Thoughts from the Sermon on the Mount …
Don’t be an actor.
In his novel, David Copperfield, Charles Dickens describes a man who was a perpetual actor. James Steerforth was wealthy, articulate, handsome, and cheerful to everyone he met. But he secretly used his good looks and charm in order manipulate everyone around him. People were only valuable to him for what he could get out of them. In the story, Steerforth ended in complete disaster.
When we look at the New Testament, the Greek word for actor is hypokritēs (ὑποκριτής). The actors in the ancient Greek world would cover their faces with masks, intended to express the feelings and the attitudes of their characters.
But far beyond the direct definition, hypokritēs was also used to describe a person who would go through life as an actor, pretending to like what was popular and not showing their real self. This term for an actor quickly became known in religious circles as one who only pretended to be devout, yet had no real commitment.
We know these actors today by the same word: hypocrites.
Jesus describes hypocrites in His Sermon on the Mount when teaching about good deeds. 15 It is disturbing to read through His warnings about hypocrites. They are not overtly terrible — rather, when we look closely, they can look a lot like us!
“Hypocrisy is the homage that vice pays to virtue” – John MacArthur 5
Using common examples in in righteous living, Jesus shows how easy it is for us to forget about our good deeds, and to start thinking about ourselves.
“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.
After teaching about the law (see here), Jesus next teaches about good deeds. We are expected to do good works when we know Jesus Christ and are following Him (see here). Jesus has already taught that we should let people see our good works so that they can glorify God the Father (see here): 13
In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.
But when our goal is to build up ourselves in front of others, or to look extra good or spiritual, then something is wrong. God will not reward us for putting on a religious show. Instead, we show ourselves to be hypocrites.
Jesus uses three examples of upright living. These are three activities that we should be doing in our lives, that will either bring us closer to God when done right, or reduce us to worthless hypocrites when done as a show for others.
The three activities that Jesus uses as examples are giving, praying, and fasting, or as one author put it, “What I do with others, what I do with God, and what I do with myself.” 12
Giving to the poor
“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.
Jesus starts out with “when you give to the needy.” This is expected behavior for all of His disciples. We are to give, but also to do it for God, and not to be praised by others.
Some Bible scholars have pointed out that this description may allude to the practice of giving alms by the first-century Jews. There were collection boxes for the poor set along the temple’s outer courtyard with long metal trumpet-shaped openings in order to receive donations. The picture of “sound the trumpet” would therefore be when an especially pious Jew would bring a large bag of coins to give. He would then slowly and loudly dump them down the metal opening, gaining the attention of everyone in the temple courts. 4
We do not know if Jesus was using the temple donations as a specific example or if He was simply using the expression of a trumpet to show His main point: do not call attention to yourself when you give to the needy!
This does not necessarily mean that it is wrong to give in public, for the early church all knew that Barnabas had given his income (Acts 4:34-37). 3 But the problem comes when we give to solicit praise from other people.
There are many people who do not give publicly, but they still keep to themselves a mental checklist of their good deeds. It may be in secret, but they know they are good. But Jesus is saying to hide your giving even from yourself. He is not teaching for us to act blindly, but rather that we are not to keep a personal record of our goodness. Don’t give to be praised by others; don’t give to be praised by even yourself. Give, and forget about it! 14
“Jesus is saying, ‘When you give money, first of all, don’t try to impress people, and secondly, don’t try to impress yourself.’” – Stephen Davey 4
“You do it and forget it, and God will remember it. You do it and remember it, and God will forget it.” – John MacArthur 6
“Keep the thing so secret that even you yourself are hardly aware that you are doing anything at all praiseworthy. Let God be present, and you will have enough of an audience.” – C.H. Spurgeon
Praying to God
“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.
Again, Jesus starts out with “when you pray.” He expects His disciples to pray, but not to do it in a way to gain praise from others.
The first-century Jews had a regular practice of praying three times per day. 4 But the especially pious Jews would not pray silently in their homes, but would instead go out to the widest street corners, at the busiest times of the day, praying long, loud, public prayers.
Jesus condemns these actions, saying that they have no reward from God for their show. Even more than that, Jesus showed an example of prayer between a Pharisee and a tax collector in Luke 18:9-14. His point was that when your pray with an attitude of self-righteousness, God will not even listen to you!
Instead, Jesus says to pray in secret. You should pray in public only as an extension of your private prayer life with God.
“[When you enter your closet] you shut out and forget other people, then you shut out and forget yourself. That could happen in private or in public.” – D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones 11
As in giving, Jesus is not condemning public prayer (see 1 Timothy 2:8). But it is wrong to pray in public if we are not in the habit of praying in private. 3
“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.
One final thought about prayer is the contrast with unbelievers. It is too easy to fall to the other extreme, repeating statements as a mantra, and thinking that God will hear us for our repeated exercise. 16 We don’t fight to win God over to our side — He already knows what we need!
