Are We Playing the Hypocrite?


Are We Playing the Hypocrite?

Matthew 6:1-8, 16-18

Main Idea: Giving, prayer, and fasting should be done sincerely before God, who gives eternal reward, instead of hypocritically before people, whose reward fades quickly.

  1. Watch Your Motives When You Give (6:1-4).
    1. Don’t give seeking the praise of others (6:1-3).
    2. Do give seeking the pleasure of your heavenly Father (6:1, 4).
  2. Watch Your Motives When You Pray (6:5-8).
    1. Pray sincerely to your heavenly Father (6:5).
    2. Pray secretly to your heavenly Father (6:6).
    3. Pray specifically to your heavenly Father (6:7-8).
  3. Watch Your Motives When You Fast (6:16-18).
    1. Don’t draw attention to yourself when you fast (6:16).
    2. Just act normal when you fast (6:17-18).

Why do people not attend church? Some of the more common answers you might hear are that church is boring, the services last too long, I got hurt in the church, they only want my money, I don’t like organized religion, the church has become too political, or my needs are not being met. However, the one I have heard the most throughout my life is, “I don’t go to church because the church is filled with hypocrites.” How should Christians respond to this accusation? First, we plead guilty as charged. The church is full of sinners that sin in all sorts of ways, including hypocrisy. Second, we recognize that hypocrisy is a sin to which we are particularly susceptible. The Lord Jesus addresses hypocrisy in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 6. Interestingly, the word hypocrite occurs more than a dozen times in the first Gospel. It is an issue that concerned our Lord; therefore, it should also concern us.

In Matthew 6:1-18 Jesus addresses three important pillars of first-century Judaism: giving (6:1-4), prayer (6:5-15), and fasting (6:16-18). The heart of his concern will become clear as we walk through these verses. It is the issue of motive. Why do we do what we do? What moves us to act and behave as we do, especially in matters of faith and spiritual activity? The desire for the praise of men is an ever-present danger. Dallas Willard provides a wise and helpful warning at this point. He says,

Desire for religious respect or reputation will immediately drag us into the rightness of scribes and Pharisees because that desire always focuses entirely upon the visible action, not on the source of action in the heart. (Divine Conspiracy, 188; emphasis original)

Once again we are reminded of a vital spiritual truth: the heart of the matter is the matter of the heart.

Watch Your Motives When You Give

Matthew 6:1-4

Jesus tells us, “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (Matt 5:16). Now he addresses three of those good works: giving, prayer, and fasting. However, when it comes to these good works, our Lord introduces an important and surprising twist concerning how we properly exercise these deeds. We are to do them with no fanfare or show. In fact, it is usually best to do them in secret and privacy. This would have been shocking to the ears of first-century Hebrews, who celebrated public and visible displays of religion.

The Bible has a lot to say about what I like to call “the grace of giving.” The apostle Paul dedicates two chapters to the subject in 2 Corinthians 8–9. There we are told to give sacrificially, joyfully, liberally, and thankfully. We can see two additional principles in verses 1-4 as we exercise this grace.

Don’t Give Seeking the Praise of Others (6:1-3)

In Matthew 5:20 Jesus says, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never get into the kingdom of heaven.” Now in 6:1 he provides a companion statement: “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them.” Those last five words (“to be seen by them”) are critically important because they help us see how this verse does not contradict Jesus’s command to “let your light shine before others” (5:16). The issue is one of motive. “Be careful” is a present imperative, a word of command calling for constant vigilance and watchfulness. Jesus is teaching us that an important question should continually present itself when we do good works: Why am I doing them? Is my motivation for doing good works like giving, praying, and fasting a desire to honor and glorify my God? Or is my desire to gain glory and praise for myself through the applause of men? If it is the latter, you can be certain of one thing: “You have no reward with your Father in heaven.” An earthly goal will get an earthly reward and nothing more. Men may praise you, but your heavenly Father will not.

