The Sermon On The Mount
"Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face; that thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly." These words brought to a close the fourth division of our Lord's address, a division which covered the first eighteen verses of Matthew vi, the subject of which is the performing of good works in such a manner as to secure the approval of God. Fasting is mentioned last of the three branches of practical righteousness because it is not so much a duty for its own sake as a means to dispose us for other duties.
Fasting is the abstaining from food for a religious purpose. Though there is no express commandment in either the Law or the Gospel binding us thereto, yet it is plain both from precept and practice in the Old and New Testaments alike that there are occasions when fasting is both needful and helpful. Though there is nothing meritorious in it, fasting is both an appropriate sign and a valuable means. It should be the outward sign of an inward mortification. It is the opposite of feasting, which expresses joy and merriment. It is a voluntary denying ourselves of those creature comforts to which we are ordinarily accustomed. Rightly engaged in, it should be found a valuable adjunct to prayer, particularly for afflicting our souls when expressing sorrow for sin. As to the frequency and the duration thereof this must largely be determined by our ordinary habits, our constitutions, and our vocations.
So depraved is the human heart and so prone is man to rest in externals that he changes what was originally the means or sign unto the end itself. Thus we find the Pharisee boasting that he "fasted twice in the week" (Luke 18:12). Thus that which was designed as a simple means to further and to testify humiliation, repentance and zeal in prayer was perverted into a meritorious performance which produced self-complacency. But what was still worse, the Pharisees made a stage-play of this holy ordinance and resorted to various hypocritical devices therein, in order to further their reputation among men for extraordinary piety and devotion. They advertised what should have been a secret between their souls and God: they employed a counterfeit sadness and ostentatious grief, and thereby reduced to a farce and a mockery what should have been held in great sanctity.
"Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast." This was our Lord's first word on the subject of fasting, and like His first on prayer it consists in a warning against hypocrisy therein. This is very searching and should be seriously taken to heart by all of us. Every species of pride is exceedingly foolish and most obnoxious unto the Lord, but the worst form of all is spiritual pride, and especially that which aims at securing the applause of our fellows. Fasting, if it be genuine, arises from a deep sense of our utter unworthiness and is designed to express our self-loathing before God. To make the same into a pedestal from which we proclaim our humility and sanctity is indeed a turning of light into darkness.
"When ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast." It may be inquired, How is such a prohibition as this to be harmonized with Joel 1:13, 14, where God required the Jews to "laments" and "howl" in their fast, which could scarcely be without mournful and appropriate gestures of the body? The answer is that Christ was not here condemning a sorrowful countenance in fasting when a just occasion for the same is offered, for godly Nehemiah looked sad (2:2). Instead, our Lord was here engaged in reprehending the wicked deceits of the Pharisees, who deliberately feigned an appearance of great sorrow when in fact their hearts were devoid of contrition. This is quite clear from His next words.
"When ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast." But to this it might also be objected, Did not some of God's own people in the past disfigure their faces in various ways, and that with Divine approval? For example, are we not informed that Ezra plucked off the hairs of his head and of his beard (9:3), and are we not told that Joshua and his fellows fell to the ground upon their faces and put dust upon their heads (7:6)? But all of those cases were spontaneous expressions of deep sorrow of heart-something quite different from what our Lord was here rebuking. He blames the Pharisees for disfiguring their faces, first, because this was the chief, yea, the only, thing they had respect unto in their fasts, namely the outward show thereof, which God hated. And second, because the word "disfigure" here signifies the very abolishing of their comeliness. They deliberately took means to look wan and emaciated so that they might the better advertise their fasting.
Instead of keeping to the privacy of their homes on fast days and using the time in those sacred exercises of which fasting is both the means and the sign, the Pharisees went abroad and, like stage-players, paraded all the marks of a state of mind which they did not feel, but which they desired that others should believe they experienced. They assumed a sad countenance. "They employed all the usual tokens of deep affliction and mental distress. They covered their heads with dust and ashes, vailed their countenances, neglected their dress, and deformed their features by contracting them into the most gloomy and dejected looks. They studiously exhibited all the external appearances of humiliation, while their hearts were lifted up in spiritual pride" (Brewster).
