March 14, 2021 Who Enters the Kingdom? Part 10

Who Enters the Kingdom?

Part Ten

March 14, 2021

 

 

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. 17 But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, 18 that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. [1]

 

We have been considering our Lord’s famous Sermon on the Mount. In order to properly understand our Lord’s sermon we took note of a few things.

 

First, we saw that this sermon is for his disciples. It is not for the general crowd, although they will follow the disciples up the mountain and they will hear what he has to say. Because it is for his disciples, it is for us. Because we are also the Lord’s disciples. This first point is particularly germane to our passage this morning.

 

Second, we saw that the theme of the sermon is entering the kingdom. Our Lord’s great message is how we need to live and think in order to enter the kingdom.

 

Third, we learned that the “kingdom of heaven” is not heaven. Rather, it is the earthly kingdom that the Lord will establish when he returns to the earth.

 

Fourth, we learned that not all genuine Christians will enter the kingdom that is coming. Only those who live by God’s will as revealed in this sermon, will enter. (Those followers of the Lord who fail to live by Christ’s words will be excluded from the kingdom and must wait until the New Heavens and the New Earth to be united with the Lord.)

 

If we keep these four truths in mind, we will better understand this marvelous and glorious sermon of our Lord.

 

The first thing we must see about these words in verses 16 through 18 is that Jesus expected his followers to fast. He did not say, “If you fast…” He said, “When you fast…”

 

The words of our Lord must be the guide and direction of our lives. If we allow our own desires, the faulty patterns of our lives, the habits of our parents, or the traditions of our church to be our guide and direction then we will not achieve the kind of life that is fully pleasing to our Lord. We will, of course, incorporate some good things from our parents and our church. But neither our parents nor our church are faultless. But the words of Jesus are perfect and full of wisdom and life.

 

Read his words! He expected his followers to fast! “When you fast…!

 

Second, we should see that the practice of fasting was a normal practice among God’s people throughout their history. To the extent that we do not fast we are abnormal.

 

David fasted for seven days when his child became ill and sought the Lord on behalf of the child’s life (II Sam. 12:16-23). The Lord did not answer David’s prayer, but we still need to ask, “What was the divine motivation for fasting?” Or, alternatively, “What was David’s empowerment for fasting?” In this passage it is unnecessary to speculate because David plainly tells us. He had a great desire that his child live: “I fasted and wept…that the child may live.” (v. 22b). The desire for life that David possessed was a reflection of God’s desire for life. God had another purpose for the death of David’s son, nevertheless, God’s heart is yet for life.

When Nehemiah was in Babylon and heard of the destruction of the Jerusalem wall along with the trouble his fellow Israelites were in, he fasted: “As soon as I heard these words I sat down and wept and mourned for days, and I continued fasting and praying before the God of heaven.” (Neh. 1:4) During his fast he confessed his own sins and the sins of his people. Repentance is always empowered by God.[2] Nehemiah’s prayers included petitions on behalf of his people in accordance with the Lord’s previous promises in the Torah. Hence, his desire was also motivated by Yahweh’s own word.

The Ninevites, although not in covenant relationship with the Lord, set apart a season of prayer and fasting when the prophet Jonah proclaimed the approaching judgment of God.

 

By the decree of the king and his nobles: Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything. Let them not feed nor drink water, but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and let them call out mightily to God. Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. Who knows? God may turn and relent, and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish. (Jonah 3:7b-9)

 

And God did. God loves repentance and, as was just illustrated, he vitalizes it so that it does not depend on man but on God the Giver.

We see that very many Old Testament saints (and non-saints, e.g., Ahab), when faced with a crisis, applied the discipline of fasting to their prayers. We could consider

 

  • Daniel (Daniel 9:2),
  • Jehoshaphat (II Chron. 20:3),
  • Esther (4:16),
  • Ezra (Ezra 8:21),
  • and Joshua (Josh. 7:6[3]).

 

What is remarkable is that in all of these, as well as our first examples, the blessings of God always attended their fastings. Except for David, all of their petitions were granted. In David’s case, he still received the forgiveness of his sin and was soon thereafter blessed with another child.

 

In the New Testament we see an equal attestation of the practice.

 

  • Jesus himself began his ministry with a prolonged fast (Mat. 4:2).
  • When the apostles set apart candidates for the gospel ministry they did so with fasting (Acts 14:23).
  • Cornelius fasted and received the speaking of the Lord (Acts 10:3)!
  • Anna fasted and saw the Lord (Luke 2:37).
  • When Paul refers to “buffeting his body” he was likely alluding to fasting (I Cor. 9:27).

As with the Old Testament examples, each received a blessing.