In verses 2-4 Jesus illustrates his point with the example of giving. “Whenever you give to the poor”—the assumption is that we will give—don’t make a show of it. “Don’t sound a trumpet . . . [perhaps a figure of speech] as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be applauded by people.” Why? Jesus says it will be your sole reward: “Truly I tell you, they have their reward.” We give up reward from God so that we can have applause from men. When you give, don’t shout, “Look at me!” Don’t announce your righteousness on social media. Don’t call a press conference. In fact, he adds in verse 3, “But when you give to the poor,” don’t even look at yourself. “Don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” Don’t celebrate your own personal acts of righteousness. Charles Quarles puts it well:

The disciple must not give so that he can pat himself on the back or applaud his own goodness. If a disciple should refuse to seek to be self-complimentary, how much more should he avoid seeking to be a spiritual celebrity in the eyes of others. (Sermon, 177)

Before moving on, it is necessary to address the word hypocrite. Quarles is again helpful in his observations:

The word who pretended to have a piety that they did not actually possess in order to inspire the applause of a human audience.

In Matthew 15:7-9 Jesus appealed to Isa. 29:13 to describe hypocrisy: “Hypocrites! Isaiah prophesied correctly about you when he said: These people honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. They worship Me in vain, teaching as doctrines the commands of men.” This suggests that hypocrisy involves pretended devotion to God, empty worship, and the substitution of human authority for divine authority.” (Sermon, 176)

Sinclair Ferguson helpfully adds,

In ancient drama actors did not wear make-up. They wore masks, representing the part they played. What a vivid picture that gives us of the hypocrite. He pretends to be one thing, but all the time he is really something altogether different. (Sermon, 113)

Don’t wear a mask when it comes to your faith. It may appear to benefit you, but there is something worth more that you are losing. There is a better reward to gain.

Do Give Seeking the Pleasure of Your Heavenly Father (6:1, 4)

Both verses 1 and 4 refer to our heavenly Father. They bracket our Savior’s instructions on giving, and they place the focus on where our attention needs to be when we give. We seek his approval and no other. We seek his pleasure and his alone. The reward we desire is with our “Father in heaven” (6:1). Like children, who long for the approval of their mother or father, we should long only for the approval of our Father in heaven. So when we give, we should do it quietly and “in secret.” God sees what we give and that is enough. If others do hear of or see my giving, it only is to encourage them in faithful stewardship, not to exalt me. We should give like Barnabas (Acts 4:32-37), not like Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 1:1-11)!

When we give, we can know that “[our] Father who sees in secret will reward [us].” Of course, the greatest and most wonderful reward is the fact I get God himself. I may get a gift, but it is even better that I get the gift Giver. I get him for all of eternity as my perfect heavenly Father. That gift is more than enough.

Watch Your Motives When You Pray

Matthew 6:5-8

Jesus moves the conversation from giving to a second spiritual discipline, prayer (6:5-14). Prayer in its simplest and most basic sense is a conversation with God. Prayer is a child of God talking to his heavenly Father and listening to his Father by his Word illumined by the Spirit.

My friend Don Whitney helps us grasp the magnitude of this blessing called prayer when he writes,

God not only has spoken clearly and powerfully to us through Christ and the Scriptures, he also has a Very Large Ear continuously open to us. He will hear every prayer of His children, even when our prayers are weaker than a snowflake. That’s why, of all the Spiritual Disciplines, prayer is second only to the intake of God’s Word in importance. Despite the penultimate importance of prayer, however, statistical surveys and experience seem to agree that a large percentage of professing Christians spend little time in sustained prayer. While they may offer a sentence of prayer here and there throughout their day, they rarely spend more than a very few minutes—if that—alone in conversation with God. It’s very easy to make people feel guilty about failure in prayer. . . . But we must come to grips with the fact that to be like Jesus we must pray. (Whitney and Packer, Spiritual Disciplines, 80)

To help us become more like Jesus when we pray, our Master gives us some basic guidelines and principles.

