Matthew 6:1-18, Living Before the Father

[April 22, 2012] At the end of the Gospel according to Matthew, the victorious resurrected Jesus—who is here with us—sends the listener back to the beginning of His ministry in Galilee, to observe all that He commanded and to teach it to others (28:20). We read, then, the Sermon on the Mount from the perspective of the risen One—as we have been—as teaching for the church. Jesus presents Himself to those whom He calls as the place or sphere of the Kingdom of the Heavens into which He brings them as His disciples. He is thus the blessedness of the disciples, and the qualities that are blessed, qualities in Himself into which He is bringing them (5:2-16). He is also the fulfillment of the Torah and the Prophets, giving the true interpretation of both and also uniquely embodying them in His own mode of being in the world (the way of the cross), a mode into which He brings those whom He has called (5:17-48). Now He brings us into His way of being before the Father (chapter 6:1-18). This is the center of the Sermon on the Mount. After making us conscious of the Father, He speaks again of our being in the world dependent on the Father and without distraction (6:19-34), of judging others (7:1-6), of prayer (7:7-11), and of our authenticity (7:12-27).

Those whom Christ calls become His disciples and enter into the sphere of His Person as He lives before the Father, and thus under the government of the Father. There we know the love of the Father in the grace of the Son by the communion of the Holy Spirit, but we also know governmental consequences to our faithfulness and unfaithfulness, that is, the Father’s discipline. He disciplines us now to prepare us for His coming Kingdom, but His judgment will also determine whether we are fit to reign when the Kingdom is manifest, or if we must be excluded from it until we become fit.

When we reflected on the appearance of the angel in chapter 28, we had the opportunity to consider the heaven and earth in relationship to the divine. All of created reality exists in God and God is absolutely immanent to all that is. Yet created things cannot know God directly in this sense, any more than an eye can see itself unaided. This being said, because we exist in time, we must also assert that God is higher than the heavens, absolutely transcendent to all created reality. Both realities exist simultaneously, for eternity coexists with time even while it includes time (albeit, in simultaneity). But the soul can only know the immanence of God as transcendence. Heaven, we said, is the invisible realm of creation and “earth” is the visible; and heaven is really the invisible side of the visible realm and vice versa. (Where the soul lies is another story, and in its sin has become problematic.) Heaven is also that “side” of creation that is closer to the divine, the upper side (as it were) facing the sun, while the earth is the underside (speaking metaphorically and imperfectly). The angels, then, as the inhabitants of heaven, are the messengers of the divine to the earth, the medium of communication between the transcendent realm of the divine and the lower realm of the earth. Normally we do not see the heavenly side of things. If the heavenly were manifested to us, it would radiate with the glory or the brilliance of the divine; that is, the divine would shine through it. Its manifestation would mean that it had become transparent. We would see (in our souls) the heavenly—not the uncreated—light of God (radiating into our souls from our spirit), though the uncreated and eternal light of God may shine in our spirit, and does so shine when Christ is revealed to us (but it is not normally manifested, though one day it will be).

That being said, the question in this section of the Sermon on the Mount has to do with whether we are living in the sight of the world or in the sight of God. For those whom Christ has called, it is no longer a question of living in the sight of an impersonal deity but in the sight of Christ’s own Father, the divine Father of the divine Son, and presumes our being in the relation to the Father that the Son has, which immediately brings us under its government. This is, for the believer, the affect of the Kingdom of the Heavens in the present. Being in Christ places us in the church, the realm of grace; being in Christ also places us under the Kingdom, the realm of divine government.

The Structure of the Text and Meaning

Verse one is the introduction. “But take care not to do your righteousness before men in order to be gazed at by them; otherwise, you have no reward with your Father who is in the heavens.” The righteousness of which it speaks refers to the acts of almsgiving, prayer and fasting (verses 2-4, 5-6, and 16-18). In Judaism the three most important religious duties are almsgiving, prayer and repentance (fasting). These continue to be important in the church, not only for Jewish believers but also for Gentiles. They refer, of course, to these real concrete actions, even if the meaning here should also be extended to everything with similar intent.

The three actions of giving, prayer and fasting are spoken of in the same way. When you do your (act of) righteousness, do not be like the hypocrites who fulfill their duties in such a way that they may be seen and glorified by men. “Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full.” But you, when you do your righteousness, do it in secret, “and your Father who sees in secret will repay you.”

The middle piece has an additional part: verses 7-15, in the center of which is the prayer which we know as the Lord’s Prayer (verses 9-13). The Lord’s Prayer is likewise divided in the middle between the three “You” petitions and the four “us” petitions, the first set concluding with “as in heaven, [so] also on earth” (hōs en ouranō(i) kai epi gēs) so that this phrase is sandwiched between the sets. This phrase, then, is the center of the Lord’s Prayer which is the centerpiece of verses 1-18, which is the central section of the Sermon on the Mount. Because of the Sermon’s chiastic structure which devolves upon this section, this phrase is particularly important.

