When You Fast: Matthew 6:16-18 (Sermon)



Here is a picture of a donut my son drew. 

One of the ways my parents motivated us to wake up for church was to bribe us. They would tell us we would stop at Dunkin Donuts on the way there. Which they often did. I loved that tradition. Some days our church would have donuts and coffee between Sunday school and church. That was a bonus. Two donuts. I love donuts, especially warm donuts. And I love fair donuts in bags with cinnamon and sugar, and I love elephant ears. Our local Red Coach donuts are excellent, by the way. They are not paying me to say that, but I wouldn’t mind a kickback. My favorite donut is the Long John with chocolate topping and white filling. Since I am talking about breakfast treats, closely associated with donuts are cinnamon rolls, sweet breads, and muffins. I love them all and feel sorry for my gluten-free friends and family. Why do I bring this up? God cares about food. He made us and knows we need it. He invented it. He became one of us, eating, drinking, and enjoying. And he knows we need something way more than pastries, himself.


There is a saying that the way to a man’s heart is his stomach. Jesus wants our hearts. He will go there this morning as we dive into your favorite spiritual discipline: drumroll, please…. fasting. Well, maybe it is not your favorite. I would join you in skipping over this one too. However, it is biblical, and we don’t want to shy away from the Bible.  


I have asked B.W. to read for us. We are in Mathew chapter 6, verse 16. If you have your Bibles, turn there now and follow along. The words will be on the screen behind me. Can you stand now? 

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. (Matthew 6:16–18) 

Thank you. Let’s pray. Dear God, thank you for your Word. It is a lamp unto our feet. Teach us what you mean here. Help us love you with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength. In Jesus’s name, we pray, amen. You may be seated.


Jesus was teaching the disciples what it means to follow him in his Sermon on the Mount. This passage fits Matthew’s theme: Follow the promised King into his kingdom. Jesus began with the heart of the disciple and moved to their lives. So often, we think of ourselves as basically good. The religious experts of the law measured goodness by obedience to Old Testament rules. They could check off that they had not murdered anyone or committed adultery. That was easy for the Pharisees. Many could say they didn’t lie or get an unauthorized divorce. They probably felt good about themselves. The leaders followed the letter of the law but neglected its spirit. Jesus went after the low-hanging fruit of the self-righteous heart. He saw through their facade. And he perceived his followers could become performers too. That is why he said, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20), and “You must be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). Both statements can impose a heavy toll on the soul trying hard to do things right. No matter how much effort we exert, perfection eludes us like stretching to touch the moon. There is no way to reach it with our feet on the ground. As we move through chapter 6, we find Jesus talking about other measures of rightness and goodness, namely giving to the poor, praying, and fasting.


The passage this morning deals with fasting. The three verses tell us how not to fast, namely, to be seen by others, and how to fast, to be seen by our heavenly Father. Jesus desires us to fast for God and his reward, not man’s. If you are taking notes, let me say that again.

Fast for God and his reward, not man’s

This morning we don’t have many verses. Let’s survey the Bible on the subject and talk about why we fast and how to fast. 


The first time fasting appears in the Bible is in Exodus chapter 34. Moses went to Mount Sinai to meet with God and receive the Law. It says he did not eat or drink for forty days (Exodus 34:28, Deuteronomy 9:9, 18). 


That raises the question in my mind, “How long can you go without eating and drinking?” According to the internet, sometime around June 24th, 1965, Angus Barbieri began what turned out to be the world record for going without solid food, 382 days. He lived on vitamins, water, coffee, and zero-calorie drinks. He did have some milk and sugar from time to time (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Angus_Barbieri%27s_fast#:~:text=Angus%20Barbieri%20(1939%20%E2%80%93%207%20September,Maryfield%20Hospital%20for%20medical%20evaluation ). The current world record for going without water is eighteen days. In 1979, police locked Andreas Mihavecz in prison and forgot about him. He survived, barely (https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20201016-why-we-cant-survive-without-water#:~:text=The%20longest%20someone%20is%20known,on%20duty%20forgot%20about%20him. That being the case, someone should contact the Guinness Book of World Records after this service because Moses has the record. 


Don’t try that at home. Jesus doesn’t want us to fast to get in the record books. Your body cannot survive long without food and water. One article said: 

Without an adequate supply of water flushing through …[our bodies], toxins can begin to build up, causing the kidneys to stop functioning correctly. This can lead to a form of kidney damage known as acute tubular necrosis, which even if rehydration occurs can take weeks to recover from.

The extra strain on …[the] heart would … also [lead]... to irregular heartbeats, falling blood pressure and possibly seizures. Dehydration can also cause vital parts of the cardiovascular system, such as the blood vessels, to harden, increasing the risk of a heart attack (https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20201016-why-we-cant-survive-without-water#:~:text=The%20longest%20someone%20is%20known,on%20duty%20forgot%20about%20him).

Fasting from food and water can kill you. 


