Sermon preached on Matthew 6:1-6; 16-18 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 6/8/2014 in Novato, CA.
Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
Matthew 6:1-6; 16-18
“Your Father Who Sees in Secret Will Reward”
We move now into a new section in the Sermon on the Mount. We are still in the body of the sermon, dealing with the basic topic that we have been dealing with the last several weeks. Jesus said in last chapter, verse 20, that his people need a better righteousness than the scribes and the Pharisees. The rest of the chapter had explained what the better righteousness looked like, largely in critiquing the teachings of the scribes and Pharisees. Now in this new section, the next two chapters will continue to teach about what this better righteousness looks like. But it is not so focused on negatively critiquing the wrong teaching of the scribes and Pharisees. Now this better righteousness will be put in more positive terms. Now Jesus will take a turn for a more positive explanation of how his disciples are to live. Now he teaches what it will look like for a member of his heavenly kingdom to live out the ethics of that kingdom, while they are here on earth. To be sure, he will still make contrasts between his disciples and the scribes and Pharisees — we see that even in today’s passage. But the emphasis now becomes especially on describing in positive terms how a disciple of Christ should live out this call to be perfect as the Father in heaven is perfect. That all being said, today’s passage calls Christ’s disciples to examine their motives and goals for such righteous living. If we are to seek to be perfect like God, Jesus tells us to examine our motives and goals. This is the topic addressed in verse 1. In the language of the ESV which I believe has the preferable translation here: 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. What then should be our motivation and goal when we look to live out the righteousness Christ has called us to do in this sermon?
So then, let’s begin to answer that question by looking first at the wrong approach. Jesus shows in this passage an example not to follow in terms of motivation and goal. Likely he has in mind the scribes and the Pharisees still, but he doesn’t explicitly name them here. Instead, he refers to some people as “hypocrites” — we should not follow the example of these hypocrites. This passage gives three examples of ways to practice our righteousness, the first is about our giving to the needy, beginning in verse 2; the second is in our prayer life, beginning in verse 5; and the third is in our fasting, beginning in verse 16. In each of these three examples, he uses the language of “hypocrites” as the example to not follow.
To understand what he is getting at when he calls them hypocrites, let me give you a definition of hypocrite from the Greek. The word we use for hypocrite is pretty much how it sounds in Greek: hypocrites. In classical Greek, the word originally was used to describe an actor on a stage, like in a play. By the time we get into the time of the New Testament, the word took on a more metaphorical sense as simply someone who pretends. To get your head around this word, you could translate hypocrite here as a “pretender.” That’s what these hypocrites were doing. They were pretending. What were they pretending to be? They were pretending to be religious; holy; spiritual; they were pretending to be people who were serving God. They were pretending to be people who wanted to please God.
Jesus tells us what this looks like. For these pretenders, they did their acts of righteousness for everyone to see it. It was a sort of show they were putting on. In the example in verse 2 of giving to the needy, he talks about their announcing it with a trumpet in the streets. Whether Jesus meant they literally did that or figuratively is hard to say, but either way the point is clear. They broadcast their benevolence to the poor. They let everyone there know when they were helping a needy person. They heralded such good deeds to others. In the example of their praying, he shows a similar problem. In their individual prayer life, such pretenders would find a public place to do their personal prayer — whether it be at the synagogue or in the streets. They’d find a way to make sure others saw them praying. In the example of fasting, again the hypocrites would make sure people knew they were fasting. In verse 16, Jesus talks about how they would go out of their way to disfigure their faces, so that everyone knew how much they were suffering for God.
But that’s just it. They weren’t really suffering for God. They weren’t really giving to the needy in service to God. They weren’t really praying so as to serve God. They actually were only pretending; they were putting on a show. That’s what Jesus says about them. Their motivation was not to serve and please God. What was their real motivation? We might at first think that their motivation was to serve and please men. After all, they were doing their righteous deeds to be seen by men. But if we meditate on the matter for a moment, we realize that that wasn’t their real motivation either. Their motivation wasn’t to please God, nor even to please men. Their real motivation was to please themselves. In other words, they did what they did to be seen by men, so that men would think so highly of them. At the end of the day, that’s what they craved. They craved the praise of men. And so they did it to please themselves at the end of the day.
Let’s turn then now to the right approach that Jesus commends in this passage. If the bad approach was to practice our righteousness to be seen by men, per verse 1, then the implied right approach is to do it to be seen by God. In fact, that’s what this passage goes on to say multiple times. For each of the three examples, Jesus says we want to be seen by the Father who sees in secret: verses 4, 6, and 18. And so what that means is that we should look to do these things in secret. Don’t seek out a public place where you will be very visibly seen for your acts of righteousness. Seek a secret place where no one will be able to see but God. I love the point made a couple times here that the Father is the one in the secret place. You don’t have to go to a temple for God to be there. The Christian can go to a secret place where no one else is, and yet their Heavenly Father is there with them.