“As in heaven, so also on earth.” “Our Father who is in the heavens.” “The heavens declare the glory of God” (though this last phrase, from Psalm 19, refers to the starry heaven). Heaven is transparent with the glory of God. May heaven become manifested on the earth. When we see only the earth, reality is still hidden from us. There is a mystery to the visible creation: its invisible side. We see the reality of the creation when heaven shines through into the earthly and we see the glory of God through the earthly—when we see eternity in time. Apart from the appearance of angels, this manifestation of reality is eschatological and only made possible through the resurrection of Christ, whose resurrected body is its beginning. We are not capable of seeing reality in its fullness, therefore, apart from a spiritual regeneration and new birth by the revelation of Christ in our spirits, and then we only begin to see it in Him. One day the fullness will break out when Jesus is manifested universally at His revelation, at the time of His (second) Advent.

To live in such a way that the Father who sees in secret will “repay” us is to live conscious of reality, of the nearness of the Father’s presence, and that we are always before Him who is aware of and sees us. The infinite nearness of the absolutely Transcendent is reality. (The soul is only aware of the absolutely immanent as Transcendent because it is absolutely other than the soul, which, contrary to our perception, is only mediate.) This Transcendent One, moreover, is to us our “Father,” or “Abba.” The intimate Aramaic moniker Abba was used by Jesus (Mark 14:36) in His relationship to the Father and, by our relationship to Jesus—we are in Him—it is given to us (Romans 8:15; Galatians 4:6). The relationship of the Father and the Son is the dynamic relationship of personhood within the one God, Each an “I” and a “You” facing the Other, Each giving to and receiving from the Other without restraint or limit, while Each also dwelling within the Other in perfect communion. This divine love and freedom is God. When Christ calls us in our spirit through the word and we enter the sphere of His Person, believing into Him, we enter the Son’s personal dynamic within the Triune God, so that His relationship to the Father becomes ours, by the grace of participation through the Holy Spirit (made possible because of the accomplished atonement). Jesus calls His believers to live in this reality, to live in the presence and in the sight of the Father, answerable to the Father. These two concepts (the Father’s awareness of us, and the Father’s holding us accountable to Himself) indicate how we ought to consider the Father’s unilateral personhood which gives rise to our mutual personhood with respect to Himself.

The opposite of this is the shadow we see surrounding this passage, and most notably in the words “before men in order to be gazed at by them,” “so that they may be glorified by men,” “so that they may be seen by men,” “so that they may appear to men.” What is this but to live in the false reality of the world? It is false because it asserts that it is real but it is only the shared delusion of human society. We live to win the approval of others, and therefore according to their purported ideals. We live within the collective and participate in the group-mind. Because this group-mind is a delusional construct, intentionally blind to the reality of God and deliberately attempting to exclude God (and to exclude its own createdness), it is hermetically cut off from reality and has gestalt properties that act independently of creation, enslaving those who identify with it and are enmeshed in it—that is, everyone. Thus there emerges out of the gestalt the primal devil, and the principalities and powers with respect to systems, and, with respect to the fragmentation of the individual, the spirits and demons.

The Lord’s Prayer

The central focus of the passage (and the Sermon on the Mount) is the prayer that Jesus teaches. “Do not babble empty words as the Gentiles do.” Instead utter full words. “You then pray in this way.” The prayer obviously is not meant as an empty form or ritual said by routine. It is in fact the prayer of our Lord—it is His prayer—and He invites His disciples—those who enter His sphere as the Kingdom of the Heavens—to pray with Him. Only here does Jesus ever say, “Our Father”; otherwise He always says, “My Father” or “your Father” or “the Father.” It is only in His place, His sphere, into which He has called us that we can say, “Our Father,” and it is only there that we can pray with Him, to His Father, as if we were in His place. This is the meaning of praying “in the name of Jesus.” The prayer is His own, but it really only becomes a prayer that we pray with Him when He calls us His siblings for the first time in 28:10, when He is resurrected. Otherwise, except in 12:48-50, He never speaks of us as His siblings. Yet as 12:48-50 shows, He already counted us as such even before the reality was accomplished.

“Our Father” means that we are praying with Jesus when He prays. It also means that we are praying with and for each other. This is the prayer of the church, not of the individual. It also teaches us about all prayer. Even when we pray for ourselves and our needs, it cannot be outside the context of others, particularly those in the church (or the elect who will be). Our prayer is more in tune with our Lord’s prayer and that which the Holy Spirit is uttering within us when we pray when we speak not as an individual but as a member of Christ.

