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"Prayer in the Secret Place"

Matthew 6:5-6
Theme: Jesus teaches us to pray so as to be heard by God and not to be seen by men.

(Delivered Sunday, January 9, 2005 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture is taken from the New King James Version.)

We come, this morning, to a portion of our Savior's Sermon on The Mount that deals with prayer. I'm sure you will agree that, when it comes to the subject of prayer, we could have no better teacher than Jesus.

True prayer is the act of talking to our Father in the name of His Son by the power of the Holy Spirit. And here, in this section of His sermon, Jesus teaches us about prayer to the Father. He addresses many different matters that we need to know. In verses 7-8 for example, He teaches us that we can be confident that our Father knows what are needs are - even before we pray to Him about them; so we can just be ourselves and not resort to repetitive "formula" prayers to get His attention. In verses 9-13, He teaches us what the content of our prayers to the Father should be, so that we're asking in a manner that He is pleased to answer; even giving us a timeless example of the sort of prayer we should pray. In verses 14-15, He teaches us how to have the right attitude of heart toward God with respect to sin, so that our prayers come from pure hearts and can freely be heard by our holy heavenly Father. Clearly, you couldn't possibly receive better or more authoritative instruction on prayer than you receive in the teaching and example of Jesus!

And that brings us to this morning's passage in verses 5-6 - the very first part of this section on prayer. Here, Jesus teaches us about one of the most important aspects of prayer - that is, the motives that are to characterize our hearts when we pray.

Before we read these words, it's important to remember that Jesus spoke them in the context of a broader principle; and that broader principle is found in verse 1: "Take heed that you do not do your charitable deeds [or a better translation would be 'righteous deeds'] before men, to be seen by them. Otherwise you have no reward from your Father in heaven." Our Savior is warning us against doing our acts of righteousness out of an unrighteous motive - that is, so that others will see us do them, and applaud us for them and think well of us. He tells us that if we do that, we may receive the temporal thing that we're after - that is, the approval of men; but we will not receive any reward from the Father.

And so in the context of that broader principle, 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 corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly" (Matthew 6:5-6).

* * * * * * * * * *

Think with me for a moment about what a great privilege it is for a redeemed man or woman to speak to the Father. Apart from Christ, we have no freedom of access to the Father at all - no way to talk to Him, and no right to approach Him. At that time, we stood before God as unredeemed sinners in His sight. Our sins separated us from God, who is immeasurably holy; and because of our guilt for sin, we could not take our requests to Him and gain a hearing from Him. Apart from Jesus, He did not hear our prayers. In fact, as a holy God, He could not honor them and still be a holy God.

But praise Him - He didn't leave us in that condition! Out of love, He sent His own precious Son to die on the cross for our sins and to remove the barrier the guilt for sin created between Himself and us. And once we've place our faith in what Jesus did for us, and once the barrier of our sins has been removed, our sins are taken from us, our guilt is removed, the righteousness of Jesus Himself is placed into our account, and we are now free to approach Him as our Father - and in that redeemed condition, He is glad to hear our requests as His own dear children. I can't help but think of Hebrews 10:19-22 in this respect. What an invitation it gives!

Therefore, brethren, having boldness to enter the Holiest by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way which He consecrated for us, through the veil, that is, His flesh, and having a High Priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water (Heb. 10:19-22).

Prayer is a truly wonderful thing then, isn't it? It's a redeemed sinner - with the barrier of sin completely removed - entering into the deepest possible intimacy with the One whose very nature is "Holy! Holy! Holy!"; and being heard gladly by the almighty God! Just think of what it means, dear brother or sister in Christ, that you may now come to God, as Peter says, "casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you" (1 Peter 5:7)! To pray to God as Father, and to know that God hears us as His children, is without a doubt the greatest possible human act imaginable! It doesn't matter whatever else science or technology or the learning of man may enable us to do; we will never rise higher as human beings in the realm of creation than we do when, as redeemed men and women, we talk to our Father in prayer!

