An Exposition of the Sermon on the Mount

by Kent Young

© 2017


MATTHEW 6:1-18

It would be difficult for us to imagine how Jesus could possibly continue to increase the intensity and strictness of the righteousness that he has been requiring from his disciples in this sermon. After all that Jesus said in Matthew chapter five, what more could he possibly add? The kingdom righteousness that he has so far required from his disciples is one that goes all the way in to affecting the disciple’s thoughts and desires. He actually concluded the previous section of the sermon by demanding nothing less than the very perfect righteousness of God. What more could Jesus possibly require?

Amazingly, as we look into this next section of the Sermon on the Mount, we will find that Jesus finds a way to continue raising the bar. Having touched on every element of righteousness, even regarding one’s inner-most behavior, Jesus now moves on to discuss, no longer simply behavior itself, but the motives and intentions behind the righteous actions that his disciples perform. It is not enough for Jesus’ disciples to just do the right thing, the kingdom righteousness that Jesus requires is the doing of the right thing for the right reason.

During the course of this next section Jesus will explain that the motivation for our righteous actions is to be the approval of God, by faith in his future judgment and reward. We know that men, even on their own, can handle performing some level of righteousness. We can be kind, charitable, even self-sacrificial at times. However, if those who we are being kind or charitable to begin to take us for granted or reject our efforts, we quickly feel justified in rejecting them also. “Well if that’s your attitude then never mind!” We feel as if we are capable of tremendous virtue, but only so long as we receive our due praise from our fellow men.

In this section, Jesus demands more than this, indeed more even than men are naturally capable of. It takes a special grace from God for anyone to have the faith to do his good deeds with no other audience besides the Lord himself.

Introduction – Matthew 6:1

“Be careful not to perform your righteousness before men in order to be seen by them, otherwise you will have no reward with your Father in the heavens.”
Matthew 6:1

We would do well to notice Jesus’ phraseology here in the first sentence of this section. Jesus has no problem emphatically forbidding things elsewhere in the sermon. “Judge not,” Jesus says in the first verse of chapter seven. Jesus has already said in chapter five, “Do not resist the one who is evil,” and “Do not swear at all.” All of these phrases carry with them undeniable prohibitions. In this verse, on the other hand, Jesus’ use of the softer phrasing, “be careful” shows that he is not absolutely forbidding anything, but is rather giving a warning against something.

It would be impossible for a disciple of Jesus to make certain that all of his righteous deeds were hidden from others. Though Jesus’ commands may be said to be, in a sense, “impossible” for natural men to obey, he certainly never demands something “impossible” in the sense that it is logically absurd. In other words, Jesus demands that his disciples love their enemies (naturally speaking, impossible), but he never commands someone to draw a square circle (logically absurd). Similarly, here Jesus is not demanding that all righteousness at all times be outside of the awareness of other people.

What Jesus is saying is that now, in his teaching, he will touch on the motivation behind the good works that his disciples engage in. The works of the disciple are not to be before men, in order to be seen by them. If they are done with that motivation, the motivation to be seen by others, then Jesus says that all reward from God is lost.

Kingdom Reward

Notice that Jesus here again brings up the notion of reward with the Father. Since the rest of this section makes it clear that this reward is yet future for the disciples, as opposed to the reward of the hypocrites which is immediate (Matthew 6:2), in conjunction with the main theme of the sermon, Jesus is no doubt talking about reward during the future millennial kingdom.

Jesus says in Luke 14:14 that the disciples’ future reward will take place “at the resurrection of the just.” At present the disciples are told that their reward is “with your Father in the heavens.” In the future, it will be the Son who metes out this reward to his servants on the earth. Jesus says in Revelation 22:12, “Behold, I am coming quickly, and my reward is with me, to give to each according to his work.” It will be following this second coming, with the resurrection of the faithful disciples having already taken place, that Jesus will set up his earthly kingdom and the time for the meting out of reward will begin. Understanding that Jesus is talking about reward during the coming kingdom will help us to see how this section fits together with the kingdom message of the entire Sermon on the Mount.

The Context of Matthew 5:16

The warning that the Lord gives here in Matthew 6:1 should be taken in balance with the command that we have already seen in Matthew 5:16. Jesus says both to “be careful not to perform your righteousness before men” and to “let your light shine before men, so that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in the heavens.” Do not think that these commands are contradictory. Jesus does not emphatically forbid any righteous deed that will be seen by others in Matthew 6:1, nor does he condone, in Matthew 5:16, the showiness forbidden here. Rather, these two teachings guard against the two possible errors that disciples may fall into when it comes to their public displays of righteousness. We must be neither showy nor ashamed.

For illustration, imagine two girls, both Christians who wish to honor the Lord. One of the girls is named Beatrice, and she has a natural disposition that is very out-going, while the other girl, Isabella, tends, by nature, to be more shy and reserved.

Isabella, while finding it fairly easy to heed Jesus’ warning to keep her righteous deeds a secret, may be tempted, especially around unbelievers, to keep her trust in the Lord a secret as well. If she were to do so, she would be neglecting the Lord’s command to be “light” to the world around her. She would be impeding others from the opportunity to “glorify God” (1 Peter 2:12) because of her good deeds, because they would not even know that God was the source of those deeds.

On the other hand, Beatrice, while having no problem declaring her allegiance to the Lord, may have difficulty heeding Jesus’ warning against performing good works in order to be seen by others. If she were to make a practice of performing for the benefit of others and receiving glory for herself, she would be in danger of losing the reward from her Father to be given in the next age.

