Now we're turning again our Bibles to the Sermon on the Mount. We have studied in weeks gone by chapter 5, which is the first chapter of the Lord's sermon, and now we have entered into chapter 6 of Matthew's gospel. Last Lord's Day we looked at the subject 'Why Are You Working For The Lord?' - why do you do you alms for God? We looked at the motivation of why we do things for the Lord, in verses 1 to 4. This week we're going to look at verses 5 through to 8, and the question for this week that the Lord asks is: 'Why Are You Praying?'.
So we'll read from verse 5, the Lord addresses His own disciples again: "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".
Let us just bow and pray before we hear the word of God together: Father, we thank Thee for the gift of prayer, the gift of corporate prayer that we enjoy at this very moment as we lift our spirits to Thee. We thank Thee for private prayer, and for the privilege of having a closet where we can shut the door from all the world and all the hustle and bustle that would distract us from eternal things, and we can commune with Thee through Jesus the Son. We pray now, our Father, that You would guide us to understand a little bit more what our responsibilities are as Thy children. We pray that Thou wilt give us grace, that after we hear the word of God that we will be enabled by Thy strength and by Thy Spirit to obey the word of God and to live lives that are godly in Christ Jesus. We pray, our Father, now for the enduement of power from on high upon this preacher and upon this gathering, for we need Thee now - for the sake and for the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ we ask, Amen.
The prayer meeting of the church has been described by various people down through the epochs of its history as the powerhouse of the church. I'm sure you've heard it referred to as that. It has also been referred to as the thermometer of the church, in other words you can gauge how hot or cold the church is in spiritual zeal by the state and the health of the prayer meeting in the local assembly. I read a book on one occasion, and the author defined the prayer meeting and its importance - and indeed the dwindling responsibility of the saints towards the prayer meeting in this day and age - by this little quip, he said: 'Look at Sunday morning, and you will see how popular the church is. Look at Sunday evening, and you will see how popular the Pastor is' - in other words, the people have come back to listen to him - 'But look at the prayer meeting, and you will see how popular God is'.
I know that the prayer meeting is the thermometer of the church, it is the powerhouse, and we don't have prayer we don't have power. But I think that the prayer meeting does not just reflect upon the corporate body of the church of Jesus Christ, but it can also reflect upon the individual. It can be your thermometer! Indeed, it is your powerhouse, and if you are absent from the prayer meeting of God's people it says a great deal about your spiritual health. If I was to ask you: 'What is the condition of your prayer life today?', I wonder what your answer would be? Is your prayer life ready for admittance into Accident and Emergency, or has it got to such a stage that it should just bypass the hospital and go straight to the cemetery? How do we gauge it, how do we know the condition of our prayer life?
Well, I think that a good reflection of it may be how many of you come to the prayer meeting regularly. How many of you come? How many of you promising young people are here on a Thursday evening for prayer? Many of you are promising with gift and enthusiasm, and we rejoice that we have such a good group of young people, but where are you when God's people pray? You are the future core of this church and the church at large, but perhaps you're too busy, perhaps you're doing other things, or are you just plain disinterested to be here? The young people often get a hard time of it, so I direct my attention for a few moments to the older folk within the assembly. Do you set an example to the young people by coming to the place of prayer? What example are you setting? Parents, do you convey to your children that it's acceptable and legitimate for a committed Christian to sit in on Thursday evening and watch Coronation Street, while the people of God are agonising and wrestling with principalities and powers in the place of prayer?
Of course, like last week, we saw that there are people who do nothing in the church, there are people who do a little, and of course there are people inevitably who seem to be doing absolutely everything! You can make the same reflection and observation with regards to the prayer life of the church. There are brethren who don't pray, don't pray at all. There are folk who won't pray, unless they're asked to pray - and there are some who are always praying. I feel that that reflects the sentiment and the spirit of what the Lord Jesus is saying in this passage that we are looking at today, for there are two extremes. There is the extreme of the person who never ever is heard to pray in the prayer meeting, or never prays at home - and that is no desire for prayer, an absolute lack of desire totally. Then there are others who you can't stop getting praying, because they have an all-consuming desire - not to pray, but a desire to be seen to pray.
