Fasting Sheep

The Song of the Mountains Part 40.

…But when you fast…

In Matthew 6:16-18 we read, “And whenever you fast, do not become sad-faced like the hypocrites, for they neglect their faces to make their fasting evident to men. Amen, I tell you, they have their reward in full! But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that your fasting won’t be evident to men, but to your Father who is in secret. And your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you.” 

This portion on fasting seems better suited to follow Matthew 6:1-4, which had to do with charitable deeds, and proper prayer done as unto the Lord. After all, Yeshua/Jesus is telling us to fast as unto the Lord, and not to make our fasting apparent to those around us.

In practice.  

In the western church, the practice of fasting is not as common as it once was; while in other parts of the world, fasting is accepted as vital to maturity in faith. How should we approach fasting today? Is it still part of the messianic lifestyle?

History.

Fasting has a rich biblical history. It was practiced from the very earliest periods of the biblical record, continuing to the first-century as a practice of Yeshua and the apostles. Through the centuries, fasting has been a spiritual discipline of messianic disciples. In the first-century, it was the practice of some Jewish sects to fast on two set days each week – usually Tuesday and Thursday – a practice considered meritorious. This fast was not only of water, but also physical care and pleasures, to include washing and anointing with oil. It also indicated a spirit of mourning for the civil and spiritual condition of the Jewish people.

The rebuke.  

Yet, fasting as merely a “spiritual” routine, or outward practice, without an inward transformation, was rebuked by Messiah (cf. Isa. 58:3-12; Jer. 36:9). When Yeshua references the “sad-faced” hypocrites, he is specifically referencing the practice of the Pharisees, whose fast became a public display, not an inward devotion.

In the beginning.    

This practice started with the best of intentions, as it provided the common man, who was not a religious teacher or priest of Israel, a way to dedicate part of his day to the Lord as he labored in the field – by way of fasting. Rather than remaining an uplifting experience for the common man, it became part of religious obligation to demonstrate how religious one was; but as Yeshua points out, it was hypocritical.  

The fast. 

The fast that Yeshua is speaking of was only for 24 hours; and as He notes, they would disfigure their faces as if in anguish, and not wash in order to let everyone know that they were fasting – thus seeking the accolades of men, not the secret reward from the Lord God.

Fasting is traditionally rooted, but not specifically commanded for Yom Kippur; as the text simply states that: וְעִנִּיתֶם אֶת־נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם , “you shall afflict/depress your soul.” This is understood to be a covering of the mouth in order to weaken the body. Yet, it might not only be food abstained from that weakens us, but anything that eases the daily life experience.

It’s not the end. 

If we were to do a much more involved study of fasting in the Bible, we would find that it was very much a means to an end, but not the end itself. It was a way of showing your desperation before the Lord – that you needed His guidance or His intervention. It was used personally and nationally: positively, in right motivation; and negatively, with the wrong motivation. It was most often used when God appeared to be “hiding His face” (Deut. 32:20), during times when His favor did not seem to be with them. It was a means to reconnecting, through repentance, to the covenant Lord. 

Messianic practice. 

In our text we read that Yeshua said, “but you, when you fast…” implying that He still expects His disciples to fast, just as He expects us to pray when He said, “but you, when you pray…” (Matt. 6:5).

Yet, Yeshua was questioned about why His disciples did not fast when He was with them, as we read, “Then John’s disciples came to Him, saying, ‘Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but Your disciples do not fast?” And Yeshua said to them, ‘The guests of the bridegroom cannot mourn while the bridegroom is with them, can they? But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast” (Matt. 9:14-15). 

As previously noted, fasting was often done when it appeared that the favor of God was absent, Israel was called to repentance, or in need of direction. Yet, the disciples did not fast when Yeshua was with them, why? The face of God was not hidden – it was right before them

As Yeshua points out, it is easy for us to do something that is intended to draw us closer to God for the acknowledgements of men; but as we learn from these verses, Yeshua is revealing that fasting should be: 1) hidden and 2) holy. It should not be done to be seen by men, and it should be done through the prompting of the Holy Spirit. This eliminates regularity, and the potential for haughtiness in this holy act.

What should we do? 

People often ask me about fasting, but the many health problems that people face today, fasting from food is not always advisable; but for those who can, there will be great fruit. The discipline of fasting can be rightly practiced by abstaining from any number of modern conveniences; and as Dr. William Lloyd-Jones once said, fasting from anything that requires “self-discipline is legitimate.” 

Anything that we have to consciously abstain from can legitimately be used as the basis for a fast: food, Facebook, television, etc. Anything that will cause us to pause from what we are doing, turn of God, and recognize the honor that lay before us, can be used in fasting. We can fast for ourselves, or on behalf of others. The most important thing is that we are focusing this part of our lives, for a specific time, on the Lord. 

Personal story. 

Many years ago I did a weekly twenty-four hour fast. This was my practice for several years. It did not matter what might be scheduled for that day, the fast would not be interrupted. One day I was called by a local hobby farmer who owned sheep – never having seen a live sheep before buying the hobby farm – that I would tend to from time to time. It was getting late in the afternoon, and I was anxiously anticipating breaking my fast, when I was called to gather some escaped sheep with my dogs – at the time I raised and trained working Border Collies. Dogs in the truck, and off to the farm. The majority of the sheep were easy to work back to the barn, and with the dogs doing the running, I just stood, whistled, and opened the gate – but one lamb made for the hills, actually the brook that ran through the farm. 

As we followed the lamb, nearly a half-mile up the road now, spooked by a passing car he ended up in the brook, reaching the middle before he froze in shock. As any shepherd will tell you, it is nearly impossible to “drive” one sheep anywhere. In this case, I had to go in the water, pull the lamb out, and carry him on my shoulders back to the farm. Did I mention that at some point it was cut by an old string of barbed wire? Needle and thread. At this point I had not eaten in more than 28 hours. After stitching the lamb, putting him back in with the flock, and heading home soaked, hungry, and covered in blood, I decided that it was time to stop this weekly practice.  

Dear reader, fasting, like prayer, is a discipline that brings the messianic life into our present reality – either we are living the faith that we are claiming, or we are simply playing, pretending. From time to time, the discipline of fasting cause reveal wonderful spiritual treasure previously overlooked; or, in a time of great need, it can focus our heart and mind on the Lord. 

While our body longs for food, our soul longs for God, as the psalmist writes, “As the deer longs for the water streams, so my soul longs for You, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I enter in to appear before God?” (Ps. 42:1-2). 

Shalom. Be well.

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