Where the world comes to study the Bible

The Fatal Failures of Religion: #3 Externalism (Matthew 6:1-18)

Introduction

Not too many years ago, a well-known evangelist was holding revival services in a great American city. As I recall the story, the Spirit of God moved in a mighty way and thousands were converted. After one particularly effective sermon, this great evangelist went to his hotel room, and as one report had it, he spent much of the night in fervent prayer. One report made much of this night of prayer, even quoting portions of it.

Some time later a Christian who had heard this report had the opportunity to be with the companion of this great evangelist. He had been said to have witnessed the soul-stirring prayer of the evangelist the night of the great revival. The curious Christian couldn’t resist asking the evangelist’s companion about the events of that famed evening. “Tell me,” he inquired, “was it really as it was reported?” “Well, not really,” the man responded. “When we arrived back at our room, he threw himself upon the bed with these words: ‘Good night, Lord, I’m tired.’”

Now this may not sound very ‘spiritual,’ but it does have the ring of authenticity. I am going to suggest from this text in Matthew chapter 6 that one of the greatest failures within Christianity is an over-zealous desire to be ‘spiritual.’ If nothing else causes you to pay attention to what I am about to say, this surely should. My advice to many Christians from the teaching of Jesus Christ in this passage is that you should quit being so concerned about being ‘spiritual.’ This seemingly pious desire is the downfall of many Christians, just as it was for many Jews in the days of our Lord.

In the so-called Sermon on the Mount, our Lord has been contrasting true religion with that popularly held and practiced within Judaism. In verses 17-48 of chapter 5, our Lord demonstrated that contemporary Jewish teaching and tradition was a far cry from a correct interpretation of the Old Testament Scriptures. Sometimes Judaism went far beyond the teaching of the ‘Law’ of the Old Testament (as with the matter of the Sabbath). Most often scribal teaching did not go nearly far enough. It dealt only with the outward acts, such as murder and adultery, rather than the inward attitudes and motives which caused them. This emphasis on the outward requirements of the Law encouraged an externalism in matters of religious activity—a kind of formalism or ceremonialism. Our Lord exposed this error in chapter 6 verse 1 and then went on to give three specific examples of it in the most common religious activities of his day: almsgiving (verses 2-4); prayer (verses 5-15); and fasting (verses 16-18).

The Error Exposed: Externalism or Formalism
(6:1)

The subject of externalism is introduced as a word of warning. In this warning our Lord sets before His followers a principle which underlies the entire section: “Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 6:1).

The principle laid down by our Lord is simply this: You cannot seek to please both God and man simultaneously. No one can effectively play to two audiences. Either you will please one or the other, but not both.

The error of Judaism, (and I must say the error of 20th century Christianity) is much more subtle than it may seem on the surface. No devout Jew would determine to please God and to disregard God. The problem of externalism resulted from an illogical and unbiblical equating of man’s applause with God’s approval. The Jews supposed that the measure of a man’s spirituality was the approval and esteem granted by his peers. If you wished to evaluate your spirituality, simply listen to the evaluation of your associates.

On the basis of this erroneous premise (that God’s approval can be measured by man’s applause), the Jew made no apologies for his deliberate efforts to draw attention to his religious rituals and formal acts of righteousness.

Jesus exploded this myth by establishing the principle that one cannot seek God’s approval and man’s simultaneously. To deliberately externalize one’s righteous acts before men in order to gain their approval and admiration is to forfeit any possibility of divine reward. We are confronted with a choice, if you would, an ‘either/or’ situation—either God’s approval or man’s, but not both.

Examples of the Error of Externalism
(6:18)

Having established the principle which condemned religious externalism, our Lord went on to give specific examples of its practice. Perhaps the three most common activities which were thought to demonstrate one’s righteousness were almsgiving, prayer and fasting. It is the misuse of these three practices which Jesus chose to illustrate the principle just laid down.

The Error in Almsgiving (2-4)

Responding to the needs of the poor was a divine command (cf. Exodus 23:11; 30:15; Deuteronomy 15:7-11) and was considered a vital element of Jewish religion.253 Some within Israel regarded it as an act which was rewarded by eternal life, as is suggested by the statement: “For one farthing given to the poor, a man will receive heaven.”254 More noble Israelites knew that such acts of kindness could be done with the wrong motives.255

We do not know whether some actually sounded the trumpet to announce their giving. It does not really matter that much. What we do know is that some went to great efforts to see to it that their deeds of charity were observed.

