The Practice of Biblical Fasting

Matthew 6:16-18

Tom Pennington  •  May 5, 2013
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Well this morning, I invite you to turn again to Matthew 6 and to the Sermon on the Mount as we continue our journey through our Lord's most famous sermon. We're in the middle of the first major section of Matthew 6, where Jesus teaches us to pursue God's glory rather than our own glory. This paragraph begins in 6:1 and runs all the way down through verse 18.

Now just to remind you of the structure of this paragraph, it's very simple. The theme is stated in verse 1. Notice verse 1 again of Matthew 6: "Beware (Jesus says) of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven." Jesus' point here is that you and I must beware of the deadly spiritual danger of hypocrisy. As Christians, we are too often tempted to settle for counterfeit character and for fake spirituality. Now the heart of hypocrisy is identified in verse 2 where He says it is wanting to be honored by men. The Greek word is literally glorified by men. That is the heart of hypocrisy – when you and I want the glory that God Himself deserves.

Now Jesus follows the general principle of verse 1, the warning against hypocrisy, with three specific examples. Notice how He introduces verse 2: "So…" Here is the application of the principle I have just given you. And Jesus proceeds in verses 2 through 18 to give us three specific examples of hypocrisy in our spiritual activities. The first example is introduced in verse 2: "When you give to the poor…" The second example is introduced in verse 5: "When you pray…" And then Jesus of course takes time to instruct us on how to pray. But then in verse 16, Jesus comes back and gives us a third example of hypocrisy in our spiritual activities. And He says in verse 16: "When you fast…" Now Jesus chooses these three examples because these three activities were the pillars of first century Judaism. They were considered to be the most important activities in which a first century practicing Jew could engage.

Today we come to this third example that Jesus gave – the spiritual activity of fasting. Let me read for you Jesus' words here. Matthew 6:16.

Whenever you fast, do not put on a gloomy face as the hypocrites do, for they neglect their appearance so that they will be noticed by men when they are fasting. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face so that your fasting will not be noticed by men, but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you."

Jesus, here in these verses, warns us to beware of the deadly spiritual danger of hypocrisy when it comes to the activity of fasting.

Now let's begin by making sure we know what fasting is. Simply defined, fasting is primarily abstaining from all food for a period of time. It was, on one occasion, (Daniel 10:2) abstaining from luxurious foods and from creature comforts, and Daniel did that in Daniel 10 for three weeks. But primarily, fasting in every other context is abstaining from all food for a period of time.

Now throughout human history, some expression of fasting has been common to all of humanity. Even non-religious people will go without food in response to a violent emotion. For example, wicked king Ahab, when he learned that he couldn't get Naboth's vineyard, went without food. Pagans fast. Pagan religion is characterized by fasting as well. Satan always mimics the reality, and so there is fasting in pagan religion. You may not be aware, but the Greeks and the Romans from time to time fasted. They fasted because they believed that demons gained power over them through their eating. And so from time to time, they would do without food.

And of course, fasting is a practice in the worship of the true God. Now obviously, this is what Jesus is addressing with His disciples here in our text. I want us to begin this morning by considering the legitimate practice of biblical fasting. Notice how Jesus begins verse 16: "Whenever you fast…" Now, as with the other examples– of giving and praying–the pronoun you here in the original language is plural. So we could paraphrase it in English like this: When you all (that is, all of you, My disciples who are listening) fast, and I'm assuming that you will… Now immediately when I say that, that is shocking for most twenty-first century Christians. And I think that's because we have confused biblical fasting with what fasting became throughout much of church history, and the two are not the same. So before we can understand what our Lord is teaching us here in this text, we first need to step back and understand the truly biblical practice of fasting.

So let's start by looking at fasting as an Old Testament believer. Those who were followers of the true God in Israel in the Old Testament times fasted. First of all, there were national fasts. In the Old Testament law, there was really only one fast that was required. The Mosaic Law only required all of God's people in Israel to fast on one occasion and that was the Day of Atonement – one day a year on the Day of Atonement. In Leviticus 16:29, the expression "you shall humble your souls" came to be understood both linguistically and contextually as abstaining from food. And so that was the only fast that was required or commanded by God in the Old Testament, and it was a national fast.

