Don't Practice Your Righteousness For the Praise of Others
Passage: Matthew 6:1–6:8, Matthew 6:16–6:18
Grab your Bible and turn with me to Matthew Chapter 6. It's exciting to be able to say "6" since we've been in chapter 5 for a long time now.
We've learned tons. By the way, if you haven't been with us in Matthew chapter 5, it's all on line, and I think I have never been challenged as much as I have, studying and preaching Matthew 5, the entire chapter really got into the nitty-gritty of our hearts, and it was very challenging. We're gonna carry on with that here in chapter 6.
Let me just say this before we jump in: Most religions of the world are basically an outside-in religion. What I mean is that they focus on your outer works, the things you have to do, with the hopes that your inner character and your heart would change, and you'd be approved by God. Whereas Christianity is totally opposite. It's an inside-out faith, that begins with the heart. So the Bible tells us that our problem is our heart, and our sin nature. And the only hope we have is for God to intervene and regenerate us, open our eyes to our sin and our need of salvation, to draw our hearts to faith in Christ and then give us a new heart.
We must be first made a new creation. Then the overflow of that new creation is that our desires change, and we start desiring the things of God. And then that flows out to our outward actions -- how we live, what we pursue, and how we relate to others.
And so it's no wonder that in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus has been really focused on the inner person. So the Beatitudes, talking about the essential characters of a Christian, of a citizen of the kingdom. And then we saw the end of chapter 5, it really focused on how our righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees who were really fixated on their outer works. And Jesus said, No, it has to do with your heart.
And so today, Jesus is again going to focus on the heart by shining a bright light on the motives behind our religious actions. And so verse 1 of chapter 6 is foundational for the rest of the chapter, and it's going to frame our thoughts. So let's look at Matthew 6:1. “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven."
So that is the sermon for today. Basically, do not practice your righteousness before others in order to be seen by them.
Now, if you hear that, your first thought ought to be, Wait a minute, I remember in chapter 5 (if you've been studying with us) verse 16, I thought I heard exactly the opposite from Jesus. So if you want to go to Matthew 5:16, what does it say there? Jesus says, "In the same way, let your light shine before others so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in Heaven."
Well, wait a minute, what gives? In Matthew 5: 16 Jesus says Let your light shine so they will see your good works. But here, He's saying do NOT practice your righteousness so that others would see it.
And so, is there a contradiction here? And if you look at it very carefully, I think you'll be able to see that there's not a contradiction, because both commands have the same goal in mind, which is the glory of God. That ultimately, in Matthew 5, it's saying shine your light so that they will see your good works AND glorify your Father. Not glorify you.
And so in 5:16 Jesus is coming against the fear that may be in our hearts to shine our lights before others, and He's speaking against fear there, whereas here in chapter 6 verse 1, He's speaking against pride. He's speaking against the pride that would tempt us to practice our works in order to be praised by others.
So in other words, both commands, if we neglect either one of these, Matthew 5:16 or Matthew 6:1, we are focusing on ourselves and what others think of us. But if we follow the commands in both those verses, then we are truly focused on God's glory.
And so A.B. Bruce says it best, I think: "We are to show when tempted to hide, and hide when tempted to show."
And so now, Jesus is going to go from verse 1 to giving us three examples, three religious activities, where we might be tempted to practice before others in order to receive their praise. The three religious activities are: Giving (vs. 2-4), Praying (5-8), and then Fasting (16-18).
Interestingly enough, as a former Muslim, that's three of the five pillars of faith of Islam. And by the way, most world religions talk about giving and fasting and praying.
What we're gonna see is that Christ is going to approach those three activities completely differently than most world religions do. And so in all three, Jesus says, WHEN, not If.
So WHEN you give, WHEN you pray, WHEN you fast. So Jesus expects His disciples to do these things. So He's not necessarily concerned with encouraging them to do these things; He's concerned with teaching them HOW to do those things, or maybe more so, WHY to do those things.
