We have before us the third of three small paragraphs that together make up a section of the Sermon on the Mount. Each paragraph deals with an illustration of the principle laid down in v. 1 of chapter 6, viz. that we ought not to perform our good works in order to be seen by men. We ought not to be ostentatious. We ought not to be seeking the praise of men when we are ostensibly serving God. The Lord illustrates this principle in regard to giving to the poor, in regard to prayer, and, now, in regard to fasting.
v.16 This third example of religious observance is presented in the same way as the previous two: what the hypocrites do and what their reward will be; what Christ’s disciples ought to do and what their reward will be.
Fasting was a prominent observance of Jewish religious life. There were the appointed fasts of the annual calendar, such as the Day of Atonement, and other fasts as well, both corporate and private. The Pharisees made it a practice to fast twice a week and it was easy for them to think themselves righteous for having done so. Remember in Luke 18:12, the Pharisee in the temple, the Pharisee who looks down on the tax collector, says in prayer to God, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.” With such an attitude, it was easy to slip into a way of fasting that called attention to one’s piety. They fasted twice a week and made sure that people knew it. [France]
It is not entirely certain what “disfigure their faces” means. It could mean the smearing of dust or ashes on one’s face or covering the head, or simply wearing a pained expression, but in either case as an outward demonstration that one is fasting. People who do such things, Jesus said, are in great danger of caring more about appearing to fast than they care about fasting itself. They wanted to make an impression; they made one. That is the only reward they will get.
v.17 The “when you fast” indicates that Jesus fully expects that his followers will also fast. But with a different spirit! And once again, it is not enough just to be determined not to be ostentatious. One must cultivate the contrary state of mind. If one should not show his fasting to others, he should take steps actually to hide it from them. Shower, shave, and get dressed and no one will know that you haven’t eaten.
Now fasting is a biblical practice as we all know. The faithful men and women of the ancient epoch fasted – Moses and Ezra and Nehemiah and Daniel, for example – our Savior fasted and the Apostle Paul fasted. Fasting serves several important purposes. It is a means of expressing penitence and sorrow for sin. When we are conscious of our sins and feel that we must mourn them before God and confess them to him, it is appropriate to fast as a way of expressing our conviction that we cannot go on with life as usual, that we are so distressed that it does not seem right to us to enjoy a meal, to satisfy the cravings of our body while our souls lie in disarray. Here again a religious performance is only the continuation of what a godly person would naturally do and do without thinking if only his spiritual affections, his feelings were running as hot as they ought to run. In an entry in his diary, Robert Murray McCheyne wrote: “The subject of fasting was spoken upon. Felt exceedingly in my own spirit how little we feel real grief on account of sin before God, or we would lose our appetite for food.” [Memoir and Remains, 130] Fasting is often an expression of humiliation for sin in the Bible.
Fasting is also a means of strengthening prayer. When one desires a blessing from God very greatly, he fasts as he prays to indicate that so great is his desire for this blessing that he will not be distracted from pleading with God for it even by the desire of his body for food. God’s reply is more important to him than food. Before departing Babylon for Jerusalem, Ezra proclaimed a fast for all those making the journey, “so that we might humble ourselves before our God and ask him for a safe journey for us and our children.” [Ezra 8:21]
And fasting is also a means of practicing self-denial and so building self-control in a Christian’s character. Like an athlete, Paul says, Christians must discipline their bodies, bring their bodily desires under control, so that they can serve the Lord with their bodies and not be subject to the cravings of the flesh. You gain a mastery over the lusts of your flesh by saying no to those lusts. Saying no to food is a way of learning to say no to other things your body desires. A victory won over a sensual power is already a challenge sounded to our most spiritual sins. “It is this discovery that has given to fasting the place it has held in all the original, resolute, and aggressive ages of the church.” [Whyte, Bunyan Characters, iii, 254]
All of these uses of fasting are as important and necessary in our day as ever they were in ancient days. And all of them are overturned if fasting is turned into a display of piety for which we hope to be rewarded by the admiration of others. That is the Lord’s main point. The Qurān expressly founds the practice of fasting in Islam on the practice of Jews and Christians and orders that all Muslims fast during the month of Ramadan, the month in which the Qurān was revealed. During that month no one may eat or drink between sunrise and sunset. Because Muslims follow a lunar calendar, as the years pass Ramadan can come at any time of the year, even the hottest. When the temperature is well over 100 degrees in the shade, it is no small thing to be deprived of water! Public disorder regularly rises during Ramadan. As tempers shorten public fighting has to be quelled more often. Obviously, that is no way to keep a fast before the Lord, to lose one’s temper and start a fight. That would be as much a nullification of the fast as to observe it so as to be seen by men. Clearly acts of piety, religious observances are a great temptation. They put people on their mettle and very often are ruined because the heart is not right and the deed is not done with a sincere spirit of faith and love. Such is human sin and such our need for forgiveness when the best things we do are so often spoiled by the motives of our hearts, by our self-love, by our base motives, by our insincerity and hypocrisy.
