Founded on the Rock

“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.”

And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes. – Matthew 7:24-29 ESV

For most of us, when we read these verses, we automatically assume that Jesus’ mention of “the rock” was a veiled reference to Himself. After all, He is the rock. And we get that idea from the Scriptures. Paul would later refer to Jesus as being the foundation he laid and upon which all others were to build.

According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it. For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. – 1 Corinthians 3:10-11 ESV

Peter would quote from the Book of Isaiah and the Psalms, describing Jesus as the stone:

For it stands in Scripture: “Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious, and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.

So the honor is for you who believe, but for those who do not believe,

The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone,” and A stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense.” – 1 Peter 2:6-8 ESV

So, it would only be natural to assume that Jesus is referring to Himself as the rock. But it is important to look closely at what He says. He prefaces these closing lines of His sermon with the statement: “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock.”

His emphasis is on His words or the content of His message. Throughout His sermon, Jesus has been giving commands regarding the lifestyle or behavior of those who are blessed or approved by God. They are to be salt and light. They are to pursue reconciliation with all men, rather than display anger and hatred. They are to love and not lust. They are to remain faithful in their earthly commitments, most especially in the context of marriage. They are to be a people of their word. They are to live lives of willing sacrifice, rather than seeking revenge and retaliation. They are to love and pray for their enemies. Their acts of righteousness are to flow from the heart and are not to be done for recognition and the praise of men. They are to see their eternal reward as their greatest treasure, instead of finding meaning and fulfillment in the temporal things of this earth. Their lives are to be marked by a calm and unwavering trust in God, knowing that He will provide all their needs. They are to regularly examine their own lives, recognizing and repenting of their sinfulness before God. 

Over and over again, Jesus has given them clear indications of how an individual approved by God should live their life. And now, He is telling them that those who hear these words and do them will be seen as wise. They will be the ones whose lives are built upon a solid foundation.

Obedience to the teachings of Jesus has always been a necessary part of the life of the believer. Obedience does not save us, but it marks the life of those who are truly saved. Not long before Jesus was to be betrayed and crucified, He told His disciples, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15 ESV). And then He told them how they were going to pull that off. “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you” (John 14:16-17 ESV).

The Holy Spirit was going to be the key to them obeying the words and teachings of Jesus. But they were still expected to obey. And just to make sure that they didn’t forget anything He had taught them, Jesus let them know that the Holy Spirit would give them perfect memories.

These things I have spoken to you while I am still with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.” – John 14:25-26 ESV

One of the things we so easily lose sight of is Jesus’ statement to His disciples, found in the Great Commission.

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” – Matthew 28:19-20 ESV

The disciples were to teach all that Jesus had commanded. His words were to be obeyed. And He was not just speaking of His claim to be the Messiah and His offer of salvation through faith in Him alone. Again, obedience to the words of Jesus does not save us, but it is to be the visible proof of one who is saved. Repeatedly in Scripture, we are given the admonition to obey the commands of Jesus.

“When you obey my commandments, you remain in my love, just as I obey my Father’s commandments and remain in his love.” – John 15:10 NLT

The apostle John puts the non-optional nature of obedience to Jesus’ commands in very stark terms.

He himself is the sacrifice that atones for our sins—and not only our sins but the sins of all the world.

And we can be sure that we know him if we obey his commandments. If someone claims, “I know God,” but doesn’t obey God’s commandments, that person is a liar and is not living in the truth. But those who obey God’s word truly show how completely they love him. That is how we know we are living in him. Those who say they live in God should live their lives as Jesus did. – 1 John 2:2-6 NLT

So, Jesus says that whoever hears the words He has been teaching and does them, will find their life to be built on a solid, reliable foundation. Of course, the very first teaching of Jesus we must believe and obey is His claim to be the Son of God and the sacrifice for the sins of mankind. John makes this point quite clear.

…we can come to God with bold confidence. And we will receive from him whatever we ask because we obey him and do the things that please him.

And this is his commandment: We must believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and love one another, just as he commanded us. Those who obey God’s commandments remain in fellowship with him, and he with them. And we know he lives in us because the Spirit he gave us lives in us. – 1 John 3:21-24 NLT

Our ability to obey the commands of Jesus begins with our obedience to the command of God to trust in His Son as our Savior. When we place our faith in Him, we receive the Spirit of God and the capacity to love God and to love others, which are the foundational truths behind all that Jesus taught in His sermon. Our faith in Christ is to be transformative. It is to change the way we think and behave. It is to have a revolutionary effect on the way we live our lives in this world. But for far too many today, obedience seems to be optional. They place their faith in Christ and then continue to live as if nothing has happened. They give little or no evidence of the new nature they are supposed to have received. Their lives show no signs of the Spirit’s presence within them. But that is not what Jesus expected. And that is not the outcome His sacrificial death on the cross was meant to provide.

If we truly love Him, we will keep His commandments. We will conduct our lives in a radically different manner. We will be salt and light. We will be agents of reconciliation, calling a lost and dying world back to God. We will love and not lust. We will selflessly give, rather than always trying to selfishly focus our lives on getting. We will forgive, show mercy, turn the other cheek, worry less, rejoice more, pray intensely, trust God completely, and share the good news of the gospel regularly.

Jesus tells us that those who build their lives on His words will find their lives to be stable and resilient. They will have a firm foundation that can withstand the storms of life and will survive the future judgment to come. There were those in the crowd that day who would hear Jesus’ words and ignore them. Many of them would later hear of His death and resurrection and refuse to believe it. After His crucifixion, the word of His miraculous resurrection and ascension would spread, and the offer of salvation would be heard throughout all Judea, but most would not accept it. And their lives would be like a house built on sand, unstable and insecure, completely susceptible to the storms of life and unavoidably destined for a great fall.

When Jesus finished His sermon, the crowds were amazed. They were astonished at His teachings. They had never heard anything like this before. He taught with authority. Over and over again in His message, Jesus had said, “But I say….” He referred to the Old Testament Scriptures, but then added His own words. He did not refer to the teachings of the patriarchs or refer to other rabbinic scholars. He spoke as if His words were on a par with the Word of God itself, because they were. He was the Son of God, speaking on behalf of God the Father. He was the Word incarnate. John describes Him as such.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. – John 1:1-5 ESV

He is the Word, and we are to obey Him, not just believe in Him.

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.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson
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The Fruit of Lawlessness

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’– Matthew 7:21-23 ESV

Jesus is not done addressing the danger of false prophets. He has referred to them as ravenous wolves in sheep’s clothing, whose appearance may be deceptive, but whose fruit is not. They can disguise their true nature, but they can’t hide what comes out of their hearts. They can claim to be followers of Christ, but Jesus makes it clear, “You will recognize them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:16 ESV).

In today’s passage, Jesus will go on to describe their fruit as lawlessness. The Greek word is anomia, and it literally means “without law.” It can be translated iniquity or wickedness but refers to contempt for and violation of the law. These false prophets may claim to prophesy in the name of Jesus, but He refers to their actions as lawless and, therefore, wicked. And they are not alone. Jesus lists others who will claim to be His followers, but who will prove to be nothing more than fakers and posers. Calling Jesus “Lord” is not what gets you into heaven. Expressing allegiance to Him is not what saves you or brings you the approval and blessing of God.

Later on in His ministry, Jesus is approached by a group of Jews who had been present the day He had miraculously fed a large crowd with nothing more than a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish. Jesus knows why they are there and exposes their motives:

“Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.” – John 6:26 ESV

In other words, they were there for more food. So, Jesus told them:

“Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you.” – John 6:27 ESV

Jesus was trying to offer them something far greater and more beneficial than temporary food. He was inviting them to discover eternal life, but their minds were stuck on a horizontal plane and driven by their base desire for more food. So, they responded:

“What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” – John 6:28-29 ESV

The work of God, that which God would have them do, was to believe in Jesus as their Savior. Addressing Him as “Lord, Lord” did not qualify as proof of belief. And Jesus made it clear that a day was coming when those claiming to be His followers would be exposed for what they really were: Hypocrites. The difficult thing is that these very people will appear to be doing all that they do in Jesus’ name. They will prophesy in His name, cast out demons in His name, and do mighty works in His name. But Jesus describes their actions as lawless because they do not truly represent Him.