And so in all three, there's a similar pattern. He first is going to put up the hypocritical way, which is fixated on self, and basically He's saying that you have your reward, which is the applause of men. And then He's going to contrast that with the Christ way, which is done for the audience of only one, and that's God -- which longs for the reward that only God can give.
So let's look at them really quickly. First, Giving. Look at verses 2-4:
2 “Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 3 But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you."
And so the word that's used there for give, by the way, is a deed given to give mercy. So remember what we saw in chapter 5, that Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy, and that God is a merciful God who causes the sun to rise on both the good and the evil. And so God is merciful. He is generous -- we saw that last week -- that we are to give generously to the one who begs from us. Why? Because God was generous with us. That Jesus became poor so that we would become rich in Him.
So we've already established that we are to generously give. Now in chapter 6, He's going behind our generous giving, and He's uncovering the motivation -- the hidden thoughts of the heart.
And so John Stott says it this way: "The question isn't what the hand is doing when we give, but what the heart is thinking when we give the gift."
So really, what He's done here in verses 2-4 is given three motives, if you will, that we would give. The first two are the ugly ones, right? The first one is to give in order to be praised by men, to receive the praise from others. The second one is to give in order to receive praise from ourselves. That may sound interesting to you; we'll get there in a moment.
And then the third one is the righteous one, which is to only do it for the approval of God alone.
So let's start with the hypocritical ways, the first two ways. And so He says that the hypocrite sounds a trumpet before himself, that he may be praised by others when he gives.
John Calvin says this: "They pretended, no doubt, that the trumpet was to call the poor, as excuses are never wanting. But it was perfectly obvious that they were hunting for applause and commendation."
So what I want you to see, when He uses the word hypocrisy, first of all, it's kind of interesting. When we hear the word hypocrisy used, usually we hear the world calling a Christian or a churchgoer who falls into sin, they say, Oh, that person's a hypocrite.
Really, here, Jesus is saying it differently. Hypocrisy is really doing the right things, but with the wrong motive. So that's what he's doing. So the word that is rendered "hypocrite" in the classical Greek was used for an orator or an actor in a play. And so that term came to be applied to anyone who treats the world as their stage, and they're like an actor. So what does an actor do? Sets aside his identity, puts on a mask, and impersonates someone he or she is not.
Now in a setting of a play, no one is getting duped by that. We expect that to happen. But in real life, in religious activity, it's ugly. It's sin. Because there, the hypocrite is seeking to deliberately deceive someone else, using a religious duty as a theatrical display.
Being a child of the 80's, I'm going to quote my favorite rock song: "All the world's indeed a stage, and we are merely players; performers and portrayers. Each another's audience outside the gilded cage."That's a non-Christian, by the way, saying that. Did you hear it? Everyone is merely portraying and acting, each another's audience.
So this is what Jesus is getting into. He's saying, Look, the hypocrite is putting on a show. Now what's the deception? If we're giving, the deception is first of all that the money we give is ours to give as we choose. Remember what we saw in 1 Corinthians 4:7 -- "What do you have (Paul said) that you did not receive? And if then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?" Anything that you have in your life, not just your spiritual gifts, but your possessions, are a gift from God. And so if we give in order to receive praise from others, we're taking the glory that is due only to God.
And furthermore, we're not doing this of our own volition. Its necessity is laid upon us. We're all stewards of all that God has given us. And so the hypocritical way seeks the praise of others, and He says, They have their reward.
In other words, they have all the reward they're gonna get; there's nothing further coming for them. And that is a tragedy, when praises from men keep us from experiencing the greatest reward, that God gives to us.
And that's what Jesus said to the Pharisees. He says, How can you believe when you receive glory from one another, and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?