The crux of the matter is simply this: Who is the one who receives the praise for the righteousness being performed? Is the praise going to God or to the individual? Jesus is teaching in this section in Matthew 6 that, whenever possible, his disciples should perform their righteous deeds in secret, so that their praise and reward will be able to come from God alone. This is not always possible, however. In the times when good works will necessarily be seen by others, Jesus warns that the inner motivation of the disciple must still be the glory of God and not his own. “That they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in the heavens” (Matthew 5:17).

Going back to the illustration, in these two passages Jesus is firstly warning both Beatrice and Isabella not to seek the praise of men for themselves. However, he would equally admonish them that they both must still maintain an open testimony before other people, so that those around them may glorify God on account of them and their righteousness. Isabella may struggle more with the command in Matthew 5:16, while Beatrice may have trouble with the command in Matthew 6:1. Both of these commands are from the Lord, and should therefore be taken within the balanced context of each other.

Give in Secret – Matthew 6:2-4

“Therefore, whenever you do alms...”
Matthew 6:2a

How telling it is that Jesus presupposes that his disciples will be compassionate, giving people. Truly a disciple will be like his master (Matthew 10:24,25). To others Jesus often gave the command to “give to the poor” or “do alms” (Matthew 19:21; Luke 11:41). With his disciples, however, Jesus simply expects that those who are following him and being led by his Spirit will already have his same concern for the poor.

In Luke 4:18 Jesus describes his own anointing for ministry by saying, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.” In Galatians 2:10 Paul explains that he and his co-workers were in an obvious and assumed agreement with the apostles in Jerusalem that they were to remember the poor. God the Father’s heart is one of compassion, as was Jesus’ in his earthly ministry, so it is assumed that those who follow the leading of the Spirit will be compassionate people as well. With this assumed compassion for the poor, Jesus does not say, “Do alms,” but rather “When you do alms.”

“...Sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be glorified by men. Truly I say to you, they have (received) their reward.”
Matthew 6:2b

Jesus goes on to expound upon the warning he gave in Matthew 6:1. The word “therefore” which begins this section shows that it is along the lines of the principle put forward in the preceding, introductory verse. Jesus is not necessarily forbidding doing the good work of alms-giving any time that other people might be aware of it. Rather he is showing that what matters, especially as reward with God is concerned, is the motivation behind one’s giving. The “hypocrites,” as Jesus calls them, probably referring to the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 23:13,25,27,29), give “that they may be glorified by men.”

“But when you do alms, do not let your left (hand) know what your right (hand) does, so that your alms may be in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
Matthew 6:3-4

Jesus’ disciples, on the other hand, are to give in such secret that, if possible, God alone knows what they have done.

It is interesting to note that Jesus states that both the hypocrites and the disciples do in fact receive a reward for their deeds. The hypocrites reward is given immediately, while the disciples must wait until a later time. The hypocrites receive, to some level, the glory from men that was their motivation. The disciples, however, are admonished to seek the reward that is given in the future; the reward that comes from their Father; the reward of the kingdom.

Instructions in Prayer – Matthew 6:5-18

Jesus continues with this matter of secrecy in righteousness by giving instructions regarding prayer. It is clear from all of scripture, both Old and New Testaments, that God honors and even desires the prayers of individuals. Virtually every major Old Testament saint is described as engaging in this practice. Abraham (Genesis 20:17), Isaac (Genesis 25:21), Jacob (Genesis 32:9-12), Moses (Exodus 33,34), Joshua (Joshua 10:12), David (Psalm 5:2; 119:164), Daniel (Daniel 6:10), and many others are all said to have had a private prayer life with the Lord. Given all of these examples, it is no wonder that Jesus assumed, as he did with alms-giving, that his disciples would already understand prayer to be expected of one desiring to live righteously. He does not start the teaching by saying, “Pray!” but by saying, “When you pray...”

Jesus could have used any of these saints of old as an example of being a person of prayer, but none would have been a better example for his disciples than was the Lord himself. Again and again, Jesus is recorded as separating himself from everyone else and communing with his Father (see Matthew 14:23; 26:36-44; Mark 1:35; 6:46; 14:32-39; Luke 3:21; 5:16; 6:12; 9:18; 9:29; 11:1; 22:41-44; John 17).

Something that is often overlooked is the fact that for each of the three times that God the Father chose to speak from heaven regarding his Son, the experience was facilitated by Jesus’ prayer. Three times God spoke with a voice from heaven, once at Jesus’ baptism (Luke 3:21), once at the scene of Jesus’ transfiguration (Luke 9:29), and once when Jesus was predicting his own death (John 12:28). Each time the Father spoke, it was in response to Jesus’ prayer. Jesus understood more than anyone, not only how important prayer is in the life of a man, but even more, how important the prayers of his people are to God himself. God is moved by the prayers of men, even moved to speak and act. Jesus lived demonstrating an awareness of these truths. When Jesus instructs his disciples, he simply assumes that, from his own example, they will live as though they are aware of them also.

How often, reader, does your life reflect this same understanding? How precious to you are your personal, private times in communication with the God of heaven? Watchman Nee once made a very sobering observation. He said, “If I would cause anyone to humble himself, I would invariably ask about that person’s prayer life. I know of nothing which will inflict sorrow and confession of failure more than asking this question. Whether it be in public or private prayer, this will be a humbling experience as well as it will stir up a desire to be delivered from such a wandering way.”[1]

We must pray that all of God’s servants would awaken to the truth that so many of his saints, whether throughout church history or as recorded in the scriptures, have demonstrated for us. That is, for a life of useful service to God, continual private and personal prayer is absolutely essential.

Now, we might notice that despite the numerous Old Testament examples of the righteous practice of private prayer, the Law itself does not have many commands regarding personal prayer. The Mosaic Law, being very much a civil and legal code designed to govern a race of people as a nation, had little to say regarding the simple, pious activity of prayer. It was simply not among the subject matters that the Law needed to address. Jesus’ teaching, however, very much involved personal and internal righteousness. Thus private prayer was a very relevant matter for him.