It's remarkable, isn't it? We will see in the weeks that lie ahead how these three of the most holiest occupations for the saints - alms giving, praying and fasting - can be so abused. Indeed, they can be used as a platform for hypocrisy and for religious sin. I don't want you to miss this, before we go on any further, because the Lord again is contrasting these two different approaches to these holy things. He contrasts spiritual public life with your spiritual private life. What you do in public when other Christians are watching, when other people are observing; and what your life really is when the door is closed, and no-one knows perhaps what life you and your family are living. He is contrasting the external with the internal, what people see on the outward appearance and what God sees deep into your heart that could be an entirely different thing altogether. He is contrasting the carnal, in other words the fleshly, and the spiritual - that which is of the heart with that which is of the flesh, that which is of man with that which is from Christ and the Spirit of God in your life.
I think these two contrasts between spiritual and fleshly, public and private, external and internal, they can be reflected in the whole of Christendom - so-called - today. You have two poles apart. You have liberal emotionalism which is all heart and no head, people who don't think about their following God but they just feel something - they have 'emotions'. Then there is the other extreme that we have to guard against, and that is dead conservatism which is all head and no heart. It's amazing to me - well, it's not really, but I think it should hit us today - that the Lord, again, as He did with alms giving, He doesn't command His people to give alms, He doesn't command in these verses His people to pray - it's expected of them! He didn't start His sermon the way I have started, with seeing that there are believers who don't have a need to come to the prayer meeting. The Lord Jesus assumes that if you're walking in fellowship with Him, if you are trying to follow Him, you will want to pray and you'll want to be with God's people who are in prayer.
Matthew Henry put it well when he said: 'You may as soon find a living man that does not breathe, as a living Christian that does not pray'. The issue today, as it was not last week, is not 'if you pray' or 'if you give alms' or 'if you fast', but the question is: 'You're doing it' - or at least you ought to be doing it - 'Why are you doing it? How are you doing it?'. The Lord again is addressing our motivation for prayer. He says: 'Do not strive after being seen to pray publicly, to be praised of men, but pray privately to be seen and to be rewarded of God'. The Lord again is speaking of heart relationship. Heart relations, He is saying, is more important than public relations. The question I pose to you today, and the question that the Lord Jesus Christ brings to us all by His Spirit through His word, is simply this: is your public prayer life a cover-up for your private prayer life?
When I speak of public prayer life it can be the brethren in the assembly who participate audibly, it can be the sisters who sit and do not participate audibly but pray from their hearts, it could even be your attendance - the fact that you come to the prayer meeting, if you come at all. Why do you do it? The Lord is guarding us against this sin, realising that we could actually participate in outward, external religious ritual of prayer as a cover-up for what is lacking in our private life. The Lord is saying, as is indeed the theme right throughout this sermon: 'You must have reality, rather than ritual. You must have relationship, rather than religion'. If God sees you, you won't care how many other people see you! If you are desirous to come before God for His eyes and for His heart and for His pleasing alone, it doesn't matter who will see you, it doesn't matter if no-one sees you. 'If God hears you', the Lord is saying, 'what does it matter if no-one else hears?'.
So we come to the Lord Jesus in His divine diagnosis of our prayer lives. The first thing that we find in verse 5 are these words, the Lord says: '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'. Now, here's the Lord's question to us today: is your public prayer a show? Is your public prayer life a show? The Lord is asking: are you a praying hypocrite? We learnt last week of how 'hypocrite' was a Greek word that simply meant an actor that used a mask, a person that stood on a stage and portrayed a particular role. You see, the Lord is saying we can perform in our prayers, we can act in our prayers, we can pray for the benefit of others - to be seen of men. In other words, if you get up in the prayer meeting and you pray as if you're consumed with zeal after God, you act as if no-one can get you down - but at home when you pray there is no zeal, there is no desire, and perhaps there's no prayer at all!
