Theme


Having dealt with the lesser question of what it means to love our neighbor, Jesus now turned to the greater question of what it means to love God. The Pharisees had no doubt that they were God's favorites. Their self-satisfaction free of guilt rested on the confidence that they were keeping all His laws. But they were rank hypocrites. Far from keeping all His laws, they were breaking them all. They dishonored each and every one of the Ten Commandments.

Jesus said that the Sabbath, the day of rest, was made for man, meaning that it was made to restore his body (Mark 2:27). Yet when Jesus miraculously restored a man's body on the Sabbath, the Pharisees objected. Thus, instead of furthering the purpose of Sabbath law, they set roadblocks in the way (Matt. 12:9-13). Their treatment of the other laws was no less hypocritical. They dishonored parents by withholding support on the pretext that their own possessions had been dedicated to God (Mark 7:11). They broke the commandment against murder by allowing hatred, the impetus to murder (Matt. 5:43). They committed adultery by permitting and practicing divorce (Matt. 19:3-9). They were thieves, as a result of their predatory exploitation of helpless widows (Matt. 23:14). They took God's name in vain by declaring oaths in the name of something God created (Matt. 5:33-37), and they bore false witness by treating these oaths as if they were not really binding (Matt. 23:16-23). The Gospel writer Luke did not think he was unjust when he used the single harsh word "covetous" to describe them (Luke 16:14).

Yet the indictment continues. We have alluded to all the commandments except the first two. The Pharisees must have felt secure in their observance of these above all, for they shunned idolatry with genuine horror. Their zealous devotion to Mosaic religion was surely proof that they had no other god besides Jehovah and that they worshipped no idol made with hands. But in the next section of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus revealed that indeed they had another god, and that indeed they bowed before something material and treated it as divine. The false god to which they gave chief homage was self. The material thing that drew their adoration was money.


Religious Exercises


Almsgiving

Matthew 6:1-4

Although covetous, the Pharisees were willing to give away a few pennies now and then to the poor. The King James Version terms this kind of charity "almsgiving." But the motive behind it was not a genuine love for the needy. Rather, the motive was a desire to make themselves look pious.

Jesus here showed His genius for inventing colorful figures of speech. It is possible that when the Pharisees went on an errand of almsgiving, they sent heralds with trumpets ahead of them to announce their intention. Yet elsewhere in ancient literature we find no evidence of such a practice. It is more likely that Jesus was only speaking figuratively—that his reference to trumpets was a satirical exaggeration of what they actually did. Figurative exaggeration is called hyperbole. Jesus meant that the Pharisees did their good deeds with such display for the purpose of gaining attention and praise that they might as well have done them to the sound of trumpets.

He warned them that if their goal was the praise of men, they could expect no other reward. God puts no value on good works done for praise. It is right to do them out of love for those who benefit, or out of love for God. But to do them for praise arises from love of self. It is putting self in the place of God.

To please God, we should give alms in secret. The figure Jesus used to illustrate the secrecy we should strive for is another hyperbole. He said that the right hand should hide its giving even from the left hand. What He meant, of course, was that charity should be a strictly private matter. Sometimes even the recipient need not know the benefactor. We have all heard stories about impecunious college students, near the end of their ability to pay for more schooling, who received anonymous checks in the mail. That kind of story is popular among Christians because it illustrates Christian charity in its purest form.

Jesus said that secret charity will be rewarded openly—that is, before all the saints in heaven when they gather before the Judgment Seat of Christ.


Prayer

Matthew 6:5-15

It was likely no exaggeration when Jesus said that hypocrites like the Pharisees were fond of praying on street corners. On a street corner, you can be seen in all directions. What a Pharisee would pray about in the midst of a crowd is hard to imagine. It would have been arrogance in the first degree to pray as another Pharisee did in the Temple (Luke 18:10-12). Yet we perhaps should not underestimate the arrogance of such men.

Another of their favorite practices was to stand praying in the synagogue. Here we find a thorn to prick our own pride, for which of us has not felt a little smug and self-congratulatory after he has done a good job of praying in public? We must be careful not to feel superior to the hypocrites that Jesus was rebuking. As soon as we feel superior, we make ourselves like them. It was their delusion of being better than others that was their downfall.

Jesus pointed out that prayer for man's applause will receive no reward. Like ostentatious charity, prayer to impress people seeks to magnify self and puts self ahead of God. It is a violation of the First Commandment.