And yet, here's the frustrating thing. Even in prayer - even in this highest of all possible human acts - we can still find a way to bring sin into the picture. Jesus warns us that we can do so when we make a show of praying to our merciful, redeeming Father with the sinfully self-centered motive of having others see us and think of how "holy" and "spiritual" we are. And when we do that, we pray to no avail. We may receive the reward of someone admiring us - cheep and meager a reward as that may be; but we do not receive any favor from our Father for it.

It's easy to pass these words by as only applying to unbelieving people. But remember: Jesus didn't speak them to everyone. He spoke them specifically to His disciples - those who believe on Him and have become His followers. And as His followers, Jesus - our Master Teacher on the subject of prayer - desires for our prayers to be pleasing to His Father, and for us to be fully blessed and unhindered in our intimacy with Him. And so, He gives us this warning. Oh how much we need it!

* * * * * * * * * *

First, let's notice a very basic thing that Jesus' words suggest to us . . .

1. IT'S ASSUMED THAT WE WILL PRAY TO OUR FATHER.

Do you notice how He begins? "And when you pray . . ." It's not "IF you pray", but "WHEN you pray." It was perfectly natural for Him to speak as a Son to His Father. And once we become His children by faith in Jesus, it's perfectly natural for us to pray to our Father as well. It's assumed that we will pray; and we're not so much in need of being told TO pray as we are to be taught HOW to pray.

By the way; do you find that prayer to the Father is a significant part of your life? How often do you pray in the course of a day? Obviously, in keeping with Jesus' teaching in this passage, your answer to this question should be an unspoken one between you and the Father; but still, just how often in a typical day do you pray? How much time to you spend in prayer about the daily concerns of your life? It's certainly not a measurement we should use to compare ourselves with one another; but the answer to that question is something that reveals our attitude of heart toward God.

Think about it. If we find that we can go through the day without talking to the Father at all - or speaking to Him very little - and find that it really doesn't make that much difference to the way we live, what does that say about the true condition of our hearts before Him? What does it say about our love for Him? What does it say about what's truly important to us? What does it reveal about where we have ultimately placed our trust?

Jesus - speaking in this passage not to the world in general, but specifically to those who are His followers - takes it for granted that His followers will pray to the Father. To what degree then do we, who profess to be His followers, fulfill His expectation? May each of us examine our own hearts before Him in this matter!

* * * * * * * * * *

There's something else that needs to be pointed out about Jesus' phrase, "And when you pray . . ." He speaks in the plural form. That is, He is speaking to the group of His followers and saying, "And when you-all pray . . ." In fact, in all of verse 5, He speaks to a plurality of His disciples.

I suggest that it is His expectation that we, as His followers, will not only pray; but also that we will also pray with one another. In fact, I believe He has so constituted us as a Body that we NEED to pray together. I've come to learn just how much I personally have that need. I do pray in private; but I have found that if I go for a long period of time without praying with others in the Body of Christ, I'm not praying alone as much as I should, or with as much fervency. For that reason, I've really grown to value the times when several of us in the church family get together for prayer. I really need those times. I hope you take advantage of those times too; because you need them as well. We really need each other, don't we?

Now, this is a very important point; because many folks have misunderstood what Jesus is trying to tell us in this morning's passage. There are obvious risks involved in praying before other people; and those risks are what Jesus is mainly speaking about. But because of those risks, some folks have taken Jesus to be saying that we should never pray in public or in the context of other people. And of course, if that's the case, then we should never have public prayers in our worship services or as an invocation at important events; and we should never schedule prayer gatherings as a part of the weekly events of our church; and we should probably cease praying together for one another's needs or at meal times.