Now after the Babylonian captivity, (after the people of Israel came back from their slavery in Babylon back to the land of promise, back to Israel in about 500 B.C.) the leadership of the Jews added four more required fasts to commemorate the destruction of their country by the Babylonians. You can read about those in Zechariah 7 and Zechariah 8. In addition to these national fasts, there were also sporadic national fasts called from time to time based on the circumstances. Usually, these were called by the leadership in response to various national tragedies or crises such as war, defeat in battle, plagues, droughts, famines, etc.

Most Old Testament examples of fasting though were not national fasts but were personal fasts. These personal fasts were in response, similarly, to crisis and tragedy. For example, Old Testament believers fasted in response to sickness . For example in 2 Samuel 12:16ff, when David learned that his child that came through his sin with Bathsheba was gravely ill, he fasted and prayed in response to the sickness of that child. The psalmist in Psalm 35:13 had sick friends, and he fasted and prayed for his friends who were sick. So sickness initiated fasts. Mourning over the death of someone was also often accompanied by a fast. For example, in 2 Samuel 1:12, the people of Israel mourned over the death of Saul and Jonathan and they fasted.

A third event or situation that might call for a personal fast in the old Testament was repentance over sin—the feeling of guilt and weight of sin, and the repentance of that sin. For example, King Ahab in 1 Kings 21:27, to which I'll come back in a moment—he fasted in repentance over his sin. And the people of Nineveh, you remember, after hearing the message of Jonah, from the King all the way down through all the people, and even enforced on the cattle, they fasted in repentance for their sin. When Ezra read the law to the people of Israel in Nehemiah 9, and they discovered how badly they had disregarded God's Law, they fasted in response to the repentance that they were experiencing.

There's a fourth precipitating factor to fasting, (personal fasts in the Old Testament) and that is: not that anything had yet happened but in case of impending danger. I have several references in my text. Let me just give you one. Ezra 8:21. Ezra is about to take a group of Israelites from Babylon back to Israel. It's a dangerous journey and he didn't want to ask the king for any troops because he had already said that his God was great and he was embarrassed to ask for troops as if God couldn't protect them on the way. And so he commanded that there be a fast to seek from God a safe journey back to Israel without any troops to protect them. So it wasn't that something had happened. It was fear that something might happen that drove him, then, to fast and pray. So those are some of the precipitating factors behind personal fasts in the Old Testament.

Now by far, the most common length of time that personal fasts lasted was from sunrise to sundown on one day. That is far and away the most common form of fasting you will find in the Old Testament – from sunrise to sundown on one day. There are other fasts of different lengths mentioned in Scripture that aren't as common. For example in Esther 4:16, they proclaimed a three day fast, but that was because the entire nation of Israel faced extinction because of Haman and his intrigue. After the death of Saul and Jonathan, they fasted and mourned for seven days. Only three people in all of the Scripture fasted longer than that – for forty days–Moses, Elijah and Jesus.

Fasting was a part of Old Testament faith. You find many of the leading characters of the Old Testament fasted. David, Nehemiah, Esther, Daniel – they all fasted. Because, done for the right reason, fasting was a way to humble yourself before God. David, I mentioned already in 2 Samuel:12. He learned of his child's grave physical condition, that the child might die, and he fasted and prayed. Afterwards, this is what he said. Listen to 2 Samuel 12:22 – "While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept; for I said 'Who knows, the Lord may be gracious to me, that the child may live.'" Notice David didn't think that his fasting would earn an answer from God, would earn the child's healing. He understood it would be gracious of God. You see, everything you and I get from God is an expression of His grace. We don't earn anything and he understood that. Fasting was merely a way for him to humble himself before God.

Same thing with Ezra in Ezra 8:21 – "Ezra proclaimed a fast (listen to this)… that we might humble ourselves before our God to seek a safe journey for us, our little ones, and all our possessions." When you find fasting in the Old Testament, you will often find that the purpose is to humble one's self before God. It wasn't to starve yourself. The typical fast as I said lasted from sunrise to sundown. It was simply a way to express your humility before God, the seriousness with which you were approaching Him in prayer.

