Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.
Matthew 6:16-18, NKJV
Did you ever wonder who the hypocrites were that Jesus was talking about or why he called them hypocrites? In most cases, he was talking about the Pharisees. There were regular fast times (Leviticus 16:29-31). However, the Pharisees added two fast days God did not command. Monday and Thursday were designated to allow for public display and piety. Luke 18:9-14 even mentions these two days of fasting. The Pharisees regarded the practice of fasting as praiseworthy and appeared in the synagogues with sad looks on their faces and wearing mourning garb. They did this to show the people that their “righteousness” and piety were far superior to everyone else.
Jesus said in response to the Pharisees' actions to "anoint your head and wash your face so that you do not appear to men to be fasting." Fasting, therefore, is a private issue between you and God. The only fast God commanded as a public display was once a year on the Day of Atonement. People did fast privately, but it was between them and God. Such as when Jesus fasted when he was in the desert for 40 days and 40 nights (Matthew 4:1-11).
So why fast at all? What was the point of it? Did God answer the prayers of those who fasted more quickly than those who did not? Was it some kind of "secret" that got God's attention quicker? For some people, yes, it was. Just listen to God's words about those who fasted to gain something from Him.
"Cry aloud, spare not;
When it gets right down to it, God sees the heart of everyone. He knows our motives before we even open our mouths or set out to do anything. The Israelites let God know that they were a nation that obeyed His laws and took delight in approaching Him. They reminded God of "how great they were" and, in the next breath, complained that they didn't get what they wanted after they "afflicted their souls" (fasted). Truly their hearts were not in the right place. They were like the Pharisee whom Jesus spoke of in Luke 18:9-14, who bragged to God about how great his deeds were and then expected God to honour him for them.
But what is true fasting all about? This is what God says fasting should look like:
“Is this not the fast that I have chosen:
Jesus carried this teaching through to his disciples. He wanted to see a change of character in those who followed him. He taught the need for purity and simplicity of motive in our fasting. Yes, there were times when fasting was needed (Mark 9:25-29), and yes, private fasts were observed by Jesus (Matthew 4:1-11) and his disciples. Paul fasted to seek God's guidance (Acts 14:23). But true fasting is about putting the needs of others before your own: to feed the hungry, house the poor, clothe the naked, and help those less fortunate. If you can only afford one meal, deny yourself and give that meal to a homeless person. That is true fasting.
Denying oneself food for a day to elevate yourself spiritually has no value. The value comes when you genuinely deny yourself for the sake of another, not so that you can be edified but so that someone else can be. That's true fasting, and it aligns with what Jesus taught us about denying ourselves (Luke 9:23) and loving others (John 13:34).