Matthew's gospel again and chapter 6, Matthew's gospel and chapter 6 as we continue our studies on the Sermon on the Mount. You remember the Lord Jesus has instructed us that our righteousnesses are to exceed the righteousnesses of the Pharisees - we studied that in depth. All the tape recordings, by the way, of all these studies - we're breaking into the middle here - maybe you haven't heard the rest of them, and it would be good if you could hear something of the background of how we've got to where we are this morning [on the tapes]. But our righteousness is to be of a different kind to the Pharisees - it's to exceed it. One of the ways in which it exceeds it is because it is a heart righteousness. It is not an external righteousness, but it is a heart righteousness.
Chapter 6 has been dealing with acts of righteousness that can be paralleled in the life of the Pharisees, and we've seen that week after week. We looked, first of all, at almsgiving, then we looked at prayer. The last study we did, we looked at the Lord's prayer, and that is His blueprint and His plan for His disciple's praying. Now we're going to look at fasting. These three things - almsgiving, prayer, and fasting - were three of the acts of righteousness that the Pharisees engaged in. But, as we've been learning, there is a fine line between a righteous act and a hypocritical act - a righteous act and a hypocritical act. We've found that these acts of righteousness lend themselves very keenly to hypocrisy, if we do not do them with the right heart.
So let's look this morning at this study in fasting. Verse 16, the Lord Jesus says: "Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the 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 thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face; That thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret: and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly".
Let us pray together: Our Father, as we come to Thy word this morning we are very conscious that these teachings and principles of the Kingdom are very difficult for us to fulfil. Yet we thank Thee that the Lord Jesus, when He left this scene of time, He told His disciples that He would not leave them orphans, but He would come to them and He would send another to them - the Comforter, the Advocate, the Strengthener, the Spirit of God who would empower them to do these things. We pray that that same Comforter would have His way with us today. We pray, our Father, that He would have full control of us; that He, through grace, may be able to implement the word of God, that we would not only be hearers of the word, but doers of the same. So Lord, we need Thee at this moment. I need Thee to preach the word, and the folk need Thee to receive with meekness the engrafted word of God. We just pray that we would afresh, just now, give ourselves entirely into Thy care again. We pray, Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on us now. For Christ's sake, Amen.
We've looked at 'Why are you working for the Lord?'. We've also looked at 'Why are you praying to the Lord?'. Now, if you like, we are looking at 'Why are you fasting for the Lord?' - or we could give the title to it: 'When You Fast'. As I was studying again this week in this great Sermon the thought came to me that it would be a lot easier just to get rid of this Sermon altogether. It would be a lot easier for you and I to live the Christian life, if we didn't have these principles to live up to. I think perhaps, in the subconscious of peoples' minds, that's why they like to explain away this Sermon. They like to interpret it as not being for Christians today. I've already gone into how this will have its full consummation in the eternal Kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ here on the earth, in the millennial reign of Christ, when we will be perfect as the saints of God, and when we will live in righteousness and so on. But there are principles within this Sermon that are applicable to the Kingdom of God which is in our hearts today.
But it would easier just to get rid of it, wouldn't it? There are things that are unique within this Sermon, and if we didn't have them it would be so much easier to live this Christian life that we are called to. It certainly would be a great deal easier if the Lord had not taught us to fast. But yet He says to us in verse 16: "Moreover when ye fast". In verse 2 He said: "When thou doest thine alms". Verse 5: "When thou prayest". Verse 16: "When ye fast". Robert Govett, in his writings on the Sermon on the Mount, uses a tremendous illustration as to how Christians have tried to explain away many of these great doctrines within a holy Christian life. He says this: 'The faith if Christ is like some ancient gothic building devoted to religious services which successive generations have altered to suit their own taste. Here, whitewashing marble; there, bricking up an arch; and yonder, plastering up a window. Hence, he who will study the words of Christ and His apostles, not infrequently comes upon some truth or precept long obstructed and lost out of sight. And he stands delighted like one who finds some beautiful long desolate chamber'.
Down through the years there are many spiritual principles and spiritual truths that the church has chosen, in its 'great wisdom', to disregard, to put to the side. All of a sudden, someone reading the word of God finds that the Lord Jesus says 'When ye fast', and when you discover such a truth as this - that has been laid aside generally - it is revolutionary. It is like a wonderful chamber in a house that has been lost for hundreds of years. Here and there down the ages of the church there have been additions and subtractions of the truths. As we look at the subject of fasting, as our Lord addresses to it here in this sermon, it might conjure up in your mind and your heart these questions: 'Well, fasting, is that not for Roman Catholics? Is that not a monastic thing? Is that not the thing that the Muslims are doing at the moment in the month of Ramadan? Is that not something that is left to the Old Testament, or to religious ritual?'. I address you to the Lord Jesus Christ's words: 'When ye fast'. True fasting, not religious false ritualistic fasting, but true fasting in its essence is Christian because Christ taught it.
