Fasting Without Hypocrisy, Part 2
By John MacArthur
Our service of worship in the morning is really divided into two parts. Flowing together very wonderfully, one is the part where we offer our praise to the Lord and the other is the part where we listen to His voice. And that is the time we enter now as we study His precious word. I would invite you to take your Bible if you will and look with me at Matthew Chapter 6 again verses 16, 17, and 18, being the passage we’re concerned with as we examine the scripture this morning. We’ve been now for a long time in the book of Matthew and shall continue even yet and are eagerly awaiting not only what we shall learn today, but in weeks ahead as we see what a tremendous, tremendous book it is.
We began last time to study these three verses. They introduce to us the subject of fasting. The Lord offers here only a corrective to the wrong kind of fasting being engaged in by the Jews of His day. But for our sakes, we’ve had to back up since fasting is not really a well understood element in Christian life, we’ve backed up to try to reform a biblical understanding of fasting, then better to understand the corrective the Lord gives in these verses. He says, “Moreover when ye fast, be not as they hypocrites of a sad countenance for they disfigure their faces that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you they have their reward. But though when though fastest anoint thine head and wash thy face that thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father who is in secret and thy Father who seeth in secret shall reward thee.”
Now the Lord then is offering a corrective. The Lord is saying like your giving and your praying, your fasting is inadequate. As He said in Chapter 5, your theology is inadequate. As He said in the Beatitudes your character is inadequate. Every element of their personal lives and their system of religion was inadequate to bring them into His kingdom. And so He’s really tearing their confidence in their system in order that He might encourage them to respond to Him as a Savior, the only one who can deal with such inadequacy.
And one of the things He pinpoints is their fasting. Now as I told you last week, they put a lot of stock in fasting. They actually believed that fasting was a way to deal with your sin. For example, the Talmud of Babylon said that he blackens his face with ashes shall shine in the glory to come. They really believed that there would be a special place of glory for one who went through a fasting and covered his face with ashes. They had so externalized their religion that they felt that if you gave money to a poor man, you’ve redeemed your sins. If you went through the ritual routine prayers of the day, you bought forgiveness. If you fasted, you gained yourself a special place in the kingdom of God. Totally externalizing what God had intended to be a right heart attitude.
So our Lord wants to deal with that, but in order for us to understand the significance of fasting we have broadened it out to get a biblical overview. Now last time I shared with you the fact that eating is a good thing and we’re not trying to say that. We’re not trying to talk about the fact that food is bad or sinful. Not at all, God has provided an amazing variety of food and an amazing opportunity for us to enjoy all kinds of things, because God is a God of grace and God wants us to enjoy that privilege. Food is good.
It’s good for sustenance. You can’t live without it. It’s good for just plain enjoyment. It’s good for fellowship as we gather about a table and interact and share. It’s good for rest as we come apart from a busy time to rest around a meal. Food is a good thing, it’s a good gift from God, but like so many other good gifts that God gives man, man perverts them. I suppose the ultimate perversion of food would be cannibalism. And yet, man has done that amazingly. Will Durant in his book Our Oriental Heritage reports, “in some of the Solomon Islands human victims, preferably women, were fattened for a feast like pigs. In Tahiti an old Polynesian chief explained his diet, the white man he says when well roasted taste like a ripe banana. The Fijians however complained that the flesh of the whites was too salty and tough.”
Will Durant, historian and philosopher is simply saying that there is in human kind at some points such a perversion that they actually eat one another. I suppose that’s the ultimate perversion of food and there are many other things short of that. But historically, society has always managed to pervert food just like it does any other human desire. The Chinese for years, for centuries loved to eat and it is not unusual for a Chinese dinner to consist of 40 courses. Even known in a Chinese restaurant, we have a little residue from that don’t we? When we get Chinese food in bits and pieces of all kinds of assortments. This was traditional.
Some of our American presidents even recently visiting China have been literally overwhelmed with the volume of food that is prepared and consumed. And I have to say that Americans maybe in excess of the Chinese. There is no place in the world nor has there ever been a period in history where people have so indulged themselves with food as we do in our society. There are restaurants all over the place. It’s unbelievable how far we’ve gone. And it isn’t only a matter of eating. You’ve got to have the right atmosphere. And so the fortune that’s spent on the building, the food goes up because they...you know, you’ve got to pay for the architecture. Nobody wants to just eat. You’ve got to eat in a right setting. It’s got to be the right...it’s got to be old and hanging things and stained-glassed windows and leaded glass and funny little people in funny little costumes. And there’s got to be a novelty. Food can’t just be eaten for food sake. It’s got to be accompanied by adventure.
And so food takes on crazy names and different forms and everybody struggles to find something that nobody else has got so people will come and consume it. The Greeks and the Romans had the same problem. The Greeks ate feasts constantly, just feast after feast after feast. Anything they could celebrate, they’d celebrate. The Romans the same thing. The Romans had as many as 76 official feasts a year. I mean, we think it’s tough when it gets to be this time of the year and we’re looking forward to Thanksgiving and Christmas knowing full well that we’re going to wipe out any diet we’ve been trying to be on. Imagine if you were a Roman and you had 76 Thanksgivings in a year.
