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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.
“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.
“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. 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. 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 6:1-4
Jesus’ brother, James, tells us that pure and faultless religion in God’s eyes is, looking after widows and orphans in their distress [James 1:27]. In other words, giving to the needy is an act of righteousness.
But let’s look at the idea of religion first. Religion is either belief in God [one or many] or it is a system of practices that stems from this belief. And the two do not necessarily go hand in hand. Many people believe there is a God and do nothing to demonstrate this belief. While many others doubt or don’t fully understand their own beliefs and yet religiously do many habitual activities in honor of their half-hearted faith.
To be religious is not the same as being righteous in God’s eyes by any means. It’s not even equivalent to being Christian or Godly. To this end, the world often views the church as hypocritical. If we say we believe in God, then we should live like we believe in God. End of story. Otherwise, hypocrites.
But with sinful human beings, even saved ones, it’s not always that easy.
Here Jesus addresses the religious leaders of His earthly day. They kept the Law. Taught the Law. Disciplined and punished others who broke the Law. But their commitment to the Law was only skin deep. All was for show, so that people would consider them religious, or maybe even righteous.
But God looks on the heart [1 Samuel 16:7]. And He saw the Jewish religious leaders as whitewashed tombs [Matthew 23:27-28]–pristinely manicured in appearance, but rotting spiritual corpses at heart. One of the reasons for this comment was the fact that they only gave to the needy if it garnered them some attention.
Announcing with trumpets in the streets then would be like posting our good deeds all over social media now–Hey, look what I just did everybody! Aren’t I wonderful? Jesus is very clear. This type of worldly attention seeking is empty, meaningless. How many people today post things to social media just to feel rejected because they didn’t get a like [or a million likes]? The world’s attention, the fame in this life, none of it can satisfy because it only lasts a nano-moment in the scheme of eternity.
But doing things for Christ will last [1 Corinthians 3:11-15; Colossians 3:23-24]. And that means doing things out of a sincere heart to help others and not for the temporary recognition from other human beings.
Are you religious or righteous–living God’s way purely out of love for God?
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Five to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.” Matthew 5:38-42
Remember that Jesus came not to abolish the Law of Moses, which did in fact contain the phrase, Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth [Exodus 21:24; Leviticus 24:20; Deuteronomy 19:21]. In each instance, the prescribed punishment is to be equal to the crime or the injury visited on another person. A punishment should fit the crime, not exceed it.
In other words, the phrase was meant to deter people from hurting others to begin with, so that they wouldn’t suffer the same pain they inflicted. Instead, common cultural practice perverted the phrase to justify revenge, excusing private vengeance outside the court of law.
A slap on the cheek wasn’t about personal injury, it was an insult. A punch in the pride.
In the Old Testament, it was illegal to keep someone’s cloak from them overnight, because it was commonly used as a person’s only blanket. A knee to the need for self-preservation.
And under Roman law, Roman soldiers were allowed to force someone to carry the soldier’s belongings for them, but only for the distance of one mile. An attack on time.
But Jesus pushes this command to its heart intent.
1) Leave vengeance to God [Deuteronomy 32:35; Romans 12:19].
2) Love our fellow human beings, even when–maybe especially when–they aren’t loving us in return.
After all, blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth [Matthew 5:5]. In his pride the wicked man does not seek [God], so we Christians should not be like the wicked [Psalm 10:4]. We should not let our pride well up and keep us from seeking God’s will in any and every instance.
God alone is our protector and provider [Philippians 4:19]. When others wrong us, we look to Him for our safety and well-being, not to ourselves.
And we should be leaving time in our daily lives for divine appointments such as these opportunities to show the love of Christ to the lost and dying, to the wayward and wicked.
Our choice to love in these humbling circumstances is just like Jesus’ meekness and silence as He was led before His executioners [Isaiah 53:7; Acts 8:32]. And our selfless attitude is a light, that possibly, may be the very thing to win the wicked person to Christ.
Do you settle your own scores? Or do you respect God’s equality system and act in loving self-discipline?
“It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery.” Matthew 5:31-32
Even though it seems like the topic has switched to marriage and divorce, Jesus is still addressing the command not to commit adultery. In addressing each of the commandments, He gives multiple levels of information, because He knows the human heart and our tendency to ask, But what if…? scenarios.
The sin of adultery starts with lustful eyes. It continues with the hands and the rest of the physical body following suit. And the struggle with this unchecked sin continues through the rest of adult life.
There were those who wanted to walk the spiritual line. They wanted God’s blessing, or at least not not to be punished by Him, so they tried to cover their adultering ways within legal limits.
Marriage and divorce.
