Spotlight Righteousness (Matthew 6:1-4)
Topic: One Lord: So Great a Salvation Passage: Matthew 6:1–6:4
(One Lord: So Great a Salvation)
March 3rd, 2019
I. Life as a Photo-Op
Having just come out of a month-long teaching series focused on our digital lives, bear with me, if you will, as I share just one more item from the digital world. Listen to this excerpt from an article published last year, an article focused on something called 'sharenting':
.. Every other day, alongside pictures of cats and food, many mothers take to social media with photos and status updates celebrating the lives of their children. The term “sharenting” neatly captures this activity... research shows it is mothers who post more information about their children on social media – particularly when it comes to family photos. It’s also mothers who are largely the focus of disapproval and judgment for their sharenting... [One criticism describes] Sharenting... as a form of digital narcissism. But more than this, it is also seen as one long parental “humblebrag”, defined as: “An ostensibly modest or self-deprecating statement whose actual purpose is to draw attention to something of which one is proud.”
Now that is certainly not an indictment of all mothers. It's also not advice about whether you should or shouldn't post things about your kids online. But can you imagine being the child of a mother for whom sharenting affected every aspect of your life? Every activity, every achievement, every funny comment, every embarrassing situation, and especially every special event. It might begin to feel less like childhood and more like a reality TV show.
But the biggest concern most of us would have would be a concern about the child's perspective in regard to his mom's motives. Is she going all out for my birthday party because she loves me, OR... because it will make for a great social media post?
Keep that concern in mind as we look back to what we're calling the mountain message of Jesus (Matthew 5-7—one long teaching session). Turn over to Matthew chapter 6.
II. The Passage: "In Order to be Seen by Them" (6:1-4)
As you may have noticed from your bulletin, we are focusing this morning on verses 1-4. Additionally, as you may have noticed from the notes insert, I'd like to break that passage down into three parts, in order to understand better what God wants to communicate to each of us this morning. Let's begin by looking together at just verse 1.
1. The Heart (v. 1)
Jesus tells his disciples,
“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.”
Now, if we had time to read down through verse 18 of this chapter, we would realize that this first verse actually spells out, in general terms, the main theme of this entire section. Verses 2 through 18 simply unpack this idea and give specific examples in terms of application.
But before we get into any of those specifics, even into the specifics of verse 1, I want us to 'double click' on that term “righteousness” (oops, I promised no more tech talk, didn't I). You may remember that righteousness is a keyword when it comes to understanding the whole 'mountain message of Jesus. In Matthew 5:20, you might recall that Jesus declared...
For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
That 'exceeding righteousness' is what we've talked about before as kingdom righteousness. Near the end of this chapter, Jesus will give his followers this famous encouragement...
But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. (Matthew 6:33)
Did hear how this righteousness of God is linked with the kingdom of God? Let's quickly talk about how we defined those foundational ideas. First, I told you in an earlier message that...
...the kingdom of heaven is both a present, life-altering reality in which God reigns over his people, through his anointed, Jesus, and a future, world-altering reality, in which Jesus' reign is fully realized, resulting in judgment for his enemies and eternal rest for his followers.
But with the breaking in of the Kingdom, the very message Jesus constantly announced, we've seen in this 'mountain message' that Jesus is also giving us a corrective when it comes to righteousness. What is righteousness? Righteousness is right-doing in life that leads to a right-standing before God.
To truly know life from and with a righteous God (as 5:20 put it, “to enter the kingdom of heaven”), we need righteousness; we need to be righteous. But wonderfully, this call from Jesus was made possible through the cross of Jesus. As I mentioned several weeks ago:
What is righteousness? It's right-doing in life that leads to a right-standing before God. What is kingdom righteousness, gospel righteousness? It's right-doing in the life of Jesus that leads to my right-standing with God... AND, that leads to my right-doing in life because of my right-standing with God.
