LEARNING BASIC BIBLE STUDY METHODS
An Inductive Guide to the Study of the Bible,
Using the Gospel of Matthew
(Note: This is the seventh lesson in this series on learning how to study the Bible. To work through the series in order start with the Introduction and proceed through the lessons in sequence. These are all reserved in the archives.)
In this section of the book we are in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount. The subject matter in these verses focuses on personal piety in the areas of giving, praying and fasting. The initial reading of the passage will show that the basic teaching of Jesus will be to avoid the ostentatious show of piety and to seek to please God.
The material is all teaching--there is no narrative story here. So the approach will require us to isolate the clear point being made in each section. The point will include first something to be avoided, then something to do, and finally the promise of reward for doing it right. This should be fairly easy to study--it is often painfully obvious what Jesus meant.
Included in the section on prayer, however, is the teaching of the “Lord’s Prayer.” This will require a good deal more attention, and in fact could be a lesson all by itself. But it is helpful to see it in the context of these teachings. Each petition in the prayer will have to be studied carefully, taking into account both its Old Testament background and its setting in the Gospel. Here the meanings of words and the grammatical constructions will require more attention.
Reading the Text
“Be careful not to do your acts of righteousness before men to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.
2So, when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. 3But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
5“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. 6But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. 7And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. 8Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. 9This, then, is how you should pray:
Our Father in heaven,
Hallowed by your name.
10 Your kingdom come.
Your will be done
on earth as it is in heaven.
11 Give us this day our daily bread.
12 Forgive us our debts,
as we also forgive our debtors.
13 And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil.
14For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.
16“When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men that they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. 17But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
Observations on the Text
The first thing to observe is that this is entirely instruction. That makes the study
of the passage rather straightforward: the instruction will identify a case, tell what not to do and what to do, and give reasons for compliance. The only real difficulty in studying these kinds of instructions is on the level of application, because at times (fortunately not really here) the instruction is tied immediately to a specific context (“go show yourself to the priest in the temple” for example) and has to be then paralleled to a similar situation or need in the modern culture. Here the instructions deal with personal piety and are immediately applicable.
The section is part of the context of the Sermon on the Mount, and so all that was said about the entire discourse has to be kept in mind here. The sermon has a series of instructions on various topics, so why do we pick out these three? Well, by their subject matter these three seems to fit well together. One could just as easily include some of the others, but these make a nice unit on personal piety (as opposed to, say, the “you have heard but I say to you” series back in chapter 5). But having isolated these verses we have to keep in mind that the context will help us in our interpretation. For example, when you try to sort out what Jesus meant by “your kingdom come” or by “your reward,” the context of the sermon will be of great help.
The passage can be divided easily into its three parts: giving to the needy, prayer, and fasting. The study (and any teaching of the passage too) could deal with each individually, along with a general conclusion about piety. The study procedure will still involve the analysis of the sentence structure, the meanings of the words, connections to other Scriptures, general cultural considerations, and conclusions for theology and for application.
The Subject Matter
The common theme through these paragraphs will be easy to identify--you would get the basic point even if you just heard the passage read in church. Jesus was warning people not to do righteous acts for the purpose of being seen by people. He was instructing people that if a righteous act was done for God alone, and was not tarnished by this desire for recognition and applause, it would be rewarded by God. That is genuine piety. But if it was done to be seen by other people, then that acclaim was all the reward that would be received. So His instruction was that it is best to hide any righteous acts that may lead to ostentation and thereby ensure that they will be done for God. The three samples He gave are at the heart of personal piety: giving to the poor, praying and fasting. And so the warnings also provided Jesus with the occasion to give instruction on these subjects.
Instruction about Giving to the Poor
The Text. The first four verses cover the subject of “almsgiving” (as it has been traditionally called), or giving to the poor. The structure is easy to follow: verse 1 gives the general introduction, not only for this case, but for the others to follow. The general warning is not to do acts of righteousness before other people, to be seen by them, for then there will be no reward. Of course, many good deeds that people do are out in the open necessarily. But Jesus was here speaking about intention--not to do them so that people would see and therefore think that you are spiritual. That is one form of hypocrisy, for in doing it that way you would not be seriously interested in doing the good deed, but in appearing to be doing good deeds. The motivation would be primarily self-promoting--and the Lord always looks at the motifs when He evaluates our works.
Verse 2 then gives the first case, giving to the poor, with a warning not to do it like the hypocrites do. Then verse 3 gives the positive instruction, to do it secretly, and verse 4, the reward.
