Transformed in My Worship


The Point:  Giving, praying, and fasting are disciplines of personal worship.

Giving to the Needy:  Matthew 6:1-4

[1]  "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. [2]  "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. [3]  But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, [4]  so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.  [ESV]

“Jesus now continues His teaching on righteousness in chapter 6. Previously righteousness related to kindness, purity, honesty and love; now it concerns such practices as almsgiving, praying and fasting. Thus Jesus moves from a Christian’s moral righteousness to his ‘religious’ righteousness. It is important to acknowledge that according to Jesus Christian righteousness has these two dimensions, moral and religious. Some speak and behave as if they imagine their major duty as Christians lies in the sphere of religious activity, whether in public (church-going) or in private (devotional exercises). Others have reacted so sharply against such an overemphasis on piety that they talk of a ‘religionless’ Christianity. For them the church has become the secular city, and prayer a loving encounter with their neighbor. But there is no need to choose between piety and morality, religious devotion in church and active service in the world, loving God and loving our neighbor, since Jesus taught that authentic Christian righteousness includes both. Moreover, in both spheres of righteousness Jesus issues His insistent call to His followers to be different. In Matthew 5 he teaches that our righteousness must be greater than that of the Pharisees (because they obeyed the letter of the law, while our obedience must include our heart) and greater also (in the form of love) than that of the pagans (because they love each other, while our love must include our enemies as well). Now in Matthew 6, with regard to ‘religious’ righteousness, He draws the same two contrasts. He takes the ostentatious religion of the Pharisees first and says: you must not be like the hypocrites [5]. He then moves on to the mechanical formalism of the heathen and says: Do not be like them [8]. Thus again Christians are to be different from both Pharisees and pagans, the religious and irreligious, the church and the world. That Christians are not to conform to the world is a familiar concept of the New Testament. It is not so well known that Jesus also saw the worldliness of the church itself and called His followers not to conform to the nominal church either, but rather to be a truly Christian community distinct in its life and practice from the religious establishment. The essential difference in religion as in morality is that authentic Christian righteousness is not an external manifestation only, but one of the secret things of the heart. The fundamental warning Jesus issues is against practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them [1]. At first sight these words appear to contradict His earlier command to let your light shine before others, so that they may see [5:16]. In both verses He speaks of doing good works before others and in both the objective is stated, namely in order to be seen by them. But in the earlier case He commands it, while in the later one He prohibits it. How can this discrepancy be resolved? The contradiction is only verbal, not substantial. The clue lies in the fact that Jesus is speaking against different sins. It is our human cowardice which made him say let your light shine before others, and our human vanity which made Him tell us to beware of practicing our piety before men. Our good works must be public so that our light shines; our religious devotions must be secret lest we boast about them. Besides, the end of both instructions of Jesus is the same, namely the glory of God. Why are we to keep our piety secret? It is in order that glory may be given to God, rather than men. Why are we to let our light shine and do good works in the open? It is that men may glorify our heavenly Father. The three examples of religious righteousness which Jesus gives – almsgiving, praying and fasting – occur in some form in every religion. Certainly all Jews were expected to give to the poor, to pray and to fast, and all devout Jews did so. Evidently Jesus expected His disciples to do the same. For He did not begin each paragraph, ‘If you give, pray, fast’ but ‘when you do so’ [2,5,16]. He took it for granted that they would. Further, this trio of religious obligations expresses in some degree our duty to God, to others and to ourselves. For to give alms is to seek to serve our neighbor, especially the needy. To pray is to seek God’s face and to acknowledge our dependence on Him. To fast (that is, to abstain from food for spiritual reasons) is intended at least partly as a way to deny and so to discipline oneself. Jesus does not raise the question whether His followers will engage in these things but, assuming that they will, teaches them why and how to do so. The three paragraphs follow an identical pattern. In vivid and deliberately humorous imagery Jesus paints a picture of the hypocrite’s way of being religious. It is the way of ostentation. Such receive the reward they want, the applause of men. With this He contrasts the Christian way, which is secret, and the only reward which Christians want, the blessing of God who is their heavenly Father and who sees in secret. Christian giving [2-4].  There is much teaching in the Old Testament on compassion for the poor. The Greek word for almsgiving in verse 2 means a deed of mercy or pity. Since our God is a merciful God, His people must be kind and merciful too. Jesus obviously expected His disciples to be generous givers. Generosity is not enough, however. Our Lord is concerned throughout this Sermon with motivation, with the hidden thoughts of the heart. In His exposition of the sixth and seventh commandments He indicated that both murder and adultery can be committed in our heart, unwarranted anger being a kind of heart-murder and lustful looks a kind of heart-adultery. In the matter of giving He has the same concern about secret thoughts. The question is not so much what the hand is doing (passing over some cash) but what the heart is thinking while the hand is doing it. There are three possibilities. Either we are seeking the praise of men, or we preserve our anonymity but are quietly congratulating ourselves, or we are desirous of the approval of our divine Father alone. A ravenous hunger for the praise of men was the besetting sin of the Pharisees. So insatiable was their appetite for human commendation that it quite spoiled their giving. Jesus ridicules the way they turned it into a public performance.  Hypocrisy is the word which Jesus used to characterize this display. In classical Greek the hypocrite was first an orator and then an actor. So figuratively the word came to be applied to anybody who treats the world as a stage on which he plays a part. He lays aside his true identity and assumes a false one. He is no longer himself but in disguise, impersonating somebody else. He wears a mask. The trouble with the religious hypocrite is that he deliberately sets out to deceive people. He takes some religious practice which is a real activity and he turns it into what it was never meant to be namely a piece of make-believe, a theatrical display before an audience. And it is all done for applause. Having forbidden His followers to give to the needy in the ostentatious manner of the Pharisees, Jesus now tells us the Christian way, which is the way of secrecy [3-4]. Not only are we not to tell other people about our Christian giving; there is a sense in which we are not even to tell ourselves. We are not to be self-conscious in our giving, for our self-consciousness will readily deteriorate into self-righteousness. So subtle is the sinfulness of the heart that it is possible to take deliberate steps to keep our giving secret from men while simultaneously dwelling on it in our own minds in a spirit of self-congratulation. It would be hard to exaggerate the perversity of this. For giving is a real activity involving real people in real need. Its purpose is to alleviate the distress of the needy. Yet it is possible to turn an act of mercy into an act of vanity, so that our principal motive in giving is not the benefit of the person receiving the gift but our own benefit who give it. So then, in order to ‘mortify’ or put to death our sinful vanity, Jesus urges us to keep our giving secret from ourselves as well as from others. For self-centeredness belongs to the old life; the new life in Christ is one of uncalculating generosity. Christian giving is to be marked by self-sacrifice and self-forgetfulness, not by self-congratulation. What we should seek when giving to the needy is neither the praise of men, nor a ground for self-commendation, but rather the approval of God. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you [4]. What is this reward which the heavenly Father gives the secret giver? It is neither public nor necessarily future. It is probably the only reward which genuine love wants when making a gift to the needy, namely to see the need relieved. When through his gifts the hungry are fed, the naked clothed, the sick healed, the oppressed freed and the lost saved, the love which prompted the gift is satisfied. Such love (which is God’s own love expressed through man) brings with it its own secret joys, and desires no other reward. To sum up, our Christian giving is to be neither before men, nor even before ourselves but before God, who sees our secret heart and rewards us with the discovery that, as Jesus said, It is more blessed to give than to receive [Acts 20:35].”  [Stott, pp. 125-132].