Jesus then explained the right manner of prayer. He said to begin with that it should also be private, like almsgiving. The right place for it is an inner room, away from the sight and hearing of others. Secret prayer will be heard and rewarded.

Jesus went on to teach us what to say. He started on the negative side by labeling a certain kind of praying as inappropriate. He said that we should avoid vain repetition such as the heathen use. The Jews had enough familiarity with the pagan cults to know what He meant. Then as now, people in bondage to false religion commonly believe that the gods will more likely hear them if they chant a few simple words over and over again. The prophets of Baal spent all day trying to get their god's attention (1 Kings 18:22-29). What they said was likely the same thing repeated many times. Devout Catholics suppose that they can reach the heart of God, or of God's mother, by monotonously intoning, "Hail, Mary," as they touch the beads of a rosary.

But, as Jesus observed, vain repetition is insulting to God. It treats Him as though He is inattentive or hard of hearing, when in fact He knows what we will say before we say it. Even worse, it treats Him as though He were ignorant of our needs, whereas He knows them better than we do.

By denouncing vain repetition, Jesus was not forbidding perseverance day-by-day in the same prayer. There is a vast difference between regular utterance of the same thought and continual repetition of the same words. The difference is that repetition is mindless and empty of meaning. Perseverance is thoughtful and full of meaning.

The basic fallacy of heathen prayer is its supposition that "they shall be heard for their much speaking." As Christians, we know that the acceptability of prayer depends rather on other things: on whether we are right with God and are praying according to His will, for example.

Jesus then proceeded to give an example of an appropriate and effective prayer. Generally known as the Lord's Prayer, this is the exact opposite of "much speaking." It is brief and to the point. We should not infer that a longer prayer is offensive to God. No, the Lord's Prayer is not a formula to be recited word-for-word, although exact recitation is not necessarily and not always wrong. If recited often, however, it easily becomes the kind of vain repetition that Jesus wanted to discourage. Rather, the Lord's Prayer is simply a pattern that we can follow when we compose our own prayers. Or we can view it as a skeleton to be fleshed out with details.

The Lord's Prayer contains six distinct requests bracketed by a formal salutation and a formal close. The first three requests center on the glory of God. The second three center on our needs.

The salutation identifies God as our Father. Jesus' proposal that we address God in this fashion was revolutionary. The Jews regarded God and His name with such awe that they would never have presumed to be on familiar terms with Him. To approach Him like a loving daddy was unthinkable. Yet it is the amazing right of a Christian to call Him "Daddy" (Rom. 8:15; Gal. 4:6)—not in a flippant way, but in a way expressing the loving tenderness that is possible when we understand that God is the author of our life now and our life forever.

"Hallowed" means "set apart." The aim of the first request is simply to see God exalted. This petition wants all of God's creatures to recognize who He is, to acknowledge His identity as revealed in His name. In His name we find that He is far above all others and far above even our attempts to reckon His greatness.

The next two requests—"Thy kingdom come" and "Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven"—seek the return of Christ to set up His kingdom. A similar request appears in the closing words of the Bible, "Even so, come, Lord Jesus" (Rev. 22:20). The importance of praying for Christ's return becomes clear when we understand that it will provide a final solution to all our problems. Therefore, it is in a sense the answer to all our prayers concerning ourselves.

Of the three personal requests, the first seeks a material benefit, our daily bread. Notice that we should pray for what we truly need. We need bread, not steak and caviar. Notice also that we should pray for bread every day, even if we already know where we will obtain it. Otherwise, if we wait until a time of scarcity, we may soon forget that we are dependent on God for His provision.

The remaining two requests concern our spiritual needs. From the greater attention given needs of this kind, we deduce that Jesus wanted us to offer prayers that emphasize these rather than material needs. Our spiritual needs are mainly two: for forgiveness of past sin and protection from future sin.

Whether God will forgive us depends on one condition, whether we are willing to forgive those who have offended us. Here, as elsewhere, Jesus was teaching that we have the power to set the standard by which we will be judged. If we are merciful, God will be merciful to us (Matt. 5:7). If we refuse to judge others, God will not judge us (Matt. 7:1-2). If we forgive others, God will forgive us. The contrary is true as well. If we do not forgive others, God will not hear our prayers for forgiveness.

