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The Life of Jesus - Series 4: Episode 13

The significance of fasting

| Martin Charlesworth
Matthew 6:16-18

Fasting is the third part of Jewish religious activity that Jesus presents in a different way for Christians. It is private, mostly personal and for heightened spiritual awareness.

Fasting is the third part of Jewish religious activity that Jesus presents in a different way for Christians. It is private, mostly personal and for heightened spiritual awareness.


Hello. Welcome to Episode 13 in Series 4, where we're working through the Sermon on the Mount. I hope you've been involved in the series and enjoyed it so far. Each talk connects closely to the others, so it's great if you can listen to them in sequence. The topic today is ‘The Significance of Fasting’. We're in Matthew 6: 16 -18.

Introduction and Recap

I'm a tremendous enthusiast for the Sermon on the Mount. I think we need more focus on the Sermon on the Mount in Christian teaching, and it's a great privilege to be able to work through the teaching systematically in the Word Online material in Series 4. We've established the fact that the Sermon on the Mount came at a key part of Jesus' early ministry. Having established himself in Galilee, he was now beginning to prepare the way for having a team around him, and he'd appointed 12 Apostles on the same occasion, just before delivering this teaching. He began teaching very systematically, probably for the first time, and brought many principles for practical Christian discipleship for his Apostles and other disciples to hear. That teaching is as relevant to us as it was to them and that is certainly true of the episode we're going to look at today.

The Sermon on the Mount starts with looking at attitudes, the Beatitude section, at the beginning Matthew 5. Then Jesus explains how he's come to fulfil the Law, and he explains a number of ways in which he takes the Law of Moses' teachings and re-interprets and applies them to Christian discipleship. There are six examples that we looked at in earlier episodes. At the beginning of Matthew 6, we move into a different part of the Sermon on the Mount, where there are three teachings that very closely parallel each other about three key religious practices amongst the Jews: giving to the poor, prayer, and in today's episode, fasting. These are three things that were done publicly, that were part of religious life in Judaism, and Jesus explains in these three episodes how these principles should be applied to his followers, his disciples. He showed that in general, in Judaism, these practices were done in public in order to gain credit and honour from other people. When you give to the poor, you would do it publicly, giving your coins to individuals in a way that could be seen by other people. When you prayed, you were in the synagogue, you were on the street corner, you were in the Temple, and you were praying in a very public and demonstrable way. We'll see what happens with fasting, but we'll find a similar thing here. Jesus pointed out in the previous two episodes, and he'll say the same thing again in this episode, that it's important to carry out these religious practices as privately as possible, in order to please our heavenly Father, rather than in order to please other people.


The section we're dealing with today is very short, but profound. It deals with the topic that makes many people quite uncomfortable because fasting is not widely practised in many churches and is a challenging discipline. We're going to look at it in a very straightforward way, going back to the text and seeing what Jesus said and the significance of it. Let's read the text Matthew 6: 16 - 18,

‘“When you fast, do not look sombre as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they've received their reward in full. 17But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”’

Matthew 6:16-18, NIV

This is very simple straightforward teaching. When they were fasting, the Jews in those days made themselves look as though they were suffering in the process. They were sombre, and they lacked that physical energy that they would normally have if they were eating normally. Jesus is aware of all this and this is why he says ‘“put oil on your head and wash your face”’. These are ways of brightening up the way you look, to make you look as normal as possible even though you'll have less energy in your body because you're not eating food at that particular time. We're not doing things to gain the approval of other people. We're fasting, if we fast, fasting in order to please God.

Fasting in the Jewish Culture

There's quite a few things to explain here, in order to understand what Jesus is really talking about. First of all, fasting means going without food for a period of time. This may be a day or it may be several days. The longest period of fasting that we have record of in the Bible - a very long period - is the 40 days that Jesus fasted in the wilderness when he was tempted by the devil as recorded in Matthew 4. As Jesus speaks these words here in the Sermon on the Mount, he will remember that only a short time before, perhaps a matter of months, he had gone through an extensive period of fasting.

Fasting means going without food, and religious fasting was part of Jewish culture and practice in the Old Testament. We're going to think about that Old Testament period before we look at exactly what Jesus says for his disciples to do now. In the Jewish Law of Moses, which we've been talking about quite a lot, which is the foundation for Judaism at the time, in all those over 600 laws, there was only one day every year which was mandated as a day of fasting where it was a compulsory requirement of people in the country to fast. That's interesting - just one day a year. Let's have a look at that day, before we proceed any further. I'm going to read a passage from the book of Leviticus 16: 29 - 34. This chapter describes a particular day called the Day of Atonement, known as Yom Kippur in Hebrew, and that's a well-known phrase today for those of you who are familiar with Judaism. On the Day of Atonement, the High Priest had to perform a number of sacrifices. It was a day of national repentance, where the whole nation was going to be cleansed of its sin at a national level. Let's read this passage, Leviticus 16: 29 - 34.