At the same time, fasting can be beneficial. For example, the John Hopkins website says fasting can:


  1. Aid in memory and thinking

  2. Improve your heart

  3. Improve your physical performance

  4. Prevent obesity and type 2 diabetes

  5. And help reduce tissue damage (https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/news/newsroom/news-releases/intermittent-fasting-live-fast-live-longer )


There are spiritual benefits as well. First and foremost, our heavenly Father gave it to help us focus on him. That is probably why he commanded a public fast once a year on the Day of Atonement. In Leviticus chapter 16, we read, 

And it shall be a statute to you forever that in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month [September/October using their Lunar Calendar], you shall afflict yourselves and shall do no work. (Leviticus 16:29)

That word for afflict means to fast. This Hebrew word was used seventy-eight times in the Old Testament, often not referring to fasting. However, one case is in Psalm chapter 35, verse 13. 

“I wore sackcloth; 

I afflicted myself with fasting; 

I prayed with head bowed on my chest” (Psalm 35:13).


According to modern and ancient Jews, Leviticus 16 is talking about fasting. A Jewish website says, “Fasting is perhaps the best-known custom on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement” (https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/yom-kippur-fasting-the-details/ ). Thus, public fasts happened at least once per year in the time of Jesus and continues today. 


There are other fasts in the Bible. For example, we read that King David privately fasted and sought the Lord for the health and welfare of his illegitimate son of Bathsheba (2 Samuel 12:16). 


In 2 Chronicles chapter 20, Jehosaphat, the king of Judah, faced a war with the surrounding nations. In verses 3 and 4, it records:

Then Jehoshaphat was afraid and set his face to seek the LORD, and proclaimed a fast throughout all Judah. And Judah assembled to seek help from the LORD; from all the cities of Judah they came to seek the LORD. (2 Chronicles 20:3–4) 


You may recall that eventually, Israel was taken captive. Esther documents the near extinction of the Jews during that era. She became the queen of Persia, but her Jewish nationality was not public information. Haman, a viceroy, plotted to wipe out all the Jews. She got wind of this diabolical plan and requested God’s people to pray and fast before she sought the king’s intervention. We read in chapter 4 her words: 

Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa[one of the capitols], and hold a fast on my behalf, and do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my young women will also fast as you do. Then I will go to the king, though it is against the law, and if I perish, I perish. (Esther 4:16)

She risked her life to save the lives of her people. But, before she took that courageous step, she pleaded to God with prayers, fasting, and the petitions of her people. 


Ezra, the priest, proclaimed a fast and the humbling of God’s people as they returned to Jerusalem from exile (Ezra 8:21). Nehemiah proclaimed a fast, the wearing of sackcloth, confession, and the reading of the Bible as God’s people embarked on rebuilding the wall of Jerusalem (Nehemiah 9). A final example is the prophet Joel who spoke on God’s behalf. He called his people to fast before the day of wrath. 

“Yet even now,” declares the LORD,  “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.” Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster. (Joel 2:12–13) 


In the New Testament, we see evidence that some Pharisees fasted twice weekly (Luke 18:11–12). Anna, the widowed prophetess at eighty-four, prayed and fasted day and night in the temple, waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem (Luke 2:36–38). Jesus fasted for forty days in the wilderness before he began his ministry. He also anticipated that the church would fast, although his disciples didn’t fast during his ministry. 


The disciples’ lack of fasting became a contention between the Pharisees, John the Baptist’s disciples, and Jesus’s disciples. So we read in Matthew chapter 9. 

Then the disciples of John came to him [Jesus], saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast. (Matthew 9:14–15)

Jesus was and is the bridegroom. The church is the bride. When Jesus died, was buried, rose, and ascended into heaven, the church began to fast from time to time, publicly and privately. One example of a public fast we read in Acts chapter 13. 

Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a lifelong friend of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off. (Acts 13:1–3)


There have been times in Sawyer Highlands’ history when we asked people to fast and pray. Fasting can be wonderful, and it can be horrible. It can be public and private. It can be easy and hard. 


So, why fast? Here are four reasons: 

  1. First, Jesus used the word when in verse 16 and expected his followers to fast. So, first and foremost, we fast because 

    1. Jesus expected it. 

That is not the best reason, but we can draw that conclusion from the text this morning. 

  1. Secondly,

We fast because Jesus expected it.

We fast to reorient our hearts to our Father. 

We can think of God whenever we have hunger pangs or desire food. Significantly, Jesus describes God as Father. We want our hearts and lives bent toward him. He is good and strong.

  1. John Piper has written extensively on the subject of fasting. 

    1. I commend his book Hunger for God. In it, he wrote, 

The greatest adversary of love to God is not his enemies but his gifts. And the most deadly appetites are not for the poison of evil, but for the simple pleasures of earth. For when these replace an appetite for God himself, the idolatry is scarcely recognizable, and almost incurable.  (p. 14)

He also writes, 

“The danger of eating is that we fall in love with the gift; the danger of fasting is that we belittle the gift and glory in our willpower” (p. 21).

Fasting done rightly has the power to turn our hearts to our Father.   

  1. Thirdly,

    1. We fast because Jesus expected it.

    2. We fast to reorient our hearts to our Father. 

    3. We fast to remind ourselves of our needs. 

Fasting points out weakness. We experience that in hunger and thirst. We can ask, “Do we hunger and thirst for righteousness as much as we do food?” I don’t. 