Ere passing on let it be duly noted that it was the practice of the scribes and Pharisees not only to fast but also to be very punctilious in observing all the outward rites and signs pertaining to religious fasts; nevertheless, as in the former works of almsgiving and prayer, so in this, the principal thing was lacking, namely truth and sincerity in the heart. Their grief-stricken faces proceeded not from broken hearts. They were whole and righteous in their own conceits and needed neither the great Physician nor regeneration of soul. In this we may see a true exemplification of the properties of natural men in matters of spiritual moment: they are more concerned with external deeds than in having the Truth in their inward parts; they content themselves with their outward performances and have little or no regard to worshipping in the spirit. In like manner, the wicked Ahab went to much trouble in humbling himself outwardly, from fear of punishment (1 Kings 21:27), yet continued in his sins.
How often it was thus with Israel of old; they went through the form of humbling themselves and seeking God's favour, when as David said, "They did flatter Him with their mouth and they lied unto Him with their tongues. For their heart was not right with Him, neither were they stedfast in His covenant" (Ps. 78:36, 37). And thus it is generally with natural men. The whole religion of the deluded papists stands in outward ceremonial acts, partly Jewish and partly heathenish, and when they have observed them they look no farther. And it is no better with tens of thousands among the Protestants, who content themselves with the external acts of going to church, hearing the Word, and "receiving the sacrament" once or twice a year; and when these duties are scrupulously observed they imagine that all is well with them and think God is served sufficiently. Yea, let anyone set before them the real requirements of a thrice holy God and he will at once be sneered at by them as being too strict and precise, puritanical and fanatical.
Since our Lord here condemned the fasting of the Pharisees because they rested in the outward work and did it ostentatiously for the praise of men, then how clear it is that the fasting of the papists is an abomination in His sight, for theirs abounds with more numerous abuses. First, they reduce the practice of fasting to a ludicrous farce, by allowing fish and eggs to take the place of meats and by placing no restriction at all upon wines and other drinks. Second, they bind men in conscience to numerous days of fasting and make the omission thereof a deadly sin, thereby taking away Christian liberty, for neither the Saviour nor any of His apostles appointed any set fast days. Third, they make fasting a meritorious performance, teaching that a man thereby renders satisfaction unto Divine justice for his sins, whereby they blasphemously derogate from the sufficiency of Christ's obedience and sacrifice. How the godly should grieve at the spread of such wicked superstitions in our midst.
It should now be quite apparent that Christ did not here forbid all fasting as such, but was engaged in correcting the abuses of this ordinance. His words, "When ye fast, be not as the hypocrites," not only take it for granted that His disciples would fast, but manifestly denote that the godly ought to do so, both in private and in public upon just occasion. Nay, if the Saviour here rebukes the Pharisees for their perversion of this holy means of grace, then much more must He blame those who fast not at all. This is not a thing indifferent, left to our option, but something which God requires from us, and for the absence of which He may often increase His judgments (Isa. 22:12-14).
Sufficient has already been before us to show that God has given us many inducements to stir up our hearts to engage in this exercise. There is the worthy precedent of many holy men in the past who carefully performed this duty when occasion offered, such as David, Daniel, Ezra and Nehemiah. In like manner we have recorded examples in the New Testament of the Saviour Himself (Matthew 4), Anna, Cornelius, the apostles and elders of the churches. Moreover, we have among us pressing occasions of fasting, both in public and in private. The present state of God's cause upon earth, the withdrawal of the Spirit's unction and blessing, the drying up of the streams of vital godliness, the lack of fruit from the preaching of the Gospel, the abounding error on every side, the rising tide of infidelity, iniquity and immorality, and, above all, the national judgments of God now hanging over our heads, call loudly for humiliation, afflicting of our souls, and repentance.
"But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face; That thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret" (vv. 17, 18). This statement is not to be taken absolutely and literally, but relatively and figuratively. These words of Christ must be understood in the light of their setting, their scope being quite apparent from the context. In oriental countries, where the air is hot and dry, it is the common custom to anoint the head and face with oil and ointments, which are there plentiful and cheap (Ruth 3:3; Luke 7:46; etc.)-"oil to make his face to shine" (Ps. 104:15). That Christ is not to be here understood literally appears from His scope: He was off-setting Pharisees' practice of disfiguring their faces. Second, from the fact that He does not here command contraries: the use of such things in fasting as are more appropriate for feasting, for the anointing of the face is indicative of cheerfulness and joy.