If prayer is rare in the church today, fasting must be almost extinct. To a materialistic church and an age in which we can readily fulfil any appetite that we have, and indeed are encouraged by advertisements, and by philosophies within schools, and within universities, and within society at large today, we are encouraged to do that - to satisfy every desire and every appetite that we have - to that kind of society fasting is absolutely irrelevant. In fact, we are told by our modern Christian leaders that we have natural appetites, and those natural appetites are given by God for us to fulfil. It is natural to eat, so why would you not eat? Why would you fast? Particularly in a church, a Western church today - that I more and more am growing to believe wants to be confirmed as normal and as spiritual, and as made comfortable in their lukewarmness - fasting is an unnecessary, ancient, fanatical, over-zealous extreme. It is perhaps in conservatism - if they haven't already doctrinally somersaulted over it, and explained it away - it's understood to be the act of spiritual Olympian, the spiritual giants within the church. It's not for the ordinary Christian.
Let us clear away, very quickly, some of these objections that we have already heard. Some give biblical objections. They say: 'This is an Old Testament thing, and we New Testament Christians, in an age of grace, are not meant to be practising fasting'. Or they say the Lord Jesus was asked: 'Why do your disciples not fast as John the Baptist's disciples are taught to do?', and the Lord Jesus said unto them, 'Can the children of the bride chamber mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? But the days will come when the bridegroom shall be taken from them and then they shall fast'. The Lord said: 'I am with my people. I am with my disciples. Therefore they don't need to fast now. But when I go they will fast'. Some scholars have interpreted this that the disciples fasted in between the death of the Lord Jesus Christ and His ascension to Heaven. That is when they fasted, but it doesn't refer to us today between the ascension of the Lord Jesus Christ and His return. They fasted between the Cross and the Resurrection when the Lord Jesus was taken from them, but when He appeared to them again and when He ascended into Heaven there's no need any more for fasting.
Is it just an Old Testament thing? Is it a thing that has been already fulfilled in another dispensation? Well, no it is not, for the teaching of the epistles must be ignored if you are to ignore fasting today. You have to ignore the church at Antioch who commended Barnabas and Saul to the work of God. It says in Acts 13 that when they had fasted and prayed and laid their hands on them they sent them away. In Acts 14 the elders commended workers and they fasted and they prayed. In 2 Corinthians 6 verse 5 Paul says that he was in stripes, he was in imprisonments, in tumults, in labours, in watchings and in fastings often. In 2 Corinthians 11:27 he says again that he was in weariness, painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and in nakedness.
Can I just say to you that as I've been studying the word of God in these recent weeks, it never ceases to amaze me the interpretative lengths to which men will go to exonerate themselves from their God-given responsibilities! They will do anything but obey the word of God! These are men who say that they preach the word of God, men who say that they are fundamental, standing up for the principles of the word of God, but when something doesn't suit them they do all sorts of somersaults to get around it.
Yet in these words of our Lord again, one thing the Lord does not do is teach us to fast. Why? Because He assumes that we are doing it - 'When ye fast...when ye pray...when ye give alms'. Now let me say this: there are no commands within the New Testament to fast. I believe that is not 'there are no principles of fasting' in the New Testament, but there is no specific direct command. I believe that that is the wisdom of the Holy Spirit, because there are some in our gathering here today who cannot fast for medical reasons and for various other reasons. So it is not commanded of a Christian who cannot do it, so don't get into bondage today if you're a diabetic or you've another dietary disorder and you can't fast. Don't worry about that, the Lord knows and He's made you that way, but yet there are principles right throughout scripture.
The question is not 'if you fast', the question here is 'how you fast' - like the previous teachings that we have studied. 'How' primarily focuses on the motivation: 'When you are doing this, don't be doing it like the Pharisees. Your motivation has got to be right in your fasting'. So the real question is not 'if you're fasting', but 'why you are fasting'. Like praying, like almsgiving, are you fasting for your own benefit before God, or before men? Are you living for God or are you living for men? Are you living for the admiration of men or the commendation of God? What is your motivation for the righteous acts that you do? The Lord is saying, if I can paraphrase His words: 'You ought not to want to be seen fasting before men because it is useless if you do that'. It is useless if you do praying, almsgiving, fasting to impress men. It defeats the purpose! Fasting to fast for the benefit of men is useless! Again we see right throughout this Sermon that the motivation is the key differentiating factor between a reward down here at the hands of men, and a reward up there at the hand of God - motivation! Do you fast for God's benefit? Don't fast for your own benefit or for men's benefit. Again our Lord outlines the differences between outward religion and inward relationship, and in so doing He teaches us how to fast.
