Don't pray like a hypocrite. In Matthew 6:5-6, Jesus shows us a better way to pray.
“Yes, I am,” said the exasperated boy.
“No, you are not,” replied his father with a smile. “For you haven’t asked me to help you.”
Isn’t that a beautiful picture of prayer? We struggle and muddle with all our strength, yet we neglect to entreaty the strong arm of the Lord. Our Father in heaven stands at the ready to help us in our time of need. In our struggle He reminds us,
2 Corinthians 12:9 "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness."
Hebrews 4:16 Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
Martin Luther, the great reformer of the 16th Century, once quipped, “I have so much to do that I must spend the first three hours of each day in prayer.”
I’ll be the first to admit, at the start of a busy day, seeking a quiet place to spend time in prayer seems counter-intuitive. But I’ve also discovered that practices which don’t make much sense in the kingdom of this world often make perfect sense in the Kingdom of Heaven. Prayer is one such practice.
What Martin Luther and so many other highly effective Christians have discovered is the power of this great treasure called prayer.
Today we continue our series on True Treasure: Pursuing What Matters Most. Are we pursuing what matters most? Will the plans and pursuits of today matter a year from now? 10 years from now? 100 years from now? When this life is over and we stand before our Lord and Savior, how will He evaluate the way we have managed our time, our talent, our treasure? Are we storing up treasure here on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal? Or are we laying up for ourselves treasure in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal?
Matthew 6:20-21 20 but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
In the last post, we considered Jesus’ teaching on the treasure of giving. That we will give of our money and serve with our time is a given. Jesus assumes His disciples will give their all for others because He himself gave His all for them. Generosity is not an option. It’s a given. How we give is what makes the difference in terms of our treasure (see Matthew 6:2-4).
Today we consider Jesus’ teaching on the Treasure of Prayer. In Part 1, Matthew 6:5-6, Jesus says, “Don’t pray like the pious hypocrites who like to be seen and approved by men.”
In Part 2, Matthew 6:7-8, Jesus says, “Don’t pray like the babbling pagans who think they can manipulate God into giving them what they want.”
And in Part 3, Matthew 6:9-15, Jesus says, "Pray like this." He gives His disciples a model prayer to use and to follow. We call it “The Lord’s Prayer” because it is the prayer our Lord taught us to pray.
Today we’re going to focus on Jesus’ teaching concerning prayer that God the Father rewards.
Matthew 6:5-6 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.
When we pray to impress others, God is unimpressed with our prayers.
1. “When you pray…”
As with giving, so with prayer. Jesus doesn’t command us to pray. He assumes we will pray.
We should recognize, as Scot McKnight writes, that “Prayer was and is both a spontaneous act and a recitative act.” For some reason, many in our Baptist or evangelical tradition have come to think that only so called “spontaneous” or “extemporaneous” prayers are really genuine and from the heart. But Scripture is full of both spontaneous prayers and recited prayers. The "Israelites recited prayers as a routine form of piety at prescribed hours of prayer” (McKnight), and it is these prayers that Jesus is addressing in the context of Matthew 6.
Pious Jews would pray the psalms, the Shema, and the 10 Commandments. (The Shema is what Jesus labels the most important commandment…) And they would pray at set times during the day. No matter where they were, no matter what they were doing, no matter whom they were with, they would stop and pray. When would they pray?
Psalm 55:17 17 Evening and morning and at noon I utter my complaint and moan, and he hears my voice.
Daniel 6:9-10 Therefore King Darius signed the document and injunction. 10 When Daniel knew that the document had been signed, he went to his house where he had windows in his upper chamber open toward Jerusalem. He got down on his knees three times a day and prayed and gave thanks before his God, as he had done previously.
Observant Jewish people in Jesus’ day stopped and prayed in the evening before going to bed; they stopped and prayed in the morning after they woke up; and they stopped and prayed at the time of the afternoon sacrifice, which was roughly 3:00 PM. (aka, the 9th hour)
Acts 3:1 Now Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, the ninth hour.
