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Matthew 6:1-8 --- “True Religious Virtue”


This passage represents a slight change in the focus of Jesus’ sermon. Jesus continues to teach His audience what it means to have a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees so that one may enter the kingdom of heaven. However, now Jesus ceases to address the faulty teaching about the Law of God that characterized these Jewish religious leaders and now turns to the matter of practical piety, and how that too had been distorted by the scribes and Pharisees.

Just as a poor understanding of God’s Law can keep a person from being genuinely righteous, so can a bad example of piety or spiritually mindedness. In first century Judaism the core expressions of piety were almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. Jesus now addresses how these things should be practiced and how they had been corrupted by the religious leaders.

I. In Giving: (vs.1-4)

Jesus begins by addresses the wrong motivation for almsgiving; “Take heed that you do not do your charitable deeds before men, to be seen by them” (vs.1a). The Greek word translated as “take heed” was a word used as a nautical term to refer to directing a ship toward a given location, to keep on course toward a destination. In general usage the term meant to apply one’s mind or attention to something, to focus on something, or to apply oneself to a particular task or goal. The idea in how Jesus uses this term is to be aware of the danger of the temptation to do a good thing in the wrong way. The first aspect of personal piety that Jesus addresses, He calls “charitable deeds”. The first Greek word translated as “charitable deeds” is literally the word for “righteousness” and is the same term that appears in 5:20 where Christ explains that in order to enter the kingdom of heaven one needs a “righteousness” that exceeds what the scribes and Pharisees possessed. This notion of righteousness as almsgiving was basically a universally held idea among Jews in Jesus’ day, and this understanding spread to fledgling Christianity. In the English translation of verse two the expression “charitable deeds” is repeated. However, the original text has a different word, a word that literally means “acts of mercy or pity”. This word had become a technical term for giving to the poor. Therefore Jesus is speaking about a particular expression of righteousness, showing compassion to one’s fellow Jews by generously giving to help meet their needs or alleviate their suffering. Jesus’ warning is that these expressions of generosity are not to be done before other people.

Next, Jesus explains why a person should not give to the poor in order to be seen by others; “otherwise you have no reward from your Father in heaven” (vs.1b). Jesus is saying that anyone who gives charitably to others and is seen doing so, will not receive a reward from God. But reward is Jesus referring to? It is important to understand that from the perspective of the broad teaching of the NT it is clear that God does not consistently reward acts of righteousness with temporal blessings. In other words, the NT does not teach that if you do good things toward others that God will reward you with a prosperous and happy life. The reward that Jesus refers to is an eternal reward that one will receive at final judgment.

But why would giving so others can see it result in losing one’s reward? Jesus goes on to answer that very question. Jesus said, “Therefore, when you do a charitable deed, do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory from men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward” (vs.2). In providing this answer, Jesus first elaborates on why visible charity is unrighteous. Jesus cites as an example those He refers to as the “hypocrites”. The word “hypocrite” originally was applied to actors in the Greek plays who pretended to be what they were not. In NT times it came to someone who was a pretender or who falsely represented who or what they were. But does Jesus have anyone specifically in mind when He refers to hypocrites, or is He using the title in a general and non-specific sense? From a later sermon of Jesus’ that is also found in Matthew’s Gospel we are told definitively whom He had in mind:

  • “the scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat. Therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do, but do not do according to their works; for they say, and do not do. For they bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men's shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers. But all their works they do to be seen by men. They make their phylacteries broad and enlarge the borders of their garments. They love the best places at feasts, the best seats in the synagogues, greetings in the marketplaces, and to be called by men, 'Rabbi, Rabbi.'”
  • Matthew 23:2-7