There are two primary points that Jesus makes regarding private prayer. The first is about secrecy in righteousness, just like the rest of the teaching in this section. When making this point, Jesus uses the “hypocrites” from within his own nation as the negative example.

However, for his second point in this section, Jesus takes a moment to elaborate on prayer in a more general sense. When Jesus continues regarding the proper way to pray, he does not limit his negative example to the “hypocrites” among the Jews. Rather, Jesus secondly mentions the practice of “the Gentiles” and likewise instructs his disciples against it.

Some within the Jewish community were guilty of praying with hypocrisy, seeking praise from others. The Gentiles, on the other hand, tended to pray with vanity, saying many words without meaning much at all. Contrary to both of these methods, Jesus firstly teaches his disciples to pray in secret, and secondly he teaches them to pray with reality.

Pray in Secret – Matthew 6:5,6

“Also, when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites, for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and in the street corners, that they may be seen by men.”
Matthew 6:5a

Those whom Jesus describes as “hypocrites,” again, most likely the scribes and the Pharisees, prayed with the purpose of being seen by men. Jesus explains that, when it comes to prayer, God wants the hearts of those praying to be focused solely on him. He can see through any pretension or hypocrisy. This teaching is quite straight-forward.

“Truly I say to you, they have received their reward.”
Matthew 6:5b

Let us not fail to also notice the reward that Jesus mentions. The hypocrites have a reward that they receive immediately. They sowed to the earth and reaped an earthly reward. Obviously they were indeed noticed by those men whose attention they sought and thus got some amount of earthly recognition.

“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.”
Matthew 6:6

On the other hand, the disciples of Jesus, when they pray with only God in mind as their audience, have a future reward in store.

Jesus elsewhere promises answers to the petitions that his disciples ask in his name (Matthew 21:22; John 15:16). Here, however, he mentions that the Father will not only answer prayer, but will, at a future time, give a reward simply because of the disciple’s sincerity in asking. How gracious and generous is the God we serve!

I love the way that Govett makes this point in his commentary on the passage: “Prayer daily makes us more and more indebted to God. Each answer is a ship arriving from India, putting into port laden with good things for us. We ask for peace, and we get it. We petition for supply of our need in money, it comes. We ask for relief in pain, ‘tis granted. We supplicate for the life, the salvation of some one dear to us: ‘tis given. With these gifts our obligations deepen. We are more and more in debt to God. But now the Saviour assures us, that God will requite these prayers in the coming day, as though He were our debtor, and not we His! Pray on then, Christian! Prayer is doubly blessed.”[2]

Now, along the same lines as the teaching regarding alms, Jesus’ command to pray “in secret” should not be seen as a universal ban on any form of prayer that may be heard by another. There are examples of corporate prayer throughout the New Testament (Acts 4:24-31; 13:1-3), and that important church practice should not be neglected simply because it cannot be done in total secrecy. However, Jesus here is discussing the matter of personal righteousness, and to that end it is best for a disciple to, whenever possible, seek to pray secretly. I again quote Govett in his commentary, “Public prayer is right in its place. But true piety cannot long subsist without private devotion.”[3]

Pray with Reality – Matthew 6:7,8

While there was a common Jewish error regarding prayer that Jesus addressed, we now turn to the error committed by “the Gentiles.” While some “in the synagogues” were guilty of hypocrisy in prayer, some in the Gentile world tended to pray with vanity.

“And when you pray, do not use vain repetition as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard in their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”
Matthew 6:7,8

Worship among pagans, even today, often involves chants and incantations that require little or no heart-felt meaning from the worshiper. Among the superstitious, there is often a supposed power in the mere repetition of words. Sadly this practice can creep its way into Christian worship as well. The Roman Catholic practice of “praying the rosary” is an example of this form of repetitive ritualism.

Jesus warns against this practice for reasons that are similar to his warning against praying like “the hypocrites.” To put it simply, God desires sincerity of heart. Just like the hypocrisy of the Jews, the vanity of the Gentiles is an inadequate form of prayer, especially when it comes to requests from God. The pagan-like vain repetition betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of God and his character. God knows the needs of his children before they ask! Mindlessly repeating yourself will not affect any change. While God delights in the prayers of the saints (Revelation 8:3-4), he wants the prayers to be given with sincerity.

Note that Jesus is not repudiating repetition as such, but rather he forbids “vain repetition.” God is indeed moved by the continual prayers of the saints (Luke 18:17), but these prayers, even if repetitive, must be given with sincerity.

It’s a fairly simple concept when you consider it. Jesus’ point with both of these negative examples is that the disciples must realize that praying to God is speaking to a real, living Person. Prayer should not be performed as a religious or superstitious ritual. Just like any other person, God desires sincerity. Whether it takes the form of hypocritical performance or insincere repetition, all insincerity in prayer is distasteful before God.

A Model Prayer – Matthew 5:9-13

So Jesus has made the point that God desires sincerity in prayer, and he has given the negative examples of “the hypocrites” and “the Gentiles.” Thankfully Jesus does not stop there, with only negative examples, but rather in this next section he gives a model prayer as a positive example for his disciples. This prayer is commonly referred to as “The Lord’s Prayer,” but it would be more accurately referred to as the “Model Prayer Given by the Lord.” Jesus does not actually pray this prayer himself, and there are even aspects of it that would not apply to him (specifically in verse 12). Rather, Jesus gives this prayer as a model for the disciples to follow.

