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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?
“Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.’ For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” Matthew 6:12-15
Forgiveness should be a top priority in our prayer life. When we first come to Christ, we do so with a penitent heart in order to be set free from the life of sin that has consumed us.
But as we continue to grow in Christ we should also be asking forgiveness in prayer because none of us is perfect. Even saved we regularly commit sins. Hopefully these are either unwitting or at least not premeditated. Many will be left over habits that we will need the Holy Spirit to help us conquer. But our desire should to be overcome the sinful nature, to become less and less like sin and more and more like Christ with each passing day.
God never tempts us to commit these sins, they are the result of our own evil desires at work within us [James 1:13-15].
Now, many people today refuse to think of themselves as evil. Understandably. In the scheme of history, we have seen overwhelming evil in the world and we’re not anywhere near that bad.
But remember, evil in scripture is anything contrary to the perfect and holy goodness of God.
Our desire to be our own god, to choose right and wrong for ourselves–patterned after Satan’s lie in the Garden–is itself evil [Genesis 3:5]. And we ask God in His wisdom, never to lead us into paths where the desire to live contrary to His will can take root. Moreover, we ask Him to completely deliver us from Satan–the progenitor of evil. To deliver, literally means to liberate or to set free from. We pray so that God can completely set us free from the enemy whose only desire is to steal, kill and destroy us [John 10:10].
It’s interesting that Jesus notes temptation and evil in conjunction with forgiving others. When we refuse to forgive others, we are giving in to the temptation of our own evil–contrary to God–desires. We are living as though we were captives of the evil one rather than liberated by Christ.
When we refuse to forgive others, we are setting ourselves up as finite gods, taking matters into our own hands. And we have the free will to choose to do it too. But the result is not good. When we withhold forgiveness, we deny God’s image in us, we deny God’s sovereignty and trample the mercy He so freely gave us [Matthew 18:21-35; Ephesians 4:32; Colossians 3:13].
If we can’t forgive, then we can’t be forgiven [Mark 11:25-26].
Do you have something against someone else? Does someone have something against you? Both are your responsibility to resolve. In the case of the other person’s bad feelings, as far as it depends on you restore the peace [Romans 12:18]. Forgive them and love them and wait for the time their heart is ready to reconcile.
“If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.” Matthew 5:29-30
Jesus is still talking here about the command not to commit adultery. But He hyperbolizes the practical application of it.
In Biblical culture, anything on the right side of the body was considered honored [Mark 16:19; Acts 7:55-56; Romans 8:34; Ephesians 1:20; Colossians 3:1]. While the left hand was typically considered dishonored because of its hygienic function. So if the eye–which is the lamp that lets light into our whole body [Matthew 6:22]–and the honorable eye at that, gazes lustfully at others, we’re guilty of the sin of adultery.
Remember that God is transcendent. As humans, we tend to see good and bad, right and wrong in spectrums. We qualify things as kind-of-good and not-so-bad. But God does no such thing. Either it’s of God or it’s sin. Lustful eyes are symptomatic of a sinful heart.
So again, if the most honorable light source in our life fixates on sinful passions, we would be better off living this finite life half-blind, so that we don’t miss out on eternal life.
Now obviously, the struggle with lust can’t be associated with only one eye. We use both to look. So both are the offenders. Just like a person isn’t likely to commit sins of theft or adultery with one arm tied behind their back. But even if one did, the whole person would still be guilty of theft. By using a hyperbole–an exaggerated statement or claim not meant to be taken literally–Jesus emphasizes His point. It is the sin that needs to be cut out of our lives by whatever means necessary.
God made a covenant of circumcision with the patriarch Abraham and His chosen people, Israel [Genesis 17:1-25]. After the Exodus and throughout the New Testament, God let the people know that true circumcision needed to be of the heart [Deuteronomy 10:16 & 30:6; Jeremiah 4:4; Romans 2:25-29].
You see, circumcision is physically removing some unnecessary flesh that could create health problems. But we need to cut the love-of-this-world-flesh off of our whole heart–intellect, will and emotion–because it only leads to spiritual health problems. Jesus’ command to gouge out an offending eye or to cut of an offending hand has the same meaning.
Does God really want people to go around maiming themselves? Not at all! But He does want us to understand the seriousness of sin, to repent of it and to flee from it [Isaiah 59:2; Acts 2:38; 1 Corinthians 6:18]. In the end, it’s better for us to miss out on the emptiness of this finite life than to spend the rest of eternity regretting our lack of self-control.
We all struggle with a particular sin or another [Romans 3:23]. But we can ask the Holy Spirit to empower us to flee from it or to miraculously heal us and cut it out of our life. What sin are you in? Will you willingly give it to God? Or eternally regret it?
“Therefore if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.” Matthew 5:23-24
Jesus is still talking here about the command not to murder. Remember that the seeds of self-superiority, bitterness and anger can grow into full-blown murder if not repented of and removed from the heart.
But also, when we don’t forgive others the sins or wrongs they have committed against us, God doesn’t forgive our sins [Matthew 6:14-15; Mark 11:16].