In our current age, there are many who claim to be speaking on behalf of Jesus. They speak His name and call Him, “Lord, Lord.” Some even do miracles and perform mighty works in His name. But Jesus would have us investigate their fruit – the fruit of their hearts. They may not be all that they appear to be. And the outward display of their allegiance to Christ may be nothing more than a cover-up for their true motives. The trouble is that, while we are here on this earth, we will be surrounded by fakers and charlatans. And many of them will be placed in our midst by Satan himself. Jesus makes this clear in a parable He told.

“The Kingdom of Heaven is like a farmer who planted good seed in his field. But that night as the workers slept, his enemy came and planted weeds among the wheat, then slipped away. When the crop began to grow and produce grain, the weeds also grew.

“The farmer’s workers went to him and said, ‘Sir, the field where you planted that good seed is full of weeds! Where did they come from?’

“‘An enemy has done this!’ the farmer exclaimed.

“‘Should we pull out the weeds?’ they asked.,

“‘No,’ he replied, ‘you’ll uproot the wheat if you do. Let both grow together until the harvest. Then I will tell the harvesters to sort out the weeds, tie them into bundles, and burn them, and to put the wheat in the barn.’” – Matthew 13:24-30 NLT

We will not always be able to tell the wheat from the tares. But Jesus assures us that both will be there. It is a guarantee. But when He says, “On that day…”, He is referring to a future day when the wheat and the tares will be divided, and those that don’t belong will be judged and dealt with. There is a judgment coming, and God will separate the sheep from the goats, the saved from the lost. And there will be those who will claim, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?” But they will hear Jesus say, “‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness” (Matthew 7:23 ESV).

There have been and always will be those who claim to followers of Christ, but who are really nothing more than false professors. Their spirituality is not what saves them. Their use of Jesus’ name and faithful church attendance do not bring them approval with God. Why? Because they refuse to do the will of God, to believe in Jesus as their Savior and Lord. Instead, they believe that their religious fervor will save them. They put their trust in their good deeds, prayers, fasts, and acts of generosity. They go to church. They attend Bible studies. They listen to countless sermons. But they refuse to do the one thing God has commanded that all must do if they desire to be made right with Him and gain His approval: Believe in His Son as their sin substitute.

When the Philippian jailer asked Paul and Silas what he must do to be saved, they simply stated: “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31 NLT). Belief, not behavior, is the key to salvation. That is not to say that behavior is not important, but that behavior is a byproduct of true belief. That is why Jesus said, “You will recognize them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:16 ESV). The fruit of the Spirit is what flows out of the life of the one who has placed His faith in Christ. But the fruit of those who refuse to believe in Him is of a completely different character. The apostle Paul describes it as “sexual immorality, impurity, lustful pleasures, idolatry, sorcery, hostility, quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, dissension, division, envy, drunkenness, wild parties, and other sins like these” (Galatians 5:19-21 NLT).

Just a few verses earlier in his letter to the Galatians, Paul wrote: “For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do” (Galatians 5:17 ESV). Here Paul is referring to believers who find themselves living their lives according to (in the power of) the flesh rather than according to the Spirit. When a Christ-follower chooses to live according to their old sinful nature, even the good things they want to do, their “good intentions” (NLT), will result in “works of the flesh.” Their attempts at producing the fruit of righteousness apart from the power of the Holy Spirit will prove woefully unsuccessful. So, even legitimate believers can produce the wrong kind of fruit if their efforts are flesh-based and not Spirit-induced.

But back to Jesus’ main point in today’s passage: False professions. There will be those who claim to be followers of Christ, but their motives will be wrong. They will say all the right things. They will do many of the things a Christ-follower would be expected to do. They will sit next to us in the pews on Sunday morning, attend our small groups, go on mission trips, give their money, and devote their time to worthy causes. But the day will come when they will say, “Lord, Lord” and He will say, “‘I never knew you; depart from me.”

Remember, Jesus has already warned us that the gate is narrow and the path is difficult that leads to the Kingdom of God. And while there are few who will take that path, there will still be some who appear on it who don’t belong there. Their presence on the path will have nothing to do with faith in Christ but will be based on human effort. They will profess to be followers of Christ, but will really be relying on their own merit to earn entrance into the Kingdom. They will appear to be on the path, but rather than relying on the power of the Holy Spirit, they will be walking in the flesh. Rather than depending upon the guidance of the Holy Spirit, they will be following the desires of their own hearts and the counsel of men. And the day will come when their false professions will come face to face with the truth of the gospel and Jesus’ claim, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6 ESV).

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.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

The Fallacy of Fake Fruit

“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.– Matthew 7:15-20 ESV

Jesus has just discussed the narrow gate and the difficult path that provides access to the kingdom of God. And He revealed that the number of those who will end up choosing that way will be few. But because the kingdom way is not a literal path, but a spiritual one, it will sometimes be difficult to tell who is actually walking along beside you. So, Jesus warns that there will be fakers and posers, even dangerous charlatans, whose sole motive will be to deceive and destroy those who are truly blessed and approved by God.

In the gospel of John, we have recorded the words of Jesus reiterating His claim to be the door or the narrow gate. He says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture” (John 10:7-9 ESV).

Not only had there been false Messiahs before Jesus arrived, but there had also been deceptive religious leaders who were preaching a different form of salvation. And Jesus makes it clear that all these individuals were motivated by Satan himself. Whether they realized it or not, these people were driven by demonic desires, not divine ones. Jesus went on to say, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10 ESV). Those who preach another form of salvation or a different means of achieving a right standing with God are essentially deceivers who will end up destroying all those who listen to their lies.

And here in His sermon on the mount, Jesus warns against “false prophets” who will attempt to disguise themselves as sheep in order to infiltrate the ranks of those who have been approved by God. They will appear to be fellow sojourners on the kingdom way, but will actually be out to do harm, not good. Jesus describes them as ravenous wolves, hungry predators with one thing in mind, feeding their own insatiable desires.

So, how are we supposed to spot these dangerous deceivers? If they look like us and appear to be on the same path we are traveling, how will we be able to recognize and expose them? Jesus gives us a very simple way of knowing whether our fellow travelers are legitimate or not. He states, “You can identify them by their fruit, that is, by the way they act” (Matthew 7:16 NLT).

But wait a minute! If they are out to deceive, won’t they be disguising their true motives by emulating the right kind of behavior? Won’t they be smart enough to act just like sheep? The answer is, yes. Jesus will even address that issue in the very next verses. These people will act the part, but the key will be whether their fruit is in keeping with the will of God. We have to always keep in mind that God sees our hearts. He knows what motivates our behavior. But we don’t have that capacity. We aren’t able to see into one another’s hearts. So, what are we to do? How are we to discern whether someone is truly a believer? Again, Jesus would tell us to look at their fruit. What is in the heart will ultimately show up as fruit. Jesus makes that perfectly clear later on in the book of Matthew.

“For from the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, all sexual immorality, theft, lying, and slander.” – Matthew 15:19 NLT

And here, in His sermon on the mount, Jesus compares these false prophets to thorn bushes, thistles, and diseased trees. They are incapable of producing true fruit. And the fruit we should be looking for is described for us in Paul’s letter to the Galatians:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control… – Galatians 5:22-23 ESV

Thorn bushes don’t produce grapes. Thistles don’t bear figs. And you don’t get healthy fruit from a diseased tree. Ultimately, their true nature will become evident. The true condition of their hearts will be exposed. And in the book of Jeremiah, we read how God describes those who would deceive His children.

