We do study through books of the Bible here at TVC. If you want a paper copy, just lift up your hand and someone will bring you a paper copy, so you can follow along in the text this morning, or you can of course follow along online on your device—on your iPad, your iPhone, whatever it might be.
What a gift it is we get to study and continue our study of the Gospel of Matthew. Welcome to all those who are worshiping with us online. Actually, they’re not with us online in this service. This is a free for all service. Forgot about that! So good to be with you.
We are in the seventh week of this particular study of the Sermon on the Mount, perhaps the most famous, the most well-known sermon in all of history. The sermon that Jesus taught his disciples and through them, us. The sermon spans what we call Chapters 5 -7 of the Gospel of Matthew.
And I think it’s good occasionally to remind ourselves that Matthew didn’t write his Gospel on a Microsoft Word application. Chapter 1, enter. Chapter 2, enter. Then submit that to review from, from his editor. No, he didn’t have chapter markers. Chapter markers were added later in the 13th century, and we should be grateful for chapter markers because they’re very helpful to us as we study the Scriptures. But I think it’s wise for us to take a step back and give attention to the thought flow, the general sweep of the grain of text that we have been studying. And I’m grateful to John Stott for his helpful categorization. You’ll see it up on the screen, of the Sermon on the Mount, our study so far in Chapter 5 and today starting with Chapter 6.
The introduction to the Sermon on the Mount, what we call the Beatitudes, which we studied several weeks ago was, in essence, Jesus giving us a summary of what the character of an authentic Christian can and should look like—will look like—as we are formed more into the likeness of our Lord. If you remember, it’s a blessed life, a heart shaped by Kingdom values that begin when we recognize and realize our own spiritual poverty. Do you remember the first Beatitude? “Blessed are the poor in Spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.”
As one who is a citizen of this Kingdom and these statements, we call the Beatitudes, there is a life of freedom available to you and to me, and we’re invited and empowered to live these out by grace—a life shaped by mercy, by meekness, (things we’ve already sung about), purity, peace, joy, hunger, and thirst for righteousness.
Jesus then goes on in our study to describe how our renovated hearts are put into practice. If you remember, salt and light: this is what a heart that is being renovated by the work of the Spirit will look like in our homes, in our workplaces, in the public sphere, and in our schools and the park. That flicker of light, that saltiness, will influence the watching world.
And last week we studied what Jesus taught about righteousness, what faithfulness, what holiness looks like at a heart level for one who belongs to the King and his Kingdom, and I hope that’s you today. A righteousness that, if you remember last week, exceeds that of the scribe tribes and the Pharisees, that’s what Jesus said. Your righteousness needs to exceed that of the scribes and the Pharisees. That would’ve been an astonishing statement at the time. These were the heavy hitters in the field of righteousness, if you will. They were masters of calculating the exact number of commandments and prohibitions, and they were skillful at following them. And Jesus doesn’t tell us that we need to master even more commandments and prohibitions than the scribes of the Pharisees. In fact, he takes us both deeper and sets the bar higher in our righteousness. External behavior modification alone is not true righteousness but a heart that’s been transformed, been reoriented, reordered. With some particularity Jesus taught what a heart-level righteousness looks like in our relationship to others.
So, you can see the two categories of righteousness. The moral-horizontal (5:21-48), how I am to relate to others. And the religious-vertical (6:1-34). And today we’re going to study Jesus’ teaching on righteousness and the vertical aspects of righteousness. How do we relate to God as Father? How does the Spirit by grace nourish this most miraculous of relationships—me a prodigal son and perhaps you a prodigal son or daughter reconciled to a holy God? How does he nourish this relationship through the Spiritual disciplines and practices that we’ll study today like fasting, prayer, giving? How do we employ these “ordinary means of grace” as they’re often called in a way that leads me and you to a deeper love of God the Father?
I like what Dr. Michael Reeve says, and I’ve used this quote before, but it’s, it’s so great:
“Like wax, the heart takes the shape of that which warms it.”–Dr. Michael Reeves
And I pray that my heart is shaped by my Father in heaven.