True forgiveness is so generous and merciful that it does not wait for proofs of repentance. It does not require an, "I'm sorry." Our model is Christ, who forgave those who crucified Him even while they were committing the crime (Luke 23:34). Likewise we should forgive an offender even while he is offending us.

The last personal request is for protection from temptation and deliverance from evil. A better translation is probably "evil one." The prayer acknowledges that God is sovereign even over the doings of Satan, for Satan cannot tempt us unless God allows him to do so, or, in the words of the prayer, unless God "leads us" into temptation. God Himself tempts no man (James 1:13). But He may direct our path through perilous country, where He knows that temptation lies in wait. In Pilgrim's Progress, Beelzebub intercepts and attacks Pilgrim when the right road to the Celestial City takes him through the Valley of Humiliation. God may lead us into temptation if He desires to prove what is in our hearts, or if He thinks that spiritual warfare will firm up our spiritual fortitude. But we should not desire temptation as if it were a good thing. We should pray rather to escape it, on the basis that we have already been diligent to learn the lessons that temptation can teach. The sure way to fall again into temptation is to coddle a weakness rather than combat it.

The end of the prayer is a "doxology" (a hymn of praise), ascribing to God ultimate possession of everything that exists. "The kingdom" represents His whole creation. "The power" represents all His acts in relation to His creation. "The glory" represents His own nature.


Fasting

Matthew 6:16-18

Another religious exercise that gives hypocrites a chance to look pious is fasting. Fasting has fallen into disfavor or at least disuse among modern Christians, but in Jesus' day it was a common practice. The Pharisees were especially known for fasting (Mark 2:18).

In no way did Jesus disapprove of the practice itself. He Himself fasted on occasion, and He recommended fasting to others, especially as an aid to earnest prayer (Matt. 17:21). But He objected to making a public show of it. He censured those who advertised their fasting by putting on a mournful face and acting as if the sacrifice was almost too great to bear.

Such play-acting was wrong for three reasons.

  1. It gave the impression that complete absorption in the things of God—an absorption so complete that it excluded such mundane activities as eating—brought sorrow rather than joy. But in truth, putting on sackcloth and ashes and having the look of someone about to die are hardly the result of getting close to God.
  2. It was insincere. The person pretending to be spiritual was no closer to God than the next man. His fasting was empty of any real communion with God.
  3. The motive was, again, a desire for man's applause. Therefore, as practiced by the Pharisees, fasting was another religious device perverted to serve man's glory rather than God's. In their fasting as in their almsgiving and praying, the Pharisees were honoring only themselves. They were setting self above God and violating the First Commandment, forbidding the worship of any God but Jehovah.

Setting Priorities


Shunning materialism

Matthew 6:19-24

The next section of the sermon is perhaps the easiest to understand, but the hardest to apply. We all know what Jesus meant when He said that we should lay up treasures in heaven rather than on earth. He was telling us how we should use the life He has given us. We should use it to serve Him, the consequence of faithful service being the accumulation of heavenly rewards. We should not use it to build a comfortable nest full of adornments that please the eye and devices that keep us entertained. We should not retreat into our little castles and live out our days as though we had found heaven on earth.

As Jesus pointed out, it is madness to devote our lives to gathering things. All material things vanish or perish within a short time. Though we live a long life, we cannot own them for more than a few years, and we are likely to lose them even before we die. We might lose them to corrupting forces such as moth or rust, or thieves might take them away. Yet these hazards are just the head of a long list that Jesus did not bother to recite. We feel secure in our fortified and insured houses in the suburbs. But how many complacent Americans have learned overnight that wealth is too slippery to hold? How many have suddenly lost everything in a tornado or hurricane or flood or fire or some other disaster? How many have been seized by economic troubles, snatching away their livelihoods and plummeting them to a lower standard of living? Now, as if we were not insecure enough, we must also fear war and terrorism.

The choice of where we deposit our treasures dictates our priorities. As Jesus said, "Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also." The heart is the seat of affection. Jesus was saying that if we spend our days on gathering earthly riches, we will come to love this passing world more than the world to come. We will develop a greater keenness for finding our own pleasure than for serving God. To support our obsession with things now, we will withhold our time, our energy, and our resources from things of eternal significance. So, by gathering earthly wealth, we will lose heavenly wealth.

