"Alms in Secret"
(Delivered Sunday, January 2, 2005 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture is taken from the New King James Version.)
This morning, as we continue our study of the Gospel of Matthew - and particularly of our Lord's Sermon on The Mount - we begin a brand new division of His great sermon. It's a division that begins at chapter six with these words:
"Take heed that you do not do your charitable deeds before men, to be seen by them. Otherwise you have no reward from your Father in heaven. Therefore, when you do a charitable deed, do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory from men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But when you do a charitable deed, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, that your charitable deed may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will Himself reward you openly" (Matthew 6:1-4)
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Dear brothers and sisters in Christ; no one knows us better than our precious Savior. He knows us inside and out. He knows not only what we do, but also why we do it. And this morning's passage is a perfect illustration of this. Only the Son of God in human flesh would foresee the need to include these words in His instruction. Only someone who knows us so thoroughly would warn us about doing the right thing in the sight of men while harboring the wrong motives before God.
To appreciate these words, let's consider them in their context. Jesus began His sermon by establishing that righteousness was a gift of God's grace. He said, among other things, "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled" (Matthew 5:6). As we saw when we studied those words earlier, the reason someone would hunger and thirst for righteousness is because of a profound recognition that they weren't righteous; and they long to be made righteous with all their hearts. And for those who, by faith, come to God hungering and thirsting for a righteousness they don't possess, the promise is that "they shall be filled". God makes the truly repentant sinner completely righteous in His sight as an act of grace through His Son Jesus Christ. That's the first step in becoming a follower of Jesus.
But now, after they have been declared righteous before God, in a positional sense, through grace, Jesus now calls His followers to then go on and live a practical life of righteousness. He doesn't call them to the mere superficial level of righteousness that characterizes so many people of this world - a mere "in-the-sight-of-men" kind of righteousness. Rather, He calls His followers to a very high standard of righteousness: "For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven" (5:20).
Jesus expects righteous living from His followers. And He spends the rest of chapter five describing just how deep and genuine - in actual practice - that righteous living is to be. He calls us to practice the true intent of His Father's commandments; and we've spent many weeks studying those words of instruction.
And so, when we come to chapter six and to this new section, the theme is still that of living a righteous life as subjects of the kingdom of Jesus. But though the theme is the same, the focus is different. While in chapter five He taught us what it looks like to practice true righteousness, He now teaches us to practice this righteousness in the right way and with the right motives. The focus of chapter five was with regard to what other people can see; but now the focus in chapter six is with regard to what only God can see. The focus of chapter five was on our outward behavior with respect to practical acts of righteousness; but now the focus is on our inner motivations before God.
And again, I ask you: who but the Son of God would know us so well as to call us to do good, and then follow it up with a warning not to spoil it by doing good in order to be praised by men?
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This is a part of our fallen, sinful nature; isn't it - this tendency to do good works in such a way as to make sure others see us doing them? Jesus not only called His followers to a righteousness that was greater than that of the scribes and Pharisees; but He also called them to higher goals than theirs too. He said, ". . . All their works they do to be seen by men" (Matthew 23:5).
Jesus taught for a whole chapter of Matthew's gospel about the "showy" righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. He said in Matthew 23:5 that they would "make their phylacteries broad". Phylacteries were little boxes that contained passages of scripture; and they were held in place on a man's forehead or hand by leather straps, worn during the appointed hours of prayer and worship. This practice probably came from the Old Testament, where God spoke through Moses to the people of Israel about His laws and commandments, and says: "You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes" (Deut. 6:8). But when Jesus said that the scribes and Pharisees "make their phylacteries broad", He was saying that they wore extra big ones for display; and that they would walk around with them still upon their bodies, long after the appointed times of prayer - all as a way of advertising their "righteousness" before the sight of men.
And He also said that they would "enlarge the borders of their garments". The Old Testament law commanded that the men of Israel were to make tassels on the corners of their garments; and that these tassels were to serve as reminders to them: "that you may look upon it and remember all the commandments of the LORD and do them" (Num. 15:39). But when Jesus said that they enlarged the borders of their garments, He was saying that they wore ostentatious "tassels" - not so much as a way to remind themselves of God's commandments, but as a way to impress others with their supposed "commitment" to those commandments.
Now in doing these things, the scribes and Pharisees were doing what the law required. But clearly, whatever value there was in wearing a phylactery or in having a tassel on the edge of one's garment, that value was lost before God by the fact that it was done "to be seen by men".
And if we are honest before God, we must admit that we do some of the same sorts of things far too often. Have we, as a follower of Jesus, sometimes prayed in a restaurant in the hopes that we might be seen and be thought well of by others? Or have we ever carried our Bibles in a prominent place in the sight of others in the hopes that they might become impressed with our devotion? Let's admit it: we've all done some of those kinds of things, haven't we?
