An Audience of One
If you are a Christian, I want to ask you a question this morning. How much of your life, as a Christian, is influenced by the hope of a reward? When is the last time that you’ve decided to do something for Jesus, or to do something in a certain way, out of the hope that God would reward you for that?
In my experience, not many Christians think this way. In fact, some Christians might actually think that there’s a problem with thinking this way. And if that’s you, then today’s passage is going to challenge you. It might cause you to re-think your entire approach to the Christian life. And I’m really excited for that and for the possibilities that this could open up for you.
But before we get right into our passage today, we’re going to pause and go back and review where we’ve been in the Sermon on the Mount so far. We’re over halfway through our study of the Sermon, and it’s important that we remember where we’ve been so that we don’t lose our way.
A Summary So Far
Let’s remember that the Sermon began with a section called the Beatitudes, where Jesus said that the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, the hungry and thirsty for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers and the persecuted are blessed—are truly happy, are the ones who have the good life—because of everything that will be true of them in the future. They will have the kingdom of heaven, be comforted, inherit the earth, be satisfied, receive mercy, see God, be called sons of God, and have a great reward in heaven.
As we studied the Beatitudes we saw that they really unpacked the gospel of the kingdom. The arrival of the kingdom of God is good news, not because it gives us our best life now but because it promises us our best life later. And this is what life in the Kingdom is all about: living today in the light of what will be true of us in the future.
In the second section of the Sermon, Jesus shifted from talking about the blessedness of His disciples to talking about their responsibilities. He compared us to salt and light, with the point being that we’re not supposed to go live this blessed off by ourselves somewhere. We’re supposed to be different and we’re supposed to be noticed.
And as we do that, the kingdom of heaven becomes good news—not just for us, but for the whole world—because of the difference we make on the world. Like salt, we keep things from rotting and being as bad as they could be. Like a lamp or a city on a hill, our good works bring light into the darkness.
In the third section of the Sermon, Jesus began by saying, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17).
We asked why Jesus would say this, and I suggested that Jesus needed to say this because the things He had been saying sounded so different from the Law and the Prophets. In many ways, the Old Covenant was about “your best life now.” Obey God, and you’ll have a good life here and now. Jesus’ message of “your best life later” sounded really different from the Law and Prophets and from what they were expecting from their Messiah.
And so Jesus has to say that no, He hasn’t come to abolish their Scriptures the way someone tears down a building. Instead, He’s come to fulfill them. And what that means is that the Law and the Prophets—the Jewish Scriptures—had been pointing to Jesus all along. And He has come to do what they promised and to be all that they pointed to.
One of the big promises in the prophets was the promise of the New Covenant. God promised that the day was coming when He would write His instruction on the hearts of His people and cause them all to personally know Him, from the least to the greatest (Jeremiah 31:31-34).
And so, we should not be surprised that as Jesus come to fulfill the law and the prophets, He tells His disciples that they must have a greater righteousness than the scribes and Pharisees. Those guys tried to follow the law that was written out there. Jesus has come to write His righteousness in here.
And for the rest of chapter five, Jesus unpacked what this actually looks like. And in many ways He was simply showing us what living out the Beatitudes looks like at the level of our behaviour.
Those who are meek and peacemakers won’t be full of anger or hate or be looking for ways to get revenge on people. Those who are pure in heart and who want to see God won’t have eyes full of lust. Those who are merciful will not be quick to divorce or defend themselves. Those who are hungry and thirsty for righteousness won’t be looking for loopholes in their language to avoid the truth.
And finally, Jesus closed off that section by talking about love for our enemies and the ultimate fulfillment of the Law and Prophets, which is that we be like God. Disciples of Jesus imitate God as children imitate their father. And as we do that, helped along by Jesus’ teaching and empowered by the Holy Spirit, we will be living out this better righteousness of the kingdom He has brought.
So I hope you can see how this is all connected. If you read the Sermon on the Mount too fast, it can seem like Jesus was constantly changing the subject as He said one nice thing after another. But instead, we should understand how this is all connected.
How This Next Section Fits In
And so, as we arrive at chapter 6 today, we should be asking, “How does this new passage connect to what we’ve seen already?” And as we hunt for clues, we notice this word “righteousness” right there in the first sentence. And that rings a bell, because back in 5:20, Jesus said, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
And here in 6:1 Jesus says, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them” (Matthew 6:1).