Before we go on any further can I ask you please: have you ever fasted in your life? I'll leave that one with you. I can't imagine what it would be - in fact, I can't even imagine the possibility of it - a Christian going to heaven who had never prayed in all of his life; let alone the tragedy of a Christian going to heaven without ever fasting.
So we're going to hear from the Lord how we ought to fast, and even if you can't fast there are principles here that apply to all righteous acts, all things that we do to the Lord. The first is this: if you are inwardly starving you will fast to show. If you are inwardly starving you will fast to show off. Again the Lord is saying: 'If you lack a heart relationship with Me you will crave an external reputation'. No heart relation, you'll want an external reputation. Now listen, this is not talking about public fasting. I'll have to lay that down, because all through the Old Testament there were public fasts. In the New Testament there are public fasts. We find the apostles spoke of fasting publicly together as the church, and overseers fasting and so on. We have fasted publicly together for the Lord's blessing in this assembly, but again what the Lord is addressing right throughout this Sermon, as we've seen in recent weeks, are personal things - the thing of the self, the personal spiritual life in Christ.
To address how to fast we need to address the question: 'What is fasting?' Some believe it not just to be the abstention from food, but abstention perhaps from pleasure or from sleep or from anything that would or could hinder communion between the soul and God. I have to say, biblically, I don't find that anywhere in the scriptures. I find that fasting biblically only ever applies to exemption from food. The word can be applied to other things but that is not the biblical definition of it, and when you fast from food you often fast from other things. One thing that Paul said for prayer and fasting - that you were to fast from sexual relationships in marriage. But fasting, primarily in the word of God, speaks of exemption from food for the purpose of being before God and seeking God.
I've given three definitions here today of what fasting is. You could give 101 definitions, but here's three categories. First, fasting is an expression of humbling oneself before God. It is to humble yourself before God. Here's the big question in the light of what the Pharisees were doing: how can you humble yourself before God by exalting yourself before men? It's impossible!
The second thing that fasting is, is an expression of buffeting one's body, bringing your body into subjection. The reason being that physical laziness and sloth can be one of the greatest enemies in the Christian life that can steal our devotion quicker than anything else. If the devil can't get to us morally by enticing us to sin, he can get to us through apathy and inertia, and I believe that's what's happening in the church today. He says in your conscience: 'You cannot possibly get up this morning to pray. You can't get up this morning. You work hard all week. Who does he think he is, expecting you to get up in the morning to pray? God doesn't expect this of you. God doesn't expect you to fast. He knows that that's higher than you're able'.
Fasting is to buffet the body, to bring the body into subjection. The reason why a great deal of Christians today don't fast is because they don't want to bring their body into subjection. They're quite happy the way things are. But the big question in the light of this scripture is how can you buffet your body if you're flaunting your body ostentatiously before men to show how great you are in spirituality? It's a contradiction! You can't humble yourself before God and then show off before men. You can't buffet your body and then portray how spiritual you are, when the purpose of fasting is realising how sinful you are, and you're humbling yourself before God, and trying to bring yourself into control according to the Spirit.
The third definition of fasting is, it is the expression of seeking the grace of God. Seeking the grace of God! The big question again in the light of the words of the Lord is, why would you focus on man if the purpose of your exercise is to get something from God, and something that only God can give? The only possible reason you were focusing on man is to get something from man, and that is the praise of man. Do you see it?
There are many definitions of fasting. Certainly, it's good for your health, it's good for self-discipline, it prepares us for coming before God, and also it preserves us from becoming slaves to life's habits. It preserves the ability to do without things in life, and to appreciate things that we have all the time all the more. But if we think of it like this - one of the greatest definitions of fasting that I have heard is: 'Prayer', that we have been looking at in recent weeks, 'is attaching yourself to God, but fasting is detaching yourself from the earth'. Can I give you my definition of fasting? It is when your passion for God is so great that you channel all the other natural passions into your passion for God. All other passions and appetites are set aside so that you can follow hard after God. You haven't got time for anything else - this is too important! That's fasting.
Let me say that fasting is never just to deprive ourselves of what is natural - never. God doesn't do that, like the monks do it. He doesn't make us do things that are against nature, but it's in order to, for a short season, focus ourselves entirely on God, our appetites and passions on Him. Therefore I hope you see that you cannot fast, but only with the heart. It is impossible to fast without the heart!