Now, what does all of this have to do with Matthew 6:1? Simple: all of it brings us back to the heart. Your heart. My heart. The righteousness of God flows from his righteous heart. But we are not righteous, are we? We are unrighteous because of sin. Only the work of Jesus can both atone for your unrighteous heart, AND provide you with a new, righteous heart; a heart filled with Christ's righteousness and beating by the power of the HOLY Spirit.
Therefore, knowing all this, it's not surprising that Jesus brings us right back to the heart as he begins to talk about living for God and living like God (5:48). How does he bring you back to your heart in 6:1? By asking you to think very carefully about your motives. Let me ask you this: what does a godly life look like? Or to put it another way, what do godly people do? Or to put it another way, what would you expect to see in the life of someone devoted to God?
In this section Jesus points his disciples to three priorities in terms of what we might call religious devotion: giving to the needy, prayer, and fasting. These come right out of the OT, and almost every Jew back then, and even today, would recognize these practices as central.
But again, Jesus is directing our attention to the heart. When you do those things, he asks, WHY do you do those things? Listen again to Jesus: “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people... Now wait a minute, didn't he just say in the last chapter, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works (5:16)? He did! But there's no real contradiction here. Again, 6:1... “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them... In 5:16, Jesus called his disciples to let their lights shine, so that people would “give glory to your Father who is in heaven”. That's a different motive than seeking glory for yourself.
But this is exactly what so many of the Jewish leaders sought. Remember what John's Gospel tells us about them. It tells us they loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God. (John 12:43) If we move down to the end of v. 2, in Matthew 6, we find this same point. They wanted to be seen by others, “that they may be praised by others”.
The first example Jesus gives us here is giving to those in need. These leaders were inclined to make a show of their charity. “Trumpet” here probably not literal. However they did it, many of them 'trumpeted' their charitable gifts. Jesus rightly calls them hupocrites, which is a Greek word for actor. They were pretending to be something they weren't, and doing it all for the approval of their audience. We might call this 'spotlight righteousness'.
But what about us? What about you? When it comes to living out your faith, what fuels the flame? What drives you to give, to pray, to read, to show up, to serve, to nod in agreement? Jesus wants us to check our motives. I like what British pastor Martin Lloyd-Jones said about this passage...
I sometimes think [this] is one of the most uncomfortable chapters to read in the entire Scriptures. It probes and examines and holds a mirror up before us, and it will not allow us to escape. There is no chapter which is more calculated to promote self-humbling and humiliation than this particular one. But thank God for it. The Christian should always be anxious to know himself.
How can you truly understand your motives? How can you truly know what drives your devotion? Well, if Jesus counsels us here about who we are when people are looking, then it might be wise to ask, 'who are you when no one is looking'? Wanting to be thought of as a godly person, as a faithful brother or sister, as a devoted disciple, that can be a powerful motivator. But are you the same person inside and outside of church? Are you the same person in public and in private?
So many things can motivate us to do want appear to be righteous things. But maybe the simplest test of one's motives is to ask yourself, “Am I doing what I'm doing for God and God alone; for an audience of one? Is it his glory I seek? Is it love for God that compels me? Is my righteous act an act of worship? Do I give, pray, read, show up, serve, and nod in agreement because I am grateful for his grace; because I am longing to lift Him up; because his pleasure is my passion?
How easy it is to allow other things to drive our devotion, especially the pressure of our peers; the affirmation of others. But that is not what it means to be a servant of Christ. Just ask the Apostle Paul. He wrote:
For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ. (Galatians 1:10)
Brothers and sister, God is calling us to examine our hearts this morning. What motivated you to come this morning? What's motivated you to sing or pray this morning? And when you give to those in need, what drives that kind of gift? Is it because you feel guilty? Is it because you want to be able to pat yourself on the back? Or because someone else is with you, watching? Or is it simply love for and gratefulness to the God who helped you and helps you in your times of need?
2. The How (vs. 2-4a)
But speaking of giving, in light of how Jesus has challenged us here, when we do give, how should we give. Well, Jesus addresses that. Jesus moves from what not to do in verse 2, to what you should do in verse 3...
“Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.  But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,  so that your giving may be in secret.”