 

The early church continued the apostolic tradition. The briefest of samplings are here presented although these could be multiplied many times over. The Didache, one of the earliest Christian documents, has: “You must not let your fasting be at the same time as those of the hypocrites.”[4] And then goes on to prescribe days of fasting as different than those practiced by those in Judaism. Hermas, writing between 88 and 125 AD, receives a vision:

 

Then I see the old woman in a vision of the night saying unto me, ‘Every prayer should be accompanied with humility; fast, therefore, and you will obtain from the Lord what you beg.’ I fasted therefore for one day.[5]

 

This shows the tradition continued, regardless of the authenticity of the vision. Tertullian writes about bodily discipline thus:

…it is the affliction of the flesh…in making libation to the Lord of sordid raiment, together with scantiness of food, content with simple diet and the pure drink of water in conjoining fasts to all this;[6]

 

In speaking of the fast during Lent, John Chrysostom refers to the experiences of the fast as “spiritual waves”:

However, these spiritual waves are more delightful even than the sensible waves of the crops, since the grace of the Holy Spirit, not the blasts of the zephyr, elevated your souls and made them ardent.[7]

 

Diadochus, bishop of Photike, writing in the early fifth century encourages fasting: “…by denying ourselves many edible delights, we keep the ardent aspect of our flesh in check…[8]

 

Man has an inner and outer dimension, but he is one person. The sharp dichotomy or separateness of the spirit and body that we tend to subscribe to in the West is not a biblical idea but has its source in Platonism.[9] The Bible portrays us as unified persons with a spirit and a body that are distinct but not separate. Therefore, the things that we do, whether primarily mental (e.g., prayer, fasting; or, considering more mundane pursuits: math, reading, chess) or primarily physical (e.g., labor, exercise), are best and most effectively done when our whole being is engaged.

 

Before we proceed further in our consideration of fasting, let me offer a good Christian definition:

 

“Fasting is the natural, compelled response to a need or a crisis where we seek the face of God through Christ. In it, we deny ourselves food.”

 

That is the definition of fasting. What is the purpose of fasting?

 

The purpose of fasting is to receive an answer to our prayer. Fasting raises the level of our communication with God. We are telling him, with our whole being, that the thing for which we appeal is of utmost importance.

 

What are the benefits of fasting?

 

There is more than one benefit to fasting. Samuel Miller, professor at Princeton Seminary in the 19th century, lists five benefits.[10] Strangely, he does not include answered prayer! Much could be said on this subject and one benefit that should not remain unsaid is that fasting assists in the mortification of our fleshly passions. However, the main benefit, and the one for which the one who enters fasting is hoping, is that the desire of the heart is answered by God. We must be clear that fasting, even the sincerest sort, does not mean that our petitions will be granted. We saw this in David’s circumstance regarding the life of his child. On the other hand, when we consider the multitude of biblical examples that were cited earlier, it cannot escape our notice that the vast majority of the requests that accompanied fasting were afforded a positive outcome. The question to be asked is: why does fasting result in a positive outcome? Speculation must be avoided and our answer must be grounded in what God has revealed in his word. There is a close connection between fasting and humility. In Psalm 35:13 David writes, “I put on sackcloth and humbled myself with fasting.” (NIV)[11] Likewise, Ezra 8:21: “I proclaimed a fast there, at the river Ahava, that we might humble ourselves before God.” The apocraphal Book of Enoch upholds “the spirits of the humble,” “who have afflicted their bodies,” the latter phrase being a circumlocution for fasting.[12] We know that “God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble.” (Jas. 4:6) And, that if we humble ourselves, God will “lift [us] up in due time.” (I Pet. 5:6) Therein is the key to the grace of God in prayer: humility. Fasting contributes to our humility.

 

We have seen several things this morning:

 

  • Jesus expected his followers to fast.
  • Godly persons throughout the OT fasted.
  • Godly persons in the NT fasted.
  • The early church fasted.
  • Fasting brings mortifies our flesh and brings an answer to our prayers.

 

In view of these truths, it is obvious that those who claim Christ should be fasting. Yet, in the modern era many do not fast. Why is this?

 

I think there are two main reasons for this. Remember our definition for fasting:

 

“Fasting is the natural, compelled response to a need or a crisis where we seek the face of God through Christ. In it, we deny ourselves food.”

 

One reason why Christians do not fast today is because they are content with their spiritual condition, even if their condition is shallow! Listen! It is not a good thing to be satisfied with where we are in our walk with the Lord! We ought to be continually pressing in to have a closer relationship with Him! We must put all remaining vestiges of sin to death in our lives.