The rich Roman dined in his dining room on a couch. He didn’t even want to put a kink in his body to make sure he could stretch it as far as he could to hold as much as was possible. So they would actually lie down and they would be lying and reclining at the table. His body extending diagonally away from the table and they would gorge themselves. Very often the historians tell us the banquet would begin at 4:00 in the afternoon and end after midnight. Some would go all night long unto the next day. And they would eat not only volumes of things and then they would take an emetic and go to the center of the floor into a pit and they would vomit and come back and eat more. But the stuff they ate is amazing. I was reading some of the things from Roman history and found out that they would eat the wings of ostriches was a great delicacy. The tongues of flamingos. And they also ate hummingbird tongues. And you’d have to have a lot of those to get much out of it.
The flesh of a canary, rare fish, rare birds, rare fruits some of which cost $40.00 a pound in our currency even in those times and then as I say after dinner they would eliminate that and they would come back for more. And Seneca said the Romans vomit to eat and eat to vomit. He sounds ridiculous, but there are people in American society who do that. I’ve even counseled some of them. Who are so consumed with the idea of eating so long for food or so desire a certain kind of physical form that they actually throw up the food they eat.
The Romans were fond of food to the point where it’s amazing, but Julius Caesar in 46 B.C. passed a law which placed a limit on the amount of food that a person might consume and the amount of money they might spend on food. Unfortunately, he couldn’t enforce his law. One Roman shocked with the obsession with food wrote, “Intent on stuffing themselves, they follow their noses and the shrieking women’s voices to the kitchen and like a flock of starving and screeching peacocks they stand on the tips of their toes biting their fingernails waiting for the food to cool.”
One particular Roman who lived in the time of Tiberius Caesar was a wealthy glutton and it was said that he spent what amounts to about four million dollars on food. And one time he checked his account and he found he only had $400,000.00 left and couldn’t eat the way he wanted to so he committed suicide. Now those are extreme illustrations, but we live in a society that’s not a lot different than that. We live in a society where people do not eat to live, they live to eat.
While they’re eating one meal, they’re planning the next one. While they’re consuming one thing, they’re thinking about something else that they’re going to get at pretty soon. They simply structure their life from meal to meal. The adventure of eating. In Exodus 16:3, the griping children of Israel said in a sad lament, “Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in Egypt when we sat by the flesh pots and ate bread to the full.” I mean, here we are out here in the wilderness and we get this crummy diet every day. I wish we had died while we still had the flesh pots and the breads of Egypt. Better to eat the way you want to eat and be in a pagan place than to be in the middle of God’s will and not have the kind of food you want. That’s living to eat.
Sadly, and I think truly, someone has said the quickest way to a man’s heart is through his what? Stomach. I think business believes that. If they want to sell you something, they take you out and stuff you first. And that’s why the Bible warns us not to eat with everybody. That’s right. You shouldn’t have a meal with everybody. You say you’re kidding. No, Psalm 141:3, “Set a watch oh Lord before my mouth and keep the door of my lips.” And I don’t think he’s talking about what comes out, I think he’s talking about what goes in.
Let me be careful what I eat, “Incline not my heart to any evil thing to practice wicked works with men that work iniquity and let me not eat of their dainties.” Don’t sit down to a meal with the wrong people. You’ll get conned into doing something that isn’t right. You not only have to guard what comes out of your mouth, you’ve got to guard what goes in your mouth. Now we live on the extreme end of food you categorize as the gluttonous end. We all border on gluttony. Some of us have crossed the border. We all go that way. The other extreme is what the Bible talks about that’s undereating and that comes into the area of fasting.
We’re all way out on this extreme end consuming incredible volumes of food. Having seemingly little problem consuming food while much of the world is unable to eat. And not that all of that is directly related nor that the food we don’t eat could get to them, but the point is we are erring on the over-indulgent extreme. Food has become for us almost like a God. A fascination beyond the normal. And we get ourselves into bad situations because we compromise. Sometimes by eating with folks we shouldn’t be eating with and getting engaged in things we shouldn’t be involved in.
Think about it. When Satan wanted to tempt Eve and tempt Eve and caused the whole human race to fall what did he tempt her with? Food. When Noah fell into a horrible and gross and vial sin he did so because it says he planted a vineyard and drank of the wine and lay uncovered in his tent. Eating and drinking has always been a potential disaster. Esau who had received the right of primogenitor the tremendous treasure of being the first born and the blessing of the first born was his, but for one single meal he sold his birth right.