Plainly, though, Jesus is not speaking against all forms of public prayer. There are several times in the Bible in which it's assumed that we will pray together. In Matthew 18 for example - in one of only two occasions in His earthly ministry that the Lord specifically mentions the "church" (the other being Matthew 16:18) - and in the context of confronting and disciplining another professing believer for sin, Jesus says, "Again I say to you that if two of you agree on earth concerning anything that they ask, it will be done for them by My father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them" (Matthew 18:19-20). Similarly, when He was in the garden awaiting His betrayal, He told His gathered disciples, "Watch and pray . . ." (Matthew 26:41). Clearly, Jesus assumes that His followers would pray together and in front of each other in such cases.

And in the book of Acts, we find that the believers regularly gathered together to pray with and before one another. After Jesus had ascended to the Father, we find that all the disciples "continued with one accord in prayer and supplication" (Acts 1:14). And after the Holy Spirit had come upon them, and Peter had preached and more than 3,000 believed, we find that they all "continued steadfastly in the apostle's doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers" (Acts 2:42). Peter and John even attended the regularly appointed times of prayer in the temple (3:1); and in times of persecution, the church gathered together to mightily raise their voices to God in with one accord (4:34-30).

Did you know that we're even commanded to pray together? In the context of giving Timothy instructions on how the church was to be conducted, Paul said, "Therefore I exhort first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men . . ." (1 Tim. 2:1); "I desire therefore that the men pray everywhere, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and doubting . . ." (v. 8). Obviously, Jesus is not teaching us to refrain from praying together, lest we might be heard by one another. In fact, our Lord Jesus even once prayed with the specific intention that other people hear what He prayed. Just before He raised Lazarus from the dead - with all the people gathered around Him - He prayed, "Father, I thank You that You have heard Me. And I know that You always hear Me, but because of the people who are standing by I said this, that they may believe that You sent Me" (John 11:41-42).

Now; I'm saying all this because we should never misunderstand Jesus' purpose in teaching us what He's teaching in this morning's passage. In no way is He discouraging us from praying in public, or in praying together in the earshot of one another. There's no sin in doing that in and of itself. In fact, it is assumed by Him that we will pray together and before one another.

But as we saw in verse 1, it's all a matter of motives. We are not to do any of our righteous deeds before men with that one, specific, sinful motive: "to be seen by them". And that includes this profound act of prayer. And so, we're to pray . . .

2. BUT WE'RE NOT TO PRAY WITH THE MOTIVE OF BEING SEEN BY OTHERS.

Jesus says - again, speaking to the plurality of His disciples, "And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward" (v. 5).

Notice three things in Jesus' words. First, notice who we are not to pray like - that is, the "hypocrites". Originally, the Greek word hupokritÍs referred to someone who was a great orator or speaker. In fact, there was an ancient writer who paid a complement to another famous Greek; saying that, among other things, he was a very fine "hypocrite" - and that other Greek was flattered! Later on, the word came to refer to an actor in a play - someone who wore a mask and pretended to be someone else. And of course, you can see how the word came eventually to take on the sense of a "play-actor" or "role-player" in the morally negative sense that's familiar to us.

A "hypocrite", then, is someone who is trying to present himself before others as something that he's not. He's a "play-actor" or "role-player"; and in the case that Jesus is speaking of, he's someone whose "mask" is that of a spiritual person who prays sincerely. Obviously, by necessity, he would need to do so where other people would see him and be able to admire him. And so, second, notice their motive: Jesus says, "for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men."

The synagogue was the place of religious worship; and the corner of the street was a stationary public spot by which people passed as they hurried along on their business. And it may be that the people that Jesus is making mention of were responding to the times of prayer that everyone else ordinarily responded to. It may be that they stopped and prayed at the appointed times when they were in the synagogue. Or it may be that, at times when the call for prayer was issued from the temple by the blowing of the horn, they stopped in the middle of their business, stood on the street corner, and prayed. These may have been perfectly normal, legitimately expected times of prayer in a culture for which prayer was an ordinary part of life. But the point that Jesus - who sees deeply into the human heart - was making is that, when such times occurred in a public way, they "loved" it! And the reason was because they could then be seen and admired by men for the fact that they prayed.