    Therefore the scribes and Pharisees once again are those whose errant ways provide a contrast to what is truly righteous. The use of the title “hypocrite” to describe them is especially insightful in light of the problem Jesus was addressing; seeking to be seen by men when giving charitably. The Greek word translated as “seen” meant to behold, to look upon, to view attentively, or to watch something with the intent of contemplation. This word is the source of our English word “theater”, which refers to a place where people come to view something. Therefore Jesus is saying that the charitable giving of the scribes and Pharisees was a theatrical show for the sake of the audience watching; and like actors portraying a part, the act of giving did not genuinely represent who they really were. Jesus’ disciples were told not to sound a trumpet before they gave alms as these hypocrites did. There is some popular teaching that suggests that these first century religious leaders actually had someone blow trumpets when they gave. The problem with this teaching is that there is nothing in history to verify that this happened. Therefore it is best to conclude that what Jesus meant is similar to the meaning of a contemporary saying; “don’t toot your own horn”. In other words do not draw attention to yourself when giving charitably. The reason that Jesus warned His disciples about this is that there is a very powerful temptation that one faces when others know about the good or generous things we do. The temptation is what the scribes and Pharisees had succumbed to; giving with the intent “that they may have glory from men” (vs.2b). In other words (as was seen in the quotation from Matthew 23), these religious leaders were motivated to do righteous things not so much out of a passion for pleasing God; but in order to receive the praise, recognition, and respect of others for their piety. Jesus went on to say that since this was their motive, and they were in fact successful in gaining the approval of their peers “they have their reward”. They were not motivated to gain God’s approval, but men’s, and that is the temptation that faces anyone who sets out to live a godly life; the temptation to want the immediate recognition of other people, rather than the eventual approval and praise of God.

    Having given His disciples a critique of the wrong approach to charitable giving; Jesus next explains what His disciples should do when they give to others. Jesus said, “But when you do a charitable deed, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing” (vs.3). This is clearly not meant to be taken literally, and it is also not a metaphor because it is not clear what each hand would represent. It is hyperbole; taking an idea to an extreme point to emphasize its importance. Jesus used this expression to emphasize that in charitable giving His followers were to go to great lengths to keep what they did secret from others. The issue Jesus was addressing was not that it was sinful for people to know what righteous things others were doing. But rather in the midst of a religious culture that had become more about show and less about substance; His disciples were to make a decisive break from the contemporary practice and seek to conceal the good things they did so they would not be overcome with the temptation to be righteous for the approval of other people.

    Jesus completed His instruction on charitable giving by explaining the reason His disciples were to be so discrete, “that your charitable deed may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will Himself reward you openly” (vs.4). The principle here is that one does not have to worry about God seeing the good things we do; because He sees everything. Therefore concealing our good works merely protects us from being motivated to do them for the approval of others. But by being discrete we are doing our righteous acts only for God to see. In the KJV & NKJV the verse includes the word “openly”, whereas no other translations include that word. The reason is there is little manuscript evidence to support the notion that Jesus ever used that word. Beyond that, the word changes the statement into something verifiably false. It is not true (and the rest of the NT testifies that it isn’t) that God always visibly in this life rewards those who are obedient. Instead, the promise here is the opposite of the warning in verse one. Those who do righteous things only because they want to please God; can look forward to receiving their eternal reward in at the judgment from their Father in Heaven.

    II. In Praying: (vs.5-8)

    Jesus next turns to the second part of piety in first century Judaism; “And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward” (vs.5). It should be noticed that Jesus does not encourage His disciples to pray, but assumes that they will pray. Therefore, this is not instruction to have an orientation to spiritual things; but as with almsgiving, understanding how to pursue religious practices in a righteous way. In referring once again to the “hypocrites”, Jesus still has in mind the scribes and Pharisees. Jesus said that these religious leaders loved to pray in conspicuous places so others would witness them as they prayed. Their goal was specifically to be seen by their fellow Jews so they might receive praise and respect as holy men. Once again, Jesus calls these men “hypocrites” because they pretended their prayers expressed devotion to God, when the truth was it was to gain the praise of their fellow Jews. In first century Judaism there were specific times set for prayer. The times that were set for these prayers were at the 3rd and 9th hours (that is 9:00am and 3:00pm). Therefore since these prayers were offered at predicable times, these religious leaders were at these places specifically to be noticed by others. Of course since the scribes and Pharisees prayed with the intention of gaining the praise and admiration of others, they had, as Jesus said, already received the reward they were pursuing.

