Some notes on Matthew 6:16-21 (with emphasis on fasting)

Useful resources:

Luther volume 21 “Sermon on the Mount and Magnificat”

Chemnitz – Harmony of the Gospels, volume 1, book 3, part 1

Chemnitz – Examination of the Council of Trent, vol 4.  (150+ pages on fasting!!!)

Gerhard – Schola Pietatis, volume 2

Book of Concord – on good works, also on rewards for good works (especially AP V [III] par 245 [366]), stealing, daily bread, AC XXVI (meats, fasting, etc), Christ’s return (rewards), This of course will properly offer the right view of justification in opposition to those who are confused.

Scaer “Sermon on the Mount” and “Discourses in Matthew”

16 “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.

16 Ὅταν δὲ νηστεύητε, μὴ γίνεσθε ὥσπερ οἱ ὑποκριταὶ σκυθρωποί· ἀφανίζουσιν γὰρ τὰ πρόσωπα αὐτῶν, ὅπως φανῶσιν τοῖς ἀνθρώποις νηστεύοντες· ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν ὅτι ἀπέχουσιν τὸν μισθὸν αὐτῶν.


  • public (many examples in OT) and private (2 Samuel 12:16; Esther 4:15-16).  Here Jesus is addressing the private type, which had been misused to make private things public
  • National (Nineveh) or personal (David; Daniel). 
  • Reflected a sense of mortification before God. 
  • OT fasts anticipated the coming of the Christ.  They also reflected grief or repentance. 
  • NT fasts are the same. 
  • It is tied to worship in the OT, and Scaer argues for it in the NT as well (see Luke 2:37 for Anna; Acts 13:2 also). 
  • Tied to the idea of “afflicting yourself” or “afflicting your soul” which is tied to the Day of Atonement (see Acts 27:9 for Paul tying fasting to the Day of Atonement).  Leviticus 23
  • Fasting is also a confession of being a member of another kingdom.
  • The abuse of fasting to gain renown in front of men was worsened during the Papacy, where fasting was used to merit matters of justification.
  • Luther encouraged personal private fasting but warned against relying on it… “For there may be a secret scoundrel lurking behind it, an enemy of faith or love”
    • Being seen by others (glory for the self)
    • Gaining forgiveness by it (works-righteousness)
    • Even doing good for selfish reasons
    • There is no end to the mess that Old Adam can make out of the good things of God.
    • To fast rightly, one must believe and love correctly.

Chemnitz – fasts are used in Scripture for:

  • Public Exercises of Repentance (Joel 2:12; Jonah 3:7)
  • Great calamities (Matthew 9:14; 2 Samuel 12:16)
  • More ardent and public prayers (Joel 1:12, 2:13; 2 Chronicles 20:3)
  • Establishing churches (Acts 13:3, 12:8)
  • Solemn assemblies of the Church (Joel 1:13, 2:15)
  • Wrestling against the devil (Matthew 17:21)
  • Exercises of piety and works of charity (Isaiah 58:5-7)
  • Chemnitz classifies fasting as a work of adiaphoron of itself (not a good work that is good in itself).  It becomes a good work “when one arranges and relates them to stir, nourish, and promote true godliness and to remove the impediments thereto to the extent that have to do with God’s commands”
  • Jerome “fasting is not a virtue, but a step toward virtue”
  • Important to keep in mind Jesus is not rebuking all fasting, or even all public fasting, but the false fasting of the hypocrites.

This section follows the instruction on prayer and the handing over of the Lord’s Prayer.  In the early church instruction in fasting would be given after instruction in the Lord’s Prayer as well.

This section begins in chapter 6 with an admonition to not being doing pious things in order to be seen by others.  When you give…. When you pray… When you fast…  These three things have a large focus in the early church.  Luther speaks of these three being a summary of all good works – first (alms, offerings) do good unto our neighbor; second concerned about all of our needs and bring these before God; third, to discipline the body.

            Jesus fasts (Mt 4:2) – Man does not live by bread alone.

Jesus and Disciples are not publicly known to fast (Matthew 9:14-17)

Early Church – Worship and fasting were common (Acts 13:2).  This fasting of the church is fulfillment of what Jesus said when He departs (Mt 9:15)

Didache – fasts commanded on 4th and 6th days.  Forbids it on 2nd and 5th days (the hypocrites days) – ties the fast to preparation for the Lord’s Supper as well.

17 But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face,

17 Σὺ δὲ νηστεύων ἄλειψαί σου τὴν κεφαλήν, καὶ τὸ πρόσωπόν σου νίψαι,

            Jesus is going after the misuse of these good things.

