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Prayer in The Sermon on the Mount – Study 2, Matthew 6:6


This is the second in my twice monthly series on Prayer in the Sermon on the Mount. Again, it was written to be a prompt for a sermon, not as an essay, so excuse the structure etc. otherwise, may it be some help to us all…

Text. Matthew 6:6

We have been looking at Jesus’ teaching, given to His disciples in the Sermon on the Mount, regarding prayer, and so far we have discovered that we are not to be like the hypocrites, whose prayer was just for show. We have seen…

1. The Hypocrite’s Prayer. For they loved to pray, but their love of prayer was false and simply an exercise in currying favour with other men. Jesus warns us that we are not to be like them. We need to constantly be examining our prayer lives, to see if there is any tendency to insincerity, or hypocrisy.
2. The Hypocrite’s Posture. Jesus tells us that they loved to pray standing in the synagogues and streets. It would be obvious to everyone that they were praying. Everyone would be impressed, everyone would clap you on the back, everyone would esteem you… But Jesus knew their hearts…
3. The Hypocrite’s Profit. Because the purpose of the prayers of these hypocrites was to be seen of men, Jesus says, ‘They have their reward’. Men have heard them. They have been recorded and rewarded. There is no further reward.

Now Jesus takes the disciples a step further, and he shows them that their prayer life needs to be the direct opposite of what the hypocrites were doing. They were not to be hypocrites. They were to be genuine and real. He begins BUT YOU. Real Christians are different, – different from the world in just about every way imaginable. Different motives, different aspirations, different attitudes, different world views, different in philosophy. Paul reiterates this for us in Romans 12:1-2
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

We are not to be conformed to this world. Stott described the Sermon on the Mount as the Christian Counter Culture. It’s something we need to learn afresh today, when the culture around us is invading the church and heavily influencing Christians, and the thought processes of Christians. We are to be different … BUT YOU…

Christians should stand out from the crowd, should swim against the current.

So how should a Christian be different in prayer? We return to the text…
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.

The Positiveness of Prayer. when thou prayest
Now notice the very positive attitude which Jesus demands from disciples regarding prayer. He does not say, “if you pray”. He simply assumes that they will pray. It is a normative part of the Christian life.

* Prayer is an indication that a work of God has been done in our hearts. A reformed Scottish minister was asked how he would know if a sinner had come to Christ during a gospel outreach. He replied, “That will be obvious. They will be at the prayer meeting!” we can see the hand of God at work in the sinner’s heart when there is a sincere desire to prayer in their lives. The murderous Jewish zealot Saul, having met Christ on the road to Damascus was gloriously converted, but naturally some were sceptical. Ananias, whom God had chosen to minister to Paul (as he now was) in his early days of discipleship, was one of those who were wary of Paul’s claim to discipleship. But God commanded him to go to visit Saul
Acts 9:11 And the Lord said to him, “Rise and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul, for behold, he is praying, 12and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.” 13But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints at Jerusalem. 14And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on your name.” 15But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel.
Have you noticed what Paul was doing? Newly converted… HE WAS PRAYING!
* Prayer is an expected response to that work. The soul that has been brought into the presence of God will want to communicate with Him. The now-living soul is Alive to God, and in fellowship with him. Fellowship without communication is an impossibility. We expect Christians to speak to God in prayer. A group of Christians in Uganda were in the habit of going out into the bush to pray. Each had their own separate space among the trees, and through time the place were the individual Christians prayed became bare of grass. If one of the believers began to neglect prayer, one of the elders would come alongside him, and honestly remind him, ‘Brother, there is grass growing on your path…’.

So, prayer is something that indicates a work of grace, and something that every Christian should engage in.

2. The Place for Prayer. enter into thy closet
It is important to remember that Jesus is teaching us about praying as individuals. All the Greek words in the sentence are in the singular. Of course Jews prayed together, and there is ample evidence of meetings for prayer in the early church, and particularly in the book of Acts. For example, in Acts12:12 When he realised this, he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John whose other name was Mark, where many were gathered together and were praying. We are to pray together too. It would be wrong to ban corporate prayer on the basis of this one verse.
So, if Jesus is referring to private prayer, he is teaching is that we are to be careful that the place we choose for our private devotions is appropriate, that we will not be tempted to do our religious observances before other people, to be seen by them. Matthew 6:1 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. Matthew Henry comments, Instead of praying in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, enter into thy closet, into some place of privacy and retirement. Isaac went into the field (Gen. xxiv. 63), Christ to a mountain, Peter to a housetop. No place amiss in point of ceremony, if it do but answer the end.

