In the middle of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gives instructions about giving (vv. 2–4), praying (vv. 5–15), and fasting (vv. 16–18). In our church we have taken one sermon per “spiritual discipline,” but really in the structure of Matthew’s Gospel, we should read these three disciplines together. And in fact, when we do there are some observations we discover that we might not find on our own.
So here are nine observations about Matthew 6:1–18 and Jesus’s instructions about these critical elements of worship, discipleship, and spiritual communion with God.
1. Giving, praying, and fasting make up the center of the Sermon.
From the structure of the sermon, we discover verses 1–18 should be read as the center of the sermon. Even more specifically, giving (vv. 2–4) and fasting (vv. 16–18) should be seen as a concentric ring around Jesus’s instructions around prayer (vv. 5–15), which itself is centered around the Lord’s Prayer. And that pray too is shaped to put three imperatives on both sides the words “on earth as it is in heaven.”
In other words, the shape observed in the image above continues right to the summit of the mountain, where we discover that prayer in the presence of our heavenly father is the goal of the Law (5:17–48) and the Prophets (6:19–7:11), as well asthe center of Jesus teaching about discipleship (6:1–18).
Moreover, because of this intentional shaping and the balanced presentation of giving and fasting around prayer, we may find that these various disciplines are not as independent as we often think. In fact, to get the full meaning of Jesus’s words we should read them together.
2. We should read these verses together.
It could be generally assumed that we read these passages together, because they are contained in the same location, but even more then that, there are at least two textual clues for reading them as one point of instruction, not three.
- First, verse 1 is the heading for all three sections. It reads, “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.” This verse outlines the main point regarding giving, praying, and fasting. Jesus is not focusing here on an exhaustive study of spiritual disciplines; he is training new covenant hearts how to commune with God.
- In fact, second, each section repeats two critical statements related to true worship. First, Jesus identifies false worship saying three times: “Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward” (vv. 2, 5, 16). Second, each section repeats: “And your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (vv. 4, 6, 18).
By these structural elements (the title sentence and repeated phrases), we see the main point in these verses is an approach to worship that is God-centered, sincere, and not hypocritical (i.e., going through the motions). That’s the unifying message of these verses. At the same time, the singular point Jesus is making means he is not giving an exhaustive teaching about spiritual disciplines. Rather, he is showing how each of these elements relate to “practicing righteousness.”
3. Jesus is talking about “practicing righteousness,” not “imputed righteousness.”
Already we have been introduced to the word “righteous(ness)” in Jesus’s Sermon (see 5:6, 20; cf. 5:48) and it will continue to be a theme until the end (see 6:33). And importantly, this word should not be read through Paul’s letters. In Romans and Galatians, we learn how God justifies the ungodly (Rom 4:5; Gal 2:16–21). Here, however, he is speaking to disciples who have believed the gospel, i.e. who—if we chose to use later vocabulary—have been declared righteous by their faith and repentance.
Therefore, his discussion of “practicing righteousness” is an instruction to the way disciples of king Jesus and members of the new covenant live their lives in communion with God. In other words, he is teaching—again to borrow later language—how to walk in a manner worthy of the gospel of the kingdom. In particular, he is highlighting the way Jewish leaders have wrongly given, prayed, and fasted (see Luke 18:9–14), and he is teaching how his disciples will give, pray, and fast. True righteousness seeks first the kingdom of God and his righteousness; it does not live for pleasing men and trying to find ways to gain their favor or applause.
4. Each aspect of worship turns on a significant contrast.
Like a faithful priest, Jesus knows how to divide what is holy from what is common, what is clean from what is unclean (Lev 10:10), and what is evil from what is good (Heb 5:14). Hence, he uses a series of contrasts in these verses to distinguish between false and true righteousness. And in each case, it turns on the motivation of the heart.
True giving is not done to gain the praise of others; true giving is done in secret where the Father sees all. True praying is not done to be seen by others; true praying is done when we go to the Father to petition needs that extend his glory and supply our needs. True fasting is not done to solicit the comfort of others; true fasting seeks the comfort of the Father and the reward of his presence.