Same thing was true with Ahab, wicked king Ahab, in 1 Kings 21:27. He learned that God intended to judge him for his sin, and this is what the text says: "It came about when Ahab heard these words, he tore his clothes, he put on sackcloth and he fasted…" Now listen to God's response a couple of verses later: "Do you see how Ahab has humbled himself before Me? Because he has humbled himself before Me, I will not bring the evil in his days, but I will bring the evil upon his house in his son's days." It wasn't Ahab's fasting, but the humility that it pictured, that mattered to God.

Now with that brief survey of the Old Testament and fasting, let me make a couple of conclusions for you. Clearly, biblical fasting in the Old Testament was always voluntary. It wasn't forced, it was voluntary. Only one day of fasting demanded by God – that was the Day of Atonement. The rest of it was voluntary, whether national or individual.

Secondly, it was always for the purpose of prayer. You see, fasting doesn't stand alone as something that somehow gains merit or impresses God. It in fact is for the purpose of prayer. You do without food because you're too busy pouring out your heart before the Lord. You're humbling yourself before Him in prayer. Again, I have fifteen passages in my notes where prayer and fasting are related together. Let me just give you one. 2 Chronicles 20:3. King Jehoshaphat was afraid. He was afraid because of the armies that were coming against him. And it says this: "He turned his attention to seek the Lord, (that's prayer) and he proclaimed a fast…" Over and over again in the Old Testament, you see humbling one's self before the Lord connected to fasting (it's a picture of humbling yourself) and you always find prayer connected with fasting because that was the point.

Another observation we can make from the Old Testament is that fasting always had to be done with a right heart attitude, to matter to God. Turn to Isaiah 58. It is one of the most beautiful passages in the Old Testament on fasting. Isaiah 58:3. The people of Israel had fasted, but they complained to God that He hadn't seen, He hadn't heard, He hadn't responded. Isaiah 58:3 – "Why have we fasted and You do not see? Why have we humbled ourselves (there again, fasting is humbling yourself) and You do not notice?" By the way, they were also praying. Verse 9, they were calling but at that point the Lord wasn't answering. Why? Go back up to verse 3. Here's God's answer:

Because on the day of your fast, you seek your own desire, you drive hard all your workers. You're involved in contention and strife, and even fights. You do not fast like you do today to make your voice heard on high.

Basically, God is saying to them: Listen. You've got the form of fasting. You're doing the thing that's called fasting, but your heart's not into it because you're not interested in doing what I've commanded you to do. And therefore, your fast doesn't matter to Me, God says. Verse 5: "Is it a fast like this which I choose, a day for a man to humble himself? Is it bowing one's head like a reed, for spreading out sackcloth and ashes as a bed? Will you call this a fast, even an acceptable day to the Lord?" God says: That's not a fast. If that's all that's involved, it's not a fast really. Verse 6 – if you're going to fast:

Is this not the fast which I choose, (to accompany that fast with efforts at obedience) to loosen the bonds of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free and to break every yoke? Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry and to bring the homeless poor into the house; when you see the naked, to cover him; and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? Then your light will break out like the dawn, (verse 9) Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry, and He will say, 'Here I am.'

God says, Listen. If your heart is not truly humbled before Me, if you're not willing to do what I've told you to do, then I don't care about your fast.

Now, that's a quick survey of fasting as an Old Testament believer. Let's fast forward and look at fasting as a New Testament believer. You see, when we come to the New Testament, we find that fasting still is practiced. In Luke 2:37 we find that godly woman Anna at the temple, and she fasts often, we're told. John the Baptist's disciples fasted. Luke 5:33 – "The disciples of John often fast and offer prayers…" There again, you see the fasting and praying together.

Clearly other first century followers of Jesus fasted. That's why He's talking about it in the Sermon on the Mount. But apparently, Jesus Himself and the twelve apostles did not practice fasting – the only exception being when Jesus went without food at the beginning of His ministry during the forty days and forty nights of temptation in the wilderness.

