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Sermon on the Mount Series: Prayer and Fasting


Black and white photo of folded hands praying.

Every Christian reading this would agree that the teachings of Jesus are difficult to understand. His wisdom, being the God of Creation, is far beyond our own understanding (Isaiah 55:8-9). In this blog series, we will unpack some of the most difficult teachings from Jesus which come from Matthew 5-7 in the illustrious Sermon on the Mount. Each blog will touch on a different teaching from Jesus within His most famous sermon in an effort to help you apply His teachings to your life as a Christian working in the sport industry.


In our seventh blog of the Sermon on the Mount series, we’ll help you better understand and apply Jesus’ teachings on the spiritual disciplines of prayer and fasting in Matthew 6:5-18.


How Not to Pray

We see Jesus teach in a similar way at the beginning of His instruction on prayer as He did in His instructions on giving to the needy. Jesus says in Matthew 6:5, “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.”


It is important to reiterate from our previous blog that the word hypocrite is better translated from the Greek as an actor. So, in this teaching, Jesus is stating that we should not pray as actors because the ultimate goal of an actor is to play a role that is not truly who they are in real life. If we pray to play a role and look a certain way, we completely miss the point of prayer.


Jesus also reveals to us a common human flaw, especially when it comes to prayer. It was common for the hypocrites, as Jesus calls them, to pray in the synagogues and the street corners. In ancient Israel, it was common for Jewish people to pray in the synagogues during times of public prayer or on the street corners during the appointed time of prayer.


On the surface, it would seem that praying out loud during these times wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing. However, the temptation that almost every human has when they speak in public for any reason, including praying in public, is to impress those listening with our words. A prayer recited in public can often shift from a time of pouring out your heart to God to a time of seeking to impress those listening.


This is an incredible danger because the gift of prayer can become a tool that we use to impress others instead of using it for the purpose it was intended. Jesus closes this teaching at the end of verse five by stating that those who pray to be seen will receive their reward in full. The only reward a person who prays to impress will receive is just that- the approval of those listening. That person will not receive a reward from God because their heart condition toward God in prayer is not in the right place.


How TO Pray

Jesus is very clear on how not to pray in verse five. But how, then, should we pray? This is a question that Jesus’ disciples had for Him, as well. In Luke 11:1, the disciples ask Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.”


So, we are in good company when we ask the question of how to pray. Thankfully, Jesus is very clear on how we should pray in Matthew 6:6-15.


“But when you pray, go into your room, close the door, and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. This, then, is how you should pray: ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed by your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.’ For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”


Jesus begins His teaching on how to pray by stating that as opposed to praying in the synagogues and on the street corners, our prayers should be made in private where only God can see. The purpose of this command, of course, is to avoid the temptation to pray with the desire to impress people. Rather, the Lord desires that we pray to Him secretly so that our prayers may be done with a pure intention. In contrast to what Jesus says about those who pray with the intent to impress, those who pray in secret with a pure heart will receive a reward from the Father.


It is important to note that Jesus does not prohibit public prayer. We see evidence of corporate prayer in Acts 13:3 and 4:24. Jesus Himself prays corporately in John 17. The command, however, points more to the condition of our hearts when we pray. Are we desiring to please God with our prayers, or impress those listening to our prayers?


Secondly, Jesus teaches in verses 7-8 that our prayers should not be filled with many words. In the NIV, it says that we shouldn’t babble when we pray. In the KJV, it says that we should not use vain repetitions. This teaching doesn’t necessarily teach that our prayers shouldn’t be long, but rather teaches two key things. The first is that our prayers should not consist of worthless or pointless words. They should have meaning, truth, and purpose behind them. The second is that long prayers do not mean that they are more powerful or that they are more likely to be answered. We see evidence of vain repetitions in 1 Kings 18:26 when the prophets of Baal prayed, “O Baal answer us” for half a day, awaiting a response, and received none.


In contrast to prayers that contain vain repetitions, Jesus instructs us not to babble because God knows what we need even before we ask Him. We do not pray to inform God of our needs but rather commune with the living God and bring every need and worry before His throne. Furthermore, knowing that God already knows all of our needs before we pray reminds us that we do not need to be perfect in our prayers or say exactly the right thing for God to understand and answer. Rather, because He already knows, it frees us up to have confidence that our prayers have a greater purpose than just what we say but why we say it.


The Lord’s Prayer

In Matthew 6:9-13, Jesus teaches specifically how we should pray. Almost every Christian has heard or recited the Lord’s prayer at some point in their life. The Lord’s prayer is a model that Jesus provides us for how we should pray. Like a recipe, Jesus gives us the key ingredients to our prayers within the Lord’s prayer. In His example, He provides us with five different ingredients to incorporate into our prayers.


