A Commentary by John Stott
Matthew 6:16-18. A Christian’s religion: Christian fasting.
The Pharisees fasted ‘twice a week’, (Lk.18:12) on Mondays and Thursdays. John the Baptist and his disciples also fasted regularly, even ‘often’, but the disciples of Jesus did not. (Mt.9:14; Lk.5:33). So how is it that in these verses of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus not only expected his followers to fast, but gave them instructions on how to do so? Here is a passage of Scripture that is commonly ignored. I suspect that some of us live our Christian lives as if these verses had been torn out of our Bibles. Most Christians lay stress on daily prayer and sacrificial giving, but few lay any stress on fasting. Evangelical Christianity in particular, whose characteristic emphasis is on inward religion of heart and spirit, does not readily come to terms with an outward bodily practice like fasting. Is it not an Old Testament exercise, we ask, enjoined by Moses for the Day of Atonement, and after the return from Babylonian exile required on some other annual days, but now abrogated by Christ? Did not people come to Jesus and ask: ‘Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do *not* fast’? And is fasting not a Roman Catholic practice, so that the medieval church developed an elaborate calendar of ‘feast days’ and ‘fast days’? Did it not also become associated with a superstitious view of the mass and of ‘fasting communion’?
We can answer ‘yes’ to all these questions. But it is easy to be selective in our knowledge and use of both Scriptures and church history. Here are some other and balancing facts: Jesus himself, our Lord and Master, fasted for forty days and nights in the wilderness; in reply to the question people asked him, he said, ‘When the bridegroom is taken away,… *then* they (sc. my disciples) will fast.’ (Mt.9:15). In the Sermon on the Mount he told us how to fast, on the assumption that we would. And in the Acts and the New Testament letters there are several references to the apostles fasting. So we cannot dismiss fasting as either an Old Testament practice abrogated in the New or a Catholic practice rejected by Protestants.
First, then, what is fasting? Strictly speaking, it is a total abstention from food. It can be legitimately extended, however, to going without food partially or totally, for shorter or longer periods. Hence of course the naming of each day’s first meal as ‘breakfast’, since at it we ‘break our fast’, the night period during which we ate nothing.
There can be no doubt that in Scripture fasting has to do in various ways with self-denial and self-discipline. First and foremost, to ‘fast’ and to ‘humble ourselves before God’ are virtually equivalent terms (e.g. Ps.35:13; Is.58:3,5). Sometimes this was an expression of penitence for past sin. When people were deeply distressed over their sin and guilt, they would both weep and fast. For example, Nehemiah assembled the people ‘with fasting and in sackcloth’, and they ‘stood and confessed their sins’; the people of Nineveh repented at Jonah’s preaching, proclaimed a fast and put on sackcloth; Daniel sought God ‘by prayer and supplications with fasting, sackcloth and ashes’, prayed to the lord his God and made confession of the sins of his people; and Saul of Tarsus after his conversion, moved to penitence for his persecution of Christ, for three days neither ate nor drank. (Ne.9:1,2; Jon.3:5; Dn.9:2 ff.; 10:2 ff.; Acts 9:9).
Sometimes still today, when the people of God are convicted if sin and moved to repentance, it is not inappropriate as a token of repentance to mourn, to weep and to fast. The Anglican Homily entitled ‘Of good works, and first of fasting’ suggests this as the way to apply to ourselves the word of Jesus that ‘when the bridegroom is taken away, *then* my disciples will fast’. It argues that Christ the bridegroom may be said to be ‘with us’ and we may be said to be enjoying the marriage feast, when we are rejoicing in him and his salvation. But the bridegroom may be said to be ‘taken away from us’ and the feast to be suspended when we are oppressed with defeat, affliction and adversity. ‘Then it is a fit time’, says the Homily. ‘for that man to humble himself to Almighty God by fasting, and to mourn and bewail his sins with a sorrowful heart.’
Tomorrow: Matthew 6:16-18. A Christian’s religion: Christian fasting (continued).
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of the Sermon on the Mount. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.