So why do we pray? We pray, not to change God’s mind toward us, but to move ourselves closer to Him. We pray to talk with our Heavenly Father, who loves us, who knows our needs, and wants us to spend time with Him.
It is in this context that Jesus provides a structure for how to pray, which is commonly known as The Lord’s Prayer. This will be covered in a future post.
“With some people, praying is like putting the needle on a phonograph record and then forgetting about it. But God does not answer insincere prayers.” – Warren Wiersbe 3
Fasting before God
“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.
As with the others, Jesus starts out with “when you fast.” He expects His disciples to fast at the right times (Matthew 9:14-17). Jesus fasted (Matthew 4:3), as did the members of the early church (Acts 13:2). But when you fast, fast before God and not before men.
The Old Testament law required one day of fast per year, on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 23:26-32). However, Jewish tradition had elevated the ritual of fasting to the point that by the time of Jesus Christ, it was common for the most religious Jews to fast two times per week.
The most hypocritical of the Jews would also make a great show of their two fasting days. They would choose market days, Tuesdays and Thursdays, would disfigure themselves, and therefore appear to everyone that they were making a huge sacrifice. 4
“The Jews had the attitude that one who fasted gained the attention of God. This was based on a primitive idea that if they in some way beat their bodies or hurt themselves or deprived themselves that God would really take note. As a result of this mindset, when the Pharisees fasted, they were literally saying, in their false piety, ‘We have the attention of God.’” – Stephen Davey 4
“…let him who is abstaining from food or other things, in order to have more time with God, cultivate a cheerful manner as becomes one who enjoys communion with the Father.” – H.A. Ironside 2
As I mentioned above, the scary part is how much I can see myself in this study. I don’t expect to be making a big announcement before I make donations nor standing on a wide street corner to deliver loud and elaborate prayers (possibly getting arrested?). Nor do I expect to start a fast with a big display of showmanship and piety.
But don’t we all try to look especially worshipful at church? When we serve, don’t we at least hope for some appreciation, if not respect, from those around us? How often are our motives purely for God and God alone?
When we become personally vested in a ministry and start to look at how people think of us, we are in danger of becoming a hypocrite.
Even if I write this blog post and no one else reads it, I need to know that I did it for God alone.
“The tendency always when reading this is just to regard it as an exposure of the Pharisees, a denunciation of the obvious hypocrite. But that is to miss the whole point of the teaching here, which is our Lord’s devastating exposure of the terrible effects of sin upon the human soul, and especially sin in the form of self and of pride.” – Martyn Lloyd-Jones 11
2 Corinthians 4:7
But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.
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References / Notes
 Stanley D. Toussaint, Behold The King, Kregel Publications, 1980, Matthew 6:1-18, pages 106-112
 H.A. Ironside, Ironside Expository Commentaries, Matthew 6, The Principles of the Kingdom, Part 2
 Warren W. Wiersbe, The Wiersbe Bible Commentary: New Testament, David C. Cook, 2007, Matthew 6:1-18, Pages 21-23
 Stephen Davey, Oscar Winning Religion, Matthew 6:1-6; 16-18, 6/21/1991
 John MacArthur, Beware of Hypocrisy, Matthew 6:1, Oct 7, 1979
 John MacArthur, Giving Without Hypocrisy, Matthew 6:1-4, Oct 14, 1979
 John MacArthur, Praying Without Hypocrisy, Matthew 6:5-8, Oct 21, 1979
 John MacArthur, Fasting Without Hypocrisy, Part 1, Matthew 6:16-18, Oct 28, 1979
 John MacArthur, Fasting Without Hypocrisy, Part 2, Matthew 6:16-18, Nov 4, 1979
 D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1959-60, Volume 2, Chapter 1, Living the Righteous Life, Matthew 6:1-4, pages 289-299
 D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1959-60, Volume 2, Chapter 2, How to Pray, Matthew 6:5-8, pages 300-309
 D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1959-60, Volume 2, Chapter 3, Fasting, Matthew 6:16-18, pages 310-320
 At first glance, there appears to be a contradiction between these two statements within the same sermon. Matthew 5:16 says to “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” Matthew 6:1 says to “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them.” But Matthew 6:1 is directed toward our motivation. It is good to let people see your good works when it lifts up God, but it is wrong to do the same works when the goal is for people to lift you up.
 Some have interpreted Jesus’ commands here that you should never track your giving, nor fill out tax forms, etc. However, this goes beyond what Jesus is teaching here. Proper stewardship, including financial record keeping, is important (1 Corinthians 4:2), but we should never track our giving so that we can be praised by others.
 As a matter of word study, the word hypokritēs (ὑποκριτής) is used 17 times in the New Testament, all of which are in the gospels. All but four are in Matthew, with the majority of these occurrences in two places: Matthew 6 (here), where Jesus is teaching His disciples to not be like hypocrites, and in Matthew 23, where Jesus repeatedly condemns the scribes and the Pharisees as hypocrites.
 1 Kings 18:26 shows an example of pagan idol worshippers repeating their prayers in the hope that their deity would hear them.