But how much better it is to seek the riches of heaven! The mansion Christ prepares for us will have no leaky roof. Mice will not get into the walls and chew the wiring. Termites will not attack the foundations.

Years ago we possessed a number of antique Royal Doulton figurines, each worth at least hundreds of dollars. We received these as an inheritance from my wife's side of the family. But our life of serving the Lord has made it impossible for us to keep them safe. As the Lord has led us through many long-distance moves about the country, our belongings have suffered a barrage of bangs and jolts. One by one our figurines have cracked and lost their value. Yet when we discover that another has become a casualty, we find consolation in reminding ourselves that it is just a lump of clay. In heaven, the Lord will reserve a corner of our mansion for a display of figurines and other art objects far more beautiful than any we have owned here.

Jesus contrasted a single eye with an evil eye. The Greek word for "single" means in this context "clear, sound, and healthy." A "single" eye is an eye through which light readily passes, an eye that can easily see light. An evil eye is blind to light. What then is the meaning of the obscure metaphor leading to the conclusion, "If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness"? Jesus was commenting on the tragedy of being materialistic. A materialistic person cannot see reality. He sees only the earthly treasures that his heart desires, but these are illusions. As modern science has discovered, matter itself is an illusion. It has no irreducible core of hard substance. It is only energy in a form that could dissolve in a moment. And indeed the day will come when all things material will dissolve. Therefore, to fix one's eyes upon riches is a form of blindness. It is a blindness to the real world of eternal things that will last forever. To have the darkness of materialism in one's heart is bad enough, but to have a covetous eye that keeps light from entering the heart and dispelling the darkness is even worse.

Jesus then presented a choice between two masters: God and Mammon, the latter being a personification of material possessions and of the money required to obtain them. He said clearly that to serve both God and Mammon is impossible. Certainly many have tried. Many have done their best to keep up certain religious obligations while they were busy making money. But Jesus warned that these two rivals for human allegiance—God and Mammon—are so at odds that they will not allow any fence-sitters. A man must love one or the other, and whichever fails to gain his love will instead become the object of his hatred. Jesus was making it clear that to love God involves and produces nothing other than hatred of Mammon. Thus, any fondness for Mammon is a sign of no loyalty to God.

Why did Jesus give wealth a name like the name of a person? Because He wanted us to understand that wealth can be an idol. An idol is something that functions as a god although it is material and man-made. The Pharisees had perfect confidence that they kept the Second Commandment, forbidding idol worship, but they were extremely covetous (Luke 16:14). To show them that their love of riches was a form of idolatry (as Paul also says, in Col. 3:5), Jesus personified riches, calling them Mammon and speaking of them as though they were a master competing for man's allegiance.


Seeking first the Kingdom

Matthew 6:25-34

Next, Jesus anticipated the question that men with practical minds would be sure to raise. "It is well and good to tell us to turn away from love of riches. But to tell us that we cannot serve Mammon overlooks the pressing need to make a living. If we do not pursue money through gainful employment, how we will we supply ourselves with food and other necessities?" In reply, Jesus yielded no ground. He said, "Take no thought for your life."

But we must not misconstrue what He was saying. He was not teaching that life is for laziness. He was not denying the need to work hard at making a living. Here, as elsewhere in the Sermon on the Mount, He expected our interpretation to be disciplined by our knowledge of Scripture in its entirety, and it is a clear teaching of Scripture that we should support ourselves by honest labor (1 Thess. 4:11-12; 1 Tim. 5:8).

What then did He mean? The thread uniting the whole passage is the single word "thought" (vs. 25, 27, 28, 31, 34). Jesus was not questioning the value of work, but giving counsel on what should occupy our minds and hearts. That counsel was simple. We should not spend our lives thinking about how we will provide for ourselves. In particular, we should not worry about where we will obtain such necessities as food and raiment.

We must understand that He has shifted ground. He has just been teaching that it is wrong to make a god out of material things. Now He is warning those who want to serve God wholeheartedly about another pitfall, the pitfall of worry. It is possible to reject the idolatry of Mammon and yet have a wrong view of Mammon. While denying him the place of a god, it is possible to give him the place of an aggravating devil who is always stirring up fretful thoughts about tomorrow's needs.

