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True Religion, Part 2: Praying

Series: Matthew

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Jul 13, 1997

Matthew 6:5-8

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If you have your Bibles, please turn with me to Matthew chapter 6, as we continue our study of this great Gospel of Matthew and of the Sermon on the Mount.  Last time we were together in this passage, we looked at the first four verses of Matthew chapter 6 and saw the Lord’s teaching on Christian giving.  You remember that as we studied chapter 5, the first section of the Sermon on the Mount, we said that Jesus particularly in verses 17-48 of chapter 5, was that it pains to show the error in the Pharisees teaching about the law.  There he contrasted what the law truly meant and what the Pharisees said the law meant.  And one of the themes that we saw repeated over and over, was Jesus’ insistence that the law cannot merely be kept by going through the motions externally.  The law must be kept from the heart.  It is possible in fact, the Lord Jesus made it very clear, to break the law without anyone around you necessarily knowing that you have broken the law.  It can be broken in one’s heart he stressed. 

      In Matthew chapter 6, he begins to address the issue of the Pharisees practice, teaching in chapter 5, practice in chapter 6.  He contrasts His teaching with the Pharisees teaching in chapter 5 and He contrasts the practice that He expects from His disciples, and the practice of the Pharisees in chapter 6.  There are three contrasts that He gives us in this passage.  In verses 1-4 of chapter 6, He gives us a contrast between His practice, the practice of His disciples, on giving and the practice of the Pharisees.  In verses 5 through verse 15, He contrasts His teaching on the how we are to practice prayer with what the Pharisees are doing.  And then in the last verses of this section, verses 16-18, He contrasts what the Pharisees do with regard to the fasting and what He wants His disciples to do with regard to fasting. 

      It is obvious that prayer is a key part of Christian experience.  The Lord Jesus so teaches His disciples how He expects them to pray.  As he critiques the Pharisees for having an external religion, a religion that does not reflect the heart, it is interesting that He does not tell His disciples that you don’t need to worry about giving, you don’t worry about praying, you don’t need to worry about fasting, Christianity is all about the heart.  The Lord Jesus does not say that.  He expects His disciples to give, to pray, and to fast.  But He expects them to do those things in a very different spirit with a very different motivation and with a very different awareness about who God is.  That is the nub of what the Lord Jesus is going to teach us today about prayer.  Let’s attend the word of the living God, beginning in verse 5 of Matthew chapter 6. 

Matthew 6:5-8 

      Our Father, this passage is familiar to us, to the point of being common place.  Protect us from apathy and complacency as we come to such a well-worn passage.  Teach us a fresh, the truth of Your Word and work that word into our hearts by Your Holy Spirit.  If we are accomplished in prayer, oh God, teach us still from Your word.  If we stumble with prayer, and are in fact prayerless in our walk, would you strengthen us by the word of truth.  Build us up by Your word.  Apply it to our hearts by the Spirit and we will give You all the praise and glory.  For we ask it in Jesus’ name.  Amen. 

      Prayer is a key part of Christian experience.  Matthew Henry once said, "you may as soon find a living man who does not breath as a living Christian who does not pray."  Prayer is clearly an important part of spiritual experience and the Lord Jesus in this passage warns us against two particular pitfalls in our prayer life, in our practice of prayer.  And He also guides us in the principals of spiritual conversation with God.  Jesus, in this passage, makes it clear that the most important influence on the way we live the Christian life, the most important influence on the way we pray is what we think of God.  How we know God, impacts the way that we pray and so our theology, how we think about God, informs, influences and in the final analysis determines our practice, how we live, how we pray.  Jesus constantly holds together that truth, that the word of God, and proper knowledge of God informs proper Christian living and obedience.  In this passage, Jesus has many lessons for us.  I would like to concentrate on three or four of them as we prepare to come to the Lord’s Table today.   

     

I.       The true believer must ever be on guard against hypocrisy in prayer.
      The first one you see in verse 5.  The first truth that Jesus sets forth is that the true believer must ever be on guard against hypocrisy in prayer.  You see in verse 5, His description of the pride of the Pharisees as they went before the Lord in prayer.  In verse 5 we read, when you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites, for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners, so they may be seen by men.  Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full.  Here Jesus describes the practice of the Pharisees.  The Pharisees,whom He calls hypocrites here, are desiring the approval of men in prayer.  And we see that in a couple of ways.

