Chapters 6-7 contain a number of warnings regarding righteousness and spirituality. As Jesus talks to these religious people, he wants to make sure that we are not losing our way as we try to seek him and serve him. One of the great temptations humans face is wanting others to pay attention to us. We have a natural inclination to want to be seen by other people, especially if we do something good or praiseworthy. This appears to have been a significant problem in Jesus’ day with the religious people as much as it is a problem in our day. In Matthew 6:1-18 Jesus identifies three areas where the people were practicing their righteousness but making sure other people knew they were doing it.
Three Examples (6:1-18)
In the first four verses of Matthew 6 Jesus talks about what the people are doing when they give to the poor or do charitable works. In verses 5-6 Jesus speaks about people were praying in a way to be seen by other people. In verses 16-18 Jesus continues this theme by talking about people who were fasting but making sure other people knew about it. In each paragraph Jesus is warning about doing godly things with the motivation to be seen by others. When giving, they are sounding trumpets as they do it. This does not mean that there had to be trumpet shaped giving boxes at the temple. It is a figure of speech, much in the same way that we talk about a person “tooting their own horn.” You are broadcasting to other people what you have done. “Hey, everybody. I want to make sure that you see that I am giving a large sum of money right now. I want you to see that I am spiritual because I am giving.” This is the idea. The same idea is seen in verses 5-6 where Jesus points out that the people were praying on the street corners. Why were they choosing to do this on the street corners? Because it was a great place to make sure you were seen. In verses 16-18 when the people fasted, they would make sure to disfigure their face and appear disheveled. Then people would ask what was the matter and you could tell them how you were really suffering with this fasting for the Lord.
You will also notice in all three instances that Jesus calls people who do this, “hypocrites.” Think about calling this behavior as hypocritical. Why is this hypocritical? Jesus explains in all three paragraphs that they have their reward already (6:2,5,16). The point Jesus is making is that when we want other people to see what we are doing, then our righteousness and our service is not toward God at all. It looks like we are doing it for God. It looks like we love God and care about God. It looks like we motivated by our devotion to God. But actually what we really want is for other people to see what we are doing. We want the praise of people. We want the reputation. We want the praise. We want the glory. We want attention. So Jesus first point is to teach us that anything we do for God that has a selfish motivation is hypocritical. If we do something so that we will get attention or praise, Jesus says that you already have received your reward and you do not have any reward from the Lord. You have what you wanted: the praise of other people. The reason for our righteous acts of service must be genuine or else it is hypocritical.
Now we might have the tendency to discard this passage as irrelevant because we do not do the things that Jesus warns about. I do not think we have a great temptation to stand on the street corners in prayer to be seen by other people. I do not think we have a great temptation to fast so that we can go around with disfigured faces to show how we are sacrificing for God. What do these temptations look like for us today?
Perhaps one of the most obvious ways we need to be warned is in public worship. Those who lead in the public acts of worship can do it for the praise of people rather than in service to God. Preachers probably have one of the greatest temptations. The desire to stand before people, to have people listen to them, and even to receive comments and criticisms can lead people into doing the work. The church building can be our street corner where we can do things because we want the praise of people rather than the praise of God. I think one good test of this temptation is to ask if no one said anything about what you did, would you be okay with that? Would you still do the work even if no one gave you a single compliment for doing it? Would you still lead in the acts of worship anyway? Or are we seeking the praise of people?
This also reaches into other areas of service that we do for each other that may not be as public as our times of public worship. Some want to be shepherds because they want the attention. Some teach Bible classes for the attention. Maybe we bring someone a meal, or clean the building, or prepare the Lord’s Supper, or serving the community, or being evangelistic, or some other act of service but we end up doing for the glory of people. Think about what Jesus says in verse 2 about sounding a trumpet. Do we make sure other people know all the work we do around here? Think about verse 16 about having disfigured faces. Do we look like we have been really put out for the work of the Lord so that people will congratulate us for what we have done? Notice that Jesus says to make sure you do not act like you have made such a big sacrifice. In verse 17 Jesus says to wash your face and anoint your head. Basically, do not make it obvious that you have done something for the Lord. Think about how we look and how we respond. We come to the building and we look tired and worn out. So someone asks if we are okay. Now is our perfect moment. So we respond that we spent all day walking the mall, handing out invitation cards for people to come to church. Or how we have prepared all day to teach the Bible class. Or how we had to spend all day in the heat cleaning the building. Or how we had to cook a meal for someone, drive it to their home, and help them with it. Or how we spent the day doing acts of righteousness. Jesus is telling us that when we do that, we have received our reward in full already. Do not look put out. Do not go around telling everyone what you did.