And what we should understand is that Jesus has not changed the subject. Here in chapter 6 He is still talking about about the better righteousness of the kingdom of heaven as compared to the fake righteousness of the religious leaders.
He has not changed the subject—but He has shifted the focus somewhat. In chapter 5, His focus was on what His disciples are supposed to do compared to the scribes and Pharisees. The differences in our actual behaviour.
But now in chapter 6 Jesus is focusing on why we do what we do. He’s going to compare our motivation, our goal, and our reward with that of the religious leaders. So before, it was what we do. Now, it’s about why we do it.
Do you know that Jesus doesn’t just care about what you do? He cares about why you do it.
Because here’s the thing: sometimes disciples of Jesus will be doing the same things as the scribes and Pharisees. Today, Jesus talks about giving to the poor. In the next two weeks it’s about fasting and prayer. These were three big pillars of “righteous living” according to the religious leaders in His day.
And Jesus expects that His disciples are going to be doing these things. He assumes that we, too, will give, and fast, and pray. But… we’re supposed to have a greater righteousness than the scribes and Pharisees. So what does that look like? Does it mean that we’ll give more than them, fast longer than them, pray more passionately than them?
Maybe. But that’s not actually what Jesus says. He doesn’t say “do more of these things than the scribes and Pharisees.” Instead, He talks about why. Why we do these things. What our motivations are.
And so this is the big idea in today’s passage and the passages we’ll look at in the next two weeks: the hypocrites did these good things in order to be seen by others. Their righteousness was a performance. They gave to the poor and fasted and prayed in public that other people would look at them and think that they were so great.
But disciples of Jesus do these things in order to be seen by God. They give and fast and pray in secret so that God will notice and God will reward them.
So that’s the big idea, and now let’s walk through this passage to see how this big idea unfolds. Notice how Jesus begins in verse 1: “Beware.” Watch out for this. Be careful about “practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them.” You have to be careful about this because it’s so easy to slip into this.
Any time we do something good there is a temptation lurking to do that good thing for others to see. There is a natural human impulse to want to make sure that someone notices and gives us credit for it.
But Jesus tells us we should not do this, because then we “will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.” We get to choose between a reward from men or a reward from God. We can’t have both.
Don’t Toot Your Own Horn
So what does this actually look like? What is Jesus specifically warning us about here? His first example, which we’ll focus on for the rest of today, has to do with giving.
And he starts with a negative picture of what we should not do. “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” (Matthew 6:2).
Like we’ve seen, giving to the needy was an important part of the Jewish understanding of “righteousness.” God had commanded the people, “You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land’” (Deuteronomy 15:11). This is what righteous people did.
But the hypocrites in Jesus’ day had turned this into a performance. They made it a show to make people notice how generous they were being.
At certain public fasts the Jews would blow trumpets, and that may have been the time that these people would choose to give to the poor—when everybody was looking their way and would notice them and see what great people they were.
When Jesus talks about “sounding a trumpet” He could also be using some sarcasm, almost making fun of the extreme lengths these guys would go to to be noticed. It’s like the phrase “toot your own horn.” Jesus could be making fun of these guys for doing whatever they could to attract attention.
People still do this today, don’t they? How many pictures have we seen of rich people giving big cheques to charities with their name on it and lots of photographers around to capture the moment forever? How many “philanthropists” love to give large sums of money to hospitals or universities or art centres in exchange for their name on a plaque or maybe even on the building itself? How many people take advantage of social media to “humblebrag” about the latest and greatest thing they just did?
Many businesses today are turning to “generosity” as the latest marketing gimmick. They will brag about all of the charity work they’ve done, because it attracts new customers who think, “Wow, those guys are nice.”
People did it then, and people do it now. And so we should notice what Jesus says about these kinds of people at the end of verse 2: “Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.” People have noticed them, and that’s all they are getting. They have nothing further to look forward to.
Giving in Secret
But now look at verse 3 and 4, where Jesus tells us how we must be different: “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” (Matthew 6:3–4).
Let’s notice three important points in these two verses.
First, Jesus assumes that His disciples will give to the needy. “When you give to the needy” he said in verse 2 and in verse 3. Not if, but when. This follows, given what He told us in 5:42: “Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.”
Disciples of Jesus are expected to be generous. It’s just a part of who we are.
Second, when we give to the needy, we won’t make a big show of it. The way Jesus expresses this is by saying, “Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” This is a great little expression with some humour in it.
