A Bible Lesson on Matthew 6

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.  Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

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.

Beware of practicing your righteousness/piety before men.  The concern here is not with moral or ethical matters, but with the specifically “religious” things that Jesus takes for granted that we will do.  This immediate passage addresses our hearts in benevolence, prayer, and fasting.  The fundamental warning is against doing pious things for wrong reasons, doing them “for show.”  Notice that Jesus has already said that God’s people are light and salt, a city on a hill.  The beauty of Christ ought to be seen in those who are His.  That’s not what’s under discussion here.  Rather it is what goes on in our hearts.  We either do pious things for God, or we do them fundamentally for ourselves.  Our posturing before other people is ultimately for ourselves.  Jesus is warning us about doing right things for wrong reasons.

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.

“When you give …” Jesus takes for granted that His disciples will give, but he warns about hypocrisy.  The Greek word translated “hypocrite” is “actor.”  It’s possible to do good “for the audience.”  Benevolence, prayer and fasting are real things, but human nature is perverse and we will be tempted to debase these real and good things.  Do I do generous benevolent things because that is the loving nature of my Savior, or am I simply on a stage, acting, waiting for your applause?  Jesus warns me that if I’m looking for the applause, that’s all that will follow from the benevolence.  If I make generosity into something selfish, something contrary to the nature of God, it can’t please God.  The “have received their reward in full” is a translation of a technical Greek term for paying off a business account and getting a receipt.

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.

What’s He saying?  Surely I know if I have helped someone.  But, here’s the issue.  Even if I don’t make sure you know how kind I am, do I congratulate myself on the act?  Do I keep account of it and think to myself how gracious I am?  Or do I simply do what is right and good and consistent with the gracious character of the God who is, and forget about it once it is done?!  Is kindness and generosity simply part of living and not something I roll around in my mind, pleased with myself?  The heart that is glad to help, glad to have the wherewithal to do so, and pleased to use God’s resources for His glory will indeed be rewarded.  Not in some kind of way that will amount to a payoff for prescribed behavior, but with God’s presence and approval, with being in line with the way things really are in the present and with joy in eternity.

5 “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.

Playacting is as much a danger in prayer as in benevolence.  Is my praying a show, or is it honest speaking to a real God?  Barclay relates a description of an ornate and elaborate prayer offered in a Boston church as “the most eloquent prayer ever offered to a Boston audience.”  To whom am I speaking?  To you or to God?  Jesus says that if I’m talking to you, you have heard, and that’s as far as it goes.  But if I’m talking to God it is a different matter.

A self-conscious piety is no piety at all.  The amazing thing is how easily we fool ourselves on this account.  In his sermon on this passage Martyn Lloyd-Jones talked about sin and the danger of giving in to it going with us right into the presence of God.  Whether it is in public that I posture, wanting you to approve how pious and eloquent I am, or it is in private that I pride and congratulate myself on having been so pious as to put in X hours praying, self-conscious religion is no real religion.

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.

This isn’t an injunction against public prayer.  It is a warning about playacting.  If I’m going to pray, I’d best be talking to God, not you.  Our mental “prayer rooms” go with us everywhere there is an honest and true heart.  And even in our corporate praying together, our conversation is with God, not with or for the benefit of each other.  And again, the “reward” isn’t some kind of payoff for correct technique.  It’s the substance of what one is really doing when he or she really prays.  It’s the presence of and fellowship with the God of the universe.

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.

What do pagans do?  Jesus seems to have in mind here jabbering, making a lot of noise, figuring that if I trance myself, then somehow I’m touching god and he’ll hear me and do what I want.  That’s not the way it is.  The noise level or trance level have nothing to do with it.  Read the account of Elijah and the prophets of Baal in I Kings 18:19-39.  Praying is not playing some kind of heavenly slot machine, where one puts in words and gets out answers.  It is something that works out of a real relationship with a real person.  Real praying isn’t part of the pervasive 21st century sickness of form over substance.  It’s talking with a real person, indeed THE real person.