The Case of Giving. The subject matter of giving to the needy really does not need a lot of study; it is self-evident what it means. But perhaps your study on the subject might be helped by looking into the Bible to see how important this matter is. There is a trend today, especially in affluent societies, to let this one go. The thinking may be that the poor are just lazy and should work harder, or that it is the government’s responsibility to help them, or that it is a never ending task and so it won’t do much good anyway . . . and so on. There are many reasons people can come up with to avoid this spiritual duty. Prosperity theology fits into the reasoning as well, teaching that if people had faith they would have wealth, because God wants His children to be rich. This is not the place to deal with this theology, other than to say it is unbalanced at best. What is most disturbing to me is to see the wealthy and the successful being paraded on Christian talk shows on television or on stage in services as if they were the spiritual ones, blessed by God. They may be, but Jesus’ warnings about ostentatious show gets lost in the presentation somewhere.
So what was Jesus talking about here in this passage? Here is where we might find a little help from the first century Jewish culture. There are a number of books on customs and manners that are worth having, but you can still start with a good Bible dictionary and read up on fasting, almsgiving, and the like. An old work, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, by Alfred Edersheim, is still to me a very helpful work. It is frequently criticized for some of its Jewish culture backgrounds, but on the whole seems to be right in its interpretations. You would have to use his Scripture index to find passages, because it goes in the order of the life of Christ and not in chapter order of the Gospels. I will put other recommendations in the bibliography later.
So Jesus said that when people try to give money to the poor they should not “sound the trumpet” as the hypocrites do in order to be recognized and honored by others (6:2-4). There are a number of ideas about the meaning of “sounding the trumpet” in the literature, none of which can be established with certainty from primary sources. But the point is clear that the hypocritical almsgiver was more concerned about being noticed for his deed than for helping the poor.
One very plausible suggestion is that this form of giving was connected with the public fasts that were proclaimed by trumpets. At such times of fasting, prayers were recited in the streets and alms were given to ensure the efficacy of the prayers and fasting.1 This would mean that such folks were choosing the most opportune moment to display their “generosity,” so that others would consider them to be truly spiritual. Such individuals were also deceiving themselves into thinking that they were acting in the best interests of God and man--the large gifts would be well received by the needy, and their praise and gratitude would feed their egos, and everyone else would see them as the “pious” in action.2 But Jesus was saying not to do this. Those who do this would receive no reward from God, because it was all hypocritical.
You might want to look up the word “hypocrite” in a word study book or a Bible dictionary, not to find out what it means--I think we all know pretty well what hypocrisy means--but to find other places that Jesus talks about hypocrites. They are essentially people who say or do one thing but mean something else. Here those who give to the poor (and they may give generously) are called hypocrites because they do it for a totally different reason. It is all a show of spirituality, but it is not genuine. Many people will give to the poor, but they thrive on the praise of people who perceive them to be generous and spiritual. Jesus was saying that if you give to the poor in order to receive this acclaim, then that is all the reward you will receive. Enjoy it.
Rewards. Sooner or later you will have to deal with the theme of “rewards” in the Bible. This is really difficult to get right. On the one hand the Bible warns people not to do these things for the praise and honor you would get from other people; and on the other hand it instructs people to run the race for the reward, like the laurels of an olympiad runner. There is nothing wrong with doing a righteous deed for the sake of receiving a reward, or praise, as long as the praise you seek is of God. On occasion people will say that true piety means doing something without any consideration of reward. That would have to be qualified, because when we are instructed in the Bible to do acts of righteousness there is always a mention of reward from the Father in heaven. There has to be a motivation for the righteous deeds, and at the bottom of all this discussion would be that our chief motivation is to please God. How will we know if we have pleased God? By His “Well done, good and faithful servant,” or what C. S. Lewis described as a divine pat on the back. Now this is very different than doing something so that others in the church will praise you or think more highly of you than they should.
In fact, in Matthew 6 right after these passages we are studying we have Jesus instruction to lay up treasures in heaven (6:19-21) because where the treasure is, there will the heart be. A study on the Bible’s teachings on rewards will lead you to think more of greater positions and responsibilities in the kingdom than simply physical possessions. In that kingdom the Lord will make everything right, and that will include revealing and rewarding all righteous acts. One gets the impression in studying all the relevant passages that in the world to come there will be a whole hierarchy of places of service and areas of responsibility based on faithfulness in this life.