The corrective is really two-fold. First of all we must take care that our acts of charity be done as privately as possible. Just as a dispute or disagreement must be kept at the lowest possible profile (cf. Matthew 18:1517), so also must our acts of kindness.

How sad it is that Christian churches and organizations actually appeal to one’s vanity in the matter of giving. We have marathons (I call them begathons) where the name of the donor (and the amount of the contribution or pledge) is publicly announced. We offer to engrave one’s name on a bronze plaque and place it in a prominent place for all to see. We name buildings after those who give toward its construction. More subtly, we send letters of thanks from those who are highly esteemed and whose word of personal praise is considered worth the gift. God forgive us for encouraging what He forbids!

The second corrective is personal. Not only should we strive to keep our acts of charity private, we also should be careful not to take ourselves too seriously. We may never let anyone know of our generosity, but we may nonetheless be very impressed with our own generosity. Because of this we are not to “let our left hand know what our right hand is doing” (verse 3). This verse has been used as a proof text for shoddy business practice and poor record-keeping in the church. This is not a valid application. Just as true love is to be forgetful of wrongs committed against it (1 Corinthians 13:5), so Christian charity is forgetful of the good deeds done for others. We catch a glimpse of this kind of forgetfulness in the teaching of Christ in Matthew 25:31ff. When the Son of Man returns to take His throne on the earth, He reminds His faithful ones of their kindness to Him:

“Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in …” (Matthew 25:34-35).

But those who are thus commended respond: “… Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You drink?” (verse 37). This is the kind of forgetfulness we all need to have.

The Error in Prayer (5-15)

Prayer, too, had a significant role to play in the religion of the Jews.1 There were established times of prayer. Daniel, we know, prayed three times a day (Daniel 6:10). The apostles apparently continued to observe these established times of prayer (Acts 3:1). The Jews eventually had a prayer for nearly every occasion.2 In spite of what no doubt began with noble aspirations, prayer deteriorated to a mere ritual (lest we become too critical, let us think of some of our meal-time prayers). In spite of efforts to the contrary,3 prayer in Israel fell into the deadly throes of formalism. It is for this reason that our Lord pointed to the practice of prayer as an example of externalism in verses 5-15.

There were two principle errors current at the time of our Lord’s earthly appearance. The first error is described in verses 5 and 6. It is that of ostentation.

“And when you pray, you are not to be as the hypocrites, for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners in order to be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full” (Matthew 6:5).

Ostentation was easily fallen into, without even sensing its existence. One would be about his affairs and suddenly realize that the time of prayer was at hand. Either he would fail to fulfill this obligation or he must do it where he was. If he was in the marketplace or on the street corner, he would simply stand there and commence his prayers. Of course, this was obvious to the passers-by who would nod to one another, noting this man’s devotion to his religious duty. One could easily accept public commendation and even seek it further. More and more one would find himself in a public place at the appointed times of prayer.

In accordance with the principle established in verse 1, such public acts of worship would gain men’s praise, but not God’s. They had, in the words of the Lord Jesus, already received all the praise they would get. The expression “they have their reward in full” is interesting. The Greek term employed (apechein) as a technical business and commercial word for receiving payment in full.4 Those who pray in order to impress men have no further hope of reward from God.

The solution to this problem of ostentation is suggested in verse 6: “But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will repay you” (Matthew 6:6).

In contrast to the public exhibition of ‘piety’ by the hypocrites, true disciples are to seek the face of God in private. Public prayer is not here forbidden, nor are we to pray only in our closets.5 It is our motives which the Savior is speaking to here. We are not to seek the approving nod of men, but to desire intimate fellowship with God.

I will sometimes observe a couple who are making every effort to carry on their romance in public. They kiss and carry on, seemingly oblivious to the crowds, but, in reality, they are playing to them. Both the young man and the young woman are attempting to demonstrate that they are appealing and knowledgeable on matters of romance. They have no desire to be alone, for there is no audience there. In contrast is the husband and wife who deeply love each other. They do not care to prove their sophistication or sexual savior-faire to anyone. They do not (often) express themselves physically in public, but choose the intimacy which is found behind closed doors.