Pray Sincerely to Your Heavenly Father (6:5)

Jesus expects prayer to be a regular habit for the life of his disciples. Verse 5 begins, “Whenever you pray.” The English Standard Version (ESV) says, “And when you pray.” The idea is that you and I will pray. Jesus follows the statement with a now familiar warning: “You must not be like the hypocrites” (v. 2). Don’t pretend to be what you are not. Don’t put on a show. Hypocrites love to flaunt their false spirituality; “they love to pray in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by people.” They pine for the praise of people. This is the reward they seek, and Jesus says this is the reward they receive.

Hypocrites are not sincere when they pray. They pray for show. Two questions can help us evaluate ourselves when we pray so that we know if we are being hypocrites. First, do you pray longer in public than you do in private? Verse 7 will also speak to this action. Second, do you pray differently in public than you do in private?

Pray Secretly to Your Heavenly Father (6:6)

Neither the Bible nor Jesus condemns public prayer. It is practiced throughout the Bible and commanded as a vital component of corporate worship. Doing it as a mere formality or ritual is what Jesus soundly condemned. Further, public and corporate prayer cannot substitute for private and individual prayer. Here is the pattern commended to us by our Lord. First, when you pray, find a private place. “Go into your private room” and “shut your door.” Second, seek out the Father who is in heaven. There is no need to make a show in your prayer closet. “Pray to your [heavenly] Father who is in secret.” This is a private affair between us and our Father in heaven. Notice the repetition of the word “secret” in verses 4, 6 (twice), and 18 (twice). Our Savior is trying to help us understand that who we are in private is who we truly are. Who are you when only God is watching? What are you like when only God is watching? These are searching questions for the soul.

Jesus concludes verse 6 as he did verse 4 on giving: “And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” The hypocrite prays for the approval of a human audience. The true disciple prays for the approval of a heavenly audience. The approval and pleasure of his Father is all he needs; it is all he wants.

Pray Specifically to Your Heavenly Father (6:7-8)

Jesus continues his teaching on prayer with strong words of condemnation for senseless, mindless, rote incantation and recitations that are more akin to paganism. Quarles summarizes well our Lord’s approach to prayer and says,

Although Jesus was devoted to prayer (Mark 1:35; Luke 5:16; 11:1), His prayers were not memorized recitations given at the whim of the clock. His prayers were intensely personal, often spontaneous, and an expression of His deep communion with His Father. (Sermon, 179)

Therefore, Jesus says, “When you pray, don’t babble” [ESV, “heap up empty phrases,” NKJV, “use vain repetitions”] “like the Gentiles.” Don’t pray like a pagan and speak nonsense over and over. Many words do not equal either sincere prayer or a guarantee you will be heard. God cannot be manipulated by hounding him with your silly and empty repetitions. “Don’t be like them” because your heavenly Father is not like these pagan idols who are no gods at all. He is an omnipresent, omnipotent, and omniscient Father who “knows the things you need before you ask him.” He is aware of your needs, and he is attentive to them. Isaiah 65:24 beautifully complements our Lord’s promise in verse 8: “Even before they call, I [the Lord] will answer them, while they are still speaking, I will hear.” Talk to God, then like a child would talk to a loving parent. Talk to him like a perfect heavenly Father who loves you with a perfect, heavenly love and concern. He is there. He is ready. He is willing. And he is able!

Watch Your Motives When You Fast

Matthew 6:16-18

Fasting is a spiritual discipline that we seldom talk about and one that few practice—I must confess to falling into this camp. However, the Bible addresses the subject in numerous places. Fasting consists of abstaining from eating, drinking, or even sexual activity for the purposes of prayer, spiritual devotion, mourning, grief, and repentance. Fasting can be corporate or individual (cf. Jonah 3). The Old Testament specifically required “self-denial” or fasting for the nation of Israel on the Day of Atonement (Lev 23:27, 29, 32) (Quarles, Sermon, 224).