But look how His enemies accused Him (turn over to Matthew) and not just enemies, but His friends had questions as well. Matthew 9. John the Baptist's disciples and the Pharisees rarely had anything in common, but here they do. They both have the same question of Jesus. Matthew 9:14: "Then the disciples of John (John the Baptist) came to Jesus and asked Him a question (we learn from a parallel account in another gospel that the Pharisees were involved in this question as well so they both want to know) 'Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but Your disciples (the twelve) do not fast?'" And Jesus makes this response: "He said to them, (and He uses just a simple illustration from everyday life – a wedding. He says) 'The attendants of the bridegroom cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they?'" He says, How foolish would it be for the best man and the groomsmen at a wedding to fast and mourn when they're engaged in a wedding? It doesn't fit. He goes on in verse 15 to say: "But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast." Jesus is saying there's coming a day when it will make sense for them to fast. Now that expression "when the bridegroom is taken away" – clearly it's a reference to Jesus Himself. There are those who see that as a picture of the ascension, a description of the ascension when Jesus was taken into heaven, and now it's appropriate for all of us as His disciples to fast. That may be what He's saying. I'm not sure I'm convinced of that because the language that He uses here and in the other gospels is a more violent word. Taken away I think has more of the idea of what happened in the crucifixion. I think He's saying: It's not appropriate for them to fast and mourn and pray now, but that's coming when I'm crucified.)

Regardless, I don't want you to miss the main point Jesus is making here about fasting. He is saying in this passage that fasting is right only when your circumstances make it natural. He says: In the time of joy, fasting would be unnatural. It wouldn't express genuine feeling. But if you find yourself in a time of great distress, whether caused by your circumstances or by your sin, then it is perfectly natural to abstain from eating and instead to pray.

Now just to finish up our brief journey through the New Testament, in Acts 9:9, Paul, after his conversion on the Damascus Road, fasted. The believers in the church in Antioch fasted on two important occasions. Acts 13:2-3 says they fasted when they sent out missionaries and Acts 14:23 says they fasted when they chose and appointed elders in the churches. That's the last mention of fasting in the New Testament. Interesting fact – fasting is never mentioned in the epistles. The word for fasting occurs twice, but in both cases it's Paul referring not to voluntary fasting but to when he didn't have enough food to eat in that list of hardships that he encountered.

So now that we've surveyed what the Scripture teaches about fasting, let me make a couple of observations that you need to be aware of. Number one: fasting is never meritorious in any way. Fasting earns you nothing with God. It doesn't earn His hearing you. It doesn't earn His answering you. Everything we receive from God is grace. So don't for a moment believe that when you fast, somehow you've earned brownie points with God that in some way make Him have to respond to you. John Calvin was right when he wrote: "Fasting does not of itself displease God, but it becomes an abomination to Him when it is thought to be a meritorious work." If you think your fasting somehow earns you a right to be heard or makes God answer you, then you have crossed a boundary that makes something that can be good into something that is an abomination to God. Fasting is simply a physical sign of humility before God. And if there's no humility of heart, then fasting means nothing to God.

Number two: fasting is never commanded of Christians, but it is expected that from time to time we will fast. Jesus says here in Matthew 6: "When you fast…" Here's the key however. When those times which we will fast are not manufactured times like the Pharisees did, but rather they are natural times when we are so overwhelmed (either by grief or tragedy or guilt over our sin or impending danger) that we naturally want to put food aside in order to humble ourselves before God and to pray.

Number three, and this is really important to understand because this one has been seriously abused in the history of the church: fasting is never directly connected in Scripture with self-discipline or self-control. You won't find a text like that. Now that doesn't mean (let me say this – that doesn't mean) that you can't abstain from food for a time or limit your intake of food for a time in order to discipline your body and to gain some measure of self-control. You can certainly do that. But biblically speaking, that is not fasting. It's never used in that way. And besides that, I think John Broadus, the great American commentator and theologian out of Louisville back during the time of the Civil War – I think he was right when he wrote this: "The mortification of the flesh, which is sometimes urged as a benefit of regular fasting, can be better attained by habitual temperance than by occasional abstinence." Well said.

Sadly, the same legalism that characterized the scribes and Pharisees quickly infected the early church after the time of the apostles. In fact, there's an early Christian document called The Didache. It was written at the end of the first century, the beginning of the second century, somewhere in there. And it's a great document. I enjoy reading it because it gives you some insight into the life in the early church, but it's not inspired. And you can also see how quickly these attitudes seeped into the church. Listen to The Didache: "You will order the baptismal candidate to fast one or two days before the baptism. But do not let your fast be with the hypocrites (I love this, this is how legalism always functions, listen to this. Don't let your fast be with the hypocrites) for they fast on the second and fifth day (they fast on Monday and Thursday), so you should fast on the fourth day and the preparation day (on Wednesday and Friday)." Don't be like those hypocrites, you know, who fast on Monday and Thursday. Whatever you do, don't do that. So you do Wednesday and Friday.