3. The Privacy of Prayer. shut thy door
Again Jesus recognises the human weakness of his disciples. We are so prone to distractions in prayer. Our prayers are interrupted by outside influences. How many of us attempt to pray with music in the background? Worse still with a radio or television blaring? The telephone urgently demands our attention. Even sleep overtakes us, as it did the disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane.
To avoid such interruptions Jesus tells us that when we go alone into a room to pray, to be alone with God and speak to Him, we should shut out everything else. Again, Matthew Henry explains this well. Secret prayer is to be performed in retirement, that we may be unobserved, and so may avoid ostentation; undisturbed, and so may avoid distraction; unheard, and so may use greater freedom; yet if the circumstances be such that we cannot possibly avoid being taken notice of, we must not therefore neglect the duty, lest the omission be a greater scandal than the observation of it.
An old hymn expresses this beautifully… Dwelling in a secret place /Overshadowed by His grace /Looking up into his face. /Seeing only Jesus. /Dwelling there, how truly blest! /Leaving all, how sweet to rest /Head upon my Saviour’s breast /Seeing only Jesus. /Resting there, no more to roam, /Drawing near to heaven and home. /Waiting there until he comes. /Seeing only Jesus. The psalmist wrote, Ps.91:1 He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty

4. The Presence of God in Prayer. pray to thy Father which is in secret and thy Father which seeth in secret
There’s a hint here of what’s to come when Jesus gives the disciples a model prayer. We are to pray to the God whom we know as FATHER. More of that later when we discuss verse 9. At this point we simply need to note that when we are alone, in the secret place, God, our Father is there with us. He is in the secret place, and he meets with us there.
This is important, for it brings us great comfort. God’s is with us in secret places into which we have entered voluntarily to gain that ‘alone-ness’ with him. But life will bring us other secret places, into which we would not willingly go of our own volition. There will be times when we feel terribly alone. The loneliness of those who suffer depression, even when they are surrounded by well-wishes and careers is well attested. There is the awful loneliness of critical illness and a dreaded diagnosis. There is the feeling of desertion and loneliness which happens at bereavement. In all of those times and more, we have a Father who enters the secret place with us. The psalmist encapsulates this in the words of the 23rd Psalm, 23:4 Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
Samuel Rutherford, the Covenanting minister, writing from prison in Aberdeen in the seventeenth century, persecuted for his faith, and writing his famous ‘Letters’ to his parishioners, ended one of them with this sentence: ‘Jesus Christ came into my prison-cell last night, and every stone in it glowed like a ruby.’
In saying that, we recognise that there is another warning implicit within this clause. There is nothing that we can hide from God. He knows our hearts and our thoughts. Jesus has made us well aware that we must not pray to be seen and congratulated by other people. But there is another danger, in that we might be tempted to pray in order that we might congratulate ourselves, that we might be self-satisfied with our own prayer life. We might be in danger of prayer to ourselves, to our own ego. God sees us, and the realisation that he knows our motives should keep us from self-congratulatory prayer.

5. The Prize of Prayer. shall reward thee openly
There is a real reward for faithful prayer. So, God sees our hearts and our intents, and he answers our prayers in accordance with his will. But what of the reward for prayer? I have to say that when I made my preliminary notes on this verse, I wrote a few questions I wanted answers to. I asked, “How does God reward me openly, in response to secret prayers, heard by him?” so,

* Is this reward open in that it can be seen by others? If so, how, for surely Christians are often seen to be disadvantaged, in this country and abroad in places where Christians suffer greatly for their faith. Is God not openly answering their prayers?
* Or is this reward open in that it is to be distributed sometime away in the future, in heaven, when all of the universe will be aware of God’s triumph over evil and will praise him?

Stott picks up on this question too. Speaking of Christ’s teaching on reward for giving earlier in the chapter, he asserts that the ‘reward’ is neither public nor necessarily in the future, but is the only reward that love demands in response to a need, and that is to see that need met. Stott writes, “When through his gifts, the hungry are fed, the naked are clothed, the sick healed, the oppressed freed, the lost saved, the love which prompted the gift is satisfied. such love (which is God’s own love expressed through man) brings with it it’s own secret joys, and desires no other reward.”
Stott links giving and praying… “as we are to give out of a genuine love for people, so we are to pray out of a genuine love for God”
So maybe the Christian’s reward for faithful prayer, is simply to see God’s will being done, and the contentment of knowing that whatever happens, God will ultimately work his purpose out. How, you may ask, will that be a reward for ME? But it will, if you are a believer, for the work of the Holy Spirit, in sanctification is bringing us more and more into conformity with God’s will, and God’s will is that ultimately all things will glorify him. Our reward as Christians is Sola Deo Gloria. That God alone may be glorified. To that end, may his will be done, and that will be reward enough for us.

So, Jesus begins his corrective teaching for defective praying. He has pointed out what that defective prayer looks like, and now he contrasts his disciples’ prayer with that defective prayer. He reminds us that prayer is normal for believers, that we are to find a suitable place for prayer, where we can be alone with God, and that we are to sincerely address him, and him alone, and that God will hear our prayers, examine our hearts, and reward us, by doing what he purposes to do.

Stott quotes are from “The Message of The Sermon on the Mount” published 1984 by IVP in the Bible Speaks Today commentary series.

Two more of these sermons in January, God willing.

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