We come at the beginning of this chapter to a new emphasis in this Sermon on the Mount. Our Lord began with the Beatitudes, which describe the character of the disciple of Christ, and then goes on to show how this character works itself out in the life of such a person. It causes them to be light and salt in this world. It makes them holy, not in the superficial way illustrated by the scribes and Pharisees, but in a way that was truly consistent with the righteousness of God’s Law. Now in this chapter our Lord describes the religious life of such a person and picks three acts of worship – giving alms, prayer, and fasting – to illustrate the difference between a true disciple and the religious world.
You see, the Christian is not just made different from the irreligious. In some sense, that’s a no-brainer. But more than that, a Christian is someone who is made different even from the religious world. In our Lord’s day, pretty much every one in Judea was religious in some way. The Jews were divided up into religious sects much like we are divided up in the U.S. into political parties. Then there were the Gentiles, the Romans who were the political overlords of Palestine. But even these were religious. They had their gods and their temples and days of worship and so on. Our Lord tells his listeners that if they want to follow him, then they must be different even from the religious men of the day, both Jewish (v. 2, 5, 16) and Gentile (v. 7-8).
Religion doesn’t save anyone. Our Lord had some pretty tough words for the very religious of the day. In our text, he calls them hypocrites. The Greek word for hypocrite meant “play-actor.” A religious hypocrite was someone who pretended to be something but in reality was something else. They pretend that they love God but they really just love themselves. And this is just the reason religion doesn’t save: we can perform religious duties all day long without our heart ever being changed. Religion per se is something external, when God demands the heart. Jesus would later say of the religious people of his day, quoting Isaiah, “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Mt. 15:8-9). It therefore stands to reason that if religion by itself doesn’t save, then the followers of Christ must be distinguished from the merely religious.
Now this doesn’t mean that we should dispense with religion altogether. That is an extreme position which is nowhere supported by Scripture. In fact, in our text, Jesus assumes that his followers will perform religious duties. He assumes they will give, pray, and fast. Notice the way he introduces each paragraph: “when you give to the needy. . . “(v. 2) and “when you pray” (v. 5), and “when you fast” (v. 16). It’s not if you do these things, but when you do these things. Moreover, he assumes that they will do these things, at least to some extent, corporately. Thus, when he teaches us to pray, it’s not, “My Father in heaven,” but, “Our Father in heaven.” Even in our private prayers there ought to be a sense of community.
So the answer to hypocritical religion is not the absence of religion. What then is the answer? The answer is a religious life which is motivated by the right reasons. The answer is to go beyond a religion which is merely external and which aims to please men to a religion which is internal and which aims to please God.
What’s wrong with religion and how to fix it
There are two things wrong with hypocritical religion. One thing is that it is done with an eye to pleasing men rather than God. Notice where Jesus places the heart of the problem: “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” (6:1).
Now someone might look at this and see a problem. In 5:13-16, our Lord tells us to let our light shine before me “so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” In other words, the reason we ought to do righteousness is so that men will see us! Isn’t our Lord contradicting himself? In one text, he seems to be telling us to do these things to be seen by men, and then a few verses later he tells us not to do these things to be seen by men.
The answer to this apparent contradiction is that when we let our light shine so that others may see us, the motivation here is not our glory but God’s: “so that they . . . give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” In our text, the motivation to be seen is not the glory of God but human glory. This is made clear in the following sentence. In verse 2, Jesus commands us not to give like the hypocrites do because the reason they do this is “that they may be praised by others.” Therefore, wanting to be seen is not the problem – the problem is why we want to be seen. Do we want to be seen so that men will praise us or so that men will praise God?
Such is the twisted nature of sin. It can take something (religion) which is meant to help others and glorify God and turn it into something which serves ourselves and exalts our pride. What our Lord is condemning here is that use of religion which turns it into idolatry – not the crass idolatry of idol-worship but the more hideous and hurtful idolatry of self-worship.
