The Pharisees and Fasting

The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:16-18)

In this part of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus addresses the true righteousness of fasting before God versus the phony fasting of the scribes and Pharisees. They wanted to make it clear to men that they were fasting so that people would think about how religious they were. They would go out of their way to disfigure their faces so that someone would ask what was going on and this would give them the chance to let people know that they were fasting. Jesus taught that we ought to make it so personal between us and God that we would, as a personal rule, not let people know we were fasting.

What is Fasting?

The Hebrew word "sum,"  to "cover" the mouth; and the Greek "nesteuo," to "abstain" means going without food or drink voluntarily, generally for religious purposes. It is being so focused on the spiritual condition or need of the soul before God that one has no thought of eating. Involved in fasting is to "afflict soul or self," i.e. practice self-denial. The length of time and nature of it is personally decided.

Fasting was originally the natural expression of grief and became the customary mode of showing to others the inner emotion of sorrow. What many do naturally when upset or preoccupied with something overwhelming to their hearts, is done before God for spiritual purposes of clearing the heart and mind of sin and guilt, or in earnest appeal for His will in serious decisions. There are personal times of joy and gladness when fasting does not fit the occasion. In times of joy and celebration, it is not fitting to be fasting. In times of serious decision and anxiety, forced smiles and laughter do not fit.  Fasting fits what is happening in the personal life of decision and sadness.

When Was Fasting Required?

The sole fast required by the Law of Moses was that of the great Day of Atonement (Leviticus 23:26-32).  It is called "the fast" (Acts 27:9). This was a group time of serious reflection on their sins during the year and their sorrow before God.

There are occasions when special fasts were and should be called by leaders. These times of fasting are usually dictated by circumstances such as:

  1. sickness – Psalms 35:13,
  2. death – I Samuel 31:13,
  3. war or battle – Judges 20:24-28,
  4. conviction of sin – Daniel 9:3,
  5. realizing lost condition – Jonah 3:5,
  6. important decisions –Acts 13:2; 14:23.

The church should take the decision of appointing elders as a serious time of prayer and fasting. Disaster, tragedy, and broken-heartedness are times that take us away from normal eating routines. Personal sorrow over failure before God is the right time to fast and pray.

Fasting is not fitting for good times, for joyful occasions (Matthew 9:14-17). To fast while Jesus, the Bridegroom, was with the apostles, would not be fitting for the occasion. It would be as unfitting as putting an unshrunk cloth on an old garment, which pulls away from the old when it shrinks. It is just not wise to put material that is not yet through the shrinking process on a piece of material that has already shrunk. It tears away from the old. Fasting is like putting new wine into old wineskins. It will not work together well at all.

The Pharisees Did It for Appearance

The Pharisees would fast often, but that was not the unrighteous part. Like the Israelite fathers, it was not for the right reason (Isaiah 58:3-9; Zechariah 7:1-14). It was ill-motivated. If the heart is not really in it, then God is really not pleased. If the purpose is to make people feel impressed with us, then that is not a proper reason or motive for fasting before God. It is not for impressing people. When impressing people is the motive, this does not uphold the demands of the Law.

This kind of fasting is like showing people how proud you are of your humility. Jesus is correct that this was not the motive of righteousness upheld by the Law of Moses, but this is really against the Law. It is not that Jesus is trying to invent a new law of fasting here, but that when we fast it is to be with proper motives. When the Pharisees did it for the praise of men "they have their reward." They wanted the praise of men and that is all they will ever get.

Proper Motives

Proper motives are checked by the Law of God. Psalms 138:6 says," Though the LORD is on high, Yet He regards the lowly; But the proud He knows from afar." Lowliness is not a new virtue suddenly implemented by Jesus because it was not in the Law of Moses. It was what God always required from the beginning of sin in mankind. Isaiah 66:1-2 says, "Heaven is My throne, And earth is My footstool. Where is the house that you will build Me? And where is the place of My rest? For all those things My hand has made, And all those things exist," Says the LORD. "But on this one will I look: On him who is poor and of a contrite spirit, And who trembles at My word." " This is not a new requirement now issued for the first time in the Sermon on the Mount. It was what God demanded all along.

Jesus Upholds Righteousness

Righteousness calls for honesty with self, others, and God, and it calls for pure motives.  Jesus was upholding the righteousness of the Law of Moses, while He was exposing the inferior level of righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 5:20). Proper motives for fasting are not new requirements. The way of the Pharisees was fasting for show and for impressing men with themselves. This is not upholding the Law of Moses. When you fast, don't be trying to call human attention to yourself!  It is only right when the motives are right and the occasion is right. We are to fulfill the righteous requirements of the Law (Romans 8:4; 13:8-10).

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