“You, then, pray like this...”
Matthew 6:9a

The presence of the emphatic “you” (plural), as well as his use of the word “then” (Greek: “οὖν”), show that Jesus is giving the model prayer in opposition to the negative example of the Gentiles, and perhaps also to the hypocrites among the Jews.

“Our Father in the heavens...”
Matthew 6:9b

The disciples are told to address God the same way that Jesus does, as “Father.” This is a privilege unique to believers, proving further that Jesus’ instruction is not for worldly men, but for his disciples. He is also teaching them to remember their unity with all other believers as they refer to God as “Our Father.” The phrase “in the heavens” reminds the disciples that the kingdom to which they belong is the heavenly kingdom, not the kingdom of this world. They will shortly be told to pray for this heavenly kingdom to come to the earth (vs. 10), but the very notion of “coming” implies that the two, that is the kingdom and the earth, are separate currently.

The prayer itself consists of, as Govett points out, “seven petitions, divided into four and three.”[4] The first three petitions have to do with God and his glory.

Three Petitions Regarding God

The first thing to notice about this first section of the prayer is that God’s will, as opposed to man’s will, is the focus. This is tremendously profound because, as we noticed throughout chapter five, Jesus is speaking with divine authority. Jesus is God become man. Because of this fact, we are able, through Jesus’ teaching, to see exactly what God desires from prayer. As Watchman Nee phrased it, “The significance of this prayer lies in the fact that God has come from behind the veil and told us what He desires. This is the first time God became man and told us the prayer that strikes the mark.”[5]

Men generally assume that prayer is their own means of acquiring from God what they want. Jesus here shows that what prayer ought to be in the first place is a petitioning of God for what he wants.

“Let your name be sanctified,”
Matthew 6:9c

Jesus’ disciples are told to line up their petitions with God’s desires, and the first petition that Jesus mentions is a petitioning of God for the sanctification of his own name.

To “sanctify” means to consecrate, that is to make something “holy” or set apart. Jesus is revealing something to his disciples that is precious to the heart of God. The disciples are to ask God to work so that his own name might be esteemed by men. This desire of God to be esteemed by men can be seen throughout the scriptures.

The most memorable example of this desire of God is perhaps seen when Moses interceded on behalf of the nation of Israel. God intended to destroy them because of their rebellion and idolatry (Exodus 32:9,10), but Moses pleaded with the Lord to “relent from this disaster against your people.” Moses appealed to the Lord regarding the Lord’s own reputation, even among the pagan Egyptians. With the Lord having just demonstrated his power over all the gods of Egypt, Moses tells him not to now allow the Egyptians to accuse him of evil intent in bringing his people out into the wilderness (Exodus 32:12). It is clear that God desires his name to be esteemed by men, even by evil men.

“Let your kingdom come”
Matthew 6:10a

We should notice that this prayer is very much in line with the overall “kingdom” message of the rest of the Sermon on the Mount.

It is often overlooked that, according to Old Testament prophecy, this prayer regarding the sanctification of God’s name, that which Jesus teaches his disciples to pray, will be finally and fully accomplished through the millennial kingdom of Christ. Jesus is referencing prophecies made by Ezekiel and Isaiah. A look at these prophecies will make it clear that their fulfillment will occur once God brings Israel back into their land and the future messianic kingdom is established.

Notice first what the Lord said through Ezekiel:

I will vindicate the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them. And the nations will know that I am the LORD, declares the Lord GOD, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes. I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land” (Ezekiel 36:23).

Note that God promises that his name will indeed be sanctified, even among the nations, and that this will be accomplished once he gathers Israel and brings them back into their land.

So Ezekiel spoke of the Lord’s name being sanctified among the Gentiles. Similarly, the prophet Isaiah describes the time when God’s name will be sanctified by the nation of Israel itself:

“Jacob shall no more be ashamed, no more shall his face grow pale. For when he sees his children, the work of my hands, in his midst, they will sanctify my name; they will sanctify the Holy One of Jacob and will stand in awe of the God of Israel” (Isaiah 29:22,23).

In both of these prophecies there is a future time described when the messianic kingdom will be established. The Lord says that the establishment of this kingdom will “sanctify his name.”[6] This shows that there is an important link between the first and second petitions of Jesus’ model prayer. The prayer for God’s name to be sanctified will have a final answer once the petition for God’s kingdom to come is also granted.

There are those who see this prayer for the coming of the kingdom as being in reference to the going forth of the gospel and the personal rule of God in the lives and hearts of believers. As has been shown earlier, N.T. Wright takes this view. This does not seem to be an allowable interpretation of the text. As Robert Govett points out, “Has not the Gospel already arrived? How are we to ask for its coming? This difficulty is so well understood, that those who so understand the kingdom are compelled to alter the terms of the prayer, and beseech the extension of God’s kingdom. This should be proof sufficient, that their conception of the kingdom is different from the Saviour’s.”[7] Alva McClain agrees with Govett, contrasting the sovereign rule of God, which McClain refers to as the “Universal Kingdom,” with the coming age during which Jesus will be personally ruling the earth, which McClain refers to as the “Mediatorial Kingdom.” He says that the latter, the “Mediatorial Kingdom,” is what Jesus was referring to when he taught his disciples to pray for the coming of the kingdom.[8]

Although there is, as we have seen, a certain present, spiritual aspect to the kingdom of God that exists among believers today, in this passage Jesus is teaching his disciples to pray for the future manifestation of God’s kingdom on the earth. From the very beginning of the sermon Jesus has been instructing his disciples on how they can inherit the coming kingdom. Here in his model prayer Jesus teaches not only that the disciples need to prepare themselves for the kingdom, but even that they must be actively beseeching the Lord to quickly usher it in.