Praying:  Matthew 6:5-8.

[5]  "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. [6]  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. [7]  "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. [8]  Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.  [ESV]

“In His second example of the religious kind of righteousness Jesus depicts two men at prayer. Again the basic difference is between hypocrisy and reality. He contrasts the reason for their praying, and its reward. The hypocrites love to stand and pray [5]. But unfortunately it is not prayer which they love, nor the God they are supposed to be praying to. No, they love themselves and the opportunity which public praying gives them to parade themselves. The giving of praise to God, like the giving of alms to men, is an authentic act in its own right. An ulterior motive destroys both. It degrades the service of God and men into a mean kind of self-service. Religion and charity become an exhibitionist display. How can we pretend to be praising God, when in reality we are concerned that men will praise us? How, then, should Christians pray? Go into your room and shut the door [6], Jesus said. We are to close the door against disturbance and distraction but also to shut out the prying eyes of men and to shut ourselves in with God. Only then can we obey the Lord’s next command: Pray to your Father who is in secret. The essence of Christian prayer is to seek God. Behind all true prayer lies the conversation which God initiates. We seek Him in order to acknowledge Him as the person He is, God the Creator, God the Lord, God the Judge, God our heavenly Father through Jesus Christ our Savior. We desire to meet Him in the secret place in order to bow down before Him in humble worship, love and trust. Then Jesus continues, And your Father who sees in secret will reward you [6]. Certainly the hidden rewards of prayer are too many to enumerate. The Holy Spirit witnesses with our spirit that we are indeed God’s children, and we are granted a strong assurance of His fatherhood and love [Rom. 5:5; 8:16]. He lifts the light of His face upon us and gives us His peace [Num. 6:26]. He refreshes our soul, satisfies our hunger, quenches our thirst. We know we are no longer orphans for the Father has adopted us; no longer prodigals for we have been forgiven; no longer alienated, for we have come home. Our Lord’s emphasis on the need for secrecy should not be driven to extremes. To interpret it with rigid literalism would be guilty of the very Pharisaism against which He is warning us. If all our praying were to be kept secret, we would have to give up church-going, family prayers and prayer meetings. His reference here is to private prayer. Rather than becoming absorbed in the mechanics of secrecy, we need to remember that the purpose of Jesus’ emphasis on secret prayer is to purify our motives in praying. As we are to give out of a genuine love for people, so we are to pray out of a genuine love for God. How are we to apply our Lord’s prohibition today? What Jesus forbids His people is any kind of prayer with the mouth when the mind is not engaged. We are not to pray with an abundance of empty phrases, but rather with the attitude that your Father knows what you need before you ask him [8]. He is neither ignorant, so that we need to instruct Him, nor hesitant, so that we need to persuade Him. He is our Father – a Father who loves His children and knows all about their needs. If that be so, somebody asks, then what is the point of praying? Let Calvin answer your question: “Believers do not pray with the view of informing God about things unknown to him, or of exciting him to do his duty, or of urging him as though he were reluctant. On the contrary, they pray in order that they may arouse themselves to seek him, that they may exercise their faith in meditation on his promises, that they may relieve themselves from their anxieties by pouring them into his bosom; in a word, that they may declare that from him alone they hope and expect, both for themselves and for others, all good things.” This is the reason we pray.”  [Stott, pp. 132-135,142-145].