The hypocrites blew trumpets to tell everybody that they were being generous. You? Don’t even tell the other side of your body what you’re doing. Keep it quiet, “so that your giving may be in secret.” That’s the idea here behind this phrase. Don’t make a show of it. Do it secretly.
And why? That’s our third point to notice here. The reason we give in secret is because “Our father who sees in secret will reward you.”
The hypocrites did their stuff for people to see, and got their reward from people. Jesus’ disciples do their stuff for God to see, and they get their reward from God.
This idea of being “rewarded” by God should not surprise us by now. The beatitudes were all about living for God’s reward. Last week verse 46 said “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?” (Matthew 5:46).
It’s a pretty clear idea here: God is going to reward us when we do these righteous acts for Him.
And yet maybe you struggle with that idea. “Really? Rewards? Shouldn’t I just do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do? Am I even allowed to do these things in order to be rewarded?”
Some people really have a hard time with this. I used to. It can seem to turn the whole Christian life into a transaction, where we do all the right stuff for totally selfish reasons. We obey simply to get a reward.
If that’s your struggle at all, I want to suggest three elements from this passage that might help you out.
First, notice the kind of relationship that Jesus describes things here. He does not say, “And your boss you sees in secret will reward you.” This isn’t like a job where we do things and then get paid for them in heaven.
No, Jesus says that “Your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” We do these good works because we are already in a trust relationship of love with our Heavenly Father who loved us enough to give up His only Son to die for us.
Second, flowing out of this, we should realize that these rewards are very much gifts of grace from our father. Just think about it: He doesn’t benefit from our good works. We’re not providing him any service. Obeying His righteousness is good for us. And He himself not only tells us what’s good for us, but actually helps us obey through the teaching of Jesus and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit. We don’t do this on our own.
In other words, we don’t deserve a reward for obeying. We should just do the right thing. But His rewards are just one more way that He motivates us by grace. In other words, they are a gift, not something that we actually earn.
Finally, I want to share something that I’ve discovered in my own parenting. I love giving gifts to my children. When I see something they’d like, it’s hard to pass it up. But the more I am a dad, I realize that the biggest gift I can give my kids is often simply myself. They just want to be with me because I’m their dad.
And I think many of you can attest to that. Maybe you had a dad who was absent and tried to make up for it with money or presents. And those things might have been nice, but they didn’t cut it. You wanted him.
I’d suggest that when we look across all of the Scriptures and put things all together, we’ll see that our heavenly reward will ultimately be a deeper and a greater and a better experience of our Heavenly Father Himself. Any other reward He gives us will be precious because it comes from Him or gives us a deeper opportunity to know Him.
“…in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” wrote David in Psalm 16:11. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” said Jesus in the last chapter (Matthew 5:8). As we’re going to sing at the end of this service, God Himself is our “soul’s reward.”
And God graciously offers us a reward, ultimately Himself, as a motivation for us to be righteous. And so Jesus’ disciples don’t need trumpets or photographers. They don’t need to Tweet about it. They don’t need people to see what they are doing. They can give in secret, with nobody else knowing, because they know that Somebody does see. Their Heavenly Father loves them and pays attention to them and sees what they do in secret and is going to reward them with more of Himself, both now and into eternity.
So let’s sum up everything we’ve seen so far: when it comes to practicing our righteousness, we need to pick between being noticed by people or noticed by God. We need to pick between being rewarded by people or being rewarded by God. And Jesus assumes that we know which one we should choose.
But there’s questions, right? As I thought about this passage and what it teaches, I came up with three major questions. I’d like to share these questions with you, and the answers I found, in case you wonder the same things.
The first question is, “How does this match with what Jesus said back in 5:16?” “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.”
The idea of doing our good works for God seems to be present there. We do them for His glory. But still, Jesus suggests that we should let our good works be seen. We should do them before others so that they may see them.
And yet here Jesus seems to be telling us to do them in secret so that only God sees them. Is He contradicting Himself?
I don’t think so. And here’s how I’d explain this: In chapter 5 verse 16, Jesus is talking to us as a group. Together, we are salt and light. Together, as a community, we are to let our good works shine. In chapter 6, on the other hand, Jesus is addressing us as individuals: you, personally, when you give, do it in secret. Don’t let your right hand know what the left is doing.
And my suggestion is that when a whole bunch of people are each giving in secret, it doesn’t stay a secret. The collective generosity of the group will be obvious. People will notice . And when they do, the credit will go not to the individuals, but to the whole group and the Jesus whom they represent.
