Being a Secret Christian

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Matthew 6:1-8, 16-18 (Giving, praying, fasting)

INTRODUCTION: We are entering a new chapter and a new section on the Sermon on the Mount today, so this would be a great time just to review where we’ve been so far. Chapter five had three major sections. The first section was the Beatitudes which dealt with the Christian’s character. Then we had the salt and light passage which dealt with the Christian’s influence. Then we had the longer section on the law which dealt with the Christian’s righteousness. Now as we begin chapter six, this next section deals with good works and the Christian’s motivation. Why do you do good works? What is your motivation? All of chapter six can be summed up in two words: “God first!” And when you do good works, your motivation also must be: “God first.” (Read Matthew 6:1 and pray)

Today’s message is called “Being a Secret Christian” which is odd because our message on the salt and light passage back in Matthew 5 was called “Being an Obvious Christian.” So which is it? Are you supposed to be a secret Christian or an obvious Christian? They’re opposites, so you can’t be both! Right? Or can you?

Jesus closed out the salt and light passage in chapter five by saying: “Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16) Now he begins chapter six by saying: “Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them.” (Matthew 6:1) So basically, let your light shine, but make sure you keep it a secret! What are we supposed to do with that?

Well, we need to understand that Jesus is addressing two different issues in these passages. In Matthew 5 he was addressing your influence in the world and that you must be different from the world in order to change it. Here in Matthew 6 he is addressing the motivation of your heart. Why do you do what you do? What is your motive? To give God glory or to gain glory for yourself?

Jesus is showing us the difference between hypocritical vs. authentic righteousness. It is not only important that you do the right thing, but that you do it in the right way and for the right reason. Righteousness is an inward matter. God does not look at the outward act but at your heart. And so Jesus begins this section by saying: “Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 6:1)

He begins with a warning: “Be careful!” This is a strong warning. You could even translate it as, “Beware!” Jesus has just explained the deeper meaning of the law; he has called his disciples to a surpassing righteousness, and now he lets us know that we are entering dangerous waters here. There is a real danger of taking these beautiful acts of righteousness and emptying them of their meaning if your motivation is wrong. So he warns us, “Be careful! Watch out! This will require constant vigilance on your part.”

What’s the issue here? Your motivation. Your heart. It all comes down to who gets the praise. Do you get the praise, or does God get the praise? If you do good works to get the praise for yourself, Jesus says you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. You must put God first in all things.

Jesus then takes this principle and applies it specifically to the three areas of giving, praying and fasting. These are three important duties in almost every religion in the world, but they were particularly important to ancient Judaism. They were sometimes called the three pillars of Judaism. So let’s take a look at these three pillars and see what Jesus says about each of them.

I. Giving in secret (2-4)

The first pillar Jesus addresses is that of giving. And he shows us there is a wrong way to give, and there is a right way to give.

   A. The wrong way to give:

      • To be honored by other people (“with trumpets”)
         – already received their reward in full

The wrong way is to give to be honored by other people. Look at verse 2: “So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full.” (Matthew 6:2) Jesus begins this section with the words “when you give,” which means he assumes that you will give. Giving money to the poor was considered a sacred obligation for the Jews, and Jesus assumes that his followers will give too.

Jesus says: “When you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets as the hypocrites do.” The word translated “hypocrite” here is a word that was used to describe an actor who wore a mask. The Pharisees were hypocrites. They were actors pretending to be righteous when it was really all a show to draw attention to themselves.

When Jesus says “they announce it with trumpets,” he is using humor here to make a point. People sometimes wonder if God has a sense of humor, and I always answer, “Of course he does. He made you and me, didn’t he?” Well Jesus uses humor here to point out the ridiculousness of their hypocrisy. Can you imagine someone having a group of trumpet players blasting out a fanfare just as they are getting ready to give? The trumpets play a flourish, and everyone looks, and there you are dropping your money in the plate. Everyone bursts out in applause, and you reply: “Thank you! Thank you! It was nothing! Thank you!”