Upon Jesus’ ascension into heaven, this prayer for the coming of the kingdom became one and the same as the prayer for the second coming of the Lord himself. In other words, after Jesus ascends to heaven, he wants his disciples to be praying for his return. “Maranatha!” was a standard greeting in the early church meaning “Oh Lord, come!” (1 Corinthians 16:22). Paul told Timothy that a special crown was laid up for all the believers who have “loved his appearing” (2 Timothy 4:8). When writing to Titus, Paul says that we are “waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13). It is upon his return that Jesus will set up the kingdom for which his disciples have been taught to pray (Revelation 19:11-20:6).

I ask you, Christian, how does your prayer life compare with what Jesus instructs and with that of his early disciples? Are you among those who think to themselves, “My master is delayed in coming” (Matthew 24:48)? Are you among those to whom the word of the kingdom has been choked by “worries of the world and the deceitfulness of riches” (Matthew 13:22)? Or can you sincerely say that you “love his appearing,” praying daily to the Father, “Let your kingdom come!”

Jesus says to each of us, “Watch, therefore, for you do not know the day nor hour” (Matthew 25:13). Let us all obey Jesus’ command, and agree with John the Revelator when he says, “He who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming quickly.’ Amen, come, Lord Jesus!” (Revelation 22:20)

“Let your will be done, as (it is) in heaven, also on earth.”
Matthew 6:10b

This third petition, obviously, regards God’s will being done. Personally, I am not sure whether this third petition is as closely linked with the first two petitions as those two are to each other.

McClain understands the phrase, “As in heaven, also on earth” to be a description of all three petitions that precede it.[9] It seems to him that “in heaven” God’s name is sanctified, God’s kingdom is present, and God’s will is being done. Jesus teaches his disciples to pray for all three of these realities to be present “on earth as in heaven.”

Govett, however, makes an interesting case for this phrase “as it is in heaven, also on earth” to be taken exclusively in reference to the third petition, the one regarding God’s will being done.[10] Whichever is the case, what remains clear is that Jesus wants his disciples to be occupied with God’s will. We are to have personal wills which are so resigned to the will of God that our prayers are firstly occupied with his interests rather than our own.

Four Petitions Regarding the Disciples

“Give us our daily bread today,”
Matthew 6:11

This line of the prayer represents the first of the four petitions which relate more to the needs of the disciples themselves than specifically to the will of God.

Requesting for God’s provision of their daily bread is an essential practice for the disciples to learn if they intend to obey what Jesus teaches in the latter half of Matthew 6. Jesus will shortly be teaching his disciples to abstain from worry about the basic necessities of their life (Matthew 6:25), even to the point where he will forbid the storing up these necessary materials for their own future use (Matthew 6:19).[11] Before giving those commands, however, Jesus shows the secret for how these commands can possibly be obeyed: The disciples are to be in a constant state of prayer, asking each day for God’s provision of their “daily bread.”

Jesus would not have his disciples to seek after worldly riches, but he does teach to ask for their daily necessities. God is willing and able to fulfill them. As the apostle Paul says to Timothy, “If having food and clothing, with these we will be content. But those desiring to be rich fall into temptation” (1 Timothy 6:8,9).

“And forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors,”
Matthew 6:12

This next petition is unique. This is the only petition of the seven that is given with the understanding that its being answered is conditional. Jesus says that we are to pray that our “debts” be forgiven, but only as we are also able to say, “As we also have forgiven our debtors.” This has the potential to cause confusion for some of Jesus’ hearers if they are unclear about the kingdom context of this sermon, and especially of this prayer.

In one sense every believer has already been completely forgiven by God (Colossians 2:13) by virtue of his new birth. However, there is another sense, the sense spoken of in this passage, in which forgiveness is indeed conditional.

Keep in mind the distinction that we have been making between the gift of new birth and the inheritance of the kingdom. When a person is born again he receives universal and unconditional forgiveness as a gift of God, and this forgiveness is what secures the believer’s position with God in eternity future. This is not the specific forgiveness that Jesus is referring to in this passage.

The matter that is being spoken of here, as is true throughout the Sermon on the Mount, is twofold. Firstly it is the matter of fellowship with God, and secondly it is the matter of how this fellowship effects the disciple’s position within the coming kingdom. As we saw in Matthew 5:23-24, a disciple’s fellowship with and worship of God is conditional, based upon his relationship with the other saints. Jesus said that you need to be “reconciled with your brother” before you come to the altar to offer your gift. In the next verses (5:25,26), Jesus expands this principle, relating it to the believer’s position within the kingdom. Though the matter of the believer’s eternal position is settled by the cross, the matter of his fellowship with God and his position within the kingdom is conditional upon the disciple’s willingness to forgive others. We will have more to say on this matter shortly, as Jesus further establishes this same point immediately after finishing with the model prayer (Matthew 6:14,15).

“And do not lead us into temptation, Rather deliver us from the evil one.”
Matthew 6:13

These last two petitions are given in relationship to one another. Jesus’ use of the word “rather” (Greek “ἀλλά”) shows that he is making a contrast between being “led into temptation” and being “delivered from the evil one.” Jesus is teaching his disciples to pray that the Lord would mercifully prevent from coming into their lives the types of circumstances which would lead to temptation to sin.

It takes a bit of humility for us to recognize how necessary this prayer really is. An overzealous young believer may become so confident in his relationship with God and his understanding of his spiritual life that he thinks that he can overcome sin in every circumstance. He might feel that he can look Satan straight in the face and say, “Bring it on!” Just a small amount of Christian experience should be sufficient to cure a believer of this type of thinking.

