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“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. 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 6:16-18
While Matthew chapter 5 looks at the deeper heart issues of the Old Testament commandments, chapter 6 very pointedly addresses hypocrisy. Jesus adds a third rebuff to his growing list of hypocritical traits–fasting for public show.
Again, the religiously elite of His earthly day did everything they could to make sure people recognized their so-called holiness, which really amounted to nothing more than boastful acts of self-righteousness.
Beginning in the Old Testament, people fasted for the Day of Atonement, the only required fast of the year. However, throughout the year, they would voluntarily fast for times of national crisis, during grieving periods or to humbly express devotion to God.
In the New Testament, the Pharisees fasted twice a week out of prescribed habit and expected practice [Luke 18:12]. In later centuries, contrary to Jesus’ warnings here, Christians turned fasting into an ascetic challenge, an act of severe self-discipline.
Fasting is giving up or going without food, water or other pleasures for a predetermined period of time. Time which is devoted to praying–true prayer. A fast can last for just a few hours or it can last as long as forty days. You can give up one item or everything–though for matters of health, it is unwise to try to give up all food and drink for forty days. Yet the asceticists challenged themselves to outdo one another in this fashion, potentially turning something spiritually beneficial into something physically harmful, and all in the name of pride.
The hypocrisy comes when our heart isn’t right. When we do something with impure motives. The only reason to fast is to draw closer to God. It is a good thing. But as sinful human beings we have a way of taking good things and twisting them into bad things.
The so-called religiously devout of Jesus’ day were fasting–good thing. But they were making a public show of their fasting out of pride–bad thing. At that point, any prayers they may have uttered were empty. Because they weren’t fasting to draw closer to God. They were fasting so that others would think of them as more spiritual.
Pride always comes before our downfall [Proverbs 16:18]. Someone pats us on the back, tells us, good job. It feels good. And if they think so, then surely God thinks so too. And maybe He does at first. But as our pride begins to seek more human recognition, to need the back-pat and the encouraging words or maybe more, it pushes God out of the equation. Then all of sudden, what began as a spiritually healthy, life-giving practice becomes a spiritually-dead, life-rotting bad habit.
Do you fast? Devoting time to seek God uninterrupted on important matters or to give your grief to Him is powerful. If you already fast, is it habitual or purposeful? Is it prideful or penitent?
“Give us today our daily bread.” Matthew 6:11
Again, Jesus reaches back into the Old Testament and produces a heavenly gem for His hearers to reconsider. They would’ve know the Proverbs, studied the wisdom sayings to apply in their everyday life as was their practical purpose. But did they really think about the heart-level meaning of them?
Maybe some did, but Jesus knew what these listening hearts needed. He spoke to the gap in their understanding.
And He quoted from a man named Agur, who was, like Job, a wise man though probably not an Israelite. The full context of the phrase, Give us today our daily bread, is worthy of consideration. Agur prayed:
“Two things I ask of you, Lord; do not refuse me before I die: Keep falsehood and lies far from me; give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’ Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonor the name of my God.” Proverbs 30:7-9
When Jesus instructs us to pray for our daily bread, it is so that we will learn to depend on God once again. In the Garden of Eden, God provided for everything that Adam and Eve needed [1:29]. When sin–the decision to be their own gods–entered the world, they had to begin to provide for themselves, and the ground didn’t cooperate because humans do not have the power of God to control the earth as He does [Genesis 3:17-19].
But He didn’t leave them without sustenance [Genesis 8:22]. God desired to reconcile them to Himself and to be their provider–if only they would trust in Him. And He desires the same for us.
Ironically, so fallen is the sinful nature that even God’s provision can become a stumbling block to the life of faith. As Agur notes, when times are tough we might turn to God or we might turn to self-as-god and steal our needs for ourselves. Yet, when times are plentiful and God provides in abundance, again we get cocky and pat ourselves on the back–Look how good I’ve done for myself. God warned the Israelites that they would face the self-same temptation when they entered the Promised Land [Deuteronomy 6:10-12] and assumed the homes, vineyards and riches of the people they drove out.
