PRACTICING RIGHTEOUSNESS FOR PUBLIC ACCLAIM FORFEITS HEAVENLY REWARD – TRUE VS HYPOCRITICAL PIETY — EXAMPLE OF FASTING
Donald Hagner: In the first century, fasting apparently provided an exceptional opportunity for impressing others with the extent of one’s piety. Here, as in the previous two species of piety, the activity was carefully designed so as to inflate personal pride (cf. Luke 18:12). Jesus tolerates no such conduct. Our righteousness is a matter of service to God and is to be directed to him. True righteousness is, in the last analysis, seen in secret. Only this kind of righteousness will be truly rewarded in any lasting way.
Warren Wiersbe: It is not wrong to fast, if we do it in the right way and with the right motive. Jesus fasted (Matt. 4:2), so did the members of the early church (Acts 13:2). Fasting helps to discipline the appetites of the body (Luke 21:34) and keep our spiritual priorities straight. But fasting must never become an opportunity for temptation (1 Cor. 7:5). Simply to deprive ourselves of a natural benefit (such as food or sleep) is not of itself fasting. We must devote ourselves to God and worship Him. Unless there is the devotion of the heart (see Zech. 7), there is no lasting spiritual benefit.
John MacArthur: Along with alms giving and certain prescribed prayers, twice-weekly fasting was one of the three major expressions of orthodox Judaism during Jesus’ day. The scribes and Pharisees looked on these practices with great seriousness and were careful not only to follow them faithfully but to do so as publicly and ostentatiously as possible-ostensibly as a testimony to true godliness but in reality as a testimony to their own self-styled piety. When they gave alms, they blew trumpets “in the synagogues and in the streets” in order to “be honored by men” (Matt. 6:2). When they prayed “in the synagogues and on the street corners,” they did so “to be seen by men” (Mt 6:5). And when they fasted, they “put on a gloomy face” and neglected their “appearance in order to be seen fasting by men” (Mt 6:16). They did not see religion as a matter of humility, repentance, or forgiveness, but as a matter of ceremony and proud display. And therefore the external rituals which they paraded as badges of godly righteousness actually marked them as ungodly hypocrites, as Jesus declared in each of the three verses just cited (cf. Mt 5:20).
Religious ritual and routine have always been dangers to true godliness. Many ceremonies, such as praying to saints and lighting a candle for a deceased relative are actually heretical. But even if it is not wrong in itself, when a form of praying, worshiping, or serving becomes the focus of attention, it becomes a barrier to true righteousness. It can keep an unbeliever from trusting in God and a believer from faithfully obeying Him. Even going to church, reading the Bible, saying grace at meals, and singing hymns can become lifeless routines in which true worship of God has no part…
Daniel Doriani: But why should we fast? According to John Piper, we fast to nourish our hunger for God and to reduce our hunger for the world. We ought to fast because our physical appetites are so intense that they threaten to overwhelm our hunger for God. Piper writes: “The greatest enemy of hunger for God is not poison but apple pie. It is not the banquet of the wicked that dulls our appetite for heaven, but mindless nibbling at the table of the world. It is not the X-rated video, but the prime time dribble of triviality we drink in every night.” . . .
We fast because fasting says, “I do not live for my appetites. I set aside physical desires, so that I may seek God in prayer, that I may desire God and his blessing.” When we fast, we battle the relentless stream of appetites. We demonstrate that we do not live by bread alone. When we fast, the body grows weak, and that reminds us that we do not live by our strength, our provision, and our planning.
Charles Spurgeon: The church of God would be far stronger to wrestle with this ungodly age if she were more given to prayer and fasting. There is a mighty efficacy in these two gospel ordinances. The first links us to heaven, the second separates us from earth. Prayer takes us into the banqueting-house of God; fasting overturns the surfeiting tables of earth. Prayer gives us to feed on the bread of heaven, and fasting delivers the soul from being encumbered with the fulness of bread which perishes. When Christians shall bring themselves up to the uttermost possibilities of spiritual vigor, then they will be able, by God’s Spirit working in them, to cast out devils which to-day, without the prayer and fasting, laugh them to scorn.
Grant Osborne: The purpose of fasting is to remind oneself that God is uppermost in life, even over basic human drives. So it is a God-directed activity, and it is completely wrong to want others to see your piety and be impressed. Rather, only God should know that one is fasting. . .
Fasting is an intensely personal activity centering entirely on one’s relationship with God, and it is an important Christian discipline for kingdom children in this interim age between the advents (Matt 9:15). Its purpose is to remind us that God is the most important aspect of our lives, far more important than major human drives like food or sex (1 Cor 7:5), and fasting places God first. To turn this into an attention-getting device and to prefer human admiration over the worship of God is blasphemous. One’s entire devotion must be fixed on the Father.
Fasting is closely connected to prayer and therefore connotes an intense relationship and communion with God. But too many use it almost as magic to get God to answer their prayers, i.e., to so convince God of their sincerity that he will say “yes” to their request. It is good to fast during times of crisis but to center more on God—and not in the mistaken belief that this practice will be more efficacious even than prayer.