“Do not listen to these prophets when they prophesy to you,
    filling you with futile hopes.
They are making up everything they say.
    They do not speak for the Lord!
They keep saying to those who despise my word,
    ‘Don’t worry! The Lord says you will have peace!’
And to those who stubbornly follow their own desires,
    they say, ‘No harm will come your way!’” – Jeremiah 23:16-17 NLT

There will always be those who appear to be with us on the kingdom path, but who will actually be against us. They will attempt to deceive and distract us. They will be the ones who question why we take things so seriously and worry so much about being spiritual. They will claim to love the Lord as much as we do but will display a love for the world that reveals their true nature. Their commitment to the will of God will be minimal. Their reliance upon the Word of God will be spotty at best. They will do good deeds, but for the wrong motives and in their flesh, not the Spirit. And, ultimately, their influence on the church will be harmful, not helpful. In the book of Jude, we read his warnings to a local congregation regarding these false prophets or teachers who had infiltrated their local fellowship.

Dear friends, I had been eagerly planning to write to you about the salvation we all share. But now I find that I must write about something else, urging you to defend the faith that God has entrusted once for all time to his holy people. I say this because some ungodly people have wormed their way into your churches, saying that God’s marvelous grace allows us to live immoral lives. – Jude 1:3-4 NLT

Jude goes on to describe their behavior in less-than-flattering terms:

In the same way, these people—who claim authority from their dreams—live immoral lives, defy authority, and scoff at supernatural beings. – Jude 1:8 NLT

And as if that wasn’t bad enough, he describes their sad state and even worse outcome:

But these people scoff at things they do not understand. Like unthinking animals, they do whatever their instincts tell them, and so they bring about their own destruction. What sorrow awaits them! – Jude 1:10-11 NLT

Jesus has already told us that “the way is hard that leads to life” (Matthew 7:14 ESV). The Kingdom life is not an easy one. It will have its moments of trials and difficulties. It will have its dark valleys. Even in the famous 23rd Psalm, we read David’s words describing the life of those who are led by the Shepherd:

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
    I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
    your rod and your staff,
    they comfort me. – Psalm 23:4 ESV
It will not always be green pastures and still waters. There will be moments of sadness and seasons of despair. But God will be with us, guiding and comforting us. And Jesus would have us know that there will be so-called companions on our life’s journey who will not be what they appear. So, we must be discerning. Jesus would later give His disciples some invaluable advice as He prepared to send them out on their own.
Look, I am sending you out as sheep among wolves. So be as shrewd as snakes and harmless as doves. – Matthew 10:16 NLT
When all is said and done, the only way we have of discerning the true nature of those who claim to be fellow followers of Christ is to look at their fruit. And that means we must judge or discriminate the nature of their behavior. We cannot afford to turn a blind eye to sin or refuse to evaluate the true intentions of those who claim to be on our side. The risks are too great. The dangers are far too real. We must always remember that the thief intends to steal, kill, and destroy. The false sheep have false motives. The fake followers have sinister plans. They will attempt to lead the sheep astray. They will try to undermine the gospel. They will minimize the will of God and replace it with the will of men. So, we must constantly evaluate one another based on the fruit of the Spirit. This kind of fruit can’t be replicated. It can be mimicked but not manufactured. It can be faked but not produced. And eventually, fake fruit will be exposed as what it is: unhealthy and undesirable.

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.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

The Highway of Holiness

“So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.

“Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.– Matthew 7:12-14 ESV

Verse 12 has come to be commonly referred to as The Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It is essentially a summation of all that Jesus has said, and acts as a bookend to verse 17 of chapter five:

“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.

These two verses comprise what is known as an inclusio, bracketing all that is contained between them and forming a single unit of thought. The over-arching theme has been Jesus’ treatment of the Law and the Prophets or the Old Testament revelation. Here, in verse 12, Jesus brings His thoughts to a conclusion, summarizing all that He has said in one succinct and simple statement: So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them. This is the law of love, and it supersedes and fully expresses all that was written in the law. Paul summarizes it well:

Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. – Romans 13:8-10 ESV

He simplified it, even more, when he wrote to the believers in Galatia:

For the whole law can be summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” – Galatians 5:14 NLT

And not long before Jesus was to go to the cross, He would tell His disciples:

“So now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.” – John 13:34-35 NLT

But it is essential that we understand what Jesus is saying. In our sinful, self-centered state, it would be easy to draw a faulty conclusion from His words that allows us to focus on what we want from others. In other words, if we want our back scratched, we will reluctantly scratch someone else’s back, expecting them to do the same to us in return. Our outwardly, gracious actions would be selfishly motivated. But that is not the kind of love Jesus is talking about. He is referring to a selfless kind of love that expects and demands nothing in return. It is focused on giving, not getting. The apostle Paul warned against turning the law of love into some kind of self-centered mechanism to get what you want.

So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. – Philippians 2:1-4 ESV

No one enjoys being hated, so why would we choose to hate others? There is no joy in being taken advantage of, so why would we treat someone else that way? If the idea of someone having an affair with your spouse offends you, it should also prevent you from ever considering doing the same thing to someone else. Jesus’ statement is not intended to be self-centered but other-focused. He is telling us that the law was essentially about loving God and loving others, and not yourself. And those who have been blessed or approved by God will love as He loves. They will do as Jesus did, which Paul sums up in his letter to the Philippians:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. – Philippians 2:5-8 ESV

Jesus knows that the life of love and self-sacrifice to which He is calling His audience would not be easy. He is fully aware that His words have been difficult to hear and that what He has been commanding them to do would be impossible to pull off. The crowds who had followed Jesus to the hillside in Galilee had been attracted by His miracles. They were enamored by His ability to heal the sick and cast out demons. There was something attractive about this man who could do the impossible. But now, they were hearing that He expected the impossible of them.

He was teaching that if they wanted to be part of God’s kingdom, they were going to have to live radically different lives. Their status as descendants of Abraham was not going to be enough. Their adherence to man-made laws and religious rules was not going to win them favor with God. In fact, Jesus breaks the news that the path to God was actually narrow and quite difficult, and the number of those who take that path would be quite small. But, in contrast, the path to hell is like a broad, sprawling avenue, filled with countless people who have chosen that way because it is easy and rather enjoyable.

Jesus is letting His listeners know that the way to God was not what they thought. It was not going to be through keeping the law. It would not be due to their ethnic identity as Jews and descendants of Abraham. Jesus is presenting another, exclusive way to God: Himself.

“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” – John 14:6 ESV

He would also present Himself as the gate or door that provides the sole means by which men and women might be saved and find entrance into God’s kingdom.

“Yes, I am the gate. Those who come in through me will be saved. They will come and go freely and will find good pastures.” – John 10:9 NLT

Obviously, Jesus did not believe in universalism, the false, yet popular, doctrine that teaches that all will eventually be welcomed into heaven by God because of His love. Jesus promoted Himself as the sole means by which anyone is made right with God. He is the way, not just one of many ways. He alone has satisfied the just demands of God and paid for the sins of mankind with His own life. And He offers Himself to any and all who will receive Him as their Savior and sin substitute.

Those who accept His selfless sacrifice on their behalf receive the forgiveness of their sins and enjoy a restored relationship with God the Father. But Jesus warns that few will take Him up on His offer because the gate is small. It’s narrow and limited. It requires faith. And the path beyond that gate is difficult.

The Christian life is not an easy road. Salvation provides us with freedom from condemnation for our sins but does not provide us with a trouble-free life on this earth. We will face tribulation and difficulty. Living out our faith in the midst of a fallen world will be trying at times. Too often, Christianity is sold as a panacea for all of life’s problems. We falsely advertise faith in Christ as a solution to difficulty and the key to happiness. It explains why a book with the title, Your Best Life Now can become an international best-seller. But that is not what Jesus came to bring.