But perhaps we are also rebuked by this exhortation to do our fasting in secret. Perhaps we are thinking that the Lord’s words are lost on us because we never fast. We never need to worry about doing our fasting to be seen by men because we never fast. We don’t need to worry about starting a fight because our tempers are kept in check by our full stomachs. We have something to heed here, for our Lord and Savior is telling us how his disciples must live before him and before one another. Fasting in a certain spirit, with a certain heart and mind, is part of a faithful Christian’s life.
But the Lord’s great point here is not the recommendation of fasting but the emphasis on secrecy in one’s practice of godliness. It is to this that I want to devote some attention today.
There is a very public and corporate character to the Christian life. Let there be no mistake about that. It is very important to realize and then to appreciate how often we are addressed in the Bible as a community, a family, a kingdom. So much of what we are told about the life God wills that we should live has to do with the way we treat one another and the things we are to do together. There is a very open and public side of our faith and life. The Christian’s central moment every week is his or her gathering with the saints for worship. The Bible knows nothing of a Christian life that is practiced apart from the worship, the fellowship, and the ministry of the saints together. Our identity in Christ is usually and emphatically a corporate one, what we are together: the church, the Israel or kingdom of God, the bride of Christ, the body of Christ, the family of God, the assembly, and God’s house or dwelling. All of these describe us together as a company of people united in a common life, a common faith, a common experience of God’s grace, a common salvation, a common hope, and a common ritual of worship, word, and sacrament.
So, let there be no thought whatsoever that in this emphasis on the secret dimension of a Christian’s life, we are minimizing, still less ignoring that corporate dimension which receives such decisive emphasis in the Bible from beginning to end.
However, in this section of the Sermon on the Mount, our Lord is also laying emphasis on the fact, for fact it is, that true faith and the true life of his disciple also takes place in secret, there is a dimension of the Christian’s life and experience that only he or she and God know. There is a sense, in which it has always been true and is now and always shall be in this world that
“Down to gehenna and up to the throne, he travels the fastest
who travels alone.”
Every serious Christian comes face to face with this fact soon enough, that his life, his witness, his worship, his faithfulness in obedience is made or unmade in that secret life he or she lives before God, in what happens in the heart which no one can see but God. There and there alone are the motives for our actions to be found; there and there alone is found the spirit, the quality of soul, the true humility, the living faith, the ardent love for God and Christ or it is there that these things are weak or absent altogether. It is there that spiritual greatness is found, there that it is missing. We are to help our brethren I many ways, but here no brother or sister can go. No parent can live in his child’s heart, no wife in her husband’s. Each must walk with God alone.
I have been reading this past week in George Marsden’s superb new biography of Jonathan Edwards, the great theologian and preacher of colonial New England, of Edwards’ friendship with David Brainerd, the celebrated missionary to the Indians, and, after Brainerd’s death, his editing the young man’s spiritual diaries and publishing them under the title, An Account of the Life of David Brainerd. It was to become an extraordinarily important book. As Athanasius’ Life of St. Antony, written in the fourth century, became a major force in the development of Christian monasticism, convincing many a young Christian man to forsake the world for the life of the monastery, so Edwards’ Life of Brainerd was to become a power in the lives of many young Christians who would forsake all to follow Brainerd into Christian missions. Many of the heroes of the 19th century missionary movement were profoundly influenced by that great book and the story it tells. It is probably not an exaggeration to say that, in the history of the world, there have been few books as influential.
Marsden points out that until the civil war, Edwards’ Life of Brainerd was one of the most popular books in America.
“Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography, the story of the self-made man, eventually became paradigmatic of the American ideal, but at least before the Civil War, Edwards’ Brainerd, the self-renouncing man, offered a major alternative.” 
