The Sermon on the Mount is all about the kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God is “wherever God rules.” We enter the kingdom when we serve God first, seek to please God first, and seek first to be rewarded by God.
Matthew 6 opens with a warning: “be careful.” God has competition in our hearts. There are two main competitors.
The first is self— the “flesh”. Self-rule is when our ultimate concern is some portion of ourselves—our physical pleasures, our personal freedom of expression, or how we look or appear to others. 1 John 2: 16 says this is called, “The lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life.” When self comes first, then self is our real god. Many modern religions and philosophies are forms of self-spirituality. These include New Age mysticism, health obsession, and pleasure-seeking. An example of this is the expression, “I gotta be me.”
The other competitor is community, or “the world.” John says in 1 John 2: 15, “Do not love the world, neither the things in the world.” It means any other people or group of people. It can mean someone we idolize, or some community we revere, including our country, church, race, or family.
Now family and community are important, and so is self, but God must come first. There’s room for community and self, but when we follow God in all things for selfish reasons, then we put self above God. When self or community comes first, then these very legitimate sources of pleasure and enjoyment become idols. Like the moon eclipsing the sun, the lesser light prevents us from seeing the greater light. The worship of even good things eclipses God. We are not choosing evil over good. We are choosing something that feels good over God. That’s why Jesus tells us to be careful.
Be careful even when you think you’re following God. Our temptation is to put self and community over God, and is present even when we think we are serving God. When Jesus gives this warning, He isn’t talking to the pagan, or to the scribes and the Pharisees. He is talking to His disciples before Him who are going to be the first citizens of the Kingdom of God. Jesus isn’t talking about the hypocrisy of the Jews, but our potential hypocrisy. He’s warning those who are already Christian-- especially those in Christian ministry. It’s easy for our motivations to go bad, even when our actions are good.
Let me in on the dirtiest secret of Christian ministers—a secret that has caused more chaos in the church than anything else, and has been with the church from the beginning. It’s pride. It is being motivated in ministry by how we think about ourselves or other people think of us, instead of seeking to please God, and be rewarded by Him.
Public ministry is dangerous. It can scar the soul of anyone who attempts. Being in front of people is a temptation in itself. Unless we master that temptation, we should stay clear of it.
Here’s an example. I was teaching a preaching class at school after chapel. That day the preacher was on fire and the people responded with glorious “Amen!” It was a wonderful service. I asked my class, “How did you enjoy chapel?” They all loved it.
Then I asked, “Have you ever preached in a service where there was that kind of response?”
Many of them had. Those who hadn’t wished they had.
Then I asked again, “How did it make you feel to get that kind of response?” It made them feel wonderful.
“Would you like to have that kind of feeling again?” They all said yes.
“What would you do to get that feeling? Would you lie to have that feeling? Would you steal to have that feeling? Would you hurt others to have that feeling?” They suddenly became silent. Then they confessed that they would be strongly tempted to do a lot of things to get the kind of personal affirmation they just saw.
Of course, we say, “Well, I’m just doing it for the Lord! He is getting the glory.” But it is so easy for our hearts to take what was given for the Lord and to keep it for ourselves, to accept a piece of that glory and take it to mean that we are doing a good job. Then from there, we start to crave being in the center of that glory. When this happens, we are in danger of losing sight of God, of becoming self and community worshippers. That feeling of personal glory is like heroin. It gets in us and it is very hard to kick the habit of wanting more for ourselves.
There’s a potential hypocrite in every one of us—every minister, every elder, every Sunday school teacher, giver, or practitioner of spiritual life is in mortal danger of hypocrisy. Everyone who climbs on a ministry stage is in danger of becoming phony.
When that happens, then we become a danger, not just to ourselves, but to others. Not only have we failed to put Jesus first, we can also lead others astray to look at us instead of Jesus.
It’s easy to move from being a professing Christian to a professional Christian--to seek our own glory instead of God’s. Dr. Dennis Kinlaw once said, “True religion ends when we stop talking to God and keep talking about Him.”