Jesus did not die in order for us to have our best life now. Yes, He did promise to give us life and life more abundantly, but not our own terms. The real benefit we receive from placing our faith in Christ is not our best life now, but eternal life to come. We have been promised a future sinless state, free from pain, suffering, sorrow, and tears. We have been guaranteed a place in God’s kingdom and no one can take it from us. So, with that in mind, we are encouraged to view our life on this earth as temporary. We are on a journey to a better place. We are on a path that will eventually lead us to our eternal home. This is why the author of Hebrews encourages us to, “strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us” (Hebrews 12:1 NLT).

The prophet, Isaiah, tells us of another path, a highway that will lead through the barren and desolate land, a highway of holiness. It will provide a path for the redeemed into God’s earthly kingdom, where His Son will reign in Jerusalem. Those who enter the narrow way now and walk the path provided by Jesus’ death and resurrection, will one day walk that Highway of Holiness, free from sorrow and sin.

And a great road will go through that once deserted land. It will be named the Highway of Holiness. Evil-minded people will never travel on it. It will be only for those who walk in God’s ways; fools will never walk there. Lions will not lurk along its course, nor any other ferocious beasts. There will be no other dangers. Only the redeemed will walk on it. Those who have been ransomed by the Lord will return. They will enter Jerusalem singing, crowned with everlasting joy. Sorrow and mourning will disappear, and they will be filled with joy and gladness. – Isaiah 35:8-10 NLT

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.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

When Judgment Is Justified

“Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.

“Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you.– Matthew 7:1-6 ESV

This is one of those passages that has been taken out of context far too often and used to justify a wide range of faulty assumptions. First of all, to understand what Jesus is talking about, we have to keep His words within their context. He has been talking about everyday practical matters such as giving, praying, and fasting. In regards to these outward spiritual expressions, Jesus warned about practicing them as outward signs of righteousness, in order to get the praise and recognition of men. But as always, Jesus, knowing well the hearts of men, knew that what He had just said would lead some to judge others. He realized that their natural tendency would be to make snap judgments regarding the motives behind each other’s public prayers, fasting, and alms-giving.

The Greek word used here is krinō, and it refers to “those who act the part of judges or arbiters in matters of common life, or pass judgment on the deeds and words of others” (“G2919 – krinō – Strong’s Greek Lexicon (KJV).” Blue Letter Bible). This is a judgment complete with a determination of guilt or innocence and, in the case of guilt, a determination of appropriate sentencing. In other words, the kind of judgment Jesus is warning against is when you take it upon yourself to act a judge, jury, and executioner. But the problem with this kind of judgment is that it is impossible for us to know another person’s heart or motives. We can only judge based on the externals. There is no way for us to know if someone who prays publicly is doing so just to get noticed. We have no insight into whether a person who gives has done so to garner attention. So, we are not to judge them. If we do, Jesus warns, we will be judged by God according to the same strict standard.

Rather than judge others, I need to take a close look at my own heart in order to determine the motives that prompt me to do what I do. Once again, Jesus is issuing a warning against hypocrisy. He very bluntly warns: “How can you think of saying to your friend, ‘Let me help you get rid of that speck in your eye,’ when you can’t see past the log in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:4 NLT). Self-examination is essential because it is far too easy for us to point out the faults in others while looking past the glaring sins in our own life.

Exposing the sins of others is almost cathartic for us. It makes us feel better about ourselves. But Jesus would have us focus our attention on our own transgressions, and make sure that we have dealt with those areas of our life that are out of step with God and His will for us. And yet, it would be false to conclude that Jesus is teaching a complete ban on any kind of judgment. To reach that conclusion would require a complete disregard for other passages in both the Old and New Testaments. Consider this interesting and often ignored passage found in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians:

When I wrote to you before, I told you not to associate with people who indulge in sexual sin. But I wasn’t talking about unbelievers who indulge in sexual sin, or are greedy, or cheat people, or worship idols. You would have to leave this world to avoid people like that. I meant that you are not to associate with anyone who claims to be a believer yet indulges in sexual sin, or is greedy, or worships idols, or is abusive, or is a drunkard, or cheats people. Don’t even eat with such people.

It isn’t my responsibility to judge outsiders, but it certainly is your responsibility to judge those inside the church who are sinning. God will judge those on the outside; but as the Scriptures say, “You must remove the evil person from among you.” – 1 Corinthians 5:9-13 NLT

In this portion of his letter, Paul was dealing with a situation going on within the local church in Corinth that involved a sexual sin. It seems that a man had been having an immoral relationship with his stepmother. And for Paul, the worst part of it was that the congregation knew of this affair and had done nothing about it. Paul scolded them, “You are so proud of yourselves, but you should be mourning in sorrow and shame. And you should remove this man from your fellowship” (1 Corinthians 5:2 NLT). Their pride was based on what they believed to be their tolerance for this couple’s behavior. And Paul was forced to remind them of his previous letter to them in which he had warned them not to associate with those who commit sexual sin.

But in this subsequent letter, he clarifies what his meaning by stating, “I meant that you are not to associate with anyone who claims to be a believer yet indulges in sexual sin” (1 Corinthians 5:11 NLT). This was a clear-cut case of sin, and they were to deal with it forcefully. Paul emphasizes that it makes no sense to judge the lost world. In fact, he claims no right to do so. They are under God’s judgment and He will deal with them in His time. But when it comes to those who claim to be our brothers and sisters in Christ, Paul is emphatic: “it certainly is your responsibility to judge those inside the church who are sinning” (1 Corinthians 5:12 NLT). And the kind of judgment Paul has in mind has nothing to do with acting as their judge, jury, and executioner. It simply means that we are to expose their behavior and call it what it is: Sin. Then we are to deal with it in a godly manner where our ultimate goal is the restoration of our brother or sister in Christ.

Paul dealt with this very same topic in his letter to the Galatian believers:

Dear brothers and sisters, if another believer is overcome by some sin, you who are godly should gently and humbly help that person back onto the right path. And be careful not to fall into the same temptation yourself. Share each other’s burdens, and in this way obey the law of Christ. If you think you are too important to help someone, you are only fooling yourself. You are not that important. – Galatians 6:1-3 NLT

There are behaviors that are off-limits for the Christ-follower. We do not have carte blanche to do whatever we want to do, whenever we want to do it. As sons and daughters of God, we represent Him on this earth, and our behavior is to reflect our beliefs. We have been set apart by God as holy. We are to live distinctively different lives, in keeping with our status as His children. So, there will be times when we must judge one another’s actions and be willing to do the difficult thing: Call one another to repentance.

Verse seven is a difficult sentence to understand. It appears to be a somewhat abrupt change in topic, having little or nothing to do with what Jesus has been talking about. He shifts from talking about judging another person unjustly and failing to see the sin in your own life, and then He suddenly starts talking about giving to dogs what is holy and casting your pearls before swine. What is He talking about? And who is He referring to? In the Jewish culture, dogs and pigs were both considered unclean. It was common for the Jews to refer to the Samaritans, whom they considered half-breeds, and likened to dogs. And pigs were off-limits to all Jews. So, His reference to these two types of animals was an obvious attempt to make a point. And He juxtaposes pigs with pearls and dogs with what is holy.

There is an interesting story found later on in the book of Matthew, where Jesus encounters a Gentile woman, a non-Jew. She approached Jesus, pleading, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David! For my daughter is possessed by a demon that torments her severely” (Matthew 15:22 NLT). After initially reacting in silence, Jesus gave her a surprising response: “I was sent only to help God’s lost sheep—the people of Israel” (Matthew 15:24 NLT). But she begged all the more. And Jesus said to her: “It isn’t right to take food from the children and throw it to the dogs” (Matthew 15:26 NLT). As shocking as His words may have sounded to her, she simply responded: “That’s true, Lord, but even dogs are allowed to eat the scraps that fall beneath their masters’ table” (Matthew 15:27 NLT). And Jesus, commenting on the greatness of her faith, grants her desire.

