Our Lord Jesus Christ’s Rule for Christian Fasting

Matthew 6:16-18

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.

ANDREW FULLER (1754-1815): Fasting is supposed to be the ordinary practice of the godly. Christ does not make light of it, but merely cautions them against its abuses.

LANCELOT ANDREWES (1555-1626): When ye fast.” I say first, this very “when” shows Christ’s liking of it, that there is a time allowed for it, else He would allow it no “when”―no time at all; this “when” is a presupposing, at least, for can any man fancy that Christ would presuppose aught that were not required of us by God?

SAMUEL MILLER (1769-1850): There is no precept in the Word of God which enjoins the observance of a particular number of fast days in each year. It is to be considered as an occasional, or perhaps, more properly speaking, a special duty, which, like seasons of special prayer, ought to be regulated, as to its frequency and manner of observance, by the circumstances in which we are placed.

ARCHIBALD ALEXANDER (1772-1851): Some Christians neglect it altogether, under the false notion that literal fasting is not enjoined, but only penitence and abstaining from sin.

ADAM CLARKE (1760-1832): This is a mistake; there is no such term in the Bible as ‘fasting from sin;’ the very idea is ridiculous and absurd, as if sin were a part of our daily food.

JOHN CALVIN (1509-1564): Let us define what fasting is.

SAMUEL MILLER: Fasting is abstinence from food.

WILLIAM GURNALL (1617-1679): Fasting is a religious abstinence, whereby we forbear the use of all earthly comforts in the time set apart for this duty—a forbearing of food, whether meat or drink, Esther 4:16; Jonah 3:7. From this the whole action is called a fast, which imports not a sober use of food—for this we are at all times bound to observe—but a total abstinence, if necessity of nature through some debility and infirmity doth not require otherwise.

MATTHEW HENRY (1662-1714): It is an act of self-denial, and mortification of the flesh―a means to curb the flesh and the desires of it, and to make us more lively in religious exercises, as fulness of bread is apt to make us drowsy.

HUDSON TAYLOR (1832-1905): Self-denial surely means something far greater than some slight and insignificant lessening of our self-indulgences!

ADAM CLARKE: At present it is but little used; a strong proof that self-denial is wearing out of fashion.

MATTHEW HENRY: Christ does not direct to abate anything of the reality of the fast; He does not say, “take a little meat, or a little drink, or a little cordial;” no, “let the body suffer, but lay aside the show and appearance of it―while thou deniest thyself thy bodily refreshments, do so as that it may not be taken notice of.”

JOHN CALVIN: Fasting is a subordinate aid, which is pleasing to God no farther than as it aids the earnestness and fervency of prayer.

HUDSON TAYLOR: In Shansi I found Chinese Christians who were accustomed to spend time in fasting and prayer. They recognized that this fasting, which so many dislike, requires faith in God, since it makes one feel weak and poorly, is really a Divinely appointed means of grace. Perhaps the greatest hindrance to our work is our own imagined strength; and in fasting we learn what poor, weak creatures we are, dependent on a meal of meat for the little strength which we are so apt to lean upon.

ARCHIBALD ALEXANDER: There are, however, degrees of fasting, both as to the time of abstinence from food, and whether the abstinence be total or partial. The Ninevites, when brought to repentance by the preaching of Jonah, tasted neither bread nor water for three whole days. This was a severe fast. Daniel fasted three full weeks; but this was not a total abstinence, for he says, “I ate no pleasant bread, neither came flesh nor wine in my mouth,” Daniel 10:2,3.

HENRY SCUDDER (died 1659): The Scripture hath not determined how long a continued fast should be kept. We have examples that some have fasted a longer time, as three days, some a shorter, but none less than one day.

SAMUEL MILLER: The frequency with which every individual Christian ought to fast, and the extent to which he ought to carry his abstinence on each occasion, are questions concerning which no definite rule can be laid down. The Word of God prescribes no precise law as to either of these points.

HENRY SCUDDER: Let it be as shall best suit your occasions. As for the Lord’s day, though it cannot be denied but that if the present necessity require, you may fast upon that day―yet because the Sabbath is a day of Christian cheerfulness, and fasting is somewhat of the nature of a free-will offering, I think you will do best to set such a day apart to yourself for fasting, which is more your own, and not the Lord’s day.

MATTHEW HENRY: Christ does not tell us how often we must fast; circumstances vary, and wisdom is profitable therein to direct; the Spirit in the Word has left that to the Spirit in the heart. But take this for a rule: whenever you undertake this duty, study to approve yourselves to God, and not to recommend yourselves to the good opinion of men.

SAMUEL MILLER: Let pagans, Mohammedans, and nominal Christians flatter themselves with the dream that the mere physical observance of abstinence, independent of the state of the soul, will recommend them to God. But let us remember that the character and exercises of the inner man are everything here.

JOHN CALVIN: Fasting is not simply, or by itself, approved by God, but on account of the end designed by it…We must hold by this rule, that the duties of men are to be judged according as they are directed to a proper and lawful end―a holy and lawful fast has three ends in view. We use it either to mortify and subdue the flesh, that it may not be wanton, or to prepare better for prayer and holy meditation; or to give evidence of humbling ourselves before God, when we would confess our guilt before Him.

MATTHEW HENRY: Fasting is the humbling of the soul, Psalm 35:13―that is the inside of the duty; let that therefore be thy principal care, and as to the outside of it, covet not to let it be seen. If we be sincere in our solemn fasts, and humble, and trust God’s omniscience for our witness, and His goodness for our reward, we shall find both that He did see in secret, and will reward openly.


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