Today we enter into the next segment of our study on the Sermon on the Mount. In the last section which we read from Matthew 5:17-48 we read about Jesus correcting the false teachings concerning the Law of Moses. The Pharisees and teachers of the law had lowered God’s high and holy law so that they could, as they believed, attain righteousness. Jesus restores the message of the Law to show them that they have failed before God’s law and are in need of the Savior.
Before we look at the details of the message I would like for us to look at the form of the sermon that is given to us. You will notice that there are three aspects of practicing righteousness that Jesus addresses in the first 18 verses of Matthew 6. Jesus addresses giving (6:1-4), praying (6:5-6), and fasting (6:16-18). You will notice the significant similarities of these three sections. In each section Jesus begins with a warning of what not to do (6:1-2, 5, 16) and then continues to teach what to do (6:3-4, 6, 17-18). Notice resting in between these three aspects of practicing righteousness is what we call the model prayer or the Lord’s prayer. The model prayer is bookended by warnings about practicing good works. We will look at the significance of this location later in the lesson. For now, I just want us to see the structure of this section, seeing the similarities in how Jesus addresses our acts of righteousness so that we can learn from the repetition Jesus gives.
The Warning (6:1-2; 6:5; 6:16)
Practicing righteousness and doing good works is the life of the Christian. Remember back in Matthew 5:16 Jesus said, “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” We are to do good works so that people will see what you have done and glorify God. But there is a danger in this and the Pharisees and people of the day had fallen into a particular sin. Therefore, in each of the three sections Jesus begins with a warning. He teaches his disciples what they must not do when they are doing good works before God.
The warning is that we would not do these good works with the motivation that other people see us. Listen to this in verse 1. “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them.” In verse 5 they are praying in the synagogues and street corners to be seen by others. In verse 16 they are disfiguring their faces when they fast to be seen by others. Do not desire to be seen by others. Do not let your motivation for doing good to be that you want others to see or know what you are doing. What a warning for how subtle our pride is! There is no greater rival for the love of God that we owe him than our own human ego.
Notice what Jesus says about this. If our motivation is for self when we do good works, then we have already received our reward (6:2) and we will have no reward from our Father (6:1). We must hear this and let it sink into our hearts. First, the praise of other people is all the reward you will receive. How trivial! How useless! How temporary! You were able to get people to honor your for what you did. What an exchange of our eternal reward for a temporary moment of praise! What foolishness! Second, doing good can be of no worth to God when we are doing it to honor ourselves rather than God. Our hearts must be pure and God must be the object of everything. Proper giving, prayer, and fasting requires a proper heart that is not motivated by self.
How easy it is to have other people know what we are doing! How hard it is to not desire to draw attention to ourselves. Look at verse 2. Jesus says to not blow a horn every time you do something good. Do not advertise. Do not make a name for yourself. Do not do things in a way so that you will certainly receive praise for what you have done. Have you ever thought about why donors need to be given recognition? Why do we have to let people know about these kinds of donations? Why does their name go on the building or in some publication or what have you? The reason is because fewer donations would come in otherwise. People always do things for personal praise and honor. They are seeking glory. Humans are glory seekers. Humans are glory thieves, stealing the honor that rightly belongs to God. This is a sin of the heart and we must fight against it. You will notice that in each of the three sections Jesus calls such people hypocrites. They do good works for the show and not for the love of God. When you are being fake, then you have your reward here and have lost your reward with God. Please consider what Jesus declared. Jesus says that a person can given every appearance of righteousness and not be righteous at all! They can play the part and look the role but be nowhere near righteous. They are hypocrites. They are fooling other people. We must not be surprised by this. People are going to claim to be Christians and seem to be Christians before our eyes, but not be Christians in their hearts or in secret. Jesus had to deal with the fake people in his day and nothing has changed today.
How To Practice Righteousness (6:3-4; 6:6; 6:17-18)
The principle of how to live before God is laid out for us in verse 3. “Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” When you act for God, forget about yourself and forget about others. Think about God only. Keep what you are doing between yourself and God. Do not even announce what you are doing to your own heart. Do not make a big deal about what you are doing in your own mind. Do not seek your own glory in your acts of kindness and righteousness. What a picture to say that we would be so secretive about what we are doing that the left hand would not know what the right hand is doing. You will notice this repetition throughout these three paragraphs. In verse 6 he says when you pray to go into your room and shut the door and not stand on the street corner or stand in the synagogue. When fasting Jesus says to wash your face and anoint your head so that you do not reveal what you are doing for the Lord.
What a danger we face! How we will try to change our appearance so that people will ask what is going on with us! We may think that we will not come out and tell people what we are doing for the Lord, but if they ask we will speak about it. So we act in certain ways and make ourselves look certain ways so that people will ask, giving us the opportunity to talk about what we did. This is the same sin. Do not think about yourself or others when you are doing your good deeds. Just do what you are called to do and do not think about what others think, if others know, or if others will commend you for what you have done.
Now consider our proper motivation. Jesus three times says that your Father sees in secret and he will reward you (6:4; 6:6; 6:18). God sees what you are doing. We have spoken before about how God seeing in secret is a blessing or a curse depending on what you are doing. If you are a hypocrite, then the secret things you are doing and the sins you are committing that you think no one knows about God sees. Your sin will find you out for God knows what you are doing. But if you are pure in heart and poor in spirit, then the secret things you are doing and the righteous acts you are performing that you think no one knows about God sees. Your righteous acts will find you out for God knows what you are doing. All that should matter to us is that God sees. God knows what I am doing for the Lord and it does not matter if anyone else knows or recognizes what I am doing. This is how we must approach our work in the kingdom of God.
So how can we work in the kingdom of God in a way that God approves? How can we make sure that we have the proper motives before we doing our acts of love and service?
First, ask ourselves what we are seeking from our righteous act? Are we seeking God’s approval, self-approval, or people’s approval? Are we keeping what we are doing to ourselves or do we feel the need to tell others about what we are doing? If we are doing these things because we want others to think well of us or for any other reason than seeking God’s approval, then we have no reward with the Lord.
Second, we notice the structure of this paragraph at the beginning of the lesson. We see that prayer is in the center of the discussion. Prayer is the critical component for our acts of righteousness. Prayer must be the hub of our righteousness. There is perhaps no better way to check our hearts and rid ourselves of pride than to pray before we are about to do our good works. Pray for the right heart. Pray that God’s will is being done. Pray that God is glorified and not us. Pray for the power to not tell others about this that you are doing. Pray for the joy of knowing that we are being pleasing to God. Let prayer lead our acts of righteousness.