So Jesus said that when you give to the poor, give to the poor. Do it in a way that is secret, without the public notice and acclaim, and without the poor knowing it was you who gave. Worry less about what people will think about you or what debt of gratitude they feel they owe you than what you should do for the poor. If you can get to the point of making your service to God the governing motivation, then earthly recognition will cease to matter. The trouble is that we are human; we all like to be thought well of, or recognized for what we do. But in the Christian world it is best to leave that recognition and reward up to God so that our giving may be righteous. And if you do something good and the church does not make a big fuss over you like they often do, do not worry, for if your work was for God it was noticed by Him and will be rewarded by Him.
Instruction about Praying
The Text. This is the longest of the three sections because it includes the Lord’s Prayer. Verses 5-8 parallel the first section in structure: the case of praying with a warning not to pray like the hypocrites do (v. 5), instruction on spiritual prayer (v. 6), a second warning not to pray like the pagans (v. 7), and an explanation of spiritual prayer (v. 8).
The next section, verses 9-15, is the Lord’s Prayer. Because it seems to be an intrusion on the pattern of the passage, many biblical scholars conclude that it has been added here (by Matthew perhaps himself) from other teachings of Jesus on the subject of prayer. That is not impossible, or that problematic, as long as the suggestions make it clear that Jesus taught this prayer. But again, as I said before, there is not a whole lot of evidence for saying things like this. Luke 11 includes parts of the prayer in Jesus’ instruction on prayer to his disciples. But a good case can be made that many of the teachings of Jesus recorded in the Sermon would have been taught again and again in other places.
The section of the Lord’s Prayer includes the address to God and then six petitions, three for God’s glory and three for our needs. Then, after the prayer is finished, there are two verses explaining the request for forgiveness further.
The Case of Praying like the Hypocrites. Jesus said that the hypocrites love to stand in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others (Matt. 6:5). Here too the Lord was describing someone who may or may not be sincerely praying, but certainly wants everyone to know he prays. Jesus was not ruling out public prayer; rather, He was criticizing the motivation of the hypocrite. Once again the King was denouncing any religious act that is inspired by the opinions of people. And in denouncing them Jesus used sarcasm again: “They have their reward.”
Prayer is a spiritual matter between the one praying and God. To do it for show is to pervert what it is all about. So in verse 6 Jesus instructed to make it private by going into your room (not on the streets), and to keep it personal by praying to your Father (not to be seen by others). A good test to use would be this: if someone prays frequently in public, on stage, in front of gatherings, but not at home in private, then there is probably something wrong with the motive.
In another place Jesus took this a step further. He spoke of the Pharisee who went up to the temple to pray. He stood up “and prayed about (or, to) himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men--robbers, evildoers, adulterers--or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get’” (Luke 19:11,12). This one Jesus said would not be justified by God, for whoever exalts himself will be humbled. People like this have their reward in their public show. But God does not consider this to be righteous.
The Case of Praying like the Pagans. In Matthew 6:7 Jesus also referred to the pagan babblings in prayer which people used, and still use, thinking that they would be heard for their many words, or their repeated chanting of words or even non-sense syllables. Jesus was not speaking against long prayers or repetition in prayers, both of which can be found true of His own prayers. He was talking about the pagan attitudes to prayer, that is, that God can be manipulated or induced to act through the incantations and continuous sounds (like the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18). Even today folks fall into this mentality, thinking that making long and repetitious prayers will break through to God, or making continuous, non-sensical sounds will induce speaking in tongues or some other higher level of communication with God. This is all too much like pagan manipulation of the deity.
God does not require or honor such devices to break through to Him. Nor does He need endless detailed information. Jesus said to avoid these practices, or thinking that the longer prayers or additional muttering would “work.” Jesus said, “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”
Here you may want to correlate your study with other teachings on prayer in the New Testament. But you might decide to make it a separate study altogether, for it is huge. But start again with a Bible dictionary or a New Testament theology book (like Colin Brown) to see what passages and what discussions are involved in the subject on prayer. But one that might be germane here would be the advice to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:16-18). How would that teaching harmonize with Jesus’ warning not to think long repetitions prayers will break through to God. Well, we would have to say right off the bat that “pray without ceasing” is not meant to be taken slavishly literally--or you would do absolutely nothing in life but pray. But it is meant to be taken literally in the sense that prayer should be a continuous, never-ending discipline of the spiritual life. It should be like a natural reflex--every time the Christian encounters a need, a problem, a person in trouble, a situation in the world, prayer should be made. One preacher said it was like a hacking cough--you cough “all the time”--whenever the cough is stimulated in some way. Not a bad illustration. The point is that prayer should be the natural communication between the Christian and the Father in heaven--on every issue in life.
