We’re working our way through the Sermon on the Mount as part of our series of sermons on Matthew’s gospel. The Lord explained near the beginning of the Sermon that he hadn’t come to abolish the Law and the Prophets. So, he hadn’t come to do away with the Old Testament and to introduce a completely new religion and a completely new way of living. He was not a revolutionary who had come to overthrow society. He hadn’t come to abolish what had gone before, but to fulfil what had gone before. And one of the ways he fulfilled what had gone before was by explaining what the law really requires. God is not looking for outward conformity to the law only, but inward conformity as well. He not looking for outward obedience only, but inward obedience as well. Obedience of mind and heart.
And that’s why the Lord went on to say that the righteousness of the members of his kingdom needs to surpass the righteousness of the Pharisees and teachers of the law. Their obedience was outward only, whereas our obedience should be from the heart. The Lord wants not only our actions to be righteous, but also our thoughts and motives and desires and inclinations. And this is only possible with the help of the Lord, who gives us a new heart to love him and who gives us his Spirit to obey him. He gives us his Spirit to renew our hearts and minds and to make us more and more willing and able to do God’s will here on earth.
We spent a couple of weeks on verses 21 to 48 of chapter 5 where the Lord provides us with six examples or illustrations to help us to understand the deeper obedience which God requires from the members of his kingdom. For each of the six examples, he began by quoting what the rabbis had been saying about God’s law. And then the Lord went on to give the proper interpretation of God’s law.
Today we come to verses 1 to 18 of chapter 6. The passage begins in verse 1 with a principle: ‘Be careful not to do your acts of righteousness before men to be seen by them.’ And then, in the following verses, the Lord refers to three different acts of righteousness: giving to the needy in verses 2 to 4; prayer in verses 5 to 15; and fasting in verses 16 to 18.
Verses 2 to 4 and verses 5 and 6 and verses 16 to 18 share the same pattern. Firstly, the Lord refers to the act of righteousness: giving to the needy in verse 2; prayer in verse 5; and fasting in verse 16. Secondly, the Lord prohibits something in relation to each of these three activities. So, when you give to the needy, don’t announce it with trumpets to be honoured by men. And when you pray, don’t be like the hypocrites who love to pray standing in the synagogues and streets corners to be seen by men. And when you fast, don’t look sombre as the hypocrites do to show people that they’re fasting. Thirdly, the Lord teaches us what we should do instead. So, give in secret. Pray in secret. Fast in secret. Verses 7 to 15 are also about prayer, but those verses don’t share the same pattern as the three other parts. So, we’ll leave verses 7 to 15 to the next time and deal this evening with the three parts which share the same pattern.
Let’s turn to verse 1 where the Lord states the principle: ‘Be careful not to do your acts of righteousness before men to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.’ Acts of righteousness are things we do to serve God. But, of course, since we’re sinners, we can sometimes do these good things for the wrong reason. And so, the Lord Jesus warns us to take care not to do these things ‘before men to be seen by them’. Now, this doesn’t mean we’re to do our good deeds with absolute secrecy. It’s not as if we must disguise ourselves whenever we make a donation or pray in public so that no one can identify who we are. But we’re to be careful about what motivates us when we do these things. Are we doing these things to be seen by other people? Are we doing these things so that they will think well of us? Are we trying to enhance our reputation? Or are we doing these things because of our love for the Lord?
Think about what the Lord said about being light in the world. He said that we should let our light shine before men that they may see our good deeds and glorify God. So, our good deeds are like lights because they cannot be hidden and people will inevitably see the things we do. However, what we should be aiming for when we do good is for people to praise God and not us. So, what we have to ask ourselves is this: When we perform acts of righteousness and when we do good, are we doing it for ourselves or for God?
And the Lord adds that if we do these acts of righteousness for ourselves, then we should not expect a reward from our Father in heaven. So, our Heavenly Father not only sees what we do, but he knows why we do it. And whereas our fellow human beings may be impressed by what we have done, our Heavenly Father will withhold his rewards from those who have acted out of self-interest.
This also means that those who do their acts of righteousness out of love for God can expect a reward from our Heavenly Father. Just as human parents will encourage their children to greater obedience with the promise of a reward, so our Heavenly Father encourages us to greater obedience with the promise of a reward. And just as human parents are under no obligation to make such promises to their children, so the Lord is under no obligation to us. But because he is gracious and kind and good, he promises to reward us for our faithful service.
Verses 2 to 4
Having laid down the principle, the Lord goes on to talk about giving to the needy as an example of an act of righteousness which can be done out of self-interest or which can be done out of love for God. The Lord says in verse 2, ‘When you give to the needy….’ Perhaps I should pause there and mention that the Lord assumes his people will give to the needy. He expects us to be generous with what he has given us. However, when we do so, we should not announce it with trumpets.
