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Forgiveness and Fasting

September 26, 2021 Speaker: Kit Johnson Series: Sermon on the Mount

Topic: Expository Passage: Matthew 6:14–18

 

Introduction

(Read vv. 9–18) How many of you can’t resist a good bargain? You are at Target, and there is an incredible deal. Even if you don’t need the item, you have to buy it because it’s a great deal. One bargain we all love is when they offer 2 for the price of one. It’s awesome because I get twice the product for my money.

Therefore, I’m sure you will all be excited to hear that this morning I’m going to give you 2 sermons for attending just one service. I know you all love Jesus and that makes you excited, right? It’s okay if you are nervous because that sounds like it could take a long time. But I promise to not to go longer than normal.

The reason I’m doing this is because vv. 14–15 and vv. 16–18 have very distinct themes, but neither of them merits a full-length sermon. Therefore, I’d like to cover both sections in two fairly distinct sections of the sermon—2 for the price of one. With that said, let’s jump into sermon #1. The message of vv. 14–15 is…

I.  Forgive the way God forgave you (vv. 14–15).

Remember that last Sunday we looked at the “Lord’s Prayer” in vv. 9–13. Jesus mentions 6 requests that we should regularly bring to the Lord. The 5th request is in v. 12. Last week, we discussed the first part of the request. Jesus says that even after we are saved, we need to confess our sins to the Lord and ask for his forgiveness.

Then Jesus adds a fascinating second line. He says we are only justified to request God’s forgiveness, “as we forgive our debtors.” In other words, it is the height of hypocrisy to plead for God’s mercy, when I refuse to extend mercy myself. But assuming that I am showing mercy, I should ask God for mercy expecting to receive it.

This assumption is so important that Jesus felt the need to emphasize it in vv. 14–15. And don’t miss the fact that this is the only part of the prayer that gets this emphasis. Jesus really wants us to grasp how important it is that we forgive others the way God forgives us.

And remember that this is not the 1st time in the Sermon Jesus has emphasized forgiveness. Notice what Jesus said in 5:7. God’s blessing is on the merciful, and, similar to 6:12, our mercy secures God’s mercy. 5:21–26 also said that we must aggressively reconcile broken relationships. It even teaches that we must pursue reconciliation before worshipping God.

Therefore, Jesus has consistently taught that loving my neighbor by making right my wrongs against him and by forgiving his wrongs against me is a vital aspect of the true righteousness, at the heart of the Sermon.

Jesus will not let us isolate our relationship with God from our relationships with others. No, how I relate to people is fundamental to how I relate to God. But all of this raises 3 important questions that I’d like to answer as we work our way through vv. 14–15.

What’s at stake? For those of us who are committed to salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, vv. 14–15 sound startling. Is Jesus saying that forgiving others merits or earns the forgiveness of God?

We know Jesus cannot mean this because of verses like Ephesians 1:7, “In Him (Jesus) we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace.” God is clear that his forgiveness is not rooted in my works; no, it is through the substitutionary death of Jesus. Christ bore my debt so that God could be both just and gracious.

Therefore, I want to emphasize that salvation is solely through Christ, not because of anything worthy in me. If you are trusting your good works or your neighborly love to get you to heaven, please understand that you can only be saved by trusting in Christ’s finished work on the cross. It is only through Christ that you can be adopted into God’s family.

But if this is so, what is at stake in vv. 14–15? The answer is intimate fellowship with God. In other words, what is at stake is not my salvation or standing as his child; instead, what is at stake is the relational nearness of God. Jesus is saying that you cannot expect God to forgive your sins and draw near to you when you refuse to forgive others and draw near to them.

You can say all you want, “God, I love you and I want to be close you to you.” But Jesus says, “If you refuse to forgive, we have a problem, and it won’t be resolved until you deal with your bitterness.”

So, if you came into church today looking swell and expecting to be near to God as you worship, but you are also harboring bitterness and resentment, God’s not near to you. You are being just as hypocritical as the actors Jesus condemns in vv. 2, 5, 16.

That may sound strong and shocking, but Jesus couldn’t be clearer, “If you do not…” You need to feel the urgency of this warning and do your part to seek reconciliation. The 2nd question we must answer is…

Why is forgiveness essential? In other words, “Why does Jesus care so much about this? Doesn’t he understand how horribly my boss, my family, or my neighbors have treated me? What about my rights and my happiness?” Isn’t that how most people think? We are perfectly comfortable with bitterness and refusing to forgive certain sins.

But not Jesus. The reason why forgiveness is essential is that forgiveness is at the heart of the gospel and at the heart of gospel transformation. Think about what Jesus did for you on the cross. “And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses, having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross” (Col 2:13–14). Jesus removed an infinite debt when he died on the cross for your sin. The forgiveness he secured is my life and my only hope.