Isn't the heart of man deceitful? Here is the call for prayer - the highest, and most honorable, and holiest of all human actions - and it's done, not with the motive of glorifying and honoring God, but in order to be seen and approved of by men.

* * * * * * * * * *

Now I confess that, if I'm going to look down my nose at the hypocrites, I'm going to have make my nose curl around backwards; because I'm guilty of doing this too. I've been asked to pray for people many times; and when I do, they often tell me afterwards, "Thank you. That was a lovely prayer." And then, the next time they ask me to pray, I'm a little bit more motivated to make sure it's "lovely"! I'm certainly not alone in this, though. I read the other day about a minister from New England who once described a prayer that was prayed in a uptown Boston church. It was a very ornate and elaborate prayer; and he praised it as "the most eloquent prayer ever offered to a Boston audience." 1 Think of that: ". . . Offered to a Boston audience . . .!" Apparently, he didn't think of it as offered to God.

I have lots books that have collections of the sermons of great preachers. And in some cases, I have the collections of some of the prayers those great preachers prayed in their churches. I have enjoyed reading these recorded prayers; and I have learned much from them. But as I studied this passage, I began to wonder about those collections. Those great prayers were recorded at a time when men's words had to be copied down in short-hand by someone in the audience, and then later written out for the press. And when that great preacher prayed those prayers, I have wondered: Did he know that someone was writing the words of his prayers down for later reading? And if so, did that knowledge have any effect on the way he chose to pray them? Perhaps a truly saintly preacher could pray without being conscious of the fact that his words were being written down. I'm sure some rare men of God could. I know that I could not. And I've also read some "prayers" that I'm sure were, quite frankly, "prayed" in order to be written down.

I can think of much more subtile ways that we pray with at least some intention of being admired by men for it. For example, we sometimes pray in public with carefully chosen words that demonstrate to others around us the greatness of our faith. Obviously, it's necessary that when we pray, we pray with faith. But God knows our hearts and sees whether or not our faith is great; and it certainly isn't necessary that everyone else around us become as convinced as He is! Closely related to that is when we pray enthusiastically before an enthusiastic group, specifically to hear an approving "Amen!" shouted out now and then! That's when we know our prayers are really getting through! Well, . . . to other people, anyway.

Another way we draw attention to ourselves in our prayers is when we pray with the intention of edifying others around us who hear us. Now, it's not wrong that our prayers be edifying to hear - I hope certainly hope they are. But if we're carefully choosing our words with an eye on those around us, hoping to instruct them and build them up through our prayer - and maybe even to throw a little "teaching" their way in the process - then we're not really talking to God. We're talking to people through the pretense of talking to God.

I've got a very vivid example of this in mind. I remember that I was at a very large gathering of believers here in our area once in which a local pastor led us all in prayer. There were a lot of us present; and there were quite a lot of things he had to say to us in that prayer. He was very enthusiastic and energetic about sharing it all too! Afterwards, another brother in the Lord and I talked about it; and we agreed that he "preached a pretty good prayer". I'm afraid almost all of us preachers are guilty of doing that at some time or another.

Would you like to know another thing we preachers sometimes do? (Boy; this sermon is not ending up aimed in the direction I originally thought it would be!) We sometimes "summarize" our sermons in the closing prayer. We say something like this: "Oh, Father; we thank You for point #1, for point #2, and especially for point #3. And oh, that we might take the conclusion to my sermon that I just gave, and all faithfully apply it to our lives." Now think: Does God really need me to tell Him what I just preached? I don't think so. He was there when I preached it - and He wasn't sleeping! Obviously, when a preacher does something like that, he's using prayer to drive his sermon into the skulls of the saints just one more time. And I have to admit, "Guilty as charged."