So, with the giving to the needy example, he says to not announce it, but to keep it a secret, obviously as much as is possible. The person you are helping, very well may have to find out about your help. But the point is that you don’t try to advertise it, but be discrete, because your motivation is to please God and to be seen by him. Same with the prayer, he says in verse 6, to go into your room and shut the door. In other words, your private prayer is to be something between you and God, not something to showcase to others. As much as you can, seek solitude for your private prayers so that only God sees your praying. I especially love what he says in verse 17. When fasting, instead of going out of your way to show that you are fasting, we should not go out of our way to not look like we are fasting — just act normal — anoint your head and wash your face he says. Again, the point is that our fasting is to be something between God and us; it’s not anyone else’s business, so we should do what we can to look like our normal selves to the world.
So Jesus is saying that we should strive to do our good deeds in secret, for only God to know. Notice how far he takes this in verse 3. Don’t even let your right hand know what your left hand is doing! You know, normally, our hands work together. They act in unison. What does it mean then to not let your right hand know what your left hand is doing? It seems this is telling us that we need to be on guard against our own selves, when we are doing our righteous deeds. Not only should we do our good deeds in a way that is secret to others, but even to ourselves, as much as that is possible. Don’t let too much of yourself even know what you are doing! Again, what does this actually mean? It seems that Jesus is warning us against self-praise. In other words, when we are do our deeds in secret, so that we don’t get man’s praise, we have to make sure that in a similar way, we aren’t doing them so we can praise ourselves. Think about this. Surely this is a very common temptation. You do some good deed, maybe even in secret, and afterwards you congratulate yourself. You say, “Now, that was some good Christian living right there.” That’s the kind of good deeds I should do more often. You might feel better about yourself, and your walk with God, patting yourself spiritually on the back. But don’t even do that! I mean, think of the temptation there too. When we focus on such self-praise based on our acts of righteousness, it’s way too easy to fall into a works-based mentality. That if we do certain acts of righteousness, we think we are right with God, and when we don’t we suddenly feel like we are not right with God. Too quickly we can get into such think that betrays the very nature of the gospel. Resist this. Don’t look upon your own deeds of righteousness so as to congratulate yourself. Beware this temptation.
This is another one of those tensions in Scripture. On the one hand, we need to spiritually examine ourselves. When we see fruit in our Christian life, that should encourage us. But it should also cause us to thank God and glorify him. And when we examine ourselves and find ourselves living in some sin, it should cause us to repent afresh and renew again our trust in Christ for forgiveness and grace. At the same time, we must beware of the mentality to live out our righteousness to receive praise even from ourselves. By way of example, I point you to next chapter, 7:22-23. There you have people envisioned who speak of their deeds before Christ at the day of judgment, praising themselves, pointing to their works. Let me read it. Jesus says there:
Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’ (Matthew 7:21-23)
We have to be on guard then over how we can deceive ourselves. Jesus’ advises then when it comes to a Christian looking to do godly things, that they should strive to hide those deeds not only from the world, but even from themselves, as much as that is feasible. Be on guard against the deceitful motivations of even our own hearts. Proverbs 16:2 says that all a man’s ways seem innocent to him. We need to remember this. Be on guard against it. Our motivation should not be to please man, or ourselves. Instead, our motivation should be to please God. We should want to serve him, to glorify him, even for the work he’s been doing in us and through us. We should want our reward in all of this to be from him.
So then, I’d like to turn now in our last point for today to consider that reward. This is the goal held out in this passage. This passage not only talks of our motivation, but it talks of the idea of reward. And interestingly, the goal of such reward is to also influence our motivation in how we seek to practice our righteousness. Three times in this passage, once for each example, we see the phrase about how the father who sees in secret will reward us. On the other hand, three times in this passage, once for each example, we see Jesus talk about the hypocrites, that “they have their reward.” The rewards, of course, are not the same, by any means.
For the hypocrite, what they wanted, is the praise of men, and that is what they get. They do these things with the wrong motivation, looking for the wrong goal and reward, and so they get what they wanted. But that is all they get. If you haven’t noticed it yet in the Bible, that when your reward is an earthly reward from men, only for this life, then that is not the reward you should really be after. No, what we want is the reward from our heavenly father. That is an heavenly, eternal and lasting, reward. We’ll have a chance to think about this reward more in the next section in this chapter, verses 19-20, when Jesus talks about heavenly treasure versus earthly treasure. But the point is clear. The rewards from the Father are to be seen as something far better. Now, Jesus doesn’t tell us here exactly what the rewards will be. Certainly the ultimate expression will be something experienced in the age to come, when the kingdom comes in glory. That will surely be something far greater than we can imagine, and thus far better than the rewards in this age. That being said, surely we can recognize that the Bible talks about some rewards that the Father will give you even here and now. There are rewards in serving God, and in prayer to him, that we can taste of even right now. Rewards like joy in our service to Christ — like the joy you might experience when you see someone benefitting from your giving to them; or a good conscience when you did the right thing; or receiving peace from God when you cast all your anxieties upon him in prayer; things like this. Rewards from the Father even now. Yet, ultimately rewards beyond this life too.
