When Your Fast,
Put Oil on Your Head and Wash Your Face

Matthew 6: 16-18

DIG: What fasts do Jews remember to this very day? What is the one supreme fast? On what days did the Pharisees and Torah-teachers fast? What was significant about those days? How did they fast? Why did the Lord rebuke them for their wrong motives? What was their reward? In contrast to them, how are Jesus’ disciples supposed to fast?

REFLECT: What examples do we have of fasting in the Scriptures? Are we commanded to fast? What is fasting an expression of? How are we supposed to look when we fast? Why? Who sees our fasting? How do we receive our reward?

In His ninth example of true righteousness, Yeshua teaches about fasting and how the Torah differed from pharisaic Judaism. There are many examples of the righteous of the TaNaKh fasting. Moshe, Samson, Samuel, Hannah, David, Elijah, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Daniel and many others fasted. And the B’rit Chadashah tells us of the fasting of Anna, John the Baptizer and his disciples, Yeshua (Mt 4:2), Rabbi Sha’ul, believers at Antioch (Acts 13:3), and numerous others. We know that many of the early church Fathers fasted, and that Luther, Calvin, Wesley, Whitefield and many other faithful believers also fasted.

Zechariah mentions four such fasts that were observed during his generation and continue down to today. This is what ADONAI, the LORD of heaven’s angelic armies says: The fast days of the fourth, fifth, seventh and tenth months are to become times of joy, gladness and cheer for the house of Y’hudah. Therefore, love truth and peace (Zechariah 8:19 CJB). The fast of the fourth month (the 9th of Tammuz/July) recalls the breech of the walls of Jerusalem in 586 BC. The fifth month’s fast (the 9th of Av/August) recalls many tragedies that have befallen Isra'el, especially the destruction of both the first and second Temples on this very day. The fast of the seventh month (the Fast of Gedaliah/September) marks the assassination of the last king of the first Temple period. The fast of the tenth month (the 10th of Tevet/January) commemorates the tragic time when the Babylonians set the siege against Jerusalem.

In addition to these traditional fasts in Judaism, there is one supreme fast on Yom Kippur/Day of Atonement. Some may argue that even this is not a directly commanded fast, yet the similarity of language in Leviticus and Isaiah leads to this natural connection. The same Hebrew word for humble your soul, or oni in Leviticus 23:27 is used specifically of fasting in Isaiah 58:5, making Yom Kippur as the greatest fast of the spiritual year.568

The rabbis taught that in order for it to be a proper fast, it needed to be continued from one sundown until after the next, when the stars appeared, and for about twenty-six hours the most rigid abstinence from all food and drink was required.569 The Pharisees made a spectacle of fasting twice a week on Monday and Thursday, in addition to the fasts above (see Cq – Jesus Questioned About Fasting). They claimed those days were chosen because they were the days Moses made the two separate trips to receive the tablets of Commandments from God on Mount Sinai. But not so coincidentally, those just happened to be major Jewish market days, when the towns were crowded with farmers, merchants, and shoppers. Thus they were two days where theatrical fasting would have the largest audiences. Those fasting would wear old clothes, sometimes purposely torn and soiled, dishevel their hair, cover themselves with dirt and ashes, and even use makeup in order to look pale and sickly. So they let the world know that they were fasting by their sanctimonious behavior. What a show. But when the heart is not right, fasting is a sham and a mockery. It is, therefore, no surprise that the Messiah rebuked the Pharisees for their wrong motives.570

There is no commandment in the New Covenant to fast. While fasting is optional, many believers find that fasts keep them connected with the Covenant people by observing them. As a result, because God does not command fasting, it is not like giving or praying, for which there are many commands in the Scriptures. The purpose of fasting is to simplify our physical life so that we can focus on our spiritual life. Consequently, fasting is an expression of dependence upon ADONAI rather than upon daily nourishment. We are not to go around looking miserable as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Because God had no place in their motives or thinking, He had no part in their reward. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full (Mattityahu 6:16). They wanted recognition by the public, and that reward, and only that reward, they received in full.

The phrase and when you fast supports the understanding that fasting is not commanded. But when it is practiced it is to be regulated according to principles Jesus gives here. In contrast with the Pharisees and Torah-teachers, believers’ washing and anointing are supposed to be a part of everyday hygiene that was sometimes given up during a fast. But Christ said: When you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face (Matthew 6:17). When fasting believers should avoid calling attention to themselves. Jesus was teaching that this is a private act of sacrificial worship that should not provide any room for religious pride. Everything is supposed to look normal so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting (Mattityahu 6:18a).

Yeshua’s apostles didn’t fast while He was with them because fasting is normally associated with mourning or other times of heightened spiritual need or anxiety. When the disciples of Yochanan the Immerser asked Messiah why His talmidim did not fast like they and the Pharisees did, the Lord answered: How can the guests of the groom mourn and fast while he is with them? They cannot, so long as they have him with them. As long as Yeshua was living they couldn’t mourn because the groom was physically present. They needed to feast, not fast. But the time will come when Jesus, as the Groom, will be taken from them, and on that day they will fast (Mattityahu 9:15; Mark 2:19-20; Luke 5:34-35). As a result, fasting is appropriate for this Dispensation of Grace (see my commentary on Hebrews), because Christ is physically absent from the earth. But it is appropriate only as a response to special times of testing, trial or struggle.

An overwhelming sense of danger often prompts fasting. King Jehoshaphat proclaimed a national fast in Judah when they were threatened by an attack from the Moabites and Ammonites (Second Chronicles 20:3). From a purely human standpoint they could not possibly win; but yet, they cried out to ADONAI for help, fasting as they did so. Queen Esther, her servants, and all the Jews in the capital city of Susa fasted for three full days before she went before King Ahasuerus to plead for the Jews to be spared from Haman’s wicked scheme against her people (see my commentary on Esther Ba – I Will Go to the King; If I Perish, I Perish).

When fasting, only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you (Matthew 6:18b). The one who sincerely wants to please YHVH will purposefully avoid trying to impress others. Jesus does not even say we should fast for the purpose of being seen by Ha’Shem Himself because fasting is not to be a display for anyone – including God. Fasting is merely a part of concentrated, intense prayer and concern for the Lord, His will and His work. The Holy Spirit’s point here is that the Father never fails to notice fasting that is heart-felt and genuine.571 Only those who fast before ADONAI in this manner will receive their reward.


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