Jesus—His Life and Message: The Sermon on the Mount
June 14, 2016
by Peter Amsterdam
Jesus—His Life and Message: The Sermon on the Mount
(You can read about the intent for and overview of this series in this introductory article.)
Right Motivation, Part 2
In the previous article, we looked at the first of three examples Jesus gave in Matthew 6 regarding having the right motivation when engaging in religious activities—giving to those in need. Next, Jesus moved on to prayer and fasting. Let’s read what He said about these, beginning with prayer.
When you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 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. And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.1
The prayers that people would “stand and pray in the synagogues and at street corners” were the customary prayers which are recited by practicing Jews three times a day. These prayers include the Amidah,2 which is accompanied by the recitation of the Shema Yisrael3 and the Ten Commandments.4 These prayers were said when they arose, at the time of the afternoon sacrifice in the temple (around 3 p.m.), and before going to bed. Wherever the person was at the time of these prayers, they were to stop and pray. Jesus wasn’t speaking against these prayers, or even against praying in public. He was speaking against those who purposely arranged their schedules so that at the 3 p.m. prayer time they were positioned in prominent places where they would be seen praying. As in the case of those who made a point of giving alms in order to be seen, He denounced those who pray for the purpose of self-promotion.
There is nothing wrong with praying in public, which regularly takes place in churches, Bible study groups, prayer meetings, etc. For that matter, we can pray anytime, anywhere. We’re told to pray without ceasing.5 Jesus’ focus here is on the intent or motive and specifically on exposing the wrong motive—that they may be seen by others. As with the example He gave of giving to be seen by others, He says that those who pray for that purpose have received their full reward, the attention and acclaim of others, but there is no further reward from God for such prayers.
Jesus then describes the proper way to 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.
The Greek word used for room is tameion, which refers to a storeroom or pantry, an inner chamber, a secret room. The imagery Jesus uses depicts being alone with God. There is no record of Jesus praying in a storeroom, but we read that He often took time alone in prayer with His Father.6 Of course, we have record of Jesus praying publicly,7 and His disciples doing so as well throughout the book of Acts,8 which shows that it’s not public prayer which Jesus is denouncing, but the wrong motive for praying, that of seeking glory or attention for oneself.
Those who pray with the motive of a public show receive the reward they have sought. Those who enter into communion with God, who sincerely seek His face,9 who enter His presence in prayer with the right motives, are promised a reward from God, who sees and hears their secret prayer.
Jesus then contrasted the way the Gentiles pray with how His disciples should pray:
When you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
I won’t comment on this portion of the text at this time, as it is connected to Jesus’ presentation of the Lord’s Prayer, which will be discussed in an upcoming article.
In Jesus’ third scenario depicting the right motives in our religious practices, He used fasting as an example.
When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.10
Fasting is not widely practiced in the Protestant wing of Christianity. That’s not to say that Protestants never fast, but it generally isn’t a major focus, as it is in some other Christian traditions. Whether you practice the spiritual discipline of fasting or not, the point Jesus makes about fasting holds true with any spiritual discipline. Here again, Jesus begins by exposing the wrong motivation for practicing a spiritual discipline.
In Judaism, the only regular fast commanded in the Laws of Moses was on the Day of Atonement.11 However, throughout the Old Testament, individuals fasted in response to special situations. Sometimes it was a personal fast,12 and other times the nation as a whole fasted.13 During the exile of Israel in Babylon, fast days were established in memory of the destruction of Jerusalem.14 In New Testament times, there is evidence that the Pharisees and the disciples of John the Baptist fasted. From what scholars can gather, the Pharisees apparently fasted twice a week.15 Also, we’re told that Jesus fasted for 40 days.16
It doesn’t seem that Jesus’ disciples fasted during His lifetime (unless they did so when faced with an exorcism17), but did so on special occasions after His resurrection, as Jesus indicated they would.
Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.”18
In the context of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus assumes that disciples will sometimes fast, as He begins with when you fast. He instructs that when we fast, we aren’t to put on a gloomy face with a sad countenance, in order to draw attention to our fasting. John Stott wrote:
It’s possible that the Pharisees would neglect personal hygiene, or cover their heads with sackcloth, or perhaps smeared their faces with ashes in order to look pale, wan, melancholy, and so outstandingly holy. All so that their fasting might be seen and known by everybody.19
Jesus teaches the opposite: when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others. In other words, we are to appear as we would at any normal time—with our faces washed, hair brushed, etc., so that no one looking at us would see anything out of the ordinary. We are to avoid drawing attention to the fact that we are fasting.
Of course, in some instances, others will know when you are doing activities which are part of your spiritual life and fellowship with God. If you are fasting, chances are your spouse and family will know. If you regularly set aside time for communion with the Lord in reading and prayer, or tithe or give to the poor, then undoubtedly some people will be aware of it. There’s nothing wrong with that, and Jesus wasn’t saying that you have to make sure no one knows about it. He was speaking about our motivation. The question isn’t “Who does or doesn’t know?” It should be “Who am I trying to please?” Our motivation needs to be pleasing God, desiring to do these things from a pure heart, one which seeks secret intimacy with the Lord. That is the attitude He blesses.
As Christians, we are in relationship with God, and that relationship is first and foremost heart to heart. Our desire is to do the things God has told us to do in Scripture, those things which He delights in—worshipping, praying, being generous, loving others, nurturing our relationship with Him. Such actions, when done from the heart for the love and glory of the Lord, bring about inner transformation, spiritual growth, and maturity. Such fruit in our lives will inevitably be noticed by others.
We don’t do these things with the purpose and motivation of having others see our actions so they will give us glory and acclamation, and if we do, then we are hypocrites, putting on a religious show. But if we practice our faith based on the desire to love and please God, to become more like Him, then we will reflect His light and people will see the fruit of a life lived for Him, a life which glorifies Him. May we each live out our faith with the right motive, and thus be rewarded by our Father who sees in secret.20
Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Bailey, Kenneth E. Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2008.
Biven, David. New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus. Holland: En-Gedi Resource Center, 2007.
Bock, Darrell L. Jesus According to Scripture. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002.
Bock, Darrell L. Luke Volume 1: 1:1–9:50. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1994.
Bock, Darrell L. Luke Volume 2: 9:51–24:53. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1996.
Brown, Raymond E. The Birth of the Messiah. New York: Doubleday, 1993.
Brown, Raymond E. The Death of the Messiah. 2 vols. New York: Doubleday, 1994.
Carson, D. A. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and His Confrontation with the World. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1987.
Charlesworth, James H., ed. Jesus’ Jewishness, Exploring the Place of Jesus Within Early Judaism. New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1997.
Chilton, Bruce, and Craig A. Evans, eds. Authenticating the Activities of Jesus. Boston: Koninklijke Brill, 1999.
Edersheim, Alfred. The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. Updated Edition. Hendrickson Publishers, 1993.
Elwell, Walter A., ed. Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1988.
Elwell, Walter A., and Robert W. Yarbrough. Encountering the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005.
Evans, Craig A. World Biblical Commentary: Mark 8:27–16:20. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2000.
Evans, Craig A., and N. T. Wright. Jesus, the Final Days: What Really Happened. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.
Flusser, David. Jesus. Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, 1998.
Flusser, David, and R. Steven Notely. The Sage from Galilee: Rediscovering Jesus’ Genius. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007.
France, R. T. The Gospel of Matthew. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007.
Gnilka, Joachim. Jesus of Nazareth: Message and History. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1997.
Green, Joel B. The Gospel of Luke. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997.
Green, Joel B., and Scot McKnight, eds. Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1992.
Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology, An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Grand Rapids: InterVarsity Press, 2000.
Guelich, Robert A. World Biblical Commentary: Mark 1–8:26. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1989.
Jeremias, Joachim. The Eucharistic Words of Jesus. Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1990.
Jeremias, Joachim. Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1996.
Jeremias, Joachim. Jesus and the Message of the New Testament. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002.