    Having addressed again, the Pharisaical abuse; Jesus next turns to instruct His disciples in how they should pray. He taught, “But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly” (vs.6). Jesus says that a true disciple by contrast should seek out a private room in which to pray. Some translations refer to this as a closet. However, such a meaning is misleading since closets were not something in great use in those times. The real idea is akin to a private chamber. However that still creates somewhat of a problem for our understanding because most people in Jesus’ audience did not have an extra room in their house (they lived in single room homes). Therefore this may be a sort of figure of speech to refer any place where one could gain privacy. Some interpreters through the centuries have concluded that Jesus is condemning all public prayer. However this cannot be the point for Jesus Himself prayed publicly (Matt.11:25; 14:19). Therefore as with His earlier teaching on oaths (Matt.5:33ff), Jesus is teaching His disciples to go to extreme lengths to avoid falling into the pattern of these hypocritical religious leaders. Once again the disciples are assured that even though no one else may see their spiritual devotion; God will. And as before, the word “openly” was not part of the original text but is an unhelpful insertion made by some scribe centuries ago.

    Jesus then says “And when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words” (vs.7). Here Jesus is no longer warning His disciples to avoid the distortion of prayer they would see in the Jewish religious leaders, but warns them about another unhelpful influence. Jesus’ audience was made up primarily of Jews from Galilee. These Jews lived their lives in proximity to those with pagan beliefs and so they would be familiar with their practices, and as always happens, they were influenced by those practices. Jesus warns not to pray using “vain repetitions”. The Greek word translated as “vain repetitions” refers to babbling, talking without content and with a great deal of repetition. The expression seems to be a form of onomatopoeia, because the pronunciation of the word sounds like a person stammering. Jesus explained that the pagans prayed this way because they believed their gods were more likely to hear them if they used many words. The Greek word translated as “many words” means wordiness, or talkativeness, with a negative connotation. The term is used only once in the Septuagint (Prov.10:19) where it is used to convey the principle that talking too much inevitably leads to sin. The wordiness here refers either to the enumeration of many deities or to the effort to wear down the gods by saying the same thing over and over. The pagans believed that the more they said and the louder it was said the more likely it was that they would receive what they were asking for. An example of this practice is seen in the actions of the priests of Ba’al who were attempting to elicit a response from their god in the contest between this false god and the true God on Mount Carmel (I Kings 18:25-29). Of course, the point is not to suggest that long prayers are always wrong. The intent is to denounce the idea that it is the length of one’s prayer rather than the content and substance of one’s prayer that matters. Jesus wanted His disciples to know that it was not true that God hears and answers prayers in proportion to the length of one’s prayers (an assumption that still plagues modern believers).

    Finally, Jesus added, “Therefore do not be like them. For your Father knows the things you have need of before you ask Him” (vs.8). Jesus exhorted His disciples not to pray like the pagans, and He explained why. The true God “knows the things you have need of before you ask Him”. The false gods literally had to be informed of what the petitioner needed or wanted; but this was not true of Yahweh. Prayer is not informing God about things concerning which He is ignorant; because God knows everything perfectly already. Prayer is also not really about persuading God to see things our way; because God is perfectly wise, is never mistaken, nor does He ever see things from the wrong perspective. So one might ask, why pray then? God does answer prayer. In fact James states that at times God will not give us things precisely because we do not ask (Jas.4:3). Prayer is about communicating with God and expressing our hearts to Him and expressing our dependence upon Him. The purpose in Jesus informing us about God’s knowledge is to protect us from errors about the nature of God and to ease our anxieties over whether or not we have prayed sufficiently for God to understand our needs and desires. And so Jesus stresses here that prayer is meant to be an exercise that connects the individual to God; it is not for gaining the approval of onlookers.


    The reason the scribes and Pharisees did what they did is because they really did not believe in God in their heart of hearts, nor did they have a relationship with Him. In general, the reason why someone does religious things for earthly rewards is because they don’t believe heavenly things really exist. So the question a person must ask himself is; do I believe these things are true?

    In the Bonds of Christ,

    Pastor Michael Huard

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