This danger has existed from the very beginning of the church. When Philip the deacon preached in Acts 8, a man named Simon Magus saw the power in Philip and tried to buy it for him. In Jeremiah 43, Jeremiah’s scribe Baruch is warned not to seek great things. Jesus made it clear that his disciples would be hated and rejected, not idolized and lionized.
In order to deal with this self-worship problem, the church laid down rules on ministers and worship services, in an attempt to save preachers form their pride, and to keep the focus off their ministers and onto God. Ministers were required to wear plain robes, so that they would not attract attention. Ritualized worship was instituted in churches with sacraments that focused on the Lord, not just the man. The church enacted rules against singing anything but the psalms, using musical instruments in church, or singing songs in parts or solo. These restrictions were intended to place people’s attention on God instead of a leader, to save the preacher from pride and the church from idolatry.
These rules didn’t work. When pastors wore robes, they went out and bought the fanciest robes (they still do!) People sang a carpella, but then worried about who has the nicest voice. If anything, the restrictions just made people more proud. Even among the Amish, they get proud of how plain they are! Put all the restrictions on worship you want to, but pride still gets in, and in more and more subtle forms.
So how do we avoid the dangers of pride, and seek our reward from someone other than God? We still need to minister in front of people. We can’t just do everything in secret.
Real service comes from the heart, Jesus says. The heart is the battleground for selfishness, and only the heart can save us from our pride. We need to keep asking—whose reward are we seeking
Jesus describes three kinds of Godly works where we should be careful.
The first is public giving. This may be a reference to the Roman custom of the rich and important people giving gifts to everyone. In Jesus’ day, the mark of your importance was your public charity. Giving. Julius Caesar gained the power to become dictator for life by giving to the poor. The poor voted him into office, and fought for him. He didn’t just help the poor, he bought the poor. They became his private army.
This danger also extends to anyone who is seen as a public figure, who gives the masses what they want. It extends to worship leaders, preachers, musicians, even evangelists. It’s all dangerous. But it is also necessary.
So how do we minister without pride? Jesus’ idea is to maintain mediated relationships. Give for God’s sake, and do it as secretly as possible, so we won’t be tempted to take credit. Don’t seek any advantage or praise, but let God reward you.
The second area is prayer—our personal devotions. Prayer is not a spectator sport. We can pray for the wrong reasons just like we can preach for the wrong reasons. We should not hide our faith from others, but neither should we try to impress people with it, either.
A friend once asked me for advice, because of a woman at work. She was a very public Christian who wore Christian jewelry, had a Jesus sticker on her car, and kept a Bible on her desk. She was also the worst gossip in the company. Because of her treatment of others, she was turning everyone off to Jesus.
Prayer isn’t a way of impressing others. Neither is it something we do just to make ourselves feel good. Prayer is something we do to talk to God and to be with God. If you take God out of prayer, it can still be a calming form of meditation, but you will already have your reward. You will not be growing closer to God, or receiving answers to prayers from God.
Jesus doesn’t say we should never pray in public. There are times for public prayer. What he does say is that we seek prayer in private. Public prayer has its uses, but private prayer runs fewer risks of ulterior motives. Besides, when we pray in private, God can show up His power in a greater way.
The third area is fasting and self-denial. Fasting is good. But one of the things that Jesus is most adamant about Christians doing is not to make a big deal out of it. Keep it to yourself. Self-denial can be one more way of becoming personally proud.
Pride is like a rat in our house. It can be there for a long time without us seeing it. But when we find it, we need to put it to death. If we don’t it will bring all kinds of sins with it—envy, jealousy, disdain for others, political manipulations.
But here’s the good news—God will reward us. When we sincerely serve Him and honor Him, He will help us with our pride, by changing our motivations, so we can serve without asking anything from others in return. As soon as we catch ourselves being tempted to pride or ambition, we need to turn it over to God. Confess it. Seek help from Christ. Forgive ourselves as Christ forgives us.
Then, the Bible says, God will reward us openly. If all we seek is pride and praise from others, God will not reward us. But if we seek in private God’s grace and blessing, then God will bless and be gracious.