This is the kind of intimacy which God seeks from men in prayer. They do not wish to have witnesses to their prayers. Their great desire is to be alone with God. They choose to meet Him in the secret place. They are assured of two things about God: He is in secret and He sees in secret (verse 6). God, by His character, is not One given to spectacularism. He does not care to play to His audience. This is why our Lord refused to manifest Himself to Israel as her Messiah by spectacularism (cf. Matthew 4:6). Our Lord at times preferred to accomplish His miraculous works in private (Mark 7:33). Just as God does not display Himself in spectacular fashion, neither should the saint make a public spectacle of Himself.

Also, God is One Who ‘sees in secret.’ There is no need to publicly display our righteous deeds. If we seek the praise of God, we should understand that ‘God does not look upon the outward appearance, but on the heart’ (1 Samuel 16:7). If God can know our hearts and our motives, we need not prove ourselves to Him by public displays before men.

The second prevalent error in the matter of prayer is that of verbosity. We have all probably heard the story of the individual, who, when, meeting the pastor at the door after the service, commented, “Pastor, I really enjoyed both messages this morning.” “But,” the pastor objected, “I only preached once.” “I meant the one you preached and the one you prayed,” returned the observant member.

Two kinds of needless verbosity are common. The first is senseless, thoughtless repetition. We all know of the prayer wheels employed by the heathen. And we know of much prayer that is rattled off without touching either the mind or the heart of the one praying. All of us are aware of prayers of our own of this type. Oftentimes my ‘spontaneous’ prayers sound strangely familiar and lack life and urgency. Ironically, the Lord’s prayer is often ‘prayed’ in this mindless repetition.

Another variety of verbosity was that of needless longevity. The Greek term (battologeo) “meaningless repetition” (verse 7) is an unusual one. While most commentators take it in the sense of babbling or senseless utterances repeated over and over, Moulton and Milligan remind us that it was an expression employed as a nickname for Demosthenes.6 If he was a man who had many words for any occasion, we can readily see the relationship to this abuse of verbosity in the matter of prayer.

Dr. W. D. Maxwell writes, “The efficacy of prayer was measured by its ardour and its fluency, and not least by its fervid lengthiness.’ Rabbi Levi said, ‘Whoever is long in prayer is heard.’ Another saying has it: ‘Whenever the righteous make their prayer long, their prayer is heard.’”7

Men actually believed that the effectiveness of their prayers was to be directly related to their length. And lest we be too quick to condemn, let us beware of this same error. I have read several times a little booklet on the subject of prayer. It is a fine booklet and much of its exhortation is desperately needed today. Nevertheless, I have never left that book without feeling guilty because my floor does not have grooves in it as has been the case with a few prayer warriors. Were these men great because they prayed long? Were their prayers answered because they prayed longer than we? This was the mentality of Judaism.

In contrast to the oratory of the hypocrites, Jesus gave His followers a simple pattern for prayer. Normally, we refer to it as ‘The Lord’s Prayer’ but in reality it is the disciples’ prayer. Several observations must be made concerning this prayer before we look at it more closely.

(1) It is both a pattern for prayer and a prayer to be recited. Matthew introduces it, “Pray, then, in this way …” (verse 9). We see that this prayer is cited by Matthew more as an example of prayer that pleases God. How sad that countless Christians have ‘vainly repeated’ it without ever really grasping the meaning of its words. But Luke begins, “When you pray, say …” (Luke 11:2). We must therefore be careful about condemning those who choose to repeat it, for our Lord has not forbade its repetition, only its meaningless, thoughtless parroting.

(2) Its main thrust in the context of our Lord’s teaching this prayer is given as a model prayer in contrast to that which He has just condemned, namely, lengthy prayers which sought either to impress the onlooker or to wear down the defenses of God. For those who are tempted to practice long public prayers, I must encourage you to observe not only the brevity of this prayer, but of all our Lord’s public prayers (and those of other saints, too!). If we wished to catch the major thrust of this prayer as a sample prayer, it would be something like this: “When you pray publicly, make it short and sweet.”

(3) It is comprehensive. While the prayer itself is short, the subject matter is very broad. It deals both with God’s program and with man’s needs. It seeks divine forgiveness for past sins, provision for present needs, and the future establishment of God’s Kingdom on the earth. There is a balance between God’s purpose and man’s needs. There is also a priority given to God’s purpose above our pressing needs.