He referred to her as a dog: A Gentile or non-Jew. It is important to remember that the audience to whom Jesus was addressing on the hillside that day was predominantly Jewish. His disciples were Jews. And so, it would seem that He is making a statement about the people of God judging the Gentiles harshly because they do not live up to their so-called religious standards. By casting pearls before swine, Jesus is saying that we are not to take what God has deemed precious and of great value, the law, and hold those outside the family of God to that standard. They will not respect it. They will trample it under their feet. And we are not to take what is holy, the law, and give it to dogs, the ungodly and unrighteous, expecting them to live up to its holy standards.

How easy it is to take the righteous requirements that God has placed on our lives as believers and demand that everyone live up to the same standard, especially those who are lost. Yet, when we can’t even do it ourselves. The lost are slaves to sin. We are not. They can’t do anything but sin, because it is their nature. But we have been given the Spirit of God and He makes it possible for us to say no to our sin nature. Rather than judge the lost, we are to judge those within the family of God. We are to see to it that the faith community to which we are associated, lives in keeping with our calling as God’s children. The apostle Peter would have us remember:

For the time has come for judgment, and it must begin with God’s household. And if judgment begins with us, what terrible fate awaits those who have never obeyed God’s Good News? – 1 Peter 4:17 NLT

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.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Contentment Versus Covetousness

“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.

“Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble. – Matthew 6:25-34 ESV

If, as Jesus has suggested, we are supposed to be laying up treasures in heaven and not on earth, why do we spend so much time to worrying about the stuff down here? And if, as He has already pointed out, our hearts are to focus on heaven, where our treasure is, then shouldn’t the things of this earth have far less appeal to us than they actually do? And yet, as followers of Christ, we find ourselves just as anxious about and attracted to the things of this earth as anyone else. We have financial concerns. We worry about how to pay the bills and put food on the table. We get anxious about everything from the brand of clothes we buy to where we’re going to take our next vacation. But Jesus reminds us “not to worry about everyday life—whether you have enough food and drink, or enough clothes to wear.” Then He asks us, “Isn’t life more than food, and your body more than clothing?” (Matthew 6:25 NLT).

Those people sitting on the hillside listening to Jesus’ message were probably a lot more justified in worrying about these kinds of things than we should be. They were most likely common laborers, farmers, and fishermen. Their daily life was a struggle to provide food and decent clothes for their families. For the fishermen, the next catch was never a sure thing. For the farmer, his hard work preparing the soil and planting the crops was never a guarantee of a good harvest. He was at the mercy of the weather and the whims of nature. So, when Jesus tells them not to worry about life, it is as if He is telling them not to breathe. 

The real issue Jesus seems to be addressing here is faith or the lack of it. He even refers to them as “you of little faith” (Matthew 6:30). Their worry and anxiety reveal their lack of trust in God. Part of their problem was that they were putting all their stock in the things of this earth. They were consumed by worry over material matters. Their “treasure” was not in heaven but on this earth. They were expecting all of God’s blessings here and now, in the form of earthly treasures. But they weren’t even trusting Him to provide those things. They worked for them and worried about them. They struggled to provide for themselves, rather than trusting God to give them what they needed. And like so many of us today, they believed the solution to their problems was always more money.

Yet, Jesus told them, “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money” (Matthew 6:24 ESV). In their culture, money was a sign of God’s blessing. It was tangible proof that you were approved by God. But Jesus is telling them something quite different. Followers of God are to put their trust in Him. They are to turn to Him for their needs, whether it be for clothes or food.

While God may choose to provide money as a means to meet those needs, money is not to be seen as our savior. God alone provides what we need. He may choose to bless us with little or with much. He may determine that our needs are far less than we believed them to be. The clothes God provides for us may not be the brands or styles we prefer. But if our real worry is about being clothed, the label on the garment should not matter to us.

The problem seems to be that our worry revolves around status, not survival. Few of us are anxious about where we are going to get our next meal. But we do get concerned about how many times per week we get to dine out. Our worry is not about putting food on the table, but about the quality of life we desire.

Our constant anxiety over things reveals our lack of faith in God. It also exposes our love affair with the things of this earth. Too often, we seek our satisfaction in material goods. We attempt to find our self-worth in the quantity and quality of our possessions. Our houses, clothes, and cars become outward symbols of our status. And yet, Jesus would ask why we worry about all these things. He would want to know why we don’t trust God to meet our needs. God cares for the birds of the air and the flowers in the field, so what are we so worried about?

Jesus even reminds us that thoughts of food and clothing “dominate the thoughts of unbelievers, but your heavenly Father already knows all your needs” (Matthew 6:32 NLT). God knows our needs. So, maybe the problem is that we have failed to ask God what it is we really need. We have our list and He has His. We bring our lengthy catalog of concerns to Him and demand that He provide every item on it and on our timelines. And when He doesn’t, we get concerned and, sometimes, even angry. We wonder why He doesn’t love us, why He doesn’t provide for us. But too often, we have simply turned wants into needs. We have allowed our love for the things of this earth to replace our love for God and our faith in Him. We measure His goodness based on what we believe to be His generosity. The more He gives us, the more we think He loves us. But Jesus reminds us that God promises to meet our needs. And our attitude should be like that of Paul:

I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength. – Philippians 4:11-13 NLT

Contentment versus covetousness. That’s the problem. We must learn to trust God, to put our faith in Him, knowing that He loves us and has our best in mind. God has promised to meet our needs. And He has also assured us that our greatest treasure is laid up for us in heaven, not on this earth. We are citizens of another kingdom. This world is not our home, and the things of this earth that we spend so much time coveting and worrying about will not last. They will rust, decay, and fall apart because they are temporal. They are what the unbelievers seek and desire.

But as children of God, our treasure is to be elsewhere. Our trust is to be in something other than the things of this earth. We are to trust Him – for everything. Which is why Jesus tells us to “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33 ESV). We are to long for His kingdom, not our own. We are to seek His brand of righteousness, as made available through faith in Christ. The quantity of our treasures on earth is not an indicator of our right standing with God. The number of material blessings we seem to enjoy on this earth is not to make us think we are somehow blessed by God. Our treasures are in heaven. Our hopes are in God. And our faith should be strong because our God is faithful.

If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. – Colossians 3:1-2 ESV

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.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

The Art of Self-Denial

“And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. – Matthew 6:16-18 ESV

After having provided His listeners with a model for how to pray, Jesus turns His attention to the topic of fasting. In order for us to understand what Jesus is trying to say about fasting, it’s essential that we discern its role within the Hebrew cultural context. Otherwise, we will try to apply our modern perception of fasting and miss Jesus’ intended application.

For many of us, fasting is a rather foreign concept. The kind of fasting of which we are familiar seems to be tied to dieting or weight loss. And fasting has also become a popular form of cleansing or purging for health reasons. But that is not what Jesus is talking about. In Jesus’ day, fasting was a religious rite, practiced in conjunction with a particular feast day or religious festival. For instance, fasting was a regular part of the yearly celebration of the Day of Atonement.