In Numbers 11:4-5, God’s people cried, “oh that we had meat to eat. We remember the fish we ate in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlics.” All I can think of is they must of smelled awful, but they liked it. All they could think about wandering in the wilderness was what we used to eat. Here are a bunch of people who have been delivered from Egypt in a series of incredible miracles who have been given the law of God, who are marching to the promised land and all they can do is think about what they would like to eat. Sound familiar?
And they said in Numbers 21:5, “We loathe this worthless manna. We do not choose to eat to live, we choose to live to eat.” The Psalmist said of them, “God gave them what they craved, but before He satisfied their craving the anger of God rose against them and He slew the strongest men.” I guess God’s a little upset about that attitude. Do you know the lust for food even found its way into the sanctuary of God and corrupted the house of the high priest himself? Even Eli?
In 1 Samuel 2:29 it says that God asked that aged priest Eli this question. “Why Eli? Why then look with greedy eye at my sacrifices and my offerings which I commanded and honor your sons above me by fattening yourselves on the choicest part of every offering?” See that? Now when anybody brought an offering, part of it was consumed on the altar and part of it went to support the priests. And those priests made sure they took the choice cuts and left the rest for God. Their desire for the gratification of an appetite had come to the place where it corrupted the worship of the very priests within the sanctuary of God.
Now there are some people in the ministry today whose ministry I think is corrupted because they cannot deal with themselves in regard to food. Paul had some very strong words for the undisciplined congregation in Corinth who were so used to feasting that even when it was time for the love feast and even when it was time for the Lord’s Supper, they turned it into a gluttonous, drunken orgy. And the rich people came and consumed all the food before the poor could come and have any. I’m always interested too to note that in Matthew Chapter 24, there are two very interesting verses along this line. Matthew 24:37 it says regarding the time when the Lord returns, “But as the days of Noah were so shall also the coming of the son of man be. For as in the days that were before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage.”
Now some say this is simply a statement about the fact that things are going on as usual and normal, and that may well be. The other alternative is that there was an over-indulgence in eating and drinking and a misapplication of marrying and giving in marriage. And if we take it that way, certainly our age is ripe for the return of Christ, because marriage and giving in marriage is a constant thing. People are marrying and divorcing and marrying again and divorcing and marrying and marrying and on and on and eating and eating to a point that no society has ever had the consumption of food to the volume that we do to the extent of our society that engages in it. And drinking, alcoholism is an incredible problem.
Gluttony and drunkenness as well as the dissolution of marriage seems to mark a time when Jesus will return. So we’re a little different than the societies of old. Very much the same. And I’ve found and I think it’s biblically supported that when somebody gives in to the passions of their appetite for food, it causes a decline in all other elements of their spiritual life, because spirituality is a total package. Let me give you an illustration of that, Jeremiah Chapter 5, verse7. The wonderful prophet Jeremiah spoke for the Lord these words. “When I fed them to the full, they committed adultery.” In other words, when they got what they wanted and began to live to saturate their desire for food with fullness, they couldn’t restrain themselves from other lusts which also took over.
You can’t isolate it. In Deuteronomy Chapter 32 it says in verse 15 the same thing, “But Jeshurun grew fat and kicked, thou art become fat, thou art grown thick, thou art covered with fatness, then he forsook God.” Did you hear that? And it may be a spiritual thing, but it’s a physical illustration that insatiable lust to fulfill the appetite led to apostasy. There has to be balance here people and all I’m saying is on the one hand you have the sins of gluttony. On the other hand, you have this concept of fasting. And a society like ours where we are being literally bombarded with food and our appetites are constantly assaulted to give in. Fasting is not a common discipline.
Oh there are wrong fasts, fasts that some people think bring them penance from their sin. Fasting for religious purposes like Fridays and lent which are unbiblical. Fasting as the penny in the slot idea to think you’re going to get a blessing. Fasting to get the body beautiful. Fasting for passive resistance to political things like Mahat Magandi and Dick Gregory do. But those are not the biblical issues. The scripture calls for a fast in the life of a believer and I would venture to say that many of you perhaps a vast number of you have never fasted, because you’ve never really understood what the Bible meant when it talked about it.
So that’s what we want to see. Instead of erring over here on the gluttonous end, why don’t we move away a way from the appearance of evil and be on the side where fasting occurs. And by the way, let me say this that gluttony is not a matter of how big you are, it’s a matter of what’s going on in your head more than anything else. There are lots of people who don’t show it but are gluttonous. There are some people who may seem to show it, but are not.
It’s the attitude. So we have to be very aware that God has given us a wonderful gift in food, but we have pushed it way too far the wrong direction. Instead of overdoing it, we ought to be underdoing it and drawing ourselves into a proper biblical perspective on fasting. Now let’s go back to Matthew Chapter 6. Jesus then is offering a corrective here that’s different than ours. But we don’t, in our world today, fast the way they did. It isn’t a common thing. Our society is not a theocracy under God that’s dominated by one religion where we’re trying to show ourselves religious. But within the church of Jesus Christ and among Christians, when Christians fast very often this corrective is needed as we shall see in a little while.