We get to our feet, and we pray for the Lord to save people - but we never would dream of bringing someone to the Gospel meeting for various reasons, perhaps even for the most awful reason: that we're going out to supper and we don't want anyone spoiling our night by getting saved! We can pray these things, and the reason we pray them is for people - we pray them because that is what the church expects you to pray, and we pray these things to be seen of men! That's why the Lord cites the synagogues and the street corner, because the synagogue is where zealous people met and the street corners are where all sorts of people met. So if you want to be seen to be zealous in front of other zealous people, and you want to be seen to be even more zealous than they are, you'll go where the zealous people are. But if you want to be rewarded of men as a holy man of God standing above the rest, you will go to the street corner to be seen of men where the people gather.
If you know anything about the Pharisees you will know that they were obliged to pray many times a day, and they took care that when that call for prayer happened that they were in the midst of the city, perhaps in the marketplace for the hour of prayer, and they had to pray in front of everybody around about them. Both the synagogues and the street corners, the Lord says, can be a theatrical platform for hypocrites to perform their acting - actors must perform, they can't help it, they need, they crave attention of people, they want to hog the limelight and they can even do it in their prayers! Here is the issue, here's the Lord cutting to the very bone of this matter, and it is this to us today: is our attendance at the prayer meeting, is our participation in the prayer meeting, simply to keep up appearances?
When you are asked to go to a prayer meeting, do you ever think: 'What would people think if I didn't go? I have to go, they might think I'm not spiritual if I don't go!'. Can I say: God hates that! God hates hypocrisy of every colour and shade, and I believe that the closer you get to God the more you will get His heart, and you will hate hypocrisy! You'll see it more and more in yourself, you'll not see it more in others as we tend to do, but you'll see it in your own heart and it will absolutely turn you! Watchman Nee said: 'It is natural to a man of the flesh and blood to hide his shortcomings, but grace enables one to hide his strengths'. You see, when a person is newly converted they want to hide their weaknesses from the folk around in the fellowship - but I believe as they grow in faith, they're more willing to let their weaknesses be exposed before others, and still the more they grow their weakness becomes eliminated by the grace of God. Now, where are we on that scale? Are we at the point where we're trying to hide our weaknesses? Or are we at the point where we're willing to bring them into the light that God's grace can handle them and deliver us from them?
The issue in this passage of Scripture again is the issue of reward. The Lord is saying that there are only two times when believers can be rewarded. You will either be rewarded now, or you will be rewarded in the future. You will either be rewarded now through the praise of men, or you will be rewarded in the future from the praise of God Almighty - but the Lord is saying no-one can have both rewards! If you want to receive man's reward now you cannot obtain God's reward then, and if you want to receive God's reward then you cannot and you ought not to be hankering after man's rewards and praise now. You cannot seek to enjoy great fame on earth, and then expect a high position in the Kingdom of Heaven to come. Therefore, do you know what the Lord is saying? This is amazing to me: 'You' - David Legge - 'who want to be seen to be the greatest preacher. You who want to be the greatest Sunday School teacher. You who want to be the greatest personal worker. You who want to be the greatest Gospel singer. You must refuse that on earth if you want to be rewarded in heaven!'. That is death to the soul.
Is your public prayer life a show? Why would it be a show? Your public prayer life would be a show because your private prayer life is a sham. That's what verse 6 says, your public prayer life is a show because your private prayer life is a sham. Look at verse 6: 'Thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet', into thy inner chamber, '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 question the Lord is asking is: does your public prayer life portray your private life, or is it a decoy to cover it up? In other words, the fact that you stand to your feet in a prayer meeting, or the fact that you come along to a prayer meeting, does that declare that you are praying at home, or is it a decoy and a cover-up that you are not praying at home?
The Lord speaks of the inner chamber, and that simply means a bedroom. That tells you and I that prayer is not restricted to one individual place, indeed Paul said to Timothy: 'Pray in every place'. But the point that the Lord is saying is that your bedroom might be occupied by more than yourself, it might be only yourself but it might be your family - particularly in these days. But His point is, in the daytime the family were probably out at work or school, and then at night time the family would be tucked into bed and asleep - so it's a quiet place for you if you want to get alone with God, it's a place of secrecy between you and your Lord.