Now on the tenth day of this seventh month is the Day of Atonement. It shall be for you a time of holy convocation, and you shall afflict yourselves and present a food offering to the Lord. And you shall not do any work on that very day, for it is a Day of Atonement, to make atonement for you before the Lord your God. For whoever is not afflicted on that very day shall be cut off from his people. – Leviticus 23:26-29 ESV

The phrase “afflict yourselves” is a reference to fasting. The people were to fast or deny themselves their normal intake of food, while at the same time presenting a food offering to the Lord. Fasting, in this case, was intended to be an expression of one’s complete dependence upon God. But it was also a way of focusing your attention solely upon God. Rather than seeking your sustenance from food, you were turning to God to meet your needs. It was a spiritual exercise that was usually accompanied by prayer and confession of sins (1 Samuel 7:5-6). Fasting was not done for its potential health benefits or cleansing properties. While it may have had beneficial side effects, fasting was meant to focus one’s attention on God, not on self. In fact, fasting was, at its core, a denial of self.

But once again, the Jews had managed to turn fasting into an external show of self-righteous piety and religious one-upmanship. And this had been going on for some time. God had confronted the Israelites regarding their false view of fasting before. He had spoken harsh words to them through the prophet Isaiah.

“Shout with the voice of a trumpet blast.
    Shout aloud! Don’t be timid.
Tell my people Israel of their sins!
Yet they act so pious!
They come to the Temple every day
    and seem delighted to learn all about me.
They act like a righteous nation
    that would never abandon the laws of its God.
They ask me to take action on their behalf,
    pretending they want to be near me.
‘We have fasted before you!’ they say.
    ‘Why aren’t you impressed?
We have been very hard on ourselves,
    and you don’t even notice it!’

“I will tell you why!” I respond.
    It’s because you are fasting to please yourselves.
Even while you fast,
    you keep oppressing your workers.
What good is fasting
    when you keep on fighting and quarreling?
This kind of fasting
    will never get you anywhere with me.
You humble yourselves
    by going through the motions of penance,
bowing your heads
    like reeds bending in the wind.
You dress in burlap
    and cover yourselves with ashes.
Is this what you call fasting?

Do you really think this will please the Lord?

“No, this is the kind of fasting I want:
Free those who are wrongly imprisoned;
    lighten the burden of those who work for you.
Let the oppressed go free,
    and remove the chains that bind people.
Share your food with the hungry,
    and give shelter to the homeless.
Give clothes to those who need them,
    and do not hide from relatives who need your help.” – Isaiah 58:1-7 NLT

So, when Jesus confronts the Jews in His audience with their false concept of fasting, He is simply reiterating the concerns of His Father. Once again, He refers to “the hypocrites,” a clear reference to the Pharisees and other religious leaders. They had taken fasting, a form of self-denial and self-humiliation, and turned it into a means of self-promotion. They fasted to get noticed. They fasted to garner the praises of men, but not to confess their sins before God. This was not the kind of fasting God desired. He desired fasting that came from the heart. He wanted them to deny themselves the sins they so deeply enjoyed committing. In the case of the Isaiah passage, God expected the Jews to free the wrongly imprisoned, to lighten the burdens of their workers, to let the oppressed go free, and remove the chains that held people bound. While they were busy wearing sackcloth and denying themselves food in an attempt to get God’s attention, they were also busy practicing all kinds of moral and ethical injustices. And God was not impressed.

For the Jews in Jesus’ audience, the problem was even worse. The kind of fasting they were exposed to was not even intended to get God’s attention. It was aimed at men. Jesus accuses them of trying “to look miserable and disheveled so people will admire them for their fasting” (Matthew 6:16 NLT). Fasting had become all about the outward impression it left on those around you. But throughout His message, Jesus has been talking about those who are approved by God. And just as we have seen in the Isaiah passage, God does not approve of fasting that is done with wrong motives or in a hypocritical manner.

Like any spiritual discipline, fasting can be abused. It can also be misunderstood and practiced for all the wrong reasons. Reading the Bible is a good thing. It is proper for God’s children to spend time in His Word. But we can make Bible reading a badge of honor and a means by which we show others just how spiritual we really are. The same thing can be said of prayer, Scripture memory, Bible study, and giving. These spiritual disciplines can be twisted and misused, becoming nothing more than outward signs of piety that do not reflect the true condition of the heart. It was King David who wrote these powerful words after having been confronted and convicted by the prophet Samuel regarding his affair with Bathsheba.

For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it;
you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. – Psalm 51:16-17 ESV

The external practice of offering sacrifices meant nothing if the heart remained unchanged and unrepentant. Fasting that was merely an outward show done to convince others of our spirituality will never impress God. He sees our hearts. He knows our motives. And Jesus says that if you fast to garner the praise of men, you will get all the reward you are seeking, but you won’t have the approval of God. You won’t know what it means to be blessed by God. Like the Jews in Isaiah’s day, you will find yourself saying, “I have fasted before you! Why aren’t you impressed?”

Seeking the praise of men is a dangerous game to play. It means we value their opinions over that of God. We care more about their perceptions of us than we do about how God sees us. And Jesus warns us that if the reward we seek through our acts of spiritual discipline is the praise of men, we will get exactly what we want, but no more.

Let’s bring it into a modern context. If I tell others I am fasting in order to impress them with my spirituality, but my real intent is to lose weight, I may impress my friends and drop a few pounds, but I will not gain favor with God.

If I truly want to deny myself something as a means of humbling myself before God, Jesus would recommend that I do it in secret. He would tell me to hide what I am doing from others because they don’t need to know. I don’t need to advertise my fast because God sees my heart. I don’t need to tell others how much I read my Bible or how many Scripture verses I have memorized. God knows, and that is all that matters. But it is important to remember that God also knows my motives. He knows why I read my Bible and memorize Scripture. If I do these things while ignoring sin in my life, I am nothing more than a hypocrite, a play-actor. I am attempting to cover up my sin by doing righteous things. But God wants a broken and contrite heart. Listen to the words of God spoken through the prophet Isaiah:

“Remove the heavy yoke of oppression.
    Stop pointing your finger and spreading vicious rumors!
Feed the hungry,
    and help those in trouble.
Then your light will shine out from the darkness,
    and the darkness around you will be as bright as noon.
The Lord will guide you continually,
    giving you water when you are dry
    and restoring your strength.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
    like an ever-flowing spring.
Some of you will rebuild the deserted ruins of your cities.
    Then you will be known as a rebuilder of walls
    and a restorer of homes.” – Isaiah 58:9-12 NLT

Fasting should be an outward expression of the inward condition of the heart. If our hearts are prideful and self-focused, our fasting will end up being done for our own glory, and not for God’s. If our hearts are broken, humble, and dependent upon God and His mercy, our fasting will be done for His glory and His approval, not for the praise of men. God knows our heart, and He will reward us according to the intention of our heart. Our Father, who sees in secret, will reward us.

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.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

A Model Prayer

“Pray then like this: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

“For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. – Matthew 6:9-15 ESV

Jesus has just told His audience how not to pray. They were not to pray hypocritically, pretending to be concerned with God, while actually trying to impress those around them with their prayerful piety. And He told them not to pray lengthy, repetitive prayers, in the hopes that God might see them as more holy, and answer their prayers more readily. Jesus knew there was a lot about the practice of prayer that was misunderstood by His listeners and causing them to misuse and abuse it. They had turned prayer into little more than an outward display of their own apparent righteousness. They prayed to impress and to gain the approval of men. So, what should proper prayer look like? That’s the question that Jesus answers in these verses.

He opens with the statement: “Pray then like this…” (Matthew 6:9 ESV).  What follows is a model for prayer. It was not intended to be a stand-in for your own prayers or to become some kind of daily recitation that we pray routinely and mechanically. In these verses, Jesus provides us with a model to be followed, not a mantra to be recited. It contains the key elements that should be found in every one of our prayers. And it provides a simple, easy-to-follow outline for proper prayer.

