16 “Whenever you fast, do not put on a gloomy face as the hypocrites do, for they neglect their appearance so that they will be noticed by men when they are fasting. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. 17 “But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face 18 so that your fasting will not be noticed by men, but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.
Notice Jesus’ first three words don’t say, “if you fast,” but “when you fast.” Fasting, although not a commandment is a spiritual discipline that is required for spiritual growth. Fasting has dwindled as a spiritual practice because quite frankly, we love food! Not only do we love food, but we love all of our stuff and our habits and prefer to think that fasting is an old-age practice that really has no purpose. We have diminished fasting to giving up something during Lent that maybe we like or enjoy but know that once Easter comes, it’s “game on” again and we take it right back up. Do we even do this to honor God and grow closer to Him or is it a conversation piece where we all compare who gave up the hardest thing? Matthew uses the Greek word nesteuo here and it signifies, “to abstain as a religious exercise from food and drink: either entirely, if the fast lasted but a single day, or from customary and choice nourishment, if it continued several days.” Fasting for the Pharisees used to be a weekly practice; they would fast every Friday out of religious ritual so they could check the box that they continually fasted. Some have heard of the “Daniel fast” which is growing in popularity because it allows you to eat food but restricts the diet to natural whole foods or as the definition says, “choice nourishment.” This is a great alternative for those who would like to fast but cannot give up food altogether.
Fasting is not a suggestion; it is necessary for our relationship with God. If we are attempting to have a supernatural relationship with the God of the universe, we must recognize ways we can grow closer to Him. Fasting accomplishes this by helping us deny some of our physical needs so that we have more time and reason to live spiritually. Before Jesus gave this sermon He was led by the Spirit to fast for 40 days and be tempted by Satan. These two things grew Him closer to the Father better than ever. Think about this: Jesus grew up knowing the entire Jewish Law and at the age of 12 was wise enough to focus on God the Father’s “business”. Yet it wasn’t until after He was baptized, received the Holy Spirit, and fasted that He was ready to start His ministry. Fasting draws us nearer to God and empowers us to live the life He called us to live as a result. Let’s look forward to Matthew 17 where Jesus tells the disciples that they need to pray and fast for power:
14 When they came to the crowd, a man came up to Jesus, falling on his knees before Him and saying, 15 “Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is a lunatic and is very ill; for he often falls into the fire and often into the water. 16 “I brought him to Your disciples, and they could not cure him.” 17 And Jesus answered and said, “You unbelieving and perverted generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring him here to Me.” 18 And Jesus rebuked him, and the demon came out of him, and the boy was cured at once. 19 Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not drive it out?” 20 And He said to them, “Because of the littleness of your faith; for truly I say to you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible to you. 21 [“But this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting.”]
Jesus rebukes the disciples and the crowd for their lack of faith and then tells them they need to be praying and fasting more. Jesus wasn’t saying that the disciples needed to go away to fast and pray for a while and then return to cast out the demon. He is saying that their relationship with God and faith needed to be stronger to cast it out, which is only possible with prayer and fasting. Some of you might recall the challenge to Jesus by John the Baptist’s disciples in questioning why His disciples weren’t fasting as recorded in Luke 5:
33 And they said to Him, “The disciples of John often fast and offer prayers, the disciples of the Pharisees also do the same, but Yours eat and drink.” 34 And Jesus said to them, “You cannot make the attendants of the bridegroom fast while the bridegroom is with them, can you? 35 “But the days will come; and when the bridegroom is taken away from them, then they will fast in those days.”
Again, the Pharisees and John’s disciples saw fasting as a religious exercise instead of a way to grow closer to God the Father, which for them was accomplished by being with Jesus at that time. They were as close as they could be to God the Father because they were with Jesus just as He prayed in John 17:
22 “The glory which You have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one, just as We are one; 23 I in them and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, so that the world may know that You sent Me, and loved them, even as You have loved Me. 24 “Father, I desire that they also, whom You have given Me, be with Me where I am, so that they may see My glory which You have given Me, for You loved Me before the foundation of the world. 25 “O righteous Father, although the world has not known You, yet I have known You; and these have known that You sent Me; 26 and I have made Your name known to them, and will make it known, so that the love with which You loved Me may be in them, and I in them.”
The entire purpose of Jesus’ ministry was so that we would grow closer to God the Father. Everything that is recorded about Jesus, even His death and resurrection, points to His work in reconnecting us with the Father. Fasting helps us in this process and in fact is a necessary part of our relationship with Him. There are plenty of resources you can use to learn about fasting such as different ways to fast, how and when to fast, and how to use it for your personal spiritual growth. Just remember that fasting is not about us giving something up, but about gaining closeness with God. A great picture of this is what is recorded in Isaiah 58:
6 “Is this not the fast which I choose, To loosen the bonds of wickedness, To undo the bands of the yoke, And to let the oppressed go free And break every yoke? 7 “Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry And bring the homeless poor into the house; When you see the naked, to cover him; And not to hide yourself from your own flesh? 8 “Then your light will break out like the dawn, And your recovery will speedily spring forth; And your righteousness will go before you; The glory of the LORD will be your rear guard. 9 “Then you will call, and the LORD will answer; You will cry, and He will say, ‘Here I am.’ If you remove the yoke from your midst, The pointing of the finger and speaking wickedness, 10 And if you give yourself to the hungry And satisfy the desire of the afflicted, Then your light will rise in darkness And your gloom will become like midday. 11 “And the LORD will continually guide you, And satisfy your desire in scorched places, And give strength to your bones; And you will be like a watered garden, And like a spring of water whose waters do not fail. 12 “Those from among you will rebuild the ancient ruins; You will raise up the age-old foundations; And you will be called the repairer of the breach, The restorer of the streets in which to dwell.