Well that’s what Jesus is talking about here. Jesus says when you give to be honored by other people – that’s hypocritical. Jesus says there should be no publicity seeking when you give, no drawing attention to yourself, no tooting your own horn.

What’s worse, Jesus says when you give to be honored by men, you miss out on God’s reward. Why? Because you’ve already received your reward in full. The phrase in the original language means “paid in full” including the receipt for payment. You wanted people to notice you? Then you got what you wanted. There is no other reward waiting. Here’s your receipt. You’ve been paid in full.

We don’t announce our giving with trumpets today, but we sometimes give in other obvious ways. The fund named after you, the plaque on the wall, giving with strings attached – these are all ways that we give to be honored by other people today.

   B. The right way to give:

      • In secret (“left hand / right hand”)
         – your Father will reward you

So that’s the wrong way to give: to be honored by men. What’s the right way to give? Jesus says “in secret.” Look at verses 3-4: “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. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” (Matthew 6:3-4)

Jesus is using humor and exaggeration here again to make a point. How can your left hand not know what your right hand is doing? Jesus is saying when you give, you should not only hide it from others, but don’t dwell on it yourself. First Jesus says don’t give for the applause of others. Now he says do not even give out of a motivation of self-satisfaction. There should be no patting yourself on the back with your left hand while giving with the right.

But when you give in secret, then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. You see there are no secrets with God. God is all-knowing and all-present. He will see your good deeds even if no one else does. And this should be your real motivation in giving – to please God, and God alone.

People are sometimes bothered by this whole idea of heavenly rewards. Shouldn’t we be motivated to give even without any promise of reward? Why does God promise us heavenly rewards as part of our motivation?

Well, for a couple reasons. First of all, heavenly rewards demonstrate God’s justice. God is a just God, and therefore he punishes evil and rewards good. That is part of being just. And then secondly, every time you choose God’s reward instead of man’s reward you are acting in faith. You are choosing the unseen reward by faith rather than the visible reward in the here and now. Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see (Hebrews 11:1), and as Christians we are called to live a life of faith.

As we seek to obey this command from Jesus, people sometimes wonder if it’s okay to write a check or to give online where someone will know what you gave. It all depends on your motivation. Most people in our country who give by check or online banking do so out of a motivation of good stewardship rather than a motivation of pride. It is good stewardship to take the appropriate deductions from your taxes. Just make sure that you are not giving to be honored by other people.

II. Praying in secret (5-8)

The second pillar that Jesus addresses in this section is prayer. And once again there is a wrong way to pray, and there is a right way to pray.

   A. The wrong way to pray:

      • To be seen by other people (“synagogues and street corners”)
         – already received their reward in full

Similar to giving, the wrong way is to pray to be seen by other people. Look at verse 5: “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full.” (Matthew 6:5)

Just as with giving, Jesus begins with “when you pray,” which means Jesus assumes that you will pray. There is no such thing as a Christian who does not pray.

Jesus says the hypocrites “love to pray.” That sounds good on the surface. We should all love to pray. But look at why they loved to pray: “to be seen by men.” They didn’t love prayer because they loved God. No, they loved to pray in public for public acclaim.

Once again Jesus uses humor to make his point. He imagines the person standing up right in the synagogue or out on the street corners drawing attention to himself. “Hey everyone, look at me! I’m praying over here!” Anyone working the streets knows the corner is the best spot because you’ve got people going both ways. Double the traffic! Double the audience! Jesus says they have received their reward in full.

Now we probably don’t go out to the corner of Broward Blvd. and University Drive, but there are other ways we pray to be seen by other people. We like the attention when we pray out loud before others. We casually mention our devotion time or post it on Facebook. We pray more in public than we do in private. Jesus says it is wrong to pray to be seen by other people. There will be no further reward. Here is your receipt. Paid in full.