I. (:16) FALSE PIETY IN FASTING
A. Warning against Seeking Public Acclaim in Fasting
“And whenever you fast, do not put on a gloomy face as the hypocrites do,
for they neglect their appearance in order to be seen fasting by men.”
William Barclay: The great danger was that some people might fast as a sign of superior piety, that their fasting might be a deliberate demonstration, not to God, but to others, of how devoted and disciplined they were. That is precisely what Jesus was condemning. He was condemning fasting when it was used as an ostentatious parade of piety. The Jewish days of fasting were Monday and Thursday. These were market days, and into the towns and villages, and especially into Jerusalem, there crowded the people from the country. The result was that those who were ostentatiously fasting would on those days have a bigger audience to see and admire their piety. There were many who took deliberate steps to see that others could not miss the fact that they were fasting. They walked through the streets with hair deliberately unkempt and dishevelled, with clothes deliberately soiled and disarrayed. They even went to the lengths of deliberately whitening their faces to accentuate their paleness. This was no act of humility; it was a deliberate act of spiritual pride and ostentation.
Walter Wilson: The crux of their pretense is nicely captured in the wordplay created by the juxtaposition of verbs with the φαν– stem: when they fast, the hypocrites make their faces “unrecognizable” (ἀφανίζουσιν) so that they will be “recognized” (φανῶσιν) by the people. Their sullenness, then, is not a true reflection of their disposition but part of an effort to appear pious to others.
John Piper: Few things feel more gratifying to the heart of fallen man than being made much of for our accomplishments, especially our moral and religious accomplishments… All of this we are prone to do because of our seemingly insatiable appetite for the praise of men. We want to be made much of. We want people to like us and admire us and speak well of us. It is a deadly drive. Jesus warned us, “Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted.”
B. Forfeiture of Heavenly Rewards
“Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full.”
Warren Wiersbe: But hypocrisy not only robs us of character, it also robs us of spiritual rewards. Instead of the eternal approval of God, we receive the shallow praise of men. We pray, but there are no answers. We fast, but the inner man shows no improvement. The spiritual life becomes hollow and lifeless. We miss the blessing of God here and now, and also lose the reward of God when Christ returns.
II. (:17-18) TRUE PIETY IN FASTING
A. (:17-18a) Instruction on Fasting Secretly
“But you, when you fast, anoint your head, and wash your face 18 so that you may not be seen fasting by men, but by your Father who is in secret;”
J. C. Ryle: Let us learn from our Lord’s instruction about fasting the great importance of cheerfulness in our religion. Those words, anoint your head and wash your face, are full of deep meaning. They should teach us to aim at letting men see that we find Christianity makes us happy. Never let us forget that there is no religion in looking sad and gloomy. Are we dissatisfied with Christ’s wages and Christ’s service? Surely not! Then let us not look as if we were.
B. (:18b) Assurance of Heavenly Reward
“and your Father who sees in secret will repay you.”
John Nolland: Once again the embedded challenge is to take the purity of motivation which by definition must characterise totally private engagement with God out into the complexities of normal life where others necessarily see what we do.
Phil Newton: In our day it seems the most common thing is for people to announce that they are fasting or to tell about their fast. I received a booklet from a Baptist pastor several years ago telling about his 40-day fast, and how that became the key to his spiritual growth and his church’s growth. Then he outlined in true-Baptist program fashion how to institute such a fast in one’s own life. But Jesus tells us… Let this be between you and the Lord. The Lord sees in secret and rewards accordingly.
F. B. Meyer: How fondly Jesus repeats these words (Matthew 6:4, 6, 18). Though compelled to live so much in the public gaze of men, his heart was always sighing for the secret place of fellowship with his Father, who waited for Him there.
Of course, the main object of those paragraphs was to withdraw his disciples from the excessive outwardness of the age in which He spoke, and which necessarily detracted from the singleness, directness, and simplicity of the religious life. It is impossible to perform our religious duties before men, without insensibly considering what impression we are producing, and how far their estimation of us is being enhanced. And in so far as we seek these things, the stream is contaminated with mud and silt, and becomes turbid. We have just as much religious life as we show to God in secret — just that, no less, no more. Whatever is not wrought between thee and God, with no record but his eye, is chaff which the wind driveth away.
Here is a test for our alms, our prayers, and our fasting from sin and self-indulgence. If we do any of these to maintain or increase the consideration that men have of us, they count for nothing in the eve of God. But whatever is done for Him alone will secure his inevitable notice and reward. Dwell on that very definite assurance: “Shall recompense thee.” There is no doubt about it. For every petition breathed into his ear; for every sigh and tear; for every abstinence from sin and self there will be a certain recompense, after the Divine measure. Such seeds shall have a prolific harvest. Seek then the secret place, where prying eyes cannot follow, and curious ears cannot overhear.