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Matthew 6:16-18 “Righteousness Performed, Part 3: Fasting”

So, whenever you might fast, do not be like the hypocrites who are gloomy, for they disfigure their faces so that they might be noticed by men. Truly, I say to you, they have their reward in full. So you, when fasting, anoint your head and wash your face. So that you will not be noticed by men when fasting, but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will give to you.


Jesus turns from charity (vv. 2-4) to prayer (vv. 5-15), and now to fasting; the third pillar of Jewish religious service. That Jesus anticipates His disciples to fast is stated in the same manner He implies that they will show acts of charity and pray. However, there is a right and a wrong way to go about fasting, which is the point Jesus makes here. Before jumping into the text, it would be beneficial to stop pretending we know what fasting is.


A Biblical Survey of Fasting


Normally the idea of fasting is limited to one abstaining from food and possibly from drink. This is undoubtedly included, but it is difficult to limit fasting to simply going without food for a prescribed time. Biblically speaking, the only prescribed fast for the nation of Israel was to occur in conjunction with the Day of Atonement when every Israelite was to humble himself (Lev. 23:27, 29, 32). Any man who refused to comply was to be cut off from the congregation. The idea of humbling one’s “soul” (וְעִנִּיתֶם אֶת־נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם) literally means to make oneself wretched, degraded, humble. There was no time or room to pursue the normal activities of the day, much less normal pleasures. To a man, the nation was to be consumed with the reality that this day the high priest was about to enter the very presence of Yhwh bearing the names of the nation on his shoulders. The nation was to have a single mind: repentance.[1] The point of fasting in this sense is not to prove anything to God or somehow earn His forgiveness in relation to the atonement for the nation. Rather, it was a decree for the people to focus their attention at the task at hand. The point is simple: nothing else matters on this day of all days.


By tracing how the LXX of the Old Testament uses the verb νηστεύω (to fast) and the noun νηστεία (a fast, fasting) we can see this theme of wholehearted devotion develop in a variety of contexts, both corporate and individual. Corporately we see a similar thread developed in 2 Chr. 20:1-4. When faced with an overwhelming invasion force, King Jehoshaphat ordered a national fast so that all Judah would come and seek Yhwh. The point again was that nothing was more important than petitioning God to spare the nation from the enemy coalition. The prophet Joel also calls on the nation of Judah to fast corporately in national repentance in light of a recent locust plague. The prophet makes it abundantly clear that this fast of repentance is of the utmost priority even above the pleasure of one’s wedding night (Joel 2:12-17). This is again illustrated when the pagan city of Nineveh stopped life in its tracks so that the entire city, men, women, children, and beast, fasted in humility. There was nothing more important in Nineveh than confessing their iniquity so that they would not be destroyed.


Individually, we note that Moses fasted for forty days and nights when he was on Sinai with Yhwh when the covenant was reestablished (Ex. 34:28). This cannot possibly be an accompaniment to confession or repentance, at least not on Moses’ part. Rather, Moses’ fasting demonstrates that his time and energy was completely focused on being in the very presence of God. Yhwh Himself sustained Moses, making food and drink a frivolous distraction. King David fasted as he petitioned God to spare the life of his illegitimate son conceived in adultery with Bathsheba (2 Sam. 12:16). Undoubtedly David did his share of confession of sin and repentance but the reason he fasted was not to gain God’s attention. Rather, all of David’s focus and attention was on the task at hand: praying that God would spare the boy’s life. This is precisely the sense that is given when Daniel fasted and prayed for Yhwh’s deliverance and restoration of Israel upon realizing that the nation’s time in captivity was nearing an end (Dan. 9:3 ff.). So, while we see a variety of circumstances in which men and nations fasted (confession, repentance, petition, etc.), the glue that ties them all together is a single-minded focus on the task at hand. Fasting is not an attempt to sway God through acts of piety but is a tool to sweep away every distraction from the petitioner so that he might focus with laser precision on God. For this reason, we commonly see prayer and fasting in the same breath.