Jesus has taught a great deal regarding the way his disciples are to react to being mistreated by evil men. Each time a disciple is sinned against, there is an opportunity for righteous and spiritual obedience to Jesus’ teaching, but there is also the temptation to react in the natural, selfish way of men. While Jesus has taught them the proper way to react to these encounters with evil men, he had no intention of instilling in them a desire for these interactions.

Jesus makes sure that his disciples are aware of the fact that Satan is far craftier than they are, and thus they ought never to think that they have outgrown the need for God’s shepherd-like protection. As the apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 10:12,13, “Therefore, let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” This is precisely what Jesus is saying here. In every circumstance, God has given you the ability to react with the righteousness that Jesus requires. Nevertheless, we should not be so haughty as to cease praying that God would deliver us from these kinds of circumstances. “Anyone who thinks that he stands, take heed lest he fall!”

If you will notice, I have understood Jesus’ phrase “the evil one” to have a multi-faceted meaning. The Greek word is simply the adjective “πονηρός” which means “evil.” The adjective is being used “substantivally,” which means it is an adjective being used as a noun.[12] This is why some translations will say “deliver us from evil,” while others say “deliver us from the evil one.” Either translation is allowable based on the Greek. If we understand Jesus to be saying “deliver us from the evil one,” then the question naturally arises as to who this evil one is. Most often it is assumed that the evil one is a reference to Satan, but it could also be understood to simply mean any evil individual in a given circumstance.

My view is that Jesus has an element of all of these in mind. When we compare the words here with his teaching earlier in the sermon in Matthew 5:39, we can see that “the evil one” that is the facilitator of temptation for the disciple can certainly be understood simply to be another person. However, when looking at the comparison made in 1 John 5:19 we find that “the evil one” can also be used a reference to Satan, from whom all the dark spiritual forces that control this evil world originate.

In addition to both of these, whenever a trying situation arises for a believer, he not only ought to pray to be delivered from the person who may be opposing him, as well as from the spiritual forces working behind the scenes, but he also should pray to be delivered from evil itself. Satan is clearly interested in leading God’s people astray, and common experience tells us that other people are often his tools for doing just that. However, James 1:14 tells us that a Christian can also be enticed to evil simply by “his own lust.” Thus, in my view, all three possible understandings of Jesus’ words are legitimate. We ought to pray to be delivered from “the one who is evil” meaning men who might oppose us, from “the evil one” meaning the devil himself, and also from “evil” meaning from our own tendency toward the sinful behavior itself.[13]

Explanatory Word About Forgiveness

“For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”
Matthew 6:14,15

With this short explanation Jesus makes it clear why he used the phraseology that he did a few verses earlier.

It goes without saying that Jesus’ disciples will certainly have times when they must seek forgiveness from God through prayer. The use of the word “debts” in verse twelve seems to be synonymous with the word “trespasses” here in verses fourteen and fifteen. Jesus often used debt and indebtedness to illustrate a sinner’s position in relation to God (Matthew 18:21-25; Luke 7:41-48).

It will not be long after a person first believes in Jesus for salvation that he realizes that he still continues to accrue this kind of “debt” toward God and thus still needs God’s forgiveness. This forgiveness is somewhat different than the forgiveness one gets when he first believes. When one first believes in Jesus he receives the kind of forgiveness that turns an enemy into a friend. He goes from being under God’s wrath to being in God’s family. For every true believer, this forgiveness has already been eternally secured. The kind of forgiveness spoken about in this context is different. Here the forgiveness is not about moving from being under God’s wrath to being in his family, but about how one operates while already in the family of God. This is the forgiveness that brings a servant from the position of being unprofitable to being profitable; that turns a child from being deserving of discipline to being worthy of reward. This is the kind of forgiveness that believers are to regularly seek from God, reconnecting their relationship so that they can move forward in service to him.

While the initial forgiveness has more to do with eternity, the forgiveness spoken of here has everything to do with the kingdom. As far as eternity goes, whoever believes “is not judged” (John 3:18). Regarding one’s position in the coming kingdom, however, each will “stand before the Judgment Seat of God” (Romans 14:10). This is why confession and forgiveness is still necessary, even for a believer.

This passage brings to light one important fact regarding this relational forgiveness that Jesus would have his disciples aware of. This forgiveness, unlike the eternal forgiveness given upon initial faith, is here said to be conditional. God’s forgiveness in this sense is directly related to the disciple’s forgiveness of others.

This doctrine is most clearly laid out in the parable that Jesus tells in Matthew 18:23-35. From the outset Jesus makes it clear that this parable does not regard eternal salvation but rather is about “the kingdom” (Matthew 18:23). In the parable there is a king who forgives an unpayable debt owed to him by one of his servants (Matthew 18:26,27). No doubt this pictures the forgiveness that God grants to us. We have no means of repaying what we owe, but in his mercy God forgives us anyway.

However, in the parable, the servant whose debt was forgiven does not show the same type of mercy to another. When the servant later finds a fellow servant, a man who is in debt to him, rather than imitating the merciful character of his master, he behaves harshly and demands the payment from his fellow servant (Matthew 18:28-30). Perhaps the original servant’s only reaction to his encounter with his master was to breathe a sigh of relief, thinking only of his own desperate financial situation. It seems he had not taken any time to reflect on the tender mercy of his master. This pictures a believer who, despite the amount of forgiveness he has received from God, thinks only of his own situation and refuses to offer this same kind of forgiveness to others. The apostle Paul twice in his letters teaches against this attitude, saying that believers should forgive others after the same manner of God’s forgiveness of them (Ephesians 4:32; Colossians 3:13).

Once the master in the parable heard about the servant’s refusal to forgive his fellow servant, he reneged on his own offered forgiveness! He took his unforgiving servant and “delivered him to the tormenters” (Matthew 18:34) until his debt would be paid off. Notice how the forgiveness of the master was conditional upon the one servant’s forgiveness of the other.