So as in our study last week on anger, on lust, on faithfulness, on honesty and many other things, and each of these behaviors, and today in the spiritual practices that Jesus will teach on, at the root, our spiritual appetites have been twisted by sin and, as we’ll see, even the good gift of prayer, the good gift of righteousness, can be twisted in our hearts. And our prayers to God can even be turned into a vehicle to satisfy my own hunger for esteem or pride, not communion with him. Our “wanters” are broken. You may have heard us say that before.
But the good news of what Jesus has on offer for us in this sermon, and he has for the last seven weeks and will continue as we study it, is a heart whose appetites and desires are being reshaped, reoriented, and reordered for his glory. And that is for our good; it’s good news for us today. John Stott said it this way:
“There’s perhaps no greater secret in progress in Christian living than a health, hearty, spiritual appetite. Again and again, Scripture addresses its promises to the hungry. God ‘satisfies him who is thirsty and the hungry he fills with good things.’ If we are conscious of slow growth, is the reason that we have a jaded appetite?”–John Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount
It’s a good question to ask. I might put it a little more succinctly: What are we hungry for? What am I hungry for? It’s a question I’ve been asking all throughout the week. What are we hungry for?
If you would turn to Matthew Chapter 6, we’ll start with verse 1. Before we read, though, I’ll pray for us and we’ll get going.
Living God, help us so to hear your holy Word that we may truly understand, that in understanding we may believe, and in believing we may follow in all faithfulness and obedience. And in that faithfulness and obedience, Holy Spirit, I pray that you would tune my ear to hear you more. May you give us a hunger and a thirst for more and more of you and your Kingdom, in Jesus’ name, and we all said, Amen.
I’ll be reading from the English Standard Version (ESV) this morning, Chapter 6, starting with verse 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.”
We’ll pause here for a second. Jesus, in this section, starts off with a warning. ‘Beware, watch out, be watchful of the motivations of your heart.’ And although we’ll see in a minute these three things (giving, fasting and prayer), he starts off with a really wide net. ‘Beware of practicing your righteousness—all of your righteousness, everything we studied last week, all the practices that we’re going to talk about today, and many other things—beware, because your heart (you who are in the Kingdom, brothers and sisters) your heart will be tempted to twist even the good things to make a performance of it, to make a show of it. So, he was giving us a warning, an exhortation: ‘Beware.’
Verse 2: “Thus, when you give to the needy (and you might underline “when you give”… you’re going to see that quite often, the “when you…”) 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. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing so that you’re giving maybe in secret and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
Concerning this idea of hypocrisy, the hypocrite literally means “a play actor, someone who wears a mask, someone who’s showing the outside world something different than who they really are on the inside.” They’re putting on a show, if you will. Jesus is warning us about this in our giving.
In each of the three examples that we’ll study today (giving, prayer and fasting), you’ll notice a pattern and there’s more to it than this, but I’ll give you four things.
One, there’s a negative description of how we’re not supposed to live out our righteousness. Put another way, he provides a description of an outward behavior that reveals a heart that is hungry for things other than God—in his ways, in his people and his Kingdom. So, there’s a negative description—how not to do your righteousness.
Two, Jesus says, “Truly, I say to you.” You’re going to hear that in each of these examples: a negative description, and then he says, “Truly, I say to you.” What’s he doing there? He’s saying to his disciples, ‘Listen to what I have to say. There is authority in my words, pay attention so that you might live in this blessed Kingdom life. Pay attention.’ So, a negative description, how not to live out our righteousness. “Truly I say to you.”
Third, he gives a positive description. Did you catch that in this first example? This is how you are supposed to live out this particular aspect of righteousness—a way of giving, a way of prayer, a way of fasting that reveals a heart that is hungry for God, his ways, his people, his Kingdom.
Fourth, there’s a promise of a reward from the Father. So, 1) negative description, 2) the authority of Jesus (“Truly, I say to you”), 3) a positive description, and then 4) a promise.