Fasting:  Matthew 6:16-18.

[16]  "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. [17]  But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, [18]  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.  [ESV]

“Here is a passage of Scripture which is commonly ignored. Most Christians lay stress on daily prayer and sacrificial giving, but few lay any stress on fasting. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus told us how to fast, on the assumption that we would. And in the Acts and the New Testament letters there are several references to the apostles fasting. First, then, what is fasting? Strictly speaking, it is a total abstention from food. It can be legitimately extended, however, to mean going without food partially or totally, for shorter of longer periods. There can be no doubt that in Scripture fasting has to do in various ways with self-denial and self-discipline. First and foremost, to fast and to humble ourselves before God are virtually equivalent terms [Isa. 58:3,5]. Sometimes this was an expression of penitence for past sin. When people were deeply distressed over their sin and guilt, they would both weep and fast. Sometimes still today, when the people of God are convicted of sin and moved to repentance, it is not inappropriate as a token of penitence to mourn, to weep and to fast. We are not to humble ourselves before God only in penitence for past sin, however, but also in dependence on Him for future mercy. And here again fasting may express our self-humbling before God. For if penitence and fasting go together in Scripture, prayer and fasting are even more often coupled. This is not so much a regular practice, so that whenever we pray we fast, as an occasional and special arrangement, so that when we need to seek God for some particular direction or blessing we turn aside from food and other distractions in order to do so. The evidence is plain throughout Scripture that special enterprises need special prayer, and that special prayer may well involve fasting. There is another biblical reason for fasting. Hunger is one of our basic human appetites, and greed one of our basic human sins. So self-control is meaningless unless it includes the control of our bodies, and is impossible without self-discipline. Fasting (a voluntary abstinence from food) is one way of increasing our self-control. One further reason for fasting should be mentioned, namely a deliberate doing without in order to share what we might have eaten (or its cost) with the undernourished. So whether for penitence or for prayer, for self-discipline or for solidary love, there are good biblical reasons for fasting. Whatever our reasons, Jesus took it for granted that fasting would have a place in our Christian life. His concern was that, as with our giving and praying so with our fasting, we should not, like the hypocrites, draw attention to ourselves. For the purpose of fasting is not to advertise ourselves but to discipline ourselves, not to gain a reputation for ourselves but to express our humility before God and our concern for others in need. If these purposes are fulfilled, it will be reward enough.”  [Stott, pp. 135-141].

Questions for Discussion:

1.         How does Jesus define authentic Christian righteousness? How does Jesus apply this definition to our giving, our praying, and our fasting?

2.         Describe how the hypocrites and the religious of Jesus’ day gave, prayed, and fasted. What is the key difference in the way Jesus wants His followers to do these things?

3.         In each of these activities, Jesus contrasts the reward that the hypocrites receive compared to the reward that His followers receive. How does God reward true Christian giving, praying and fasting?

4.         Think about your motivations for performing these “religious” duties. Pray that God will protect you from self-centered motivations in your Christian activities and that He will enable you to give, pray, and fast for His glory and not your own.


The Gospel of Matthew, vol. 1, James Boice, Baker.

Christian Counter-Culture, John Stott, Inter Varsity.

Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, D. A. Carson, Global Christian Publishers.

The Gospel According to Matthew, Leon Morris, Eerdmans.

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