But in order to understand the corrective, we’ve tried to kind of set up the whole thing for you. Now let me review very quickly. Number one, we talked about the principle of fasting; the principle of fasting. And this is what we said in summary. Fasting is total abstinence from food. To humble oneself before God in the midst of a spiritual struggle. But it’s not an end in itself. It’s not an end in itself. It is a corollary to spiritual struggle.
Secondly, we talked about the period of fasting. Since fasting is completely spontaneous, completely voluntary, there was only one fast commanded in the Bible, that was the day of atonement and at the cross the day of atonement was set aside, so there’s no fasts commanded, no specific fasts. The Bible never even commands us to fast. It’s completely voluntary. Since it is spontaneous and voluntary, the period of fasting can vary from one meal to 40 days. That depends on the individual and the situation.
Thirdly, the priority of fasting, and last time we talked a little about the fact that the Lord assumes we will fast. He says when you fast, when you fast. Assuming it’ll happen. Also in Matthew 9:15, the Lord said, “When the bridegroom is taken from you then you will fast.” And at the ascension he was gone. And until He returns there’s a time for fasting so it does have a spiritual priority.
Fourthly, and this is where stopped the provocation for fasting. What is it that provokes us to fast? What is it that urges us to fast? What is that spiritual struggle that makes fasting a very natural response? Well, we gave you several. Number one, lamentation; lamentation. Sorrow causes fasting. And do you remember that I told you that you physical body responds to the anxiety of your soul? When a person is deeply concerned, when their heart is exercised, when their spirit is grieved. When there’s a tremendous sensitivity and awareness of God in a spiritual struggle, the body will accommodate the heart. And there will be no thought of food. There will be no desire for food. In fact, food would be something very unwelcome because of the consuming anxiety of the heart. And we feel our hearts anxiety and our minds anxiety in the pit of our stomach so that our body actually accommodates this. Sorrow causes fasting.
Secondly, protection was another term. Lamentation and protection, fear causes fasting. There are times when such fear grips the heart as to make food a remote thought. We’re fearful over something that might happen. We’re fearful over a person hanging in the balance between life and death. We’re fearful over some impending doom or danger that grips us and cannot eat. I think of Joel Chapter 2 and Joel says that Assyria is going to come in judgment on the people of God. And he says they’re going to come like a fire. And they’re going to come like great horses leaping on the mountain tops. And they’re going to consume and he gives this incredible...you should read Joel 2. This tremendous, dramatic, overwhelming picture of the Assyrian invasion.
And then it says the people of God came together and wept and fasted. Why? They were in fear. And they were so consumed with fear that there was a total loss of any need for food. In fact, it was something they couldn’t even handle. They couldn’t deal with it. I think you see the same thing in a pagan situation where you see the shipwreck of Acts 27, where the sailors are fighting the storm and they feared for their lives, it says, and they went 14 days without food. Well, if that happens to a natural man, how much more should it be true of a believer who’s involved in a spiritual struggle, not just the saving of his neck.
A third was humiliation; lamentation, protection, and humiliation. Guilt over sin produces such an anxiety and intensity that fasting occurs. And this comes in all kinds of forms. I remember a lady who came to see me and she said, “I can’t eat and I haven’t eaten and I’ve lost 35 pounds.” And she was down to nothing. She was gaunt and withdrawn and frail. And I said, “Well, that’s ridiculous. Why don’t you eat?” She said, “Oh I see the starving orphans and I see all these people around the world who can’t put food, they don’t have any food and I just can’t eat. I can’t eat.” I said, “The Bible says all things should be received with thanksgiving. The Lord’s provided for you, you can eat.” She says, “Oh I can’t eat. I see the starving.” And I finally realized that this was a cover up when I said, “well, I think you’ve got a sin in your life. I don’t think that’s the issue at all. I think you’ve got such guilt over your life and that you’re trying to worship the Lord and you’re trying to pray and carry on a Christian life while your life is totally overwrought with guilt and you have no appetite.”
And she stomped out of my office. She was mad at me. First time anybody ever got mad at me. She...a little while later I got a letter. In the letter it said, “I want you to know that you were right.” She said, “I’ve been having a terrible, terrible sin. I’ve been sleeping with my grandfather.” Guilt and sin brings a humiliation that very often means there’s no appetite. I think that was the great dramatic lesson of a day of atonement, not to eat on the day of atonement when you’re confessing your sin. When you’re drawing into the presence of God over the evil of your life that’s the time there ought to be such intensity, such confession, such contrition, such repentance, there’s no thought for food. Such a dissatisfaction with self that there can be no thought of satisfying self. You see?
Fourthly, another element that provokes fasting in revelation; revelation. And this is a tremendous truth in the Bible. At times when God’s people were either going to receive God’s word or proclaim God’s word, we frequently see a fast. In other words, like Jesus said, “man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.” And when you’re right at the moment of receiving the word that proceeds out of the mouth of God, that’s when you best know that man does not live by bread.