This verse is not an instruction to never pray more than once over the same thing.  Jesus also told the parable of the judge and the woman who was heard for her repeated petitions.  Scripture tells us that we are to pray always.  But the point about thoughtless, repetitious babbling stands.

8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

Not only is mechanical babbling off the point and ineffective, it doesn’t make any sense.  Prayer is not a matter of getting the point across to a sort of dense “god” that somehow needs to have the situation explained to him.  We are talking to an omniscient Being who knows perfectly our situation and that of every other person in the world.  We’re addressing One who is the very definition of goodness and who has adopted us as children.  We’re not trying to work this God around to grudgingly give us something good.  We’re coming to our Father as little kids come to Dad expressing their dependence upon Dad.

9 Pray then like this: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.

Jesus gives us this prayer as a model, an outline around which we can fashion our praying.  In it, in remarkable inspired brevity, is the substance of all that we ought to pray for.  All else is detail.

“Our” He begins.  This is specifically plural.  We are all on the same basis with God.  We can’t somehow put ourselves in a different category with God than others.

“Father”  This is the word “Abba,” a personal intimate form of address.  To this point it has been used by Jesus in speaking to God, but is more intimate than anything that the disciples would have dared to say in prayer without specific instruction to do so.  Christian believers know this God of the Bible on intimate terms.

However, lest we think that this in any way makes us “buddies” with God, makes our relationship have a familiar or chummy nature, look what comes next, “in heaven.”  This God that we are to call on as Father is beyond us, enthroned in heaven.  And look at the way the next phrase is handled.  It is “hallowed be your name.” It is in the passive.  The speaker is recognizing his own unworthiness and inability to properly bring honor to God.  This is an expression of extreme reverence.

Notice carefully where this prayer begins.  It begins with the affairs of God.  May God’s name, which represents His person, which speaks of His revelation as Creator, Sustainer, blessed Controller of all things, Redeemer, and Lord, be honored and accepted by men.  Naturally following from this is a second petition.

10 Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

This is a prayer that God’s righteous rule and reign come swiftly about.  This is a prayer that all people would bow the knee to their Creator.  Simultaneously it’s a prayer that God act to hasten the final Day of the Lord.

“Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”  This is “May the state of affairs that presently exists in heaven become the state of affairs for humanity!”  This is a prayer that men and women would have the same enthusiastic obedience to God that the angels have.  This is another way of asking both that life on earth better approximate the way things were meant to be, and that God hasten the coming of the Day of the Lord.

Only after concerning ourselves with the honor of God and the complete coming of His rule in the hearts of men, are we to turn to petition for our personal concerns.

11 Give us this day our daily bread,

This is a most simple request for the most basic of foods to sustain the body.  This is not a request for the “good life” that some teach that we are somehow owed or promised as “king’s kids.”  This is a humble request for sustenance for one day.  We would err by failing to bring before our Father the concerns of our daily lives.  On the other hand they aren’t the first or primary thing, and they aren’t elaborate.

Notice that although God has given us all things in Christ, His grace isn’t some kind of large pile of goodies that we can put into our private barn and take out as needed, independent of His person.  It is, rather, part of a living relationship with Him.  That only makes sense.

The word translated “daily” is apparently a very unusual one.  It could be rendered “for the morrow” or “necessary.”  The primary meaning of this phrase no doubt concerns ordinary bread, but a secondary meaning is a request for spiritual sustenance, especially if one takes the “for the morrow” rendering and thinks of the morrow as eternity.

12 and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.

Matthew uses the word “debt.”  Luke uses the word “sin.”  The idea is certainly one of moral debt, owed to God.   Our wrong actions and thoughts really do add up as debits.  We sometimes use the rendering “trespass” here as well.  That word has an interesting connotation.  It correctly carries the idea that our moral shortcomings have to do with being out of bounds, being places where we don’t belong and in fact are forbidden to be.

“as we also have forgiven our debtors.”  God doesn’t owe us forgiveness once we forgive other human beings.  Our forgiving doesn’t somehow merit God’s forgiving.  But those who genuinely understand how huge is their forgiven debt don’t withhold forgiveness from other people.  Those who don’t forgive aren’t really grateful.  Remember the parable of the ungrateful servant.

