Alms, Prayers, and Fasting
"Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven. (2) Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. (3) But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth: (4) That thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly. (5) And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. (6) But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly. (7) But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking. (8) Be not ye therefore like unto them: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him. (9) After this manner therefore pray ye: Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. (10) Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven. (11) Give us this day our daily bread. (12) And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. (13) And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen. (14) For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: (15) But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. (16) Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. (17) But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face; (18) That thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret: and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly." Matthew 6:1-18
Matthew 6 is a continuation of our Redeemer’s Sermon on the Mount. In chapter 5 our Lord taught us that while the Pharisees were very good at avoiding outward deeds of lawlessness and wickedness, they understood nothing of heart-sins or of righteousness. He taught us that it is not enough that we avoid evil acts, we must also avoid evil attitudes. — “The Lord looketh on the heart.” In this chapter our Savior teaches us that while the Pharisees were very meticulous in observing their outward acts of worship, to be seen and applauded by men, they did not worship God. In all their religion, there was no heart worship. It was all an outward show. They convinced themselves that it was real; but their religion was, nonetheless, nothing but an outward show. He is teaching us the necessity of heart-worship, the necessity of doing what we do from an inward principle of grace, for the glory of God.
In these verses (1-18), our Lord Jesus Christ is warning us to be aware of and studiously avoid hypocrisy in all acts of worship and service in the name of God. Hypocrisy is the leaven of the Pharisees, the leaven of outward religion. If it reigns in us, it will ruin us. So we are warned to beware of it. Hypocrisy is religion that is only skin deep. It is a religion of words and works, but not of grace, heart, and spirit. Hypocrisy is a form of godliness, an outward show of religion, without the life and power of God in the soul.
Specifically, our Master calls our attention to three areas of religious activity that are easily perverted into mere acts of religious showmanship, three areas of religious service where hypocrisy shows itself – the giving of alms, the matter of prayer, and the practice of fasting. Alms, prayer, and fasting were prominent areas of religious activity among the Jews of our Lord’s day. In fact, wherever men practice religion of any kind, it is most natural to make these three things matters of prominence. Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Christianity Protestant as well as Catholic, all religions encourage alms, prayers, and fasting. Man naturally associates these things with religion. By these three things, it is assumed that we serve God with our whole being. In the giving of alms we serve him with our estates, in prayer with our souls, and in fasting with our bodies.
While encouraging the practice of outward piety, in this chapter, our Lord gives us a much needed and commonly ignored warning: — In all our acts of worship, devotion, and service to God, we must avoid seeking to be seen of men and seek only to be seen of and to glorify the Lord God.
In verses 1-4 our Lord talks about alms, the giving of alms. — "Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven. Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth: That thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly.”
All that is said
here may be applied to giving in the house of God and giving in support of the
gospel ministry. But that is not what is primarily intended. Almsgiving is
charity giving. It is giving to the poor. Without question, this kind of
giving is prescribed by the law of God written upon the hearts of all men by
nature, the law given by the pen of Moses, and by the grace of God experienced
in the soul. Wherever grace and righteousness is established in the heart,
charity flows generously from the hand (Psa. 112:5, 9). That
which is given to the poor is said by God to be their due (Prov. -28). Almsgiving is the essence of what James describes as
the practice of pure, undefiled religion (James ).
Those who profess to be the followers of Christ should, above all other people,
be charitable, generous, giving people. Give to the poor. Give to the cause of
Christ. Give to the
In all our giving, let us give as unto the Lord. A giving God is worthy of a giving people (2 Cor. 8:7-9). I make this promise to you, as you exercise generosity for the glory of Christ and the good of your fellowmen — You will never impoverish yourself by generosity! Do not give by the force of legal constraint. And do not give from a spirit of covetousness, hoping to get more. But God will never allow a generous soul to lack the means to be generous (Prov. 3:9-10, -25; ; 28:27; Mal. 3:10-12; Luke 6:38; Phil. 4:19). Let every child of God give according to his own means, “as God hath prospered him” (1 Cor. 16:2). Two words of warning: (1.) Do not be stingy, but generous (2 Cor. 9:6-8). (2.) Do not do anything in a public show (Matt. 6:1-4). Be as quiet and unobservable as possible in giving. Never tell anyone how much you give, or even that you give alms to those in need.
Alms-giving, when done with an eye to God’s glory and from a principle of real love for others, is the gift of the heart. Therefore, it seeks neither applause nor direction from men. “What flows from God,” wrote Robert Hawker, “will tend to God. Jesus is then in all, and a respect to him is the aim of all.”