Instruction on Prayer: The Lord’s Prayer. It is here that we have the Lord’s prayer. The prayer has an opening address and then six requests, the first three requests are for God’s glory (primarily), and the next three for our good (and ultimately His glory).
The address, “Our Father, who art in heaven,” is clearly intended for us, the disciples and believers, for Jesus always called the Father “My Father” or “the Father” apart from this instruction on prayer. There is therefore a great difference in the use of the word “Father” for us, as opposed to the use by Jesus. When Jesus refers to “the Father,” or “My Father,” He can claim a special and unique relationship, for He shares the nature of the Father. When we use the word “Father,” it is a reminder that we have been brought into the family of God by adoption, and made joint-heirs with Christ, the true Son.
The address is interesting from a theological perspective as well. It refers to God as “Father.” And before one gets caught up in the modern attempt to make the language of the Bible unisex, one must determine what the word “father” meant in the Hebrew culture and in language in general. It clearly emphasizes the biblical teachings that God is the creator, the sovereign head of all creation, the provider of all life, the great benefactor, and the covenant-making God, to name a few of the connotations. The fact that Jesus taught us to address God this way has to be taken seriously. We all substitute words for God when we pray (Lord, Everlasting God, God of all comfort, and so on), and so that is not a problem. But some substitutions would be a problem if they give the wrong impression of God’s nature. This too is a big study, and should be worked through sometime.
But the balance with heaven and father is also interesting theologically. To address God as Father in heaven is to emphasize the transcendence of God. God is not of the earth earthly, or of our world physical. God is in heaven. Thus, “Father” is clearly an intended metaphor; God is not like any human father, but is perfect, heavenly, exalted. And yet, referring to God in heaven as “our Father” emphasizes that God is immanent as well. We are related to God; God is near and approachable. So if you wanted to study the theology that informs this prayer, you would have quite an involved (and rewarding) study.
The closing benediction used in the Lord’s prayer is generally considered a later addition to the text: “for yours is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, amen.” This is not merely an assessment of literary criticism--the theory that this or that part must have been added, even though there is no evidence. Here there is evidence, for the benediction is not in the earliest or best Greek manuscripts. There is really nothing wrong with using it, though, for it comes from biblical benedictions in Revelation. The early church found that in using so many benedictions in their worship that it was appropriate to use one here as well.3
The first request is Hallowed be your name.” Here you will have to study two things: the meaning “holy” and the meaning of “name.” The background certainly must be the Old Testament, since when Jesus taught this that was the background--the Bible. A study will show that the word “holy” means “set apart, unique, distinct,” and that the word “name” referring to God means His character, His attributes, and not just a personal name (e.g., “his name shall be called, wonderful, counselor, mighty God, everlasting Father, prince of peace). You can read in the resources on these two ideas (see possibly the recommended work edited by van Gemeren).
This request does not mean to pray that God would become holy; rather it means that one is to pray that his nature or reputation would be treated as holy (set apart) in the world. The primary way that this would be accomplished would be when the Lord fulfills the promises He has made and shows that His word good and His character trustworthy.
The background of this request seems to be in Ezekiel 36. There the word of the LORD said that the Israelites had profaned the name of the LORD everywhere they went. Now that they were in captivity, God’s word was in question, and His ability to save challenged. So the LORD declared that He would restore them to the land--not because they deserved it, but because His reputation was at stake--it would be “for His name’s sake” (something we often say in prayer). God will fulfill His promises in order to rescue His reputation. By sin people have interfered with God’s program; and the faith has been made to look ineffectual, and God, common. But God will not leave it there. So to pray “Hallowed be your name” is to pray that God will act to fulfill all His word so that everyone will know that he is different from everyone else, that He is the holy Lord God.
The second request is “Your kingdom come.” This request logically follows the previous, for when the kingdom fully comes God will be seen as the one whose word can be trusted. So this request ultimately looks forward to the consummation of the age.