  • In order to further kill the sinful flesh, you must remove the temptation to be noticed by others in your fasting.
  • The exterior marks of fasting tend to lead to temptation of wanting attention and seeking the notice of the world around, or other Christians (Chemnitz)

18 that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

18 ὅπως μὴ φανῇς τοῖς ἀνθρώποις νηστεύων, ἀλλὰ τῷ πατρί σου τῷ ἐν τῷ κρυπτῷ· καὶ ὁ πατήρ σου ὁ βλέπων ἐν τῷ κρυπτῷ ἀποδώσει σοι.

  • Chemnitz says the rewards are an increase of:
    • Mortification of the flesh
    • Humbling of the mind
    • Intent
    • Devotion
    • Ardor in repentance

19 “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal,

19 Μὴ θησαυρίζετε ὑμῖν θησαυροὺς ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς, ὅπου σὴς καὶ βρῶσις ἀφανίζει, καὶ ὅπου κλέπται διορύσσουσιν καὶ κλέπτουσιν·

  • This again is not against treasure, but against the abuse of it.
  • Everything of this earthly life decays
  • Insecurity here.  Security in heaven
  • Scaer believes the Treasures in heaven are simply the church (see parables).
    • good works, reconciliation, giving to poor, etc…
    • the true treasures are those who need the help of the church (Scaer, also see the story of St. Lawrence, martyr)
  • James 5 depicts this warning against earthly wealth and encouragement to heavenly treasure
  • Luke 12:32-34
  • Luther brings up the story of Joseph in Egypt for this.  He stored up, but not for himself.  He did this not as a Christian (though he was), but as a prince (with obligations of office to do this work).
  • Christ also here preparing the Church for persecutions to come, enduring the loss of property rather than deny the teachings (Chemnitz)
  • Do not worry about those things that are taken from you (no vengeance seeking) (Chemnitz)
  • Give and loan money without concern for getting it back or other favors (Chemnitz)
  • Our abundance should be used to supply someone else’s lack (Chemnitz)

20 but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.

20 θησαυρίζετε δὲ ὑμῖν θησαυροὺς ἐν οὐρανῷ, ὅπου οὔτε σὴς οὔτε βρῶσις ἀφανίζει, καὶ ὅπου κλέπται οὐ διορύσσουσιν οὐδὲ κλέπτουσιν.

            Chemnitz lays out several distinctions that Christ makes here between earthly and heavenly things:

  1. In earthly matters, the outcome is uncertain and fortune does not correspond to effort.  In godliness we have the sure promise of God about heavenly rewards in eternal life.  Since God cannot lie, the outcome in heavenly treasures is always certain.
  2. In earthly matters, very often a small fortune is related to a great effort and many difficulties.  In heavenly, even a drink of cold water has a great reward.
  3. Earthly matters include things temporary and transitory.  They are corruptible.  Even when those things are kept safe from moth and rust, they cannot make owners truly solidly and consistently happy.  Heavenly treasures are unfailing (Luke 12:33).  They are permanent, keeps owners happy forever. 
  4. Earthly treasures breed anxious concern, even if stored securely.  Heavenly treasures are safe from the perils of this life and thus need not cause worry. 
    1. Chrysostom “Just as those who have moved their dwelling place into another location generally send ahead their treasures to that place; therefore it is foolish to lay up treasures in the place from whence you will soon depart.  Why not send them ahead to that place where you are about to move and intend to stay permanently?”

The art of acquiring heavenly treasures (by Chemnitz)

  1. Romans 5:2 by faith
  2. 1 Tim 4:8 Godliness has reward now and forever
  3. Those who suffer for Christ’s sake, or lose something for Him have a great reward
  4. We are not just giving resources to those in need, but piling up reward in heaven (exchange rate)

God will repay the reward of the righteous at the Resurrection

            Luke 14:14; 2 Timothy 1:18

21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

21 Ὅπου γάρ ἐστιν ὁ θησαυρὸς ὑμῶν, ἐκεῖ ἔσται καὶ ἡ καρδία ὑμῶν.

  • First Commandment, trust, focus, devotion…
  • “By nature, treasure grasps the heart to itself because it is the nature of the heart that it is carried and snatched off to those things which it considers truly or falsely the most dear, precious, and pleasing.”  (Chemnitz)

Some Thoughts

In what way does this teaching relate to the Christian observance of the holy season of Lent?

Does this mindset run our congregations?  How do we teach these things on Ash Wednesday?

Do we teach on reconciling, good works, rewards, helping the poor, etc.?

How does this dynamic of Church/World influence our efforts in the world? What is our focus?

How does the “secret” of the first part play into how we lay up treasures in heaven?  Should the church be so public?

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