If they were married to the woman they lusted after, then their actions weren’t breaking the law. And, if they were free to divorce the woman whenever they felt like it and marry someone else–and repeat the process over and over again–then they would never be considered adulterers in human terms because they were keeping the law.
But Jesus lets them know that no such loophole existed. God still saw this practice as full-fledged adultery. In fact, the divorce certificate was never God’s idea to begin with. Moses allowed the people to divorce because their hearts were too hard to accept God’s design of one man and one woman for life [Deuteronomy 24:1-4; Matthew 19:8].
So why the harsh warnings about the divorced woman being labelled an adulteress and becoming off-limits? Aren’t both the man and the woman who divorce in the wrong?
But the woman didn’t have any say in this cultural climate. The men made all the decisions–except, of course, if the wife herself was the one who chose to be unfaithful to the marriage. So Jesus is bringing marriage back to the foundation that it was always meant to be built on–love.
Number one: no one should marry unless they can commit to live with their chosen spouse for the rest of their lives.
Number two: no one should divorce, because they should so love God and each other as human beings that they don’t want any harm to come to the other person [Malachi 2:16; Matthew 1:19].
As it was, men were running around marrying for sport, and women were being treated like legal prostitutes. And Jesus told them to stop. God saw their hearts. He knew their sinful ways. And now He was trying to tighten their understanding of the intent of the law so that people would stop sinning against one another through the holy covenant of marriage.
Our world today doesn’t even bat an eye at marriage of all kinds and divorce for any reason. But God’s Word never changes [Numbers 23:10; Isaiah 40:8; Matthew 24:35; Hebrews 13:8; 1 Peter 1:25; James 1:17]. It’s still just as wrong today as it was from the beginning.
As Christians, we need to steel our marital resolve with the commitment to love for life. A commitment that starts with guarding our eyes, minds and dating practices right now.
Are you committed to love one spouse for life? Are you praying for this future-someone even now? Are you guarding yourself out of your love and respect for the man or woman that God has for you?
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Matthew 5:27-28
Ten commandment number two in the Sermon on the Mount: Do not commit adultery [Exodus 20:14]. Again Jesus cautions against the seed sin–lust.
Adultery is what we would call an affair in our culture. When someone who is married is intimately involved with someone other than their own spouse. And the Bible forbids it.
But Jesus recognizes that the practice of adultery starts long before the physical action. Adultery roots in our hearts when we look at someone with strong desire or attraction. And our American culture likes to exploit this human weakness in advertisement and other media for their own financial gain.
Meaning, commercials sell attraction and promote the development of lustful eyes. So does TV, movies, social media, magazines and the like. From a young age, we are bombarded with seductive images of people that we are not married to, that we are supposed to desire to either be like or to be with.
Everywhere we look, our society is offering us the seed sin of adultery.
And these images lodge themselves in our minds. They replay themselves in our idle moments. And eventually, we might find that we replay the thoughts on purpose, deepening our imaginary love for or fantasizing about a relationship with these people that we have never even met. And the Bible forbids it.
So how can we combat this social perversion that literally surrounds us?
- We become aware of what the Bible says about lust, pornography and the immorality that it leads to.
- We avoid inappropriate images and written descriptions whenever possible. Turn the channel, filter web searches, x out of search pages that bring up unbiblical results, don’t buy the magazine or book, stop reading, research movie ratings and reasons before choosing to go watch them, listen to Christian music instead of worldly music, etc.
- We take captive every thought in our mind and bring it under obedience to Jesus Christ [2 Corinthians 10:5], rather than lingering and reveling in empty, lustful imaginations.
And why does it matter when we are not married if we look at an attractive person with desire?
The Bible tells us that the heart of a wayward person is a deep pit rooted in the grave and leading to death [Proverbs 5:1-23 & 23:27]. The habits of the eyes and mind that we develop in our youth are the habits that will be deeply rooted in our hearts and driving our adult pursuits.
It’s not easy to turn off lustful eyes. If you start the habit as a young person, it will continue with you into adulthood, and it won’t limit itself to your spouse. It’s not easy to turn off a fantasizing mind. If you start indulging in pleasurable imaginations now, they will continue to seduce you in adulthood.
Lust that leads to adultery is the only sin that we commit in our own body [1 Corinthians 6:18]. But it is also a sin against our spouse–whether present or future–against the person we lust after and against God.
Is there a person or people that you fantasize romantically about? Whether as seemingly innocent as hand-holding or a first kiss, don’t give the devil a foothold in your heart and mind. Are you attracted to internet and magazine images? Flee the temptations. Get an accountability partner and ask God to replace this lust with a growing love and respect for Him and for your future spouse.
Image: By Japanexperterna.se from Japan – Person looking at smartphone in the dark, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47395025