Both extremes, poverty and riches, turn our hearts from God. Instead, Agur prayed that God would keep him on the straight and narrow path that leads to life [Matthew 7:13-14]. And Jesus said that we don’t live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God [Deuteronomy 8:3; Matthew 4:4].
In the scheme of temptations, Satan doesn’t care which extreme he lures you to accept. So long as he keeps you off the path that leads to life. His only desire is to steal from you, kill you and destroy your eternal life [John 10:10].
Are your prayers filled with requests for abundance or provision of wants rather than basic needs? Ask the Holy Spirit to tune your heart to God’s. Trust Him to provide exactly what you need at exactly the time you need it. In all things, seek the advancement of His kingdom first, then trust God to provide the rest [Matthew 6:33].
“Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Matthew 6:10
Once we get our prayer word count in check so that we’re talking respectfully to God–not just whining and nagging–and we have our hearts reverenced to recognize Him as the One True Living God, then we should will the coming of His kingdom–the restoration of His Creation to the way He intended it–to this earth [Matthew 3:2].
This piece of the struggle with prayer is huge!
Think about what most prayer times consist of. I want. I want. I need. I need. Give me. Bless me. My friends/family want and need. The world wants and needs. Get’er done God. Amen.
But do we ever take the time to stop and consider whether what we want and think we need are in anyway connected to what God is trying to do on the planet through human history? Not usually.
It’s normal sinful human nature to pray like this, but then it is also completely understandable that we don’t get the responses that we’re hoping for. Remember, Satan lied to us and told us that we could be our own god. Sometimes Christians try to let God be God as long as He does what they want. In essence, we recognize there is a true God, but we’re just trying to use His divine power and authority to fulfill of our self-as-god desires.
Not how it works. We’ve got it completely backwards. Because our faith doesn’t exist to move God. Our faith exists so that God can move us.
Just because we believe He exists. Just because we believe He has the power to heal and the means to provide. Just because we say that we love Him, doesn’t mean we get to use Him like our own personal servant. We need to stop praying like He’s a God-on-a-leash, here to do what we say, and start praying out of our genuine relationship with Him.
Loving Him. Understanding His plan and purpose on this planet and how we fit into it. Seeking His will and wisdom in all things [Matthew 26:39]. Leaning on Him to provide as He sees best for us instead of telling Him what we think is best for us [Proverbs 30:8]. And trusting Him.
If you’ve ever struggled with praying and unbelief in prayer, maybe you need to check out whether you’re trying to use God to get what you want–even in well meaning things like the healing of a loved one or protection in a natural disaster. Remember, that when we pray according to God’s will, it will be done [1 John 5:14-15]. But when we pray according to our self-as-god will, we shouldn’t be surprised when the heavens respond with cricket chirps.
Do you pray for God’s will or your own to be done?
“And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. This then is how you should pray: ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name,'”Matthew 6:7-9
Quite often, Jesus references the Old Testament in His New Testament discourse. This should, in our minds, solidify His statement that He came to fulfill the Law and not to abolish even the smallest portion of it [Matthew 5:17-18].
The mention of pagans here, hearkens back to the story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal [1 Kings 18:26-29] and an exhortation of King Solomon about speaking thoughtfully and purposefully with God [Ecclesiastes 5:2]. Both contrast the verbose tendencies of idol worshipers.
Their gods are no god at all but rather precious metal, stone, wood and the like–statues and images made by human hands [Psalm 115:4 & 135:15; Isaiah 2:8; Jeremiah 16:20-21]. They cannot hear or respond. Because of this, idol worshipers tend to talk and talk and talk their nonliving god into the ground, like beating a dead horse they can never penetrate the idol’s ears, let alone its heart, with their many words.