 

But I fear that many Christians just plod through life just the way they are. Now, I do believe that one can reach a high level of maturity in the Lord where many aspects of our lives are being lived out as the Lord wills. Such a person will not have to wrestle with their flesh much. But I do not believe there are very many disciples who have reached such a state. Most of us, and I include myself, need to seek higher ground. When we do, fasting will be a part of our seeking.

 

So, one reason why Christians do not fast is because, they are content with their spiritual condition when they ought not to be.

 

The second reason why disciples today do not fast is even less complimentary, but I am afraid it is true. Christians today seldom fast because their god is their belly. Paul addressed this:

 

Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. 18 For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.[13]

 

In writing to the Philippians, Paul asked them to imitate him. We can imitate Paul because his life was fully consecrated to the Lord. Well, Paul fasted! So, we ought to imitate him in that practice. In verse 18 Paul refers to those who he says are enemies to the cross of Christ. The ones he refers to are probably not true disciples, (although they might be; one could give reasons either way) but they were part of the fellowship at Philippi. That is why Paul is warning about them. Even if Paul is referring to false professors, it is true that there are genuine Christians whose god is their belly and who mind earthly things! Let me repeat:

 

There are Christians whose god is their belly and who mind earthly things.

 

What does it mean to say that a person’s god is their belly? To have an idol or a god in one’s life means to put a desire above our desire for God (Col. 3:5). Thus, to have our belly as our god means to put our appetite above the things of the Lord.

 

This is why Christians do not fast today. They are carnal. Their own appetites and pleasures are more important to them than fulfilling God’s will.

 

If your god is your belly, do not expect to inherit the kingdom. Throw away your idols and prepare yourself for the next age!

 

I wish to answer one more question that often arises. That is: How often should I fast? The answer to that will depend upon your need. Again, allow me to remind you of our definition:

 

“Fasting is the natural, compelled response to a need or a crisis where we seek the face of God through Christ. In it, we deny ourselves food.”

 

We ought to fast when we perceive an important need or enter into a crisis. It could be trying to overcome a particular sin in one’s life. Or, it could be making an important decision. Anything that results in our walking more closely with the Lord may be an incentive for fasting. Thus, it will vary from person to person. Minimally, I think once or twice per year might be a good start.

 

When we fast, we ought to fast from all pleasures, not just food. While you are fasting from food stay away from the tv, the internet, and your telephone.  Devote the time of fasting to prayer and meditation on God’s word. It is best to be in seclusion and solitude during a fast.

 

If this is something that you are not accustomed to, if you think that you are not able to spend 24 hours with the Lord, then begin with 12 hours. My first fast was 5 days. So, I think anyone can start with one day.[14]

 

We must not miss the main point of Jesus’ words. It is that when we fast, do not let others know. If someone offers you food, you do not need to tell them that you are fasting. It is between you and the Father. When we devote ourselves to the Lord in secret, the Father will reward us. How will he reward us? Our Lord’s theme has been inheriting the kingdom. We will be rewarded by inheriting the kingdom! And, we will be rewarded in the kingdom!

 

Yet, we also saw that fasting brings about an answer to our prayers (most times). Thus, not only will we be rewarded in the kingdom, but we will experience an answer to our petition now.

 

For many of us, it is time to fast.

 

I leave you with these words: when you fast do not look gloomy.

 

 

 

[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Mt 6:16–18). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

 

[3] Fasting is not specifically mentioned in this passage, but the context indicates that it was surely practiced.

[4] Thomas O'Loughlin, Didache, The: A Window on the Earliest Christians (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2010), 166.

[5] Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, Ante-Nicene Fathers: Volume 2 (Early Church Fathers Series) (Edinburgh: Eerdmans Pub Co, 1988), 16.

[6] Ibid, Volume 3, 715.

[7] Saint John Chrysostom, St. John Chrysostom on Repentance and Almsgiving (Fathers of the Church) (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1997), 69.

[8] Cliff Ermatinger, Following the Footsteps of the Invisible: The Complete Works of Diadochus of Photike (Cistercian Studies - Cistercian Publications) (Cistercian Studies Series) (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2010), 89.

[9] Scot McKnight, Fasting: The Ancient Practices (Ancient Practices Series) (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010), 16.

[10] Samuel Miller, The duty, the benefits, and the proper method of religious fasting (Dallas: Presbyterian Heritage Publications, 1983), 9-15.

[11] NASB: “My clothing was sackcloth; I humbled my soul with fasting.”

[12] R.H. Charles, translator, The Book of Enoch (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2007), (108:7),154.

[13] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Php 3:17–19). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

[14] When I say anyone, I exclude those with blood sugar problems. If you have problems with your blood sugar levels, then check with your physician before beginning a fast.