There’s a tremendous thing in scripture that occurs when someone is receiving God’s revelation. I’ll illustrate it to you with our friend that we’re studying on Sunday night, Daniel. Go back to Chapter 9, this is a powerful statement regarding this. In Daniel 9, “In the first year of Darius the son of Ahasuerus, the seed of Medes, who was made king over the realm of the Chaldeans.” Ahasuerus has a son Darius, he becomes the king. In the first year of his reign, Daniel 9:2 says, “I Daniel understood by books the number of the years concerning which the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah the prophet that he would accomplish 70 years in the desolation of Jerusalem.”
Now Daniel was reading Jeremiah and he got a little idea that God was going to perform something over a period of 70 years, but he hungered to know the fullness of this. So he says in verse 3, “I set my face unto the Lord God to seek by prayer and supplications with fasting and sack cloth and ashes. Then I prayed to the Lord my God and made my confession and said Oh Lord the great and awesome God keeping the covenant and mercy to them that love Him and them that keep His commandments.” And then he goes through this confession and so forth. And he is hungering for God to see him as a pure heart and reveal His word.
Verse 21, “Ye while I was speaking in prayer, even the man Gabriel,” the angel in a human form, “whom I had seen in the vision at the beginning caused to fly swiftly touched me about the time of the evening oblation. And he informed me and talked with me and said oh Daniel, I am now come forth to give thee skill and understanding. At the beginning of thy supplications the commandment came forth and I am come to show thee for thou art greatly beloved. Therefore understand the matter and consider the vision.”
Now listen, he fasts and he prays and the angel says all right Daniel God has heard you, God has seen you, and God is going to give you the word here it comes. And in verse 24, he gets the most incredible revelation of the 70 weeks of Daniel that we know lays out the theme of the prophetic history of the world. In anticipation of a revelation from God he fasted in order that he might better understand the words of Jeremiah.
In Chapter 10, In the third year of Cyrus, a thing was revealed to Daniel and that thing was true.” And then it says in verse 2, “In those days I Daniel was mourning three full weeks. I ate no pleasant bread neither came flesh nor wine in my mouth, neither did I anoint myself at all till the whole of the three weeks were fulfilled.” On another occasion when God was to give him a great revelation, he fasted again. Now fasting to receive the word of God is simply this. If you fast, it doesn’t mean you’re going to get the word of God. It means that when you are so consumed with seeking a revelation from God or seeking to understand what God has revealed, you have no thought of food until you come to know and understand what it is that God’s word says.
I can relate to that. There are many times in my own life and experience where I find myself consumed to understand the revelation of God. Where I am working and studying and taking it in and thinking and meditating and pouring over the word of God to the point where I cannot stop for a meal, where I cannot eat. Not because I think, oh I won’t eat. That’ll help me to understand it. No, because I have no thoughts for that. I will not break the train of thought. Sometimes I’m trying to find some truth and I’ve just got a crack in it and if I stop to do that, I come back and I can’t find myself again and so I will stay until I fully understand what it is that God’s word is saying.
You cannot allow yourself to be intruded by physical food when you’re hungering for the living bread. When’s the last time you were so in tense in Bible study that you never let food interrupt it? Acts Chapter 10, Peter was praying and fasting when he saw a vision to go to the Gentile Cornelius with the gospel. Exodus Chapter 24, Moses had fasted for 40 days and 40 nights and God gave him His holy law. There are many occasions in the Bible where in the midst of a seeking heart, where food is no concern. God’s word is revealed.
When we set those things aside and we pour our hearts into the understanding of the word of God and He cracks it open to us. I really believe people that the reason folks don’t understand the Bible is because so very often, they don’t go to the Bible with the intensity that it takes to really comprehend it. But it’s there if you’re willing to mine it out. Sometimes you might have to skip some meals and your heart will want you to do that.
Second element, not only is there fasting in connection with revelation received, but with revelation giving. And I find that interesting as well. There seems to be a fasting associated with a preaching or teaching of the word. I see Paul saying in fastings often and maybe some of those fasts were before he began a ministry. I see our Lord fasting 40 days and 40 nights and then He begins His preaching ministry. He drew Himself into the presence of God and He was calling on God to pour that message through Him.
He understood the seriousness of it. I can relate to that. There are times when there is such a message on my heart. There is such an understanding in my heart to proclaim the word. And I have, myself, consumed with the thoughts of that word that I cannot stop to eat and if I have to eat, because I’m in a group or something, the food tastes like dirt in my mouth and I do not enjoy it, nor do I even comprehend it many times.
Because my heart has given to the necessity of proclaiming God’s word. The point of intensity is so extreme in the proclamation that it overrules physical appetite. I’ve said this all my life, Patricia can vouch for this, I would far rather eat after I preach than ever before I preach. Because I cannot enjoy the food. I cannot think about what I’m doing. And I have no desire for it so very often at all. So lamentation, protection, humiliation, revelation.