The first is found in verse 9, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.” Our prayers should always be addressed to God our Father. The proper prayer is addressed to the real and living God. Furthermore, the Jews rarely used the term “Father” to address God because they believed that it was too intimate. But Jesus teaches us to call God Father when we pray. What a wonderful display of the intimate relationship that God desires to have with each and every one of us. Secondly, He teaches us to honor the Lord’s name in our prayers. The word “hallowed” means greatly revered or honored. We should ensure that in our prayers, we are honoring the name of the Most High God.


The second is found in verse 10, “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Our prayers should consist of a desire to see God’s will done on earth as it is in heaven. In heaven, there are no obstacles to God’s will being done. But on earth, there is opposition to God’s will being done. Therefore, as followers of Christ, our prayers should communicate a desire to see God’s will accomplished on earth.


The third ingredient is found in verse 11, “give us this day our daily bread.” Jesus teaches us that a key element for our prayers is asking for our needs. The right prayer will consist of our needs and trusting God to care enough about our big and small needs to provide us with them. It is important to note that Jesus teaches us to pray for needs, not wants. We should be careful not to pray for things out of a heart of greed.


The fourth is found in verse 12, “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” Our debts are our sins. There is a double meaning in this that we should incorporate into our prayers. The first is that we should be asking God for forgiveness daily. Our debts are many, and we know the Lord has forgiven us for those debts in Christ, but we should still be confessing our sins to the Father daily (1 John 1:9). Secondly, we should be consistently forgiving people in our lives who have trespassed against us. Asking God for the strength to forgive is an essential part of our prayer life and a direct command from Him.


The fifth and final ingredient is in verse 13, “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.” Scripture makes it clear that God does not tempt us to do evil (James 1:13). Rather, Jesus is teaching that we should pray that God would not deliver us into a period of testing. If we are to incorporate this into our prayers, we should be asking God to keep us from boasting in our own strength, keep us from trials if that is His will, not to fall into sinful temptations, and never lead others into sinful temptations.


Verses 14-15 seem out of place in Matthew 6. It seems that Jesus quickly transitioned from teaching His disciples how to pray to teach the importance of forgiveness. I believe that the purpose of this transition is to remind His disciples that if our prayers are to carry weight and be heard by God, we must be living a life that honors God. Specifically, in this example, Jesus teaches that we are to be forgiving others when they sin against us. Psalm 66:18 says, “If I had cherished sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened.” If we love sin and do not live a life that seeks to honor God, we can expect that our prayers will not be heard unless they are prayers that consist of repentance for our sin.


How Not to Fast

Fasting was commonplace in Jesus’ day, and the Jewish people were commanded to fast on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:29-31). However, Jesus was clear that the good and healthy practice of fasting had been once again turned into a show of flexing spiritual muscles by the people He labeled as hypocrites.


As mentioned in this blog and our previous Sermon on the Mount blog, the word hypocrites in the Greek language is better translated as actor. So, when Jesus labels people as hypocrites, He is labeling them as spiritual actors who seek to display an image of righteousness and holiness when it is truly nothing more than theater to impress those watching.


In Matthew 6:16, Jesus teaches how not to fast. “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.” Imagine going to the gym to work out, and on your way out of the gym, you dump a gallon of water on yourself to present the image that you worked out harder than you actually did.


This is essentially what the hypocrites would do when they fasted. They would purposefully make themselves look more disfigured and tired so that people would notice that they were fasting. Their goal in this, similar to dumping the gallon of water on yourself, was to have their fasting efforts noticed by others and applauded. Jesus rebukes this selfish pursuit and again states that those who seek the approval of others through their spiritual practices will only receive the award of human applause.


How To Fast

It is important to make the point that this teaching from Jesus on fasting proves that He assumed His disciples would fast. It is safe to say that if Jesus believed His disciples would fast, we also should incorporate the habit of fasting into our walks with Christ. With that said, what does Jesus say about how we should fast, as opposed to how we shouldn’t?


In Matthew 6:17-18, Jesus says, “But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”


In contrast to the hypocrites, Jesus teaches that fasting is an act that should be done in secret. The hypocrites would purposefully disfigure themselves to make sure people knew that they were fasting, but Jesus says that we should purposefully look as if we are not fasting so that our fasting may be between us and God.


In obeying this command from Jesus, we avoid the temptation to use fasting as a flex of our spiritual muscle and use the act of fasting as a way to deepen our relationship with God. The question that some may have is, “What if someone asks why I am not eating?” The main point Jesus is getting at in this teaching is our heart condition. If we are fasting with the goal of looking good for others, then we are missing the point. However, if we are fasting to please God and grow in our relationship with Him, then we are doing it for the right reasons, regardless if people around us find out or not.


Conclusion

In this section of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches about two critical spiritual practices that are expected to be practiced in the life of every disciple. Prayer and fasting should be a part of every Christian’s life, and we should be careful to abide by the teachings of the Lord in this section of Scripture so that our works may be done out of a pure heart and without the stain of selfish pursuits.


 

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