Sometimes, we can try to use prayer to God as a means of flattering people. This is very subtile, because it seems as if we're doing a good thing. There's a story about the great Puritan pastor Jonathan Edwards that illustrates this. A neighboring pastor had invited Edwards to preach at his church one Sunday. But when the pastor got to the church, he found that Edwards had not yet arrived. As people filed in to hear a sermon from Mr. Edwards, the poor pastor waited and waited; but still no Edwards. And so, as the church had become full, he felt that it was best to began the service with the prayer that was typically given just before the sermon.

As it turned out, Edwards had been slightly delayed in getting there; but he finally arrived, and slipped into the church while the pastor was offering this prayer. Jonathan Edwards was a gentle and meek man; and so, he very quietly made his way to the pulpit and stood by the pastor as he prayed; but the pastor didn't know he was there. And so, not knowing that Edwards was there, the pastor expressed in the words of his prayer that he regretted that Mr. Edwards had not been able to come, and that it was a disappointment to everyone who came to hear this celebrated pastor. But he also used that time of prayer to express his profound respect for Edwards - to extol his great talents and learning and saintliness; to praise God that He raised up such a fine instrument for the doing of so much good through his learned writings. And not knowing whether Edwards was safe, he prayed that God's hand of protection might be on him, so that he could live on and that his profound usefulness to God might be extended around the world.

And when he was through praying all this, he turned and found that Edwards had been standing by his side all along - ready to preach. The pastor was very embarrassed; and all flustered, he said that if he had known Edwards had been standing there all that time, he wouldn't have prayed as he did. (Now stop and think about that! Isn't that interesting! The knowledge of Mr. Edwards' presence would have changed the way he prayed!!) Clearly, he had engaged in more than a little fleshly flattery in prayer!

This pastor had drawn the attention of the people off of God and had turned it to a mere man. That's never a good thing to do in prayer. But he valiantly tried to rectify the situation. He quickly turned to Edwards and added, "But after all, they do say that your wife has more piety than you."2

Now, we can try to avoid all these pitfalls by saying, "Well; I'm just not going to pray in public at all. I'm going to make sure that I always pray in secret." But the fact is that there's a way we can do even that and still end up bringing attention to ourselves through prayer. There's a way that you can draw attention to secret prayer by making sure that everyone knows you pray in secret! How saintly people will think you to be!!

And what's more, we can also drop little hints here and there by saying - with a sinful motive of eliciting admiration, "I was praying about this or that the other day . . ."; or, "I have spent a lot of time praying about such and such"; or "How are you? I've been praying a lot for you lately." Again, there's not anything wrong in letting people know you pray for them or their trials. It could be a very good and encouraging thing to do. But if it's done in such a way as to draw attention to the fact that you pray for them in an exceptional way, then you may be slipping into the very sort of hypocrisy that Jesus is warning us about in this passage.

And that leads us to note a third thing from Jesus' words about those who love to pray in public in order to be seen by men; and that is the result: "Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward." They have the approval of men. They have their admiration. They may even receive their profound thanks and praise. But that's all they have. They do not receive anything from the Father.

* * * * * * * * * *

So; that's the danger we face in praying. It's the most profound act that any human being can ever engage in; and yet, we can so easily taint it with sin when we seek to do so in such a way as to be seen and admired by others.

And that leads us to our final point; that . . .

3. INSTEAD, WE'RE TO PRAY TO THE FATHER IN SECRET.

Jesus says, "But you . . ."; and here in the original Greek text, Jesus is presented as once again returning to the second person singular pronoun. He's saying "You - as an individual . . ." In fact, He places emphasis on the phrase "But you . . ." He's not speaking to us in the plural; because that's the context within which we would be seeking to be seen by one another. Instead, He draws us out of the crowd, and deals with us as individuals.

"But you, when you pray, go into your room . . ." The word that Jesus uses, that's here translated "room", is one that refers to a "storage room" or "closet". It's a room that was usually separated from everything else; and because it contained valuables or grain or goods, it was usually locked. Some of your translations call it "the inner room". It was far away from the place where people were. It wasn't a room that people spent time in. It was certainly not the place someone would expect to find someone else praying - which, of course, is the point.

