Matthew 6:1-18, Living before the Father


[June 15, 2008] This morning we come to the center of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:1-18). After Jesus was baptized and came out of the wilderness, He began to proclaim that in His own person the kingdom of the heavens had come near. He embodied the fulfillment of the promises given to Israel through its prophets. The kingdom of the heavens is the place where God overcomes all opposition to Himself and rules freely. Jesus Himself is such a place. At once He began to call people to follow Him and enter that place, to enter His own sphere, the place of blessing. Then, everywhere He went He cast out demons and healed the sick—these were signs of the kingdom—and taught.

The Sermon on the Mount is the way of life that He taught His disciples. The resurrected Jesus is really present here and now, in spirit, soul and body, through the Holy Spirit and through the Word, and the Words of the Sermon are words that He says personally to each of us. In the Sermon He describes the new life we have in Him. Everything He says is a description of Himself: He IS the new life into which we are brought. This place is both a place of blessedness and a place of discipline. We are brought into it by grace, the undeserved, unmerited and unconditional grace of God. We can only live according to it by God’s grace, not depending on ourselves at all. But we are also accountable to God for living according to this way, both now and before the judgment seat of Christ.

In chapter 5 Jesus began to describe the way to live the Torah (Law) and the Prophets. He talked about how we are to treat others—everyone from our brother or sister in the church to the enemy who persecutes us. Now He talks about living in relationship to the Father.

Always before the Father

We are always living in the Father’s presence, not only when we are alone, not only when we pray, but all the time. This section of the Sermon on the Mount gives three examples: giving alms, prayer and fasting. These are three disciplines that Jesus assumes His Jewish disciples knew about. To give alms means to give generously to the poor, but it also refers to all charitable acts that we do towards the poor and needy. The issue is not whether we should help the poor and needy. Jesus speaks of that as a given. We should already know this—it is an obligation for everyone. If we live above the poverty level but do not help the poor, it is because we are selfish. Period.

Also fasting—Jesus does not speak of whether we should fast. It too is taken for granted. But because we live in a prosperous society that is obsessed with dieting, we do not understand fasting. In Jesus’ day, only the rich ate three meals a day and had a choice about what foods they could eat. I am not saying it is a bad thing that we eat so well. But when we fast it is usually to lose a few pounds or for detoxification.

Back then if you fasted, it meant there was more food for others. We read about how in the early church some believers would fast in order to give their food to the poor. Also, back then, eating was social. People did not eat alone. If you fasted, you had to withdraw from others. It was so that you could have more time to pray. So, fasting and prayer are connected. Fasting helps strengthen your resolve, your will power, and it also helps clear your mind.

So living in the Father’s presence does not mean cutting yourself off from others, withdrawing and having nothing to do with them. Whether we are out helping the needy, or alone praying, or all day long when we are fasting, we are in the Father’s presence. In fact, everywhere and all the time we are before Him. Nevertheless, Jesus also says that we should spend some time alone. It is not good to completely withdraw; it is not good to never be alone. The Christian life is lived in this movement between solitude and company.

Living Secretly

However, even when we are in public, we are never only in public. We are always secretly with the Father. We cultivate this life by entering a private room and shutting the door (verse 6)—or going to a deserted place (Mark 1:35)—and praying. But even when we are in the synagogue or the street, even when we are with others, it is as though we are alone with the Father. Jesus says three times, “your Father who sees in secret.” The secret place is within us, and we are there all the time. What Jesus is saying, however, is that this is where we should be first and mostly, even when we are with others.

“Take care not to do your righteousness before men in order to be gazed at by them” (verse 1). Sometimes we are more conscious of others than we are of the Father. When we disappoint others, we cannot help but be ashamed. We are very conscious of others judging us, and so we act to get their approval (or disapproval, as the case may be). They are very real to us. How they look at us—or do not look at us—is very important. We want recognition. We like titles and plaques. We want people to like us. We all do.

But Jesus says that as real as other people may be to us, the Father must be much more real to us. We need to live as though God exists! Most of us live as though only other people exist. We need to live as though God exists, and we believe it and know it, and it matters to us. We need to live as though the fact of God’s existence is so real that nothing else matters in comparison. We need to live alone as though we are not alone at all, and in the presence of other people as though God is much closer and more important than they are. Indeed, rather than using another person as an intermediary between you and God—the way some people use the priest or the church—we need God to be the intermediary between us and other people. It is God who is real, others are less real. It is God who matters, others are secondary. Really. You are first secretly with God, and only secondly in relationship to others.

