Why it matters: Fasting can be an empty ritual and is condemned. Did not people come to Jesus and ask: ‘Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast’? And is fasting not a Roman Catholic practice, so that the medieval church developed an elaborate calendar of ‘feast days’ and ‘fast days’? Did it not also become associated with a superstitious view of the mass and of ‘fasting communion’? Yes, but there is more.
Even during the times of the old agreement (aka Old Testament), God condemned useless fasting. Jesus comes on the scene later to confirm it’s proper and improper use. The main point Jesus makes is that fasting is that it is between me and God. It is not for show! Jesus assumes we will fast as He says “When you fast.” Jesus lays out how to do it.
- Jeremiah 14:11–12 (NASB) — So the Lord said to me, “Do not pray for the welfare of this people. “When they fast, I am not going to listen to their cry; and when they offer burnt offering and grain offering, I am not going to accept them. Rather I am going to make an end of them by the sword, famine and pestilence.”
- Isaiah 58:1–7 (NASB) — “Cry loudly, do not hold back; Raise your voice like a trumpet, And declare to My people their transgression And to the house of Jacob their sins. “Yet they seek Me day by day and delight to know My ways, As a nation that has done righteousness And has not forsaken the ordinance of their God. They ask Me for just decisions, They delight in the nearness of God. ‘Why have we fasted and You do not see? Why have we humbled ourselves and You do not notice?’ Behold, on the day of your fast you find your desire, And drive hard all your workers. “Behold, you fast for contention and strife and to strike with a wicked fist. You do not fast like you do today to make your voice heard on high. “Is it a fast like this which I choose, a day for a man to humble himself? Is it for bowing one’s head like a reed And for spreading out sackcloth and ashes as a bed? Will you call this a fast, even an acceptable day to the Lord? “Is this not the fast which I choose, To loosen the bonds of wickedness, To undo the bands of the yoke, And to let the oppressed go free And break every yoke? “Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry And bring the homeless poor into the house; When you see the naked, to cover him; And not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
- Zechariah 7:4–7 (NASB) — Then the word of the Lord of hosts came to me, saying, “Say to all the people of the land and to the priests, ‘When you fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh months these seventy years, was it actually for Me that you fasted? ‘When you eat and drink, do you not eat for yourselves and do you not drink for yourselves? ‘Are not these the words which the Lord proclaimed by the former prophets, when Jerusalem was inhabited and prosperous along with its cities around it, and the Negev and the foothills were inhabited?’ ”
Isn’t fasting an Old Testament exercise, we ask, enjoined by Moses for the Day of Atonement, and after the return from Babylonian exile required on some other annual days, but now abrogated by the Messiah?
Jesus clearly says, when you fast. Do I believe Him? Do I practice “Jesus fasting”?
I must choose God for my audience. As Jesus watched the people putting their gifts into the temple treasury, so God watches me as I give. As I pray and fast secretly, he is there in the secret place. God hates hypocrisy but loves reality. That is why it is only when I am aware of his presence that my giving, praying and fasting will be real.
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. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, 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. ~Jesus
The Big Picture: So whether for penitence or for prayer, for self-discipline or for solidary love, there are good biblical reasons for fasting. Whatever our reasons, Jesus took it for granted that fasting would have a place in our lives. His concern was that, as with our giving and praying so with our fasting, We should not, like the hypocrites, draw attention to ourselves.
Why is this important? Their practice was to look dismal and disfigure their faces. The word translated ‘disfigure’ (aphanizo) means literally to ‘make to disappear’ and so to ‘render invisible or unrecognizable’. They may have neglected personal hygiene, or covered their heads with sackcloth, or perhaps smeared their faces with ashes in order to look pale, wan, melancholy and so outstandingly holy. All so that their fasting might be seen and known by everybody.
- The admiration of the onlookers would be all the reward they got. ‘But as for you, my disciples,’ Jesus went on, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that is, ‘brush your hair and wash your face’.
- Scripture does not command disciples to fast. God does not require or demand it. At the same time, the Bible presents fasting as something that is good, profitable, and beneficial. The book of Acts records believers fasting before they made important decisions. Fasting and prayer are often linked together.
- Too often, the focus of fasting is on the lack of food. Instead, the purpose of fasting should be to take your eyes off the things of this world to focus completely on God.
- Fasting is a way to demonstrate to God, and to ourselves, that we are serious about our relationship with Him. Fasting helps us gain a new perspective and a renewed reliance upon God.