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The Greatest Sermon Ever Told | Bad Religion, Then and Now

November 5, 2023
Matthew 6:1-8, 16-18

1“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people iin 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. 3But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 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. 6But 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. 8Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. 

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. 17But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, 18that 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.

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To discover and experience Jesus Christ in our midst

To cultivate mutually encouraging relationships

To participate in God’s mission to the world 

Opening Prayer

Father in heaven, keep your household the church in continual godliness, that through your protection it may be free from all adversities, and may devoutly serve you in good works to the glory of your name; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Responsive Prayer—Psalm 103

Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me,

Bless his holy name!

Bless the LORD, O my soul,

And forget not all his benefits,

Who forgives all your iniquity,

Who heals all your diseases,

Who redeems your life from the pit,

Who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,

Who satisfies you with good

So that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.

Summary and Connection

This week’s discussion is based on Matthew 6:1-8, 16-18. In our previous discussions on Matthew 5:21-48, we have learned about Jesus’ exposition on the true interpretation of the law. Through his six exegetical teachings, Jesus reveals the necessity and content of the greater righteousness that is required to experience true human flourishing. In Matthew 6:1-21, Jesus focuses on the practical outworking of the greater righteousness in the realm of spirituality—personal piety or religious practices. In other words, after having described the necessity of the whole person, heart level righteousness, Jesus here focuses on the application of righteousness in the realm of spiritual disciplines like giving, praying, and fasting.

In verses 1-4, Jesus focuses on the topic of giving. Jesus warns his disciples about the dangers of displaying their righteousness, or spiritual virtue, in order to receive validation from people. If you seek human validation, you may receive it. However, human validation is temporal and ultimately inadequate. Jesus addresses the posture and the motive of the heart with respect to our giving. Christians are called to give generously in response to God’s generous grace towards them. Thus, the motivation and goal of Christian generosity is the glory of God, and welfare of God’s people. Jesus teaches his followers to be so filled with the love for God and others that their giving becomes organic, and spontaneous. In other words, Christians give generously, not to prove who they are, rather they give because of who they are. The extraordinary and supernatural nature of a Christian’s life is displayed in an ordinary and natural manner in the spiritual discipline of giving. According to Jesus, this is the greater righteousness that seeks the highest good of others and receives the reward from God—glory of God, and satisfaction in helping others.

In verses 5-8 and verses 16-18, Jesus focuses on the spiritual disciplines of praying and fasting. Jesus exposes the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, and the Gentiles who use prayer and religion as means to an end—honor and reputation. Jesus is concerned with the whole person, heart level righteousness that seeks God in prayer, and not the external religiosity that seeks validation from others in public prayers. In this section, Jesus emphasizes the truth about the essence of Christian prayer—In prayer we respond to God’s call by seeking and communicating with God. The fact that God himself listens to our prayers—interceded by the Holy Spirit, in the name of Jesus—is the true reward of our earnest prayers. Since God already knows what we need, we are called to approach him in prayer with childlike faith, not focusing on the content of our prayer or on impressing others with public display of our devotion. Similarly, fasting is a spiritual discipline wherein one abstains from food to reorient his heart’s devotion to God. The true reward of fasting is communion with God, and not validation from others. According to Jesus, God is the ultimate source, motivation, and reward of our spirituality. God receives glory when Christians give to serve others, pray to seek God, and fast to discipline self. Thus, in our giving, praying, and fasting we ought to pay attention to the motive of our hearts: are we displaying Jesus—source of our righteousness, or our pious practices—source of our honor and reputation?

Discussion Questions

1. Looking at the Bible

Observation: Read the passage privately. What does the text say? Who are the main characters in this story? What according to you is the theme of this passage?

  • Read Matthew 5:16, and 6:1: How is ‘letting your righteousness shine before others’ different from ‘practicing your righteousness before other people’? What is Jesus addressing in these verses?
  • Read verses 1-2: According to Jesus what makes one a hypocrite? What reward does a hypocrite seek, and receive?
  • What does Jesus mean by not letting your left hand know what your right hand is doing? What kind of reward does Jesus have in view?
  • How does Jesus encourage us to pray? What are the rewards of a genuine prayer?

2. Looking at Jesus

At Central we believe that all of Scripture points to Jesus. In other words, Jesus is the theological center of the Bible. Every passage not only points to Jesus, but the grand narrative of the Bible also finds its fulfillment in the person and work of Jesus.

  • How did Jesus model the spiritual disciplines of giving, praying, and fasting in his life, death, and resurrection?


3. Looking at Our Hearts

The following are personal application questions based on the stages of growth in Christian faith.

  • In this passage, Jesus describes a hypocrite not as the religious person who acts immorally, but as the religious person who displays his spirituality, like an actor, seeking validation from others. How does the gospel help you from falling into the trap of hypocrisy? 
  • In this passage, Jesus challenges us to pause and reflect to see if our external actions are in line with our internal motivations. Do you have any areas in your life where you are more concerned about your external actions than your internal motivation? How does the gospel help you in finding the balance?
  • Reflect on some of the wrong motivations that you might have when it comes to your prayer life? For instance, do you believe that God listens to your prayer only if you pray according to his will? Do you think you have to beat yourself up in order for God to honor your prayer?
  • How does the fact that the Holy Spirit intercedes for you in prayer in the name of Jesus, and God already knows what you need, and yet listens to your prayers, help your prayer life?