Did people really announce it with trumpets? Perhaps they did, but perhaps the Lord is using hyperbole. That is, perhaps he’s deliberately exaggerating to make the point that people like to draw attention to themselves whenever they do something good. They want to be seen and they want to be honoured by others. Think of those over-sized cheques which you can get so that everyone can see how much money is being given. And think of the way the press are there to catch the moment when the cheque is handed over.
The Lord refers to the hypocrites. We often think of a hypocrite as a person whose actions do not match their words. So, they say one thing, but do the opposite. They say we must be generous, but they themselves are mean and stingy. However, the Lord means something else when he refers to hypocrites. He’s referring to people who do what is right. In this case, they are being generous. They are giving to the needy. They’re doing the right thing. But what makes them hypocritical is that they’re doing this good thing for the wrong reason. Instead of doing it out of love for the Lord, they’re doing it out of love for themselves. They want people to regard them as being generous.
‘I tell you’, the Lord adds, ‘they have received their reward.’ What reward have they received? They were seen. That’s their reward. They wanted to be seen and honoured by other people. And that’s what they got. But that’s all they will get, because God will not reward them.
And so, instead of giving to the needy in that way, how should we give to the needy? Verse 3: when you give, don’t let your left hand know what you right hand it doing. The Lord is using an expression which means we should do it secretly. This doesn’t mean our giving should always be anonymous and we should disguise ourselves when making a donation. He means we should do it in such a way that we don’t draw attention to ourselves. When we give, our giving is not motivated by a desire to be seen by others, but by a desire to serve our Heavenly Father and to do his will. And our Heavenly Father will see it and will reward us appropriately.
Verses 5 and 6
In verses 5 and 6 the Lord refers to prayer. Again he assumes that his people will pray. But when we pray, don’t be like the hypocrites. Again, a hypocrite is not someone who says one thing, but does the opposite. A hypocrite is someone who does the right thing, but for the wrong reason. The hypocrites pray, but when they pray, they stand in the synagogue and the street corner to be seen by others. They want people to see them and to be impressed by their prayerfulness.
And they too have received their reward. What was their reward? They were seen. That’s what they wanted and that’s what they got. But that’s all they’ll get.
How should we pray then? When you pray, go into your room and close the door so that no one will see you and pray to your Father who is unseen. This doesn’t mean we’re doing something wrong this evening by praying in public. It doesn’t mean we should stay away from the prayer meeting and it doesn’t mean I shouldn’t lead the congregation in prayer on Sundays. It doesn’t mean we must disguise ourselves before we pray. The Lord is once again exaggerating to make the point that our motivation for praying is important. Why are we praying in public? Because we want people to see us and to be impressed with us? Or because we want to serve our Heavenly Father and one way to serve him is to pray to him? When we pray for the right reason, our Heavenly Father will see it and he will reward us appropriately.
Verses 16 to 18
Let’s jump down to verses 16 to 18 which are about fasting. Once again, the Lord assumes that his people will fast.
Fasting these days is often regarded as a spiritual discipline which believers perform on their own to help with their personal sanctification. However, in the Bible the emphasis is on humbling ourselves before the Lord and confessing our sins and seeking God’s help. For instance, in 1 Samuel 7 the Israelites fasted and confessed their sins before the Lord after a period of rebellion. We find something similar in Ezra 8. Nehemiah fasted in Nehemiah 1 before asking the Lord to help him when he went before the king. Fasting in the Bible is normally about humbling ourselves before God and seeking his help.
But when you fast, the Lord Jesus says, don’t look sombre as the hypocrites do. So, the hypocrites are doing the right thing, but for the wrong reason. They want people to notice them and to know that they’re fasting. Well, they have received their reward. What they wanted was for people to notice them, and that’s what they’ve got. But that’s all they can expect from it.
Instead of fasting like them, how should we fast? The Lord tells us: Put oil on your head and wash your face. Putting oil on their head and washing their face was what people did in those days to get themselves ready for the day. If the Lord were saying this today, he might say we’re to brush our teeth and comb our hair. In other words, do what you normally do so that you’re not drawing attention to the fact that you’re fasting. Don’t make it obvious that you’re fasting. Other people might not know what you’re doing, but your Heavenly Father will see it. And he will reward you appropriately.
And so, our righteousness must surpass the righteousness of the hypocrites. They may do the right thing. They might give to the needy. And they might pray. And they might fast. But they do these good things for the wrong reason. Instead of doing it because they love the Lord, they do it because they love themselves and they want people to be impressed with them. They do these acts of righteousness for themselves.
And our righteousness must surpass theirs. And that means we’re not to do our acts of righteousness for ourselves. We’re to do them for the Lord. And the Lord is the one who helps us to live like that, because he gives us his Spirit to renew us inwardly so that we’re able to live our lives, not for ourselves, but for God. He helps us to put him first in our actions and thoughts. He renews us inwardly so that we’re motivated by a love for him and not by a love for self. And so, we must live our lives in constant dependence on the Lord, because we must depend on him for forgiveness for when we fall short. And we must depend on him for his Spirit to transform our hearts and minds more and more.