In light of this, Ephesians 4:32 commands us, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you.” God couldn’t be clearer. I am responsible to forgive the same way I have been forgiven. So, when I am struggling to forgive, I must ask, “How did Christ forgive me? How can I forgive like Christ?” Then by the grace of God, make a choice to reflect the grace you have received.

I recognize that’s often easier said than done. Some of you have endured incredible hurt that is hard to let go. But God expects you to work to that end, and his grace is sufficient to get you there.

The first step is to spend less time focusing on how others have sinned against you and more time focusing on how you have sinned against God. When you appreciate the infinite debt God forgave you, how can you refuse to forgive what a comparably very minor offense?

Forgiveness matters to God. It is at the heart of the gospel. Therefore, it is at the heart of gospel transformation. 3rd question is…

How do we forgive? Going back to Ephesians 4:32, the answer is the same way God forgave us. Jesus gave us a great illustration of this in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. The prodigal’s father loved his son dearly. Therefore, when his son repented, love overwhelmed the hurt he had endured. His response was pure joy and gladness. It’s incredible to think that God has that kind of joy over our repentance. His mercy and kindness are truly amazing.

And Ephesians 4:32 says I must pursue the same love, kindness, and compassion so that I am just as eager to forgive.

Now, I want to emphasize that word repentance. Biblical forgiveness does not dismiss holiness. We don’t love people by excusing or enabling sin. No, Christ-like love demands repentance. Sometimes, we are too quick to say, “It’s okay; it’s no big deal.” We need to slow down and make sure that people appreciate the gravity of their sin. Love is more concerned about helping people change, than about sweeping sin under the rug.

But when people repent like the prodigal did, we should rejoice just as his father did. We let go of hurt, bitterness, and resentment. And we welcome that person into fellowship.

This doesn’t mean there aren’t consequences for sin or that we immediately restore all trust. God often calls us to endure the consequences of our sin, so that’s not contrary to forgiveness.

But as someone who has been forgiven an infinite debt, I must always remember that I have no right to withhold forgiveness.

And even if the person never repents, I have no right to hold onto bitterness and wrath. They are a denial of the grace of the gospel, and bitterness and wrath will destroy you like few other things.

I know that some of you have endured some terrible pain at the hands of sinners. You may never fully escape the consequences of their sin. But don’t let Satan do further damage by harboring bitterness and resentment. BTW, if the slightest scratch makes that scab bleed, you’re still bitter. Bitterness is a terrible cancer, so let go of it. Focus your attention on God’s marvelous grace, and by his grace forgive the way God forgave you. Now let’s move on to sermon #2. The message of vv. 16–18 is…

II.  Fast for God, not for men (vv. 16–18).

Hopefully, you immediately recognize the similarities between these verses and what Jesus already said about giving (vv. 1–4) and prayer (vv. 5–8). Jesus once again condemns the hypocrites for using a foundational aspect of Jewish piety, not as a means of honoring God but as a means of promoting self. But of these 3 acts of piety, fasting is probably the least familiar to us. So, let’s talk first about…

The Significance of Fasting: I’ll just tell you up front, that I have never excelled at fasting. I love food, and I’m always looking forward to the next meal. I sometimes hear people talk about forgetting to eat, and I have no idea what that’s like. I never forget to eat. So, I am not a model of fasting.

But fasting was a very important part of Jewish life in Jesus’ day. Now, it’s true that the Law only required one fast a year, that was on the Day of Atonement. However, the OT gives plenty of examples of people fasting for various reasons. By Jesus’ time, it was very important. In fact, the Pharisees fasted every Monday and Thursday.

Jesus does not say that we need to fast that often, but don’t miss the fact that v. 16 assumes that Jesus’ disciples will fast. It doesn’t say “if you fast”; it says, “when you fast.” Clearly, Jesus sees it as important.

However, there tends to be a lot of confusion about the purpose of fasting, so notice that Jesus tells us more about the purpose of fasting in Matthew 9:14–17. You can see that John’s disciples confronted Jesus because his disciples did not fast like they did. Jesus replies, interestingly, that there is no reason for them to fast while Jesus is with them. But when he is gone, they will fast. The Book of Acts affirms confirms that the early church prioritized fasting.

What Jesus says here is very instructive for understanding of the purpose for fasting. Specifically, Jesus says there is reason to fast while he is present. That indicates that fasting fundamentally expresses a longing for God’s presence and grace. Not eating or not taking part in some other pleasure, is intended to declare that I desire God’s presence more than my necessary food.

It’s also a way to sharpen my conviction, as Jesus said after his 40-day fast, that “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Matt 4:4). When life is comfortable, it’s easy to believe I have all I need, but fasting is a way to remember my desperate need of God.

As such, while fasting typically involves abstaining from food, 1 Corinthians 7:5 refers to married couples taking a fast from sex to give themselves to prayer. You could fast from various other pleasures as well. Whatever it is, the point is to sharpen your dependence on God and to declare your need for his presence and grace.

