Matthew 6:16-18 Whenever You FAST

Matthew 6:16-18 Whenever You FAST November 8, 2015

Matthew 6:16-18 Whenever You FAST

We live in the only society in which an entire TV network is devoted to food! While fasting from food, however, we are also challenged to fast from sin, from gossip, from jealousy, from anger, and from those other things which, while well within our control, we all too often allow to control us.

Just as we would refrain from eating a lot before going to an expensive restaurant for dinner—if we “ruin our appetite” we will enjoy the restaurant less, we can learn to restrain our appetites so that we may be ready to really enjoy something that God has for us. As we enter into this time of celebration and opportunity where we will spend enormous amounts of money and eat the same amount of food, it would a good time to learn from the Bible the discipline of fasting. I want to share with you the what, why, when, and how of fasting. I hope you will see the value of this prayer discipline in your own life.

Whenever You FAST

Focus attention on God, not on others.

““Whenever you fast, don’t be sad-faced like the hypocrites. For they make their faces unattractive so their fasting is obvious to people. I assure you: They’ve got their reward!” (Matthew 6:16, HCSB)

This is the WHAT of fasting.

It does not say, “If you fast,” but, “when you fast.” He concluded, as I do, and as most commentators do, that Jesus assumed that fasting was a good thing and that it would be done by his disciples.1 Jesus never commanded fasting. However, he assumed that it would be part of a Christian’s practice in prayer.

Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests be sad while the groom is with them? The time will come when the groom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast.” (Matthew 9:15, HCSB)

Jesus assumes that fasting will be a practice that we keep after He has left. Fasting shows my need for God. Fasting is going hungry so that I can hunger more for God, or denying myself a physical pleasure to concentrate on God.

As a deer longs for streams of water, so I long for You, God.” (Psalm 42:1, HCSB)

There is no better way to show my longing for God than when I fast. That’s the point of fasting. You don’t do it to get attention. You deny yourself something for a season to replace it with focus on God. The bad thing about social media is that when you say that you are “logging off for Lent,” you just created attention for yourself. In one way, that defeats the purpose of fasting. You are not supposed to do that to attract attention to yourself. You do it to focus your attention on God. You hope that other people will recognize the point of your piety and let you go for a while.2

The purpose of fasting is to focus on God. The problem was with the “hypocrites” or people who were trying to live a religious life the wrong way. They would show up in public and make faces that showed how holy they were. Fasting is not a public display in prayer. Fasting is a personal discipline. God wants to spend time with you and He wants your attention.

Anticipate God’s blessing.

““Whenever you fast, don’t be sad-faced like the hypocrites. For they make their faces unattractive so their fasting is obvious to people. I assure you: They’ve got their reward!” (Matthew 6:16, HCSB)

This is the WHY of fasting.

The only fast that God actually required of the Jewish people was on the annual Day of Atonement (Leviticus 23:27). The Pharisees fasted each Monday and Thursday (Luke 18:12) and did so in such a way that people knew they were fasting. Their purpose, of course, was to win the praise of men. As a result, the Pharisees lost God’s blessing.3

God’s blessing in the discipline of fasting happens when we do it privately. Fasting is a personal discipline that focuses my attention on God. Because I am focusing on God, I want to seek His blessing, not the blessing of other people. When you decide to fast, you need to focus on a reason to fast. Fasting focuses your attention God in prayer. So why do you want to pray to God? If prayer is for regular connection with God, then fasting is intense prayer.

Do you have a big decision coming?

Do you have a difficult situation that requires help?

Do I have a sin that I need to overcome?

Do I seek a word from God?

When you look at the example in the Bible about fasting, you see that fasting can accompany important decisions, difficult situations, and deteriorating sins.

Deep Sorrow and Grief

When God caused the first child born to Bathsheba by David to be taken ill, David fasted while he pleaded for the infant’s life (2 Samuel 12:16). He also fasted when Abner died (2 Samuel 3:35). David even fasted on behalf of his enemies (Psalm 35:13). On such occasions of deep grief, fasting is a natural human response. Most people do not then feel like eating. Their appetite is gone, and food is the last thing they are concerned about. Unless a person is getting seriously weak from hunger or has some specific medical reason for needing to eat, we do them no favor by insisting that they eat.

Danger or Difficulty

King Jehoshaphat proclaimed a national fast in Judah when they were threatened with attack from the Moabites and Ammonites (2 Chronicles 20:3). From a human standpoint they could not possibly win, and they cried out to God for help, forsaking food as they did so. Queen Esther, her servants, and all the Jews in the capital city of Susa fasted for three full days before she went before the king to plead for the Jews to be spared from Haman’s wicked scheme against her people (Esther 4:16). Ezra declared a fast before the people went back to Jerusalem on a dangerous route (Ezra 8:21-23).