13 And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

The word translated “temptation” is best rendered “test” or “trial.”  God cannot and does not tempt us to moral failure.  There is no darkness in Him and He is not in the business of enticing us with darkness.  He does allow us to be tested and tried, so that we see what is in us and how much we need Him.  This is a request that we not be tested to the point that we give up, lose heart and become apostate.  Don’t put us to the ultimate test!  See I Corinthians 10:13, James 1:2 and 1:13.

The second phrase of the verse seems to amplify on this point.  We are to ask God to in fact deliver us from that which we could not bear, to deliver us from evil, from the evil one, from the evil of the world, from the evil that remains in us until our final redemption.

The earliest manuscripts don’t have the phrase “for Thine is the kingdom, power and glory forever” so it wasn’t included in the ESV.  Regardless, it is a fitting end to the prayer.

The two verses that follow function to further explain verse 12.

14For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you,

15but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

Again, human forgiveness is not the basis of God’s forgiveness, but it is evidence of a life lived in relationship to Him.  No forgiveness of others, no relationship with Him, and no forgiveness for us.  Some commentators go so far as to argue that in light of these, to pray verse 12 without forgiving others is to pray that we ourselves not be forgiven.

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.

Jesus takes for granted that His disciples will fast.  And He gives the same warnings about playacting in fasting that He gave concerning generosity and prayer.  Fasting is to be real, the kind of thing Isaiah speaks of in Isaiah 58, not simply form and not something done for the eyes of others or for our own self-congratulation.  And the real thing is its own reward, the presence and blessing of the real God.

Stott in his commentary titles the next section of the Sermon on the Mount “A Christian’s Ambition: not material security but God’s rule.”  That’s a good one-phrase summary. In verses 19-24 Jesus deals with the danger of a positive love for the world and in 25-34 he deals with the danger of distracting/debilitating anxiety or care with regard to life in the world.

19 “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal,

20 but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.

21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth.”  We must get straight what is being forbidden here.  It is not private ownership or possessions in themselves.  It is not responsible saving for a rainy day.  It is not enjoying with thanksgiving the good gifts of a gracious Creator.  What is forbidden is (in Stott’s words) “the selfish accumulation of goods, extravagant living, hardheartedness that is blind to the deprivation of others, the foolish fantasy that life is about stuff and dollars, and the materialism that tethers our hearts to earth.”

Life is not about wealth.  Messiah’s kingdom is not about stuff.  Stuff and wealth are temporal.  Stuff is subject to oxidation.  It rots and corrodes.  It gets old and wears out.  Stuff and wealth can be taken from you by thieves or politicians.  Even the pagans know that when you die you leave them behind.  The kingdom that Jesus is announcing is not temporal, but instead eternal.  It will last literally forever.  That has the implication that a true disciple’s attitudes towards wealth and possessions and how he uses them will be radically different from the attitudes and methods of the secular world.  If collecting stuff and wealth is what drives you, you cannot be His.  If you hold stuff with a closed hand, if you cling to it rather than use it for His glory, if it is what has captured your heart, then you are not His.  If what you value is here, you will not be with Him there.

We need to be sure that we don’t nod at this, thinking of how those who have more than us are in deep trouble, but this can’t possibly apply to us of moderate or small means.  A poor man can be as consumed/preoccupied with the stuff of this world as a rich man.  What’s at issue here is that which we care most about, that which occupies our hearts and minds.  Are our thoughts constantly on the new or better gadget we’re hoping to acquire, or how we can just move up one step on the financial ladder (even if we’re at the bottom), or how we can salt away another couple of thousand in our IRA?   Or do we constantly long for the rule and reign of Christ?  Where are our heads?  That’s the issue.  This is about where our loyalties really lie.

Lloyd-Jones said, “The Christian starts by saying ‘I am not the possessor of these things; I merely have them on lease and they do not really belong to me.  I cannot take my wealth with me.  I cannot take my gifts with me.  I am but a custodian of these things.’ And at once, the great question that arises is: ‘How can I use these things to the glory of God?  It is God I have to meet, it is God I have to face, it is He who is my eternal Judge and Father.  It is to Him that I shall have to render up an account of my stewardship of all the things with which he has blessed me.'”