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Jesus is calling us, as His followers, to cease from doing such things with those kinds of motives. In this new section of the Sermon on The Mount, He calls us to beware of this tendency in three very important areas of spiritual life: in performing acts of charity (vv. 2-4); in saying our prayers (vv. 5-15), and in fasting (vv. 16-18). Those are broad and basic areas of spiritual activity; and in instructing us on these three areas, Jesus is teaching us how we are to express our righteousness in all areas of spiritual life. These three words of instruction touch on the three basic areas of relationship in our spiritual life: charity with respect to others; prayer with respect to God; and fasting with respect to the denial of self.
And what's more, all three words of instruction follow the same basic formula: "When you do an act of righteousness (whether a charitable deed, or pray a prayer, or a time of fasting), do not do as the hypocrites do (either blowing a trumpet to draw attention to the deed, or praying ostentatiously in a public place, or wearing a long face before others when fasting) in order to be seen of men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But instead, do your act of righteousness in secret - apart from the sight of men; and your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you."
Let's begin by considering the basic principle that underlies Jesus' three words of exhortation: that . . .
1. WE ARE NOT TO PERFORM RIGHTEOUS ACTS IN ORDER TO BE SEEN BY MEN (v. 1).
n the translation that I'm using, it says, "Take heed that you do not do your charitable deeds before men, to be seen by them . . ." Some of you, however, have Bibles that do not say "charitable deeds". Instead, some of you have Bibles that say "acts of righteousness" (as it is in the NIV), or "practicing your righteousness" (as it is in the ESV). In other words, some of your translations have the idea of "righteous deeds" rather than "charitable deeds". This is because the older and more reliable Greek texts of the New Testament use the Greek word for "righteousness" (dikaiosunÍ); but in some of the later texts, ancient copiests used the word for "charitable deeds" (eleÍmosunÍs) in order to make it match the verses that immediately follow. Most scholars agree, however, that the translation that best represents the original wording is "acts of righteousness". And this is important; because it makes verse one a general statement of principle about all kinds of acts of righteousness, and it makes the remaining verses a series of instructions on specific examples of that principle.
The general principle is that we do not do our acts of righteousness before men, with the motive of those righteous deeds being seen by men. And you can see, as you read on, that this is a general principle that is being expanded on by our Lord in the rest of this passage through specific examples. In verse 2, He says, "Therefore, when you do a charitable deed, do not sound a trumpet before you . . ."; saying that the hypocrites do this "that they may have glory from men" Or in verse 5, He says, "And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners, that they may be seen by men." Or in verse 16, He says, "Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting." Do you notice the connecting words? "Therefore . . ."? "And . . ."? "Moreover . . ."? These all help us to understand that these later verses are expanding on the general principle that Jesus gives to us in verse one.
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And let me call your attention to three points about this general principle. The first point is the principle itself: that we are not to do our acts of righteousness before men, "to be seen by them".
Now, someone might object, "But wait a minute! Jesus also said, 'Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven' (v. 16). Obviously, they can't see those good works unless we do them where they can be seen. But here, He tells us not to do our acts of righteousness before men! Isn't that a contradiction?"
And of course, the answer is no; this is not a contradiction. It's all a matter of the purpose for those works being seen in the first place. When we let our 'light so shines before men that they may see our good deeds', it should be in order that they may 'glorify our Father in heaven' - not that they may glorify us. If we are seeking the Father's glory in our righteous deeds, then we're doing them before men with the right motives of heart. But if we do our acts of righteousness before men "to be seen by them" - and specifically, so that we may receive their approval and applause, and make them think of how 'spiritual' and 'self-sacrificial' and 'holy' we are - then we're letting the light shine so that it may shine upon ourselves. We're robbing God of His glory, and taking it for ourselves. This is what Jesus is talking about in giving us this general principle.
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Second, notice the warning that is attached to this general principle: "Otherwise you have no reward from your Father in heaven." That's a sober warning, isn't it?
It's interesting that Jesus doesn't say, "Otherwise - that is, if you ignore this word of instruction and do your acts of righteousness before men, in order to be seen by them - then you will have no reward at all." He doesn't say that; because throughout the examples that follow, He says that those who do so will indeed receive a reward. He says that when such people receive the applause of men, "Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward" (vv. 2, 5 and 16). The point isn't that they don't get a reward. It's that they get the thing that they were looking for - the applause of men - and that's all they will ever get for what they did. They do not receive anything from their Father in heaven for that act. They gain something very meager and fleeting as their reward; and by contrast, lose something of precious and eternal value.
Someone has suggested that an act of righteousness cannot be worth more than one reward. We either merit a reward from men, or we merit one from God. And if we do it in such a way as to merit it from men, we lose it from God. And of course, if we do it in such a way as to seek God's glory instead of our own, we will not gain the praise of men. But it's not a bad exchange, is it? - to forfeit something temporal in order to gain an eternal reward from the Father?
