by Mike Ratliff
1 “But be careful of demonstrating your righteousness before men with the aim to be seen by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father in heaven.” 2 “Therefore, whenever you do give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets so that they may be glorified by men. Amen I say to you, they have their reward. 3 But when you do give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand does, 4 so that your alms may be in secret and your Father, the one seeing in secret, will repay you. ” (Matthew 6:1- 4 Possessing the Treasure New Testament v1)
We come now to Matthew 6:16-18, which is like the second slice of bread of a sandwich around the meat of our Lord’s teaching on prayer and forgiveness in Matthew 6:5-15 with the top slice of bread being Matthew 6:1-4 (above). Most “Study Bibles” with outline sections will correctly label Matthew 6:16-18 as “Fasting,” but if you read it in the context of what comes before, it is a continuation of our Lord’s teaching against pietistic efforts by the religious to approach God according to their own efforts and, in their hypocrisy, use their visible piety to elevate themselves in the eyes of others. As we saw in Understanding the Basics of Pietism, “There are no extraordinary Christians; but being an ordinary Christian is an extraordinary thing.”
16 “And whenever you fast, do not be as the gloomy hypocrites for they disfigure their faces that they appear to be as ones fasting. Amen I say to you, they have their reward. 17 But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face 18 so that you may not appear to men as ones fasting, but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father , the one seeing in secret will repay you.” (Matthew 6:16-18 Possessing the Treasure New Testament v1)
I have fasted many times. With the medications I am on now to control my seizure disorder, it is no longer recommended. A few of those times were very rewarding in that I came away from it more joyful and more in-tune with the fact that I was indeed making progress in my sanctification. However, most of the time, those days of fasting were very frustrating for me. I would get devastating headaches sometimes and it seems that those days at work would be exceptional in elevating my stress level about something. After several weeks of fasting once a week, my wife and I concluded that it was not very productive to do that if I could not also spend that time away from those stresses and, instead, spend it with my Lord in prayer, worship, and meditation on His Word.
The following is from the ESV Study Bible on Matthew 6:16-18:
Various kinds of fasts were commonly practiced in OT times, though the law required only one fast a year, on the Day of Atonement (though fasting is probably implied by the command to “afflict yourselves”; Lev. 16:29–34; 23:26–32). In addition to abstaining from food, people were to humble themselves by praying, mourning, and wearing sackcloth. As with giving (Matt. 6:2–4) and praying (vv. 5–15), fasting is to be a matter of the heart between the Christian and God.
The key to what our Lord is teaching here is exactly what is said above. Fasting is to be a matter of the heart between the Christian and God. Any thing else makes it into another matter. I prayed about discontinuing my fasting because I saw no purpose in “self-afflicting” myself once a week if all that came from it was a day I dreaded and rejoiced mightily when it was over. However, as I look back on it, God was using it and when I discontinued it, in came other things that humbled me or afflicted me such as medical issues and, of course, the natural results of aging.
Fasting is not some mystical or pietistic religious act that opens the doors of heaven to elevate us to another level of Christianity. No, it humbles us and we certainly need that. It causes us to see ourselves in the light of our true nature contrasted with the Holiness and Righteousness of God. When fasting I never struggled with certain fleshy temptations that I would at other times for instance. Why? I was more in-tune with reflecting on my dire lack of holiness in contrast to the perfect Holiness of God. In this life we will never achieve it either.
Perfectionism is not possible. The indicative statements by our Lord Jesus that those in the Kingdom of God are to be perfect as their Heavenly Father is perfect are statements of fact, not commands. Those who belong to Christ have that standing because the righteousness of Christ was imputed to them when the Father justified them when they believed on Jesus as their Lord and Saviour. Along with that, his active obedience to the Law was imputed to them as well thereby making the statement our Lord made on the cross, “It is finished!” (John 19:30) precious treasure to all those in Christ.
Soli Deo Gloria!