Now not all Christians in the early church believed that that was the legitimate practice of fasting for Christians. We know that because of the writings of Tertullian. Tertullian sadly did become legalistic in his practice of fasting and he taught that. But in defense of his position, he talks about what the majority of Christians in his time believed. Listen to what Tertullian says about what the majority of Christians in his day believed about fasting. He says: "The majority of Christians think that fasting is to be differently observed (than what he was teaching). They say that it is part of the discipline of choice, not command. They say it should be observed according to the times and needs of each individual. Furthermore, they say that this had been the observance of the apostles." Amen and amen. What I'm teaching you this morning is what the majority of Christians even in Tertullian's time believed.

However, as a result of the legalistic influences of people like Tertullian, even some of the later biblical manuscripts (in what we call the Majority Text, which was the text family used for like the translation of the King James for example) – they added fasting in those later biblical manuscripts to some New Testament passages where fasting does not appear in the earliest manuscripts we have of the New Testament. There are several texts (Matthew 17:21, Mark 9:29, Acts 10:30 and 1 Corinthians 7:5) where you'll see the word fasting in those younger manuscripts, but you will not see them in the older manuscripts, and it's I think a product of this whole idea of legalism in fasting that's contrary to the biblical teaching.

So let me wrap it all up for you this way. True biblical fasting, then, is abstaining from food in a time of personal or national crisis with the sincere desire to seek God in prayer. Let me say that again. True biblical fasting is abstaining from food in a time of personal or national crisis with the sincere desire to seek God in prayer. That's what Jesus is talking about in Matthew 6.

Now let's go back to Matthew 6. And now that we've discovered the legitimate practice of biblical fasting, let's consider, secondly, the hypocrites' approach to biblical fasting. Jesus told His disciples that the hypocrites approach fasting in the wrong way. Notice verse 16: "Whenever you fast, do not put on a gloomy face as the hypocrites do, for they neglect their appearance…" The word hypocrite as we have seen is actually a Greek word that has been transliterated into English. It was used literally in secular Greek of an actor in the theater. So the word came to describe someone who wears a mask–someone who plays a part. And now Jesus describes how pretenders, how mask-wearers, how hypocrisy displays itself in fasting.

The scribes and Pharisees of course were known for their fasting. Remember when Jesus told the parable of the Pharisee and the tax gatherer going to the temple to pray, Jesus puts these words in the mouth of the Pharisee: "I fast twice a week…" That's because that's reality. They did. The Pharisees had reduced the biblical practice of fasting to a legalistic system in which they fasted on two days a week. The Talmud tells us that it was on the second and the fifth days of the week. Why those days? Well, because tradition said that Moses went to Sinai on the fifth day and he came down from Sinai on the second day, so those were the days. Typically their fast lasted from sunrise in the morning until sunset after which they could eat as much as they wanted.

Now when it came to fasting, the scribes and Pharisees manifested their hypocrisy in a specific way. Notice what Jesus says. Literally, He says: When you are fasting, do not become gloomy-faced ones as the hypocrites… The Greek word translated gloomy face means having a look that suggests sadness; sullen, dark. The only other time in the New Testament this word appears, it appears in Luke 24 talking about the Emmaus Road disciples who were devastated by the news of their Lord's death and it says there: "They stood looking sad." So every Monday and every Thursday when the Pharisees fasted, they walked around town with this sad, gloomy expression.

Jesus adds in verse 16: "…they neglect their appearance…" Again, the Greek text is very picturesque here. Literally it says: They are rendering invisible their faces… Notice the NAS marginal reading there in verse 16 if you have the New American Standard. It gives you the idea: "literally distort their faces or discolor their faces with makeup." They actually did this. The Talmud says this: "Whoever makes his face black on account of the law (that was a common Jewish expression for fasting), God will make His brightness to shine in the world to come." Jesus' point is that in addition to looking sad, they intentionally made their faces look bad. Based on what Jesus tells His disciples to do in the next verse, it's implied that on the days they were fasting, the scribes and Pharisees did not wash their faces and they didn't put on their normal facial oils and lotions. Instead, they may have intentionally rubbed their faces with either makeup or put ashes and soot on their faces – of course, leaving enough of their face to show so people would know who it was so they could get credit for it, but then enough to make it clear that they were fasting.