The Jews fasted on the Day of Atonement. They fasted on other feast days. The Pharisees, we read in this passage, fasted twice in the week, on a Monday and on a Thursday. They were fasting but they weren't fasting with the heart. They were inwardly starving so they had to fast outwardly to show off. They had no relationship so they craved a reputation.
Look at verse 16. It says of these Pharisees that they were 'of a sad countenance for they disfigure their faces that they may appear unto men to fast'. This is remarkable. Another translation says 'they are gloomy and sour and dreary; they put on a dismal countenance; they make themselves unsightly in their faces'. They're making themselves look glum, making themselves dreary. They're looking for pity from men and praise from those who they believe to be spiritual. Let me say this: this does not just apply to fasting. These principles here apply to all of the gamut of spiritual life and spiritual truth. If you have a close look at the way we behave today in the church of Jesus Christ, you don't have to look very far to see that some men somehow equate spirituality with gloominess, spirituality with glumness. Can I say to you today, if you have to look and sound miserable to be spiritual there's something wrong with your Christianity!
Maybe I shouldn't say this but there are some people who call themselves Christians, and I have to do all in my power not to stick my tongue out at them! You know what I mean. You know it's hypocrisy. You know it's facade. You know it's the outward and not the inward. As Jeremy Taylor said: 'Men hang out a sign of the devil to prove there is an angel within. They wear sad countenances and look tremendously severe in order to prove that they are holy'. They hang out the sign of the devil to show that there's an angel inside.
These Pharisees used things to speak of abasement they probably anointed their head with ashes, they probably didn't shave or didn't wash, and wore old clothing - and they're using these things to show that they're self-righteous. They're proclaiming their own holiness. We can, as Christians, do exactly the same things today. Let me give you a couple of examples. Years ago people, when they came to church, put on their Sunday best. They did it out of respect for God, didn't they? I believe they did at least. But I think eventually what happened was the quality of the clothes became more important than the reverence toward God. The real motivation, the real reason why they came to church in their Sunday best was overtaken by a competition to look better than others, to dress better than their neighbour. Then our young people come in in jeans and in T-shirts and we tell them off: 'Why are you coming in like this?'. I'll tell you why some of them are coming in like this: because they can see through the facade of competition! Let me declare clearly what I am saying: I still believe that you come to worship God clean, tidy and as best you can. Let me encourage you young people to do that. Don't let the standards drop, but let me ask you this, you people that do come in your Sunday best: our young people may have rejected the clothes contest - have you?
This is deadly. I reject a casual approach to God, and the casual nature of dress in worship, but have we gone to the other extreme? The young people go to the wrong extreme. They throw the baby out with the bath water. They say: 'The Lord only looks on the heart', and the Lord only does look on the heart - but that doesn't mean you can just come to God any way. What about you? Do you come with the outward facade of the Sunday best? What are your motives? Come on!
Take the head-covering for instance, and I want to declare publicly that I believe that 1 Corinthians 11 teaches the head-covering for today in this dispensation. If God spares me, eventually I'll cover it in the ministry of the word of God. One of the reasons for the head-covering - what is it? One of the reasons, as 1 Corinthians 11 teaches us, is to cover the glory of the woman's hair. What do we do? We cover the glory of the woman's hair with the glory of the ten-gallon hat! So people no longer see the glory of our hair but they see the glory of our hat. I think that's why Paul said in 1 Corinthians 11 that it was to be a veil. It's not to be a fashion competition. You see, sometimes I wonder do we miss the point that we can do right things the wrong way! Is that not what this passage teaches? Almsgiving is a right thing. Praying is a right thing. Fasting is a right thing. But are you doing the right thing in the right way? The reason God is saying this - and you might be sitting thinking: 'Oh, he's crossed the line this morning' - let me tell you this: if I've crossed the line this morning, it's because the Lord Jesus crossed the line on the Sermon on the Mount. For pride is abhorrent to God, but the greatest pride that is abhorrent to God is religious pride!
Hypocrisy robs us of reality, and so we substitute reality with our reputation. Reputation instead of character! Mere words instead of true prayer! Money instead of devotion and a heart given over to God! No wonder the Lord compared them to whited tombs and graves and sepulchres that were clean on the outside, and looked well on the outside, but were dead men's bones inside. Not only does hypocrisy rob us of reality, but it robs us - and this is the ultimate thing the Lord is teaching - of rewards. If our lives are done for show, and for the mere praise of men, you can pray and you can give and you can fast - you can pray but there are no answers, you can fast but the inner man shows no improvement, you can give but your heart hasn't been given over any more to God. The reason is: we can be inwardly starving and we have to supplement it by showing off before men. When reputation becomes more important than character, do you know what the Lord says? You have become a hypocrite.