Jesus is calling his disciples to a secret kind of giving. Do you see that? And it should be so secretive that, verse 3, your left hand won't even know what your right hand is doing. That, of course, is a wonderful bit of hyperbole. Jesus is simply saying, being righteously secretive involves a kind of self-forgetfulness. How? Why? Because of a God-fullness. Self-forgetfulness inspired by a God-fullness.
That doesn't exclude taking practical steps in terms of secrecy. Do you really need your name on a special brick or on a donor's list or on the side of building? Do you really need to do a social media post about sacrificial service? Do you really need to casually drop the details of your gift in that conversation after church? The answer is no. If we understand the temptations and dangers of 'spotlight righteousness', we should take very deliberate steps to avoid the spotlight; to make sure we don't get in the way of all the glory going to God.
But remember, the issue is ultimately still your heart; doing what we do for God... FOR God.
3. The Honor (v. 4b)
But that brings us to the final part of our three-part breakdown. Did you notice the word “reward” in this passage? It's found in every verse except verse 3. Notice the two options Jesus gives us here when it comes to rewards: verse 2 tells us the first reward is being “praised by others”. But verse 4 speaks of a reward that God gives. And yet verse 1 is clear (to quote Lloyd-Jones again): “There is no reward from God for those who seek it from men.”
So many of the scribes and Pharisees seemed to believe that if they simply did the right thing, they would earn a 'gold star' on God's heavenly 'star chart'... regardless of the heart behind the act. But Jesus wants to correct this dangerous error. He tells all listening, especially his disciples, “God is not pleased by righteous acts done ultimately to please others. He is not praised by obedience that craves the praise of men.”
“There is no reward from God for those who seek it from men.”
But how foolish to trade God's approval for the approval of other human beings. The reward of their praise is fleeting. But God's reward is eternal. What is his reward? It is the eternal joy of our Master. Many chapters later, Jesus would use a parable to communicate the reward of God's divine pleasure: ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’ (25:21)
III. The God Who Tests the Heart
Does this mean sincere, God-focused righteousness helps us earn eternal joy? Nope. But it does mean sincere, God-focused righteousness is evidence of our new birth. Let me explain what I mean. Listen to how Paul talks about these same themes in I Thessalonians 2:3–4
For our appeal does not spring from error or impurity or any attempt to deceive,  but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not to please man, but to please God... who tests our hearts.
You see, unlike the child of a 'sharenting' mother, God does not have to wonder about what motivates our so-called devotion and acts of love.
What is foundational, but assumed in Matthew 6:1-4, is the sometimes disturbing and always sobering fact that God knows our hearts; there is nothing hidden. Therefore, he knows your true motives; He sees what truly drives my devotion. He “tests our hearts”. Others might be fooled by our religious 'show', but He is not. Not ever. Therefore we will be judged for both overtly unrighteous acts AND for seemingly righteous acts inspired by unrighteous motives. But if this is true (and it is), as the psalmist asked in Psalm 130, “who could stand”?
Thanks be to that very same God that, in this passage, Jesus directs our attention to Him, not as our Judge, but as our Father. That doesn't lessen the reality of our accountability. But it does heighten the reality of His affection. All men and women will one day stand before the One who “tests our hearts”. But only those who can call him “Father”, by grace alone, through faith in Christ alone, through a new birth, only they can rest assured of his forgiveness.
But there's more. That self-forgetfulness inspired by a God-fullness, that is only possible when the God-fullness of Jesus and his self-forgetfulness on the cross is our daily focus. Cultivating daily affection for the Father is only possible when we daily treasure his affection through the Son (2x). So which will it be: spotlight righteousness, or kingdom righteousness? The former is fickle and fading. But the latter is eternal. And it's possible because of Christ: assurance before the God who “tests our hearts”, and affection flowing from a new heart, purchased on Christ's cross and energized by his resurrection. Brothers and sisters, let's pray that we might die daily to a man-pleasing bent, and live instead, at all times, for the glory of God and in light of his gracious reward.