We are in truth pilgrims and sojourners.  Is that the way we think?  Do we think this is home and the place our treasure, such as it is, lies?  Or do we sing with Henry Lyte,  “Change and decay in all around I see.  Oh Thou who changest not, abide with me.”?

22 “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light,

23 but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!

To fix one’s eye on something and to set one’s heart on it are the same thing.  On what are our hearts set?  Are our hearts on Christ’s kingdom?  Or are they on stuff here and now?  What our hearts are set on (what our eyes are fixed on) determines what our lives will be like.

The word translated “healthy” (or in some versions “single”) is a word that in other places is regularly and correctly translated “generous.”  And the word translated “bad” is a word that might be better rendered “niggardly” or “grudging.”  There is likely a double meaning intended here.  Jesus is talking about an outlook on life that is “single” in that it is both consistent and generous.  If such is your outlook on life, your whole life will be full of light.  You’ll be a person who can see.  If, on the other hand your outlook is bad/evil in that it is inconsistent and grasping, self-centered and grudging, your life will be full of darkness.  You’ll be blind.  We can be seeing or be blind, depending upon our choice of affections.

The last half of verse 23 ought to sober us.  Lloyd-Jones says this, “So if a materialistic outlook is controlling us, we are godless, whatever we may say.  There are many atheists who speak religious language; but our Lord tells us here that even worse than an atheistic materialism is a materialism that thinks it is godly – ‘if the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness!’  The man who thinks he is godly because he talks about God, and says he believes in God, and goes to a place of worship occasionally, but is really living for certain earthly things, how great is that man’s darkness!”

24 “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.

People in the west in the 21st century largely don’t believe this.  But then they don’t really get how strong this statement is.  The picture here is of slavery.  The “serve” is literally “be the slave of.”  A slave is at the beck and call of his master 24 hours per day every day.  He has no time that is his own and no rights or ambitions of his own.  There’s no room for anyone but 1 owner.  And Jesus makes it out that one can belong either to God or to wealth.  Not both.  Here in the west, we think that we can give God some attention some of the time and devote the rest of our time to our selfish ambitions, and that will be OK.  Jesus says it can’t be done.  It’s just in the nature of things that if God is God, He can’t be served part time.  To try to do so is gross idolatry and incredible foolishness.

The word “Mammon” (money) here apparently has an interesting history.  It is Hebrew for material possessions.  It has a root which originally meant “that which is entrusted” (as one would entrust funds to a banker).  But over time it came to mean “that in which one puts one’s trust.”  It became stuff upon which one depends.  We can serve God or the false god of stuff.

Ryle on this verse: “Let us beware that we do not sink into hell by paying excessive attention to lawful things.  Open transgression of God’s law slays its thousands, but worldliness its tens of thousands.”

Lloyd-Jones wrote, “The mere fact that we believe in God, and call Him Lord, Lord, and likewise Christ, is not proof in and of itself that we are serving Him, that we recognize His totalitarian demand, and have yielded ourselves gladly and readily to Him.”

Jesus has said three different ways that the affections of His true disciples are not going to be set on the things of this life.  The things of here and now are perishable, His kingdom is eternal.  Selfish fixation on the here and now is blindness.  And one will serve as a slave either God or what he sees as his own temporal selfish interests.  In light of these, THEREFORE, Jesus is setting out two options, two ways of living and telling us to take one or the other.

25 “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?

THEREFORE here’s how you are to behave if you are to be true disciples.  Do not worry.  It could even be rendered “do not anxiously worry.”  Don’t be full of anxiety.  This is not about normal prudence, it’s about anxiety, worry and care.  Are we fretting about having enough in the future?  What if social security goes broke?  What if I lose my job?  What if?  “Look,” says Jesus, “God gave you life and a body, does it make any sense that He’d then leave you to fend for yourself on how to provide covering or food for it?”  This is an argument from the greater to the lesser.  In light of the big thing (the gift of life itself), food and clothing are small.  The One who created and sustains the greater will provide the smaller.  This is in no way a statement that the smaller are not needed.  But it is a statement that God will provide both and that “first things ought to come first.”

