A Commentary by John Stott

Matthew 6:16-18. A Christian’s religion: Christian fasting (continued).

We are not to humble ourselves before God only in penitence for past sin, however, but also in dependence on him for future mercy. And here again fasting may express our self-humbling before God. For if ‘penitence and fasting’ go together in Scripture, ‘prayer and fasting’ are even more often coupled. This is not so much a regular practice, so that whenever we pray we fast, as an occasional and special arrangement, so that when we need to seek God for some particular direction or blessing we turn aside from food and other distractions in order to do so. Thus Moses fasted on Mount Sinai immediately after the covenant was renewed by which God had taken Israel to be his people; Jehoshaphat, seeing the armies of Moab and Ammon advancing toward him, ‘set himself to seek the Lord and proclaimed a fast throughout all Judah’; Queen Esther, before she took her life in her hands by approaching the king, urged Mordecai to gather the Jews and ‘hold a fast’ on her behalf, while she and her maids did the same; Ezra ‘proclaimed a fast’ before leading the exiles back to Jerusalem, ‘that we might humble ourselves before our God to seek from him a straight way’; not least, as already mentioned, our Lord Jesus himself fasted immediately before his public ministry began; and the early church followed his example, the church at Antioch before Paul and Barnabas were sent out on the first missionary journey, and Paul and Barnabas themselves before appointing elders in every new church which they had planted. (Ex.24:18; 2 Ch. 20:1 ff.; Est.4:16; Ezr.8:21 ff.; Mt.4:1,2; Acts 13:1-3; 14:23.). The evidence is plain that special enterprises need special prayer, and that special prayer may well involve fasting.

There is another biblical reason for fasting. Hunger is one of our basic human appetites, and greed one of our basic human sins. So ‘self-control’ is meaningless unless it includes the control of our bodies, and is impossible without self-discipline. Paul uses the athlete as his example. To compete in the games he must be physically fit, and therefore he goes into training. His training will include a disciplined regime of food, sleep and exercise: ‘every athlete exercises self-control in all things’. And Christians engaged in the Christian race should do the same. Paul writes of ‘pommeling’ his body (beating it black and blue) and ‘subduing’ it (leading it about as a slave – 1 Cor.9:24-27). This is neither masochism (finding pleasure in self-inflicted pain), nor false asceticism (like wearing a hair shirt or sleeping on a bed of spikes), nor an attempt to win merit like the Pharisee in the temple (Lk.18:12). Paul would reject all such ideas, and so must we. We have no cause to ‘punish’ our bodies (for they are God’s creation), but must discipline them to make them obey us. And fasting (a voluntary abstinence from food) is one way of increasing our self-control.

One further reason for fasting should be mentioned, namely a deliberately doing without in order to share what we might have eaten (or its cost) with the undernourished. There is biblical warrant for this practice. Job could say that he had not ‘eaten his morsel alone’ but ‘shared it with orphans and widows.’ (Job.31:16 ff.) By contrast, when through Isaiah God condemned the hypocritical fasting of the inhabitants of Jerusalem, his complaint was that they were seeking their own pleasure and oppressing their workers *on the very day of their fast*. This meant partly that there was no correlation in their mind or action between the food they did without and the material need of their employees. Theirs was a religion without justice or charity. So God said: ‘Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, … to let the oppressed go free? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house … ?’ (58:1 ff). Jesus implied something similar when he told of the rich man feasting sumptuously every day while the beggar lay at his gate, desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from his table. (Lk.16:19-31). It is not difficult to find more modern applications. In sixteenth-century England abstinence from meat was enjoined on certain days, and the eating of fish instead, not by the church but by the state, in order to help maintain ‘fishertowns bordering upon the sea’ and thereby to reduce ‘victuals to a more moderate price, to the better sustenance of the poor’. In our own day, the plight of the hungry millions in some developing countries is brought before us daily on our television screens. To have an occasional (or, better, regular) ‘hunger-lunch’, or miss a meal once or twice a week, and at all times to avoid being overweight by overeating – these are forms of fasting which please God because they express a sense of solidarity with the poor.

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.