In verses 5-15, the Lord Jesus Gives us very simple, but very needful, instructions about prayer. — “And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly. But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking. Be not ye therefore like unto them: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him. After this manner therefore pray ye: Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen. For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”
Our Savior here assumes that all Christians pray. As soon as Saul of Tarsus was converted, we read, “Behold, he prayeth.” All who are godly, all who are born of God pray (Psa. 32:6). I do not say, “They say their prayers.” Saul of Tarsus did that all his life. There is a huge difference between saying a prayer and praying! Yet the Word of God does declare that every regenerate soul prays. “You may as soon find a living man that does not breathe,” wrote Matthew Henry, “as a living Christian that does not pray.” In these verses, our Lord does not teach his people to pray. There is no need for that. He teaches us how not to pray and how to pray.
In verses 5 and 6, he says, Do not pray to be seen of men. Do not use a posture in prayer that causes people to look at you or calls attention to yourself. In public places, other than places of public worship, we are not to engage in public prayer. Prayer is between you and God. As much as possible, let your prayers be unobserved and unheard by men.
Do not use vain repetitions (v. 7). That prohibition extends to all memorized prayers, pious sounds and voice tones, religious jargon, and “Hail Marys.” It even includes the mere repetition of the words contained in these verses. This is a prohibition against much speaking in prayer, too. God does not need to be informed or argued with, but acknowledged, sought and honored. The prophets of Baal put on a show when they cried aloud to their deaf god. The servant of God simply uttered the desire of his heart (1 Kings -37). That is what prayer is.
True prayer is an act of faith. Place, position, and posture are meaningless. Words are really insignificant. Prayer is the acknowledgment of God as my Father with the confidence that he knows and will supply all my needs. In prayer, the believer simply and confidently seeks the glory of God (v. 9), the increase of God’s kingdom (v. 10), the will of God (v. 10), daily provision (v. 11), daily mercy (v. 12), daily preservation (v. 13), and the praise of God (v. 13). Let men talk all they will about prayer, unless our prayers arise from sincere hearts of faith and love, they amount to nothing but meaningless noise, sounding brass and tinkling cymbals,. That is what the Lord Jesus says in verses 14 and 15.
What about prayer meetings? When our Lord tells us that we are to enter into our closets to pray to our Father, is he forbidding public prayer meetings? Of course, the answer to that question is “No.” We read, in Acts 1:14, that the saints in the early church “all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication, with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brethren.” When our Lord says, “When thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret,” he is simply telling us that true prayer is intensely private, between us and our Father. In the passage before us (Matt. 6:5-15), our Lord is principally talking about the private prayers of individuals. Yet, what he says certainly has application to the public prayers of God’s saints in the house of worship.
After the ascension, the Apostles of our Lord met together with their wives, with Mary, and with the other brethren, continuing “with one accord in prayer and supplication.” Then, at the appointed time and according to the promise of God, the Holy Spirit was poured out upon the infant church on the Day of Pentecost.
Acts 1:14 is often referred to as an example of and basis for what is called “prayer meetings,” meetings particularly for the purpose of praying, especially with reference to revival. Generally, these are not public worship services, but meetings of the “spiritually elite,” usually men, in which one man after another leads the others in “prayer.” In some cases all join in audibly, making it a time of senseless confusion. The hope is that many men praying together can twist the arm of the omnipotent God and get him to send revival.
Is that what took place in the early church? Not likely. Acts speaks of the church meeting in public worship. They “continued with one accord in prayer and supplication, with the women.” The women also prayed and made supplication, but certainly not audibly (1 Cor. -35).
I am occasionally asked, “Why don’t you have prayer meetings in your church?” My answer is, “We have prayer meetings at least three times every week. All our worship services are prayer meetings.”
Our men meet in my office before every service for Scripture reading and prayer. The public reading of Holy Scripture and prayer are also a central part of all our worship services. I encourage the men who read and lead us in prayer to read a brief passage, with little or no comment. Then the man appointed to do so leads the rest of us in prayer. But we do not have the kind of prayer meetings that are common in most conservative churches, because I see no basis for them in Scripture and see no value in them. In fact, I see them as detriments, rather than helps.
