting. Yet, despite the urging of leaders, fasting has not found a prominent place in the life of the church.

Fasting is a form of sacrificing. It is the voluntary denial of certain legitimate things. Denying self the necessities of life for a time to benefit one’s spiritual life is indeed to be commended. Fasting serves a good purpose when it is done in that spirit. Divine approval rests on that form of fasting. That kind of fasting should always be present in the church. Sacrificing the essentials of life for the benefit of one’s spiritual life or for the welfare of the Kingdom of God gives proper expression to the value placed on the things which are spiritual and eternal. The history of the church is also a history of sacrificial giving. God’s people are willing to do without many things, legitimate in themselves, for the welfare of his kingdom. That is also fasting!

Questions for Discussion

  1. Do you think there was more danger of externalism in the religion of the Old Testament that there is today? (See John 4:23)
  2. Do you think a different form of worship is necessary in the Orient than among us?
  3. It is much easier for one race to give expression to its feelings than for another race. Is this expression good or dangerous?
  4. Should one ever be able to tell whether a person is humble?
  5. Do you think the Old Testament form of fasting would be good for us today? Give reasons.
  6. What is the meaning of “sacrificing” as we use the term today? Do many people sacrifice for God’s Kingdom?
  7. Should a person be willing to do without ‘necessities’ so that he may be able to send his children to the Christian school?

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