Jeremias, Joachim. New Testament Theology. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1971.
Keener, Craig S. The Gospel of John: A Commentary, Volume 1. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003.
Keener, Craig S. The Gospel of John: A Commentary, Volume 2. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003.
Keener, Craig S. The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009.
Lewis, Gordon R., and Bruce A. Demarest. Integrative Theology. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996.
Lloyd-Jones, D. Martyn. Studies in the Sermon on the Mount. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1976.
Manson, T. W. The Sayings of Jesus. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1957.
Manson, T. W. The Teaching of Jesus. Cambridge: University Press, 1967.
McKnight, Scot. Sermon on the Mount. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013.
Michaels, J. Ramsey. The Gospel of John. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010.
Milne, Bruce. The Message of John. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993.
Morris, Leon. The Gospel According to Matthew. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992.
Ott, Ludwig. Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma. Rockford: Tan Books and Publishers, Inc., 1960.
Pentecost, J. Dwight. The Words & Works of Jesus Christ. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981.
Sanders, E. P. Jesus and Judaism. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985.
Sheen, Fulton J. Life of Christ. New York: Doubleday, 1958.
Spangler, Ann, and Lois Tverberg. Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009.
Stassen, Glen H., and David P. Gushee. Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2003.
Stein, Robert H. Jesus the Messiah. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1996.
Stein, Robert H. The Method and Message of Jesus’ Teachings, Revised Edition. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994.
Stott, John R. W. The Message of the Sermon on the Mount. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1978.
Talbert, Charles H. Reading the Sermon on the Mount. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004.
Williams, J. Rodman. Renewal Theology: Systematic Theology from a Charismatic Perspective. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996.
Witherington III, Ben. The Christology of Jesus. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990.
Witherington III, Ben. The Gospel of Mark: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001.
Wood, D. R. W., I. H. Marshall, A. R. Millard, J. I. Packer, and D. J. Wiseman, eds. New Bible Dictionary. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1996.
Wright, N. T. After You Believe. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2010.
Wright, N. T. Jesus and the Victory of God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996.
Wright, N. T. Matthew for Everyone, Part 1. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004.
Wright, N. T. The Resurrection of the Son of God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003.
Yancey, Philip. The Jesus I Never Knew. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995.
Young, Brad H. Jesus the Jewish Theologian. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1995.
1 Matthew 6:5–8.
2 The Amidah is Judaism’s central prayer. It is prayed while standing and consists of three sections. The first section contains three blessings which: thank God for the Jewish ancestors which connect them to the divine, praise God for His power, and prayers which emphasize the holiness and sacred nature of God. The second section contains thirteen requests, five personal or individual, and eight focused on the communal and national needs of the Jewish people. The third section contains prayers of thanksgiving to God.
3 The Shema Yisrael is a prayer recited in Jewish morning and evening prayer services. It begins with “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.” In its entirety, the Shema consists of three passages: Deuteronomy 6:4–9, Deuteronomy 11:13–21, and Numbers 15:37–41.
4 McKnight, Sermon on the Mount, 163.
5 1 Thessalonians 5:17.
6 Luke 5:16; 6:12; Mark 1:35.
7 Mark 6:41; 8:6–7; Matthew 15:36; John 11:41–42; 17:1–26.
8 Acts 1:14; 4:31; 6:6; 14:23; 20:36; 21:5–6.
9 Psalm 27:8.
10 Matthew 6:16–18.
11 Leviticus 16:29–30; 23:27–32.
12 2 Samuel 12:16–23; 1 Kings 21:27; Nehemiah 1:4; Psalm 35:13; Daniel 9:3.
13 Judges 20:26; 2 Chronicles 20:3; Ezra 8:21–23; Nehemiah 9:1; Jonah 3:5–9.
14 Zechariah 7:3–5; 8:19.
15 The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get’ (Luke 18:11–12).
16 Matthew 4:1–2.
17 As per “This kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting.” Matthew 17:21 NAU.
18 Matthew 9:14–15.
19 Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount, 139.
20 Matthew 6:4, 6, 18.