So, here in this example of alms giving (that’s what we are reading about here, giving to the poor), Jesus is lovingly calling his disciples to a way of living that is unconcerned with the applause of man. And more than that, unconcerned with the applause of self. Did you catch the two layers there? There are two layers. When we give—and Jesus is making the implicit assumption that if you are a part of the Kingdom, you are a giver, you are someone who communes with God, you are someone who prays—we are to give with the motivation of love of God the Father, love of neighbor and our sin twisted hearts will mangle even the good gift of righteousness and you and I will be tempted to ostentation, to play acting, to be the hypocrite so that others might see, so that others might applaud. But Jesus goes one step deeper. We should avoid letting our left hand know what our right hand is doing. So, at one and the same time, we’ll be tempted to perform so that others see us—they might see that I’m a good Christian—and at the same time I’m tempted to perform for Self, a form of spiritual pride that puffs me up. Both can happen at the same time. In both cases, an act of worship to God Is corrupted into an act of worship to self, in both cases. Sin is so deceitful, I’ve been convicted this week as I’ve been reading this. The world, the evil one, my own heart wants me to be hungry, thirsty, panting even to be made much of. Do you resonate with that this morning?
I was on a walk this week in the village down here and there was a great little clothing shop that my wife really likes. And as I was walking by I saw this big sign. At the top of the sign in big letters, trying to woo customers in, it said, “Dress like you’re already a celebrity.” Marketers know exactly what our hearts are longing for. And even this week, there was a “celebrity slap” at an event that revolves around celebrities congratulating other celebrities. We’re obsessed with celebrity. We’re ravenous for applause. Unless we think, “Oh, those out there…” We are ever cleverer at creating efficient and easy ways with this little device to create my own little form of celebrity. It’s an insidious sin, something we have to be careful of and Jesus says, ‘Beware, be watchful, pay attention.’ We’re obsessed with celebrity.
“Most of the trouble in the world is caused by people wanting to be important.”–T.S. Eliot
What are we hungry for this morning? What are you hungry for this morning? It’s a question I’ve been asking myself. When you first read a passage like this, it can be easy to minimize the potency of Jesus’s exhortation. We’re not going to see a trumpet processional in front of us as we give to the one who’s selling newspapers on the side of the road, that’s probably not our particular temptation.
Jesus is using metaphor and humorous hyperbole here to point out a deeper root issue. Even if the behavior seems righteous, beware, keep watch lest even your worship be corrupted by the hunger to be made much of. Even in his description (Did you read that?), “When you give to the needy,” in verse 3, “give in secret.”
It’s much like what he said last week in our study about lust. He said, “Pluck out your right eye.” Do you remember that? If you struggle with lust, pluck out your right eye cut off your right arm. This is strong metaphorical language to warn us of the danger that lurks inside of our hearts. He’s saying, ‘Stay awake, be watchful, pay attention, do everything you can to kill the temptation, to perform, to put on a show or to deceive even yourself.’
I think it’s important to acknowledge that Jesus is very well aware of our basic human need—you and I, everyone in this room, everyone watching—to be seen and heard at the basic level. How do we know this? Well, the life and ministry of Jesus all throughout the Gospel of Mathew is often targeted at those who are unseen, unheard (e.g., the Samaritan, the woman, the disfigured, the demon possessed). He knows our basic human need to be seen and to be heard. But what he’s getting at here in this text we’re studying is a very real human temptation that the heart is hungry to excess, to spiritual pride, to the want of applause, the want to be made much of or, said differently, if you notice at the very end, “And your Father who sees in secret,” so said differently, ‘A heart that is satisfied ultimately in the love of the Father.’ That’s what we’re getting at.
“A truly Gospel humble person is not a self-hating person or a self-loving person (he says two extremes there). The truly Gospel humble person is a self-forgetful person whose ego is just like his or her toes. It just works. It does not draw attention to itself. The toes just work, the ego just works. Neither draws attention to itself.”–Tim Keller, The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness
It’s a great book by the way, I would commend it to you. It’s a good yearly read on this subject. It’s so true.