It has come to us already this morning, through the witness to the children, that our Lord had no inner chamber. Our Lord had no place to lay His head, but what He did was He used the wilderness. He used the mountains and the hills of Judea as His inner chamber, and David prophetically speaking of the Lord said: 'I watch and am become like a sparrow that is alone upon the housetop'. The Lord, early in the morning in the cool of the day, went out to a place of secrecy, to a place of holy separation, and sought God upon His face. Isaac went into a field, Peter went onto the top of a house, the Lord Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane went a little further and prayed. Many a time He departed into a solitary place and there prayed. Paul, after his conversion, went to a house in Damascus - and God Almighty looked down and said: 'Behold, he prayeth!', and you can almost hear the joy in the very heart of God as He saw one of His children newly converted upon their knees praying in secret!
'Thy Father sees in secret'! It brings joy to the Father's heart to see you pray in secret. He even sees a cup of water that is given in His name in secret - even that's not ignored! But here is what the Lord is saying: believers, you cannot substitute a public prayer meeting for personal prayer - it cannot be done! The thing, I think most forcibly, that has come to me in this week studying these verses of Scripture is the fact that God will reward secret prayer. The word for 'reward' is 'recompense', and it points forward to the Judgement Seat of Christ and God's Kingdom here upon the earth. It's not talking simply about your answers to prayer, for you get your answers to prayer down here, it's talking about a reward up there. Isn't that amazing, to think that we will be rewarded in the future for how we have prayed in the secret place where no one else has watched? That is a sobering thought, for then our hypocrisy will be shown up. The Lord says: 'There is nothing hid which shall not be manifested, neither was anything kept secret but it shall come abroad and will be known'.
Now here's the questions that the Lord poses to us today: do I pray more frequently and fervently at home alone than I do in public? Do I love the secret place of prayer, just God and me together? Or is my public praying simply an overflow of my private praying, and what will be my reward in eternity for my secret prayer today? What would God give you for your prayers this morning? If the answer is 'no' and negative to many of those questions, the declaration and diagnosis of the word of God on us is that we are hypocrites. Our public prayer life is a show, because our private prayer life is a sham.
Now, what the Lord is trying to bring us to is verse 7: 'When ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking'. He's asking the question: your prayer life will be a sham, it will be a show, if your prayer life is only an external frame - vain repetitions. If you use meaningless words and phrases to prolong your prayer, in other words if you do it to make yourself feel that you're praying. You're doing something good, but there's nothing in it, there's no meaning. You use much speaking, the Lord says - now please note that that doesn't say 'much praying' - 'much speaking'. It's not talking about using the same words in prayer, it's not talking about praying for the same thing perseveringly and over and over again, it is talking about empty, vain repetitious words where you think you will be heard because of the many words you use. It cannot mean repetition, because the Lord Jesus three times in the Garden of Gethsemane prayed the same words. Paul the apostle three times prayed that the Lord would take the thorn from his flesh, and God answered him. But for Paul and for the Lord Jesus those prayers of repetition were in private, and those prayers were certainly not motivated to be seen of men because there was no-one to see.
But we are talking about here is 'lip labour', praying much for public support and praise. Men who love to hear themselves! The point behind it all is this: if you wanted a man to hear you, if you want your little child to hear you, what do you do? You repeat things over and over, that's how they learn. The Lord Jesus is saying: 'You are approaching God as you would approach a man. You're repeating over and over and over again and again, because you think by doing that He'll hear you' - but that's not how God hears, for God is not a God who reads your mouth, God is a God who looks into the depths of your heart!