What caught my attention, however, in Marsden’s account of Edwards’ publication of his Life of Brainerd was that it gained its power not from its account of Brainerd’s missionary work among the American Indians. As an account of missionary enterprise, it is an account of modest success. As a missionary he was no world-beater. Brainerd numbered altogether fewer than a hundred converts. But Edwards’ account of Brainerd’s life, with the man’s dairies woven into that account, centered primarily on the missionary’s internal spiritual life and experience. As Marsden puts it, Edwards’ “uses the externals of his missionary travels only as scaffolding on which the real story is built.”  And it was that account of a godly man’s internal life that so inspired generations of Christians after him: the internal struggle to be godly in one’s aspirations and motivations, to be holy in one’s thoughts as well as in one’s outward behavior, the struggle not to do one’s works of righteousness before men to be seen by them, but to do them before God and God only, to renounce oneself for the sake of God and the world. Christians instinctively know that this is where the issue is joined most profoundly in their lives and so they are drawn to the accounts of men and women who have struggled in secret and prevailed.
And, if you are a reader of Christian autobiography, of journals and diaries, of accounts of Christian lives that open up, at least to some extent, the internal, the secret life of godly men and women, you know how great Christians have been absolutely committed to become men and women of faith and godliness in secret and that it was their triumph in secret that made them the public Christians they became.
In this, as in everything else, Christians are to be imitators of Christ and the best and the godliest among them imitate him most closely.
For none so long on earth as he
Whose way of thought is high and free
Beyond the mist, beyond the cloud,
Beyond the clamour of the crowd,
Moving where Jesus trod,
In the lone walk with God.
For Jesus was the greatest exemplar ever of this kind of holy hypocrisy that he himself urges upon his disciples here. Holy hypocrisy, for in a certain way, it is a hiding away of something behind a pose, an outward appearance. In this case, however, what is being hidden is the humility, the honesty, the spiritual zeal, the hunger and thirst for righteousness, the struggle to subdue one’s pride. One gets up and goes out looking as anyone else, so that no one can see that a battle is being fought in the soul, that God is being served and loved in and with the heart.
And that is just what Jesus did all his public life long. I remember when I first read this remarkable passage in a sermon of Alexander Whyte, a preacher who plumbed depths in the internal life of the Savior that few preachers are capable of sounding. I am going to read it to you, but before I do, I want to say clearly that you misunderstand Whyte’s point and the Lord’s own practice if you take this to mean that you are not to share your problems with other believers or with your pastors or your elders. There is too much in the Bible that teaches us to do just that to learn such a lesson from the Lord’s own conduct. What Whyte is saying is that there is a secret dimension of godly living that must be seen to and seriously if anyone is to live a Christ-like life in this world. Here is Whyte on the Lord’s exhortation to us in our text this morning.
“Our Lord never asks any of his followers to do anything that he does not first do the same thing himself, in order to show them the way to do it. All his life long, our Lord was the Man of Sorrows; but his disciples never discovered that from anything he ever said or did. He was the lamb slain from the foundations of the world; but he did not appear unto men to be that; but only to his father who saw him in secret. All his days his face was set to go up to Jerusalem; but his followers never believed that he was going there; no, not even when he took them and told them in the plainest words possible, what was waiting him there. In his own words, he so anointed his head and so washed his face, that he completely deceived his most discerning disciples all the time he was with them. He fasted and prayed in secret, but all the time his enemies were not without some ground for saying: behold, a man gluttonous and a wine-bibber; a friend of publicans and sinners. John the Baptist came neither eating or drinking; but Jesus Christ came doing both. …In short, he spread sunshine abroad wherever he went; while, all the time, his own heart was broken within him. All his life long he practised to perfection what he here preaches.” [James Fraser of Brea, 57-58]
And that is right and the longer you think about Christ’s life and ministry as it is described to us in the Gospels the more right and the more important that observation becomes. Christ did himself what he tells us here to do. He washed his face and put oil on his head and went among the people and his disciples and they never knew the struggle that was going on inside him, the constant battle with temptation that he was fighting every hour of every day, the communion with his heavenly Father out of which he drew his spiritual strength for all the good works that he did on behalf of so many.
And then, as so often with Alexander Whyte, he draws the knife and sticks it in so that the Word of God will be a sword to us also.
