What does Matthew 6:17 mean?
ESV: But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face,
NIV: But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face,
NASB: But as for you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face,
CSB: But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face,
NLT: But when you fast, comb your hair and wash your face.
KJV: But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face;
NKJV: But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face,
Verse Commentary:
Jesus has again called out some of Israel's religious leaders as hypocrites. Many of their religious practices are merely performances to earn the praise of other people (Matthew 6:1–5). This time, the worship practice is fasting: abstaining from something, usually food, in order to focus on worship, prayer, or confession to God. To make sure everyone knows they are fasting, these men would walk around looking "gloomy" and twisting up their faces in some way. Since all they care about is the praise of others, that is all their fasting will get for them (Matthew 6:16).

Jesus is not condemning fasting. It was commanded in the law of Moses (Leviticus 23:27–32). His earliest disciples and followers were primarily observant Jewish people. Christ assumes they will participate in the worshipful practice of fasting. Many Christians continue to practice fasting as part of genuine worship, confession, and making requests of God.

What Christ is condemning is fasting that's insincere. In chapter 5, Jesus gave many examples which showed that inner thoughts and attitudes could be sins, as much as words and actions. Here, he continues to show that even good actions cannot be truly righteous unless they come from pure motives. Jesus said it matters how we worship, however.

So, when a believer chooses to fast, they should do it without announcing it. That doesn't mean no one, at all, can know. It simply means Christians shouldn't advertise their fast. The Pharisees apparently skipped their normal grooming on days when they would fast. They didn't wash their faces or put the normal oil on their heads. They were making a show out of their fast, so other people would see how much they were suffering.

Jesus tells His followers not to put on those artificial signs—to not deliberately call attention to their fasting. Fasting should not be motivated by the praise of other people.
Verse Context:
Matthew 6:16–18 returns to Jesus' previous point about not doing right things for the wrong reasons. Those who practice fasting for the approval of others are hypocrites. They make sure everyone sees their gloomy, unwashed faces on their fasting days. Jesus tells His followers to wash their faces and groom themselves when they fast. There is no reason to advertise a fast to other people. God will know, and He will reward them.
Chapter Summary:
The Sermon on the Mount continues in chapter 6, which is entirely composed of the words of Christ. Jesus teaches that God rewards deeds motivated by sincere devotion to Him, not by approval from other people. He teaches a simple and authentic model prayer. Christ warns against stockpiling money and possessions on earth. Instead, believers should make choices that store up treasure in heaven. A person's top priority can either be God, or money, but cannot be both. Along with that, Jesus says believers should fight against anxiety about daily needs. The heavenly Father knows what we need. All we need to do is pursue His kingdom and righteousness; He will take care of our needs, one day at a time.
Chapter Context:
Chapter 5 began Matthew's telling of the Sermon on the Mount. In that passage, Jesus pointed out that thoughts and attitudes are part of righteousness, just as much as actions. In Chapter 6, He explains how good deeds are only righteous when done out of sincere devotion to God, rather than for other people's approval. He also provides a model for prayer. Jesus explains how excessive worry, such as over money, interferes with faith in God. Knowing that God loves us should lead believers to trust Him, not to be anxious. Chapter 6 is one of the few chapters of the New Testament entirely composed of the words of Christ. In chapter 7 Jesus will introduce additional themes such as appropriate judgment, trust in God, and treatment of others.
Book Summary:
The Gospel of Matthew clearly shows the influence of its writer's background, and his effort to reach a specific audience. Matthew was one of Jesus' twelve disciples, a Jewish man, and a former tax collector. This profession would have required literacy, and Matthew may have transcribed some of Jesus' words as they were spoken. This book is filled with references to the Old Testament, demonstrating to Israel that Jesus is the Promised One. Matthew also includes many references to coins, likely due to his former profession. Matthew records extensive accounts of Jesus' teaching, more than the other three Gospels.
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