Alright, let’s keep reading at verse 5:
“And when you pray (you might underline that), you must not be like the hypocrites, the role players, the actors, 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. 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.”
There’s a similar pattern here to his warning for us in our giving to the poor. First thing I want to point out here is that this is not a prohibition against public or corporate prayer (not a blanket one, anyway). What he’s doing here—because he’s going to teach us the Lord’s prayer, which is a corporate prayer, “Our Father who art heaven…”, and we see it all through the book of Acts, that there’s public prayer, everywhere—what Jesus is getting at here, he’s saying, ‘Here’s a prescription. Here’s a way of reorienting your heart that might purify your motives so that your prayers are not obsessed with self but the prayers are actually interested in communion with God the Father.’
See, the hypocrites here are interested in how their prayers appear, how their prayers sound to others. They’re not interested in communion with God. We’re going to study the Lord’s prayer after Easter. So, if you would go to verse 16 and we’ll continue on with our last example.
“And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites for they disfigure their faces that they’re fasting may be seen by others. Truly I say to you, they have received their reward, but when you fast anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others, but by your Father whose in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
Jesus gives here two more examples of what might call “spiritual disciplines” or “spiritual practices:” prayer and fasting. Prayer is the incredible, beautiful, mysterious grace gift of communion with God. It’s what we read about in our catechism. It’s both communicating with and listening to God the Father. It’s not a duty to be performed but a privilege and a way of life. That’s how the Bible describes it. In many other ways, it’s a mystery, it’s a miracle, it’s a gift of grace all at the same time. I’m looking forward to our study of how Jesus teaches us to pray after Easter.
Fasting, according to Donald Whitney, is “the voluntary abstinence from food for a spiritual purpose, rooted in relationship with Christ and practiced with a desire to be more like Christ.” Not everyone can abstain from eating, we should acknowledge that, and it certainly could include a period of abstaining from any number of things for a spiritual purpose, for communion with God. It’s a denial of a physical hunger of some kind to devote oneself to the hunger of the Lord, to growing that hunger for the Lord in his ways.
Some theologians would call these disciplines and many other others, the “ordinary means of grace,” the primary ways that the Lord, as he’s revealed them in the Bible, nourishes our relationship with him—Scripture reading, corporate worship, watchfulness (we’ve mentioned that one already), communion at the Lord’s table (which we’re going to participate in later), giving, prayer, and fasting. Each of these, and there could be any number of other ones listed, are gifts to be used as those means by which God, through his holy Spirit, nourishes our relationship to him, matures us in our faith, comforts us in our suffering and conforms us to the likeness of his Son.
What Jesus does for us here in this teaching is reorients us to the spiritual purpose and the proper motivation behind prayer and fasting. But again, as the general exhortation at the very top cast a wide net, ‘When you practice, beware; when you practice your righteousness of all kinds, beware that you’re not doing it as a performance.’ We will be tempted to treat these practices as performative.
I may not be tempted to stand at the street corner and lift up loud prayers to Nashville traffic; that may not be something that I’m going to be tempted with. But perhaps you’ll resonate with this: I might wrap my prayers in pious language at my home group to appear more holy. I might use words in my public prayers or even private ones that conceal the sin lurking in my own heart. I might use the prayer voice to appear more holy to others. You know what I mean? I might post a prayer on social media that subtly reveals to the watching world, which side of a hot debate I’m on. I’m guilty. All the while, perhaps neglecting the gift of simply communing with God the Father.
Friends, please, please hear this. Jesus knows our frailty. He knows that we cannot do these things on our own. “Blessed are the poor in Spirit.” ‘Blessed are the ones who know they are spiritually poor.’ He knows our proclivity towards performative religion. That’s why he is warning us here of the dangers of spiritual pride—and it is a danger. But he also knows that we can’t do this on our own. And what he’s giving us here is both an awareness to be aware, but also a gracious invitation to commune with God the Father.