Most of what goes on in the religious world is nothing but the practice of sentimentalism, designed and intended to make people feel religious and spiritual. People who call, asking to be put on our “prayer list,” are shocked when I tell them “We don’t have a prayer list.” I do not want to be put on anyone’s prayer list. I want to be remembered before the throne of grace as God enables his people to pray. Churches advertise “prayer lines,” as though we could get in contact with God by a dial-up connection. Such tom-foolery is as absurd and perverse as anything I can imagine. I would rather have a dial-up wife than have a dial-up god! Others start “prayer chains.” There is no more power in a prayer chain than there is in one of those chain letters ladies get from superstitious friends. We often get letters with an “urgent prayer request.” But we are not going to get God almighty to do what we want him to do by trying to twist his arm! And multitudes engage in “group prayers,” or what is called “prayer meetings.” Groups cannot twist God’s arm any better than an individual can.
Anything commonly practiced and promoted by the whole religious world ought to be marked with a skull and cross bones. It is nothing but poison to our souls.
I said that those things called “prayer meetings” are real detriments rather than helps, because they tend to much evil. Those who join in the group are looked upon (and, if the truth be told, usually look upon themselves) as the spiritually elite of the church, considering others less spiritual. And such meetings are looked upon as forerunners to revival. After all, all the histories of revival tell us that before revival came, men (and usually women) had great prayer meetings in which they worked themselves up into a frenzy, calling it God’s work.
Frankly, I am not impressed by most of what has been called revival in church history. That which is commonly called revival appears to me to be more demonic than heavenly. Most would call the events recorded in 1 Kings , 28, and 29 revival, if they were to occur today, and the word Jesus were used instead of Baal. But true revival came in verse 39. When God works his wonders in the midst of his people, he does not cause a fleshly, charismatic show of emotional frenzy. Rather, he causes sinners to be awed before him in worship, bowing before the throne of his sovereign majesty (read Isaiah 6, Joel 2 and Acts 2). Whatever revival is, it is not a spasmodic fit of religion, with only temporary results. Rather, it is Christ seizing the hearts of men and women by his omnipotent grace.
I do not want to discourage prayer. Let us pray more, not less! But we ought to take this matter of prayer, speaking to God, seriously (Eccles. 5:2). I am desperately afraid of being pretentious before God! Too often when I speak to God my words are too many and my thought too few.
Rather than getting people worked up in “prayer meetings” I offer this suggestion to pastors and churches. — Let us, like the church in Acts 1:14, continue “with one accord in prayer and supplication,” worshipping God. As we meet together in God’s house, with his people, in our Savior’s name, let our hearts be focused on worshipping our God, pouring out our hearts to him in prayer and supplications, as we preach and hear the blessed gospel of his free, saving grace in the Lord Jesus Christ. It is by the preaching of the gospel that Christ is honored, his people are edified, and sinners are converted. It is by this means, not religious excitement, that God is pleased to pour out upon his church his Spirit and his grace.
In his day (the 18th century), Robert Hawker lamented, “How little understood by the great mass of what the world calls worshippers!” How much more might we make the same lamentation today!
Look more closely at the pattern of prayer by which our Savior teaches us to how we are to pray. — “After this manner therefore pray ye: Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen” (vv. 9-13).
The Lord Jehovah, our great God, in the three persons of the blessed trinity, is our Father. Our Savior said, as he was leaving this world, once his work of redemption was finished, “I ascend to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God” (John ). As we adore him on his throne in heaven, we pray that his name may be “hallowed” (sanctified and honored) on earth as it is in heaven.
We desire that all his elect be saved, that his kingdom of grace be established on earth among all his redeemed, as his kingdom of glory is and will be established heavenly glory to all eternity.
The bread for which we seek a daily supply, is not simply the bread of the body that perishes, but the bread of the soul that endures to life everlasting, the Lord Jesus himself, “the living Bread which came down from heaven...He that eateth of this Bread shall live forever” (John 6:51, 58). The cry of hungry souls is, “Lord, evermore give us this bread” (John ). We need and feed upon his blood and his obedience daily, as sinners in constant need of pardon by his blood and righteousness by his obedience as our Surety.
As we delight to forgive the trespasses of others against us, so we seek forgiveness from our God by the merits of Christ continually.
Because he alone can keep us in the hour of temptation, our Savior here teaches us to pray that our Father will keep us from the evil one who goes about “as a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour” (1 Pet. 5:8).
In the last part of verse 13, our Lord teaches us to ascribe all the glory and praise to God alone; and every heaven-born soul delights to do so. — “For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things, to whom be glory forever” (Rom. ).