Transitioning to the New Testament, we do not see fasting as a common theme. The verb νηστεύω (to fast) is used only 20x in the New Testament, but twelve of those are in the context of Jesus explaining why He and His disciples do not fast (Matt. 9:14-15; Mk. 2:18-20; Lk. 5:33-35) while another four are in this very text. Of the remaining four instances, one describes Jesus’ fasting in the wilderness in preparation for His temptation (Matt. 4:2), one is used in a parable as evidence of self-righteousness (Lk. 18:2), and two are used to describe the actions of the disciples in Antioch as they prepare to send out Saul and Barnabas (Acts. 13:2-3). The use of the verb “to fast” places emphasis on believers preparing and focusing on God.


The use of the noun νηστεία (a fast, fasting) confirms this. The noun is used only 5x in the New Testament and three of them have little to no bearing on the present discussion (2 Cor. 6:5; 11:27 speaks of hunger in general and Acts 27:9 is a reference to the Day of Atonement). The remaining two uses however paint a similar picture. Anna is portrayed as a woman who dedicated herself to the Lord through much fasting and prayer (Lk. 2:37). She had no room for trivial matters in her life. Likewise, Paul and Barnabas established elders in the Galatian churches after they fasted and prayed (Acts 14:23). The picture of the faithful fasting in the New Testament is perfectly in line with the faithful fasting in the Old Testament. Rather than a means to gain the attention of God or man, fasting is used as a tool to focus attention on the task at hand.


Jesus’ Instruction on Fasting


It’s worth noting that Jesus makes very little comment on fasting in and of itself. He offers no word when to fast, how long to fast or even what to fast from.[2] As with His teaching on charity and prayer, Jesus is concerned with the reason for fasting; that is, to impress men vs. pleasing the Father. Jesus begins by prohibiting man-centered motivation for fasting (v. 16) before delivering His basic instructions on fasting (v. 17) followed by a purpose-driven explanation (v. 18).


How Not to Fast (v. 16)


So, whenever you might fast, do not be like the hypocrites who are gloomy, for they disfigure their faces so that they might be noticed by men. Truly, I say to you, they have their reward in full.


We should again mention that Jesus anticipates that His disciples will fast. The same temporal conjunction (ὅταν - whenever) used to introduce Jesus’ teaching on charity and prayer is used again here. This by no means contradicts Jesus’ explanation why His disciples did not fast during His earthly ministry (Matt. 9:14-15). Fasting is the antithesis of feasting. To fast with the King walking among His people is not only counter-intuitive, it’s downright insulting. Neither will there by fasting when the kingdom is established on earth. The time to fast will come, but not while the King remains on earth.


Looking forward to a time when it is appropriate for the disciples to fast, Jesus prohibits them from becoming like the hypocrites who are gloomy. The predicate adjective σκυθρωπός (sullen, gloomy, dark, sad) describes what the hypocrites are. They are gloomy hypocrites. Jesus hints at a two-fold attack upon this kind of fasting: (1) He will contradict their hypocrisy and (2) He will attack the gloomy nature of this sort of fasting.

With γὰρ (for) Jesus provides His rationale for the prohibition. The reason He will not allow His disciples to fast like the gloomy hypocrites is because they disfigure their faces to be noticed by men. The idea of disfigurement (ἀφανίζουσιν) likely refers to the spreading of ashes on and over one’s face to humiliate oneself. As mentioned before, a hypocrite (ὑποκριτής) is one who wears a mask to both conceal his identity and portray someone else (an actor). In this sense, the ashes provide a literal mask for the hypocrite as he plays the role of a fasting humble and repentant individual before his desired audience: men. There is actually a play on words in the Greek that is difficult for our English to capture. The verbs disfigure (ἀφανίζω) and appear (φαίνω) share a common root. They disappear their faces so that they might appear before men. The purpose (ὅπως) of fasting for these hypocrites is to be noticed, and even then, to be noticed by men. One might argue that the pagans are closer to the mark, for they at least attempt to gain the attention of their deities through their rituals and babble. Thy hypocrites are in fact practically agnostic, for they never take God into consideration. Their aim is only to be seen by men. They receive their reward in full. They obtain precisely what they set out to achieve.