Realize how amazing this is. Jesus says that our motivation should be to please God, and yet, he also shows us that it is okay to be motivated simultaneously with the prospect of divine reward. Sometimes people act like it’s wrong to be motivated out of the threat of hell or the promise of heaven. But it’s not wrong. It’s actually biblical. It’s some God-intended motivation. He intends for it to be a motivation. We see that right here. Seek the Lord and his kingdom and his righteousness, and even the reward that comes along with all of that. That’s amazing. It’s also amazing that we need to remember, that all of these rewards still rest on a foundation of grace. Why do we even seek God in the first place? It’s because by God’s grace, his Spirit came into our hearts and made us born again. Why do we even now practice any righteousness? It’s because of the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit, in God’s grace to us, working such fruit in our lives. We act in faith in light of this work of the Spirit. We act in faith, looking to practice our righteousness before God. We act in faith of his grace, and he graciously rewards us for it! Praise be to God.
Another way we should be driven to praise God in this, is how this all drives us back to the simple reality of the gospel. You know, the concern that’s presented in this passage is that some people might not want to wait for God to reward them. They might want to find immediate reward by man. They might not trust that God will really see that good we do in secret and reward us. And so instead they go after the human reward instead. Yet, I would submit to you that all such thinking, should remind us of the opposite. Apart from the gospel, think of what our real concern should be. Our real concern should not be fear that we won’t be rewarded for what we do in secret. It’s that we should be afraid that we will be rewarded for what we do in secret. In other words, the real tendency for man is not to practice our righteousness in secret. It’s to practice our sin in secret. Isn’t that what King David thought he could do? That he could get away with his sin with Bathsheba because he did it in secret? When he thought he might be exposed, he then tried to cover it up, to keep it a secret. But the God who sees in secret rewards men’s deeds. God ultimately confronted David about this sin. When God told him how he would chastise David for this sin, listen to what God said to David in 2 Samuel 12:12; God said to David, “For you did it secretly, but I will do this thing before all Israel, before the sun.” David sinned in secret, but God would reward him openly for it — reward in the negative sense — divine chastisement.
And yet at that point, David truly repented of his secret sin. God immediately assured him of his forgiveness. God did still bring the public chastisement that he pronounced upon him, but God did not leave David to die in his sin. No, David is with God right now. And the reason why is because of who would come forth from this the lineage of David and Bathsheba. Christ Jesus came from that line of David and Bathsheba. Christ suffered openly and publically on the cross, bearing God’s wrath of sin toward his chosen ones. For sins done in secret, and sins done in public, — Christ openly bore them on the cross. God showed forth his wrath toward sin for the world to see, when Christ died on the cross. That’s how David could be forgiven. That’s how you and I can be forgiven. To those who repent and believe in Christ, then your sins have been forgiven through the atonement of the cross. But to those who have not repented and believed in Christ, this is a call yet again to do so. God will reward such unatoned sin with hell. Flee the wrath of God to come. Turn to Christ in faith. So then for us who are in Christ, this is why we are not rewarded with hell for the evil we have done in secret — it’s about Christ. And since we are now in a right standing with God in Christ, this too is why we are now rewarded graciously for the good we do now as Christians for the Lord.
Since this is all true, we should not doubt the reward of the Lord. We should never doubt that God knows what we do for him in secret. We should take heart knowing that his ways are blessed and rewarded from above. Even in how he grows us to live out those ways. Oh, how amazing and marvelous and wonderful is the grace of God! I think of Romans 8:32 at this point, when I think of God’s rewards to us. Romans 8:32, “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” Oh how God so graciously gives to us!
In closing, brothers and sisters, I leave us with a final word of exhortation. It’s the imperative from verse 1. “Take heed.” Take heed to this teaching of Christ. Take heed to seek to live righteously in this way. Take heed to the temptation to live otherwise. Be on guard against the temptation to want to please man; or to congratulate ourselves; or to seek the wrong reward; to have the wrong motivation. Search your hearts by the grace of God. Take care to watch yourself in this way. This is Jesus’ call to us. He knows how easily we can deceive ourselves. How innocent our motivations can seem to us. Let us pray for God to aid in this self-examination. Let us fast and pray that God would purify our motivations and set before us the right goals. Let us rejoice as we see God answer such prayers. And with all this thought of reward, let us take heed to the gospel again today. That we are not rewarded in Christ with what we have truly earned on our own. But we are rewarded by grace first and foremost in what Christ earned for us. And that even now, Christ within us is enabling us to earn yet further rewards. What amazing and even mysterious grace. Praise be to God! Amen.
Copyright © 2014 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.