The parable ends with a very stern and sober warning. With regard to the future kingdom, God will deal with his servants in the same manner that this king dealt with his. Temporal, yet severe punishment can potentially fall upon a genuine servant of God during the course of the millennial age (Matthew 18:35).

While this may be a shocking and controversial doctrine for some Christians (as it often flies in the face of some systems of theology[14] ), this truth should not be a surprise to us, considering all that Jesus has already said concerning the disciplinary judgment that is possible for the disciples (e.g. Matthew 5:21-26). If a believer desires the forgiveness from God that allows him to escape this kingdom discipline, this parable, as well as Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, says that he must be ready to forgive and be forgiven by his brothers (Matthew 5:25,26).

Fast in Secret – Matthew 6:16-18

“And when you fast,...”
Matthew 6:16a

Fasting and Prayer

Jesus’ instructions concerning fasting should be considered as the final installment of the section of his teaching concerning prayer.[15] Fasting, throughout the scriptures, is a constant companion of prayer.

Look for instance at Ezra 8:21-23. Because Ezra had told king Artaxerxes that God would protect the people on their journey back to Jerusalem, he felt a heightened burden to pray. Realizing that the Lord’s reputation was on the line, Ezra decided to proclaim a fast to accompany the prayers being offered by the children of Israel for their own safety.

Likewise, in the book of Acts, when the brothers were gathered together in Antioch, they added fasting to their other service to the Lord (Acts 13:2), and it was in this context that they were able to hear the Holy Spirit say, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Also, before obeying the Holy Spirit by sending the apostles off, the brothers both prayed and fasted, apparently for Barnabas and Saul and their missionary journey. Fasting was a helpful addition to the prayers of the saints.

Additionally, fasting is often said to accompany godly sorrow and was at times accompanied by sackcloth and ashes during times of great concern or mourning. This type of fasting occurred because of the deaths or potential deaths of loved ones (2 Samuel 1:12; 12:16; Esther 4:3), or over an awareness of grave sin (1 Samuel 7:6; 1 Kings 21:25-29; Daniel 9:3-5; Jonah 3:5). No matter the occasion for fasting throughout the scriptures, it seems universally to be a means of expressing and displaying to God something that weighs heavily upon one’s heart.

Note on Asceticism

Lest anyone get the wrong impression about fasting, I must make a point here about the idea of asceticism. The Concise Oxford English dictionary defines the word “ascetic” as “characterized by the practice of severe self-discipline.”[16] The apostle Paul goes even further in referring to asceticism as being in line with “severity to the body” (Colossians 2:23). It must be pointed out that this practice is renounced in the scriptures in no uncertain terms. We must guard against the notion that is common within pagan religion that injuring one’s body is a means of acquiring favor with God. This is not at all what Jesus has in mind when he talks about fasting.

As we have seen, fasting is a helpful accompaniment to prayer. We must understand that denying food to yourself for a time is only for the benefit of your own focus in prayer. We should never behave as the prophets of Baal, injuring ourselves in futile attempts to get God’s attention or to procure his favor (1 Kings 18:28,29).

There is a tangible way to distinguish Biblical fasting, the kind that Jesus is speaking about, from the asceticism of the pagans. Fasting, in the biblical sense, is for the sake of the one praying. It is not to be seen as a means of altering the one being prayed to. Prayer moves God’s heart, and fasting can put a disciple in the proper prayerful attitude, but it should never be seen as a way of “twisting God’s arm” in an attempt to obligate him to the disciple’s wishes on account of the disciple’s suffering.

Notice in Mark 9, when the disciples had tried and failed to cast an evil spirit out of a young boy, Jesus comments on the unbelief of his generation. Jesus even addresses the lack of faith in the boy’s father. After Jesus cast the spirit out of the boy, his disciples asked him why they themselves were not able to. Jesus responded by saying that “this kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer and fasting.”[17] By this Jesus must be meaning that the faith of the disciples needed to be strengthened through prayer and fasting. It was not something that was objectively necessary as there is no mention of Jesus himself praying or fasting in order to cast the demon out. Continued prayer and its accompanying fasting must be understood to be primarily for the heart and faith of the one praying.

Secrecy and Inner Motivation

“ not become gloomy like the hypocrites, for they neglect their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have received their reward.”
Matthew 6:16b

With the various examples of fasting in the Old Testament, it is easy to see how the temptation could arise to consider how others perceive you during a fast. There were some whom Jesus calls hypocrites (again, most likely the scribes and Pharisees) who had made a habit of carrying out this practice of fasting with the intent of being seen by others and being considered righteous. Jesus tells his disciples that fasting with that motivation, while it can gain the praise of men that it seeks, will procure no reward from God in heaven.

“But when you fast, anoint your head, and wash your face, that the fasting may not be seen by men, rather by your Father who is in secret. And your Father, who sees in secret will reward you.”
Matthew 6:17,18

The disciples are told that when the urgency in their heart regarding their prayer reaches the level that they desire to increase their focus through fasting, they ought only consider God’s opinion, both of their prayer and of their own internal urgency in that prayer. As we have already seen in this section, God wants full sincerity of heart from those who pray to him. If Jesus’ disciples wish for the future reward that comes from God, they must today let go of all internal motivation for the praises of men.

The lesson that Jesus has put forward in this section is arguably even more strict than what he taught in the previous section. While the inner righteousness of Matthew 5:17-48 requires the disciple to trust in the present experience of God the Holy Spirit for help in carrying out Jesus’ demands, the secret righteousness found here in Matthew 6:1-18 requires the disciple to trust in the future reward from God the Father. Notice the heavy emphasis that Jesus places, throughout his teaching, on the need for faith. Faith in God is foundational to all obedience to Jesus. If we do not sincerely believe that God is with us to help today, and will be the one to reward us in the future, then we are hopeless in obeying Jesus’ words. This is especially true regarding his words in this section about secrecy in righteousness.