I said this at the men's breakfast last Friday. Basically, I talked about the God-centered life. It's about Pursuing Christ, Pleasing Christ, and Proclaiming Christ. When I talked about pleasing Christ, I said that there's an incredible freedom that comes when you stop jumping through the hoops of trying to please others. And you live life with a singular focus of pleasing God. And so what's amazing is that by trying to please others, by trying to go after the praise of men, we're missing the greatest reward.
But what I think is really so convicting with this giving is, it's easy for us to see how sinful it is when we give to the needy in order to get praise from others. That's pretty easy for us to see, right? But what Jesus does here is, He takes it to another level. He says that there's an even more subtle and dangerous way that our giving can be hypocritical. And that is, when we give in order to get praise from ourselves. Look what He says here:
"But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret."
Wow! He's just taken it to another level. He's saying, Not only are you not to give in order to get praise from others, but you're not to give with your right hand while you are congratulating yourself with the left hand. That is convicting!
And so, not only are we not to announce it to others, but there's a sense where we're not even to tell ourselves. And friend, our hearts are so deceptive, that we easily slip into this self-righteousness. That we do our religious works -- maybe we're doing them in secret, not letting others see them, but we're fixating on and dwelling on them, and we're congratulating ourselves. We feel better about ourselves. And in that case, really the needy we're giving to is really ourselves. We're the ones who are needy. We're in need of being alleviated of some longing in our heart, some distorted self-perception. We're not rooted in our identity in Christ.
Now, friends, it's not bad to feel good when you give to others. In fact, you should feel good. But when you feel good in a prideful way that puffs you up, and puffs up your ego, then this is bad.
Now you might think, Wait a minute, how in the world am I gonna give and not know about it?
And, by the way, if you are disciplined in giving, you ought to plan your giving. That's a very good and godly thing. So I don't think that we need to take this to mean that literally your left hand's not gonna know, as if that was possible. I think what is meant here is that, as soon as you give, that you forget about it. You don't dwell on it in order to applaud yourself, and again, to build up a self-righteousness in your heart. This is a huge warning to us.
Look into your heart. Is there anything you're doing, not just giving, anything you're doing in the Christian faith, in the church, in your community group? Maybe you're even doing it in secret, but you are really building your worth and your identity around that. You're starting to idolize that.
And this is why David prays, God, search my heart and see if there's any offensive way in me. It's a good prayer. Our hearts are deceptive.
In Psalm 19:12, Protect me from hidden sins. Or how about Paul in 1 Corinthians 4:3 when he says that "I do not even judge myself. God is the only one who judges, who can see into the heart." So here's Paul, saying that even me, even my actions, I still walk with some fear, knowing that my heart is deceptive, and I'm very prone to just patting myself on the back. Giving with my right hand, patting myself on the back with the left hand.
And so this verse really opened my eyes. That's the hypocritical way. What's the Christian way? It's to seek the praise from God. "So that your giving may be in secret," He says, "and your Father who sees in secret will reward you."
In other words, you can hide it from others and there's a sense in which you can hide it from yourself, and you don't dwell on it. But you can't hide it from God. "Where can I go from Your Spirit? How can I flee from Your presence?" (Psalm 139). So God sees into the secret places of our hearts.
Now someone might object, Now, wait a minute: If I'm to go after the praise of God, it says here that you're gonna get a reward from God. Isn't that still vanity? Am I still not giving in order to receive a reward? So really, you shouldn't go for any reward, not even from God. You should not even be looking at a reward.
Well, I think the problem is that we have a warped view of what reward is. Reward is not like some trophy you get, and you put it on your shelf and you boast about it. The reward is actually associated with the very act. The reward is in the act itself.
So C.S. Lewis says it better than me. Listen to this: "The proper rewards are not simply tacked on to the activity for which they are given, but are the activity itself in consummation."
This is what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 9, when he says that he's not even using his right to get paid for his preaching. He says, If I preach out of my own will, then I should get a reward. But if I'm preaching out of a stewardship, the necessity is put on me; I must preach it. I've been stewarded with the gospel. He says what, then, is my reward? He says this: That I may preach the gospel free of charge. Paul is saying, I don't preach to get a reward from you or from God. The reward is the preaching itself -- that I get to be a part of the gospel going out.
And so it is with giving. When we give, we either give to get the praise from others, or to get our own praise; or we give to receive the reward from God. And what is that reward? The reward is just the very act, that you get to be part of God alleviating the needs of those less fortunate. To feed the hungry; to clothe the naked; to welcome the stranger; to save the lost. The very act that you get to be a part of, that IS the reward.
And so this is why, when Paul spoke to the Corinthians in 2 Corinthians 8, speaking of the Macedonian churches giving generously, he said, "They first gave themselves to the Lord, and then by God's will, to us." They were running after God; they wanted to please God. And God is pleased when our delight is in the very act of giving and in seeing those needs alleviated, that we got to play a part in it.
So let me give you some very practical steps. Obviously, we're all called to give to our church, to see the gospel spread through our region. We're to give to ministries that are reaching the less fortunate; we're to give to ministries that are spreading the gospel around the world.
But also, let me give you a very practical step: At Providence, we often have people come from our community to our offices, in need. They have financial needs. And we find that our staff has opportunities to share the gospel with these folks. And some of them have very immediate needs that we can alleviate by giving gift cards. So what we've done as an application to this giving section of Matthew 6, is in your Loop, actually, there are suggestions of places you can go and buy gift cards. Come bring it to our office. We'll put them in our benevolence box. Then when people come who are in need, we're gonna give those cards to people in need.
And there's gonna be an opportunity for us to share the gospel. So there's a very practical way you can live out this calling.
Now let's move from giving to praying. You're gonna find the same thing here. Look at verses 5-8.
“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 6 But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 7 “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
(By the way, I'm not doing the Lord's Prayer this week. We're not skipping this; it's gonna come next week.)
So what's going on here? Do not pray like the hypocrites on the street corners so that they can be seen by others. Well, in those days a devout Jew would recite portions of the Old Testament at certain hours. And apparently what was going on is that some of these hypocritical Jews would actually plan out their daily schedule so that they'd be in a very crowded place right at the right moment when they were supposed to stop, face the temple, and pray.
Now that really resonates with me. Some of you may know that in Islam, Muslims are supposed to pray five times a day, facing Mecca, again, at an appointed time. I'll never forget, one time I was at the DFW airport and they were having construction in the concourse, and the hallways were very narrow, and there was a Muslim guy. Literally it was the right hour, so he put out his prayer mat, faced the east, and was full on, going on with his prayer. So much so that literally you had to stop and walk around this gentleman.
And as I was walking around him, this verse popped into my mind: "When you pray, go to your room and shut the door." Now I don't know that man's heart. I'm not accusing him of being showy. But again, in most religions, it's just an outward work. And God is more interested in our heart. He's not really coming against praying in public, or the posture of praying, when he says "standing." That's not what He's coming against. He's coming against the motive behind praying. He says that they love to pray. The truth is not that they love prayer itself, or that they love the one that they're praying to. But they love themselves when they pray. Why? Because they want their praying to be praised by others.
And so, here again, this is the hypocritical way when we pray. The whole goal is to be seen by others. And the tragic irony, especially where prayer is concerned, is that Jesus, through His blood, has opened up a way for us to approach the throne of God, and to be in His presence -- to focus on Him.
He told the disciples in John 16, If you ask anything of My Father in My name, it shall be done for you. Before, you could not ask in My name, but now you can. In other words, I'm gonna go to the cross, and with My blood, I will pay for your sins so that you can boldly approach the throne of God. And it's so sad that we have access through the name of Christ to the Father, and we're focused in the act of praying not on Him, but on others looking at us, what they think of us. We're focused on ourselves, and in the very act of worshipping and praying, we're worshipping ourselves.
It's like Jesus talking about the Pharisees in the temple, in Luke 18:9, when he prayed, Father, thank You that I fast and I tithe, and I give to the poor, and I'm not like this tax collector over here.
And so, this is tragic, and it's repulsive to God. So, friends, think: What are the subtle ways we pray to be heard by others? How about, when we don't pray? When someone asks us to pray in public, maybe in a community group, and we don't pray, because we're so worried about what others think about our prayer? Still focusing on yourself. So Jesus is saying that this is not the right heart in praying.
He also says that there is a hypocritical way, of praying "empty phrases." That's what the Gentiles do -- they heap up empty phrases. Their prayer is not concerned with the goal of prayer, which is God Himself, but it's just in the act of praying. It's mindless; it's praying at the dinner table and going into autopilot. You know what I'm talking about? Before the food gets there. You just go into autopilot and say a bunch of words because you're supposed to. It just becomes a religious work.
And, by the way, sometimes you do that from the pulpit, which is really embarrassing. No one remembers that? Yes, there was one time where a guy was being baptized, and the baptism went really long because of the testimony, so I had to cut my sermon. Literally as I'm coming up on stage to preach, you know how I pray before I preach? I'm praying, while I'm looking at my sermon, seeing how I'm going to cut it to see how I can fit the time. And by the way, don't ever multitask when you're praying. It doesn't work well.
So I got up here, and no joke, I prayed for food. I said, Lord, I just want to thank You for this food. They have it recorded and they play it for me every once in a while. It's awesome. So don't do that.
But, listen, I want to be careful, by the way. There is a sense that you're not always gonna feel this emotional deal, and maybe even want to pray at times. So don't misunderstand me. If you have a routine of praying before a meal, or praying at a certain hour, and it's to instill a discipline, a lifestyle of prayer in your life, I'm not speaking against that. That's good, and godly.
But I'm saying it's that this mindless kind of prayer He's coming against.
And then He comes against manipulating God. He goes on to say, For they think they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him.
In other words, in those days, the Gentiles, the pagans, they would name every one of the gods they could think of. And they would repeat it over and over again, thinking that they would have more of a chance for their prayers to be answered. And Jesus is saying, Look, don't try to manipulate God with the way you pray, with your persuasiveness in your prayer. Don't think, Man, my prayer is gonna be answered now -- that was a pretty good prayer right there, don't you think so?
That doesn't work. It doesn't work with God. You can't manipulate God in your prayer. Your hope is God, not your wordsmithing of your prayers. So prayer is not informing God of something He doesn't know you need. Nor is it attempting to get God to change His mind.
So what's the point of prayer? Here's what I think the point of prayer is: First of all, God ordains that we pray, and He meets the need. In other words, He ordains the ends and the means. But praying is an exercise of our faith, our dependence on God. He says the right way to pray is in private. Now, it doesn't mean, again, that public prayer or corporate prayer is not good. In fact, He goes on in the Lord's Prayer to say, here's how you pray: "Our Father . . ." So we are to pray corporately. But what He's saying is that our prayer should have the right motivation.
By the way, are you as excited and fervent about praying privately as you are about praying publicly? That's a good question to ask ourselves. And when we pray, why do we pray? Again, I'm not gonna go into the Lord's Prayer a ton, but when you look at the beginning of the Lord's Prayer, it starts with "Our Father in Heaven."
So we don't pray for the applause of men. We pray to seek God. That's the ultimate reason. You pray, "Our Father." Again, an access has been made for me to know the Father. This is huge. I don't settle for something less, a lesser reward than that. That we get to enjoy Him as Father. And, by the way, knowing that He is my Father, I know that I can trust Him when I pray. That if He doesn't answer exactly the way I think He ought to answer, I can trust that He's good.
Remember, Jesus said, You, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children. How much more will your Heavenly Father give you good gifts when you ask of Him? So you go to God with this submission. You're seeking Him, you're submitting to His will, He says "Your will be done on earth as it is in Heaven."
Friends, prayer is not about trying to conform God to my will. Prayer is actually my aligning my heart to God's will. YOUR will be done. And this is the reward of praying -- that I get to know Him, and I get to have my heart conformed to His will.
Now what about fasting, and then we'll come to a close. Look at verses 16-18:
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. 17 But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, 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.
Again, He says (this may be a news flash), WHEN you fast. Not IF you fast. Fasting is not an optional thing for the Christian. We are to pray, we are to give, and we are to fast. You say, wow! Well, what is fasting?
Strictly speaking, obviously it is abstaining from food. But it can be extended to meaning a set-aside time when you abstain (primarily) from food. But, it's very helpful also to fast from the distractions of this world.
But what is the point? The point, again, isn't just the fast. If we're fixated on just fasting or just praying a check box making me feel good about my righteousness, it's like picking up the phone to call someone, but talking to the telephone and not to the person you're calling with the telephone. You're not gonna be fixated on the avenue. What's the point of fasting?
In Islam, by the way, during the holy month of Ramadan, they fast from sunup until sundown they fast. So before the sun comes up, they eat a huge breakfast. They don't eat again, and then when the sun goes down, they break their fast with a huge dinner. And, really, it's divorced from anything but that. It's just a little check box. And that's not the way the Bible teaches fasting. You're not meant to just fast from food, but then you're meant to go run after God. The purpose is to seek Him. You fast in order to know Him.
So when Jesus was fasting, and the enemy came to tempt Him, when He was hungry, Satan told Him, "Turn that stone into bread." And Jesus said, "It is written, man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God."
Fasting is a religious activity where I fast from things my body needs, to declare that what I most need are the words of God. I need Him. That's why we fast. We fast also, biblically speaking, to repent of sin. Nehemiah did this; the king of Nineveh did this. He called for a fast, and they put on sackcloth to repent of their sin. There are seasons when we are broken over our sin. But we fast, and we seek God, in repentance. Not in order to be forgiven, but in brokenness we go to seek guidance from God.
There are seasons of life where, yes, again, I think the ultimate reason to fast is not just to get an answer, but to really know God more intimately. But there are seasons where we need to turn to God in a dedicated time where we put distractions out, we put food aside to discipline our ears to hear from God; to be still and hear from Him.
Jesus did this. He fasted, again, before His ministry started. How about in Acts when Paul and Barnabas were called to out to go? The church first prayed and fasted before they launched them out.
And so we are to do this, with the intention not to get praise from others. That's why He says, don't look gloomy, but anoint your head. Wash your face.
By the way, Jesus isn't now taking you from one hypocrisy to another. In other words, He's not saying, parade around the oil on your head. What that means, is, look like you normally look. Don't make yourself look like you're fasting. Wash your face. That's what that means. In other words, don't run after the applause of men, but seek Him.
And so, friends, before I pray, this is convicting. Every one of us, as I've studied this, I'm like, "I'm guilty." And if I'm honest, there are many things I do, including preaching, that I've done in my walk with Christ, that I've done it for the applause of men, or to congratulate myself. And both are sin.
And so you've gotta let this sit in your heart. You've got to turn to God and say, "God, show me where I'm settling for a much cheaper reward that really is no reward, that leaves you longing."
Praises of men don't ultimately satisfy you. God wants to give you a much greater reward. And I say again, the reward is the act of giving; the act of communing with God in praying and fasting. THAT is the reward that you're missing out on, that I'm missing out on when I'm going after the applause of men. Let's pray.
Father, we love You, and we need You. God, we pray that we would open our hearts to You truly, and, God, allow You to convict, to speak, to uncover, to reveal our motives. And, Lord, that we would be quick to repent and not to push to the side what You're speaking to us. We love You. It's in Christ's name that we pray, Amen.