Tuesday, August 26, 2003

Jesus on Prayer - 1

As I wrote last week, I am taking a few days off from the study of Job and turning my attention to Jesus' teaching on prayer in Matthew 6:5-15. Today, I cover the context of Jesus' instruction.


Matthew 5 - 7 contains the well known Sermon on the Mount. It has a parallel in Luke 6:20-49, which suggests that Matthew might have recorded a sermon that Jesus gave often. Because it is well known, we must guard ourselves, less its very familiarity work against our receiving its instruction.

The sermon is about the heart. Religion tends to be about external forms and obedience to rules. Jesus' challenges us to evaluate ourselves by an inner standard. “You have heard that it was said to an older generation, ‘Do not murder,’ and ‘whoever murders will be subjected to judgment.’ But I say to you that anyone who is angry with a brother will be subjected to judgment. And whoever insults a brother will be brought before the council, and whoever says ‘Fool’ will be sent to fiery hell." (Matthew 5:21-22) Murder is an external sin. It is obvious and visible. It is easy to condemn the murderer. But Jesus tells us to look to our anger. Our anger can be visible or invisible. It matters not; we have the seeds of murder in our heart and we had best uproot them by the Father's grace. And so Jesus teaches about a life lived and judged by attitudes in the heart. There is nothing here by which we can judge others. We can only take His words and by the illumination of the Holy Spirit, judge our own lives and move to change.

Of interest in this study are the opening lines of Matthew 6:

“Be careful about not living righteously merely to be seen by people. Otherwise you have no reward with your Father in heaven. (Matthew 6:1, The Net Bible)

With these words, Jesus speaks of outward versus inward religious expression. In Matthew 6:2-4, Jesus speaks of giving. In Matthew 6:5-15, He speaks of prayer, and in 6:16-18, He speaks of fasting. His treatment of all 3 topics is the same, if you have the outward form only, if the outward form focuses attention on you, and if you have no inner reality, the public acclaim that you receive--real or imagined--is all the benefit you will derive. There is little wonder about this, the approval of men is a strong motivation. It is relatively immediate and more tangible. It is a trap well hidden and able to catch us. 

Of course, a visible spiritual life is not of itself bad. Paul wrote to the Corinthians and said, "I am not writing these things to shame you, but to correct you as my dear children. For though you may have ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, because I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel. I encourage you, then, be imitators of me." (1 Corinthians 4:14-16) Paul said, "Be imitators of me. What you see me do, do yourselves." Godly men and women are often the first models of godly living that a new believer has, and I believe we need more. I certainly benefited, over 30 years ago now, from men decades old in their faith. Now I hope to be the same. The difference for Paul to the Corinthians is that he did not derive his self-image from the attention. He was a bond-servant of Jesus Christ and spent himself for the church and her people. Men and women like that are worth emulating.

Not so those who give to be recognized for their giving. Not so those who entertain with great prayers. Not so those who fast in agony for the admiration of others. They have erected outward forms only. They have confused the approval of others for approval of the Father.

Over the next few days, I will be looking into what Jesus said about prayer as He discusses its outward forms and instructs with inner.

Wednesday: Putting Prayer in its Place

<>< Test Everything. Cling to what is good. ><>


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