With the last word of verse 13, our Savior puts his name to the prayer, saying, “Amen.” Had he not done so, our amen would be nothing. Every time we pronounce that blessed word, it should be done with the greatest reverence and with an eye of faith toward Christ. To say “Amen” is not simply saying, as is commonly thought, “so be it.” “Amen” is not us giving our confirmation to what has been spoken. Rather, it is calling upon and worshipping the Lord Jesus who is “the Amen” (Rev. 3:14) by one of his great names, to confirm what has been said. To quote Hawker again, “We should feel the striking nature of the expression, if at the end of sermons, or prayers, or in any other part of our ordinances, we were solemnly to close all with saying ‘Jesus.’ But yet in fact we do this when we say ‘Amen.’ For this is as truly the name of the Lord Jesus as any other. May the Lord give both to Writer and Reader a right understanding in all things!”
In verses 1-5, our Savior declares, “For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” These two verses have caused great confusion to some; but there is no reason for the confusion. It is utterly heretical to imagine, as many do, that our Lord here conditions our forgiveness by his blood and his free grace upon our forgiving of others. Our pardon and acceptance with God is entirely on Christ’s account. Our forgiveness of others is a blessed result and evidence of our own experience of forgiveness by God’s boundless, free grace. It is a sweet token of the love of Christ ruling our hearts when we are enabled of God to be “kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven” us (Eph. ).
Now, look at verses 16-18 – “Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face; That thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret: and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly." Here our Savior gives a word of instruction about fasting.
Though religious people today talk a good bit about fasting, the Word of God says very little about it. Fasting is the occasional abstinence from food. It is subjecting the desires of the body and the needs of the body to the burden of the heart and the longings of the spirit in prayer. Our Lord is not giving us instructions about the value of insignificance of medical or dietary, but spiritual, religious fasting. What is fasting? What does the Word of God teach about fasting? Should we fast today? If so, how? Let’s hear what of our Lord Jesus Christ says in his Word about the matter.
Fasting is an occasional abstinence from food and carnal pleasures. It is subjecting the needs and desires of the body to the burden of the heart and longings of the spirit in prayer. We read of many in the Word of God who fasted in prayer when greatly concerned about a specific matter (David, when his child was dying; Daniel, when he sought the mind of the Lord; Esther, before going in to Ahasueras; the Lord Jesus, before he was tempted; and the church at Antioch, when they ordained Paul and Barnabas to preach the gospel).
Yet, there is no direct command given in the Word of God requiring anyone to fast or teaching us that we should fast. It is left to each believer to decide whether he will fast, when, and for how long. This is a matter about which no man should sit in judgment over another.
There are some poor people in this world who never have enough to eat. It would be utter cruelty to require them to fast. Sickly people, whose frames must be sustained by a very strict diet, would be acting foolishly if they fasted. If you choose to fast, you may do so freely. And, if you choose not to fast, you may do so freely.
The only thing our Lord requires is that no one is to know, but you and the Lord, whether you fast or do not fast. If you fast, “do not appear unto men to fast.” That is the only rule given in the Word of God about fasting.
Having said that, I am confident that our Lord intends for us to understand that fasting is not really a matter of depriving ourselves of physical food and pleasure. He does not condemn fasting, but he reproves all outward, Pharisaic and hypocritical displays of mortification and self-denial. All outward displays of “godliness,” “devotion,” and “spirituality” are but displays of corrupt hearts. The Pharisees attempted to cast reproach upon our Lord and his disciples, when they asked our Savior, “Why do the disciples of John fast often, and make prayers, and likewise the disciples of the Pharisees, but thine eat and drink?” (Luke 5:33).
mere abstinence from food is not a fasting of the soul before God. — “The
Do nothing in the worship and service of God to be seen of and applauded by men. Yes, we are to let our light shine before men, that they may see our good works and glorify our Father which is in heaven. But we are never to do anything that others my see and applaud us! Our Lord Jesus, in this weighty, instructive passage teaches us that we are never to attempt to do anything to show people our faith in him, our love for him, or our devotion to him. Rather, we are to simply walk before God in faith, devotion, and love. The hypocrite is one who lets his light so shine before men that they cannot see what is going on backstage! The Lord God cares nothing about how much money we give, how long we pray or how often, and whether we fast. He is interested in only one thing. — “The Lord looketh on the heart!” When God looks on the heart, he looks for faith in and love for the Lord Jesus Christ. He will not accept us, and he will not accept anything we give to or do for him, no matter how costly, no matter how zealous we are, unless we are washed in the blood of his dear Son, robed in his righteousness, and sanctified by his Spirit (1 Pet. 2:7).
Sinners cannot be accepted by the holy Lord God upon any grounds, for any reason, other than the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ. We cannot give anything to God, worship him in prayer, or fast before him until we are in Christ by faith, until we are born again by his almighty grace. The real test of Christianity is not what we do for God, but what God in Christ has done for us.