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And finally notice the very clear command of our Savior at the beginning portion of the verse: "Take heed!"
The word that's used in the original language means "to have" something, or "to hold to" something. It's the idea of actively 'holding your mind' toward this warning. And you should know too that the word itself is given as a command in the present tense form of the verb; which means that this isn't something we just do once and then forget about it. Rather, it's to be our regular habit of life - our constant pattern - to hold this warning in mind.
It's important to continually hold this warning in our minds, because we constantly need it. We're constantly in danger of falling into the trap of doing our righteous acts to be seen by others. In fact, I would suggest that the longer you walk with the Lord Jesus, and the more your life becomes characterized by acts of righteousness as a regular pattern of daily practice, the more you need to heed this warning. It's very, very easy to begin to lose our focus; and to slide from doing acts of righteousness for the sake of God's glory and into doing them for the sake of our own reputation.
I probably shouldn't tell you this; but it happens to pastors very easily. (Actually, I probably don't HAVE to tell you that!) Someone told me a week ago or so about a pastor who, whenever someone complemented him on his sermon, would piously give glory to God for it. It certainly made him look humble when he did so. Someone walked up to him one Sunday and said, "That was a good sermon, Pastor." And he responded as he always did: "Well; all the glory goes to God, of course." But the other person said, "Well pastor, the sermon was good; but it wasn't THAT good!"
Hey; I'm guilty too. We all are. That's why we need to heed this warning continually.
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So that's the general principle. Let's look now at a specific example that the Lord gives to us. In verses 2-4, we see learn that . . .
2. SPECIFICALLY: WE ARE TO DO ACTS OF CHARITY WITH RIGHTEOUS MOTIVES BEFORE GOD (vv. 2-4).
Jesus says, "Therefore, when you do a charitable deed . . ." And here, He changes His form of address. In verse one, He spoke in the plural - that is, "You-all take heed that you-all do not do your-all's charitable deeds before men, to be seen by them . . ." But now He speaks in the second person singular - that is, "Therefore, when you, as an individual, do a charitable deed . . ." Jesus gets personal with us in this example.
And what's more, the word that is used here is not the same word as is translated in the phrase "acts of righteousness". As I suggested, that was a very broad word that covers a variety of expressions of righteousness before God. The word used in verse two, however, is a word that refers specifically to acts of mercy - deeds of charity to those in need; or as it's translated in the old King James Version, "alms".
Now understand: the idea of doing acts of charity is not what's in question here. The Old Testament tells us in many places that God's people are to be careful to do acts of charity. In Deuteronomy 15:11, God speaks through Moses to the people of Israel and says, "For the poor will never cease from the land; therefore I command you, saying, 'You shall open your hand wide to your brother, to your poor and your needy, in your land." And not only is this a command to God's people, but it's also a pathway to their being blessed by Him. Psalm 41 says,
Blessed is he who considers the poor; the LORD will deliver him in time of trouble. The LORD will preserve him and keep him alive. And he will be blessed on the earth; You will not deliver him to the will of his enemies. The LORD will strengthen him on his bed of illness; You will sustain him on his sickbed (Psalm 41:1-3).
There is a great promise in the scripture for God's people who faithfully do acts of charity. Proverbs 19:17 says, "He who has pity on the poor lends to the LORD, and He will pay back what he has given." And such acts distinguish the righteous man from the wicked man: "The righteous considers the cause of the poor, but the wicked man does not understand such knowledge" (Prov. 29:7). Such acts were not only to characterize the Old Testament saint, but they are also to characterize the New Testament saint as well. John wrote, "But whoever has this world's goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him?" (1 John 3:18). In the light of all that, isn't it interesting that Jesus doesn't speak to His disciples in these verses and say, "Therefore, IF you do a charitable deed . . ."; but rather "WHEN you do a charitable deed . . ." He assumes that we will be doing them.
But then comes the danger. He says, ". . . When you do a charitable deed, do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets." Jesus speaks of two basic realms of public activity: the synagogue, which was the center of religious life; and the streets, which was where everyday business life happened. That seems to cover all possible realms of public life, doesn't it? And a lot of scholars have wondered whether or not what Jesus said literally happened - that is, that someone actually announced their charitable deed, either in a synagogue or on the street corner, by first blowing a horn and getting everyone's attention. Whether it literally happened the way Jesus says or not, the point is obvious; that is, someone is ostentatiously calling public attention to themselves as they do an act of charity.