Seekers of Christ Seekers of Christ Seekers of Christ Seekers of Christ Seekers of Christ

And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart" (Jer. 29:13, NASB)

[1] (Nee, Heart-to-Heart Talks, 2012, p. 111)

[2] (Govett, 1984, p. 155) (Italics his)

[3] (Govett, 1984, p. 151) (Italics his)

[4] (Govett, 1984, p. 168)

[5] (Nee, Interpreting Matthew, 1989, p. 103)

[6] The LXX, in both of these prophecies, uses the exact same Greek words for “sanctify my name” that Jesus uses in Matthew 6:9. It is very unfortunate that the KJV and other subsequent translations use the word “hallowed” rather than “sanctified” in the passage in Matthew, thus causing many to miss the clear parallel that exists between Jesus’ words and the words of the prophets. Likewise, the common “hallowed be thy name” translation does not capture very well the imperative aspect of the phrase. At least to me, the common translation seems to imply a quiet reverence for God in heaven. Considering the imperative mood that Jesus uses, as well as the Old Testament prophecies that he is referencing, it should be clear that Jesus is not here demonstrating the quiet reverence for God that the common translation evokes, but rather the active call for God to move, specifically, as this next verse makes clear, for him to move to bring in his kingdom.

[7] (Govett, 1984, p. 169) (Italics his)

[8] (McClain, 1959, pp. 34, 35)

[9] (McClain, 1959, p. 34)

[10] (Govett, 1984, p. 170) Govett’s view is that, though God’s will is done in heaven, this does not mean that “the kingdom” has arrived there, any more than it has arrived on the earth. To prove his point he references Revelation 12:10-12. In Revelation 12:10 a voice in heaven says, “Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God...have come.” Two verses later the voice continues, “Therefore, rejoice, O heavens!...But woe to you, O earth and sea!” These statements prove to Govett that it is only at this point in Revelation 12 (which he takes to be prophetically describing a future event) that the kingdom newly arrives in heaven. The text cannot be speaking simply of heaven’s rejoicing over the kingdom’s move to the earth, because the earth, at this point, has the woe being pronounced upon it. Therefore, to Govett, the kingdom does not actually exist in either the heavens or the earth. Once Satan is cast to the earth (the event described in Revelation 12), the kingdom will have arrived in heaven, and then once Satan is bound under the earth, the kingdom will have arrived on earth as well (the earthly aspect of the kingdom being the millennium).

My hesitancy with entirely swallowing this argument stems from the fact that there are multiple “heavens” mentioned in the scriptures. It could easily be that Jesus is referring to the third heaven and the throne of God (2 Corinthians 12:2; Revelation 12:5) when in Matthew 6:10 he says, “As (it is) in heaven, also on earth.” Then, in Revelation 12:12, the voice could be referring to the second heaven, the present place of spiritual warfare (Ephesians 6:12) as well as the first heaven, the physical sky over the earth (Genesis 1:20), when it says that the kingdom is newly arriving.

[11] See chapter 5: Transitional Note and chapter 6: Do not Be Anxious.

[12] A popular example of the substantival adjective is found in the title of the Clint Eastwood movie The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. I think you’ll agree that it would have had less poetic force if the adjectives had been used normally, with the movie being titled The Good Guy, the Bad Guy, and the Ugly Guy.

[13] I am no expert in textual criticism, so take my opinion only for what it is worth. The view that makes the most sense to me is that the second half of verse 13 that reads “For yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.” was not in the original text. While I am admittedly reliant upon others for their evaluation of manuscript evidence, I would like to make one observation that I believe gives internal evidence against the inclusion of this phrase. The explanatory note that immediately follows Jesus’ model prayer is regarding forgiveness of sins, both of the disciple before God and of the disciples among each other. The note starts off with the word “therefore” and thus implies to me that it ought to be linked with what comes immediately before it. This would make sense if what came immediately before was a modeling of how to pray for forgiveness and for help in avoiding sin. To me, it does not make sense that it should follow the poetic doxology that some manuscripts have at the end of the prayer.

[14] For instance, David Brown completely rejects Jesus’ own plain explanation of the parable by saying, “We must not understand [Jesus] to teach that such literal reversals of pardon do actually take place in God’s treatment of His pardoned children-for that, we take it, is but the dress of the parable.” (Jamieson, Rev. Robert; Fausset, Rev. A. R.; Brown, Rev. David, 1945) How can anyone take that to be the meaning when Jesus plainly states, “So also my heavenly Father will do to you (the disciples) if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”?

[15] My understanding of the conjunctions used in the first few verses of Matthew 6 (οὖν, δέ, and καί), leads me to the conclusion that Jesus discussion regarding fasting is actually a further development in Jesus’ instruction with regard to prayer. Had Matthew 6:16 started off with the word “καί,” as Matthew 6:5 does, then it would seem that a new subject is being introduced. But since the passage instead begins with the word “δέ,” I take Jesus’ words about fasting to be simply a development of his teaching regarding prayer. This understanding of the conjunctions (or “connectives” as he calls them) is based off of Steven E. Runge’s Discourse Grammar of the Greek New Testament, specifically in chapter 2. (Runge, 2010, p. 57)

[16] (Soanes, Catherine; Stevenson, Angus, 2004)

[17] There is a textual variance here as some manuscripts omit the words “and fasting.” The principle of the issue being the quality of the disciple’s faith, not some required ascetic practice that God was waiting for, holds true with or without the addition of fasting.