"Do not your righteousness... to be seen of men" (Matthew 6:1, rv). Particularly in view here is righteousness in the sense of fulfilling our obligations to minister to human need. All should be done without ostentation.
"They have their reward." When the applause of men has been sought and obtained, we need not expect further reward when we stand before the judgment seat of Christ.
"When thou doest alms." Nothing is more objectionable than advertised charity. It is extremely humiliating to the one who receives, and hurtful to the soul of him who gives.
"Thy Father which seeth in secret." God's eye is upon all His children, and He will value aright all that is done for His glory (2 Chronicles 16:9). To do good secretly, knowing that one has the Lord's approval and that he is imparting happiness to others in their distress, should be reward enough to the true child of God. But God, who takes note of all that is done in His name, will not fail to recognize it when we see Him as He is.
In these verses we have our Lord's own teaching in regard to prayer. To ignore this, as though it were not in keeping with the truth of the present dispensation of the grace of God, would result in robbing our own souls of some of the most precious and important instruction that we have in all the Word of God. Think of the privilege of sitting at the feet of the great intercessor Himself and hearing Him tell us how to pray! It is indeed a priceless opportunity not to be despised or passed on to disciples of some other age. We need to remind ourselves anew that inasmuch as we are blessed with all spiritual blessings in the heavenlies in Christ Jesus, there is nothing in Scripture of a moral or spiritual character that is not part of our heritage.
We are first warned against mere formality in prayer and pretended piety, rather than concern for the glory of God. He demands reality. There were those of the Pharisees who looked on prayer as having a certain degree of merit in itself (even as Mohammedans, Romanists, and others do now). Formal prayers were recited in public places, and the longer the prayer the more intense was the impression made on those who stood by. They were inclined to judge a man's piety by the length of his devotions. Jesus warned His disciples against such an abuse of prayer. He did not forbid their praying in public places. In 1 Timothy 2:8 this is definitely implied. But He did inveigh against praying to be seen of men, or engaging in any other religious exercise for ostentation. For the individual the proper place for prayer is in the closet, the hidden room alone with God, where no human eye beholds nor human ear hears. God, who sees in secret, will hear and answer according to His own will.
Nor is it necessary to weary the Lord with words (Malachi 2:17). Vain repetitions, the continued repeating of meaningless or empty phrases, is expressly forbidden. How incongruous are the ejaculations of the rosary in the light of this Scripture! We are not heard for our "much speaking." He who knows all our needs better than we know them ourselves would have us lay them before Him in childlike simplicity, not as though He needed to be made willing to aid by our constant pleading (Matthew 6:8). It is true that elsewhere our Lord speaks of importunate prayer, but that is not to be confounded with empty repetitions of certain pious phrases.
In Matthew 6:9-13 we have the beautiful and suggestive outline that is commonly called the Lord's prayer. This title is a misnomer, except in the sense that it is His because He gave it. But actually it is "the disciples' prayer." Jesus Himself could not pray it, for it includes a request for the forgiveness of sins, and He was ever the sinless One. There does not seem to be any valid reason for supposing that He meant it to be repeated frequently, or as part of a service of prayer or worship, as it is commonly used today. No mention is made of its use in the early Christian assemblies of the book of Acts, nor is it even referred to in the Epistles. It would seem that the Lord gave it as an outline or pattern of prayer; thus suggesting the manner in which God should be addressed and the petitions we are entitled to present to Him. While there is no expression in this prayer that is a contradiction of subsequent Scripture, it is limited in a marked degree. Now that the Holy Spirit has come to guide us in our supplications, it would seem needlessly formal to be bound to use the exact words we have here when we come to God either in public or in private devotions.
Let us note the order of the requests:
"Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name." This is an expression of worship and adoration on the part of those in acknowledged relationship with God. He is known as Father, which therefore applies only to those who are born again.
"Thy kingdom come" looks on to the second advent of Christ when the kingdom of God will be established in power over all this world.
"Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven." In Heaven no one seeks to circumvent the will of God. Here on earth self-will has caused untold misery. When men learn to do God's will in this world as saints and angels delight to do it in Heaven, the golden age will have come indeed.
"Give us this day our daily bread." This is the expression of dependence on the living Father for every day's necessities. We never are able to be sure of tomorrow except as God provides for our needs.
"Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors." In the Epistles we are told to forgive as we have been forgiven (Ephesians 4:32; Colossians 3:13). This is to be the measure of our forgiveness.
In the government of God as Father over His own children, our forgiveness of daily offences depends upon our attitude toward those who offend us. If we refuse to forgive our erring brethren, God will not grant us that restorative forgiveness for which we plead when conscious of sin and failure. A Father's forgiveness of an erring child takes into account the attitude of the failed one toward other members of the family. This, of course, has nothing to do with that eternal forgiveness that the believing sinner receives when he comes to Christ.
"Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil" (or the evil one). This is the recognition of our own acknowledged weakness, a cry to God to preserve us from being placed in circumstances where we might be overpowered by the voice of the tempter (see Luke 11:2-4).
The last part of verse 13 is not found in the best manuscripts and is omitted in most revisions. It seems to have been added after it became customary to use this prayer in a ritualistic service.
In these verses the Lord reverts to what had been said before in verses 1-4. All dissimulation or hypocrisy is sternly rebuked. To seek to establish a reputation for piety by a melancholy demeanor is utterly foreign to the straightforwardness that should ever characterize those who profess subjection to Him. Jesus was guileless in all His ways, and He calls for absolute honesty in the behavior of His disciples. Let him who is abstaining from food or other things in order to have more time with God, cultivate a cheerful manner as becomes one who enjoys communion with the Father.
The right attitude toward temporal possessions is inculcated in these verses. All treasures are to be held in subjection to God and used as He directs. He who is in touch with eternal realities can well afford to hold earthly possessions with a loose hand. Worldly wealth soon passes away and leaves him who has nothing else poor indeed. But those who lay up heavenly treasure by spending and being spent for God, while numbered perchance among the poor of this world, will be rich in faith. When life is ended here they will find endless treasure held in reserve above. The more we distribute for the blessing of others as guided by the Lord, the more wealth we lay up in Heaven.
We are so constituted that our hearts will be set on that place in which our riches are laid up. The worldling has everything here, but will be poor for eternity. The heavenly-minded believer may be poor indeed in this world's goods but rich toward God.
What we need to be concerned about, therefore, is a single eye for the glory of God, an eye that discerns His will in order that we may walk in it. If we turn away to paths of self-will, we go into willful darkness and will soon lose our way. We must choose for ourselves whether we will serve God or mammon (riches). We cannot serve both. The love of one crowds out love for the other (see Luke 11:34-36).
It is the will of God that His children should live without worry or anxiety. When Jesus said, "Take no thought," He did not mean that His disciples should be careless or improvident. But they are forbidden to be anxious, to become distressed and perplexed as they face the future. He who has saved and cared for us thus far can be depended on to undertake and provide for us to the end. Our Lord directs attention to the fowls of the air that are fed by the heavenly Father, and to the flowers of the field clothed in beauty by a beneficent Creator. We cannot even increase our stature by anxious thought. Why, then, give way to worry as to how we shall meet future exigencies? The God who clothes the grass of the field has promised to clothe His children. Why, then, be of little faith?
The nations of the world make the pursuit of these temporal things the main object of life. We are not to imitate them in this, but rather to be concerned first of all with pleasing God, and ordering our behavior in accordance with the righteous principles of His kingdom. Jesus sums up our entire responsibility when He says, "Seek ye first the kingdom of God." It is not "Seek for the kingdom" but "Put the interests of God's kingdom first in your life." The message is for those who are already disciples of Christ. As such, we are to fulfill its righteousness--that is, the things that are obligatory on us as subjects of our blessed Lord. If we put the kingdom first, we may have the assurance that all needed temporal mercies will be provided.
And so Matthew 6 closes with the exhortation to leave tomorrow with God while seeking to please Him today. When tomorrow comes He will provide all needed grace for whatever problems we have to face. Today is ours to glorify Him.
Because so many earnest believers, in seeking to avoid the extreme of legalism, come dangerously close to the extreme of antinomianism, let us revert for a few moments to some questions referred to already in chapter 5. Two questions are frequently asked. The first is, Was the sermon on the mount intended for Christians? No one can rightly be called a Christian until united to Christ by the Holy Spirit in the present dispensation of the grace of God (Ephesians 3:2). The disciples were first called Christians at Antioch (Acts 11:26), but they were disciples, as all Christians are. During our Lord's earthly ministry those who received His word became His disciples. To them He set forth the principles of the kingdom He had come to announce. These principles are in no way opposed to the fuller revelation given to the church later on. As mentioned before, just as the righteousness of the law is "fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit" (Romans 8:4), so the higher righteousness of this wonderful sermon will characterize those who are regenerated and controlled by the Holy Spirit.
The second question is, Does this sermon show men the way of salvation? No; it was not intended to do so. It sets forth the behavior that should be seen in those who are saved. If men are seeking salvation by human effort then this sermon can only condemn them, for it presents a standard of righteousness even higher than the law of Moses, and thus exposes the hopelessness of the sinner to attain to it. But he who confesses his sinfulness and in faith turns to Christ and obeys the instruction given here, builds on a rock that cannot be shaken.
—H.A. Ironside Expository Commentary