The obvious meaning of Christ in the above words is: When thou engagest in a private fast, so conduct thyself as it may not appear unto men that thou art so engaged. Fasting is unto God, and our one and only concern must be to perform this duty in a manner which is pleasing unto Him. So far from parading this duty before men, we must take every possible precaution to conceal our private devotions from them. If we are to enter our chambers and shut to the door when engaging in private prayer, equally necessary is it that we observe the utmost secrecy in connection with our private fasting. Everything which savors of pride and ostentation is to be rigidly eschewed. Whenever we devote a portion of our time to extraordinary private devotions there should be nothing in our deportment or general appearance to indicate this unto others. So far from any show of our religious feelings, we should do all we can to hide them from the notice of others.
"But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head and wash thy face; that thou appear not unto men to fast." "This exhortation certainly does not mean that on these occasions men should assume a cheerfulness they do not feel, but that there should be nothing in the dress or in the appearance calculated to attract notice; that there should be no abatement in the ordinary attention to cleanliness of person or propriety of apparel; and that when, having brought the solemn services of the closet to a termination, they go out to society, there should be nothing to tell the world how they have been engaged" (John Brown). The great thing to remember and be concerned about is that it is with God we have to do, and not with men. It is with Him our hearts are to be occupied, it is unto Him we are praying and fasting, it is before Him we are to unburden ourselves. It is His pardon and favour we are soliciting. The opinion and esteem of fellow mortals fades into utter insignificance before the approval and reward of our heavenly Father.
"When thou fastest anoint thine head and wash thy face." In these instructions we are also taught that Christ requires us to take due care of our bodies. There are two extremes to be avoided: undue pampering and the careless neglecting of them-the former presenting the more real danger in this effeminate age. Any species of gluttony and intemperance is sinful, for it dulls the mind, stimulates our lusts, and leads to further evil. Such excesses are forbidden in "make not provision for the flesh to fulfil the lusts thereof" (Rom. 13:14). On the other hand we are warned against the "neglecting of the body" (Col. 2:23) under the pretence of honoring the soul: anything which produces weakness and disability is to be avoided. That care of the body which God requires is a moderate concern for its needs, a temperate use of food so as to fit it for the discharge of duty.
In the above words of Christ we may also perceive that it is a Christian duty to p reserve a cheerful countenance. While on the one hand we must eschew all carnal frivolity and lightness, manifesting an habitual seriousness and sobriety; yet on the other hand we must see to it that we carefully avoid everything which savors of an affected solemnity and melancholy. If we are bidden to guard against any external displays of grief while engaged in those religious exercises which from their very nature tend to sadden the countenance, then most certainly it is our duty to manifest in our general deportment the natural symptoms of a cheerful and contented mind.
It is our duty to refute the world's lie that Christianity is incapable of making its subjects happy. Few things have done more injury to the cause of the Gospel than the sourness, sadness, and moroseness of a large class of its professors. Where Christ rules in the heart He sheds abroad a peace which passes all understanding and a joy which is unspeakable and full of glory. True we must not pretend a peace and joy we do not possess, yet we should be most diligent in opening our hearts unto the influences of that Truth which we profess to believe. God's commands are not grievous, and in the keeping of them there is great reward. Let us seek to make it evident to those around us that Christ's yoke is not a hard one nor His burden heavy. Let us make it appear that the Truth has not made us slaves, but free, and that wisdom's ways are ways of pleasantness.
"But unto thy Father which is in secret: and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly" (v. 18). These words contain a warning against the one-sided idea of dispensationalists that Christ will be the sole Judge and Rewarder-a concept which is plainly refuted by such a passage as Hebrews 12:23. It is just as erroneous to restrict the judicial office to the Son as to exclude the Father and the Spirit (Job 33:4, etc.) from the work of creation. The truth is that, with regard to deliberation, authority and con sent, the final judgment shall be determined by the whole Trinity, yet with regard to immediate execution by Christ.
We cannot do better than conclude these remarks by quoting from Calvin. "It were far better that fasting should be entirely disused than that the practice should be diligently observed, and at the same time corrupted with false opinions, into which the world is continually falling, unless it be presented by the greatest fidelity of the pastors. The first caution necessary is 'Rend your heart and not your garments' (Joel 2:13): that is, God sets no value on fasting unless it be accompanied with a corresponding disposition of heart, a real displeasure against sin, sincere self-abhorrence, true humiliation, and unfeigned grief; and that fasting is of no use of any other account than as an additional and subordinate assistance to these things."