As we look at this prayer in more detail, we find it begins with the statement: “Our Father Who art in heaven” (verse 9). Although I will deal with this concept of God as our heavenly Father later, I must say that I believe it is the key to the entire sixth chapter of Matthew.8

“Hallowed be Thy name” expresses our agreement with God’s ultimate and primary purpose of bringing praise to His name. The glory of God is the supreme purpose in the universe, I believe. That is what the prayer expresses—a desire to see the name of God exalted.

Verse 10 is really an extension or amplification of the expression of desire for God’s name to be held in esteem. That will occur most completely and finally when the Kingdom of God is established on the earth and the reign of Messiah is commenced. By the use of Hebrew parallelism, the Kingdom is further defined as the time when the righteous reign of God upon the earth is as comprehensive and complete as it now is in heaven.

Having given priority to God’s purposes in the world, we should also express in our prayers the needs which we have as well. The first which is mentioned is that of daily sustenance (bread). I do not believe it is mentioned first because it is most important, but because to us it is often the most pressing. When we have laid the matter of our material needs at the feet of the Father, we may devote ourselves to other vital issues.

Although we can most readily understand what is in mind in this petition for ‘daily bread,’ there has been much difference of opinion among Bible students as to what is meant.9 Now we generally understand the petition to be a request for our material necessities.

Most unusual is the adjective ‘daily’ (epiousios) in ‘our daily bread.’ It was completely unknown to the ancients, and men for some time assumed that it was a term coined by Matthew. Not long ago a papyrus fragment was discovered which contained this very word. Strangely enough, it was some ancient woman’s shopping list. It was a list of the items she needed for that day, or perhaps for the following day.10 What a beautiful and practical instruction for our prayer life! What an antidote for worry! We need to simply express to the Father what our immediate needs are, and then trust Him to supply them. Perhaps this will be through ordinary means (such as by our holding down a job), or perhaps through more unusual ways when our needs are beyond our ability to supply.

In addition to physical needs, there are spiritual necessities. First is our need for forgiveness. No matter how great our faith, we will continually fail and need forgiveness. Although forgiveness for all sins, past, present and future, has been accomplished once for all on the cross, we experience that forgiveness as we confess our sins to the Father (e.g. 1 John 1:9).

On the surface it would appear that we experience this forgiveness only in return for our forgiveness of those who have wronged us. God’s forgiveness is not in exchange for ours. Far from it. Rather we are forgiven only when our request for forgiveness is sincere. He who asks for forgiveness but refuses to grant it to others is not sincere in his request. He who refuses to forgive fails to sense the magnitude of his own sin, and the magnitude of God’s forgiveness. Such a spirit of unforgiveness reveals an insincerity in asking for divine forgiveness. As such this (hypocritical) request is denied.11 Such is the parenthetical explanation of verses 14 and 15.

The last petition is the most difficult of all for most Christians.12 How can one pray to be kept from temptation when the Bible says that God does not ‘tempt’ the Christian (James 1:13)? Some have tried to explain this by stressing the fact that the Greek word (peirazo) can mean either to solicit one to sin (as Satan does), or to test, so as to approve (as God does, James 1).13 They would say that we are to pray not to be tested, but this would be to request God not to do what we are told He continually does (James 1:2-4; 1 Peter 1:7; 4:12-13, etc.).

A better solution, in my mind, is that which gives the Greek expression the force of ‘let us not be led into temptation.’14 This is particularly appropriate if we understand the second half of the petition (‘but deliver us from evil’) as a reference to the person of Satan. Therefore, we should understand verse 13 in this way: “And do not let us be led into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one” (my translation).

There is nothing unusual about the Christian praying for what God has promised. The promises of God are our assurance and basis for the prayer of faith. Daniel prayed for the return of the Jews to the promised land, knowing Jeremiah had predicted its happening (Daniel 9).

Perhaps someone is inclined to ask the questions, “What is the use of prayer, anyway?” “God knows our needs, before we ask (6:8).” “He does not need to be badgered into granting our request.” “If God has really determined the outcome, why pray?” The biblical answer is several-fold. First of all, we are commanded to pray (Matthew 5:44; 9:38; Mark 13:33, Luke 18:1 and 1 Thessalonians 5:17), and therefore it is a simple matter of obedience. Second, prayer is communion with God. It strengthens our faith, it expresses our dependence and devotion. Finally, prayer is God’s way of allowing men to participate in His program. While God could have purposed to accomplish His work without man’s participation, He has ordained to use prayer as a means to accomplish His pre-determined ends.