The point is that the common practice of fasting has been hijacked as a means of promoting a fabricated righteousness. This is precisely the condemnation that Isaiah records against Israel in Is. 58, a text very likely on our Lord’s mind as He gives this instruction.[3] The prophet records Israel’s indication in that God has not accepted their righteous fasting (v. 3) when in fact they neglect to love their neighbors (v. 7) and keep Yhwh’s Sabbath (v. 13). In other words, fasting in Isaiah’s day was nothing but dumbshow.[4] The similarities between Isaiah’s day and Jesus’ are striking. Rather than using fasting as a tool to commit themselves to seeking the Lord, Israel continues to use the appearance of fasting as a show that supposedly demonstrates their personal holiness and piety. This will not do for Jesus’ disciples.


How to Fast (v. 17)


So you, when fasting, anoint your head and wash your face.


As Jesus turns from prohibition to instruction, He again places the emphasis on the individual. The pronouns and verbs are in the singular (you) rather than the plural (y’all). Not only does this cause Jesus’ instruction to penetrate to the individuals in His audience, it also sets the tone for the practicing of fasting for believers in the years to come. Not once, in the entire New Testament, are believers commanded to fast. The apostles never touch the subject in their letters to the churches. Yet, the biblical record does record instances where believers did fast. The point then is not to distinguish certain fast days or periods to be observed, but to provide guidance for individuals when they set all else aside to seek the Lord.


Rather than falling into the same pit as ancient Israel or the contemporary hypocrites, Jesus’ disciples are to take pains not to be noticed by men. Rather than neglecting their appearance, they are to anoint their head. Rather than painting their face in ashes, they are to wash it. To anoint one’s head with oil is akin to using shampoo. Oil cleans away dirt while moisturizing the hair and scalp. The sense is that of basic hygiene.[5] Today we might summarize by exhorting believers to shower and shave. The point is to appear normal among men so that no attention is drawn to one’s fasting. The language used of anointing and washing is identical to the words that describe David’s actions when he ceased fasting in his petitions for his son’s life (2 Sam. 12:20). If the point of fasting is to focus the whole of one’s attention on God, then to draw attention to the fast is actually a distraction, undermining the entire endeavor. The point is not to deceive others but purposefully avoid drawing attention.[6] Jesus elaborates on this when He explains the purpose for anointing and washing.


Why Fast at All (v. 18)


So that you will not be noticed by men when fasting, but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will give to you.


The purpose of fasting is not to be noticed by men but to focus upon one’s petition to God. If God is truly omnipresent and omniscient, then there is no reason to purposefully draw attention to oneself. In contrast to Israel’s claims that God does not see their fasting (Is. 58:3), God does indeed see the faithful dedication of His children. It is these children that trust the ever seeing and ever-present Lord of the universe that He will reward or give what they seek.


As before, Jesus uses a different term to indicate the reward of the faithful (ἀποδίδωμι) from the reward of the hypocrite (μισθός). Thy hypocrites truly earn their reward/wages/what is due them. They work to be noticed by men and they are justly rewarded. They truly earned every penny. But the gift from the Father to His children is not a wage to be earned. He will bestow upon them what has not been earned through works but what is richly given on account of their faith. To this we must add that Jesus uses the future tense (ἀποδώσει). Disciples do not look for temporal and worldly rewards from men. Rather, Jesus points His disciples to the end when the Father will recognize His faithful children and pronounce “Well done!”

[1] R. Laird Harris, Leviticus, ed. Frank Geabelein, vol. 2, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1990), p. 628.

[2] Morris, p. 151.

[3] Hendriksen, p. 340.

[4] J. Alec Motyer, The Prophecy of Isaiah: An Introduction & Commentary (Downers Grove, IL: Inter Varsity Press, 1993), p. 478-9.

[5] Carson, p. 210.

[6] Broadus, p. 143.

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