First of all, Jesus would have us remember that prayer is not about us. It is, first and foremost, about God and our relationship with Him as a child to Father. We are more than free to come to God with our needs, wants, and even our desires. But we must attempt to bring those needs, wants, and desires within His will. So, Jesus begins His model prayer with the words:

Our Father in heaven…

Jesus sets up an interesting juxtaposition. He refers to God as our Father but reminds us that His residence is in heaven. The term “father” communicates intimacy. We are to come before God as a child, recognizing that He loves and cares for us. Realizing that He is our provider and protector. He loves and cares for us, and He is also responsible for us. This is why Jesus would have us never forget that, in prayer, we are talking to the transcendent God of the universe. He is in heaven. We are on earth. The word “heaven” is intended to remind us of God’s divinity. He is divine, and we are human. He is eternal, and we are temporal. He is holy, while we are marred by sin. And yet, we can come before Him and talk with Him. In fact, the author of Hebrews tells us to “come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most” (Hebrews 4:16 NLT).

But we must always remember that God is both good and great. He is approachable, but we must never come into His presence flippantly or disrespectfully. One of the problems that can develop from the father/child relationship is a spirit of over-familiarity. Children can become too comfortable with their parents and begin to treat them as peers. A parent who refuses to maintain their proper position of authority may end up with a child who becomes demanding toward them, even demeaning. The old phrase, “familiarity breeds contempt,” can become true of the parent/child relationship. It can produce an attitude of flippancy and disrespect. And the same thing can happen in our relationship with God the Father. We are His children, but that relationship should not cause us to forget about His sovereignty over us. We are never to forget that it is Christ who provides us with access to God. Jesus would later say, “No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6 ESV). And Paul reminds us:

Because of Christ and our faith in him, we can now come boldly and confidently into God’s presence. – Ephesians 3:12 NLT

But let us do so respectfully, honoring Him as both God and Father. We must not let our newfound familiarity with God breed contempt for Him.

Next. Jesus provides us with an interesting way to address our Father God.

…hallowed be your name…

Now, why would Jesus insert this line in His model prayer? Think about what this statement is saying. The word translated “hallowed” is from the Greek word hagiazo, which means “to separate from profane things and dedicate to God.” The English word “hallow” means “to honor as holy; consider sacred; venerate.” But why would we need to tell God that His name should be treated as holy? Isn’t His name always holy? One of the things we must understand is the extreme importance a man’s name held in the Hebrew culture. It was tied to his character. So, to say to God, “hallowed be your name” was a statement of desire. We are not asking God to keep His name holy, but that we, as His children, might live in such a way that we do nothing that might profane His name. To say, “hallowed be your name” is to express to him our desire and intention to live in such a way that we bring honor and glory to Him. We are pledging to treat His name as holy through our actions. God will never do anything that will discredit or dishonor His own name. But as His children, we can do immeasurable harm to the character of God by the manner in which we conduct our lives on this planet.

The next part of Jesus’ model prayer states:

…your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven…

Notice the emphasis: His kingdom. His will. Not ours. Prayer is not to be focused on us but on God. Prayer is not primarily a time to tell God things all the things we think He doesn’t know and to give Him the lengthy list of things we think we need. Jesus has just said, “your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matthew 6:8 ESV). Prayer is an opportunity to align our will with His. It is a chance to remind ourselves that we exist for the good of His kingdom, not the other way around. And to ask that His kingdom and will be done “on earth as it is in heaven” is to say to God that we want His rule and reign to permeate every area of our life, just as it does in heaven. It is a will submission to His authority over us.

One of the things Jesus seems to want us to know is that prayer is about sharing our hearts, not information. Prayer allows us to…

…realign our perspective

…refocus our attention

…reveal our sin

…refresh our commitment

…request His assistance

Prayer should focus on His kingdom, not ours. It should stress His will, not ours. That does not mean we are forbidden to ask of God. But Jesus provides us with a sobering reminder of just what we should focus on when we do make requests of God.

Give us this day our daily bread…

Here is the interesting thing about Jesus’ model prayer. Wanting God’s will to be done should change the nature of our requests. If we truly believe that God is all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving, and fully capable of providing for us what we need for life, we will trust Him to do so. Our priorities will change. Rather than seeking significance and satisfaction from those things the world offers, we will be content to trust God to meet our daily needs. Thomas L. Constable describes our daily bread as:

“…the necessities of life, not its luxuries. This is a prayer for our needs, not our greeds. The request is for God to supply our needs day by day.” – Thomas L. Constable, Notes on Matthew, 2008 Edition

The next request Jesus makes in His prayer is that of forgiveness.

…and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors…

But weren’t all our sins paid for on the cross? Why do we need forgiveness? Because we still have sin natures. Because we still sin. And sin creates a barrier between God and us. The forgiveness Jesus is talking about has nothing to do with salvation, but with restoring fellowship with God. Sin indebts us to God. When we confess those sins, it brings forgiveness.

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgives us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. – 1 John 1:9 ESV

Confession restores fellowship. Fellowship with God should mean more to us than anything else. But is Jesus teaching that our forgiveness from God is tied to our willingness to forgive others? To refuse to forgive others shows open disregard for the forgiveness of God. To refuse to forgive is a sin. It is against the will of God for His children.

Since God chose you to be the holy people he loves, you must clothe yourselves with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others. – Colossians 3:12-13 NLT

The next part of His prayer is intriguing.

…and lead us not into temptation…

Is Jesus suggesting that we ask God not to tempt us? If so, He would be contradicting what James would later write, “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one” (James 1:13 ESV). Paul seems to muddy the waters even more:

No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it. – 1 Corinthians 10:13 ESV

The Greek word for “temptation” is peirasmos and it can mean a trial or testing. It can refer to an inner temptation to sin, but also to a trial that tests the character. So what is Jesus suggesting? That we have an awareness of our dependence upon God. That we recognize that God’s way never leads us to sin. That doesn’t mean we WON’T sin. It is to ask God to protect us from falling into sin along the way. We need His help not to sin as He leads us. Following God’s leadership will not be easy. There will be trials along the way. Which is what Jesus is referring to when He adds:

…but deliver us from evil…

God will not only lead us, but He will also deliver us. He can keep us from committing evil. He can protect us from the evil committed against us. Remember what Jesus prayed in the garden:

I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. – John 17:15 ESV

Jesus ends this section by revisiting the issue of forgiveness. It was obviously important to Him. An unforgiving person has never fully understood or appreciated the forgiveness of God. How can we, who have been forgiven so much, be unwilling to forgive others? The key to receiving God’s forgiveness is confession – an acknowledgment of our sin. To not forgive others is to sin against them. And we can’t just confess that sin, we need to rectify it. We need to forgive, as we have been forgiven. In fact, we demonstrate whether we have been forgiven by whether or not we will forgive others.

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.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Proper Prayer

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 prayerful 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 would gather for prayer. So, prayer was not uncommon or unfamiliar among those who heard Jesus speak that day on the hillside. But Jesus was not promoting the necessity of prayer, He was trying to expose the false motivation behind their prayers.

As He has done throughout His sermon, Jesus begins with a warning against hypocrisy – a form of play-acting, where outward appearances were meant to deceive or delude. The Greek word is hypokritēs and was used to describe an actor in a play. An actor’s job was to portray a particular character, altering his voice and appearance to give the illusion that he was someone else. A good actor was able to distort reality and suspend belief, if only for a short period of time.

The problem Jesus is attempting to address is the presence of hypocrisy in matters of faith. Posing and pretending was not to be part of the life of a child of God. Prayer was important to God. He considered the communication between Himself and His chosen people as vital and worthy of reverence. He had provided prayer as a means by which men could express their needs to Him, but also declare His goodness and glory. They could ask things of Him, but they 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 done to get noticed and to seek the admiration of others for your superior 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).