It was likely these afternoon prayers of which Jesus speaks in here in Matthew 6:5-6.
2. “…you must not be like the hypocrites.”
Jesus is here calling out the Pharisees. They were well respected by the people for their strict religious observance, pious lives and strict law keeping. They were very popular with the people, and many looked up to them as examples of how to live for God. Along with the scribes, Jesus calls the Pharisees hypocrites in Matthew 23, and it is no doubt the Pharisees He has in mind here in chapter 6.
We learned in our last post that religious hypocrites are actors. As play actors, they perform their religious acts before a human audience, and the applause they receive from people is the only reward they will get.
Hypocrites wear masks to hide their real selves. They are inauthentic and disingenuous. Hypocrisy is the great downfall of all religious people, and Jesus tells us that we must take care that we do not pray like hypocrites.
3. “For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others.”
Jesus is not condemning public prayer, nor is He condemning a certain posture or a certain place for prayer. Remember how we said observant Jews of Jesus’ day prayed three times a day? In addition to evening and morning prayers, they would stop wherever they were to pray at the 9th hour, roughly 3 PM, the hour of the afternoon sacrifice.
Human nature being what it is, one could deliberately time his schedule and itinerary in such a manner that they would just happen to find themselves at a street corner or other very public place at just the right time. Then, fully aware that all eyes were on them, they would loudly lift their voices and recite the traditional prayers.
Whether in the synagogue or on the street corner, these play actors loved the attention they got.
Matthew 23:5 5 They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long.”
“Phylacteries” are small boxes full of Scripture verses. They were affixed to the hand or head by a leather strap. These Scriptures were then recited as part of evening and morning prayers.
“They do all their deeds to be seen by others,” says Jesus. They are nothing more than actors on a stage, hypocrites.
4. “Truly I say to you, they have received their reward.”
"Have received their reward” is business terminology for payment in full with no further reward to follow. When we pray to impress others, God is unimpressed by our prayers. Perform for human applause, and that’s all you’re going to get!
The complement, the “atta-boy,” the affirmation you receive from others may feel good for a few moments, but it probably won’t matter a year from now. And it certainly won’t matter 10 years from now, let alone 100 years from now.
Hypocrites pursue an earthly treasure that will perish, spoil, and fade. Jesus prescribes a better way.
5. “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.”
To combat hypocrisy and prayer merely for public acclaim, Jesus says, “Go into your room and shut the door.” When we close the door we block out disturbance and distraction, and we also block out the prying eyes of others and the possibility of being seen by them.
Just as our motives are purified when we take steps to make sure our giving is secret, so with our prayers. R.T. France observes, “The essence of prayer is the communion of the disciple with His Father” (Matthew 87). Shutting the door on the outside world when we pray is a great aid to focus upon the Father.
When I want to focus on my heavenly Father, I sit in my special chair and put on noise cancelling headphones. I often play soft, contemplative music by Paul Cardall or similar artists. In a busy home of six, the headphones are essential!
I love my wife Tanya, and an expression of my love for her is the priority I place on hearing what she has to say. If we're riding in the car and the radio is on, I will turn it down so I can hear what she has to say. If we're sitting on the couch and the television is on, I will mute it or turn it off altogether so I can focus on truly listening to her. How much more ought we block out distractions when conversing with our Father in Heaven!
Eliminating distractions not only helps us focus on our praying, it helps us focus on the reason for our praying. We don’t pray to be seen and heard and congratulated by others. We pray to be seen and heard and comforted by our Heavenly Father.
The word for “room” in Matthew 6:6 means an inner or private room, a storeroom (cf. Luke 12:24). In Matthew 24:26 the same word is translated “inner room” or “secret chamber.” Perhaps this is why one our church’s preferred daily devotional book is titled “The Secret Place.”
As the contemporary worship song says,
In the secret, in the quiet place
In the stillness You are there.
In the secret,
in the quiet hour I wait,
Only for You,
'cause I want to know You more;
Psalm 91:1 He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty.