4. Looking at Our World

  • How do Jesus’ words give you hope and confidence to pray for the welfare of this city, to be generous in serving others, and to discipline yourself to be self-giving, and not self-indulgent? 


God’s word is a lamp to our feet. Christ’s teachings are a light to our path. May God’s word take root in our lives. May Christ’s love nourish and sustain us. Amen.

  • View Study Guide Notes

    Question 1

    Question 1a. In both Matthew 5:16 and 6:1 Jesus addresses the underlying sin issue. In 5:16, Jesus speaks against the human cowardice which makes us hide our faith—God’s work in and through us, and thereby rob God of his glory. In 6:1 Jesus addresses the issue of human vanity. Jesus warns his followers to be aware of practicing their spirituality in order to seek honor and reputation through people’s attention and validation. Jesus’ warning also extends to seeking self-validation through our spirituality— “I give more than what is expected, and therefore I am growing in my faith.” Or “I pray and fast more than so and so, and therefore I am more mature than they are.” Self-validation is seeking reward on the grounds of your own spirituality, and not waiting in faith for God to reward you.

    Question 1b. In verses 1-2, Jesus focuses on our internal motivations that influence external actions. According to Jesus, there are three possible motivations behind our spiritual practices: 

    1. We seek validation and approval from others.
    2. We seek self-validation
    3. We truly seek validation and approval from God. 


    According to Jesus, the first two motivations characterize hypocrisy. A hypocrite is someone who lays aside his true identity and assumes a false one.  Like an actor, a hypocrite wears a mask, pretending to be someone else. A religious hypocrite is hard to identify as he uses his spirituality as a prop to get validation—honor and reputation, from others. A religious hypocrite turns his spirituality into a theatrical performance before an audience, seeking their applause. Thus, a hypocrite who seeks applause will get it, but then that is all the reward he is going to get. Nothing further is due to him. It is vital for us to understand that Jesus is not against our desire to seek validation, and approval; however, what matters is the source of our validation. Human validation is fleeting, and ultimately inadequate, whereas God’s validation is soul-satisfying and God honoring. 

    Question 1c. Before we understand what Jesus meant by his statement, it is important to understand what he did not mean. Jesus is not advocating for secret or anonymous giving. Jesus is not calling his followers to only give in private and not in public. The problem is not how you give, but why you give. Christians give generously, not to prove who they are, rather they give because of who they are. The extraordinary and supernatural nature of a Christian’s life is displayed in an ordinary and natural manner in the spiritual discipline of giving. Jesus is calling his followers to be more organic, and less self-conscious about their giving. We are not to be self-conscious in our giving, for our self-consciousness will readily turn into self-righteousness. John Stott makes an insightful statement: “We are not to keep recalling our giving in order to preen ourselves on how generous, disciplined, or conscientious our giving may have been. Christian giving is to be marked by self-sacrifice and self-forgetfulness, and not by self-congratulation.”

    Question 1d. Jesus encourages us to pray as prayer is a way of responding to God’s call and communicating with him. In prayer, God sees our heart, and not our outward appearance, or the richness of our vocabulary. The essence of Christian prayer is to seek God.  

    The rewards of prayer are too many to enumerate. Here are three significant rewards of a genuine prayer: 

    1. In our prayer, we have the intimate opportunity to cry out to God as “Abba, Father.” The Holy Spirit witnesses with our spirit in prayer, confirming that we are indeed God’s children, and that God the Father loves us. 
    2. In and through our prayers, God refreshes our soul, satisfies our hunger, and quenches our thirst in ways no one, or nothing else can. 
    3. Our prayer serves as a proof that we are no longer orphans as the Father has adopted us, we are no longer prodigals as we have been forgiven, and we are no longer alienated, for we have been welcomed home by God. 


    Question 2: In John 3:16 we read about the extent of God’s love for us in the giving of his son for our sake. The very purpose of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection was to seek and save the lost by giving himself as a ransom. In Ephesians 5:1-2, Paul emphasizes this self-giving nature of Jesus: “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” 

    In John 17, famously known as Jesus’ high priestly prayer, we see Jesus’ steadfast love for us. Jesus, who is about to be crucified on the cross, spends the entirety of his prayer seeking our salvation, sanctification, and protection. Furthermore, Jesus gives us a paradigm of prayer in the Lord’s prayer. Most importantly, we see the greatest display of  love in Jesus’ prayer for his enemies. Jesus’ prayers glorified God as it sought the highest good of others—salvation!

    Finally, according to the Bible, fasting from food or something that is valuable in order to seek God’s will and glory, necessitates self-denial. Jesus perfectly models the Biblical definition of sacrifice, self-denial, and humility. Paul captures this poignantly in Philippians 2:5-11: “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

    Question 3: These are personal application questions. 

    Question 4: This is a personal application question.