Now it is impossible to serve God in this way. After all, you really are not serving God, you are serving yourself. And so Jesus goes on to say that if we do these things to be seen by men, “then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.” God is not pleased with a worship which pretends to be aimed at God’s approval when in reality it is aimed at the approval of other people. Being a men-pleaser is contradictory to all true religion. Thus, Jesus spoke these remarkable words to the Pharisees: “How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?” (Jn. 5:44). Let the force of those words land on you: you can profess orthodoxy all day long, but you can’t even begin to truly believe its words as long as you are more concerned about the glory of men than you are the glory of God. Thus, the apostle John himself pronounces this verdict on those who rejected Christ, even though they professed to believe: “Nevertheless, many even of the authorities believed in him, but for fear of the Pharisees they did not confess it, so that they would not be put out of the synagogue; for they loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God” (Jn. 12:42-43).
By the way, this extends beyond formal religious duties to all of life. We are not to desire God’s glory only when we are engaged in a specifically religious activity, but even when we clock into work on Monday morning. The apostle Paul told the servants in his letter to the Ephesians, that they were to do their work “not by the way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but as bondservants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man, knowing that whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord” (Eph. 6:6-8).
It is so important that we hear what our Lord is saying here. When it comes to religious activities, we tend to ask all the wrong questions. Like the Pharisees, we still want to focus on external things. For example, when it comes to giving, we spend way too much time debating to whom we should give and how much we should give. Does God still require a tithe or not or does he require more? It’s not that these questions are not important, but even if you get these ironed out, your giving isn’t worth even a little bit to God if it is not done from the right motives. The far more important question you should be asking yourself is, “Why am I doing this?” Are we doing this to please God or to make others pleased with us?
And it is so subtle, this self-worship. On the one hand, self-worship can be obvious. Our Lord tells us that, “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” (v. 2). Probably they didn’t actually sound a trumpet before them; rather, this is a metaphorical description of people who make sure that others notice them when they give to charity or when they do something which they think is commendable and ought to be recognized. They do it in the synagogues and in the streets where it can have maximum impact. And they do it in such a way that they might as well have sounded a trumpet before them.
But there is a more subtle way that we can become ensnared in this sin. You see this in the way our Lord instructs us to give: “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” (vs. 3-4). It could be that this is another metaphorical way of describing a person who is very careful in their giving, making sure that it is done in secret. After all, if even your left hand doesn’t know what your right hand is giving, then probably no one else will, either. But it could be that another reason our Lord uses this metaphor is to keep us from even the act of self-congratulation. It may be that no one else sees us and praises us, but do we praise ourselves? Does our own left hand praise the right hand for what it has done? Do we sit and congratulate ourselves on a job well done?
You see, that’s the problem, this desire to be recognized. But even if no one else recognizes and praises our so-called righteousness, we can still do it ourselves in our own hearts. In other words, it is still idolatrous if we do our righteousness for our own glory, even if we are the only ones basking in it. That’s where the subtlety comes in. If God is the one who ought to be the object of our worship, then self-worship is still wrong even if we are the only ones engaged in it.
How are we to rectify this? I think the key lies in the latter part of verse 4: “And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” This refrain is repeated in verses 6 and 18. I think one important truth that we need to take from these verses is that we live before God. And the only audience that we ought to care about is God. Very well, men did not see you, but God did. The Christian is a man or woman who believes this and lives their entire life in light of this reality. What is man compared to God anyway? Why seek to please a person who is going to die and return to dust? Why fear someone who can only kill the body when God can not only destroy the body but the soul as well? You see, the problem with those who become people-pleasers is that they have too small a view of God, and too big a view of man. We need to reverse this or we will never repent of our idolatry.
God is the God who sees in secret (cf. Ps. 139). The NSA may tap your phones, but God doesn’t need phone taps to know who you’re talking to or what you’re talking about. He knows everything that has ever taken place or ever will take place. He know your thoughts, he knows your secrets. And given the fact that we will all stand before him in judgment, isn’t it obvious that he is the one we ought to live before and for?
But this isn’t the only problem behind hypocritical religion. It isn’t only a problem of living for human praise. It’s also a problem of misplaced reward (although clearly these two things are linked). Over and over again in verse 1-18, our Lord speaks of our reward. He mentions it three times in our text (v. 1, 2, 4). Jesus tells us that we ought to be motivated by the right reward. If we are living for human praise, then we will probably get it, and it’s all we will get. That’s our reward. But the point is that the reward that men can give is a paltry nothing compared to what God gives. Therefore we ought to seek the reward that God gives, a reward that is short-circuited by hypocritical religion but which is the adornment of heart religion.