It is true that the kingdom of our Lord has begun, and that all of us who are believers are already in the kingdom, and that the Lord Christ is seated on the right hand of the Majesty on High. And so we talk of the king, and extending the kingdom, and sing about how He reigns. But all of that is but the beginning, for the kingdom has not yet fully come. The Lord is not yet ruling over the whole world in righteousness and peace. Sin still abounds. And so the writer to the Hebrews explains that the fulfillment is yet to come (Heb. 1). There will come a time when the Father will say to the Son, “Ask of me and I will give you the nations for your inheritance” (Ps. 2). Then he will bring the Messiah into the world for the second time (Heb. 1:6), not then in shame and sacrifice, but in glory. So the prayer here is actually a request for the second coming, and all that will come with it.
The third request is “your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.” It is a prayer that God would bring about His righteous demands in history as fully as they are realized in heaven. The simple fact is that God’s will is not being done on earth, apart from pockets of obedience here and there from time to time. We pray for, and eagerly look forward to, the time that Christ shall put down the last of the enemies. But until then we must endure a world where sin, and disease, and death reign.
Of course, praying such a prayer would remind us that we should be doing the will of God that we are praying for--otherwise it is hypocrisy. It is true of many prayers that those who pray become part of the answer to the prayer. This principle is true of all these first three requests. As we ask for major changes in the world for God’s glory, all the requests are actually applicable in this way for us. We as God’s people are to act in such a way as to hallow His name (ensure that God’s reputation is upheld in the way we live), submit to His rule (show all allegiance to Him) , and do His will (study His word to know and do the will of God).
The fourth request is “Give us this day our daily bread.” The last three requests are for the good of the people in the meantime, that is, while they await the consummation of the ages. The first request focuses on God’s meeting our daily needs (not greeds). The use of the word “bread” is, of course, a figure of speech, a synecdoche (a part for the whole), meaning the basic food we need.
So why do we need to pray this--when we have a steady income and there is always food in the house? Well, it is a humble request, designed to ensure that an attitude of faith and reliance on God will be kept in mind day by day. It is when we gain abundance so that we have far more than we ever need that we forget about depending on God each day for our livelihood. A good chapter to read in conjunction with this petition is Deuteronomy 8; it warns the people not to forget the Lord when they are settled, comfortable, and well off.
So this request is for God to provide our daily sustenance while we travel through this temporary life.
The fifth request is “And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” This and the next request are linked by conjunctions, as if to say the daily bread is not enough--after all, one does not live by bread alone. So we have connected to the fourth request the prayer “and forgive us . . . .”
This petition recognizes that everyone of us owes a debt to God for sin and its consequences, and that it is essential for all of that to be forgiven. There is not a day, or an hour, that goes by in which we do not sin in some way. And while we may claim to be redeemed and forgiven by the blood of Christ, we still must maintain a spiritual relationship with the Lord for service and for fellowship. So it is absolutely essential that we regularly pray for forgiveness.
But Jesus adds a clause to this petition that should give us all pause: “as we forgive our debtors.” We have to have an attitude that makes forgiveness possible. To forgive others is the natural response of one who knows and understands forgiveness; to refuse to forgive others does not. One who does not forgive others has an arrogant attitude, which is not representative of someone who acknowledges the need for forgiveness we all share. It is like playing God. Jesus seems to be saying that there is no forgiveness for one who is unforgiving--that person is self-righteous and apparently does not exhibit a need for forgiveness. But when we ask the Lord to forgive us, we should be so thankful for his forgiveness that we share in that spirit in our dealings with other people.
This request, then, is concerned with our inter-relationships, with our community life as confessing believers. Jesus further explains it in verses 14 and 15, which indicates how seriously He intended us to take forgiving each other. But we must admit that we surely do fail in this area. None of us would want God to forgive us the way that we in the church forgive one another. But our asking God for forgiveness should make us think again of how we forgive others.
The last request is concerned with our conflict with evil: “and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” The traditional translation uses the word “temptation,” and this is still in use today in a lot of services. The idea seems not to be “temptation” in the immediate sense, for the Bible says that God does not tempt anyone to evil. So that would be an unnecessary prayer. It probably should have as its primary rendering “lead us not into testing/trial.” And yet, “temptation” is not totally unrelated to this meaning. The use here may combine the two English ideas in some way. If we pray that God lead us not into testing, we would be praying that He not do something that Scripture says that He frequently does. A good illustration (there are many in the Old Testament) is in the wilderness, such as in Exodus 15, where the LORD led the people to bitter water to test them. There they murmured against the LORD, a sin. God led them to the test; but it was their response to the test that was sinful. So there is a fine line between the two. But no one can say God made me sin, or led me into temptation; but we can say that God puts us into situations to prove our faith.