The final portion of verse 13 is absent from some of the ancient manuscripts, as well as from the same prayer in Luke’s account. Regardless of this, it is a most fitting benediction, totally in keeping with the spirit and theology of our Lord. It also concludes with the same note and emphasis with which the prayer began. It inspires faith and confidence that our prayers will be heard and answered.15

The Error in Fasting (16-18)

A fast was a voluntary abstinence from food observed as a religious exercise. It was frequently accompanied by prayer in the Old Testament (1 Samuel 7:5,6; 2 Chronicles 20:3-4; Ezra 8:21-23, etc.). It expressed genuine repentance for sin (Jonah 3:5), lamentation over calamity (Judges 20:26) or the death of a loved one (2 Samuel 1:12). In addition, fasting was observed as an aid to religious concentration and the preparation for divine revelation (Exodus 34:28; Deuteronomy 9:9,18).

The Law required only one fast, and this on the day of atonement (Leviticus 16:29,31; 23:26-32; Numbers 29:7). After the exile, four other annual fasts were added (Zechariah 8:19). According to the Talmud, each of these commemorated a disaster in Jewish history.16 Devout Jews in Jesus’ day seemingly fasted twice a week (cf. Luke 18:12).

In Old Testament days too much value was placed on the external rite of fasting, as opposed to the proper condition of the heart (cf. Isaiah 58). In the days of our Lord there was this same kind of error prevalent. According to Barclay17 the two Jewish days of weekly fasting were on Monday and Thursday. It was probably no coincidence that these were also the market days when people from the countryside crowded into the city to buy and sell. It was a golden opportunity for the public display of piety. The Jews knew how to wring every drop of self-gratification out of this practice. They left their hair unkempt, their faces dirty, and they wore a gaunt look on their faces that worked upon the sympathy and admiration of the less committed.

The condemnation of such ostentation can be seen in our Lord’s remarks in verses 16-18. They have received all the reward they can expect—the commendation of their fellowmen. But in order to please God they must carry out their acts of devotion in private. Their hair should be combed, they should wash their faces (wear deodorant and perhaps some after shave lotion?) and conceal the fact that they have chosen to abstain from food for a time. The God Who knows the secret intentions and motives of men, the God Who observes our every deed, will surely reward true piety (verse 18).

Instruction concerning fasting seems like an anachronism to those of us who know little of deprivation, especially voluntary deprivation. We would rather focus upon the principle and pass over the practice hastily. But I would be honest with the entire text of Scripture only if I made several additional comments.

First, our Lord Himself fasted (Matthew 4:2). His disciples did not fast, but only because it would be inappropriate while the Messiah was with them (Matthew 9:14-15). The New Testament church observed the practice of fasting (Acts 13:2-3; 14:23), and Paul spoke of it also (2 Corinthians 6:5; 11:27).

Second, although fasting is not compulsory, it is an option for Christians to consider, and it has real value. Far from being detrimental to one’s health, it is likely beneficial. Most Americans eat far more than we need. Fasting develops and practices the little-known art of self-discipline. Paul said that a man should learn to rule over his body, and not give into its every appetite (1 Corinthians 9:24-27). Fasting also teaches us to do without things which are not really essential. In a day of luxuries which are considered necessities, it is beneficial to remind oneself of what is really vital to our existence and what is simply desirable. Finally, abstinence intensifies our pleasure and satisfaction of the good things in life. It helps us to really enjoy the special ‘treats’ in life.

When I was going through college, I worked at a meat market. One of the fringe benefits was getting good meat at very reasonable prices. Consequently, we had steak more often then than I have ever seen since. It was not really a special treat then. At today’s prices it is a rare but delightful pleasure. I think you know what I mean.

The Heart of the Matter—The Root of the Evil

The evil of which our Lord has spoken is that of externalism. By this I refer to the effort of religious people to demonstrate their righteousness before men in order to earn their praise. Externalism is based upon the faulty premise that God’s approval can be measured by men’s applause. This is exactly the opposite of the truth as Jesus made clear in verse 1. We must either seek God’s approval (and therefore man’s disdain, Matthew 5:10-12) or man’s (and thereby lose all hope of divine reward, 6:1).

As I have considered the root error behind externalism, it comes down to a basic misconception of God, and of spirituality. This is why our Lord so frequently referred to God as ‘your heavenly Father’ or some similar title. The Jews had no appreciation for God as their Father, nor did they conceive of themselves as sons of God (cf. 5:9). This is partly why they reacted so strongly against Jesus calling God His Father, and Himself the Son of God. Of course, the Jews could not call God their Father because they had not come to know Him through the Son (John 6:41ff.; 3:19,37ff., etc.)

My friend, have you come to know God as your heavenly Father? In a very restricted sense, God is the Father of all men by virtue of being their Creator. But men come to know God as their spiritual Father only by salvation. As John has said it, “But as many as received Him (Jesus Christ) to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe on His name” (John 1:12). It is my prayer that you can rightfully call God your Father.

As I said, the Jews did not (and could not) regard God as their heavenly Father. Their misconception of God is evident in their externalism. From the instruction of the Savior in this portion of John chapter 6 we can arrive at several truths about God which can revolutionize our Christian lifestyles:

(1) The Father Knows. Externalism betrays a subtle doubting of the omniscience of God. If one feels compelled to practice his righteousness publicly there must be some question of God’s ability to observe the deeds of men done in secrecy. The same misconception can be observed in the repetitious prayers of men. It was as though God had to be informed over and over for Him to be cognizant of man’s needs. To this our Lord responded, “Therefore do not be like them—for your Father knows what you need, before you ask Him” (Matthew 6:8). The Father knows all. He observes all of our acts, whether done openly or in secret (6:4,18). But beyond this God knows the motives for our actions.

“But the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Do not look at his appearance or at the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).

As our Lord observed those who contributed to the temple treasury, He knew that the large contributions were given out of plenty, while the widow’s mites were from her poverty (Mark 12:42). While one man may give $50,000, it may be on December 31st in order to get a tax break. Another may give $5 at a time of real personal need. Only God can know our hearts and our true motives for giving. It is for this reason that we do well to resist judging the actions of others (cf. Matthew 7:1).

(2) The Father Is Able. Because God is our heavenly Father He is omnipotent, all powerful. There are times when I see needs that I am incapable of meeting. God is never so restricted. The God Who created this universe and sustains it by the Word of His power is able to meet my every need. What an incentive to prayer.

(3) The Father Is Willing. Implied in the repetitious prayers of men is the suspicion that God is reluctant to act on men’s behalf. Surely this attitude toward God is ignorant of the privilege of divine sonship. God is not too busy, too preoccupied to act on His children’s behalf. Neither is He perturbed by our bringing to Him matters of apparent insignificance.

I heard the story of an incident in ancient Rome which illustrates this truth. A great Roman war hero was returning home to a kind of tickertape parade. The streets were packed with cheering crowds. Soldiers were lined along the streets to keep the masses from pushing into the path of the approaching chariots. A little boy darted into the street but was caught in the iron grip of one of the soldiers. “You ought not get in the way of your emperor, lad,” the soldier chided. “He may be your emperor,” the boy replied, “but he is my father.” This is the spirit with which we should approach God in worship and prayer. It is the spirit of sonship.

Here is one of the great errors of externalism or formalism—it does not look upon God as a loving, knowing, powerful God, but upon a divinity who neither knows nor cares, and who must be bluntly and publicly informed of righteous acts and badgered into action on behalf of men.

There is yet another error behind the practice of externalism. It is a false conception of spirituality. True spirituality grasps the truth of divine sonship and seeks to live like a true son, bringing honor to the family name and to the Father. True spirituality begins with a grasp of one’s exalted position in Christ and seeks to live up to it by the power of God. False spirituality is founded upon the praise of our fellow-men and strives in the power of the flesh to encourage it. It strives not for the glory of God, but of self.

At the outset of this message I suggested that the problem of many Christians is that they are far too concerned about being spiritual. By this I mean we are too eager to be thought spiritual by our peers. We equate our own spirituality by what others say. And others evaluate our spirituality not by divine standards but by their own preconceived ideas of righteousness (legalism). If spiritual people have daily devotions then we must. If pious folk witness daily, then we shall.

Now you see it is not wrong to read your Bible, to pray, to witness, or whatever, but it is wrong to do so because others say we must to be spiritual. We may well be guilty of doing the right things for the wrong reasons. One man may pray two hours daily simply because he desires to be with God. Another does so because he would be considered spiritual by himself and others.

Perhaps worst of all, in the final outcome we have become so obsessed with godliness that we have neglected God. Paul’s supreme desire was to ‘know God’ (Philippians 3:10) and to live a life which was pleasing in His sight. All too often we are concerned with being ‘spiritual’ in the eyes of men around us. That, my friend, is externalism. And that, I must add, is sin.

May God enable us to become so overwhelmed with being His sons that we have no care about what others think of our spirituality (by human standards). We must seek to do that which is right in the sight of all men, but not with the goal of receiving their praise. We should seek to live righteously to the praise of God (Matthew 5:16):

“Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.”


253 “To the Jew almsgiving was the most sacred of all religious duties. How sacred it was may be seen from the fact that the Jews used the same word—tzedakah—both for righteousness and almsgiving. To give alms and to be righteous were one and the same thing. To give alms was to gain merit in the sight of God, and was even to win atonement and forgiveness for past sins. ‘It is better to give alms than to lay up gold; almsgiving doth deliver from death, and it purges away all sin’ (Tobit 12:8).

“Almsgiving to a father shall not be blotted out, and as a substitute for sins it shall stand firmly planted. In the day of affliction it shall be remembered to thy credit. It shall obliterate thine iniquities as the heat, the hoar-frost (Ecclesiasticus 3:14,15). There was a rabbinic saying: ‘Greater is He who gives alms than he who offers all sacrifices.’ Almsgiving stood first in the catalogue of good works.” William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1963), I, p. 136.

254 A rabbinical saying quoted by J. W. Shepard, The Christ of the Gospels (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1939), p. 186.

255 “The highest teaching of the Rabbis was exactly the same as the teaching of Jesus. They too forbade ostentatious almsgiving. “He who gives alms in secret,” they said, “is greater than Moses.” The almsgiving which saves from death is that ‘when the recipient does not know from whom he gets it, and when the giver does not know to whom he gives it.” There was a Rabbi who, when he wished to give alms, dropped money behind him, so that he would not see who picked it up.” Barclay, Matthew, I, pp. 186-187.

1 “There were two things the daily use of which was prescribed for every Jew. The first was the Shema, which consists of three short passages of scripture—Deuteronomy 6:4-9; 11:13-21; Numbers 15:37-41. Shema is the imperative of the Hebrew word to hear, and the Shema takes its name from the verse which was the essence and centre of the whole matter: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord.” The full Shema had to be recited by every Jew every morning and every evening. It had to be said as early as possible. It had to be said as soon as the light was strong enough to enable a man to distinguish between blue and white, or, as Rabbi Eliezer said, between blue and green. In any event it had to be said before the third hour, that is, 9 a.m.; and in the evening it had to be said before 9 p.m. If the last possible moment for the saying of the Shema had come, no matter where a man found himself, at home, in the street, at work, in the synagogue, he must stop and say it.” Barclay, Matthew, I, p. 191.

“The second thing which every Jew must daily repeat was called the Shemoneh ‘esreh, which means The Eighteen. It consisted of eighteen prayers, and was, and still is, an essential part of the synagogue service. In time the prayers became nineteen, but the old name remains. Most of these prayers are quite short, and nearly all of them are very lovely. The twelfth runs:

“Let Thy mercy, O Lord, be showed upon the upright, the humble, the elders of Thy people Israel, and the rest of its teachers; be favourable to the pious strangers amongst us, and to us all. Give Thou a good reward to those who sincerely trust in Thy name, that our lot may be cast among them in the world to come, that our hope be not deceived. Praised be Thou, O Lord, who art the hope and confidence of the faithful.” Ibid., p. 192.

2 “There was hardly an event or a sight in life which had not its stated formula of prayer. There was prayer before and after each meal; there were prayers in connection with the light, the fire, the lightning, on seeing the new moon, comets, rain, tempest, at the sight of the sea, lakes, rivers, on receiving good news, on using new furniture, on entering or leaving a city. Everything had its prayer.” Ibid., p. 193.

3 Ibid.

4 “It was the word which was used on receipted accounts. For instance, one man signs a receipt given to another man: ‘I have received (apecho) from you the rent of the olive press which you have on hire.’ A tax collector gives a receipt, saying, ‘I have received (apecho…) from you the tax which is due.’ A man sells a slave and gives a receipt, saying, ‘I have received (apecho) the whole price due to me.’” Ibid., p. 185.

5 “The Greek word tameion was used for the store-room where treasures might be kept. So the implication may be that in the inner room where the Christian regularly prays there are treasures already awaiting him which he can draw upon and add to.” R. V. G. Tasker, The Gospel According to St. Matthew (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968), p. 73.

6 “If the great orator was thus nicknamed because of the torrent of words at his command, which made envious rivals call him ‘the gabbler,’ it will fit his case better than the highly improbable ‘stammering’ connection ...” James Hope Moulton and George Milligan, The Vocabulary of the Greek Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972), p. 107.

7 Barclay, Matthew, I, p. 195.

8 Cf. J. I. Packer, Knowing God (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1973), pp. 181-208.

9 “Some early commentators could not believe that Jesus intended our first request to be for literal bread, bread for the body. It seemed to them improper, especially after the noble three opening petitions relating to God’s glory, that we should abruptly descend to so mundane and material a concern. So they allegorized the petition. The bread he meant must be spiritual, they said. Early church fathers like Tertullian, Cyprian and Augustine thought the reference was either to ‘the invisible bread of the Word of God’ or to the Lord’s Supper. Jerome in the Vulgate translated the Greek word for ‘daily’ by the monstrous adjective ‘supersubstantial’; he also meant the Holy Communion. We should be thankful for the greater, down-to-earth, biblical understanding of the Reformers. Calvin’s comment on the spiritualizing of the fathers was: ‘This is exceedingly absurd.’ Luther had the wisdom to see that ‘bread’ was a symbol for ‘everything necessary for the preservation of this life, like food, a healthy body, good weather, house, home, wife, children, good government and peace, and probably we should add that by ‘bread’ Jesus meant the necessities rather than the luxuries of life.” John R. W. Stott, Christian Counter-Culture (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1978), pp. 148-149.

10 Cf. Barclay, Matthew, I, p. 217.

11 One could apply this same kind of analogy to the relationship between faith and salvation, as indeed James has done in the second chapter of his epistle. If our faith is of the type that produces no works, it is a ‘dead faith’ and thus not a saving faith. A request for forgiveness which refuses to forgive others is a hypocritical request as well.

12 “On the basis of conducting a nationwide program entitled, “National Vespers” from 1927-1946 and each year receiving 100,000 letters from members of his vast audience, many of which told of their religious difficulties, Dr. Fosdick said, “No verse in the Bible puzzles more people than the petition in the Lord’s Prayer, ‘Lead us not into temptation.’ ‘Is it not a shocking idea’ many say, ‘that God leads men into temptation and that we must beg him to stop doing it?’” (On being fit to live with, p. 151.) Harry Emerson Fosdick, as quoted in “Does God Lead Us Into Temptation?” Christianity Today, July 4, 1969, p. 13.

13 This seems to be the approach of C. S. Lewis:

“I was never worried myself by the words ‘lead us not into temptation’ but a great many of my correspondents are. The words suggest to them what someone has called ‘a fiend-like conception of God,’ as one who first forbids us certain fruits and then lures us to taste them. But the Greek word means “trial”—“trying circumstances”—of every sort; a far larger word than English “temptation.” So that the petition essentially is “Make straight our paths. Spare us, where possible, from all crises, whether of temptation or affliction.” C. S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1964 ), p. 23.

14 “Here we have a ‘Permissive imperative’ as grammarians term it. The idea is then: ‘Do not allow us to be led into temptation.’” A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1930), I, p. 54.

15 For a helpful discussion of this doxology and the arguments for and against its authenticity, cf. William Hendriksen, The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1973), pp. 337-339.

16 “The Jewish scribal law lays it down: ‘On the Day of Atonement it is forbidden to eat, or to drink, or to bathe, or to anoint oneself, or to wear sandals, or to indulge in conjugal intercourse.’” Barclay, Matthew, I, p. 235.

17 Barclay, Matthew, I, p. 237.

Related Topics: Christology, Spiritual Life, Apologetics