The Jew prayed formalised prayers, he prayed the Sh'mah that you find in Deuteronomy 6 every morning and every evening as early as possible - in fact in the Jewish books it says as soon as the light was strong enough for a man to distinguish between blue and green he was to pray. What about that for law? He was to pray before nine o'clock in the morning, and he couldn't pray after nine in the evening. No matter where he was or whatever he was doing, if it was his last opportunity he was to stop and to pray. Inevitably, you can imagine, if you were out doing the shopping or if you were in business and that hour comes, you have to pray in public - and some of the Jews even prayed as they were on the way, to get it done and to rush through it! There was another prayer called the Sh'moneh Esray that was 18 prayers prayed daily three times over and over, and it became like a spell, it became like an incantation at 9 o'clock, at 12 o'clock, and then at 3 in the afternoon - like the Muslim calls to prayer!
There was a story once told of a Muslim who was chasing after another man with a knife to kill him, and when the call for prayer rang out around the city he took his little prayer mat, he laid it down, he prayed his prayer quickly, and then he got up and continued to run murderously after the man! That's what the Lord is talking about: praying for praying's sake, prayer for the benefit of others or a religion or a system, prayer to impress, prayer - even in our prayer meetings - to make a point to someone else in the meeting, prayer to rebuke another brother, prayer to display your knowledge of the Scripture, prayer to show off how many verses that you've learnt! The other side of the coin is criticism of other men's prayers, when you go to a new believer or you go to a man who is truly praying from his heart, and you criticise them ungraciously, and they end up never praying again!
Pharisaism is rife in the church of Jesus Christ. A great preacher once described an ornate and elaborate prayer offered in a Boston church by a great preacher as the most eloquent prayer offered to a Boston audience. Many have a formula for starting their prayers, others pray the same prayers over and over again. Dr Robert A. Cook said on many occasions: 'All of us have one routine prayer in our system, and once we get rid of it then we can really start to pray!'. I heard recently of a meeting where a man used to get up every week and pray the same prayer like rote over and over again, and the rest congregation could nearly repeat it. They used to sigh inwardly every time this man got to his feet, and on one occasion one of the big men in the assembly couldn't take it any longer. When the man got into full steam of his rigmarole of rote praying, this man stood to his feet and he said: 'Oh, Lord, You've heard it all before, Amen!'. The problem was, the Lord hadn't heard anything!
Vain repetition, do you know what that is? It's what the heathens did in 1 Kings 18. You know the prophets of Baal, who were trying to get the power of their false god down upon the sacrifice? It said that from morning even until noon, until the evening sacrifice, they cry out, they cut their flesh, they prayed to their god - but there was neither voice nor any answer. It was a kind of hypnosis, an intoxication of words, a bit like the charismatic movement today and their false gift of tongues. But by contrast, there was the prophet Elijah and he made one prayer of faith to God, and it was answered immediately and the fire of God fell!
The amazing thing to me is that the prayers of the Bible are straightforward, concise, short and to the point - the best I can give you is Matthew 8:25 where one poor soul just cried out: 'Save, Lord!'. If you're not saved today you don't need any elaborate words, you maybe don't need all the knowledge that you might think you have, all you need to do as a simple soul is humbly cry out: 'Save me Lord!'. The Lord isn't prohibiting long praying, He's not prohibiting persistent praying, but what He is saying to us today is: it's not the length of your sentences and the big words that you use and the flowery phrases that secures your answer, but it is the state of your heart!
Is your prayer life an external frame, or here's the crux of the matter, verse 8 - it is an external frame when our hearts, our internal heart-life, is a farce. 'Be not ye therefore like unto them: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him'. People could use false reasoning and say: 'Well, if God knows what I'm going to ask for then what's the point in me asking?'. Well, the first thing is that the Lord has told us to ask, so that's enough point in asking. But what the Lord is saying here is that it's not that we ought to multiply our words to God, we don't get answers to our prayer because we pray reportingly. In other words: 'Lord, did You know Aggie is in hospital in Ward 15? Lord, You know that man two doors down in the fifth house along, You know his name and his address?' - you don't need to give the Lord all those things, the Lord isn't looking for information in your prayers, the Lord isn't looking for a report or for words, but what the Lord is looking for is the disposition of your heart. As you come to God are you realising that God knows everything about you? God knows all your needs, God knows what you're going to ask before you ask it, is that the disposition of your heart?