Jesus makes another point. We live our public lives as though we are on stage before others. A hypocrite is the Greek word for actor. Acting is a fine profession—in its place, but actors pretend to be someone they are not. A hypocrite is not someone who does not measure up to their own standards. Hopefully none of us have standards so low that we always meet them. A hyp­ocrite is someone who pretends to be better than he is. God knows who we are. We may think of ourselves as actors on a stage when we are with others, but with God we are never on stage. He relates to us directly, in secret.

The reason we live on stage is because we want other people’s approval, we want a “reward” from them, some sort of recognition. We work hard and we want people to appreciate it. So we put a title with our name, or a plaque under the window or park bench that we donate. But Jesus says that if what motivates us is the approval we get from others, we have already lost the Father’s approval. In fact, Jesus says, act in such a way that you do not get any special recognition. Give to the poor, but do it secretly so no one knows it except your Father. Pray but do it secretly, or fast in such a way that no one notices. Jesus does not mean that we should only pray when we are alone. But when you pray with others, pray with them—listen to their words and make them your own—but never try to impress anyone with how much you pray or with how well you pray. God is listening to your heart, not to how your prayer sounds to others—and that is all that matters. Pray to God.

In a way, only live before the Father. If someone lives for the approval of others, Jesus says, “they have their reward in full.” Only when we live for the Father’s approval alone does Jesus say, “your Father who sees in secret will re­pay you.” Do not impress others. Do not try to control or manipulate others for their approval. Let God control how others treat you. You just surrender to God.

Prayer at the Heart of our Lives

This section, verses 1-18, is at the center of the Sermon on the Mount, and at the center of this section is Jesus’ teaching on prayer, and in the center of that is what we correctly call the Lord’s Prayer. This is by design. The Lord’s Prayer is at the heart of the Sermon on the Mount. It is His own prayer and He wants us to pray it with Him. It begins with the words, “Our Father.” The word “our” does not just imply that we pray this prayer together with other believers, but even more, that we pray it with the Lord Jesus Himself.

God is not our Father apart from Him. He is the Son of the Father, with a very, very special relationship to the Father. He is the One in whom the Father delights. The Father’s acceptance and approval and love of Jesus, the Son, is infinite. When Jesus says, “Father,” He addresses this One knowing that He feels this way toward Him. The love between the Father and the Son is the essence of God’s own nature. This love, proceeding from One to the Other is the Holy Spirit. This is very mysterious, we know, and we can barely grasp it, but just keep in front of your eyes that the relationship between the Father and Son is this unimaginable intensity of love. If God is not our Father apart from Christ, then if God IS our Father in Him, then He is Father to us the same as He is to Christ. Christ invites us into His own space, so that the Father loves us with the same love with which He loves Christ. Christ calls us to Himself. We respond—by His grace, by the power of the Holy Spirit, by giving Him our faith and fidelity, allegiance and loyalty. Then, by God’s doing, by the Father’s gift to the Son, before God we are where Christ is. Without doing anything to deserve it, we can unconditionally call God, “our Father.” We are His children.

When Jesus talks about living all the time in the Father’s presence, He does not mean merely in “God’s” presence but in HIS own Father’s presence as the Father’s own children. He wants us to live our entire life as if it were a prayer composed of the first two words of the Lord’s Prayer, “Our Father.” Our entire life should be a prayer—living in the presence of OUR Father, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and our Father in Him.

Then, and only then, do we know what we mean when we say, with each other in mind, “our Father.” We are siblings on this simple and awesome basis.

The Prayer

The Lord’s Prayer, then, is a summary of the church life and the individual Christian life, because our life and living itself should be a secret prayer to the Father. It is also a summary of what we need to and ought to pray for. We think prayer is to get what we want. We want to be our own Lords, our own Masters, but a Christian knows Jesus alone as their Lord and Master. We do not own our own lives. We are owned by Another. All the things we are entitled (and commanded) to pray for are listed here.

Notice that there are only seven items that we pray for. The first three all have to do with what God wants, not what we want. They are first because they are the most important things we should pray for. The next four things have to do with us. But NOT so that we can have what we want. All four of these items are for us for the sake of the kingdom. Unbelievers have their own agendas and needs, and they ask God to help them with them. But for the believer, everything we need is determined by God’s name, kingdom and will. We need to trust God if we are going to live like this. To take care of our own lives, physically, emotionally, and mentally, not for our own sake but for the sake of Christ, sounds like deprivation but it is really the only blessedness.

Of course this prayer is merely an outline. We can repeat it word for word if we mean it, but it is also the outline for our private prayers. When we pray for others, for our families, for the church and for ourselves, we want it to be in the same mind, with the same purpose and intention as the Lord’s Prayer.

In praying this prayer, we pray with our Lord Jesus to His Father as our Father. Likewise, in living our lives, we live secretly with Jesus in the presence of His Father, who now is our own Father, our Abba.

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