As Christians, we serve the one true living God [Jeremiah 10:10]. We don’t need to drone on with repetitive incantations or nagging requests. God hears us just fine [1 Samuel 1:17-20; 1 John 5:14]. And He knows what we need before we even ask Him [Matthew 6:8]. So we shouldn’t treat Him like a deaf stone statue. It’s irreverent. And it shows that we don’t have a right understanding of Him. That we need to grow in our relationship with Him.
When we pray, we know that God hears us and that, in His wisdom, He will do what is right in response to our request. Which–contrary to human opinion–is not always to give us what we ask for.
So then, how should we pray?
Recognize God for who He is. Our heavenly Father, whose very name is hallowed–meaning holy. We don’t use God’s name emptily or profanely. We don’t treat it like a magic genie’s lamp to get whatever we want. Instead, we call on the Lord as our friend who sticks closer than a brother and as our loving Father [Proverbs 18:24; 1 John 3:1].
It’s like walking into a king’s palace or any U.S. president’s Oval Office and saying, Yo bub, give me whatever I want because I’m asking you by name and you’re my government servant and you have to do whatever I want. We wouldn’t dream of trying to get things like this from earthly authorities. So why is it that when we pray we treat God with no more respect than a fictitious genie in a lamp?
If you struggle with prayer and the faith to believe that God will answer, maybe try putting your requests on ice for a time, and start seeking God to show you who He really is. Get to know Him as God. Begin to reverence Him in your heart and life. Then, when your relationship is right, bring your requests to Him as your Holy Heavenly Father.
How do you talk to God when you pray?
“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. 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 6:5-6
Prayer is an intimate relationship building time with God. It is talking to Him daily just as we would with our closest friends and family.
But many Jews in Jesus’ earthly day had turned this very important practice into a self-righteousness show-off contest. It was for reputation building alone and missed the whole point of spending time with God. Maybe it gave them political advantage, or extra points with their boss, or maybe even the bride of their choice, but it was a spiritually bankrupt pursuit.
Just like with giving to the needy for social gain, so taking the time to pray for others to notice is a waste of time. This is not a sincere petition of faith brought before a loving God, it might as well be a fashion show or a popularity poll passed among peers.
Most people today wouldn’t dream of praying out loud on a street corner for everyone to see, not in our political climate. It can be hard enough bowing our head to mutter a silent prayer in the school cafeteria or the workplace break room before lunch. And this is what many unbelievers consider hypocrisy today. Saying if we really believe, then we should be bold enough to publicly live out our prayer life and our prayers should be effective.
But what about at church?
At church, people expect to see the fruit of Godliness in our lives. They expect to see us praying fervently and praising and worshiping with eyes closed or hands lifted. Corporate prayer, praise and worship can be a spiritual, mental and emotional struggle because the temptation to do outwardly what everyone else expects from us can make our church time with God just as meaningless as the pious Jews of Jesus’ time on earth.
Normally, we should spend one-on-one time with God. This isn’t an easy habit to develop, but it is vital to Christian life. And when we are at church, the ability to close out everyone around us and just be with God will flow from the personal time we’ve spent with Him when we’re alone. Sincere prayer comes from the heart in love with God and the wisdom gleaned from His Word and His Holy Spirit in our lives.
Do you spend time alone with God daily? Do you feel pressured to participate at church to maintain others’ perception of you? Or do you have a well-developed relationship with your heavenly Father? Wherever you are along this path, keep pressing on and daily pressing in to know Him more.
“Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 5:19-20
There are so many questions concerning sin and the ten commandments and salvation through faith in Christ alone. Like–is breaking one of the ten commandments a sin today? Does the Old Testament really matter if we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus? If we are saved by God’s grace, and our sins are forgiven, is it ok if we still sin unknowingly? What about knowingly? Can’t we just ask forgiveness for our new sins? And many others.
When we accept Christ as Lord of our lives, it’s true that grace is ours. We are no longer under the Law which brought condemnation. So when we sin–whether knowingly or unknowingly–we have forgiveness in Christ. But that’s not license to keep on sinning [Romans 6:1]. Our old selves have been made new [2 Corinthians 5:17], so that we can hold the new wine of Jesus’ power in our lives [Matthew 9:17].
