Every year in February, millions of people around the world celebrate Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of the time known as Lent. Lent is a 46-day period that begins on Ash Wednesday (when ashes are placed upon one’s forehead) and continues until Resurrection Sunday. However, the Sunday’s during the Lenten season are not binding (they are considered “little Easters” so the actual period of Lent can be considered 40 days which is the amount of time Jesus was tested in the wilderness). During this time, the Bible says Jesus fasted for forty days and was hungry (Matthew 4.2). Thus, for these 40 (or 46) days, millions of people choose to give up something “for Lent.” (The term lent stems from the idea of “spring season.”)
Being dedicated to the Lord is what He desires. Unfortunately, not everyone who “gives up” something for Lent is concerned with knowing God more intimately. Some use Lent as an excuse to break a bad habit, to lose weight, to make themselves “better” (such as not cussing), to prove they can be disciplined, etc. None of these concepts are wrong in, and of, themselves, but they do not reflect the original nature of Lent. The real problem is that each of these items is about the self and the real meaning of Lent is to draw us closer to God. And getting closer to God through fasting is our topic for this week.
As we look at Jesus’ words about fasting, I want to return to the format we used for the topics of giving and praying as well. As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, the three topics on which Jesus taught in this middle portion of the sermon were not random thoughts. Jesus taught on giving to the poor (almsgiving), prayer, and fasting – the top three duties of a faithful Jew in His day. Jesus began this section by stating that a truly righteous person must live righteously before God as well as man. (Matthew 6.1; Matthew 5.16). Now, having already covered giving and prayer, He now turns to fasting using the same basic formula as before.
The Topic – Fasting
Fasting is one of the most overlooked aspect of the Christian faith. It was of great importance to the Jews of Jesus’ day, but many Christians have never taken the time to fast other than while sleeping and thus when we have breakfast, we “break our fast.” Certainly, medical issues can impact a person’s ability to fast, but most people don’t simply because they won’t. We will return to the idea of fasting today in a bit, but for now, let us turn to the Bible to see some examples, and then seek to understand Jesus words as recorded by Matthew.
The Bible references many different fasts. Although the Israelites were commanded to fast on the Day of Atonement (the only required fast, where “afflict yourselves” is understood as a command to fast), the Bible speaks of many different people who fasted otherwise. Some of the more well-known fasts are Moses fasting on the mountain, Daniel fasting while praying, Nehemiah’s fast after hearing about Jerusalem, and, of course, Jesus’ fast in the wilderness. Furthermore, Isaiah 58 is a passage which speaks about the proper way to fast – a passage Jesus may have had in mind when preaching this sermon we are reviewing.
Just as Jesus began the short section on giving and praying by rebuking the hypocrites, He does so here, with fasting, as well. I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that we cannot just assume that the hypocrites Jesus mentions are Pharisees, but the Pharisees would be included. And that is certainly true of fasting. Pharisees fasted regularly (twice per week per Luke 18.12) – with other writings stating it was every Monday and Thursday. They did not eat on these days, but usually did drink. But Jesus was not concerned with the frequency, He was focused on the authenticity.
The hypocrites (again, many Pharisees would be included in this) made certain people knew they were fasting. Jesus uses the term “disfigured their faces” as the way they would make it known. Verse 17 gives us a bit more insight into what Jesus meant here, but we will look at that verse more in a moment. What we will say for now is that the hypocrites wanted people to notice their fasting. Just like the hypocritical giver gave to get the attention of others, and just like the hypocritical pray-er made sure to be seen publicly when praying, so to a hypocritical fast-er will want to make sure people know how big of a sacrifice they are making for God. The problem is that is not the purpose of a fast. A fast, which is usually accompanied by prayer, is an effort to allow God to fill our needs. Or as Asaph wrote in Psalm 73, for God to be our portion. Truly, people should not fast to bring attention to themselves; rather, they should do so to bring themselves into intimacy with God. The disfigured faces may lead to man’s approval, but that is all the reward they will get.
As for those who would fast in a righteous manner, they are to carry out their duties as normal. In verse 17, Jesus mentions anointing one’s head and washing the face. While anointing was part of certain rituals, here, Jesus mentions typical matters of hygiene for the 1st Century Jew. Essentially, Jesus is telling His disciples that they should go about their business as usual while fasting. Don’t do anything to draw attention to yourself while fasting, just clean yourself as normal and carry on with your usual countenance (i.e. don’t disfigure your face).
Just like with giving and praying, Jesus has an expectation that we will fast. All three of these ideas begin with the idea of “when” not “if.” And “when” we give or pray or fast, other people will notice. That is not the issue with which Jesus is concerned. His focus for each of these topics is our attitude in the process. Do we give so that others will know that we give or how much we give? Do we pray to impress others or to communicate with God? Do we fast so that others will praise us for our sacrifice or to bring ourselves into communion with God? Jesus makes it very clear that God is most interested in those who are seeking Him not glory for themselves, and for those that are earnestly seeking Him, to them He has a reward.
As we saw in the previous two topics (giving and prayer), the righteous person will receive a reward for being humble and seeking God. That reward, per the Beatitudes (Matthew 5.3-12) is to be assured they are part of God’s kingdom (v.3) But we can certainly add one more reward here. By fasting, a person is saying I hunger and thirst for God more than I do for food. Thus, the person is hungering and thirsting for righteousness, and the promise Jesus makes is that they shall be satisfied (v. 6). What a blessing! Sometimes when we eat we may feel satisfied for a while, but soon enough we will get hungry again. But being satisfied by God is to never be hungry again. Of course, the fullness of that satisfaction must wait until eternity, but it can, and should, begin now.
Actually, Jesus states clearly that both the hypocrite and the righteous will receive a reward. The issue is the source of that reward. The reward from man may appeal in the moment, but humans always demand more and have a “What have you done lately” attitude? God demands much, but is consistent in His dealings with mankind. Furthermore, God sees everything – even what is done in secret – and will especially reward us for those moments of faithfulness to Him when no one else is there to “see.”
How Will Having a Knowledge of the Glory of the Lord Affect This Teaching?
The entire point of the sermon Jesus preached was about proper living in the Kingdom. We are to do our good works so that others will see and give glory to God, not give glory to us. When we live with this mindset, we will begin to find ourselves focusing on God when we give, when we pray, when we fast, or when we do whatever we find ourselves doing.
Most religious systems have certain rituals that make a particular religion what it is. If a ritual is performed correctly, then the gods are appeased. Christianity is different because our goal is not just to appease God, but to worship Him. Therefore, it isn’t about what we do, it is about why we do what we do. The ancient Jews focused much of their efforts on giving, on praying, and fasting. But Jesus said that wasn’t enough. What lacked was not the effort, but the intent. To give, pray, or fast was fine, but the heart needed to be right as well. We can do all the rights, but if we do them for our benefit, rather than for God’s glory, we really aren’t doing right at all.
So, with that said, our JOURNEY letter for today is: R – Revere
We are to live our lives in reverence of God. We are not perfect, that is why He had to come to die, but we can continue to learn to follow Him in every aspect of our lives. The words Jesus spoke to His followers on the mountain that day are still as relevant to those who will listen as they were 2000 years ago. But now, we know that Jesus not only taught us with words, but lived His life in accordance with His teachings. Thus, we can truly learn to live as He would have us do. Like Jesus, we can learn to honor God as individuals and as part of His Church.
Based upon today’s message, how can we raise the bar and live on earth as it is in heaven?
NEXT LEVEL STEP(S): LIVE. As a church, we celebrated the Lord’s Supper this week, which served as a reminder for us to live for Jesus now because He died for us then.