Fifthly, condemnation, another thing we see in the Bible that has driven people to fasting is condemnation. The fear of divine judgment; the fear of divine judgment. Not only for themselves, but for others. You know there are some sinners in this world that ought to fast and pray, right? There are some sinners in this world that ought to fast and pray. And I’ll tell you something else, there are Christians in this world who ought to fast and pray on the behalf of some sinners in this world.
We don’t care that much. In Jonah we have an illustration of this. In Jonah Chapter 3, the message was given to the people of Nineveh that God was going to judge them. And what was their response? The people of Nineveh believed God and proclaimed a fast. They poured out their hearts. They were afraid of the judgment of God. We don’t have enough of that today. If you go around preaching the judgment of God, people get mad at you. And the people that get mad at you aren’t the unsaved, they’re the saved. They say you don’t have any love. That somebody’s going to die and perish and go to hell. I think the loving thing to do is to warn them, don’t you? But we don’t really care about the loss the way we should. When’s the last time you skipped a meal because you were so exercised in your spirit over our nation which is condemned to hell without Christ? Over our world? Over your neighbors? Over somebody you know and love? When’s the last time you had a sense of condemnation, the urgency of anxiety over doom that’s going to come to those without God?
Nineveh at least had the sense to fast and pray so fearful were they of the word of God. They said when Jonathan Edwards used to preach sometimes people were so afraid, they would shake from head to toe and they would shiver and they could not eat, nor could they sleep. The fear of divine judgment forces fasting.
Sixthly, in addition to lamentation, protection, humiliation, revelation, condemnation, is selection; selection. Another word that opens another category for us. When the time came in the early church for calling special people to special tasks in spiritual leadership, fasting was a part of it. Look at Acts 13. Nothing is more important beloved than the leadership of the church. I can say without fear of contradiction the biggest problem in the church is leadership. If the leadership is right, the church is right. If the leadership is wrong, the church will go wrong.
And so when the early church went about to select leadership and ordain people and set them aside for the gospel ministry and to use them for God’s purposes it was no easy matter. It was not done flippantly or frivolously. It was not done politically. They didn’t select people because people liked them. They didn’t select people because they were afraid not to, because they had a power base in the congregation. They selected people with prayer and fasting, verse 1 of Acts 13. “Now there were in the church that was at Antioch certain prophets and teachers as Barnabas and Simeon, who was called Niger, and Lucius of Cyrene and Manaen who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch and Saul. And they came together and ministered to the Lord. The ministered to the Lord and fasted. The Holy Spirit said separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work into which I have called them. And when they had fasted and prayed and laid their hands on them, they sent them away.”
You tell me, is it any more important then than it is now to have the right people? Is it any more important then than it is now to send the right missionaries? If it was a task then that demanded such intense prayer that they fasted, is it any less for us? Is the church any less significant today than it was then? Is it any less blood bought now than it was then? Is it any less the reflection of Christ now than then, less the ministry of the spirit now than then? The answer is obviously no.
And if they were so intense in the selection of their leadership then as to pray and fast, should we be any less intense? I don’t mean by that that we have to collectively do it. I mean that each of us when it comes time and that time is approaching in our church right now that we consider the leadership of this church, it should be with such prayerful intensity that we literally are not even involved or interested in those things of the mundane life.
That God would give us the right elders. That God would ordain the right people and send them out from us. Not just those who wish, but those who deserve by God’s grace and calling to be sent. In Acts Chapter 14, verse 23, it continued to be that way. It says, “And when they had ordained elders in every church and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord on whom they believe.” When we send out a missionary, it’s as important is if we were sending them out of the book of Acts. When we ordain an elder, it’s as important as if they were ordained by Paul and Barnabas themselves. These things demand prayer and fasting. Selection of the right people is a priestly service offered to God with prayer and fasting.
A seventh provocation for fasting is direction; direction. There are times in the scripture when people who sought direction, sought it with such deep anxiety that they fasted. I believe in Genesis 24 it is when the servant was to find a bride for Isaac. He was so concerned that God would show him the right lady that he fasted and prayed. I believe it says and I think it’s simply clear. Paul said in fastings often, in watchings often. In fastings often, in watchings often. He was fasting while he was watching. Watching for what? The unfolding of the will of God.
Such an intense desire. Some of you face critical decisions, who to marry, where to go to school, where to work, how to handle your family, whether to stay here or move to another place, where to use your spiritual gift, where to serve the body of Christ. How are you handling it? Is there such a deep intensity in your heart, that fasting is a corollary to that intensity.
Lamentation, protection, humiliation, revelation, condemnation, selection, direction, and I’ve just tried somehow to pull together seven categories and give you an idea of how fasting really fits. It is for those times of deep struggle where the tug on the truly consecrated heart is so powerful that as you are pulled into the presence of God, all thought of the world passes. You should fast with such intensity not only in things regarding yourself, but those regarding others and even your enemies. And we’re a far cry from that.