      • Meaningless repetition (“babbling like pagans”)
         – think they will be heard because of their many words

And then the second wrong way is to pray using meaningless repetition. Look at verse 7: “And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.” (Matthew 6:7) Here Jesus moves from the Pharisees to the pagans, from the wrong motivation for prayer to the wrong manner of praying.

The pagans babble in prayer because they think the more words they use, the more likely their gods will hear. We read in the Old Testament how the prophets of Baal danced around the altar and cried out to Baal from morning to noon. But no one answered. There was no response. (1 Kings 18:26) Some pagans ran through a rapid-fire list of all their different gods’ names when they prayed in hopes that one of them might pick up on the request. Jesus says this is the wrong way to pray.

Some people say from this passage that you should never pray about something more than once, but it is not wrong to repeat your requests to the Lord. Jesus prayed the same prayer three times in the Garden of Gethsemane. He also taught the importance of persevering in prayer. What is wrong here is meaningless repetition: either saying the same thing over and over again because you don’t think God heard you the first time, or even worse, trying to manipulate God into answering by using many words.

It is ironic that Jesus’ command not to engage in meaningless repetition comes to us in the same chapter as the Lord’s Prayer. The Lord’s Prayer is a wonderful model for prayer. It is very meaningful when prayed thoughtfully. But there is always a danger that we might speak this prayer on our lips without meaning the words in our hearts, and that would be another example of meaningless repetition.

   B. The right way to pray:

      • In secret (“go into your room, close the door”)
         – your Father will reward you

So those are two wrong ways to pray: to be seen by other people, and to engage in meaningless repetition. What then is the right way to pray?

First of all, Jesus says you should pray in secret. Look at verse 6: “But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” (Matthew 6:6)

The room Jesus spoke about in this verse was the storage room in the house. Typically this was the only room in the house that actually had a door. Now praying in a private place with the door closed is great for privacy and to cut down distractions, but Jesus has a different reason in mind here. He wants to remove the temptation of praying in order to be seen by others. It doesn’t do any good to go into your room to pray if you hang a big sign on the door saying, “Do not disturb. I am busy praying!”

Secret prayer is at the heart of the Christian life. Prayer is meant to be an expression of dependency on God, not pride in self. For prayer to be prayer it must be prayed with pure motives. So Jesus says go into your room and close the door. Pray to your Father, who is unseen, and then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

Once again, this does not mean that it is wrong to pray in public. Jesus does not say it is wrong to be seen praying. Rather it is wrong praying in order to be seen. All the great Old Testament leaders prayed in public, as did Jesus and the apostles in the New Testament. Jesus is not banning family prayer or prayer meetings or public prayer in church. He is talking about private prayer. (He uses singular pronouns throughout this section.) And he is talking about your motivation for prayer. Why do you pray? Do you pray to focus people’s attention on God or do you pray to draw attention to yourself?

Some people like to pray in a restaurant before their meal. Is that wrong? Well, once again, it depends on why you do it. As long as it’s meant as true thankfulness to God and a witness to others, then it’s a great practice. I think about Daniel in the Old Testament who prayed publicly as a witness to God. But if you’re doing it to show off, then you’d be better off not doing it. And if you pray before your meals in a restaurant, you better pray before your meals at home too. Otherwise you’re being hypocritical once again.

In fact, one of the best ways to keep your public prayers honest is to keep your private prayer life intact. How much time do you spend with God in private prayer? Jesus prayed in public, but he prayed a whole lot more in private. William Wilberforce once said: “I must secure more time for private devotions. I have been living far too public for me. The shortening of private devotions starves the soul.”

Once again, there are no secrets with God. He sees the prayer that no one else can see. And he will reward you because he is good and because he is just.

