“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
“And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” – Matthew 6:5-8 ESV
The Jews were a praying people. Prayer was an important part of their religious practice. They had prayers, like the Shema, that were to be recited both morning and evening. Services were held throughout the day at the synagogue where the people of Israel could gather for prayer. So, the topic of prayer was not uncommon among those who heard Jesus speak that day. Jesus was not promoting the need for prayer. He was trying to expose the false motivation behind their prayers. Once again, He warns them against hypocrisy – a form of play-acting, where outward appearances were meant to be deceiving. The Greek word is hypokritēs and was used to describe an actor in a play. An actor’s job was to pretend to be someone else, and a good actor was successful when the audience became convinced that he was who he was pretending to be.
The problem Jesus is attempting to address is the presence of hypocrisy in matters of faith. Posing and pretending were not to be part of the life of a child of God. Prayer was important to God. Communication between Almighty God and man was important to Him. Prayer was a means by which men could express their needs to God, but also declare the glories of God. They could ask things of Him, but were also expected to offer praises to Him for all He had done for them already. And yet, prayer had become just another means of promoting personal piety. Praying in public, where others could see and hear you, was not only a way to get noticed, but admired for your obvious spirituality. Public praying was a way to put your righteousness on display, for all to see. But Jesus says, “When you pray, don’t be like the hypocrites who love to pray publicly on street corners and in the synagogues where everyone can see them” (Matthew 6:5 NLT). The purpose of prayer was not to get noticed by men, but heard by God. Prayer was not meant to be a public display of your piety or personal righteousness. Remember what Jesus said? “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them” (Matthew 6:1 ESV). Like alms-giving, prayer had become nothing more than a means to an end, and the end was the praise of men. When Jesus warns them not to practice “your righteousness” before other people, He is not complimenting them on what they are doing. He is not telling them that their giving of alms and public prayers were righteous acts. He is describing what they were doing as self-righteousness. It was their own, self-produced brand of righteousness. And just so we’re clear, Jesus is not saying that alms-giving or public prayer are wrong. He is simply using these two things as examples of good and godly acts that had become misunderstood and misused by men and women who were desperately wanting others to see them as something they were not. They wanted to be viewed as righteous and holy by their peers, so all they did, they did to get noticed.
But Jesus is out to tell them that they are focused on the wrong audience. They are trying to convince the wrong people of their righteousness. It should have been God they were worried about, not men. He should have been the focus of their prayers. And rather than spending their time trying to convince others that they were something they were not, they would have been better off letting God know exactly who they were. It was Os Guinness who wrote, “I live before the audience of One – before others I have nothing to gain, nothing to lose, nothing to prove.”
It is important that we recognize that Jesus is not condemning public prayer. But prayer is intended, first and foremost, to be a spiritual activity. It is meant to be a conversation between man and God. Prayer is intended for adoration, confession, thanksgiving and supplication. It is meant to give to God (glory, honor, adoration). But it also provided as a means by which men can get from God (forgiveness, healing, guidance). Jesus is rejecting the idea of righteousness being inextricably linked to public prayerfulness. Jesus is saying that, if you pray to impress men, you will fail to gain approval from God. Acts of righteousness done with nothing more than recognition in mind are not acts of righteousness at all, but right things done for the wrong reason. Jesus is exposing the kind of prayer that is self-focused, and meant to get you seen and heard. That is prayer meant to impress, not confess. It’s prayer meant to gain the praise of men, not offer praise to God. It’s prayer designed to boost our reputation before men, not boast in the reputation of God.
So, what are we to do? Not pray? No, Jesus says that we are to go into our room, shut the door and pray to God – in private – where no one else can see. And God, who sees all, will not only see you, He will hear you, and reward you. He will bless you, approve of you, and express His pleasure with you by answering your prayers. The apostle John tells us,
And we are confident that he hears us whenever we ask for anything that pleases him. And since we know he hears us when we make our requests, we also know that he will give us what we ask for. – 1 John 5:14-15 NLT
In essence, Jesus is telling us that if we prayer in order to impress men and to get their praise, we will get what it is we desire: Their praise. But we won’t get what we prayed for from God. If getting noticed for our prayers is more important to us than getting our prayers answered by God, we will become well-known and revered for our prayer life, but God won’t become known for His answers to our prayers. Prayers prayed to get noticed by men, will always fail to get men to notice God. But our responsibility as God’s children is to bring glory to Him, not ourselves. We are here to point men and women to God, not to us. We are meant to lift Him up, not ourselves.
Jesus goes on to describe an aspect of prayer with which we all struggle. How do you get God to hear and answer you? So, even if you pray in private, where no one can hear you but God, how do you make sure He really does hear you? Once again, Jesus exposes a misconception. He tells them, “When you pray, don’t babble on and on as the Gentiles do. They think their prayers are answered merely by repeating their words again and again” (Matthew 6:7 NLT). When you talk to God, don’t try to impress Him with the length of your prayer or your choice of words. Don’t drone on and on, somehow thinking that God will be more prone to hear you if your prayer comes across as intense. It is neither the intensity or longevity of our prayers that cause God to answer. It is the motivation of our heart. James tells us, “when you ask, you don’t get it because your motives are all wrong – you want only what will give you pleasure” (James 4:3 NLT). Wrong methods. Wrong motives. That’s the problem. Later on in this same message, Jesus will say:
“Keep on asking, and you will receive what you ask for. Keep on seeking, and you will find. Keep on knocking, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives. Everyone who seeks, finds. And to everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.
“You parents—if your children ask for a loaf of bread, do you give them a stone instead? Or if they ask for a fish, do you give them a snake? Of course not! So if you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good gifts to those who ask him.” – Matthew 7:7-11 NLT
We are to ask, and we are to trust God for the answer. He isn’t going to give us something we don’t need or can’t use. But it’s important to remember that God is not going to give us everything we ask for, because too often our motives are wrong. Also, we don’t always know what it is we actually need. We may think we need healing, but God knows we need to learn faith. We may ask God for a financial solution to our problem, when He knows that the real issue is spiritual in nature. We have a greed problem. So, rather than give us money, He teaches us to live within our means, learning to trust Him for our needs.
Sometimes, we spend far too much time asking God for things. But Jesus reminds us, “your Father knows exactly what you need even before you ask him!” (Matthew 6:8 NLT). This doesn’t mean we don’t have to ask God for things, but that the purpose behind our prayer is not to share information with God, but to communicate our dependence upon God. We don’t pray to keep God up to speed with all that is going on in our life. He already knows. We pray in order to convey to Him our complete reliance upon Him for everything. Prayer is an act of submission to God. It is the adoration of God. It is a means by which we offer up our thankfulness for all that God has done and is doing in and around our life.
Prayer wasn’t meant to get you noticed by men. It also wasn’t intended to get you noticed by God. He already knows everything there is to know about you. Prayer is an expression of humility to God, showing Him that we are completely dependent upon Him for all things. But how easy it is to make prayer an expression of pride and self-promotion. So, Jesus warns us not to pray that way. But then He gives us an example of how we are to pray. But that’s for tomorrow.
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.