Summary: Fasting must be done so for the right reasons, and Jesus contrasts 1) Pretentious (Matthew 6:16) against 2) Proper Fasting (Matthew 6:17-18)
With the start of the Paralympics in Vancouver, one factor that has been stressed is the fact that the athletes competing should be considered as athletes just as much as their able bodied competitors who just finished. The Para Olympians train, and diet like their other Olympic cohorts. For many people their training and dieting is just as inspiring.
As Jesus has been talking about our training for the Kingdom, he now deals with fasting which is the third area-after those of giving (6:2–4) and praying (vv. 5–15)-for which Jesus gives a corrective to the hypocritical religious practices typified by the scribes and Pharisees. In each case the perversion of God’s standard was caused by the overriding desire to be seen and praised by others (v. 1). What we see here is the resumption of the pattern established in vv. 2–4 and 5–6 which is now resumed, with the third type of secret religious observance (France, R. T. (2007). The Gospel of Matthew. The New International Commentary on the New Testament (254). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publication Co.)
The first two examples of Christian piety that Jesus gives in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount do not seem particularly difficult. To most people, prayer and ..giving .. make sense and are familiar, even though they may not understand them completely or practice them. But that cannot be said of Christ’s third example. Not only does fasting seem unnecessary to most persons, it may even seem quite foolish or absurd (Boice, J. M. (2002). The Sermon on the Mount : An expositional commentary (207). Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books.).
Fasting has been practiced for various reasons throughout history. Many ancient pagans believed that demons could enter the body through food. When they felt they were under demonic attack they would fast to prevent more evil spirits from gaining access to their bodies. The yogis of most eastern religions and cults have always been committed to fasting-often for long periods of time, in which mystical visions and insights are claimed to be received. In modern western society fasting has become popular for purely physical and cosmetic reasons, and is recommended in some diet programs.
The Bible records no teaching or practice of fasting for practical reasons. Legitimate fasting always had a spiritual purpose and is never presented as having any value in and of itself.
During Old Testament times many faithful believers fasted-Moses, Samson, Samuel, Hannah, David, Elijah, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Daniel, and many others. And the New Testament tells us of the fasting of Anna, John the Baptist and his disciples, Jesus, Paul, and numerous others. We know that many of the early church Fathers fasted, and that Luther, Calvin, Wesley, Whitefield, and many other outstanding Christian leaders have fasted.
But the only fast commanded in Scripture is the one connected with the Day of Atonement. On that day all the people were to “humble [their] souls” (Lev. 16:29; cf. 23:27), a Hebrew expression that included forsaking food as an act of self-denial.
That was a national fast, involving every man, woman, and child in Israel. But it occurred only one time a year, and then only as an integral part of the Day of Atonement.
Because it is not elsewhere commanded by God, fasting is unlike giving and praying, for which there are many commands in both testaments. Both the Old and New Testaments speak favorably of fasting and record many instances of fasting by believers. But except for the yearly fast just mentioned, it is nowhere required. Beyond that, fasting is shown to be an entirely noncompulsory, voluntary act, not a spiritual duty to be regularly observed. If it is observed it must be done so for the right reasons, and Jesus contrasts 1) Pretentious (Matthew 6:16) against 2) Proper Fasting (Matthew 6:17-18)
1) Pretentious Fasting. (Matthew 6:16)
Matthew 6:16 "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. (ESV)
The phrase and when you fast supports the understanding that fasting is not commanded. But when it is practiced it is to be regulated according to the principles Jesus gives here.
Nçsteia (fast) literally means not to eat, to abstain from food. Fasts were sometimes total and sometimes partial, and ordinarily only water was drunk. Fasting as an exercise is to deprive one’s self of the normal and pleasant performances of life for the sake of personal enrichment.
Quote: In his classic book on prayer, Dr. O. Hallesby has written, “Fasting is not confined to abstinence from eating and drinking. Fasting really means voluntary abstinence for a time from various necessities of life, such as food, drink, sleep, rest, association with people and so forth. … Fasting in the Christian sense does not involve looking upon the necessities of life, which we have mentioned, as unclean or unholy. … Fasting implies merely that our souls at certain times need to concentrate more strongly on the one thing needful than at other times, and for that reason we renounce for the time being those things which in themselves, may be both permissible and profitable.” (O. Hallesby, Prayer, trans. by Clarence J. Carlsen (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1960), 113.)