I have often thought of what a funny picture it draws for us. Jesus certainly had a sense of humor in His teaching - here describing for us a man 'blowing his own horn'. And the reason someone would do this is obvious: "that they may have glory from men." But what wouldn't have been so obvious, unless Jesus had told us, is the result: "Assuredly," says the authoritative Son of God - in a strong assertion - "I say to you, they have their reward." The 'horn blowers' get what they were after. They received the attention and the glory of men. But that's all they will ever receive. They have forfeited any reward from God.
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Jesus is telling us this, I believe, because He doesn't want us to experience the loss of an eternal reward. He wants us to be truly rewarded by His Father. And by the way; there's nothing wrong with wanting to be rewarded by the heavenly Father for our good deeds. Many people seem to think so; but I don't believe we should feel that way. It honors our heavenly Father when we're eager to receive the fruits of His pleasure toward us. We truly show our love for Him when we eagerly desire what He wants to give us. It's only wrong when we are more eager for the praise of men than we are for the rewards of God. It's only wrong when we are willing to set aside the future "Well done!" of our Father, in order to receive the fading flattery of men in the present.
And so, Jesus calls us to be different from those who seek the glory of men. In the original language, Jesus places the emphasis on us. It's as if He says, "But you - when you do a charitable deed, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing" (v. 3).
I believe that one application of this is that, when we do an act of charity, we're to do the exact opposite of blowing a trumpet before ourselves as we do it. We're to do our best to keep it from becoming public. In fact, the "left hand" - being very close to the "right hand" - may mean that we're to not even announce it to other people who are the closest to us. Now obviously, husbands or wives; if we give money to someone in need, we're obligated to make sure that its done in agreement with our spouse, since he or she would be affected by the gift. A husband and wife should be in agreement in such cases. But other than that, if we at all can, we are to be very careful that we do not let the act become known - even to our dear friends, or to those in our family.
But there's another possibility. When I do an act with my right hand, it's attached to me. But so is my left hand. This makes the matter very, very personal. As one commentator suggests, the right hand represents myself doing my good deed; and my left hand represents my favorable opinion of myself for having done it!1 If I can do a good deed, and then not flatter myself with my own self-congratulations after I did it - if I can do a good deed with nobody else's knowledge but my own, and then forget about it altogether and move on - then I will be completely free from the glory of men, either from other men or from myself.
Jesus calls us to avoid any public awareness of our acts of charity; "that your charitable deed may be in secret." Jesus' words, if I may put it this way, separates the spiritual "men from the boys". You must completely trust the Father if you are going to do your charitable deeds in secret. You have to count on God alone seeing it and rewarding it. But Jesus makes this wonderful offer: Do your charitable deeds in secret, "and your Father who sees in secret will Himself reward you openly" - or as it is in some of your translations, simply, "will Himself reward you."
What a wonderful promise! You can be sure that the Father will not forget! Jesus said, "And whoever gives one of these little ones only a cup of cold water in the name of a disciple, assuredly, I say to you, he shall by no means lose his reward" (Matthew 10:42).
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As I said earlier, our Savior knows us well; doesn't He? But in closing, how might we take Jesus' words to heart? How can we do our charitable deeds in such a way as to truly keep them secret, and entrust them to the reward of the Father? Let me suggest three things.
First, when doing a charitable act, I suggest that we begin - as an act of personal and complete devotion to the Lord - by giving ourselves to Him. We find this exemplified in 2 Cor. 8:5. The apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthian believers about the generosity of the believers in Macedonia toward suffering Christians in Judea. He said that the Macedonian Christians gave very generously; "And not only as we had hoped, but they first gave themselves to the Lord, and then to us by the will of God." That's a good pattern to follow. First, give yourself to the Lord. Turn yourself and all that you are and have over to Him, and become His instrument. And then, when He calls you to give to the needs of others, it's not you doing the giving but Him. You are only His instrument of blessing; and He gets the glory.
Second, I suggest that we remember what it says in Ephesians 2:10; "For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them." Isn't that an amazing verse? When a need comes to our attention, it's not something we've arranged. It's a good work that our heavenly Father has prepared in advance for us. And if we have first given ourselves to Him, then we are to simply walk in the good work that He has already prepared for us. In that case, all we're doing is being obedient to His call and stepping into what He's already prepared for us. What glory would we deserve for doing that? None at all.
And finally, having faithfully done the act that God has given us to do as His instrument, I strongly suggest that we forget about it completely. Don't write about it in your diary. Don't tell anyone else about it. Don't dwell on it. Don't even give it another thought. Just forget about it and move on. In doing so, you will be entrusting that charitable act to God, and depending on Him to remember it and reward you for it in heavenly glory. Jesus spoke of what would one day happen before His throne in the form of a parable, and said,
Then the King will say to those on His right hand, "Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me."
You can be sure that He will remember and will fully reward every act of charity done in His name in secret.
1R.C.H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Matthew's Gospel (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1943), p. 258.
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