      • Simple, direct petitions (see the Lord’s Prayer: vv. 9-13)
         – your Father knows what you need before you ask him

So what is the right way to pray? First of all, you should pray in secret. And then secondly, you should pray using simple, direct petitions. This is opposed to the pagans who kept on babbling because they thought they would be heard because of their many words. Jesus says in verse 8: “Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” (Matthew 6:8)

God is not some distant, distracted deity that you need to yell at to get his attention. He is your heavenly Father who loves you and loves it when you ask. As Martin Luther writes on this verse: “Faith quickly gets through telling what it wants … Many long prayers are not the way … Prayers ought to be brief, frequent and intense.” Frederick Bruner writes: “Prayer is not an intelligence briefing for God; it is intelligent conversation with him.” August Van Ryn writes: “God judges prayers not by their length but by their depth.”

God is not reluctant to hear and answer your prayers. He is your heavenly Father! As God says in Isaiah 65:24: “Before they call I will answer; while they are still speaking I will hear.” (Isaiah 65:24) This is the beauty of prayer. God knows what you need, but he still wants you to ask.

Jesus goes on to give further instructions about prayer in the section on the Lord’s Prayer, but we will jump over that for now and come back to it next week.

III. Fasting in secret (16-18)

So far we have looked at giving and praying. And now we come to the third pillar, which is fasting. And just as with giving and praying: there is a wrong way to fast, and there is a right way to fast.

   A. The wrong way to fast:

      • To show other people (“look somber … disfigure their faces”)
         – already received their reward in full

The wrong way to fast is to show other people. Look at verse 16: “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full.” (Matthew 6:16)

Once again Jesus begins by saying “when you fast.” That means Jesus assumes that you will fast. Not only that, he even gives you instructions on how to do it! Just like giving and praying, fasting is not optional in the Christian life but something Jesus simply expects that you will do.
We are not as familiar with fasting as we are with giving or praying, but some of the occasions for fasting in the Bible include times for confession of sin, special pleading with God, moments of crisis, important decisions, growing in self-control, or doing without in order to give to the poor. These are all appropriate reasons for fasting.

Regular fasting can be helpful in your spiritual life. You might choose to fast once a week for a season in order to focus on a particular issue in prayer. God might direct you to take a longer fast from time to time as the need arises.

But when you fast, as Jesus assumes that you will, don’t be like the hypocrites! Once again Jesus uses humor to make his point. Jesus says the hypocrites look somber and disfigure their faces when they fast. They look weak and fatigued; they stagger around, and put ashes on their face. When someone asks them, “Are you okay?” they reply, “Yes, I’m fine, I’m just … fasting.” And everyone goes, “Oooooh!” and God says, “Paid in full. Here is your receipt.”

The whole purpose of fasting is to humble yourself before God. So it is completely wrong to fast from a motivation of pride, in order to show other people that you are fasting.

   B. The right way to fast:

      • In secret (“put oil on your head and wash your face”)
         – your Father will reward you

Jesus says the right way to fast is in secret. Look at verse 17-18: “But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” (Matthew 6:17-18)

Basically Jesus says when you fast, look normal. Keep it between you and God. Don’t put on a show for others. Some people will have to know you are fasting, perhaps family members or those you live with, but don’t advertise it. As John Stott writes: “The purpose of fasting is not to advertise ourselves but to discipline ourselves, not to gain a reputation for ourselves but to express our humility before God and our concern for others in need. If these purposes are fulfilled, it will be reward enough.”

CONCLUSION: So, are you an obvious Christian or a secret Christian? Jesus says you should be both! When it comes to your influence in the world around you, you need to be an obvious Christian. “Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16) But when it comes to the motivations of your heart, you need to be a secret Christian. “Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them.” (Matthew 6:1)

Once again, it all comes down to who gets the praise. Do you do good works so that you will get the praise, or so that God will get the praise? If you get the praise, then you have already received your reward in full. Take your receipt and go. But when you do your good works in secret, then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

So tear up those earthly receipts. Let us live by faith for the better and lasting rewards that only God can give. For if you are in Christ, then God is your heavenly Father. He is just; he is gracious; he is good.

© Ray Fowler

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