26 Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?

This is an argument in the other direction, from the lesser to the greater.  God provides for the birds, who are not in the same class as human beings.  Won’t he provide for you?  The birds don’t call God their “heavenly Father,” but we do.  Will not our Father care for us?  Note, by the way, that God doesn’t pour food into the open mouths of the sparrows, they are busy little creatures.  But they are not consumed today for what they’ll eat tomorrow.  They’re not packing it away in their lockers or barns.  Again this is not an argument against normal prudence or forethought.  It is a condemnation of being preoccupied with and full of anxiety over the future.

27 And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?

Worry is fundamentally useless.  It does no good.  Worry about the future only destroys the present.  Ryle: “Our life is certainly in God’s hand; all the care in the world will not make us continue a minute beyond the time which God has appointed.  We cannot add one hour to our lives: we shall not die till our work is done.”

28 And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin,

29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.

30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?

Again Jesus argues from the lesser to the greater.  Plants of short life and no eternal value are beautifully clothed.  Will a gracious God leave naked ones who are made in His own image, who have an eternal soul?  Hardly!  The whole notion is absurd.  Jesus is right calling us “little-faiths” if that’s what concerns us.

Lloyd-Jones: “… to be worried is an utter contradiction of our position as children of God.  There is no circumstance or condition in this life which should lead a Christian to worry.  He has no right to worry; and if he does, he is not only condemning himself as a man of little faith, he is also dishonoring his God and being disloyal to his blessed Saviour.”

31 Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’

One more time, at the risk of belaboring the obvious, this is not a condemnation of industry or work.  It is a command that the “necessities of life” not become what occupies our hearts and minds.

32 For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all.

To be worried/anxious about how we’re going to make it is fundamentally pagan.  If we’re about His business, then it must be in His hands to provide.  It’s then an insult to question whether He’s really aware and able to come through.  If we’re not about His business, then we’re practical atheists … (possibly saying the right words on occasion, but atheists at heart).

We are not to be about gathering up stuff/wealth for our own purposes.  We’re not to be driven by the things of this world, concerned about getting more or whether it will be there tomorrow.  Instead our constant preoccupation, the primary concern of a true disciple must be God’s honor.

33 But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.

This is the climax of the series of statements about anxiety begun in verse 25.  It lays out the positive attitude that will be characteristic of disciples of Jesus.  They are to direct their attention consistently to His kingdom and righteousness.  The tense of the word “seek” is such that it implies a continuing obligation and the seeking is an earnest intense seeking.  The “first” is not in the sense of “then later do the other” but rather “principally/above everything else.”

In our time we often hear this verse in a debased and selfish way.  Seek His kingdom, we think, for our good.  Seek it in the sense that it’s out there and if we join up there’s benefits to be had.  Get into the great salvation deal and have eternity secure and as a bonus have Him punch our tickets for today as well.  That’s miles from what is being said.  Instead Jesus is telling us to long for and do all we can to bring about God’s righteous rule and reign among men.  If He’s Creator and King, we ought to above all desire to see Him given the honor and glory that is rightly due Him among men.  That ought to be our primary preoccupation.  That ought to be what drives us.  That ought to be the first priority with our goods and energies.  All else will fall in line.  Anxiety about material issues is thus not only useless and distracting, but unnecessary.

34 “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.

Put your energy (mental and physical) into the kingdom and not into stuff.  There is no promise here of a smooth road.  In fact, the promise is that there will be trouble.  But with the trouble will come plenteous grace.

Lloyd-Jones again:”… we must learn not only to rely on God in general, but also in the particular.  We must learn to realize that the God who helps us today will be the same God tomorrow, and will help us tomorrow. … We must start each day and say to ourselves ‘Here is a day which is going to bring me certain problems and difficulties; very well, I shall need God’s grace to help me.  I know God will make all grace to abound, He will be with me according to my need. … That is the essential biblical teaching with regard to this matter.”

Here is a .pdf of this lesson.

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.  Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

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