      First of all, notice the places that they go to pray.  They desire to pray in the synagogues and in the street corners.  Those places intended to maximize the exposure of their expression of religiosity.  They want as many people as possible to see them praying.  And the Lord Jesus goes on to tell us why.  They desire to be applauded for their religion.  They desire to be applauded for their piety.  They want people to say, “Look how religious that man is.  Look how holy that man is.  Look how impressive is the display of piety that that woman is showing as she prays, as he prays in the synagogues, or in the street corners.”  You see, the problem of the Pharisees is that they do not know the heavenly Father.  They do not have a saving relationship with God and hence, they do not know God as heavenly Father, and hence, they do not sense the acceptance of God.  And so they seek their acceptance from man.  They do not know the acceptance, the free and gracious acceptance of the heavenly Father, and they need that sense of acceptance to be fulfilled and so they go to men for that acceptance.  They want men and women to say, we accept that man as holy, because they do not know what it is to be accepted in the righteousness of Christ by the heavenly Father.  Their prize, you see, is the affirmation of the world.  They long to be applauded by men, and that is what they get.  They fool the undiscerning into thinking that they are holy.  But that is the only reward that is theirs.  They will never hear the well done, my good and faithful servant of the heavenly Father.  For they have not known Him, and they have not trusted in Him. 

      I want you to note here that Christ is not condemning all public prayer.   The Lord Jesus Himself prayed in public.  He prayed in semi-private settings, as well as public settings.   And we are given records in the Scriptures of  the prayers of the saints of both the Old and the New Testaments.  The Lord Jesus is not saying to His disciples, be at pains, never to pray in public.  He is not saying, never ever pray over your meal when you are in a public place.  He is not saying, don’t stand up and pray at Prayer Meeting, and He is certainly not saying, never have a prayer in your worship services.   That is not His point.  His point is that all prayer ought to be with a view to God as its audience, not as man.  And we ought to look for God’s answer and His approval, not the approval of men.  All of our prayer must be done in humility and with a view to God alone. 

      Have we learned the secret of God’s fatherhood and prayer?  When we go to the Lord in prayer, when we go consciously knowing that it is our heavenly Father to whom we address ourselves.  Are we convinced of His acceptation of us, and hence, unconcerned with whether the world accepts us or not, and unconcerned whether the world approves what we do?  Do you know the freedom that comes from knowing God as your heavenly Father?  And does your prayer reflect it?  The Lord Jesus Christ is reminding you to go to the Lord with the right aims and motives in this passage.   

II.  The true believer must be on guard against attempting to manipulate God in prayer.
      Notice also in verse 7, that He teaches us a second thing.  There He teaches us that the true believer must ever be on guard against attempting to manipulate God in prayer.  There He tells us about the Gentiles, the Pagans. 

      First He spoke of those people who had been given the true religion in times of the Old Testaments, and now He contrasts there a practice, their false religiosity, that the false religiosity of the pagans, of the Gentiles.  He says, and when you are praying, do not use meaningless repetition as the Gentiles do, for they suppose they will be heard for their many words.  He describes for us, what the pagans of His time did in their prayer.  They had a superstitious view of prayer.  Perhaps they thought of prayer, sort of like an eastern mantra, and that simple repetition of a pattern of words, over and over and over until you almost lose consciousness, and it becomes part of your subconsciousness, somehow alters reality at least for your own mind. And that is the effect of prayer.  Perhaps, they thought, that by saying the same phrases over and over and enlarging those petitions that they could somehow manipulate God into giving them what they wanted. 

      And the Lord Jesus again points out the problem with that view of prayer.  That not what prayer is. Prayer is spiritual conversation with God, whereby we lift up to Him, our desires in accordance with His will in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.  It is spiritual fellowship in conversation with the living God.  It is not a mantra.  It is not something to alter the state of our consciousness.  And it is certainly not designed to manipulate God.  It is an opportunity for fellowship on earth with our heavenly Father.  And the Lord Jesus says, these pagans who pray in this way, who babble, who use mantras, who repeat phrases, they do not understand the goodness of God.  If they understood that God was good, they would know that they didn’t have to manipulate Him.  And if they weren’t basely self interested in their prayer, that is simply wanting God to do what they want Him to do for them, according to their way, according to their time frame, according to their instruction, they would not go to the Lord with such a pattern of prayer. 