Deteriorating Sins

When Elijah confronted Ahab with God’s judgment for his great wickedness, the king “tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and fasted, and he lay in sackcloth and went about despondently” (1 Kings 21:27). Because of Ahab’s sincerity, the Lord postponed the judgment (1 Kings 21:29). Centuries later, after the exiles had returned safely to Jerusalem, the Israelites were convicted of their intermarrying with unbelieving Gentiles. As Ezra confessed that sin in behalf of his people, “he did not eat bread, nor drink water, for he was mourning over the unfaithfulness of the exiles” (Ezra 10:6).

When the people of Nineveh heard Jonah’s preaching they were so convicted that they believed in God and “called a great fast and put on sackcloth from the greatest to the least of them. … By the decree of the king” they would “not let man, beast, herd, or flock taste a thing” (Jonah 3:5, 7). Rather than resent the warning of judgment and damnation, they repentantly turned to God and sought His forgiveness and mercy.

Defining Word

As Daniel contemplated Jeremiah’s prediction of the seventy year’s desolation of Jerusalem, he gave his “attention to the Lord God to seek Him by prayer and supplications, with fasting, sackcloth, and ashes” (Daniel 9:2-3). As he continued “speaking in prayer,” he reports, “then the man Gabriel, whom I had seen in the vision previously, came to me in my extreme weariness about the time of the evening offering. And he gave me instruction and talked with me, and said, ‘O Daniel, I have now come forth to give you insight with understanding’” (Daniel 9:21-22). A short time later, just before receiving another vision, Daniel made a partial fast-by forsaking “any tasty food, … meat or wine”-for three weeks (10:3). It is important to note that, though fasting was related to the revelations, it was not a means of achieving them. Daniel’s fasting was simply a natural accompaniment to his deep and desperate seeking of God’s will.


Both before and after the Holy Spirit directed the church at Antioch to set apart Barnabas and Saul for special ministry, the people were praying and fasting (Acts 13:2-3). As those two men of God ministered God’s Word they prayed and fasted as they appointed elders in the churches they founded (Acts 14:23).

Secretly plan your fast.

But when you fast, put oil on your head, and wash your face,” (Matthew 6:17, HCSB)

This is the WHEN of fasting.

Jesus said “when you fast.” But when do you fast? If fasting is a private matter, when and how do you fast.

You can fast in a variety of ways:

Long-term – you take a long time period and you choose to fast. Jesus spent 40 days in prayer and he fasted. He did this to prepare for the temptation that He knew was coming. This long-term fast should be for important goals. If you know that a decision is coming in the future, you can take a long-term season and fast.

Short-term – you take a short time period and you choose to fast. This can be a day fast or a three-day fast. The goal may be short-term or not as intense. But it may still require a word from God.

Take your prayer privately to God.

so that you don’t show your fasting to people but to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:18, HCSB)

This the HOW of fasting.

You can fast in a variety of ways:

What are you going to fast from? What you are going to deny yourself so that you can focus on God?

1. Food

You can choose food. In the Old Testament, people restricted themselves from rich food. So most people fast from a food item. You can restrict yourself to no meat, no sweets, or no drinks.

2. Entertainment

You can choose to fast from an entertainment source. The goal is to focus on God and you can take the time you use on entertainment and give it to God in prayer.

3. Distractions

You can choose to fast from something that keeps your focus devoted elsewhere. Addictions are distractions that keep you from focusing on what is important. This is the reason we have rehabilitation centers. In essence, we teach drug addicts to wean off of their addiction through a form of fasting. One could apply this to sexual sin or any other kind of distraction to which we are addicted. Abstaining is a form of fasting. When one abstains for a period of time from something they enjoy, they are helping to purify the mind and soul from the distractions that keep a person away from God. Facebook and texting would fall into this category. The time you would spend online, you can turn and focus in prayer.

It seems quite odd that in our society—a society in which people gladly and freely spend huge sums of money for diets, most of which recommend that one refrain from red meats and dairy products—fasting is not more widely embraced. How odd that a Jenny Craig consultant or diet guru or physician will tell us to refrain from eating meat or cheese or butter and we will gladly embrace—and pay large sums of money for—his or her advice, while when Jesus offers the same advice [at “no cost”] we tend to balk, as if we were being asked to do the impossible.4

1 John Piper, Sermons from John Piper (1990–1999) (Minneapolis, MN: Desiring God, 2007).

2Fasting From Facebook For Lent 2015,” Lectionary Reflections Year B (2014-2015), Matthew 6:16-18,, accessed on November 6, 2015.

3 Warren W. Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary, vol. 1 (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1996), 27.

4 “Why Fast Before the Nativity,” found at, accessed on 7 November 2015.

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