Jesus, in the original language, seems to go to great lengths to express the seclusion we should seek in getting away to pray. His words can be translated, "Go in into the inner room." And then, He tells us that having shut the door - with the word He uses for "shut" even possibly suggesting the idea of locking it3 - THEN pray to your Father "in the secret place"

Now; I think we should understand this figuratively. Jesus isn't meaning for us to understand that the only acceptable way for us to pray is to lock ourselves in the backyard tool shed. We know Jesus doesn't mean this, because the Bible tells us elsewhere to pray together. Rather, Jesus is addressing that temptation we often feel to be seen by others when we pray, and to be well-thought of by them when we are seen. He doesn't wish for us to lose our Father's favor in our prayers; and so, He is urging us to find that place of seclusion in our lives - wherever that place may be; get completely away from the eyesight of other people, and away from the temptation to make ourselves seen by them in our praying; and pray to our Father in secret. We should place a greater emphasis on secret prayer than on public prayer. As someone said, "In public - pray short; In private - pray long."4

And look at the promise that Jesus gives us: ". . . And your Father who is in the secret place, will reward you openly." How much better that is than the temporal praise and applause of men!

* * * * * * * * * *

Let me close with a few suggestions of how we can get our attention off ourselves in our times of prayer and on to our Father. First, I suggest that we remember who it is that we pray to. Hebrews 12:29 tells us that "our God is a consuming fire." Angels hover about Him in praise, and cry out to one another, "Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory!" (Isaiah 6:3). How could we dare to approach such a holy God with anything but the utmost reverence - even if He does condescend to call us His children?

Second, I suggest we keep in mind what it took for us to be able to talk to Him at all. He is unspeakably holy; and the only way that sinners such as ourselves could ever approach Him is on the basis of the shed blood of Jesus Christ, His precious Son. "In Him," the Bible tells us, "we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace . . ." (Eph. 1:7). Every prayer we ever pray is made possible only by the death of the Son of God! How wonderful it is that we have free access to the Father's throne in prayer!! But how truly expensive that free access was!!

Third, when you or I pray publically in church, I suggest that we remember who it is before whom we pray. We're not praying before a mere group of people, whose admiration we should covet. We're praying before the flock of God "which He purchased with His own blood." (Acts 20:28). Every one of His saints is immeasurably precious in His sight! We have no right to covet their admiration. We should do all that we can to sanctify the attention of His people, and always seek to keep it directed toward the One to whom they belong!

Fourth, I suggest we remember who it is that helps us in our prayers - the third Person of the Trinity. The Bible tells us that "the Spirit also helps in our weakness. For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered. Now He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He makes intercession or the saints according to the will of God" (Rom. 8:26-27). The Holy Spirit is personally and intimately involved in our prayers. Remembering this should help keep us from praying in such a way as to be seen and admired by others.

And finally, I strongly suggest we remember what it is that will hinder our prayers and render them ineffective. As believers, our inability to express ourselves doesn't hinder our prayers. Our weakness of body or mind doesn't hinder our prayers. The place from which we pray doesn't hinder our prayers. Only one thing does; and that's sin. Our sinful attitudes or motives will hinder our prayers. Psalm 66:18 says, "If I regard iniquity in my heart the Lord will not hear." This certainly seems to reflect what Jesus has taught us; that the admiration of men, sought through our hypocritical prayers, is all the reward we will receive. The Father will not honor such prayers; and remembering this should keep us from praying them.


1Cited in James Montgomery Boice, The Sermon on the Mount (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1972), p. 185.

2Cited in Samuel Miller, Thoughts on Public Prayer (Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, 1985), pp. 206-8.

3The Greek word kleiŰ (to close, shut) is similar to the word for "key" (kleis).

4Cited in John G. Mitchell, Matthew (Portland, OR: Multnomah Press, 1974), p. 19.

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