Now why would they do this? Because notice, they were fasting for the wrong reason. Jesus goes on in verse 16: "so that (here was their purpose) they will be noticed by men when they are fasting." Now this is the very thing Jesus warned us about back in verse 1: "Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them…" But there in verse 1, the Greek word translated to be noticed has the idea of being intensely looked at, gazed upon. It's the Greek word from which we get the English word theater. But the word in verse 16 to be noticed is a different Greek word. It means to shine or to become visible. Jesus is here making a very interesting play on words. He says they make their faces invisible by rubbing them with soot and ashes or makeup so that they can become more visible–so that they can shine. What our Lord is forbidding here is the kind of fasting in which our motive is not to humble ourselves before God, but to encourage those around us to see and appreciate how spiritual we actually are.

Now most of us are not tempted, if we fast and when we fast, to walk around town with soot and ashes or makeup on our faces. Our temptation, if we fast, is to just drop it casually into conversation–just so people appreciate the sacrifices we're making for the Lord. Jesus says it's the wrong reason. It's hypocritical.

Not only were the hypocrites fasting the wrong way and for the wrong reason, but they were also fasting for the wrong reward. Look at the end of verse 16: "Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full." What was their goal? To be noticed. And of course, their ultimate desire back in verse 2 was to be glorified. Jesus said, They got what they wanted, but that's all they're getting. He says once their fasting became visible to people around them, and that was their goal, they received payment in full. In other words, listen–if you do what you do (fasting or otherwise) to be seen, to be appreciated for what a wonderful person you are, how spiritual you are, Jesus says, alright. You got what you wanted, but that's all you're getting. You're getting nothing from God. These people weren't fasting for God. They were fasting for themselves. They appeared to be humbling themselves, but in reality they were seeking their own glory.

So we've seen the legitimate practice of biblical fasting. We've seen the hypocrites' approach to biblical fasting. Notice thirdly the disciples' approach to biblical fasting. Jesus now tells us as His followers the right way to fast. Verse 17: "But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face…" Here, as He often does, Jesus leaves the plural pronoun in the Greek text, the plural you meaning all of you all, and He uses the singular pronoun you individually. It's as if Jesus is speaking to you and to you and to you and, and to me individually. And He tells each of us that when we fast, we are to follow our regular daily hygienic and cosmetic practices. He says, Wash your face. Anoint your head with the normal oils and lotions you use every day. Jesus' point is: if you're fasting, work hard to look the way you look every other day. Don't do anything in order to be noticed. In fact, He says, I want you to conceal the reality that you're fasting from others. He's encouraging privacy here, not deception. He says make sure that your appearance is the same as every other day so that you're not playing to a human audience. Why? Because you've got to fast for the right reason. Look at verse 18: "so that your fasting will not be noticed by men, but by your Father who is in secret…" Jesus is, here, dealing with the issue of heart motive. You have to decide when you set out to fast who is going to be your audience. Who are you playing to? Is it going to be people or is it going to be God? You want to enhance your reputation with the people around you, or do you want God to hear you?

Now before I leave this point, let me ask and answer a couple of random questions that may be on your minds. Is it ever wrong to fast if you do so in the right way and with the right motive? I think the answer is yes, it could be wrong. I have to agree with John Broadus here. Listen to what he wrote back in the 1800's: "Wherever this practice of fasting would be counterbalanced by injury to health, disqualification for active duties, or other grave evils, then fasting ought not to be practiced." I think we have to use wisdom in this as we would anything else.

What about fasts that are called by the church or church leaders in response to a national or local tragedy? There's nothing wrong with that. For example, if our country were to find itself entering World War III, the elders and I might call on all of us to fast and pray. There's nothing wrong with that, but it would still be completely voluntary. No one has a right to bind your conscience with some required fast that God has not commanded. But Jesus says: when you fast, make sure you do it the right way – look like you do every other day, conceal it from everyone but God, and make sure you're doing it with God as your audience.