      Notice again, Christ is not condemning all long prayers here.  Christ Himself, we know from the Gospels, prayed all night long on several occasions.  There are many long prayers recorded for us by both the saints of the Old Testament and the New.  He is not saying, make sure whatever you do, don’t pray a long prayer.  That is not His point either.  His point is, the length of your prayer does not determine the effectiveness of God’s answer.  And you cannot view prayer and the repetition of the meaningless words as a way of manipulating God into doing what you want Him to do.  Christ is requiring us to pray in light of God’s goodness and will. 

      There are many today, even in the Christian community who would like to teach us that what we really need to be doing is doing prayer like a mantra, repeating words and phrases.  That would lead us to effective prayers.  I just picked up this morning a book by a famous scholar who is reputed to be an evangelical.  And in his writing on the Lord’s prayer one of his suggestions for us to do is to repeat the words of the Lord’s prayer over and over and over until we lose consciousness.  He says the effect of the prayer on us will almost be like medicine.  Well, this is precisely what the Lord Jesus is saying not to do.  Because prayer is not medicine.  Prayer is converse with the living God.   And therefore, it must not revert to meaningless babble. 

      Do we attempt to manipulate God in our prayers?  Do we find that our prayers are less conversations than they are shopping lists?  Do we find ourselves repeating things because we are not sure that God will give us what we need, what is good for us?  Is His kingdom and fatherhood, always in view as we pray?  These are the questions that the Lord Jesus is asking us to ask this morning.   

III.  The true believe must cultivate a genuine spiritual practice of prayer.
      Notice also in verse 6, we learn a third thing.  The true believer must cultivate a genuine spiritual practice of prayer.  Here Jesus contrasts the pride of the Pharisees and the slavish fear of the pagans with the proper attitude and posture of the Christian.  The Christian goes to the Lord in prayer in humility and in sincerity. 

      Notice in verse 6 that when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door, and pray to Your Father who is in secret, and your Father, who sees what is done in secret will reward you.  Jesus is reminding us here that the mainstay of Christian prayer must be secret prayer. 

      Again, He is not saying that you should never pray in public.  But He is certainly saying that the fountainhead of all our public and family prayers, is to be our secret prayer life.  Because in the secret place, when we are alone with God, we are not distracted by the distractions of the world.  We are not tempted to pray our conversations to those who are around us.  We are best equipped to fellowship, to commune with God by prayer.  To pour out our desires to Him.  To adore Him, to thank Him, to confess to Him, to dwell on the pardon which is ours in Christ.  To lift up petitions, and intercessions on behalf of others and to sing praises and doxology to His holy name.  It is in the secret place that we are best equipped to pray.  And if we are not prayers there, we are graceless. 

      You see, Jesus is not condemning public prayer, but He is certainly emphasizing the importance of our private, of our secret prayer, and He is reminding us that in our public worship, we must avoid everything, that tends to make our personal devotion remarkable to other people.  Our purpose in prayer is not to cause people to say, oh what marvelous prayers this person prays.  Our purpose in prayer is to commune with the living God.  The Christian aim in prayer that is my friends is to be heard of the heavenly father.  It is to fellowship with the heavenly father.  It is to receive His approval, His answer.  Not the approval and acceptance of men.  And so the Christian approaches God in prayer, not in pride, but in humility, because the Christian knows that he or she goes before the father of heaven and earth.  And the Christian does not go with the desire to manipulate God, but out of sincerity to enter into conversation, true spiritual conversation with the living God. 

      How is your heart in prayer?  Do you go to Him in this sincerity and humility?  Why do you pray?  What motivates you to go to the Lord in prayer?  The Lord Jesus addresses that issue explicitly in the end of verse 6, and also in verse 8.  And this is the last thing that I would like to leave with you today that we learn in this passage. 

IV.  The true believer must be motivated in prayer by the heavenly Father's goodness and care.
      The true believer must be motivated in prayer by the heavenly Father’s goodness and care.  We see this at the end of verse 6 and also in verse 8.  Your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.  So do not be like them for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him.  The Lord Jesus is giving us there, at least three motivations to come to the Lord in prayer. 

      Now there are many scriptural motivations to prayer.  More than I can name today.  But the Lord Jesus reminds us here of at least three of the motivations, three of the reasons that God gives us to come to Him in prayer. 

      The first of them is because God knows everything.  Notice the phrase, your Father sees in secret, and then in verse 8 again, the phrase, for your Father knows what you need. 

      The first reason, the first motivation that the Lord gives us to go to the Father in prayer, is that God knows everything that His children need.  Now you may stop and you may say, “Well, if He already knows everything that I need, why should I go to Him in prayer?”  That is the way we normally ask that question, in the words of a book of a friend of ours, If God Already Knows, Why Pray?  And that is the question that we normally ask.  Biblical logic is otherwise however.  Biblical logic says, “Because God already knows, therefore, I am moved, I am motivated, I am given all the more reason to pray.”  Why?  Because God’s knowledge reminds me of His care, about the most minute problems of my life, and it encourages me to go to Him because I am not going to go the sovereign of the universe and meet the response.  That is too insignificant for me.  He already knows everything we need.  He cares about that  and so we are motivated to go to Him.  It is God’s omniscience, and for the boys and girls here today, that is just a big word that means God knows everything.  God’s omniscience motivates us to go to Him in prayer.  His gospel omniscience reminds us that He knows everything that His children needs.  Our Father sees in secret, He knows our needs and this motivates us to go to Him. 

      The second thing that the Lord Jesus gives us here is God’s goodness.  He reminds us that God approves and rewards His children.  Notice again the words of verse 6.  “Your Father who sees what is done in secret, will reward.  The Father is the one who rewards.  The Father is the one who approves.  God’s Gospel goodness is a motivation for us to go to Him.  How often do we go the Lord, haltingly?  Half-wondering in our hearts if He will be good enough to give us what we need?  The Lord tells us to remind ourselves of the fact that God will be better to you than you could ever conceive yourself.  God always cares more about us and more about His children and more about the needs that our hearts and eyes perceive.  He always cares about those things, more than we care about ourselves.  Have you ever been interceding for a friend, perhaps a friend who is broken hearted at the loss of a child and your heart is breaking because that friend has lost a child?  When you go to the Lord in prayer, do you realize that the Lord cares far more for that friend in the loss of that child, than you will ever, ever, ever be able to care.  You must not doubt His goodness.  Even when you don’t understand His providence.  You must not doubt His goodness.  Because His Gospel goodness to us, is a motivation for us to come to Him in prayer.  It clears up those conumdrums in our minds.  There are things we cannot understand.  There are things that we see in our lives that are inexplicable this side of glory.  We are reminded of God’s Gospel goodness.  He is better than we could ever conceive to be ourselves.  And finally we are motivated because of God’s providence.  He will reward you.  He will richly provide for His children, the Lord Jesus says.  It is God who provides.  And He provides better than we are able to provide and better than we are able to conceive providing.  God’s omniscience, His knowing everything, God’s goodness, His goodness in provisions for His people, God’s providence, His rich provision for His people. 

      These are all reasons to go the Lord in prayer.  The Lord Jesus knows that the fallen world in which we live in, often keeps us back from God in prayer.  We doubt.  We doubt the goodness of God.  We doubt His concern with the peddling little things, that we are going to take to Him, and yet the heavenly Father is saying, “Bring them to Me.  Bring them to Me.  I already know about them, and I already care about them, and I care about them more than you do.  And I care for them more effectively than you do.  Bring them to Me because I am good and I will give you what you need, even I will give it to you better than you could have prayed it yourself.”  For the Lord does not answer our prayers as we pray them, but as we would pray them if we were wiser.   “Bring them to Me, because I am the one who provides.  The world can’t do anything for you, the world can’t help you.  You come to Me because I can provide.” 

      Do we know the joy of praying to the heavenly Father in that fashion?  Are we confident that the Father loves and cares for us in that way?  Do we long to converse with Him, and does our life of prayer reflect well-worn relationship with the heavenly Father over  the years?  If it doesn’t my friends, Christ is calling you today by grace to embrace the heavenly Father and see that He is the one who longs to be your God and to make you His people, and you can only have it through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.  Let’s look to Him in prayer.  

Our heavenly Father, we ask that You would bless us.  Spiritually nourish us by the Word oh God, and by the sacrament.  That we might long for You above all else.  And we will give you the praise and glory.  For we ask it in Jesus’ name.  Amen.

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