Matthew 6:1 “Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven.”
Introduction to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount
These past couple of posts have been dedicated to understanding Jesus’ inaugural sermon that is entitled by many commentators as “The Sermon on the Mount”. What is perhaps the ethical and spiritual foundation of the New Testament, “The Sermon on the Mount” takes the reader into the heart of what makes New Covenant Christianity tick. Virtually all of its teachings can be found repeated throughout the New Testament. The acorns of truth deposited by Jesus in this grand sermon will prove to be mighty oaks upon which the Apostles will later climb to take their readers into the realms of powerful, practical Christianity. The last post featured Jesus’ vision for powerful, practical Christianity in regards to having an effective prayer life. Today we consider what Jesus has to teach on the powerful, practical Christian life through fasting. The central idea in this post will be the fact that fasting is God’s prescribed way for His people to make more room for Him in their lives.
Powerful, Practical Christianity viewed through fasting. Matthew 6:16-18
Now we come to the third occurance of the word “when”, wherein Jesus once again is switching to another subject of the practical Christian life – fasting. The word for “fast” or “fasting” in Matthew 6:16 refers to abstaining from food or physical nourishment for the sake of drawing closer to the Lord. Fasting was often done in the Old Testament when needing to seek God on a deeper level in prayer (Daniel 9:3); in times of desparation (Esther 4:16); confession of sin, both private and public (Nehemiah 9:1-2) and for seeking God in times of needed illumination of certain truths which He had revealed. (Exodus 24:18; 34:28; Deuteronomy 9:9,18)
Not only was fasting practiced regularly throughout the Old Testament, but also the New Testament. Jesus practiced it at the onset of His ministry when defeating the Devil in the wilderness (Matthew 4) and told his disciples that once He ascended into Heaven that fasting would continue on throughout the church age until His return. (Matthew 9:15; Acts 13:2; 14:23) Clearly the Apostle Paul practiced it throughout the course of his ministry, thus continuing on the pattern from the Old Testament and the ministry of Jesus. The lives of the Old Testament saints and Paul included fasting because they knew the priority of making maximum room for God to move and transform every area of life. Jesus of course gives us the perfect example since He was not only a fully perfect human being but was God at the same time.
It is interesting to note that in the prescriptions and warnings in all three of these sections, they are all areas that can be done in the strength of one’s flesh and for the applause of men as much as they are Divinely prescribed by God to His people for the sake of drawing forth strength from Him. Truly any activity, no matter how good intentioned, that is done apart from Jesus and His cross is just a ritual. The way we know that our actions are being done more from our strength than God’s is when we are making all the room in our lives to be about us than Him.
Whether we are talking about giving, praying or fasting, there is some measure of “reward” or “supernatural outpouring of grace” that the Father has available and awaiting His people who avail themselves. We have four children who when hungry, can go to the cupboards and get a snack or go into the refrigerator and get a treat. My wife and I have stocked those areas ahead of time and now that our children are getting older, when our children want a snack, we remind them of where the things are at. The Father in Heaven has stocked the shelves of His Divine promises with the riches of Christ. If only we will avail ourselves of all he has to offer us through the One Who is mediating such riches to us, the Lord Jesus Christ, then we will be the beneficiaries.
Meet Anna – a woman who lived a powerful, practical Biblical faith through prayer and fasting Luke 2:36-38 records for us a very remarkable life of a woman named “Anna” – “And there was a prophetess, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, ofthe tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years and had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37 and then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple, serving night and day with fastings and prayers. 38 At that very moment she came up and began giving thanks to God, and continued to speak of Him to all those who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.”
This woman had spent over 60 years of her life living, praying, fasting and serving in the temple. In keeping with her namesake, Anna (meaning “grace”) lived out and embodied the very meaning of her name. Interestingly too her father’s name “Phanuel” means “face of God”, and thus God’s ordained purpose in her being a part of proclaiming what she heard and saw in the infant face of the incarnate Son of God grants furtherinsight into the passage. As Anna fasted and prayed, God “rewarded” her in secret, just as Jesus would be teaching over 30 years later in His inaugural sermon. What was the reward? Hearing about and getting a glimpse of the infant Christ. John MacArthur believes that Anna had the opportunity to overhear the other key figure in Luke’s narrative, Simeon, blessing Mary, Joseph and the infant Jesus.1
As a practical believer in the Lord, Anna served in the day in and day out operations of the temple. But as a practical beliver she also leaned and dined on the power of God that she discovered through her habit of prayer and fasting. We can see how throughout the passage Anna’s sensitivity to the movement of God in her midst prompted her to get up and venture outside the very place she had spent her entire life. God incarnate had entered the temple complex, and Anna’s spiritual radar was piqued. Undoubtedly in her prayer and fasting devotion she simply “knew” He had come. In looking into the life of Anna in Luke 2:36-38 we can put flesh and blood on the powerful teaching of Jesus on fasting and prayer in Matthew 6:16-18.
How we know fasting’s central meaning is about making more room for God
Clearly in looking at Anna’s life we can see how her life over the years had become so consumed with her Lord that when He was brought into the temple as the incarnate Word, she just “knew” He was present. Fasting from food, electronics or any other temporary enjoyment enables the Christian to “pick up” on the Lord’s work in their life and the work they need to do for Him. Throughout the scriptures we see people like Moses, David and Daniel practicing fasting so as to lay aside those things which are crowding their lives for the sake to “hear God” better through the scriptures. In this author’s own experience, to lay aside meals for the sake of fasting introduces a certain freedom from the regular routine and rhythms of life in order to engage God in the rhythms of His work and presence. Whether one fasts for a meal, a few days or weeks, the emphasis in fasting is to be reminded that our strength and nourishment comes from Christ alone, and when we take up food once again, we are still proclaiming that all things come from His hand.
1. John MacArthur. Twelve Ordinary Men/Twelve Extraordinary Women. Nelson. Page 357.