Now at the end of verse 18, Jesus reminds us finally of the Father's response to biblical fasting: "…and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you." You see, we serve a God who knows your heart. He knows what you're doing and why you're doing it when no one else knows. And He keeps careful accounts. And He sees when you fast, not to be seen by other people, but to humble yourself before Him and to seek Him in prayer. And if that's your motive, then Jesus says the Father will reward you. God will see you have humbled yourself before Him and (here's the key) in the way He chooses, He will answer your prayer. This is how we're to fast.

Now don't forget that giving and praying and fasting are only three examples of a much greater problem. Jesus says in this text, Beware of the spiritual danger of hypocrisy when you're practicing any spiritual activity. I want you to think for a moment of the spiritual activities you practice. Maybe it's reading the Bible, praying, attending church, evangelizing, fasting, whatever, serving. Jesus says you'd better beware, Christian, of the danger of playing to the wrong audience when you do those things because if you just want a human audience, that's all you're getting. You have to play to God as the audience. One author puts it this way: "We must choose our audience carefully. If we prefer human spectators, we will lose our Christian integrity (and I would add our reward). The same will happen if we become our own audience." You see, not only is it wrong to play to others as an audience, but frankly some Christians do what they do because they want to feel good about themselves. They just want to feel good and so they do it for themselves. Both are just as wrong. He concludes: "We must choose God for our audience.

But folks, there is a much greater danger here, because those who perpetually are hypocrites are not part of Jesus' kingdom. Let me say that again. If you consistently live in hypocrisy, you are not part of Jesus' kingdom. You are not one of His followers–no matter what prayer you may have prayed, what aisle you may have walked, what your involvement is in this church and how regular you are in being here.

I want you to turn with me to Matthew 23. And I want you to ask yourself, as we turn here, this question. Do I consistently pretend to be what I am not? Am I living a lie? Am I pretending to be a Christian, but inside I'm just living out a lie. I'm living out perhaps a secret life of shame or perhaps, away from church, a more public life of shame? Look at what Jesus says in Matthew 23:25. Jesus says:

Woe to you (He's saying, damnation to you)… hypocrites (if you wear a mask consistently) For you clean the outside of the cup and dish, (boy, everything outside looks good. You come to church. You're around Christian people –looks good) but inside they are full of robbery and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee, first clean the inside of the cup and of the dish, so that the outside of it may become clean also. Woe to you… hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside are full of dead men's bones and all uncleanness. (Now watch verse 28) So you, too, outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.

That is: You're your own law. You don't bother obeying God's law. You live for self-indulgence, for your flesh, for what you want. Jesus says you're a hypocrite.

And then He makes this chilling statement. Go back to verse 13. Here's what He says about hypocrites: "you do not enter into the kingdom of heaven yourself." He says, You're not a part of My kingdom. Verse 15, this is even more chilling. He says: "you are sons of hell." You belong to hell and not to My kingdom if you are consistently and perpetually living a lie – if you are pretending to be a Christian, if you come to church and everything looks great, you're around your Christian friends, and then you, inside, tolerate and feed all kinds of uncleanness and lawlessness, you do what you want in contradiction of what Jesus has commanded. This is a serious warning. If you perpetually are living a lie; if you've made the outside of the cup clean but, frankly, you're perfectly comfortable tolerating an inside that is filthy, Jesus says, You're not in My kingdom. You're not My disciple. And you are a son of hell. Hypocrisy is a deadly deadly thing. Jesus says beware. Let's pray together.

Our Father, I pray that for those of us who are in Christ, that, while we can be tempted to hypocrisy and from time to time give in to hypocrisy, we thank You that You have enabled us to be genuine and sincere. You know our hearts. You know that we hate our sin, that we battle it, that we don't tolerate it, that we are eager not only to put a good front outside but to be, before You, what You want us to be. Father, I pray that You would help us to guard our hearts against this deadly danger of hypocrisy. May, Father, we play to You. May our spiritual activities be done with You as our audience.

But Father, I pray for those here this morning (and undoubtedly, there are a number here this morning) who are just like the Pharisees – who have cleaned the outside of the cup, who profess to know You the true God, and yet they're perfectly comfortable tolerating a heart of sin, and evil, and uncleanness. Father, I pray that today You would help them to see themselves as You do. Help them to see themselves as not part of Jesus' kingdom and, as He said, "a son of hell." And may this be the day when You clean the inside of the cup. We pray it in Jesus' name. Amen.