“When you fast, do not look sullen like the hypocrites, for they make their faces unattractive so that people will see them fasting. I tell you the truth, they have their reward. 17 When you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that it will not be obvious to others when you are fasting, but only to your Father who is in secret. And your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you.”
Note: any Bible reference containing only a chapter number and verse number is understood to be in the Gospel of Matthew.
What is the meaning and value of fasting?
Anyone who knows me can tell you that my knowledge of fasting must be limited. Like many Americans, I meticulously prepare for possible famine by eating more than necessary. :)
Since Jesus taught about fasting, should we disciples be doing it? If so, why?
The Bible certainly does not place major emphasis on fasting. R.T. France explains that Moses only commanded fasting on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:29-31 and Lev. 23:27–32), and more fast days were not added until much later, during the Babylonian captivity (Zech. 7:3–5). It should be easy to see that both of these times were associated with repentance.
The probable reason for Jesus to address fasting with his disciples can be explained in two ways. First, many Pharisees fasted every Monday and Thursday; as with so many aspects of the law of Moses, they had reduced God’s commands to an external, mechanical ritual. The disciples knew this practice because the Pharisees fasted in such a way that everyone knew it.
The second reason for Jesus to discuss fasting is that his disciples were likely involved in the practice due to Jesus’ command “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” (4:17). As Craig Keener tells us, “In biblical and Jewish tradition, fasting was a time of drawing close to God by demonstrating one’s commitment to him.” Since fasting was often associated with repentance, those turning to faith in Jesus as the Messiah would be using a fast as one way to obey Jesus’ words.
To channel his disciples’ fasting in the right direction, Jesus had to teach the difference between what he was requiring and what the disciples saw the Pharisees doing. To expose the sham of Pharisaic fasting practices, Jesus began by explaining what not to do.
When Jesus said not to “look sullen like the hypocrites” (6:16), we could easily translate “do not look gloomy like the actors.” Jesus says the Pharisees are like actors wearing a mask of sadness so that no one could mistake what they were doing; ancient actors wore literal masks to signal specific emotions. Jesus uses a rare verb (Greek aphaniz?) that means to make something invisible. What were the Pharisees hiding? Their true faces! They are only posing to be seen by people so that they will be considered pious. Only the gullible will reward these posers (6:16b), and God is not gullible!
Jesus next turns to positive assertions about how to fast (6:17–18). Keener informs us that people anointed themselves with oil and washed their faces as a standard practice; it was normal. Mediterranean peoples normally used oil on themselves and scraped it off to remove dirt and sweat. So, Jesus tells his disciples to do what they were accustomed to do for hygiene before seeing others.
The whole reason for a disciple to do normal cleaning and grooming was to appear normal to others, even though the disciple was fasting during this time (6:18). God knew they were fasting but the people did not. Jesus assures his disciples that God sees their private fasting and will reward them (6:18).
R.T. France summarizes the teaching of the New Testament about fasting when he says, “In the NT as a whole there is little explicit instruction on fasting; it is simply mentioned occasionally . . . as something Christians sometimes did.” When you do it, fast for God alone! He will see and approve of your discretion.
No actors need apply
By now it should be obvious that Jesus took on religious pretense in a devastating fashion. The Holy Spirit will help a disciple of Jesus to examine their motives and methods for every religious activity. What will that examination reveal?
We are poor judges of our own motives, and we often give ourselves the benefit of a doubt. Jesus wants us to live to please God and to do so in ways largely unknown by others. By taking that path, we can be certain that God will reward us when we stand before him. The truth is that we are standing before him right now!
Copyright © 2011 by Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from material created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.
 R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007) 255.
 Craig S. Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1999) 227.
 BDAG-3, aphaniz?, render invisible, q.v.
 Keener, Matthew, 227.
 France, Matthew, 254.