Having discussed prayer as continuous conversation that forms Christ’s image and kingdom character in us, Jesus segues to a third discipleship practice he insists be done in secret before the Father—fasting.
In the Old Testament period, fasting was often cathartically practiced in times of tragedy, national or personal, or in seasons of anticipating God’s salvation. In many cases, fasting would be done as something of a dramatic spectacle where they might tear their clothes, wear sackcloth, cover themselves with ashes, forgo food, wail in mourning, pray aggressively, demand God’s justice, seek his salvation. Whether done together as a community or individually, fasting was a public testimony that deep in the tragedy, the pain, and confusion, they believed God was there working out his salvation. Through this the ancients taught us that fasting is an act of faith that sets God in the center of our suffering and confusion in order to assimilate the hope that God is still the bringer of salvation.
By Jesus’ time, however, fasting had become a parody gloomily aped by those seeking to esteem themselves in view of the religious populous. As with giving and prayer, Jesus recognized this hypocrisy and called it out: “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.”
Exercised with dramatic exaggerations of Old Testament fasting, this hypocritical fasting was nothing more than a show played out for the pleasing of passersby. It meant nothing; and the appraisal or attention they received was nothing. It was self-centered fasting. One can imagine sarcastic disregard in Jesus as he then comments “Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full.”
Contentment and satisfaction never come in pleasing people. Living to please people is like always drinking salt water; never quenching, always maddening. True contentment and satisfaction are found only in the worshipful enjoyment of the Father. It was towards that wonderful goal Jesus continued “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.”
Two developments worth noticing here are Jesus’ amendments to both the focus and the form of fasting.
Focus. Jesus shifts the focus of fasting away from the approval of people to the worship of the Father. As mentioned previously, the focus of Old Testament fasting transcended pain and suffering by prayerfully anticipating God’s impending salvation. But considering it is Jesus the Messiah who is speaking here, the salvation the ancients fasted for and prayerfully anticipated has appeared here in their midst. Jesus is the Father’s response to all of the ancients’ anticipatory prayers. All which the Father is doing in and through Jesus is the fulfillment of that for which the ancients fasted.
This doesn’t mean fasting is now unnecessary. Jesus wants fasting to continue, but in a way that is according to the kingdom reality God is establishing.
Fasting is now to focus upon all that the Father is revealing and shaping in Christ. Though it will still include elements of anticipating God’s eschatological salvation, the focus of fasting is now primarily for disciple-making. Fasting provides us time and space to be conformed to Christ’s image and character. It is for fostering trust in the LORD, nurturing joyful wonder, kindling commitment to life upon his way, embodying his redemptive kingdom culture. Even the prophet Isaiah anticipated (Isaiah 58:6-10) how this refocused way of fasting would give form to a way of living that would reflect God’s redemption in Christ. Since Christ is the perfect reflection of the Father, Christ-centered fasting cultivates in us ways that will richly yield the Father’s righteousness.
This is why the form of fasting now becomes significant. The form has changed because the focus has changed; the form must correspond to the joyful reality of God with us.
Form. Salvation in Christ brings a holy cleansing and joyful refreshment that nullifies ashes and gloom. There is no longer any reason to unkemptly plead for future salvation because salvation is prevalently present in Christ. Since the Father has established redemptive reality in Christ, the form of fasting must reflect and testify to that redemptive reality. Ashes and gloom, sincere as they once were, will not do as a witness to the wondrous salvation at work in our world. As followers, we are to fast in such a way that testifies there’s a Savior in the dark, salvation at work within our suffering. Why cover ourselves in gloom and ashes when Christ, like a phoenix, has risen from those ashes?
Joyful, prayerful, unadvertised, Christ-centered fasting puts us in a place to quietly glorify the Father, enriching our souls in the salvation reality he is working out in our everyday moments through Christ his son. When we set Christ at the center of our suffering, our waiting, our pursuits, our hoping, they become fuel in the fires from out of which God’s salvation is molded in our midst.