Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Matt. 6:5 Introduction
I’m enjoying preaching about prayer. You know how difficult structured daily prayer is for me. Daily Bible reading has long been a delight, but daily prayer, though ever improving, remains cumbersome, a “labor” of love. The discipline of preaching on prayer somehow helps daily prayer come easier for me.
In these first weeks of the new year, as this pulpit focuses on prayer, I trust the pews are undertaking a season of concerted prayer as we seek to discern what lies Beyond The Walls for our church. If we’ll pray as a family, God will pour on us victory after victory, and we shall collectively give Him all the honor and glory.
We have in our last two lessons learned from the mighty Apostle Paul (EP 6:18). Now we will sit at the feet of our beloved Master, the Lord Jesus Christ, and glean from history’s most important speech, the Sermon on the Mount.
Matt. 6:5a “And when thou prayest,. . .”
Note the assumption. When, not if, you pray. The act of prayer is assumed. To be without prayer is to be without spiritual life. Even as all people breathe, even so all Christians pray–no breath, no person; no prayer, no Christian. Prayer is the breath of our spirit. When Saul became a Christian, Ananias refused to believe it. God answered his cynicism by saying, “Behold, he prayeth” (AC 9:11).
Prayer is so essential to our spiritual success that Satan takes extra pains to attack it. Few things make the foul fiend happier than to come between God and a saint who is in prayer. Sin can defile our devotions while we are praying.
One would think prayer is ever a safe spiritual haven to retreat into, but not so. Look at the life of Jesus. His two most intense spiritual struggles occurred when He was alone in prayer to His Father: His forty days in the wilderness, and His agony in Gethsemane Garden. In these two most intimate times of prayer, Satan presented his strongest temptation to Jesus. Nothing is too sacred for Satan to attack. In fact, the holier a thing is, the more he loves to spoil it and make it foul.
How can this be? How is it possible for Satan to hamstring us in our most sacred moments? Lloyd-Jones, extremely helpful here, advises us not to be surprised when sin follows us into the very presence of God, for sin originated there.
I remind us again of a truth so staggering that we are ever in danger of forgetting it. Sin began in heaven, in the very presence of God. One who stood as close to God as I stand to this pulpit conceived the first plot against the Holy One. Lucifer, a bright shining angel, one of the innermost circle, birthed sin in heaven.
Be not surprised sin can enter heaven again by means of our prayers. Sin travels on spiritual frequencies originating from our innermost essence. We cripple ourselves if we forget sin is a disposition inside us prior to a deed outside us.
We will continue to falter easily in our prayers as long as we think of sin solely as something outside us which comes around every now and then, only threatening us from time to time. The proper and true understanding is that sin is headquartered in us, in our old man. Sin abides, and must ever be reckoned with.
Sin is so much a part of our nature that even when engaged in the highest activity we have to do battle against it. When we kneel to pray we do not, as it were, drive sin away. We rather acknowledge its presence, and seek to overcome it by Christ’s blood. Next time we pray, we must repeat the process. Otherwise, sin insipidly overtakes even our prayers, and we find self clothed not in the armor of God, but in the filthy rags of our own strength, which is weakness indeed.
Matt. 6:5b “. . .thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are:. . .”
The ever present danger is we will do our praying as theatrical performers. Our supplications can degenerate from true praying into acting. It is possible for the words to flow from smart minds and eloquent mouths, yet not from true hearts.
Sin is insidious, making us worship others and self even when we think we are worshiping God. A hypocrite, like other idolaters, makes a god in his own image. Seeking the praise of people, he prays to them, and they become his idols.
At the same time he is making them his idol, he also wants them to make him their idol. He who should help others lift praise to God instead wants them to lift praise to him. He begins to see himself as the idol others should worship.
When praying, as with every other outward religious deed, we must choose whether to please God or people. False praying focuses on those who overhear the prayer and on the one praying. True praying focuses on the One being prayed to. Jesus assumed we would pray, and went to great lengths to make sure we perform the duty in a way pleasing to Him.
Matt. 6:5c “. . .for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the
corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men.”
Hypocrites do not love to pray. They love to pray being watched, seeking publicity to show off their piety. Note the incongruity, praying to God to “be seen of men.” They want to be alone with God, surrounded by admiring spectators.
The hypocrites sought to pray in the synagogues, where large numbers of people gathered, and on street corners, where they could be seen from four directions. Their desire was to be conspicuous. “When they seemed to soar upwards in prayer, yet even then their eye was downwards upon this as their prey” (Henry).
I fear the members of Second Act are not the only members of our church into theatrical performances for audiences. Since prayerfulness is a virtue we prize, we all want to be known as people of prayer. This is good and normal, but Satan can twist this desire to his advantage. He seems able to tempt us, without our even realizing it, to increase our eloquence in public prayer in order to sound more spiritual. Praying to the congregation rather than God, we begin trying to use proper clichés, appropriate words, Zionese, well-pitched fervency, all in an effort to win people’s approval. Let us beware the trap of praying words supposedly addressed to God, but actually uttered to be heard by people.
Matt. 6:5d “Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.”
Even hypocrites receive a reward. They get exactly what they wanted, the applause of people, but receive not one whit more. There is obviously some “reward” in theatrical praying. Otherwise it would not be so common. However, the hypocrite’s reward is not what the faithful want.
Hypocrites “have” (present tense) their reward. It is present, with nothing left for the future, for eternity. The reward they have now is all they will ever have. They have payment in full, the transaction is done, God owes them nothing.
They have “their” reward, not God’s. People’s applause, being their desire, is all the reward they receive. People respond to a hypocrite’s prayer, but God doesn’t. He sits still and silent, knowing full well what is meant for people’s ears and what is meant for His.
By her own cackling, a hen catches a fox’s attention and loses her own eggs. In the same way, prayer-actors lose their best reward. Laying up their reward in the eyes and ears of people, they trade in the there and then for the here and now.
A. B. Bruce gives a good rule of thumb: show when tempted to hide, hide when tempted to show. If we are embarrassed or cowardly trying to hide our faith, it is time to get on a pedestal and let it be known whose we are. If, on the other hand, we are tempted to ostentation, we need to do our next deeds in secret.