Jesus gave several compelling reasons not to worry:

  1. Worry is wasteful. Why? Because life is short. It is a shame to throw away the precious moments of life on negative thoughts. As Jesus said, there is more to life than the acquisition of food and clothing. Life even in a sinful world is full of moment-by-moment possibilities for contentment and gladness. Anyone who is a slave to worry will miss the important things in life, such as love and laughter, good fellowship and good deeds. Moreover, as Jesus said, the body is more than raiment. In other words, let us enjoy the exercise of our bodies for the uses God intended, giving only secondary attention to how we dress them.

  2. Worry is needless. Why? Because we can depend on God to take care of us. After all, He feeds the birds, who merely gather what He has provided. They have no organized economies with industrial means of production. They do not even sow or reap. Again, Jesus did not mean that we should shun labor of this kind. He meant that we need not be in bondage to labor. Many have known little else in life except back-breaking work from dawn to dusk. Jesus' primary intent here is to show that incessant all-consuming labor driven by fear of want is contrary to God's will.

    Not only does God feed the birds, but He clothes the grass of the field with beautiful lilies. The lilies do no work to attain their excellence even beyond the finery of Solomon.

    Then Jesus posed a question. He asked us to compare our own value with the value of birds and flowers. These things are not worthless (as anyone who wantonly destroys them must believe), but they are worth far less than a man (Matt. 10:31). If God provides for lesser creatures, will He not provide for us?

  3. Worry is useless. Jesus offered one of His inimitable arguments here, blended of poetry and logic. He astutely observed that by mere thinking, we cannot achieve even so slight a benefit as to make ourselves a little taller. Every short person self-conscious about his height must feel the force of this argument. Just as thought cannot alter stature, so it cannot determine anything else under the ultimate control of God. God designed our physical make-up. Likewise, He is the source of our food and raiment. Therefore, let us trust our Heavenly Father to show Himself a good provider.

  4. Worry is premature. The closing verse of the section advises us that if we really want to worry, we should wait until there is something to worry about. The evil that is bound to come will come regardless, and it will be enough of a burden to think about it after it has come. Do not add to the burden by thinking about it today. Maybe the evil we are worrying about today will bypass us. When I am honest with myself, I realize that most of the distress I have suffered in my life has not been in response to real adversities, but in anticipation of adversities that never happened.

Jesus has now demonstrated all the wrong ways of thinking about material things. We are not to worship them. We are not to afflict ourselves with grievous toil to acquire them. We are not to worry about whether we will have enough of them. What then is the right way of thinking? The answer is the famous verse, verse 33, which most Christians have rightly committed to memory. The answer is that if we seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, He will give us "all these things."

Seeking first the kingdom of God means that we should spend our lives in witnessing and assisting the spread of the gospel, in doing the work of the church, in generously giving from our own wealth to help the poor and needy, in caring for others, and in preaching and teaching the truths of the Bible. Seeking God's righteousness means that we should make ourselves good citizens of the kingdom by striving for Christlikeness in our own character.

The result of seeking right things first will be that we will never suffer poverty. "All these things" that God will provide are the same as "all these things" that the gentiles seek (v. 32). What the world seeks is far more than just enough food and clothing to sustain life. It is therefore implied that God will be generous to His faithful children, giving them beyond what they need. From His hand they will receive many things that are nice but not necessary.


Application


Perhaps as much as any other passage in Scripture, this section of the Sermon on the Mount leaves a very strong impression that God wants us to be happy. The happiness He offers is not what the people of this world are seeking, for they wrongly define it as the attainment of every desire. They think that to be happy requires a full bag of wealth and popularity. But to seek this kind of happiness leads to bitterness, for we have limited power over our circumstances. Life has a way of cheating us out of our dreams. Even when we gain the things we want, we find that they are less satisfying than we expected.

God's recipe for happiness is very simple. In submission to the teaching in this portion of the Sermon of the Mount, the man who wants to be happy must accept two obligations. He must seek first the kingdom of God so that God can set his life in happy circumstances, free of privation. He must also obey the command to fill his mind with happy thoughts, free of worry. Happiness is primarily being receptive to the influence of the Holy Spirit, who brings to the believer a bounty of love, joy, and peace (Gal. 5:22).

Yet are we happy? Or do we let negative thoughts gain the upper hand? How much of our mental energy is spent on rage, complaining, resentment, envy, regret, dissatisfaction, and worry? If our minds are not tranquil seas radiant with divine joy, we are not abiding in Christ and walking in the Spirit.