A Secret Spirituality that Shines: Living for God and Not for People (Matthew 6:1-18)

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus describes the righteousness that characterizes the members of His kingdom. Is a divine righteousness that only He can work in the hearts of His people by the power of the Spirit. It is a righteousness altogether different than that of the religious leaders of the day. It is the righteousness of the redeemed heart that is evident in the words and actions of one’s life. It includes loving one’s enemies, reconciling friendships, making peace, giving generously, and going the extra mile.

In Matthew 5:16, Jesus commands[1] His followers to let their light shine before others, so that people may see their good works and give glory to the Father in heaven. Throughout the rest of Matthew 5, He describes what these good works look like in the context of personal relationships. However, He knows the human heart. He knows that as we progress in righteous living, we will begin to desire glory and praise for ourselves. Thus He warns, in 6:1 “Take care not to practice your righteousness in the sight of people, to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven.”

What is the difference between 5:16 and 6:1? The motivation behind our pursuit of righteousness. In 5:16, the motivation is to glorify God. In 6:1, the motivation is to glorify self. Jesus tells us to guard against practicing His teachings in order to be praised by other people. If we do, Jesus says, we lose our reward from God and will be stuck with the temporary, fleeting, and empty praises of God’s creatures.

Jesus gives three examples in Matthew 6:2-18 to demonstrate what a display of righteousness for the praise of others looks like. First, He gives an example of giving. Those who seek the praise of man give so that they may draw public attention to their generosity (6:2). In Jesus’ day, this might have been done by giving in public or by recounting publicly one’s generous deeds. We do the same when we recount our generosity in conversations with others, even if it is done under the veneer of “let me tell you about how God is using me to bless others!”

Second, Jesus gives an example of praying. Those who seek the praise of man pray extravagant and impressive public prayers (6:5). This may have included those who prayed in synagogue or on the streets during times of public prayer. We do this when we pray in public and give more attention to what others may think of our prayer rather than the fact that we are speaking to God. We may also do this when we share photos on social media of reading our Bibles, praying, or worshipping.

Third, Jesus gives an example of fasting. Those who seek the praise of man intentionally draw attention to their fasting (6:16). This was done by refraining from bathing and distorting one’s face to look hungry and miserable. We do this when we draw attention to our fasting or any other act of spirituality. This goes for all three examples. If we do anything in the Christian life to be praised by others rather than to be praised by God, we are guilty of practicing our righteousness in order to be seen by others.

What then, shall we do? Look to Christ. He is the one who never lived for the praise of man but always did what was pleasing to the Father (John 8:29). Yet He went to the cross and received the very opposite of a reward; He received God’s wrath against our sin, including all of our self-glorifying and praise-seeking. He bore the curse of our sin, died, and was buried. But God raised Him from the dead. Now Jesus sits enthroned in heaven where the Father commands men and women everywhere to repent from their sin and trust in Christ. Those who do have their sins forgiven, have His righteous record of glorifying God given to them, and are given the Holy Spirit to help them follow His example of living for God’s smile rather than the empty applause of man.

How then, shall we live? First, by trusting Christ. Second, by believing by faith that the reward that comes from God is far greater than the reward that comes from men. What is that reward? I tend to think it is commensurate with the act itself. Perhaps serving God and knowing that we are pleasing Him is the reward? There could be much more to it than that, considering that God loves to show extravagant grace to His children! Third, we are to live every aspect of our lives for the eyes of God rather than the eyes of men. This is what true righteousness looks like, and that is what Christ will work in the hearts and lives of His people by His Spirit.

[1] the tense is imperative in the Greek. λαμψάτω τὸ φῶς ὑμῶν ἔμπροσθεν τῶν ἀνθρώπων

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