More important than fulfilling religious rituals–like giving offerings, taking communion or even regular church attendance–is that we love God and love our fellow human beings.
So when it doesn’t seem like our prayers are being answered, when we feel far from God, when our worship seems to bounce back at us from brass heavens, when the Holy Spirit convicts us and we remember that we’ve done something to upset someone else, then we need to go make things right with that person before trying to get ourselves right with God again.
Here we see that it is not just the responsibility of the offended to freely give forgiveness, but it is up to us to know when we’ve done something to offend someone. To be self-aware of our words and deeds and how they effect others’. God’s grace isn’t a license to walk around willfully or even inadvertently offending others.
We are responsible for making sure that we live at peace with everyone as far as it depends on us [Romans 12:18]. And we are also responsible not to put stumbling blocks–like thought seeds that can lead to murder–in other people’s lives [Romans 14:13].
When we do our part, no matter how others respond, then God’s blessings will flow freely, unhindered, in our lives. Because God’s kingdom is about righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit [Romans 14:16].
Have you offended someone? Can you think of anyone who holds something against you? Have you done everything you can to bring peace and forgiveness to the matter? Have you yourself forgiven the offended person?
“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.” Matthew 5:21-22
Immediately following Jesus’ proclamation that He would fulfill the Law, He begins citing some of the commandments in question. Do not murder, for example [Exodus 20:13; Deuteronomy 5:17]. Murder is a crime punishable by human law. But it is, first and foremost, a manifestation of sin prosecuted by God Himself.
But Jesus takes the forbidden fruit–murder–and traces it back to its root–anger. When we allow anger to seed itself in our heart–root, grow and bear fruit–the result is a murderous rage capable of snapping at any moment.
We deceive ourselves when we think that we can control our anger. That it doesn’t control us. And the world offers many cooling-off techniques so that we don’t do something rash when we get upset.
But God’s standard transcends–it rises above what humans think is possible. God calls us to love one another [John 13:34]. He calls us to keep the bitter root from taking root to begin with [Hebrews 12:15]. He calls us to be joyful when people mistreat us and persecute us and lie about us [Matthew 5:10-12]. He calls us to leave revenge in His careful hands [Deuteronomy 32:35; Romans 12:17-19].
We must guard our hearts from anger, because out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks [Proverbs 4:23; Matthew 12:34; Luke 6:45]. The Sanhedrin–basically the Jewish Supreme Court–deliberated over matters of profanities like calling someone Raca, possibly meaning empty-headed or good-for-nothing. But Jesus says that even just calling someone a fool is the sinful heart fruiting from the lips. Because we’re thinking of self as superior and/or thinking poorly of someone else in frustration.
Our words betray the seed of anger rooting in our heart. Meaning, as we sow so shall we reap. If we sow disgust, bitterness and anger in our heart, then we set our lives up to eventually bear the fruit of murder unless we repent of the seed sins.
Cain was all of those things in turn. Disgusted with his brother. Bitter at God’s approval of his brother’s offering. And angry at the whole pride-wounding situation.
But God told Cain that he could master the sin, he could nip the bitter root in the bud, uproot it and choose to do right [Genesis 4:7]. He didn’t tell him to manage his anger or deal with his frustrations. He didn’t tell him to count to four and take deep breaths. No, Cain needed a heart change–a banish-anger-and-replace-it-with-love-heart-change–just as we all do [Romans 3:23].
Have you examined your lip fruit lately? What does it show is growing in your heart?
“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?
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth” Matthew 5:4-5
Jesus isn’t being tragically poetic here. He’s not being emo or self-deprecating.
So then what does He mean that those who are sad enough to grieve will find comfort? Or that those who are quiet and gentle will be the ones who gain the whole world?
When our hearts are in accord with God our Father, then the only thing that should cause us grief is sin and its effects all around us. Granted, that encompasses a lot of what truly does make people sad. But how many people are aware that we have disease and death because of sin? That we have robbers and rapists and murderers because of sin? That government corruption and the inability to be satisfied with food, clothing, houses, money, etc is because of sin? That even just not getting along with other people is because of sin?
When we recognize what sin is and does in us. When we understand that we are sinners and mourn for our fallen state and our fallen world. Then we can be truly blessed.
Because that is the point at which we come to Christ. We repent–or rethink–our own sinfulness. We stop trying to justify it and start seeking His righteousness in our lives.
When we recognize that true authority is not about being verbose or forceful. That we can’t assert control or command respect by imposing ourselves on others. Then we can be truly joyful.
Because that is the point at which we, again, come to Christ. We repent of our self-as-usurping-sovereign ways. We stop coveting the throne of self-importance and start seeking Christ as Lord of our lives.
To find joy, we must first mourn our sins and take comfort in the redemption of Christ. To find joy, we must first humble our control-hungry hearts and trust in our shared inheritance with Christ [Romans 8:17].
Are you searching for genuine blessings? There is no formula or incantation, nothing you can do in your own power, just a contrite and humble heart before God.