Summary: The purpose of Biblical fasting is to satisfy our hunger for God.
This morning we’re going to address a topic that frankly doesn’t get as much attention in the church as it does in the outside world around us. Fasting has actually become quite popular in our culture, primarily for physical reasons like weight loss and health. In fact, this week I went to Amazon.com and found these books among the ten most popular books on fasting:
• Fasting and Eating for Health: A Medical Doctor's Program for Conquering Disease
• The Miracle of Fasting: Proven Throughout History for Physical, Mental, & Spiritual Rejuvenation.
Here is how the product description for that book reads:
This book is a must read for those seeking to cleanse and detoxify their body and to gain spiritual energy and live a longer, healthier life.
• The No Breakfast Plan and the Fasting-Cure
• Juice Fasting and Detoxification: Use the Healing Power of Fresh Juice to Feel Young and Look Great
We also know that those involved in the many forms of eastern mysticism are very committed to fasting as a means of receiving mystical revelation. The disciples of Buddha fast as a means of freeing their minds in order to receive enlightenment – although I will have to say that it doesn’t appear that Buddha himself engaged in the practice of fasting all that often.
Even though, as we’ll see this morning, the Bible does have quite a bit to say regarding fasting, it seems that in general it is a topic that doesn’t receive a lot of attention in the church. And unfortunately, even when it is addressed in the church, there seem to be a lot of misconceptions about the purpose of fasting. In fact, the top selling book on Amazon, which claims to present a Biblical view of fasting, is described like this:
…[the author] explains the spiritual power of fasting and offers a deeper understanding of God’s plan for fasting and the benefits available to those who participate. The book contains inspiring and practical information that readers need to know in order to access the power of biblical fasting. Those who seek God through fasting can expect tremendous rewards for their personal lives as well as for the church. They will see breakthroughs in many areas such as healing, finances, unhealthy dependencies and family relationships. This book also gives stories of those who have reaped miraculous rewards from this simple act of faith.
Since I haven’t read the book myself, I’m not going to mention the name of the book or even the author, but what I do know is that the description of the book does give me some serious concerns about what the author is teaching in his book. Although there is a brief mention of “seeking God”, the emphasis is clearly on what the person who practices fasting can expect to get for himself or herself – thus the focus on power, benefits, rewards, and breakthroughs. But, at least from my perspective, that is exactly what Jesus is warning against in the passage that we’ll examine this morning. So go ahead and open your Bibles to Matthew 6 and follow along as I read just three verses this morning, beginning in verse 16:
16 “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 17 But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, 18 that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
Matthew 6:16-18 (ESV)
As we’ll discover this morning, the practice of fasting is very Biblical. In fact, we’ve already seen that Jesus engaged in that practice Himself while He was in the wilderness for 40 days. But like so many Biblical practices, by the time of Jesus, the practice of fasting had been perverted greatly by the Jewish religious leaders.
According to the Talmud, these religious leaders fasted twice a week – on Monday and Thursday. They claimed to have picked those particular days because Moses went up the mountain to receive the law on the fifth day of the week – Thursday – and he came down from the mountain with the law on the second day of the week – Monday.
In Jerusalem, those two days just happened to also be market days. On those days, the people from the surrounding areas would come to the markets there in Jerusalem. So those days, when the city was teeming with the most people were an opportune time for the religious leaders to display their piety. We see that confirmed in the words of the Pharisee in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector that we have referred to several times in recent weeks: