Real religion - Matthew 6:1-18
In the autumn of 1992, Michael Plant, a popular American yachtsman, commenced a solo crossing of the Atlantic from the United States to France. He was an expert and had circumnavigated the globe alone more than once. He was regarded as the best yachtsman of his day and had the best yacht available to him, his yacht the Coyote, which was equipped with everything needed for such a hazardous journey. Eleven days into the voyage, radio contact with Michael Plant was lost. After seven days of persistent attempts to contact Plant, a search was launched. The Coyote was found floating upside down by a crew of the coast of the Azores, its champion yachtsman lost at sea. How could such a tragedy happen? How could a boat like this, which automatically rights itself, even if momentarily capsized, be found upside down? Only one reason- the four tonne weight attached to the bottom of the boat which is necessary to keep the boat upright had gone. No-one found out how it happened. But the results were devastating. Above the water line everything was fine. But below there was nothing. And the result was the loss of a fine yachtsman.
Well today we are beginning a mini series looking at chapters 6-7 of the Sermon on the Mount. And this sermon is really about Jesus taking a look below our spiritual waterline, looking beneath the surface at what is really going on in our hearts. And throughout this sermon we find out that the heart of being in Jesus' kingdom is about a heart relationship with the living God, our Father, as Jesus calls God in our passage. But the problem is that all too often for Jesus' followers it is easy to appear to be godly, whereas below the surface there is no spiritual weight at all. And the result is disastrous. Putting it bluntly, Jesus is saying in our passage that it is possible for people who give, for people who pray and for people who fast to go to hell. That is how serious Jesus is being in the Sermon on the Mount. Later in chapter 7 Jesus says that not everyone who says to him 'Lord, Lord' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only those who do the will of the Father. It is possible to look the part, but to be a complete fraud. You see often I meet non Christian people who tell me that they have read the Sermon on the Mount and say they follow it. But I want to say it is not that easy. Actually Jesus' words here in this sermon are some of the most challenging he ever utters. They go right to the heart of what true Christianity is about. And it is just that- a question of the heart. What is really going on beneath the surface? Are you genuine or are you are fraud? That's the uncomfortable question for tonight.
The Principle (V 1)
But before we get into the meat of the passage, I want us to see the principle that Jesus is asserting in verse 1, because it is that principle that controls the rest of the passage. See what Jesus says in verse 1: '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.' That is the principle. Notice first Jesus' command. 'Be careful not to do your acts of righteousness before men, to be seen by them.' Beware, he says, watch out! It's like those signs you see sometimes. 'Beware, electric fence.' Those signs are there for a reason. Believe me, I know! And here the command is very serious. Do not do your acts of righteousness before men. These acts of righteousness are the sort of things we do as we seek to live a life of righteousness, as we seek to obey God. Jesus will mention three- giving, prayer and fasting. And Jesus assumes all are good and right, and that we will do all of them. 'When you givehe says. 'When you pray, when you fastnot if. But the command Jesus gives us is about our motives. What are your motives when you do them? For others to see, or for God to see? Actually the word Jesus uses for 'see' is the word we have come to use for theatre. Jesus is warning us of doing our acts of righteousness for people to notice us. It's as if we are on stage and we're saying to all around us, look at me. Look at how much I'm giving, see how much I pray, look at how often I fast. And in fact, Jesus calls people who do this hypocrites. You may know the word hypocrite in Greek originally meant 'actor'. Actors in the Greek theatre put on a mask to act as a character in a play. And that is what the hypocrite does. He acts as if he's someone else, whereas all along there is someone very different under the mask. And sometimes the hypocrisy is so bad that he deceives even himself. Hear Jesus' command- don't do such acts so that others will see. Why not?
Well here's Jesus' warning: 'If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.' If you are just acting for the benefit of others' praise, then you'll miss out on heaven. Oh, you might appear godly, you might get the reputation for being one of the keenies, but if that's all you're doing it for, then you're only making the way to hell more comfortable. That is the horrific warning Jesus is giving. If your acts of righteousness are just show, if there is no weight below the water line, if all you do in public is all you do, and there is no private devotion, then you are a fraud, and you'll miss out on heaven. Heed the warning. Are we doing it for men, or for God? That's the question. It's a despicable thing to use God's methods for ungodly gain. We cannot hoodwink God by our outward professions of godliness if godliness behind closed doors is nowhere to be seen. God sees through the mask. The unseen God sees what is really going on and rewards accordingly. So that's the principle. External appearance does not guarantee internal reality. And Jesus asks us two questions. What are your motives, and what are your methods? Because your methods show up what is really going on in the heart. So let's turn to Jesus' three examples and find out how we are in danger of being frauds in terms of giving, praying and fasting, but also see Jesus' teaching on the right and godly way to give, pray and fast. And we won't have time to look at these things in detail. It would take a sermon or two to do each justice. We'll just have time to see the principles.
1) Christian Giving (Vv 2-4)
So the first example Jesus gives is giving. Remember 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.' How is it possible to give for man's praise? Well it's very possible. For in giving, external appearance does not guarantee internal reality. Let's look at what Jesus says in verse 2: 'So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and the streets, to be honoured by men. I tell you the truth they have received their reward in full.' Giving is a good thing, says Jesus, but it can be abused. These people were wandering up to the temple and making a huge show of their giving. They fluttered their cheque books, and made sure everyone could see. Oh, they will receive their reward says Jesus. They will get the praise. People will say of them: 'Aren't they generous! What godly people they are!' But that's all the reward they will get. They have forfeited the heavenly reward for an earthly one. They want the reward for now, instead of waiting for God's. How cheap! To sacrifice heavenly gain for a quick earthly thrill. And incidentally there is nothing ungodly about rewards in themselves. The NT is quite clear that God will reward his people in heaven. But we don't live for those rewards. We live for God and the rewards are the natural consequences of being children of God. Nor are we told what they are. They are simply given by God. The point is, earthly kudos is nothing compared to having the reward of being called a child of God.
And yet it is possible for each of us to do the same as those hypocrites Jesus berated. It is possible to give and then to tell just one or two other people about it, even in very subtle ways. It's possible to be proud of how much we give. It's possible to be think that we have given enough and we have done our bit without really having thought carefully about how to give sacrificially. All of these attitudes are subtle temptations to seek man's praise rather than God's. Instead Jesus says: '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. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.' Pride is such a temptation isn't it. We love for people to hear what good things we have done. Jesus says keep it so secret that even your left and right hands don't what is going on. Of course, someone in the church will have to know, the treasurer possibly, but that's it. Don't be proud! And don't seek man's praise; seek God's alone. He'll reward you. It's his praise we seek, his joy we want to delight in.
This was something that Hudson Taylor had to learn. Hudson Taylor was the founder of the China Inland Mission and at the age of 27 he was preparing to go to China. He was working hard, ministering on Sundays, and living a very frugal life. One Sunday, after he had had a bowl of gruel the night before, porridge in the morning and nothing for supper, he was asked to go and pray for a poor man and his wife. Hudson Taylor had two shillings and sixpence in his pocket, and when he saw their poverty he felt the urge to give. He thought to himself: 'I have two shillings and a sixpence. So I could give one shilling.' While they continued talking, he thought again. 'I would gladly give the family 1 shilling and sixpence.' He then told them about God's love and suddenly felt a hypocrite. He thought: 'No, if I have 2 shillings and sixpence, then I will give them the 2 shillings and keep the sixpence.' Well this internal struggle went on and eventually he prayed the Lord's prayer with them. At the end the man said: 'If you can help us, for God's sake do!' After a tremendous struggle Hudson Taylor gave up the whole 2 shillings and sixpence, and immediately he felt a sense of great joy. He went home joyful and fell asleep. The next morning he was amazed to find that on his doorstep was a brand new pair of gloves and a half sovereign coin, a 400% increase on his original gift. Hudson Taylor never forgot that incident and it taught him to give generously and trust the Lord and to take no account of what others think of us and seek only to serve the Lord. For he will care for us, often in ways we don't expect.
Now we don't always receive back in the way Hudson Taylor did. But I think perhaps some of the rewards in giving are seen now. We see the work of gospel flourish as people are employed through money given. We see people's needs alleviated through money given. Didn't Jesus say it is more blessed to give than to receive? John Bunyan wrote this little ditty: 'There was a man, they called him mad; the more he gave, the more he had.' Of course it may not be money. It many be time, or practical help. Either way, don't seek man's praise. It is so short term, so petty, so ungodly. Let's rid ourselves of that attitude and make sure that what is going on in our hearts is a work of great spiritual weight, instead of empty hearted hypocrisy. For external appearance does not guarantee internal reality.
2) Christian Praying (Vv 5-15)
But Jesus gives us another example of the principle and that is in prayer. It is possible to pray to get man's praise instead of praying to please God and do his will. And again we see that external appearance does not guarantee internal reality. Again our methods reveal our motives. Let's see what Jesus says about how not to pray. Verse 5: 'When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in fullAnd verse 7: 'When you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like themNow Jesus is not condemning public praying, nor he is condemning persistent praying. If he was, then in both cases, he'd be condemning himself. No, what he is condemning is prayer with the wrong motives. In the first case, the hypocrite prays to be heard by men. And again there is a danger in this for us. Who do we pray to when we pray in meetings or Homegroups? To others or to God. Let's examine our motives. And do we think that by praying for hours on end and simply repeating endless pleasantries we will impress God. Do we think that simply by the length of our prayers, or the use of special words and phrases, God is going to be more impressed. Certainly not. Again it is all characteristic of hypocritical praying. Again Jesus asks us the tough questions. What are we like then no-one is watching? What is going on under the spiritual waterline? We may be known for our piety and keenness in prayer, but what about on our own at home? Does the mask come off then? What's the reality like? Jesus says external appearance does not guarantee internal reality. We may well be impressive on the outside, but what is the inside like- cold, hard hearted? Remember Jesus' command and warning: '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.' Like the yacht, we may be wonderful to look at, and yet have no weight below the water line. And if that's the case we're heading for disaster.
So what kind of prayer does Jesus think is godly prayer? How should we pray? Well it's the sort of prayer that no-one else sees. Again he's not saying never pray in public. What he is saying is if you do pray in public, make sure you're doing it for the right reasons and it's not a sham. So verse 6: 'When you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.' It is between you and God. What we do alone with God is what really matters. Because no-one else can see it. Only God. One great preacher of the 19th century, Robert Murray M'Cheyne, put it like this: 'What a man is on his knees alone before God, that he is and no more'. Private prayer on our own with just God and ourselves reveals what is really going on. Our methods reveal our motives. You cannot impress others when they cannot see you and they know nothing about it. But that's the sort of discipleship God requires- discipleship which is single minded in its devotion to God, with no thought for human praise. That's the sort of Christian's whose ship is on an even keel, whose weight below the water line is solid.
And what sort of things do we pray for? Well Jesus teaches us in his model pray. It's a prayer about how to pray, not necessarily exactly what to pray. But his priorities show us the sort of balance we should have in our prayers, praying first for God's glory: his Name, his kingdom, his will. And only then for our needs: our daily necessities, forgiveness and ability to resist temptation and stand up in trials. Those are the sorts of thing we must pray alone before God. And of course even in our requests its easy to be self centred. I read this prayer recently written in the 18th century by a man called John Ward of Hackney. It's a classic example of man-centred praying: 'O Lord, thou knowest that I have nine estates in the City of London, and likewise that I have lately purchased one estate in the county of Essex; I beseech thee to preserve the two counties of Essex and Middlesex from fire and earthquake; and as I have a mortgage in Hertfordshire, I beg of thee likewise to have on eye of compassion on that county. As for the rest of the counties, thou mayest deal with them as thou art pleased. O Lord, enable the bank to answer their bills, and make all my debtors good men. Give a prosperous voyage and return to the Mermaid ship, as I have insured her.' Hardly praying for God's glory is it? But again Jesus asks us: What are your motives? Whose glory are you working towards? Whose praise are you seeking? If it's not God's, then we are simply play acting.
3) Christian Fasting (Vv 16-18)
And then very briefly there is a final example. And that is fasting. Again Jesus assumes we will fast, as he says when you fast. Fasting in the Bible is used for all sorts of reasons- but more often than not it is couple with prayer. And it is a good spiritual discipline to set aside time from the normal routine to pray. Forgoing a meal occasionally to pray for a particular reason. In our age, forgoing TV for while to pray may be a modern way to fast. The point is, disciplining ourselves is very important in the Christian life, especially when the temptation to indulge ourselves is so great. But again, such godly methods should not be an excuse for showing off. Verse 16: 'Do not look sombre as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting.' The hypocrite makes sure everyone knows he is fasting. Yes, I am feeling a bit off colour today. I've given up lunch for a week to pray. How pompous! It's all show. He's in it for the praise. No, says Jesus, if you are really serious about fasting, then do it in such a way as no-one notices. Because it's just between you and God. Make sure you don't look pasty, says Jesus. Wash and do everything you normally would. Verse 18: 'So that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen.' For external appearance does not guarantee internal reality. Don't aim to please men, but God alone.
So really in this passage Jesus is making one very simple but powerful point. '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.' The contrast has been between doing things to be seen by men who cannot see into the heart; and doing things to be seen by God, who sees right into our hearts. Jesus warns us. Don't be hypocrites: Don't be spiritual fraudsters. Fraud is a terrible thing. People are deceived and the fraudsters get what they want. But spiritual fraudsters end up only deceiving themselves. God won't be mocked nor will he be deceived. So we need to ask ourselves: Which audience are we playing to? To whom are we doing our acts of righteousness? Men or God? God knows what lies below the waterline. And so do we if we are honest. And if there is no spiritual weight under the impressive exterior, then we're heading for trouble.
But lest we go away convicted without hope, remember why Jesus came. It was for spiritual fraudsters like you and me. Jesus asks not for perfection, but humility. Humility to see what we are really like, and humility to ask him for forgiveness and strength to go his way. As Jesus says earlier in his sermon: 'Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.' The meek are those who know they are wrong. There is forgiveness. So if like me, you have been convicted of your spiritual fraudulence, then come to the God who forgives. And then hear the challenge to serve God for his glory and for no other reason.
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