Fasting is consecration to God which sets me apart to God so alone, so singlely in a spiritual struggle that there’s no need for food. Now listen, here’s the key to everything. Get this and you get all really summed up. Listen, fasting is always linked with prayer. Did you get that? Fasting is always linked with prayer. Prayer is not always necessarily linked with fasting. You can pray without fasting. You cannot fast without praying. I’ve searched the scripture from one end to the other. I’ve covered every scripture in the last three weeks or so in the Bible regarding fasting. I’ve read every part that I could read. The Bible talks about fasting. I find no times where fasting is without praying.
Fasting then is not an end in itself, but is a corollary to a spiritual struggle that draws us into the presence of God. The man who prays with fasting, you see, is giving heaven notice that he’s really in earnest. That he will not give up. That he won’t let go until God blesses. Some of us pray so flippantly that we just talk words. I don’t think we even have God conscious thoughts. Others are drawn so into the presence of God that the world loses its meaning. What about when you pray? Do you pray unattached to this world so consumed in the presence of God. Or are your prayers words easily distracted by the things around you.
Fasting is an affirmation of intense prayer. Now let me add one other thought on this. Prayer is always linked with fasting. And true fasting always comes out of a pure heart. It is a response to a pure heart. That’s so important. It is a response to a pure heart. You say well, what do you mean by that? Well, I mean, this that if your heart isn’t right, your fasting is a sham. It’s a sham. That leads us to our last point.
The problem with fasting. And the problem with fasting is simply that. You don’t have a pure heart. You’re not really fasting as a corollary to intense prayer and spiritual struggle. Your heart isn’t right. And that is exactly the problem of the scribes and the Pharisees. Their hearts were not right. Their fast was a mockery. There was no legitimate prayer concern. Not it goes like this folks, you will not pray with real intensity unless you have a pure heart. And you cannot have a real fast unless you have that real intensity. So it all begins with your heart. If your heart is totally consecrated to God, if your heart is totally weaned away from the world, if your heart is totally pure as it ought to be, then it will issue in true prayer, in great agonizing prayer and the corollary will be fasting.
But the problem is fasting is so easily falsified for the sake of spiritual demonstration. I said this a few weeks ago and I say it again. Beware of anything in your life that you do to make an impression on somebody. That’s a borderline problem. Don’t fast for an impression. Look at verse 16 of Matthew 6. “Moreover,” here’s the problem, “when you fast be not as the hypocrites,” hupokritase, meaning an actor on a stage, “of a sad countenance.” Boy they wanted themselves to look really bad when they were fasting so everybody would know they were in a spiritual mood. And they would cover their faces with ash to make it look it pale and wan and gaunt.
He says don’t do that. They disfigure their faces, aphanizo. It means to obliterate. To cause to disappear. They just completely covered themselves with this. So it was so obvious. They were putting on their demonstration and the real issue is they do it in order that they may appear unto men to fast. Listen, I’ve been saying all along fast when your heart calls for a fast. And your heart should call for a fast if you’re really consecrated to God and when you do, you’re moving into God’s sphere of blessing. But remember don’t make a public display out of it and don’t do it to impress somebody. Then you’ve crossed the line. You’ve done it for men.
I’ve had people even go that far in spite of what scripture says and say I’m fasting. Well, you have your reward. You just got it. I know you’re fasting. You’re paid in full. God owes you nothing. That’s not the kind of fasting God’s after. Don’t do it for the sake of men. Don’t decorate your face with ashes for the sake of men so people can see how spiritual you are. You know, there are sometimes in my own life when I will be fasting and not really wanting to eat, but because I’m in a situation where I have to. I will go ahead and do it rather than make a speech about my fasting.
And I hope the Lord understands that. I’m sure He does. And He will in your case too. Let it be a secret thing. Verse 17, “When thou fastest, anoint thine head.” Now the anointing here is really interesting. The anointing is an oil that they used. In fact, this anointing is talked about in Ruth, in 2 Samuel, Matthew 26, Luke 7 talks about it. The Jews used to anoint themselves with an oil. It was kind of like to keep their skin from getting too chapped in the heat in the hot part of the world they lived in. And it also had an aroma to it which would make them a little more fragrant because deodorant was not in existence in those days. And even in our society it’s a welcome thing. You can imagine what it was like that society.
And so they would anoint themselves with a rather fragrant oil. This was a way they prepared themselves and were dressed. This is something God expects and anticipates. We should take care of ourselves. You’re not more spiritual when you look bad. You know, when you don’t wear your makeup and you look real tacky and seedy and doughty and people say oh must be spiritual. No, no, if you do it to be seen of men, if you’re trying to appear spiritual, you have your reward. On the other hand, he’s saying get your oil hand, comb your hair, wash your face, put on a little makeup, look like you always look.