In other words, true righteousness is God-the-Father-centered. Just as the whole Levitical system sought to lead the people of God into his presence, so now in Christ true righteousness is found in a life lived Coram Deo (before God). Giving, praying, and fasting are means by which we enjoy the reward of our heavenly Father over and above any earthly benefits our spiritual actions may produce.
5. The Father is the focus of Matthew 6:1–18.
Without a doubt, God the Father is the focus of these verses. This is evident by the sheer number of times he is mentioned—10x in 18 verses (vv. 1, 4, 6 [2x], 8, 9, 14, 15, 18 [2x]). It is also evident by what Jesus says about his Father.
- The Father sees in secret and invites us to come and find reward from him in private (vv. 4, 15, 18)
- The Father is the one whom the disciple addresses in prayer (v. 9). And actually, because it is “our Father,” it is an invitation for the disciples collectively to come to God in prayer. (This should balance how we think about praying in secret).
- Moreover, the motivation for prayer is the Father’s care (v. 8). This truth will be repeated in Matthew 7:7–11.
- Last, the children of God will look like their Father. Just as the Father overflows with mercy, so will his children. And if we do not, as proven by a heart of unceasing un-forgiveness, we prove that we are not his, and therefore, will not be forgiven (vv. 14–15).
All in all, as I have stressed before Jesus’s Sermon is dramatically Father-centered, and again this theme of communion with God should be seen as the predominant theme of these verses.
6. The main action step of the Sermon is not many, but one—communion with God in private and public.
If the main point is communion with the Father, then we should see giving, praying, and fasting as means to that end. First, these activities bring us into communion with our heavenly Father in secret. But also, because they are actions with earthly benefits—giving blesses those in need; praying does “work,” and fasting does train our bodies to long for God—these actions teach us how to commune with our heavenly father while on earth.
This, I believe, is why “on earth as it is in heaven” is at the center of his prayer and the Sermon. Jesus is teaching us how to be so heavenly-minded that we cannot be anything but good for the earth (cf. Matthew 5:16). Accordingly, the three practices of worship in Matthew 6:1–18 are not divisible spiritual disciplines,; they are three parallel lines of communication with our Father. And each of them is motivated by the same reality—God is our great reward.
7. God the Father is our great reward.
With respect to giving, praying, and fasting, the motivation is the same: “And your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (vv. 4, 6, 18). Indeed, this seems to be the main point of each discipline. As Hebrews 11:6 will say later, faith that pleases God believes that he exists and he rewards those who seek him.
Wonderfully, God’s command to give, pray, and fast is motivated by the promise of pleasure in him. Jesus’s knows the hearts of his disciples, and in his instructions he is not harshly demanding obedience; he is warning of false piety that chases earthly glory. And in contrast, he presents the glory of God as the great reward.
For those who have new hearts (“the pure in heart,” 5:8), there is no greater pleasure than the glory of the Lord. This is the first petition in the Lord’s Prayer, “Our father in heaven, hallowed be your name.” And this the point of every good work (5:16). Thus, in this center section, where come to summit of the Sermon, we are again invited into the holy of holies to know the glory of God, and find the reward of communion with our Father. Truly, this is why Jesus came to earth. And here he teaches his disciples, to forsake the glories of the world and to prefer with their whole hearts to pleasure of God’s presence.
Longing for this “reward,” therefore, is the main point of this section and the animating feature for true giving, praying, and fasting. Indeed, in this disciples of Jesus learn how God turns our hearts to seek more of him (cf. Matthew 6:33). It is not through heavy commands; it is through the offering of a treasure that far exceeds anything the earth can produce. Accordingly, those disciples who are called to make other disciples, are instructed in Jesus approach how we are to teach others to obey all that Jesus has commanded. It is not with heavy-handed directives, but heaven-filled visions of God’s glory.
8. Practicing giving, praying, and fasting.
When we come to applying Jesus words, we find that each section begins the same:
- . . . when you give to the needy (v. 2)
- . . . when you pray (v. 5)
- . . . when you fast (v. 16)
Amazingly, Jesus does not command these things. He expects his disciples to do them—he doesn’t say “if,” but “when.” And thus, anticipating that his disciples will give, pray, and fast, he gives motivation for them. And the more we taste and see the goodness of God, the more we will (want) to give, pray, and fast.
