We continue our study of the Sermon on the Mount. In our last post we noted an important truth that Jesus was teaching the people:
The true Christian is not to perform acts of righteousness in such a way as to bring glory to themselves. If they do, they have no reward from God.
Jesus then gave three specific examples to his listeners. Last week we studied gifts to the poor and prayer. This week we will look at fasting.
Matthew 6:16 – And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.
Our first question should be ‘what is fasting’? Generally, it means to voluntarily abstain from something (usually food) for a time, as a token of penitence or grief for religious reasons.
What is the historical context of fasting? Abstinence from food is the natural result of deep sorrow. The sorrow could be caused by any number of things such as death, disease or some other kind of loss. The length of time a person did not eat became known as a fast.
In a religious context, the deep sorrow is caused by sin. A person extremely troubled and grieved by sin would experience a loss of appetite, which resulted in a fast. Because of the grief they were experiencing, people who fasted had a sad countenance. Often, they did not wash or put on clean clothes. As a result, it was fairly easy to spot people who were fasting.
In the old covenant (Old Testament Law) God had appointed one day each year for the Israelites to fast. It was the Day of Atonement, the day that the priest shed blood and put it on the mercy seat in the Holy of Holies to atone for the sins of the people.
Now fast-forward to the time of Jesus. The religious leaders had taken the concept of fasting and made it an art form! They made it a tradition to fast at least two times a week (Luke 18:12), sometimes more. During their fasts, they put on sackcloth instead of regular clothes and they put ashes on their heads instead of the usual ointments. Thus, you could easily spot them anywhere they went.
The Scribes and Pharisees had lost the true meaning of fasting. No longer was it grief for sin, or a time set apart for reflection upon God. Instead it became an empty ritual of self discipline, as well as a source of pride. This kind of fasting made them hypocrites, because they were only seeking the praise or admiration of other men.
Jesus warns his listeners that when you fast this way, you have received the only reward possible – the empty admiration of men.
Matthew 6:17-18 – But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who s in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
Now Jesus speaks of true fasting. When one of his followers fasted, they were to dress, wash and otherwise appear normal. He or she was to hide their inward contrition or mourning from the world. They were to open their hearts and express their grief and sorrow only to God.
Jesus promises that even though men are unaware of your sacrifice, God sees and honors it.
This might be a good time to reaffirm that God always sees what is in our hearts – ALWAYS. So keep a careful watch on what you allow your mind to dwell upon, because those are the things that will determine the thoughts and motivations of your heart.
Hebrews 4:12 – For the word of God is living, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.
By way of summary, we see that the religious leaders had taken spiritual or true religious acts (giving to the poor, prayer, fasting) and corrupted them! They continued to perform the outward acts, but their hearts were centered on their own glory, not the glory of God.
Jesus is calling his followers back to true religion – to make sure that our hearts and motivations are pure before God as we perform these actions. In this way, our service will bring glory to God.
Matthew 6:19 – Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal,
What is the historical context of this statement? Back in the times of Jesus, wealthy people accumulated and kept their treasures at home. Treasure could include (but is not limited to) gold, silver or brass in the form of dishes, goblets/glasses, utensils or coins. Richly ornamented articles of clothing and jewelry were especially desirable. Hence, moths, rust and thieves were the principal dangers in losing your fortune.
We’ve all heard the phrase ‘you can’t take it with you’, and this sums the idea up pretty well. Earthly treasure is just that – earthly. Since your life is short (average American lifespan of 75-80 years), you only have that long to enjoy it. After you die, all your earthly treasure will go to someone else, or even worse, the government.
Matthew 6:20-21 – but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Jesus implies in these verses that every man will have his treasure. You can certainly have earthly treasure, and you will need at least some of it in this life for obvious reasons.
But Jesus commands us to lay up eternal or heavenly treasures. Treasures in heaven are durable and lasting; they are eternal. They do not wear out or disintegrate and are not subject to being stolen. They never lose their value.
Here’s the catch: both earthly treasures and heavenly treasures are earned during your time on planet earth. So you get to decide how much of each you will pursue. And whatever you pursue the most, your heart will pine after.
How do we earn heavenly treasures?
I Corinthians 3:11-15 – For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw – each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it because it will be revealed by fire and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.
Now don’t misunderstand the scriptures. You CANNOT earn your way into heaven by good works. There is only one way to be reconciled with God, and that is through the blood of Jesus. But once you are reconciled to God, you can store up treasure in heaven by obedience in performing good works with a sincere heart.