He redefines the purpose of prayer. It 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 He said just a few verses earlier? “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 offering them a compliment for their apparent righteousness. He is not telling them that their giving of alms and public prayers were righteous acts. He is describing their actions as self-righteousness. They were guilty of displaying a self-produced brand of righteousness. And just so we’re clear, Jesus is not saying that alms-giving and public prayer are wrong. He is simply using these two things as examples of good and godly things that had become misunderstood and misused by those who were desperately wanting others to see them as something they were not. In a desperate desire to be viewed by their peers as righteous and holy, they did everything to get noticed.

But Jesus tells them that they are focused on the wrong audience. They are busy trying to convince others of their righteousness when it should have been God they were worried about. He should have been the focus of their prayers. Rather than wasting their time trying to convince others of their own righteousness, they would have been better off confessing their unrighteousness to God. 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 a way for man to give to God (glory, honor, adoration). But it also 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. He 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. In a sense, they become nothing more than right actions done for the wrong reasons.

Jesus is exposing the kind of prayer that is self-focused and meant to get you seen and heard. It’s prayer meant to impress, not confess. It’s prayer meant to gain the praise of men, but that fails to offer praise to God. It’s prayer designed to boost our reputation before men and that lacks confession of our transgressions toward God.

So, what are we to do? Not pray? No, Jesus challenges His audience to rethink their perspective on prayer. He tells them to go into their 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 them but hear and reward them. He will bless them, approve of them, and express His pleasure with them by answering their prayers. The apostle John would later expand on the message of Jesus,

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 pray to impress others, we will get exactly what we seek: Their praise. But we won’t get the approval of 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 receive glory for answering 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 us. 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? 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 states, “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 by the careful choice of your words. Don’t drone on and on, somehow thinking that God will be more prone to hear you if your prayers display a proper amount of fervor. It is neither the intensity or longevity of our prayers that cause God to answer. It is the motivation of the 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 that what we really need is increased faith. We may ask God for a solution to a financial need, but 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 a responsibility 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 Him. 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 in our life. 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 He has done and is doing in and around our life.

Prayer isn’t meant to get you noticed by men. But, on the other hand, it isn’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. And then He provides us with an example of how 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.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Giving to Get

“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.

“Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 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. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.– Matthew 6:1-4 ESV

Jesus has just dropped a bombshell on His listeners: “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48 ESV). And as disconcerting and discomfiting as His words may have been, He was simply trying to explain to them about the true nature of godly righteousness – that alien, outside-of-yourself kind of righteousness that comes from God and can’t be manufactured, only faked.

But how easily we trade in God’s view of perfection for that of man’s. How quickly we forget about what God expects of us and lower our standards. That is exactly what Jesus is confronting among the Jews in His audience. They had long ago traded internal holiness for external piety. They had learned to settle for the praise of men rather than the praise of God. They were stuck on a horizontal plane, viewing righteousness from a purely human standpoint, measuring themselves by comparing themselves with others. So, Jesus starts off this section of His message with a warning. He uses the word “Beware.” In the Greek, it is prosoche, and it means “to beware, take heed, be attentive to.” Jesus used this word a lot.

Beware of false prophets who come disguised as harmless sheep but are really vicious wolves.” – Matthew 7:15 ESV

“But beware! For you will be handed over to the courts and will be flogged with whips in the synagogues.” – Matthew 10:17 NLT

“Watch out!” Jesus warned them. Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” – Matthew 16:6 NLT

Beware of these teachers of religious law! For they like to parade around in flowing robes and love to receive respectful greetings as they walk in the marketplaces. And how they love the seats of honor in the synagogues and the head table at banquets.” – Luke 20:46 NLT

In essence, Jesus is telling His listeners to be perfect and to be careful. His use of the word “beware” is designed to get their attention and to warn them to listen carefully to what He is about to say. Jesus is trying to open the eyes of those sitting on the hillside, using stern words of warning to make His point.

If you recall, the word “blessed” that Jesus repeatedly used in His opening remarks, really refers to the approval of God. So, those beatitudes or blessings could read like this:

Approved by God are the poor in spirit

Approved by God are those who mourn

Approved by God are the meek

Approved by God are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness

Approved by God are the merciful

Approved by God are the pure in heart

Approved by God are the peacemakers

Approved by God are the persecuted, reviled and slandered

We are to seek the approval of God, not men. We are to seek the reward of God, not men. And when we come to faith in Jesus, we receive the full approval of God. We are counted as righteous and adopted into His family as sons and daughters. And those who enjoy God’s approval become part of His Kingdom, receive comfort, inherit the earth, experience satisfaction, receive mercy, see God, and enjoy the promise of a great reward in heaven.

Jesus is speaking of the vast difference between man-made and spirit-induced righteousness. Jesus tells His audience that they are to beware of practicing their righteousness before other people. In other words, their motivation should not be recognition. Those who seek to do good things so that they will be deemed to be good people by those who see them will have all the reward they are going to get. They’ll receive the praise of men, but not the approval of God. That kind of man-pleasing, praise-seeking righteousness will get you no reward from God. Why? Because it is not the kind of righteousness He requires.

To make His point, Jesus provides three examples from real life. The first has to do with alms-giving, which was the act of providing for the needs of the poor and destitute as an act of mercy. The Greek word is eleēmosynē, and it refers to “a donation to the poor” and was sometimes called “compassionateness.”

Jesus is accusing His audience of giving to get merit, but not out of mercy. Their giving to the poor was motivated by a desire for recognition. That was the reward after which they sought. And Jesus tells them that they will have the reward they seek: The praise and approval of men. But they will not receive the one reward they so desperately need: The approval and blessing of God.

The kind of man-made righteousness that Jesus is describing is driven by one thing: The desire for the praise of others. It is done in order to be seen by others and to garner recognition and reward. But Jesus says that, when you give, you are not to let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. In other words, your giving is to remain private. So private, that it will be like one hand not knowing what the other hand is doing. Even your closest friends or family members won’t know what you have done.

What a different mindset. Instead of seeking recognition, you are to pursue anonymity.  You are to keep your actions hidden. Do what you do in secret, concealed, private, and hidden from the view of others. But know this, God will see what you are doing, and reward you, in His way and according to His own timing.

Jesus is not suggesting that there is anything wrong with alms-giving or charity. But anyone who thinks they are righteous because they give has missed the point and misunderstood the true nature of godly righteousness. In fact, giving in order to get recognition isn’t righteousness at all. At least, not according to God’s definition. And throughout this portion of His message, Jesus will emphasize that our greatest concern should be what God thinks and how He views our actions. In fact, Jesus will repeatedly emphasize that, when we give motivated by mercy, rather than the need for merit,  “your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

While no one around us may know what we have done, God will and, more importantly, He will know why we have done it. He will know the motivation of our hearts. And that is still the key behind what Jesus is trying to teach here. This is all about the heart. Giving to get noticed is about the head. It’s about ego, pride, self-esteem and measuring our worth by what others think of us.

But alms-giving was intended to be an act of mercy. It was giving to those in need, not so you could get something out of it. To give to those who do not have, just so you can have what you desire, is a twisted and warped way of life. It is ungodly and unrighteous. It reveals a love of self, but not a love of others. And Jesus warns, “Beware!” Don’t do it. That kind of giving is hypocritical, mere play-acting, intended to give the impression of mercy but motivated out of the insatiable need for merit and men’s praise. And, Jesus says, practicing that kind of righteousness will get you exactly what you desire, but not what you so desperately need: God’s approval and blessing.

In his letter to the believers in Ephesus, Paul wrote:

God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago. – Ephesians 2:8-10 NLT

We did nothing to earn our salvation. And we can do nothing to earn a right standing before God now. Our acts of righteousness do not earn us God’s favor. We perform acts of righteousness because we have already earned His favor and have His Spirit living within us. It is the righteousness of Christ, credited to us by God the Father, that allows us to do “the good things he planned for us long ago.” We have been made new so that we might live new lives, motivated not by merit and men’s praise, but out of willing obedience to God.

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.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson