“Do not be excessively righteous and do not be overly wise. Why should you ruin yourself?” (Eccl 7.16; NASB)1
“Take care not to practice your righteousness in the sight of people, to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven” (Matt 6.1).
We are closing in on the culmination of Jesus’ earthly life and ministry—His crucifixion and resurrection and ascension. In just two weeks we will be celebrating Easter. Some of us with family and friends, but those of us here as members of the Body of Christ. In recent generations Easter has been turned into a cultural icon celebrated by many but the meaning of which has been by and large lost. Like so many things taken from our Christian heritage it has become a historical tradition with no greater purpose than serving the individuals who celebrate it. In other words, Easter like Christmas and Thanksgiving has been turned inward where we gratify ourselves rather than recognizing what the celebration truly points to—Jesus Christ.
This attitude is not new. It was rampant in Israel at the time of our Lord’s coming. It was evident in ancient Israel under the reign of righteous kings like David and Solomon. It was visibly practiced during the period of the Judges. And, it was something that Moses had to contend with as he led God’s people towards the fulfillment of the Lord’s promise to Abraham in giving the land of Canaan as an inheritance to the children of our chief patriarch’s loins.
Why? Because we are not very good with remembering. We like gifts. We enjoy blessings. We lift our voices in shouts of exclamation when something good happens in our lives. But we struggle with seeing the true importance behind an event, a statute, or a gift.
There were many festivals celebrated in Israel from the time of Moses to Christ Jesus. There was the Feast of Tabernacles (or Booths), the Day of Pentecost, the Feast of Unleavened Bread, and the Passover. Each event symbolized a greater truth but what was remembered was the celebration in the sense of a self-gratifying festival of eating, drinking and being merry. Nothing wrong with the latter elements being exemplified. These are things that godly people are commended to do. But there is something wrong with missing the significance of the event pretending that its all about us when its not.
Instruction to His people…
The same may be true with the law of God. God gave His law to reveal His will for His people. Individuals made up of families within a larger community that were created and set-apart to bear His image in this world. Every area of life was to be governed by the life giving instruction of God. As Moses explained to the children of Israel before they took the Promise Land—a reward for faithfulness not faithlessness:
“I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have placed before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. So choose life in order that you may live, you and your descendants, by loving the Lord your God, by obeying His voice, and by holding close to Him; for this is your life and the length of your days, so that you may live in the land which the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to give them” (Deut 30.19-20; emphasis added; also see Deut 32.39).
The law was given to offer instruction to the people of God that they may be righteous before the Lord and as a result live, experiencing His blessing on their life of faithfulness. It is not as if the Law gives life, it does not nor can it. The Law shuts the mouth of sinners for it proves that though they eagerly profess their goodness to themselves and to others the reality is that they (we are all!) sinners. In this way then the Law is meant to drive us to our knees beseeching God’s grace so that we might live by Him; for Him.
I have often pondered the meaning of Solomon’s words recorded in Ecclesiastes 7:16. Is there such a thing as being too righteous, too holy? Is that even possible for a human being? And what of wisdom? Is there such a thing as being too wise? To have obtained such a treasury of knowledge that our wisdom (i.e., the practice of applying knowledge gained) handicaps us? Though the answer is easily enough discerned from the rest of what is said in Ecclesiastes I find it interesting that Jesus addresses the issue as well. In fact, He goes into greater detail of the true meaning of being too righteous or wise.
Christ’s Gold Standard
I’m pretty sure you’ve heard of the “Golden Rule.” I have had conversations with self-professing atheists who have cited this rule as the mode of operation (modus operandi) by which all human action should be governed. It is a tradition that has been borrowed from the Christian worldview. It is taken from Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:16,
“In everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (see Rom 10.13).2
But the question we ought to be asking when something like Matthew 7:16 is cited or the so-called “Golden Rule” is referenced, is by what standard? What is the standard by which I am to treat others? More importantly, how will this standard effect my interaction with God. Meaning, how do I treat God with my life (i.e., my thoughts, words and deeds), and how will He treat me in retrospect?
You see the standard by which we are to treat others is not within ourselves; it doesn’t derive from our inner being. According to Jesus, the standard to be applied in treating others, including the God who formed us and gave/gives us life is God’s law. Again we find that our culture has appropriated a truth, turned it into a tradition, but the aim and purpose of it has been forgotten.
Matthew 5-7 is often called the Sermon on the Mount (cf. Matt 5.1). It contains the meat of much of what Jesus taught during His 3 ½ year earthly ministry. It references God’s people and the standard by which God’s people are to live by. A standard, by the way, that Jesus informs His listeners He did not come to abolish but rather to uphold:
“Do not presume that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish, but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke of a letter shall pass from the Law, until all is accomplished! Therefore, whoever nullifies one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say to you that unless your righteousness far surpasses that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5.17-20).
God’s law is His instruction for life on this planet. If we want to live, if we want to be blessed, if we want to prosper in what we do building that which will last long after we have faded from memory on this earth, then we must not only know what His word teaches but be diligent in the keeping of it. Both faith and faithlessness in light of God’s Law-Word have their rewards, either life or death.
Matthew 6 and Where the Believer’s Emphasis Lies
Now I noted in the heading (at the beginning/top of the sermon) that we were going to cover Matthew 6 in light of what Solomon said in Ecclesiastes, and in light of how Christ Jesus lived on this earth. But before we get there I wanted to give you come context first. I will be quick here. I have already stated that standard by which Jesus applies to the believer’s life in His famous sermon here (the longest we have recorded in Scripture) is the Law of God.
From Matthew 5:21 until the end of that chapter Jesus uses the corrective phrasing,
“You have heard that it was said of those of old…But I say to you…” (Matt 5.21a, 22a; ESV).
Here, He is explaining to His audience “you’ve been taught this way…, but I’m here to tell you otherwise….” In short, Jesus is correcting a commonly held (traditionally held) understanding of God’s Law-Word that is actually in error.
Beginning in chapter 6 we see a different emphasis being placed upon Jesus’ hearers; those claiming to be children of God, what we would call “believers” or “Christians” using today’s common vernacular (or if you prefer, language or tongue).3 Matthew 6 starts off with a principle for those who fear (i.e., honor and respect) God:
“Take care not to practice your righteousness in the sight of the people, to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven” (Matt 6.1; emphasis added).
If we compare this with Solomon’s earlier statement recorded in Ecclesiastes (cf. 7:16) we find that he and the Lord’s words seem to be of similar intent. How so? For Solomon follows his advice of not being too righteous or too wise with the rhetorical question:
“Why should you destroy yourself?” (Eccl 7.16b).
The question demands a negative answer. No one should destroy themselves. That is folly. Better to make sure we live in a manner that is pleasing to the Lord God (cf. Eccl 7.18; also see Eccl 8.12; 12.13). Notice that Jesus’ emphasis is the same.
Jesus warns how one ought to live their life (comp 1Pet 4.11). He says to “take care not to practice your righteousness in the sight of the people….” Taken at face value it would appear that He was saying, we shouldn’t practice our righteousness in the public square. But this contradicts how He lived His own life and what He had taught earlier in the same sermon:
“Even so let your light shine before men; that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (Matt 5.16; ASV; cf. Prov 4.18).
“If you keep My commandments, you will remain in My love; just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and remain in His love” (John 15.10; comp Acts 3.14).
Righteousness properly defined means “the quality of being morally right.”4 Jesus never sinned (Heb 7.26; 1Pet 2.22; 1John 3.5). No foul word ever touched His lips (1Pet 2.23). For this reason He is identified as the perfect “Lamb of God,” (John 1.29, 36; also see 1Pet 2.24) the “propitiation” (1John 2.1-2) for our sin. And yet, He performed many righteous acts before the people. As long as He had breath in Him until the appointed time, He lived for God the Father by the power of the Holy Spirit in accordance with God’s Law-Word.
And so, when Jesus gives the warning to those who claim to follow Him, to those who profess to be children of the Most High, the Heavenly Father unto whom all creatures owe their due, He is not prohibiting or cautioning the practice of God’s righteousness (i.e., godly/goodly works) but the attitude and standard by which we seek to do them.
“Take care not to practice your righteousness in the sight of people, to be noticed by them…” (Matt 6.1b).
Such a righteousness is not a godly righteousness. It is the type of righteousness that the wisdom writer Solomon, the 3rd king of Israel, warned against. For what is the goal of the one who seeks to be noticed by others? Is it not to be praised by them? Is it not to gratify the desires of your own heart? Is it not to be cherished by the masses, great or small?
A truly righteous person seeks to please who? God or mankind? The Lord or the people in our day-to-day lives? If it is the latter and not the former, then according to Jesus,
“…you [will] have no reward with your Father who is in heaven” (Matt 6.1c).
He then cites many religious activities that people seek praises from others for.
“So when you give to the poor, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues on and on the streets, so that they will be praised by people. Truly I say to you, they will have their reward in full. But when you give to the poor, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your charitable giving will be in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you” (Matt 6.2-4).
“And 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 that they will be seen by people. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. Bu as for you 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” (Matt 6.5-6).
“Now whenever you fast, do not make a gloomy face as the hypocrites do, for they distort their faces so that they will be noticed by people when they are fasting. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But as for you, when you fast anoint your head and wash your face so that your fasting will not be noticed by people but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you” (Matt 6.16-18)
Christ’s Standard is NOT the World’s Standard
The point here is not that living righteously or wisely is bad, but the standard that we use to deem what our righteousness and wisdom looks like might be. According to Jesus our standard ought to be to please God in all that we do. To honor His Word. To obey His commandments. To live for Him. To seek our reward from Him, not from creatures. Jesus points out in Matthew 5:48 that God’s people are to pursue perfection, which is a synonym for righteousness:
“Therefore you shall be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
That’s our goal. That’s our motivation. That’s our chief pursuit. We strive to be good and pure and holy like our Creator. We make every effort to live for Him and not for the people of this world. This makes many professing believer’s uneasy. And to some extent it should. But it must be noted that,
“...there is not a righteous person on earth who always does good and does not ever sin” (Eccl 7.20; cf. Rom 3.23).
This truth, though, does not nullify the expectation that God places on us. Rather it points us to our true need: We need to be delivered, We need to be saved. This is the reason for Jesus. He—the living Word—stepped into creation as a babe, putting on flesh, so that He might represent His people whom He came to deliver from their sins. What the Law of God points to is our desperate need for a Savior, whom we have been gifted in Jesus of Nazareth called the Christ.
While this is true…we NEED a Savior… we must also recognize that the One who saves us is also our Lord! Our lives having meaning because of Him. He defines who we are. Not our feelings. Not our thoughts. Not our desires. Not the people around us in this life. He defines who we are. He is our righteousness. He alone is our wisdom. We are called from the depths of sin—made possible by His crucifixion, resurrection and ascension in history—to live our lives in accordance with His Word, for His glory not the praise of others.
We are told three times (vv. 4, 6, 18) that what is done in secret is rewarded by the Lord. But the converse is also true, what is done in front of people, seeking their praise, is also a reward (vv. 2, 5, 16). If our desire is to please and honor God through Christ by the Holy Spirit demonstrated through faithful obedience (i.e., righteousness), then He will reward us. This does not mean we have to pray in a closet or give in the dark or fast away from others. What it means is that our delight is in pleasing our Father who is in Heaven, whom the world does not know or see. The attention we are intending to draw is His not the praise of others.
Where our Heart Lies
This is what I believe to be the meaning of Matthew 6:19-21 when Jesus speaks of treasure hunters:
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Now it is true that this can pertain to material wealth. But the more robust meaning given the flow of the text seems to implicate any type of treasure seeking. Some prefer the treasure of “men’s applause.” The desire to be known, to be thought highly of, to be adored is nothing short of wanting to be worshiped in some way. The accolades of people’s applause is great, and has allured many throughout history. Rather our desire should be to seek the Lord’s will. And with that in mind we shall wrap up with the Lord’s teaching on a proper pray life.
Please note that when Jesus instructs believer’s to pray He is giving a model to follow not only in our prayer life, but also in our day-to-day living. He says,
“And when you are praying, do not use thoughtless repetition as the Gentiles do, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. So do not be like them; for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him. Pray, then, in this way:
“Our Father, who is in heaven, hallowed be Your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debtors, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil” (Matt 6.7-13)
According to Jesus here what is the purpose of our prayers? To bend God towards our desires or to bring our desires in line with His own? We are warned not to pray like unbeliever’s, this is the meaning of not praying like the Gentiles do. An unbeliever identifies their god as a way to get what they want, but the believer recognizes first and foremost that God alone is Holy; for His name is Hallowed.
After we admit that our God is Holy other, then we pray that His will be done on this earth as it is done in heaven. This is not a reference to everybody else but is foremost to be concerned with the believer’s life. God’s kingdom rule is first seen exercised in His people’s lives. Lives of individuals submissive to His dictates. Next, we find that the believer is to ask for God to provide for his/her daily needs. God gives us the ability to produce wealth, therefore HE alone should get the glory and be recognized as the One who provides for our daily needs. This includes the forgiveness of sins. He saves us from ourselves and He likewise requires us to be gracious in forgiving others who have wronged us (vv. 12, 15-16).
Finally, we close in prayer for God’s deliverance from evil, whether it be the evil one or one of those that serve him (speaking spiritually—demonic activity; speaking materially—human beings that hate God and therefore hate His standards).
In all of this we seek to glorify God not ourselves. Thus as we prepare our hearts for the upcoming Easter celebration let us put forward every effort to remember who it is that died on the Cross, who it is that arose from the grave, and who it is that is seated at the Father’s right hand exercising all authority in heaven and on earth. Easter is the dawning of a new age. Not eastern mysticism, but the rising of the Son of God who not only shines as a bright light upon this earth in the life of His people, but who rightly claims Kingship over all nations and tongues.
1All Scripture unless otherwise noted shall be of the New American Standard Bible, 2020 update (NASB).
2“the Law and the Prophets” speaks of the entirety of God’s instructive word (Torah—i.e., law) given to His people in the Old Testament as the covenantal (contractual) boundaries by which they were to live (image Him) in this world. When the prophets spoke in the OT they cited God’s Law as the reason judgment (life or death; blessing or curse) was about to fall upon them or some other nation unless they turned (repented) from their sin.
3As an interesting side note the term “vulgate” as in “Latin vulgate” means “common tongue or language.” Therefore, when Latin was the most widely used language (though now it is dead) the Bible’s most prolific translation at the time meant “[in] Latin the common tongue.” Or, so it would seem.
4James Strong and John McClintock, Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature, 12 vol. TheWord Bible Software.