This same word for “room” is also translated “storeroom” in Luke 12:24. One Bible teacher points out that this could be a storeroom where treasures are kept. Those who seek God in the secret place find heavenly treasure that will never perish, spoil, or fade!
These treasures are various manifestations of communion with our Heavenly Father:
- Security in our salvation
- Peace in the storm
- Perspective in our pain
The treasure of the Father’s smile is all the reward we will ever need. According to His promise,
He hears our prayer. According to His will, He answers our prayer.
Matthew 7:7-11 7 "Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. 8 For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. 9 Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? 10 Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? 11 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!
Prayer itself is our treasure, and the Father’s loving provision is our sure reward!
When we pray to impress others, God is unimpressed with our prayers. In our next post, we’ll begin to focus on “how” we pray, but today we focus on the “why” of our prayers.
Thought, intent, and motive are key when we pray. Are we praying to be seen and heard by others? Or are we praying to be seen and heard by our Father in heaven?
Motives are tricky. So how can we keep our motives in check when we pray? Jesus’ solution is simple: Pray in private. This doesn’t mean we’ll never pray in public. (18:19-20; 1 Timothy 2;8). But it does mean the majority of our prayers will be in private. Remember the "Iceberg Principle." Like an iceberg, only about 10% of our prayer life should be public and visible to others. The rest, about 90%, should be private and visible only to our Father in Heaven. Hypocrites pray in the shallows where all may be seen. The prayers of God's children are covered in the deep waters of the Father's love.
The proportion of public prayers to private prayers is a good test of our motives in prayer. Bible scholar D.A. Carson points out, “The person who prays more in public than in private reveals that he is less interested in God’s approval than in human praise” (Matthew 165).
What about Jesus? How did He pray? We never read of Jesus praying in an inner room of the house, but we do read of Jesus seeking lonely and remote places where He could commune with the Father.
Mark 1:32-37 32 That evening at sundown they brought to him all who were sick or oppressed by demons. 33 And the whole city was gathered together at the door. 34 And he healed many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons. And he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him. 35 And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed. 36 And Simon and those who were with him searched for him, 37 and they found him and said to him, "Everyone is looking for you."
Luke 5:16 But Jesus often withdrew (slipped away) to lonely places (wilderness) and prayed.
Jesus is one with the Father, and private prayer was always His priority. How much more ought private prayer be our priority as well?
I pray we, like Jesus, will make it our habit to slip away from the busy-ness of life and find a quiet, secret place where we can be alone with our heavenly Father. For me, I plan quarterly “Father / Son” Retreats where I can get away and spend time conversing with my Father in Heaven. I prefer leaving the city behind and finding a quiet place in God's beautiful creation, but I've also sought out and discovered beautiful, sacred spaces right here in the midst of a busy urban environment. On a daily basis, I enjoy brewing a pot of coffee, putting on my noise cancelling headphones, and communing with my Father over morning coffee.
So let me ask you. How is your time with the Father? I didn't ask how much work you're doing for the Father or even how much you've been studying about the Father. How is your time with the Father? Is it often? Is it private? Is it focused on Him? Do you speak at Him or speak to Him? Is it a loving conversation or a religious formality? Do you spend time listening to His voice? There is room both for formal prayers and informal communion as we grow in our relationship with our fearful Lord and loving Father in Heaven.
At Montrose Baptist Church, the church I pastor, our number 1 core value is the Priority of Prayer. I pray the priority of prayer is a practiced reality and not merely words on a page. Prayer is such a high priority because prayer is such a privilege!
There is no greater comfort than communion with the Father.
There is no greater assurance than time with our Abba.
There is no greater contentment than the warmth of His love.
There is no greater reward than the light of His smile.
Matthew 6:6 [So] 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.
 Adapted from The Story File by Steve May (2001): pg. 241.
 McKnight, Scot. Sermon on the Mount (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013), 162.
Keener, C. S., & InterVarsity Press. 1993. The IVP Bible background commentary : New Testament . InterVarsity Press: Downers Grove, Ill.
© 2016, Jason M. Platt, All Rights Reserved