Jesus is probably intending for us to pray that God not lead us into a place of trials that would be so severe to bring about a fall into sin. The final clause shows that the ultimate desire is victory over evil in this world: “deliver us from evil,” or more likely, “the evil one.” Satan often awaits in the times of trial for his opportunity, and to fail to demonstrate faith in a time of testing would be to succumb to the evil one. But the focus of the prayer is for spiritual victory over all evil in the world.
The added benediction (not included in many modern translations) was probably based on the trinitarian nature of these three requests: the Father provides the bread, the Son provides forgiveness through atonement, and the Spirit leads us to victory over evil.
Instruction on Fasting
The Text. The third section now concerns fasting. The pattern is picked up again with a warning first of what not to do (v. 16), then the instruction of what to do and the promised reward (v. 17).
Fasting. Jesus here criticized the hypocritical acts of disfiguring the face for a public show--to be seen by others as one who fasts and therefore who must be spiritual (6:16). This is perhaps the biggest hypocrisy, because fasting was a sign of humility before God, not an occasion for self-promotion.
Fasting had a distinct purpose in Israel. It was a way of saying “no” to the physical and material needs of the body, so that all the attention could be given to spiritual matters. It was a way of saying that this time of prayer, or this time of repentance, is the most important thing in life. The Law commanded Israel to fast at the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:29-31; 23:27-32; Num. 29:7); and after the exile other fasts were added (see Zech. 7:3; 8:19). But people could fast and pray anytime there was a need (see Jon. 3, for example). Private fasting could be engaged at any time that some special petition was offered. Jesus Himself was in the wilderness for forty days, fasting and praying.
In the Old Testament the hypocritical fast was rebuked (Isa. 58:3-7; Jer. 14:12; and Zech. 7:5-6). To proclaim a fast without any concern for changing the life as a whole missed the point. People cannot think that by fasting for one day, or for one month (as in lent), they have put things back into balance. The fasting is supposed to have a lasting impact for righteousness. Fasting is not common in a lot of churches today, which is perhaps a pity, for if it were understood and done correctly it would be most beneficial spiritually. But in much common and popular thinking it is a bit of a sham. Certainly excess revelry and debauchery prior to a time of fasting is a pagan corruption of the whole idea.
Apparently from what we read from that first century setting there were Pharisees who adopted a somber, downcast disposition (Luke 24:17), perhaps not washing off the ashes or using cleansing oils for a time. Their purpose was to convey to others that they were deeply pious--this was worthless to God.
Jesus said that when we fast we should wash our faces and anoint with the ordinary oils we use, so that people will not see we are fasting. Only God will see, and He will reward the act as a righteous act.
Conclusion and Application
There is little reason now to reiterate all that has been said point by point. The lesson is very clear. And it is painful. How much of our religious conduct is regulated by the opinions and approval of other people? Probably the vast majority of us are influence more by what other people think than by what God Almighty thinks! And that is truly perverse thinking, even though somewhat understandable since we are more aware of what people think. But that is exactly the problem, isn’t it? We should become more and more aware of what God thinks of what we do.
It is not our task to appear to be righteous before other people. Rather, it is our task to be well pleasing to the King. That is the ethic of the sermon. But if we choose to be pleasing to people, then whatever enjoyment we derive from that will be all the reward there is. But what we do to please God, even if we go largely unknown in it, will be praised and rewarded in the courts of heaven.
This is why the Lord’s Prayer is such an important part of this passage. In praying such a prayer we are seeking to know and do the will of the Father in heaven. With that theme as our daily prayer, our understanding of and motivation for praying, and fasting, and giving to the poor, will reach a higher level. But it will be a constant struggle within ourselves, and with the expectation of the people around us whose inclination is all too human.
1 A. Buchler, “St. Matthew vi 1-6 and Other Allied Passages,” Journal of Theological Studies 10 (1909):266-270.
2 D. A. Spieler, “Hypocrisy: An Exploration of a Third Type,” Andrews University Seminary Studies 13 (1975):273-279.
3 Some might argue that if here there is manuscript evidence for a verse being added later, then theoretically it could have happened in many other places as well and that we just lack the primary evidence. That is not the way exegesis works (the study of the text that leads the interpretation out of the text rather than read ideas into it). But the fact is that there is not a shred of evidence for the major changes many critics want to make, especially in suggesting that all of the book came from a later period in the early church.