The first three petitions are for the concerns of God, not of self. We pray that the name of the Father would be hallowed or sanctified. The “name” usually signifies the person, not just what they are called. In the case of the One to whom we pray, the name also signifies the revelation of God. To sanctify means to be set aside from common use, to be exalted and honored; in the case of God, to be worshiped. May God have His rightful place. Implied in this is a prayer against that which would depose God, that is, the world as a collective soulical system. God overcomes the world through Christ (John 16:33). The glorification of Christ in resurrection is the glorification of the Father (John 17:1), and thus the sanctifying of the Father’s name. The prayer, then, for the sanctification of the Father’s name, is a prayer for the church to “grow up into [Christ] in all things” until “we all arrive at the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:15, 13; see Colossians 1:28). It is also a prayer for the mortification of the flesh and the soul on the basis of the cross of Christ, which implies that the prayer is an engagement in warfare against demons, the world, the powers, and the devil.

When we pray for God’s name to be sanctified, Karl Barth said, “we pray that [God] will bring His self-declaration to its goal with the manifestation of His light that destroys all darkness” (page 111 of The Christian Life). “Meanwhile, in accordance with this prayer,” Barth continued, “[we] have a zeal for the primacy of the validity of His word in the world, in the church, and above all in [our] own hearts and lives.” For the name of God to be sanctified, it must be declared and made known through the word. We are asking that God Himself would do this, implying that we cannot. Yet we who believe pray this because we know that His name has been sanctified by the death and resurrection of Christ, and it has been sanctified in us by the word of the Gospel, this word. Thus what we are praying for is twofold: we are praying for the effectiveness of the proclamation of the word but to the world and within the church for the revelation of Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit, and we are praying for the universal manifestation of Jesus Christ and the revelation of Jesus Christ to us on the last day. And we pray for these two things on the basis of the faithfulness and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

“May Your Kingdom come.” Since God already rules over all, the coming of the Kingdom is God’s overcoming that which opposes Him, Christ’s reigning “until God puts all His enemies under [Christ’s] feet” (1 Corinthians 15:25). The Kingdom refers to the overcoming of the devil, the world, the flesh, the opposition of the self, and the heading up of all things in the creation in Christ (Ephesians 1:10). Christ accomplished the Kingdom on the cross; it now works within the church; and one day it will be manifested to the world and in the creation.

When Karl Barth spoke of this petition, he said that Christians “revolt against all the oppression and suppression of man by the lordship of lordless powers” (page 205, footnote). Over against God’s Kingdom for which we pray is the overbearing rule of the powers of the world which “oppress and suppress” the human creature. We can pray because we have experienced liberation spiritually if not also on other levels. Our act of prayer is in fact our acting out the Kingdom of the Heavens. When we pray with Christ, by prayer we are ruling with Him, effecting His rule. By the initial act of prayer, we join with Christ in the Kingdom’s work of liberating people from the powers of the world. We pray because only God can effect the coming of His Kingdom, and He has already effected it by the coming of Christ and by the work that Christ has accomplished and, by moving us to pray. When people are liberated from the powers of the world by the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, we are working with Christ by proclaiming Him as the Holy Spirit reveals Christ to people through the medium of our words. By prayer we identify with the Kingdom of the Heavens which rules in the present under the sign of the cross; that is to say, the accomplished Kingdom of the Heavens is hidden within the life of the church and is not yet manifested in the world. By prayer we identify with the Kingdom of the Heavens in its present cruciform as it covertly reigns through us in the world as we follow the way of the cross. Because of the present form of the Kingdom, its cruciform, we also pray in patience for its coming and manifestation at the end of the age, when the victory of Christ over the world will no longer be hidden and, in its light, the world will become powerless and in fact nullified.

“May Your will be done, as in heaven so also on earth.” The last phrase “as in heaven, so also on earth” applies as well to “May Your name be sanctified” and “May Your Kingdom come.” In fact, the Father’s name is sanctified by His Kingdom coming; and we pray that His will would be done so that His Kingdom may come and His name be sanctified. The three petitions are one. When we pray, “Your will be done,” this too is a prayer of the church and reflects Christ’s prayer in Gethsemane (26:42). It is not an individual’s acquiescence to God’s will except in this sense. The will of God does not refer to some random or inscrutable fate that God has in store for me, but rather the working out of God’s own purpose for the creation. Moreover, the prayer—all three of these petitions—require my active participation (as we understand by Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane). Our prayer is effected by the Spirit of God as the beginning of His action (effecting that for which we pray) and our participation in His action is implied by the prayer itself. It involves our existential commitment to that will.

Here we stop, since I am out of time.

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