Most of us seek out opportunities for earthly gain then dedicate ourselves them, whether that be a job or a business, etc. Why not keep your eyes and heart open for opportunities to do good works – they are all around you! Train yourself to look for them; ask the Holy Spirit to reveal them to you and soon you will have all you can handle.
Matthew 6:22-23 – The eye is the lamp of the body. So if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!
In the physical realm, the eyes direct the rest of the body as it walks. Imagine that you are on a busy city street and in the distance you see an art museum (or an ice cream parlor if you prefer!) and you decide to walk there. As you walk, your legs, feet and arms move where the eye directs.
Your eye will steer you around puddles or rocks or broken glass. It will assist you in stepping off the curb without falling and stop you when traffic is coming. All the while, the eyes keep the body steadily moving toward the ultimate goal, the art museum. Eventually you arrive there and enjoy the rest of the afternoon, courtesy of your eyes.
Something similar happens in the spiritual realm. Your ‘spiritual eyes’ or your heart, lead your spiritual man around as he walks through life. Your heart can be set on one of two things: either light or darkness. These are mutually exclusive; your heart can only be set on one.
Darkness represents misery, adversity, death and alienation from God. In short, darkness is being in a state of sin.
Light represents joy, peace, life and citizenship in the kingdom of Heaven. In short, light is being in right relationship with God, through the blood of Jesus.
In this teaching, Jesus once again emphasizes an important truth: God is looking at the heart of individuals, and whatever is in your heart will manifest in your life
In this teaching, Jesus once again emphasizes an important truth: God is looking at the heart of individuals, and whatever is in your heart will manifest in your life.
Case in point: the Scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day. They performed good works (fasting, prayer, giving to the poor) and had religious training, yet their hearts were far from God. Their hearts (eyes) were set on darkness. Eventually, they fell into anger, jealousy and bitterness. They wound up lying and plotting in order to crucify Jesus and they honestly thought they were doing the right thing! That is what happens when your heart is focused on darkness.
However, if your heart is set on God, it will manifest in good works that bring glory to God.
Case in point: the apostle Paul. Early on, he too was walking in darkness as he performed empty works. However, he eventually came to be in a right relationship with God. As a result, the focus of his heart was changed. From that moment on, his heart was set on the light. Even harsh circumstances, persecution and imprisonment did not shake his faith. He went on to write the majority of the New Testament and his witness for God reached to the highest echelons of his day! What a magnificent witness for God!
What is your heart focused on?
Matthew 6:24 – No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.
The concept that “no man can serve two masters” was not a new idea. It was a proverb that was not only very common back in the times of Jesus, but it was also universally accepted as being true. Jesus takes this common truth/proverb and applies it to the topic of riches.
When riches hold dominion in the heart, God has lost authority. When God holds dominion in the heart, riches have lost authority. There is only one throne in your heart; consequently, only one master can reign there.
This is not to say that good Christians are poor, or that those who are rich in worldly goods cannot properly serve God. Every Christian is a steward of the blessings that God gives them. Some Christians are well able to be good stewards of vast amounts of worldly goods; to others it would be a snare.
The best thing you can do is to remember that you don’t ‘own’ anything. Rather, you are a steward of all the people, time, money and goods that are under your authority. So put God on the throne of your heart, and steward your blessings according to his laws!
Let me give you some encouragement and some relief: Do you have a difficult time fasting? Or are you one of the multitude of people who cannot fast for medical reasons? If so, I want you to know that fasting is still possible for you! While fasting is traditionally food, nothing in the Bible says that you can’t make a substitution.
I am a dedicated coffee drinker. I once felt that I needed to fast before God for a spiritual breakthrough. I fasted all coffee for 30 days, and God answered my prayers. I have also fasted other things that I greatly enjoyed and God has honored those fasts too.
When choosing a non-food fast, make sure the item or activity is something that will truly be a sacrifice for you. Here are some suggestions: Stop watching TV for a time. Stay off your phone for 24 hours. Commit to read only your Bible for a specific time period. Stop shopping for a time. Whatever you decide, make sure you spend your extra time in prayer and seeking God. He will see into your heart and reward you!
Let me give you some strength: We have seen over and over in the last couple of posts that God is very interested in the state of your heart. Sometimes, we do things out of a desire to do good, but they are misunderstood by others. Sometimes, we do things out of a desire to do good, but they blow up in our faces or people reject them.
When that happens, you may be tempted to quit reaching out to others. But rather than quitting, stand strong! Even though you may feel embarrassment, remember that man is looking on the outward appearance, but God is looking at your heart and its motivations. Just because man rejects your goodness, that doesn’t mean that God does. Continue to stand strong and bring glory to his name!