“Now, when our Lord says to us that we are always to anoint our head, and to wash our face, he means us to understand that he would have us always to do as he did himself. That is to say, he would have us to eat and drink, and to go to all our entertainments and amusements and relaxations, with a smile on our countenances, even when there is a sword in our hearts. We are not to let the men around us so much as guess that there is anything the matter with us. We are on no account to expose God’s sanctification-secrets to vulgar eyes. Commonplace men do not know, and they cannot be made to understand, what is involved in the sanctification of a sinful soul. They have not the faintest idea of what it is to have God’s law entering the most sinful human heart. And thus it is that when you must eat and drink with such dull-witted and unimaginative men, you are to anoint your head and to wash your face as if you were as dull-witted and unimaginative as they are. In short, you are here called to a kind of holy hypocrisy…till you make them think that you are anything and everything but what you actually are, in your broken heart and in your hidden life.” 
And why? Why must there be this secretiveness about ourselves and what is going on with us and in us? Because the great work that must be done in us must be done in our hearts between God and ourselves. When others intrude – either because we are wanting them to see our piety or even because we have not been sufficiently careful to maintain secrecy – then we become distracted from a work that requires all our spiritual concentration; we look to and at others when we must be looking up to God alone. Whyte, with his characteristic hyperbole, speaks of hiding ourselves from the dull-witted and so on, I think, only to make his point that what must be done, must be done in secret. It must take place in the undivided concentration of your soul upon God your Savior.
So it was, remember, with our Savior. And who better to teach us the life of faith than the man of faith himself. The last night of his life, though he knew very well what was to come on the morrow, he spent at a feast with his disciples. They had no idea what was happening in his heart – the spiritual fast that was underway within him even as he hosted the feast of Passover for that room full of friends. We only see what was in our Savior’s heart when finally, in the Garden of Gethsemane, deserted even by his closest friends, he found himself alone. And there, finally, we see what must often go on in a believing heart as it struggles to obey, as it hungers and thirsts for righteousness, as it seeks purity of motives before our Heavenly Father who looks upon the heart and knows the thoughts and intentions of the heart, as it seeks to practice faith in Christ within, where it matters most. There in the Christian heart is our Garden of Gethsemane, there is our fighting of the good fight, it is there that we don the full armor of God, and there, first and foremost there that we live by the Spirit and take our stand against the Devil and his schemes. It was there that Christ overcame the world and it is there that we must as well, because it is there that we are face to face with God, there we walk with him, there we trust in his grace and power, there we live by faith in the Son of God who loved us and gave himself for us.
And why not there – for there, in communion with God and Christ and the Holy Spirit – we can be entirely ourselves and can trust ourselves, even with all our sins and failures, to the perfect and infinite sympathy, understanding, and love of God. There, in our secret hearts, we are our truest selves. We see and know what others do not, both bad and good.
Thomas Shepard was a 17th century English Puritan. He was born in England but emigrated to Massachusetts as still a young man. He was a pastor in what is now Cambridge, Massachusetts and was instrumental in the establishment of Harvard College. He tells in his diary that on Nov. 10, 1642 “I kept a private fast for light to see the full glory of the Gospel, and for an infused faith, and for a spirit of prayer, and for the conquest of all my remaining pride of heart.” A private fast for such holy things, in perfect obedience to the Lord’s instruction. And it had to be a private fast, or it would have done no good at all.
Years later, near the end of his life, Thomas Shepard was found lying on his face in his study, asleep in a sweat, with a copy of the New England Gazette crushed in his hands. The reason for this was later discovered to be that the Gazette typically ran, in alternate numbers, a sermon by Shepard and a sermon by one of his ministerial friends. And the friend’s sermon were known to be much more popular than Shepard’s. Shepard was thorough but plodding. He was not eloquent like his friend. And that night in his study Shepard wrestled with God about his pride and how hard it was to see his friend’s sermon so much preferred to his own. That copy of the Gazette that was crushed in Shepard’s fist had a particularly beautiful sermon of his friend printed in it. And as he read that sermon his study became his Garden of Gethsemane. And the struggle he had there with and before the Lord was entirely a secret, as it had to be. [Whyte, Thomas Shepard, 192-193]
If you are inclined to look down on Thomas Shepard for the struggle he had with his pride, for the secret battle he had to wage until he was so exhausted he fell asleep on his own study floor, then, I suspect, there has been too little done in secret in your own case. Begin to pay attention to your inward life, your heart, your thoughts, begin to wage your battle there, to walk with God there, to trust him and please him there, and soon you will think Shepard a great, great man and want to be like him yourself. And you will know yourself what it takes out of a man or woman to be pure in heart!
Our Savior has told us that his faithful disciples, that those who truly want to imitate him and his life, will do a great deal in secret and will be happy to do it in secret because there, in the inner life, is where the Lord is most easily found and where he is best served.