The Old Testament prophets strongly condemned hypocrisy in fasting (Isa 58:1-12; Jer 36:9; Joel 2:12-17). Quarles is precisely correct when he writes, “Jesus’ teaching regarding fasting is thus in the spirit of the Old Testament prophets” (ibid., 226). Jesus will address fasting in a similar way to how he addresses giving and prayer. There is a clear literary parallel: “So whenever you give” (v. 2); “Whenever you pray” (v. 5); and “Whenever you fast” (v. 16). His instructions are also similar.

Don’t Draw Attention to Yourself When You Fast (6:16)

Jesus begins with the premise that we will fast. He warns us not to be gloomy like the hypocrites when we do. The word “gloomy” could be translated “sad faced” (GNT). Jesus tells us what these sad-faced actors actually do. “They make their faces unattractive so that their fasting is obvious to people.” They fast to make a show for men. Their interest is in the approval of men, not the approval of God. Jesus once again reminds us that they succeed in what they are after. “Truly [Gk amen] I tell you, they have their reward.” The deceptive and dishonest nature of the hypocrites’ fasts may not be perceived by men, but God sees it clearly. He sees beyond the action to the heart. He knows well why they are doing what they do. The temporary and fleeting praise of men is theirs. The eternal and enduring pleasure of the heavenly Father is not. What a fool the hypocrite actually plays!

Just Act Normal When You Fast (6:17-18)

Once again the Lord Jesus reminds us that our ultimate audience in the practice of spiritual disciplines is God, not man. He should be the focus of our attention and affections. So when you fast, “put oil on your head and wash your face.” This is a first-century way of saying to act normal. The Middle Eastern climate is hot and extremely dry, which makes one’s skin dry. So Jesus says to lubricate and soothe your scalp and skin as you would normally do. The same is true with your face. Wash it. Why? Verse 18 provides the answer: “So that your fasting isn’t obvious to others but to your Father who is in secret.” God is invisible; he is Spirit (John 4:24). You may not see him, but he certainly sees you. In fact, we should never forget that he sees everything and his opinion matters most. And here is the Lord’s promise to us all: “Your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” The Father in heaven who sees the silent gift, the private prayer, and the unnoticed fast will bless you with eschatological and heavenly reward. His reward might come later, but it will be so much better.

We should kick to the sidelines silly talk about “your best life now.” When you are in a relationship with Jesus as his faithful disciple, you have a great life now. However, when you join him in heaven with your heavenly Father, it will be even better. He will reward you. You can count on it!


The practice of spiritual disciplines should not play before the audience of the many. They should play before the audience of the one, our heavenly Father. He sees every action and knows every motivation. He, and he alone, is the one we should concern ourselves with. He is the one we should seek to please. This was certainly the way of Jesus as he made his way to the cross for the salvation of hypocritical sinners like me and you. He clearly understood that all that matters in life is that we please God. May our heavenly Father, in grace and mercy, help us learn the way of Jesus. It is the difference between pleasing men and pleasing God.

Reflect and Discuss

  1. Regarding giving, is your motive less important, equally important, or more important than the act itself? Why?
  2. How can you know when you are acting to be seen by others and when you are letting your light shine before others?
  3. Does God want you to be motivated by reward in heaven?
  4. Why is God himself the best reward you could want for your work?
  5. Why do Christians struggle to pray? How might knowing that the desire to pray is a spiritual battle affect how you approach prayer?
  6. Do you use the Bible to help you pray? How can praying the words of God to God help your prayers?
  7. Do you believe God wants to listen to you? How does his relationship to you as Father affect the way you approach prayer?
  8. Do you fast? Why or why not? Why should Christians fast?
  9. How can fasting increase your love for God and improve the practice of your other spiritual disciplines?
  10. Of the three disciplines (giving, prayer, and fasting), which is easiest for you to do? Which is most difficult? How can you use your strongest discipline to help you grow in the one you find most difficult?