29“This is to be a lasting ordinance for you: On the tenth day of the seventh month you must deny yourselves “‘in fasting’” and not do any work - whether native-born or a foreigner residing among you - 30because on this day atonement will be made for you, to cleanse you. Then, before the Lord, you will be clean from all your sins. 31It's a day of sabbath rest, and you must deny yourselves in fasting; it is a lasting ordinance. 32The priest who is anointed and ordained to succeed his father as high priest is to make atonement. He is to put on the sacred linen garments 33and make atonement for the Most Holy Place, for the tent of meeting and the altar, and for the priests and all the members of the community. 34“This is to be a lasting ordinance for you: Atonement is to be made once a year for all the sins of the Israelites.” And it was done, as the Lord commanded Moses.’

Leviticus 16:29-34, NIV

If we read a bit more, we will find that this day of national repentance and cleansing was to be done symbolically through the sacrifice of two animals. Two goats were chosen for this particular religious festival. One was sacrificed and killed as a sacrifice, a substitutionary atonement, and the other goat was used in a very different way. The hands of the priest were laid on the goat, and the priest confessed the sins of the nation in a symbolic gesture to transfer the sins from the nation to the goat, and the goat was pushed out into the wilderness area, the desert area, not far from Jerusalem, on its own, in the expectation that it would die in the wilderness. These two symbols symbolise sin paid for through death and sin removed through sending out the goat into the wilderness. That goat became known as the scapegoat. This followed the principle of substitutionary atonement through the death of one animal on behalf of another, which is illustrated in or stated clearly in Leviticus 17: 11.

‘“For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one's life.”’

Leviticus 17:11, NIV

This principle of atonement was developed and was the basis for Jesus' sacrificial substitutionary death on the cross for us. This is the context in which the Israelites were called upon to fast. Fasting is a sign of sincerity, a sign of focus, and a sign of humility. So the Israelites were to be humble on that day, as the sins of the whole nation were being dealt with through this process of sacrifice on the Day of Atonement. It was a day when everyone rested; it was a Sabbath day, and they fasted, identifying their need of God in that process. That's how fasting started formally in the religious life of the Jews through the Law of Moses. Later on in Judaism, other fasts were added by tradition as certain events happened, particularly the exile of the Jews to Babylon, and various fasts were instituted. These were never commanded by God.

As we move forward into the New Testament, we find that fasting has become an important part of religious tradition, and is a mark of righteousness, holiness and godliness in the Jewish way of thinking. This is illustrated, for example, by the Pharisees, the sect that Jesus dealt with frequently, who were very religious and particular about all their religious duties. In the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector in Luke 18: 10 - 12, Jesus said the following,

10“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘Lord, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. ’” And notice this, in verse 12, this is key ‘“12‘I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I have.’”’

Luke 18:10-12, NIV

This is an insight into the pharisaic way of life and the Jewish religious mindset, where fasting was highly prized as a sign of righteousness and religious goodness. The Pharisees were a key indicator of that. Bearing in mind that fasting was only mandated once a year in the Old Testament, now the Pharisees are fasting twice a week. We noted also from the New Testament that John the Baptist's disciples fasted. We know that Jesus fasted once for 40 days. So there are all these different patterns of fasting.

Jesus' Teaching About Fasting

With all this in mind, what did Jesus call his disciples to do? First of all, don't look sombre and don't do things just for public show. Fasting is private, like prayer essentially is private, like giving to the poor is private, as we've seen in the two previous episodes. His disciples are to fast discreetly. Obviously, when you fast, some people have to know; in your own house people notice if you're not eating, fair enough. But we're not to draw attention to the fact that we are fasting, as indicated by Jesus saying, ‘Put oil on your face.’ and so on. Fasting is a private matter, mostly done in secret, and it is done in such a way that ‘the Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.’

I read this text as a young Christian about four decades ago, and was very convinced that fasting should be a part of my life. I became a Christian in my teenage years, and I was trying to learn what it meant to practise Christianity in a wholesome way. I went through the Sermon on the Mount, as we're going through now, many years ago, and I came to this passage. I realised that many of my Christian friends never talked about fasting; they never practised fasting in any way that I knew, but I knew one or two who did, and I noticed what they did was that they fasted at a time when they felt inside of them a need to really seek God for some particular issue, really have dealings with God, really ask God to do something big in their lives or in the lives of their families, or in their work, or in some other situation in their life. They would take themselves away and they would fast for that reason. I copied that process, and I got into the habit of fasting in that way. I realise that the Law of Moses no longer applies to me. I don't have to fast on the Day of Atonement. The Day of Atonement as a religious festival has no direct application to Christians. It looks forward to what Jesus did on the cross, but it's not a ceremony we have to go through. I realise that there are no commands in the New Testament that tell me that I have to fast on a particular day, or in a particular month, or a particular week, or for a particular season. That kind of law isn't there. This is done through the leading of the Holy Spirit.