Just be normal. You see the Lord is after an inward thing and God, it says in verse 18, “who sees in secret,” because He lives in that secret world that no man knows will see the reality of that fast. And He’s the only one who needs to know because He’s the only one who gives a real reward, right? You say well, how do you instruct people about fasting? Well, I’ve been doing that. You can tell them that they ought to fast and you can tell them that you have, just don’t parade that you are.
We must do it without pretense. Look normal, fix yourself up, be bright-eyed and positive and carry yourself as you would at any other time. And God will see the fast and He’s the only that really matters. Listen, I want to close with two scriptures. Turn to Zechariah Chapter 7. Zechariah Chapter 7, I don’t want you to run out of here now and just try to trump up a fast and think it’s spiritual. It’s got to be the right things behind it. Zechariah 7, verse 4, “Then came the word of the Lord of hosts unto me saying, speak unto all the people of the land and to the priests saying, when you fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh month even though 70 years did ye at all fast unto me even to me.” What a question.
God says you know all those years when you fasted all the time? All those fasts you had? Did you think you did those to me? Did you think those were pleasing fasts? Did you think those were fasts that I accepted any more than when you ate and drank? Verse 7, “Should you not hear the words which the Lord hath cried by the former prophets when Jerusalem was inhabited and in prosperity and in cities round about it when men inhabited the Negev and the shephala?” Listen He says, do you think that was an acceptable fast? Should you not have been obedient to the word of the prophets? In other words, behind the fast there must be the believable righteous life to make the fast legitimate.
Verse 9 he really nails it. “You better execute true judgment. You better show mercy and compassion, every man to his brother. Oppress not the widow, nor the fatherless, the sojourner, the poor, let known of you imagine evil against your brother in your heart.” In other words, when you get your heart right and you start living a life of obedience to the word of God, then you will have a real fast. A fast that I accept because it comes out of a true heart.
And then finally, the most specific fasting portion in all the Bible, Isaiah 58 and we close with it. It’s a confrontive statement. They had fasted and thought themselves to be so good because they did and in verse 3, God says, Isaiah 58, “Why have we fasted say they and thou seest not? Why have we afflicted our soul and thou takest no knowledge?” God, we’ve been fasting. We’ve been inflicting ourselves with this absence of food and we’ve been calling on you. Why don’t you answer us? God says, “Behold in the day of your fast, you find pleasure,” and it’s evil pleasure,” and you exact all your labors.” Business as usual. “You fast for strife and debate. You fast to see who can fast the most and appear the most spiritual and you argue about your fast and you smite with the fist of wickedness. You do not fast this day to make your voice heard on high.” You’re not fasting for me, He says. You’re not fasting for me.
“Is it such a fast that I have chosen?” Is the kind of fast I choose? “A day for a man to afflict his soul? Is it to bow down his head like a bull rush and spread sack cloth and ashes under him? Wilt thou call this a fast an acceptable day to the Lord.” Just because you do it on the outside. Just because you’ve got the ashes and the sack cloth and the bull rush and you’re bowed down and your hearts are evil.
Verse 6, “Is not this the fast that I have chosen to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens and let the oppressed go free that you break every yoke.” Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house when thou seest the naked that thou cover him and they’ll hide not thyself from thine own flesh?” Isn’t the fast that I want, the fast that issues from a righteous life that’s lived in obedience to God’s divine truth?
Now folks, that’s the fast God wants out of pure heart. And the result we could say is point six. The promise for fasting, verse 8, Isaiah 58, “Then shall thy light break forth like the morning and thine health shall spring forth speedily and thy righteousness shall go before thee. The glory of the Lord shall be thy rear guard. Then shalt thou call and the Lord will answer. Thou shalt cry and he shall say here I am. If thou take away from the midst of thee the yoke, the putting forth of the finger and speaking vanity, if thou draw out thy soul to the hungry and satisfy the afflicted soul, then shall thy light rise in obscurity and thy darkness be like the noon day. And the Lord shall guide thee continually and satisfy thy soul in drought and make fat thy bones and thou shalt be like a watered garden and like a spring of water whose waters fail not.”
God says you really want to be blessed? Fast, but fast out of a true, pure, obedient heart. People we’re right back to where we start in this. You’re right back to the Beatitudes again. If your character is right and your life is right, some times in your prayers there will be such intensity for one thing or another that fasting will be a very natural corollary to prayer. And in those times have great intensity, God will honor and bless not because you fasted but because your heart was so pure your fast was a chosen fast. God blesses that kind of heart. Let’s pray.
Thank You Father for our time this morning to cover and to finish our discussion of this passage. Oh how needful Lord that we understand this. And again as we understand so many things. If we’re right with You, all these other things find their rightful place. The correctives aren’t even needed if there are pure hearts. God soften our hearts, sensitize us, draw us to Your presence as those who prayer so truly and so faithfully that fasting will occur when it should occur. Touch every life here this morning with just that which is needed. In Christ’s name, Amen.
By John MacArthur. © by Grace to You. All rights reserved. Used by permission.
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