We see this in the early history of Christianity. The early Christians earned a reputation for their generosity. They were generous with each other, and they were generous with those outside of their community. One of the Roman emperors complained that these obnoxious Christians weren’t content just to take care of each other but now they were taking care of the rest of us, too, and it was making the Roman Empire look bad.
I expect that individual Christians were just giving quietly, like Jesus describes here. But when you have a whole community doing that, it gets noticed. And God gets the glory.
The other thing to notice is that Jesus didn’t say it’s wrong if anybody ever notices that we were something generous. He said that we shouldn’t aim for that. We shouldn’t try to be noticed. But eventually it might be noticed, even though that wasn’t our goal. Just like Paul says in 1 Timothy 5:25—good works cannot remain hidden. And if that happens, we shouldn’t freak out.
I remember a little Mennonite Brethren church I attended in my teens, and anytime there was a special event or a milestone birthday or anniversary, one of the older ladies would bake a really nice cake for those people.
And she would always come early to the church and drop it off when nobody was around. Everybody knew it was her. But we also all appreciated that she was deliberately trying to not attract attention to herself. Of course people noticed. But it was clear that this wasn’t her motivation. And so it will often be with us.
There’s a second big question this passage makes me ask: “Why do we have to pick?” Why do we have to choose between man’s applause and God’s applause? Couldn’t we have both?
And my answer is this: we can’t do something for men’s approval and for God’s approval at the same time, because doing something to impress people and doing something to please our Father are two completely different acts, as far as our heart is concerned.
It’s like asking, “Why can’t I drive north and south at the same time?” As far as the direction of our heart is concerned, trying to impress people and trying to please God are two totally different activities.
This makes me think of Paul’s words in Galatians 1:10: “For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.”
And if you don’t know what this feels like, then simply take Jesus’ word for it. Doing things to impress people means giving up our Father’s reward. Doing things to please our Father means giving up trying to impress people. We can’t please everybody. We have to pick.
The third question is, “What enables this? What makes this possible?”
Here’s what I mean: doing the right thing in secret is really hard. We all know that feeling when someone is talking about something good you did without giving you credit and you just want to shout that we did that! Think of how natural it is for kids to shout out “me too! I can do that too!” Our hearts tend to crave the praise of others.
And if we give that up, then how will we even find the motivation to do what’s right?
The answer is simple but profound. The answer is faith. The faith that God is our Father. The faith that, though He is in heaven, He sees us. The faith that He will keep His promises and reward us.
If you are a disciple of Jesus, then you have been graciously made a child of your Heavenly Father. He’s watching you. He will reward you with more of Himself now and in eternity.
Do you believe that? If you do, this will impact your behaviour. It will free you from the slavery of public opinion, the chains of trying to please people, and it will liberate you to a life of joy-filled obedience under your Father’s loving gaze.
We can sum up this point this way: the level of your obedience to Jesus' teaching is the level to which you believe His promise of rewards. “Trust and obey” always go together. If we trust His promise of reward, we will be able to obey in secret. If we don’t believe, then we’ll go around begging for others to notice us.
So do you believe? And what will that look like?
That sounds like a challenge, but I actually want to give us an encouragement at this point. Because of all of this COVID business, we haven’t been able to take a normal offering for almost a full year. And we all know that many people haven’t been doing so great financially. And our attendance has gone down through all of this, for many weeks all the way to zero. According to all predictions, 2020 should have been a financial disaster for us as a church.
But do you notice that in November, our giving was actually up $2,000 over the previous year? That’s incredible. And that’s all giving in secret. Nobody’s seeing you put money in that plate. Nobody is watching you. You’re not impressing anybody. But our secret, faithful giving has kept up and actually gone up.
I praise God for that. Be encouraged, Emmanuel. I don’t know who gives and how much, but your Father who sees in secret does. And this year we have proven ourselves as disciples of Jesus by pleasing our Father with secret giving. How encouraging.
So be encouraged, and keep doing it. Maybe it is giving. But what else does this apply to, for you? What’s in front of you this week? What are the hard things that you’ll have to do this week that nobody else will notice? What are all of the secret obediences that you’ll be tempted to either ignore or complain about or put on Facebook so people can pat you on the back?
Do you believe that, through Christ, you have a Heavenly Father who loves you and who sees you? You are not on ignore. He’s watching you. And He is pleased when He sees you obey in secret for His eyes only.
So believe that. Fix your eyes on Him, your soul’s reward. Walk by that faith, and not by sight. “And your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:4).