I know we keep saying that over and over again, but look how many times the word “Father” is used in this text.
“The truth of the matter is we all come to prayer with a tangled mess of motives—altruistic, selfish, merciful, hateful, loving, and bitter. Frankly, this side of eternity, we will never unravel the good from the bad, the pure from the impure. But what I have come to see that God is big enough to receive us with all our mixture… That is what grace means and not only are we saved by grace, we live by it as well. And we pray by it.”–Richard Foster, Prayer
I pray that’s the shape of my heart and yours today.
In our study, this morning, we don’t have time to explore all the spiritual disciplines that are revealed to us as gifts in the Bible. But I wanted to give you a few resources that you might find helpful. We’ll put them up here.
Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life by Donald Whitney is a mid-size book that goes into more detail about each of the traditional spiritual disciplines. I think he does a good job.
Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster. My dad actually gave me that when I was 13 or 14, and I’ve really treasured that book. He does something similar to Donald, and then Timothy Keller and his book, Prayer, really dives into how prayer is connected to our intimacy with the Father and how it nourishes that.
Watchfulness by Brian Hedges is mercifully short and a really great book, I know we’ve mentioned that one before.
And one of my favorites, Renovation of the Heart by Dallas Willard, is kind of a 60,000-foot view about how the Spirit works through all these disciplines and practices shaping us, reforming us, renovating our hearts to likeness of Christ. I hope those are helpful to you.
So, as we reflect this morning on the teaching that Jesus has for us today, there are a few takeaways from this both warning and invitation from Jesus.
The Kingdom of heaven reorients our appetites. What are you hungry for? And how does he do this?
1. Hunger for self becomes hunger for righteousness. ‘Listen, when you give,’ this is what Jesus said, “when you give, don’t sound the trumpets like the hypocrites do. When you give don’t let your let left hand know what your right hand is doing”’ Jesus establishes for us at least two layers of temptation for which we are to be on guard, beware. Performing for the friends, family, crowd, or group in front of us, or perhaps even this is more difficult to diagnose—deceiving or performing for my own heart. Both of these temptations, neither of which has in mind, the glory of God. An act of worship has become twisted into the worship of self. And we all can be spring loaded towards that temptation.
Have you ever been on a long road trip and you’re sipping your 44-ounce big gulp or whatever it might be. And you’ve gone a hundred miles and you almost wake up and say, “Wait, a hundred miles? I don’t remember the last hundred miles.” And it wasn’t that you weren’t being safe. It was that you were driving, you were so focused on the road, it’d become second nature. You weren’t dictating to your hands when to nudge the wheel this way or that way and the other; it was second nature. It was almost like, or another way of putting it, as if you’re a musician and you go on to play a beautiful piece of music on the piano or guitar or whatever you play. And maybe it’s a piece of music that you know well, and you’ve done before. You don’t dictate how your fingers move and which note they go to, it just comes out of you. Why? Because you’re a musician. Because you’ve practiced this piece. It becomes second nature. You become self-forgetful. I think that kind of gets a little bit at what Jesus is saying here.
In a similar way, Jesus teaches when you give, when you pray, when you fast, don’t give in such a way that others may see you, don’t give in such a way as to be enamored with yourself. May you be so self-forgetful and God aware that you are simply a giver. You simply pray. Ceaseless prayer, as the apostle Paul would say later on. A hunger for righteousness will set you free, will set me free from self-obsession. And it’ll set us free to hunger for more of God. It sets us free from that. And it sets us free to hunger for more of God.