A lot of people seem to have a problem with rewards as a motivator to religious service. On the one hand, some argue that good deeds done with any other motive than that provided by the good deeds themselves, spoils the good deed. They argue that righteousness must be done altruistically, without an eye to any reward.
But this is clearly not Biblical. What is wrong is not a desire to be rewarded, but a desire for the wrong type of reward. As in our text, giving so that we might be rewarded by the praise of men is wicked. But giving so that we may receive more of God and the blessing of his presence and grace is good and right. We all recognize that a woman who seeks to please a man so that she can marry him and get his money is motivated by the wrong reward. But a woman who seeks to please a man so that she can marry him and spend the rest of her life with him is still motivated by a reward, but in this case it is entirely appropriate.
It is not an eye to reward that makes a religious activity mercenary. It is an eye to the wrong type of reward. A man who goes to war for money is a mercenary. A man who goes to war to save his country is a patriot. In both cases, a reward is in view. In fact, it is the reward itself that makes the same deed wicked or right.
If we cherish the reward that we have in God, then we are not going to become religious mercenaries. If we see him as he is presented in this text, as our Father (note the repetition of this description of God), then we are not going to seek the temporary and trivial pleasures of the world over the blessing of God.
So finally, let’s consider what it means when Jesus says, “And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” And let’s think how this reality can help us from becoming hypocritical in our religion.
First of all, he means that for those who follow him, God is for them. He is their Father. A little later in this sermon our Lord will say, “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Mt. 7:11). Sometimes, we can become confused and think that God is just out to get us, especially when we go through hard times. We want to think that “all things work together for good” means that in the here and now life will be good. But God does not promise to give us a good life now. He promises us something infinitely better. He promises us himself. To have God as our Father means that we are heirs of God and joint-heirs with Christ (cf. Rom. 8:14-18). And that means eternal life and unspeakable joy in the age to come. And it means that even now he will be with us and never leave us or forsake us, and even when we go through hard times, he is there to give grace.
You will become cynical in your service to God if you believe the lie that God is not for you but is against you. And if you get that way, you will start looking to other things for your reward. In our text, Jesus reminds us that God is our Father, that he loves us unconditionally and eternally, and if we let that reality land on us the way it should, we are not going to seek our reward anywhere else.
The second thing Jesus is pointing to in this text is the fact that the reward that the follower of Christ seeks is not a reward in the here and now, but a reward in the age to come. Now it is true that following Christ, even in adversity, carries with it even now a great reward. But our reward is primarily in the future, not in the present. And those who don’t believe this will be greatly tempted to seek a reward in the praise of men which is such a tangible reward in the here and now.
Note the future tense of Jesus’ words: “will reward you.” Now this could just point up the certainty of it. And that is true: it is certain that those who live for the reward they have in God will be rewarded. But I also think it points to the futurity of the reward as well. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that immediately following his exhortations on the Christian’s religious life, he tells us not to lay up for ourselves treasures on earth, but rather to lay up for ourselves treasures in heaven (vs. 19,ff). Here again is language of reward, but this time it is clearly future for us. Our Lord, having just exhorted his followers to seek the reward that comes only from God the Father, now tells them why they must do this: “For where your treasure (reward) is, there your heart will be also” (v. 21).
Why is this important? It is important because if we are not living with an eye to heaven and the age to come, then we are going to be more likely to sell out to the tangible and temporary pleasures of sin. On the other hand, we are not going to sell out if we really believe that one day we will experience this:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” And he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment. The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son. But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.” (Revelation 21:1-8)
One final question: how can you know that God is for you? How can you know that there is a reward awaiting you in the age to come? The answer that the Scriptures give is that God becomes for us when we are connected to his Son – the Lord Jesus Christ – by faith. He came to earth to bear the punishment of our sins that turned God against us. And having borne that penalty, all who belong to him are free from it and are adopted into the family of God. So I end with a plea to all who are yet outside of Christ: turn from your sin and turn to Christ. Believe in him, embrace him as your Lord and your Savior, and the promise of the gospel is that you will be saved.