Prayer is not just getting things from God, but prayer is getting into a perfect communion with God. The point of the Lord Jesus is this: are we depending on our own earnestness, are we depending on our own ability to quote verses, are we depending on our own understanding of the theology of prayer, or are we depending on God's goodness? The goodness of God that knows what you need before you ask it! It is that confidence toward God that makes the difference, it is that faith toward Him that gets our prayers answered. That's why John said: 'This is the confidence that we have in Him, that if we ask anything according to His will He hears us' - the confidence is Jesus! He is our confidence. We have only have boldness to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus.
Do you want your prayers heard? You must have the disposition of faith. The Lord is saying: 'You'll not be heard because you have a mouthful of words, but rather you have a heart full of faith in the goodness and the faithfulness of God'. Now let's ask the question as we close, we asked it last week, we ask it this week, we'll ask it next week and the next week: are our eyes on God, or are our eyes fixed on men? Why do we pray? Is our prime motive in prayer to know Him, or to know the praise of others? Are we playing at prayer? M'Cheyne made a wonderful statement, he said: 'What a man is on his knees he is and no more'. If you give me a man with his head filled with unused knowledge, and another man whose knowledge is far less but his knees are bent more - give me that man of prayer every time!
I've given you this illustration before, but I close with it as a poem. Listen very carefully:
'From a convert in Uganda
Comes to us a story grander
In the lesson that it teaches,
Than a sermon someone preaches,
For it tells what sore temptations
Come to them what need of patience,
And a need, all else outweighing,
Of a place of private praying.
So each convert chose a corner,
Far away from eyes of scorner -
In the jungle where he could
Pray to God in solitude.
And so often went he thither
That the grass would fade and whither
Where he trod, and you can trace
By the paths each praying place.
If they hear the evil tidings
Of a brother's late backslidings,
And some are even saying
'He no longer cares for praying' -
Then they say to one another,
Softly and so gently: 'Brother,
Do forgive us now for showing,
On your path the grass is growing!'
The erring one, relenting,
Soon is bitterly repenting:
'Ah! How sad I am at knowing
On my path the grass is growing.
But it shall be so no longer,
Prayer I need to make me stronger.
On my path I'll oft be going
Soon no grass will there be showing''.
May we say today: 'Lord, teach me to pray'. Now, let's bow our heads, and if you're not converted here this morning I'm sure there have been times in your life when you have lifted your heart to God in prayer - but you know that God is not obliged to listen to your prayers because you have never lifted to Him the most important prayer: the prayer of repentance and faith in Christ. It's time you prayed that prayer and opened up a way of relationship with God. Believers, when I preach on prayer what happens is the prayer meeting is full on Thursday night - that's not what I'm looking for today, because it will be empty the following week. I want you to examine your heart, the Lord is saying: 'It's not your body on the seat, it's your heart at the throne of grace that matters'. We don't want to pack the prayer meeting, we want pray-ers at home and here in the assembly - and if you're praying at home, my friend, you will be at the prayer meeting praying from your heart.
Father, we thank Thee for the teaching of the Lord, and we pray that we will be gracious disciples and servants who will meekly receive His word and obey, that we will be joyful givers as we give our lives in adoration and savours of prayer to Thee morning and evening and afternoon, sacrificing ourselves in prayer to Thee. Lord, there is a great day of judgement coming for Thy people where their works will be tested, and Lord we pray that when we reach that great throne that our hands will not be empty of private prayer, but it will be full to overflowing in blessing and reward in eternity. Take us now to our homes, we pray, with Thy blessing. In Jesus' name, Amen.
Preach The Word.
This sermon was delivered at The Iron Hall Assembly in Belfast, Northern Ireland, by Pastor David Legge. It was transcribed from the thirteenth tape in his 'Sermon On The Mount' series, titled "Why Are You Praying?" - Transcribed by Andrew Watkins, Preach The Word.
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