Secondly and finally, if you are inwardly satisfied you fast in secret. If you're inwardly starving you have to show off, but if you're inwardly satisfied you fast in secret. In other words, if you have a heart relationship all you will crave is God's recognition! All you will seek is God's eye! As Oswald Chambers says: 'God calls us to have a relationship between ourselves and God that our dearest friend on earth never would guess'. What about that? Do you have such a relationship with God that the person beside you this morning doesn't even have a clue about it? Because you haven't been boasting about it, what you've done, where you are, how long you pray. The only pretending Christians, the Lord Jesus says, are the ones who pretend they're not fasting when they are fasting. That's the only pretence the Lord's wanting - that you don't come out with ashes on your head, ill-shaven, and all these scraggly clothes, but you come out, wash your face, anoint your head. This isn't literal, it's relative. It's figurative, telling us that we are to act as if we are not doing these things when we are doing them!
What the world should behold on our faces is not glum Christianity, but a bright and a happy exterior. God will observe the sorrowing, sad, mournful, selfless spirit, but we're not meant to parade it around to the world! That's what God sees in secret. Campbell Morgan said: 'Oh my life, thou should keep perpetual lent within the secret chamber of thy being, and everlasting Easter on thy face' - Lent inside but Easter outside! The key to your fasting is your spirit. Oh fast! Please fast! The Lord will only bless you if you fast, but fast in the right way. Pray, please pray! We need more prayer. But don't come to the prayer meeting with the wrong spirit. Don't come before God in the morning without the spirit. Don't give without the spirit of giving in your heart, having already given yourself before God - because what counts is not your performance, convincing to the eyes of an audience of men. It is the hypocrite that craves the spotlight, but it is the true believer in Christ, walking in faith in the Holy Ghost that craves the light of the approval of the eyes of God.
Verse 18 tells us that our motive should be to please God alone. It's hard, you know. It's hard. It's hard to preach this, this morning. Maybe if I wanted to please you I wouldn't have preached it. It's hard to please God rather than men. No matter what men say or what they do, God is saying you've got to cultivate a heart relationship in the secret place where no one else sees. It was well said by a man: 'The most important part of the Christian's life is the part that only God sees'.
How will you fare at the Judgement Seat when the secret things are opened? Your secret prayer life, your secret almsgiving, your secret fasting. Guy King says: 'When a man tells how many hours he's spent in prayer, and talks of his self-denials for the gospel, I sometimes wonder whether his publishing these things robs them of some of their value'. I tell you, that's exactly what the Lord is saying. Publishing these things robs their value.
But like the rest of this Sermon, really what the Lord is getting at is not that we do these things for other people - for men - but we do them for men for self. That's the point. We are spectators of ourselves. We like to see ourselves in the good light, and other people seeing us helps that. Bonhoffer said: 'It is even more pernicious if I turn myself into a spectator of my own prayer performance. I can lay on a very nice show for myself, even in the privacy of my own room'. Isn't that what we saw in almsgiving? Your left hand's not to know what your right hand's doing. How can that happen? In other words, you're not even to notice it! You're not to take notice of your own performance! What does the word of God say? 'Seekest thou great things for thyself? Seek them not'. In my life, is it Christ and Christ alone?
Some people need to learn that religion is an outward thing. True faith is an outward thing. James said that: 'True religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world'. We, some of us, need to realise that true faith is an outward thing - but what the message of this sermon is, is that true religion is an inward thing. If you have the inward without the outward, or the outward without the inward it is a counterfeit coin! You need the combination of the two sides of the coin, for that coin and that coin alone is the currency in heaven, as well as with God on earth.
Really what this sermon is asking us today is, do you have a balanced Christian life? The question is, does your inward reality reflect your outward portrayal? All I can do is ask you: 'Does it?'.
Our Father, we are suffering from the double-edged sword, for it cuts us. But we thank Thee that it wounds us that it might heal us. We pray Lord that, this morning, we would allow the Holy Spirit to analyse, to search us, to see if there be any wicked way - and we can even have a wicked way in a good thing. Lord, we say today, deliver us from hypocrisy. Deliver us from an outward reputation, when inwardly we're starving. Satisfy us with Thyself we pray, that we will only crave the secret place where God alone can see. Amen.
Preach The Word.
This sermon was delivered at The Iron Hall Assembly in Belfast, Northern Ireland, by Pastor David Legge. It was transcribed from the fifteenth tape in his 'Sermon On The Mount' series, titled "Why Are You Fasting?" - Transcribed by Trevor Veale, Preach The Word.
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