Another area of warning in our culture today for us is our use of social media. We have to be so careful that what we are doing is not self-promotion even though our world is all about self-promotion. Social media is the primary way we can get people to pay attention to us and give us glory. We can talk in our posts about all that we had to do, or all that we did in service, so that we can get attention and glory. I cannot tell you how nervous I personally am about this and try to be so careful. I am afraid to post about baptisms just because I do not want people to think that it is about me. I am afraid to post about sermon series or gospel meetings because I do not want the reason to be for people to give me attention. We cannot allow the slightest motivation within us to be for people to applaud us.
Notice God’s solution is repeated three times in these paragraphs. In verses 3-4 Jesus says to not even let your left hand know what your right hand in doing so that your giving may be in secret. Why would we want to do our acts of righteousness so that other people do not praise us? Jesus says in verse 4 that the reason we would do this is because God sees what is done in secret. Look at verse 6. Your Father sees what is done in secret will reward you. Look at verse 18. Your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you. God does not see what we are doing if we are doing it for the show. God does see what we do if we have not done it for others to see.
God sees what we are doing if we are doing it for him. We can sometimes treat righteousness like the age old question. If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? We can think of our service in the same way. If we serve the Lord and do acts of righteousness and no one is there is to see, does it make any difference? The answer is yes. If no one sees what we are doing, then God says that he sees it.
So here is the question that we must ask ourselves as we do our acts of righteousness. Before I give this question, I want us to see that Jesus does not tell us to stop doing acts of righteousness. He does not tell them to stop giving, stop praying, or stop fasting. Rather, he wants us to ask ourselves these questions. Who is going to be glorified by what I am doing? What am I wanting in this moment? Am I wanting to be seen by people or am I wanting to be seen by God? Is what I am saying going to draw attention to me or to God? Is what I am doing going to draw attention to me or to God? Am I seeking human approval? We must check our hearts. We must check our motivation. Do your good deeds so that people glorify God, not you (Matthew 5:16).
Now I think it is important to make a side point. Jesus is not telling us to not encourage each other. The scriptures command us to stir one another up to love and good works (Hebrews 10:24). The point is not that we would never tell each other, “Good job.” The point is not that we would never appreciate what other people are doing for the Lord. The point is not that we never give credit to what people are doing for the cause of Christ. We should do that toward each other. The point is that we do not do things so that people glorify us. We need encouragement. But do not do what you are doing so that people will give you that credit. Do what you are doing for God.
Second, Jesus said that people are going to be hypocrites. There are going to be people who look religious for all the wrong reasons. They are going to seem righteous but they have selfish motives. Please notice that Jesus does not say that if you find these people who are self-serving hypocrites to give on your Father, stop serving, and believe that Christianity is a sham. Friends, there are preachers who are in this for all the wrong reasons. They are self-serving hypocrites. There are elders, deacons, and leaders who in this for all the wrong reasons. They are self-serving hypocrites. There are people who go to the church building every Sunday for all the wrong reasons. They are self-serving hypocrites. When Jesus was on the earth, the picture that he is giving us is that there were many of those religious leaders who were false and self-serving. You will find those people. You will find people who are fake and false. You will find people who say they have an allegiance to Jesus only but actually have other allegiances instead. Do not let this truth shake your faith. I know so many people have experienced this kind of hypocrisy. It breaks my heart and I am sure it devastates our Lord who sees the damage that hypocrisy causes. Just because people are false does not make God false. You must continue to seek the truth. You must continue to serve the Lord. You must continue to serve, love, and follow him even if everyone else is proved to be liar. God is true and you must stay true to him. Your faith should not be resting on any person except Jesus. Your faith should not rest on a preacher, on elders, on teachers, on the church, on your spouse, on your parents, or one anyone else. You must be true to the Lord. Jesus warns us as we seek the Lord to constantly check our motivation. Are we doing it for the Lord or for ourselves? Do your righteous works in secret because God sees in secret and he will reward you.