Yet we see that Jesus clearly teaches that his disciples will fast. This passage starts with the expression, ‘When you fast’, as if he was confident that that would happen. I've made it a practice over the years to choose certain times to fast. Very commonly in the New Year, as January begins, I will begin the New Year with a season of fasting, and then other times during the year, I will sense a need to pray in a more urgent and specific way, to set aside time to pray, and often accompany that by fasting. Perhaps if there's a national crisis, or a personal challenge, or family issue that is a matter of importance, or a church issue, that would be a time when I would sense the call to fast. This is something where we depend on the leading of the Holy Spirit, and it's not set in religious law.

In other religious traditions and in other world religions, there are very clear rules and regulations about fasting, but Jesus doesn't create those rules and regulations. He doesn't expect us to follow the Law of Moses. He doesn't expect us to follow the way of the Pharisees who fasted twice a week. He doesn't expect us to do a 40 day period of prayer and fasting, as he did in the wilderness. He doesn't expect us to follow the traditional fasts that the Jews developed during the Old Testament period that we see recorded in the later history, like the books of Nehemiah and Ezra. He doesn't expect us to do any of those things. He expects us to treat fasting as a reality of spiritual blessing for us, that strengthens our relationship with God and our power as Christians, and which has a good effect on us as individuals and as families and churches. Then we have to choose when and how we fast. The crucial thing is to make sure that we have our motivation right. It's not to impress people; it's to seek our heavenly Father.

We have something very similar happening in this passage to the two previous passages, when we talked about giving and prayer. We give to the poor out of response to what the Holy Spirit is saying in us, and in order to please our heavenly Father, and we hope that no one will find out that we've been giving to the poor. We close the door to pray in our homes quietly, hoping that very few people will notice us, not wanting to tell anyone about our prayers, not wanting any public acclaim or honour from other people, but simply to please our heavenly Father, to seek him and to pray. Likewise, when we fast, we will carry on our life as normally as we can, not drawing attention to what we're doing at the time, modifying our behaviour as little as possible, and we'll do it because we sense the Holy Spirit calling us at that particular time to reinforce our prayers with fasting for a period of time in order to seek God.

If you've never fasted before, it's better to start fasting for short periods of time, maybe just for one day, and then you can fast for longer periods of time if you choose to do so. There are some people with certain medical conditions who need to be very careful about the practice of fasting. You need to consult your medical authorities if you have any concerns in that area. Jesus doesn't set a rule. Fasting goes alongside prayer. Fasting is for spiritual reasons. It's not for health reasons in this context; it's not self-control, it's not to lose weight. Weight loss is a good thing, if we need to lose weight. To be healthy is good, to be self-controlled is good. But fasting is not the means to those goals. Fasting has spiritual goals. It intensifies our prayers and focuses us, and emphasises to us the need to be humble before our God. God blesses people who fast in that way. Fasting can be individual or corporate. Sometimes churches will call their members to fast and pray for a period of time, for a particular thing. That's a good thing to do from time to time. But fasting is essentially private. We focus on God our Father and seek his face in utter dependence on him. Fasting brings a degree of physical weakness, and that creates a sense of dependence; it reminds us of our physical frailty in our dependence on God, and that is a good thing.

I want to end by referring to something that happens a little later in Jesus' ministry, which we'll come to in a future episode, in Matthew 9. Jesus was asked a question about fasting, and this really gives another insight into his view of fasting for his own disciples. Let me read this to you: Matthew 9: 14 and 15,

14‘Then John's disciples came and asked him, “How is it that we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?” 15Jesus answered, “How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast.”’

Matthew 9:14-15, NIV

He is the bridegroom in that metaphor, and whilst the disciples are with Jesus, they've not been called to fast. When he has gone, when he has died and been raised from the dead and ascended, there will be times when the disciples will fast.


In conclusion, I want to emphasise that there's something of a mystery in the practice of fasting. Very little is said about it by Jesus but what he does say is very important. Fasting is a spiritual discipline that all Christian disciples should consider, even if it's only very occasional. If you're one of those people who's never really seriously considered fasting, can I encourage you to use this episode as a basis for looking again at that issue. If you're someone who's used to religious traditions where fasting is compulsory and public and part of major religious festivals and events, then can I encourage you to see that Jesus speaks of fasting in a rather different, more individualistic way. He's not setting up Church seasons of fasting.

Thank you for following this episode. I hope you found it stimulating and I hope you continue with us as we carry on through the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus now turns his attention away from these particular religious practices to another vital issue in discipleship, which is concerning materialism and material wealth. So I hope you'll join us for the next episode, and thanks for listening.

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. What is ‘fasting’? How did the Jews fast in Jesus’ day? What did Jesus say about it?
  • Discipleship
    1. Discuss how fasting could change the way you approach prayer, problems or people.
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. Are there times when it would be right to announce a period of fasting?
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