It’s something that I need to do more often, and you may too. We enjoy so much abundance. And even when we have health needs or even spiritual needs, we just naturally look to modern technology and modern methods. We are so skilled at creating success that oftentimes we leave no room for God or for needing God.

Therefore, fasting can be a great reminder of how weak I am and how desperately I need God. It’s interesting that Acts mentions two instances of fasting (Acts 13:2–3; 14:23), and both fasts were accompanied by major decisions. It was a way to declare my need for wisdom and direction that is outside myself.

Therefore, when you are facing a great need or a big decision, don’t just scheme and work to fix it. Give yourself to fasting and prayer. Let’s take advantage of this discipline. In sum fasting can be a great aid to godliness, but v. 16 addresses…

The Abuse of Fasting: Once again, Jesus goes after the hypocrites for turning this wonderful spiritual discipline into theatrical production all about building their image. Just as they did with giving and prayer, they had to make sure everyone noticed just how spiritual they were.

But since fasting is about not doing something rather than doing something, they had to get a little more creative to put on a show. So, Jesus says, “They disfigure their faces…” This could be as simple as just limping around and looking so miserable.

Have you ever seen a child do this over the slightest injury? They limp around like they have a compound fracture, when all they did was scrape a knee. Similarly, you can imagine these hypocrites making sure everyone saw how miserable they were as they sought the Lord through fasting.

Probably some of them went well beyond this. They wouldn’t bathe or shave, and they would cover their faces with ash. They looked and smelled like little boys that have been playing outside!

I don’t know about you, but I’m not really a fan of that smell. But apparently, some of the Jews found it impressive, if it meant that you were fasting. Therefore, these hypocrites would go to great lengths to turn fasting into a religious show.

I doubt that everyone was impressed, but apparently some were and praised them for their religious devotion. Jesus says, “Assuredly…”

As I’ve said with the previous paragraphs, that’s a big deal to a lot of people. We all want respect and praise because the pride of life is foundational to our flesh. Just think, for example, about how many thousands of dollars some people spend on their wardrobe so that they can catch some eyes and get a few oohs and awes.

And yet when you compare the praise of men with the blessings in the Beatitudes, worldly praise doesn’t look that impressive. God’s praise and his eternal reward are worth infinitely more. Therefore, once again, v. 16 is intended to close with an empty ring.

So, Christian, it may be tempting to let image and appearances drive your Christianity and your participation the church. So, let me remind you that, yes, we’ve got some great people here, but don’t sacrifice the praise of God for our praise. We can’t compare and neither can your family, or anyone else. Minister for God, not for men. Jesus drives this home in vv. 17–18, which I’m going to call…

The Heart of Fasting: In these 2 verses, Jesus urges those who fast to take the opposite approach of the hypocrites. Rather than taking steps to actively draw attention to themselves, Jesus says to actively take steps to eliminate attention.

“Anoint your head and wash your face.” These were normal practices of Jewish hygiene. They used oil to deal with dry skin or as perfume, and washing your face is pretty normal when you work and live in the dust.

So, Jesus says that when you are going to fast work to present yourself as you normally would. Why? “So that you…” Rather than showcasing your fast, you should hide it.

Now, Jesus does not mean that no one anywhere can ever know about a fast. Acts 13 describes the leaders at Antioch fasting together. Ezra and Esther both declared public fasts when Israel was facing crisis. So, it’s okay for a church or a group of believers to fast together and for people to know that you are doing so.

The issue is my motive for the fast. Jesus knows that all of us are tempted with the pride of life; therefore, he is simply saying that we need to take active and intentional steps to counteract it. Help yourself keep the focus on the Lord by intentionally keeping the focus off yourself.

I’m really thankful for the servants God has given us who do this so well. There are people here all week cutting bushes, pulling weeds, cleaning, and doing set up, but very few people know what they do. There are others who quietly serve lots of people by making meals, watching kids, sending notes of encouragement, and praying for the people of the church. They don’t demand attention; they just see opportunities and quietly take them.

That’s godliness and that kind of service is the engine of the church. It makes this place go.

And even if no one notices, and those servants never receive any earthly reward, Jesus promises that our Heavenly Father sees. He sees every act of love, he sees every sacrifice, and he sees every quiet prayer. And Jesus promises that he will reward you. Of course, his reward is worth far more than any earthly praise.

Conclusion

This morning we have looked at 2 fairly distinct sections of Scripture. At first glance, there’s not much of a connection between forgiveness and fasting. But as with the entire Sermon on the Mount, these sections are bound together by the true righteousness that Jesus desires for his disciples. Jesus isn’t interested in a hypocritical show; he is interested in true righteousness that transforms us from the inside out.

So, by God’s grace, make that your goal this week. Call someone up this week, and make peace, because God forgave you. Or commit to spending a day earnestly seeking the Lord through fasting and prayer. Manifest the true righteousness of our Savior.

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