Knowing this, Jesus induces our actions by means of honey and not harshness. As a true shepherd, he knows how to lead his disciples to living water and he doesn’t abolish the law with its practices of righteousness, instead he tells us the right way to practice these things. And when we practice them in this way—even fasting—we will learn to love these practices, which in turn will produce greater righteousness.
Oh, how good and wise is our Lord Jesus! May we learn how to follow him and be true children of God!
9. Giving and fasting go together.
While Jesus motivates us with the treasure of God’s glory, this doesn’t mean that giving, praying, and fasting are immediately or ever easy. Rather, they are each intended to be difficult. Faithful prayer is impossible without the power of the Spirit, and the same is true for giving and fasting. In fact, each of these disciplines not only require the reward of the Father, the instruction of the Son; they demand a Spirit-filled heart to plead for God’s help.
But when that happens, we will see growth. And I believe we will see growth in all of them. Like a coastal harbor, when the tide comes in, all the boats will rise. So it is that growth in prayer will result in hearts desiring to give and bodies willing to fast. Likewise, giving and fasting work together to focus our prayers.
Still, it is the relationship between giving and fasting I want to consider. As we observed, these two practices sit at the same level of the sermon, they are parallel in size and placement around prayer, and I believe we can learn a lot about giving and fasting when we read them together.
What do we learn? At least three things.
- First, you won’t be able to give sacrificially unless you are fasting. Or to turn it around, it will require self-restraint and self-denial in order to give generously to others. For an example of this, read 2 Corinthians 8–9.
- Second, if your giving is poor, you need to fast. In other words, rare is the person who giving sacrificially that is not fasting in some capacity. Why? Fasting teaches us what we really need. And generally speaking, we think we need more than we do. Only when we go without, do we learn what we need. Thus, again, fasting and prayer go together.
- Third, practically speaking, if your fasting is poor, let your desire to give impel you to fast. Here’s the concrete reality: every time you give, you must choose to say “no” to something for yourself, in order to say “yes” to the needs around you. Thus, if you do not or cannot say “no” to yourself, you will be very challenged to say “yes” to others. But if you are practicing fasting (i.e., saying “no” to ourselves), then you will be ready to say “yes,” and you will have means to do it.
I am sure there are more things we could say here, but structurally in the Sermon and practically, we need to see how giving and fasting go together.
Practicing Our Righteous in the Presence of God, So That Others May Join Us
Ultimately, all that Jesus says is for the purpose of bringing disciples of Christ into the presence of his heavenly Father. It is there where weary disciples find life-giving water. And thankfully, Jesus teaches us tangible ways for us to drink from God’s fountain of life.
And thus, if you are not giving, praying, or fasting, and you lament the fact that your are missing the joy of God’s presence and strength, you can know why. Jesus teaches us that if we are parched and powerless in our spiritual lives, and we are not giving, fasting, and praying, it is because we are lacking these practices.
At the same time, these invitations to personal communion with God are not meant to create disciples who leave world behind. Rather, giving is for the purpose of those who need. And fasting, according to Isaiah 58 and Acts 13 at least, are for the increase of justice and the advancement of the gospel respectively. Ordered rightly, heavenly-minded people are the most effective at bringing about earthly good.
And that is exactly what we find in the center of these verses and the center of the Sermon—“on earth as it is in heaven.” Truly, when we commune with God and drink deeply from his living waters it fills us and empowers to give to others. Feeding on him, we do not need things of this world to be full. Rather, we can “fast,” and in our fasting we can serve others.
This, I would argue, is the unified message of the summit of the Sermon. It is not a list of three spiritual disciplines; it is a call to communion with the Father, so that as disciples of the Son, we can go into the world and proclaim the life-giving message of the gospel.
May God help us to draw near to him and then filled with his Spirit, bring the grace and truth of Christ to the world.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds