Below is some teaching I’m doing this morning in our team about fasting… It’s based mostly on John Piper’s book on the subject…

Fasting :: Some studies in Matthew

1. Fasting… expresses our dependence on God and reveals our idols

Matt 4:1-4

How do you feel when you are hungry?

Are there other things without which you find it hard to function?

Read Matt 4:1-4

1Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. 2After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. 3The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” 4Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

Jesus had just been baptised. At his baptism God declares that Jesus is his son, with whom he is pleased. These words echo Psalm 2:7 where David, the greatest King of Israel and her representative, is described in such a way. Not only is the representative of Israel described in this way but Israel herself is too, for instances in Exodus 4:22. God declares Jesus to be his Son, the ‘true’ Israel.

As ‘Israel’ Jesus then goes through the same testing as Israel went through in the desert. Israel spent 40 years in the desert on the way to the promised land having been rescued from Egypt by God. Jesus likewise is led into the desert and spends 40 days there. Then Satan comes to tempt him. Jesus replies by quoting the Old Testament, and more specifically Deuteronomy. In v4 he quotes from Deuteronomy chapter 8 where Israel are being reminded about their time in the desert.

Like Jesus the people were going hungry in the desert. They had no food or water. And they didn’t like it. The problem was that they grumbled. They thought it would have been better to stay in Egypt. They didn’t trust God. But God was putting them through this to teach them to depend on him.

Deuteronomy 8:3 He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your fathers had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.

The Israelites had no way of providing food for themselves. But Jesus, being God, could have done what Satan suggested and turned the stone to bread. But instead he chose to depend on his Father, and so replies by quoting the very lesson Israel were meant to learn: ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ Jesus succeeded where Israel failed. But his success was not to have ‘power’ but to show his complete dependence on his Father.

Think back to the questions at the start.

There are various things, including food, which we think we cannot do without. Of course we need food to live. The problem is we start to depend on the food, the gift, rather than the giver, God. When we have no food we might find it hard to concentrate. But instead of turning to God we look to how we can satisfy our desire another way. Fasting helps reveal what the things are that we depend on instead of God. When we have recognised these things we are then in a position to repent, and to learn the lesson that Israel needed to learn: ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’

2. Fasting… expresses our longing for Christ’s return

Matt 9:14-17

Do you think about Jesus’ return?

When you do think about it, how do you react?

Read Matt  9:14-17

14Then John’s disciples came and asked him, “How is it that we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” 15Jesus answered, “How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast. 16“No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch will pull away from the garment, making the tear worse. 17Neither do men pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst, the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved.”

Fasting was clearly a common practice among the Jews. Even John the Baptists followers fasted. But Jesus’ disciples didn’t. This confused the on lookers and so they ask Jesus why. Jesus answers by describing himself as the bridegroom. This is a description of Jesus used elsewhere, but only one other time in Matthew’s gospel, in chapter 25. Here Jesus’ return is being described in a parable.

There is clearly a ‘longing’ aspect to fasting. While the bridegroom is around, says Jesus, there’s no point in acting if he’s not there. The only thing you can do is party! But when he leaves… that’s the time for fasting. The bridegroom is the centre of attention. He’s the reason there is a party. So if he leaves, everyone’s desire is for him to come back. Fasting is an appropriate way to express that longing. When Jesus returns it will mean that people from all nations have been rescued, it means that justice will finally take place, it means that everything will be made new. The place where the bridegroom is going to take his bride is going to be better than any honey moon we can imagine! It’s going to be a place where “There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” God will be with his people in perfect relationship.

Do we long for that? Do we hunger after that? Or are we satisfied with the ‘food’ the world provides?

Indeed we are called to be content with what God provides for us (cf. Philippians 4:11-13). But we are also called to a dissatisfaction with our present circumstances. Not because we should have something better on earth, but because there is something far better waiting for us in the future.

But notice that Jesus then goes on to talk about old and new wineskins. This is clearly connected to the issue of fasting. Clearly ‘fasting’ itself is not the ‘old wineskin’ – Jesus says that his disciples will fast, and we see that happening in Acts for instance (Acts 13:1-3, 14:23, 2 Corinthians 6:5, 11:27). Rather the setting of fasting has changed. We are not in the same position that people were in before Jesus came. We live in a tension. The bridegroom has come – that is what is new. But then he left again. There was a time of partying that was a foretaste of what was to come. Jesus death and resurrection is a finished work. He has done everything necessary to make us part of his people so we can enjoy the wedding feast of the lamb (Revelation 19:9). But he is yet to return and ‘complete’ this. This is what is new about fasting. We look back to the finished work of Jesus on the cross, but know he is to return. We are waiting, the true feasting time has not arrived, we only point the way to it and say ‘Amen. Come Lord Jesus’ (Revelation 22:20).

See also Luke 2:36-38

3. Fasting… Does not earn favour from God, but instead gives God glory Matt 6:16-18

What do you think is the chief aim of fasting?

How would you feel if no-one else knew the sacrifice you were making in fasting?

16“When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. 17But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

The danger with fasting is that we can do what looks outwardly ‘religious’ in order to look impressive to other people. This is what Jesus warns against here. There are ‘hypocrites’ who make sure everyone knows they are doing the religious thing.

Reading what Jesus says we might think it is more hypocritical to pretend to others that we are not fasting, by washing our face etc. Surely it is less hypocritical to be ‘open’ about what we are doing? The reason Jesus calls these people hypocrites is because they are taking something that is meant to be for the glory of God and using it for the glory of themselves. They look like they are doing something that shows their dependence on God but instead display their dependence on themselves.

Fasting is not a display in personal strength to resist. Fasting is about saying to God ‘I am hungry and need feeding, and only you can give me the sustenance I need.’ It is an expression not of power but helplessness. As such true fasting cannot possible earn favour from God or people. Instead it is simply recognising what is the case – we need God to provide.

But Jesus says that God will reward us. Clearly it would be contradictory for this to mean he gives us something because we have earned it if fasting displays our utter helplessness. The answer to this apparent problem lies in God’s passion for his own glory. It is clear from throughout the Bible that God is passionate above all else for his glory. He always works to that end (see Exodus 14:4; Isaiah 66:18-19 etc.). God is glorified when people recognise him for who he is. We’ve seen that fasting is an expression of our dependence on God because of who he is as the one who provides. Our reward will be that God gives us the very thing we long for, the very thing we depend on – God himself. This is seen in the reward the ‘hypocrites’ get. They want the praise of others – that’s what they shall get. The one who truly fasts will get what they desire – God. That’s what awaits us in the new creation, and as we saw in the last section, fasting illustrates this longing.

Appendix:

Fasting… is loving the poor and needy

Isaiah 58

Even if we do all of the above, but don’t show sacrifice and care towards those in need Isaiah makes it clear that we do not really ‘fast’.

What would it look like for us to ‘fast’ in this way?

Fasting… Should it be private?

Jesus says that we should fast in private and hide the fact that we are doing so.

Does this mean that there is no place for public fasting?

Jesus says the same thing about prayer (Matthew 6:5-8), but Jesus also prayed publicly (John 11:41-42), so it is clear that it is not wrong to do so. Rather, asking the question ‘can I do this without anyone else knowing’ helps us to see what the motivation is for fasting/praying. If we find it very hard to do it privately we must ask whether we are in fact displaying our helplessness and dependence on God or are in fact trying to show people our self-sufficiency. It does not mean that we cannot fast together, but it does mean we need to make sure our motives are right.

Do we want all the praise to go to God? Then let people see those good works so they do praise God (Matt 5:16)!

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