2. The Kingdom of heaven reorients our appetites—how a thirst for earthly acclaim becomes thirst for heavenly reward. There’s a sense in which Jesus is teaching his disciples and us. And this is (I was really feeling, I had some conviction about this this week), that there is a way of practicing our righteousness that can lead us to become very successful at them. I don’t know if you’ve experienced this in your life. “Professionals, in the art of spiritual disciplines.” We might strive to become so successful, in fact, that we indeed receive acclaim from those around us and commendation to ourself. Acting as professionals in the things of God does give us a reward—you saw that with each example there is a reward…acclaim, esteem, commendation…but that’s all there is, that’s the reward and it’s empty, fleeting. But a heart that has been reoriented to thirst for righteousness, to have appetite for more of what the Father has for me—there is a deeper and a much more satisfying reward. I hope you know that this morning.
Do you remember the fourth Beatitude from a few weeks ago? “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” That’s what Jesus has been teaching on last week and this week in our study. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” And what does it say? “For they shall be satisfied.” For you and I who belong to the King, our aim is never for the rewards. That’s never our aim. The Christian is aiming for more of God, more of what God has for us. We come to the living waters, as we sing about, there’s a river that flows, and it brings joy to the city of our God, which include us.
That new aim and orientation will bring about an appropriate self-forgetfulness, a forgetfulness of self. And that’s when we realize that at that root level, a heart level satisfaction in God the Father. That’s the reward, a heart that is deeply, deeply satisfied in the love of God the Father. ‘My savior’s love, my savior’s love. What tongue can tell of my savior’s love?’
So, two rewards are on offer. One is fleeting and empty, one is eternal and fully satisfying—perhaps not yet, but when he comes to return we will be deeply satisfied in ways that we can’t even experience now. It’s good news for us. What are you hungry for? The Kingdom of heaven reorients our appetites.
3. Our hearts become fully satisfied in the love of God the Father. You’ll notice that of the 17 references to God as Father in the Gospel of Matthew, 10 of them are found in this small section that we’re reading here today and we’ll study in the Lord’s prayer later. That title, “God the Father,” may sound fairly mundane to our ears, if you’ve grown up in the church any number of years. But I pray that my heart and your heart is not callous to the miracle of what that means. “God, our heavenly Father,” I know that our hearts wouldn’t be callous to that.
First century Jews would’ve easily understood God as judge, as law giver, as the King. But God as Father, that was radical, that was intimate, it was new. And his one who has been united to Christ, because of what he’s done for us, for me and for you, we are adopted and called sons and daughters of God. That is miraculous: me, a lost one, a prodigal, far from God, at enmity him, meaning I was his enemy or he was mine.
By the initiative of God the Father though, his initiative through the work of Jesus and the empowerment of the Spirit. My sins are forgiven, but not just that I’m empowered to live in the Kingdom, but not just that, I’m adopted, as a child of the Father. All of it, with all the warmth, all the joy, all the responsibilities, all the rights, the security, the intimacy, all the love that becomes part that we get as a part of the family of God. Such a beautiful thing.
“If you want to judge how well a person understands Christianity, find out how much he makes of the thought of being God’s child and having God as his Father. If this is not the thought that prompts and controls his worship and prayers and his whole outlook on life, it means that he does not understand Christianity very well at all.”–J.I. Packer, Knowing God
Put positively, find someone in the Kingdom. My heart is fully satisfied because our Lord has made a way for me to call God Father. And this sermon on the Mount at its core is a reorienting of our hearts to one who can truly satisfy our hunger and thirst. That’s the way he promises us and the Beatitudes. Our heavenly Father, who truly loves us as his own. I belong to him; you belong to him.
I’ve asked myself this question all week. What am I hungry for? I hope we asked that question this morning. What are you hungry for? Let’s pray.
Heavenly Father thank you, thank you for calling me your child. I pray that as, as we let your words seep into our hearts, that we might have a sturdier understanding of what it means to be called your child. I pray that those in this room who may have had Fathers, earthly Fathers, who, who are far from perfect, have a soiled understanding of what Father means, I pray Lord that you would, by your grace, by your Spirit, by your word might purify that so we can see the wonders, the joy of you, our heavenly Father, who has our good in mind. Be with us today as we come to the table, thankful for what you’ve done for us and what you will do for us in Jesus’ name, we all said. Amen.
(Edited for Reading)