  1. Richard Foster wrote: 

  2. “More than any other discipline, fasting reveals the things that control us” (The Celebration of Discipline).

  3. We need God to break into our lives and control us. Fasting opens our eyes to our weaknesses and limitations. 

  1. Finally, 

    1. We fast because Jesus expected it.

    2. We fast to reorient our hearts to our Father. 

    3. We fast to remind ourselves of our needs. 

    4. We fast to recall our Father’s provision. 

God has given us much. We are blessed. Much of the world doesn’t have the resources we do. They go to bed hungry and wake up hungry. Fasting points us to God’s grace in our daily bread.


Thus, fasting is something Christians do publicly and privately to seek the Father, see our needs, and remember his provision as we follow his Son.  


How, then, do we not fast? 

Here are some guidelines based on these verses and my thoughts to help: 

  • We don’t spiritually fast to be seen by others. Jesus forbade that in these verses, just as he spoke against giving and praying for people to see us. 

  • We also don’t spiritually fast to justify ourselves. Romans 5:1 says, 

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. (Romans 5:1–2) 

Our righteousness is based on faith alone, period. It is not based on our ability to abstain from eating and drinking.

  • We don’t fast spiritually to lose weight or cleanse our gut or other medical benefits. It is OK to fast for health reasons. However, don’t make health benefits the ultimate goal of your spiritual fast. Feel free to separate the two fasts if you want to clarify that distinction. 

  • Don’t fast if you are sick or pregnant. Talk to your doctor if you have questions about when you can fast. 


How should we fast? 

  • Fasting is a private discipline. No one can do it for you. However, as we have seen in Scripture, it can be okay to practice it publicly. The point Jesus made in the Sermon on the Mount was about our heart and a relationship with our Father, not a performance, a to-do list, or twisting God’s arm to act.  

  • Fasting often is most frequently about abstaining from food. However, it doesn’t have to be. 

    • Isaiah 58 talks about a different type of fast. God was talking to his people who were fasting from food. He said:


Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure, and oppress all your workers. Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to hit with a wicked fist. Fasting like yours this day will not make your voice to be heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day for a person to humble himself? Is it to bow down his head like a reed, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Will you call this a fast, and a day acceptable to the LORD? (Isaiah 58:3b–5)

The rhetorical answer is, "Absolutely not!" God loves obedience over sacrifice. He wants hearts, not a sideshow. His people were being hypocritical. They were fasting from food but were at war with each other, seeking to please themselves and oppress the poor. God has an alternative. He goes on to use the term fasting metaphorically. 

“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? (Isaiah 58:6–7)

Fasting can be from anything good: sweets, video games, social media, the news, you name it. But, in the case of Isaiah 58, God would rather his people fast from their resources like time and self-interest to care for hurting people. 

How should you fast? 

  • Plan it out. I say that because, invariably, if I decide to fast, someone will bring donuts to work, my wife will want to go out on a date, or I may forget and eat the food left out the night before on the counter. 

  • Turn your eating time into praying, reading Scripture, and Bible memory. 

  • When you feel hunger pangs, think of God. 

  • Try it. Start with skipping a meal or two. Or here is an application that came to me yesterday. What if we do a public/private fast this week? We pick one day to fast and pray. For solidarity’s sake, let’s pick a day at random to all fast. How about Thursday? I am just kidding. Thursday is Thanksgiving and a time of feasting. You might feel like fasting afterward. The point is to practice this discipline, not to alter your standing with God or impress those around you. Our Father will reward you in some way. I talked about rewards a few weeks ago at Converge. You can look that up online or come back after Christmas and a brief series we will do in January on prayer. We will tackle the next section in the Sermon on the Mount: storing treasure in heaven.  


I have tried fasting from time to time. Some of you are better at it than me. The cool part is that this is a muscle you and I can develop. Our Father in heaven will get the glory, and we can find joy.  


If you are not a follower of Jesus, this talk of fasting and joy and following Jesus likely seems monkish. You might relate to intermittent fasting or fasting for blood work. However, when it comes to fasting to seek God, that is new. Friend, God is more valuable than food, water, and life. He is life. Seek him while you can. 

None of us will be perfect in this life. Jesus knew that. He was and is the only one perfect. Fasting quickly points out our imperfections and need for our heavenly Father. It can propel us to be poor in spirit, meek, hungry, and thirsty for his righteousness. Will you join Jesus and me and put your hope of rightness in him, not your willpower? 

If you are new here, you can break your fast or just feast with us after the service downstairs. We have a newcomers luncheon and have enough food for you and your family. If you are fasting, ignore this invitation, and hopefully, you will join us next time. 


Let’s pray. 


I am going to ask the ushers to come up front. We are taking an offering as a continuation of worship. Some of you are guests; there is no need to give. Others of you give online. Some have no money. Just let the plate pass you by. This is another way to express our worship. It is also a chance to give us a prayer request on your connect card. Let’s continue in worship.  

*Use by permission. All rights reserved.


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