Jesus tells us that forgiven lawbreakers will be in heaven. But those who continue to disobey God’s commands and teach others to do it too, those people will be known as the least in heaven. While those who keep and teach God’s commands will be considered great in heaven.
While God is completely transcendent–above and outside of any such continuum–heavenly rewards will vary depending on the lives that we live [1 Kings 8:32; Matthew 5:12 & 6:19-24; Luke 6:23].
So yes, breaking a ten commandment–and any of God’s other commands–is still a sin today. Because disobeying God is sin. Yes, the Old Testament absolutely still matters because Jesus came to fulfill all that was written in the Old Testament, not to expunge it. Through the Old Testament we understand the heart of the greatest commandments and recognize our sinful state. Yes, if we are under grace our sins are forgiven whether continually committed knowingly or unknowingly. But no, we should not be ok with willfully continuing to sin.
We should daily be taking up our cross and wearing Christ like a robe, so that as we are being renewed in the renovation of our minds, we can be salt and light to this world.
The Pharisees and the teachers of the law knew and kept the law to the letter, but they missed the point. Their hearts didn’t grow closer to God but more full of themselves. They didn’t love their fellow human being but instead despised them as unholy and unworthy.
If God’s Word doesn’t change us anymore than it did the religious leaders of His day, Jesus warns us that we will not enter heaven [Matthew 5:20].
What reward will you receive for the life you live? Are you pressing on in faith to attain the prize? Or are you habitually going through religious motions without letting the truth penetrate your heart and make you new?
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.” Matthew 5:17-18
In His day, people were trying to figure Jesus out. False prophets were not uncommon in Israel in the past [Jeremiah 14:14 & 23:16; Lamentations 2:14; Ezekiel 13:9 & 22:28; Hosea 11:6; Matthew 7:15; Acts 5:26-29 & 13:6]. So was this guy from Galilee really a miracle-working prophet of God? Was He possibly even the promised Messiah?
And if Jesus was a prophet or the Messiah, what was God’s directive? Was He instituting a new order through this audacious preacher-prophet-teacher-healer?
Jesus knew their hearts and minds [Matthew 12:25; Luke 5:22, 6:8-10 & 11:17]. He answered their questions before they could ask them out loud. No, God is not changing His plan of redemption. Yes, the Law and the Prophets still matter in the eternal scheme of human history. Yes, I am the fulfillment of everything that you have studied and heard. No, this world will not last forever. No, God isn’t rewriting the game rules. Yes, everything God said would happen will happen.
The Law of Moses was more than just the ten commandments, though they get the most attention. There were people in Israel whose whole life’s work was to study and interpret the law–experts akin to modern day lawyers. But the Law was meant to show people their sinfulness [Romans 7:7-8 & 8:3]–not to redeem them from it. The Prophets also came to make people aware of their sin, yet they too were powerless to save anyone.
Jesus came to complete the work began in the Law and the Prophets. He came to redeem people from their sin. As long as the Creation endures–and it is going to pass away one day [Revelation 21:1]–the Law and the Prophets will still show people their sin and Jesus will still, by God’s grace through our faith, reconcile the repentant to Himself.
It’s interesting to note that Jesus refers to the alphabet in these verses. When He says the least letter, it is the Hebrew yodh or the Greek iota, both literally the smallest letters in their respective alphabets. And the least stroke refers to the horn a little letter flourish, like the bottom curve of a lowercase j. God didn’t change his mind or His plan on even the smallest detail.
As the author of life [Acts 3:15], God never needs to brainstorm, draft or revise. He never needs to eat His words or print a retraction or buy a bottle of whiteout. He doesn’t backspace or delete.
The Word of the Lord stands forever [Isaiah 40:8; Matthew 24:35; 1 Peter 1:25]. Are you standing on that Word?