Fasting has long been a regular practice of God’s people. It was required in the law of Moses on the Day of Atonement. Over time fasting expanded beyond this one day a year. By the time our Lord was on earth fasting was a regular part of the lives of God’s people. It had also become corrupted by selfish motives. Jesus warned against this in the Sermon on the Mount:
And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.Matthew 6:16–18 ESV
Many have understood this to be a prohibition against fasting in such a way that others know or are aware of your fasting, but this isn’t what Jesus’ point is. The hypocrites went out of their way to be seen by others. A quick glance at the broader context shows this. In Matthew 6:1 Jesus warns the people to beware of practicing their righteousness “in order to be seen by them”. Next he says that when giving to the needy, “sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others” (Matthew 6:2). He continues with a warning regarding prayer: when you pray, don’t pray like the hypocrites who “love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others” (Matthew 6:5). He says to “go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret”. If the warning concerning fasting is to not allow others to see or know about it in any way, then we must immediately cease any and all public prayer! Clearly this is not his point. His point is we must not practice our righteousness selfishly. That is, we must not parade it around in such a way that we intentionally draw attention to ourselves. When the hypocrites in his day fasted, they intentionally disfigured their faces in some way that showed to everyone that they were fasting. It’s not hard to imagine such a person holding his stomach and moaning, “Oh, I’m soooo hungry, such is my love for God! This is what he’s warning against.
Jesus’ emphasis is on fasting (and praying and giving to those in need) for the right reasons, which necessarily precludes showing off. But does this in any way obligate us today to fast? The early church thought so! In the first century document known as “The Didache”, or “the Teachings of the Apostles”, Christians were given instructions for fasting twice a week. Whereas the hypocrites fasted twice a week, on Mondays and Thursdays, the Christians were to fast on Wednesdays and Fridays. Does this mean you and I should fast regularly, whether twice a week or monthly or yearly or some other schedule? Those first-century Christians were on to something significant, and it comes from Jesus. Not only did he give instructions for how to fast if you fast, he indicated he expected his followers to fast. In Matthew 9 we read an interesting encounter:
Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast. No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch tears away from the garment, and a worse tear is made. Neither is new wine put into old wineskins. If it is, the skins burst and the wine is spilled and the skins are destroyed. But new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.”Matthew 9:14–17 ESV
The disciples of John the Baptist fasted regularly, as did the Pharisees (the hypocrites Jesus earlier rebuked), but Jesus’ disciples did not fast. Aha! So we don’t have to fast! Well, not so (ahem) fast. Jesus explained why his disciples did not fast: he was with them. He declares that when he is no longer with them then they will fast, but that fast will be completely different from the former fasting. He illustrates this with using cloth that has not shrunk as a patch on clothing that has already shrunk: it’ll ruin the clothing when it shrinks. So, too, with wineskins. New wine gives off gases; if you put it into an old wineskin, one that has already stretched, when it gives off its gases it will burst the wineskin. His point is that the fasting of his disciples after he departs will be a new kind of fasting and will need a new kind of purpose. His kingdom is an entirely new kind of wine and needs an entirely new kind of practice.
What new practices were connected to this new kind of fasting when the Lord departed? In Acts 13 we see the church in Antioch engaged in this new kind of fasting:
While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.Acts 13:2–3 ESV
Fasting served a number of functions here. It was a way to engage in worship and it appears to have been a means of seeking direction from the Lord, for while they were fasting the Spirit led them to set apart Barnabas and Saul, and it appears to be involved in actually setting them apart for their ministry. Multi-function fasting! Barnabas and Saul (Paul) continued the practice of fasting when setting apart leaders:
And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed.Acts 14:23 ESV
The new elders in each of these churches were committed to the Lord with fasting and prayer. We see this connection between fasting and prayer elsewhere in the New Testament. In his letter to the Corinthians Paul instructed husbands and wives to engage in the act of marriage regularly, as it is the sign of the marriage covenant. He writes,
Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.1 Corinthians 7:5 ESV
Barring medical or physical issues that prevent it, husbands and wives must engage in the act of marriage, however, fasting may include abstaining from the act of marriage—but only for a limited time, only by mutual agreement, and only for the purpose of prayer. Fasting is not just giving up food or a specific kind of food, but even giving up good and regular activities. Whatever is given up, it is clear that Jesus expected his followers to fast and the early church practiced fasting regularly. What are we to do with this? It should be obvious: we ought to fast as well!
We see several important purposes of fasting in the new covenant. First and foremost it is intended to facilitate our worship. By denying ourselves something good we are demonstrating that God is more satisfying than the thing we give up. (This applies to financial giving as well, for our giving demonstrates God is worth more than whatever that money could have purchased for ourselves.) Coffee or chocolate or meat or your daily television consumption may bring you joy, but God brings even more. Thus fasting facilitates worship through its implicit declaration that God is our ultimate delight and satisfaction. Second, fasting enhances our prayer. By devoting the time we normally spend eating or drinking or watching TV to prayer, we spend more time in prayer and along with this time in prayer we experience our desperate need to hear from the Lord. Just as the church in Antioch prayed and fasted to hear from the Lord, so must we. Through our self-denial we open ourselves up more fully to listen to the Lord, that he may speak to us.
If I were to summarize the newness of fasting in the “new wineskin” that Jesus mentioned, it would be as I did in last Sunday’s sermon: fasting is not meant to make us more pleasing to God, but to show us how much more pleasing God is to us than whatever it is we give up for a time.
Because fasting was such an important part of following Jesus in the early church, over time fasting became more structured. Various spring fasts were eventually combined into one around the time of the Council of Nicea (AD 325). (You can read more here.) Whole churches would fast together, understanding that they were not fasting like the hypocrites, that is, to show off their righteousness, but to engage in a spiritual discipline together as they worshiped the Lord and sought a greater experience of his presence in their lives.
Lent begins tomorrow. Let’s join together in a fast by each one of us giving up something good and spending more time in prayer. Be sure to join us at 9:30 on Sunday mornings in the Conference Room to pray together before our worship service. Keep in mind that giving up something can also be adding a specific thing to your life, such as getting up a half-hour earlier to read or memorize Scripture. Let’s do what our Lord expected, knowing that while he is present in his assembly on Sundays we do not fast, returning to the fast on Mondays again, until Easter Sunday. Let’s see how the Lord will give us more of him through this fast.