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.
Chapters 5-7 of the Gospel of Matthew are what is called the Sermon on the Mount. It is one of Christ’s most well-known sermons. By the time He had come to earth, a certain religious group had arisen—the Pharisees. The primary concern and emphasis of the Pharisees in regard to piety was outward holiness. For them an appearance of holiness was all that was necessary to be holy. The inside—the heart—was completely neglected. In these three chapters, in this sermon of Christ, we find a refutation of this idea. Christ proclaimed that holiness was primarily a matter of the heart, not just external righteousness.
In the verse that we are to study, we find the same theme continued. Let us turn to the text and see what gems of heavenly wisdom lay hidden in it.
FIRSTLY, observe what Jesus is condemning. He is not condemning doing good deeds that will be noticed by others. He is not saying, “Make sure no one sees your good deeds.” This, however, is not what Jesus intends. Notice, it says here, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people…” does it end there? No, it reads on, “…in order to be seen by them.” It is the motive that He is condemning. What is the motive? It is the doing of good to be noticed by others. From this we learn a very important principle—it is not merely doing good that is pleasing to God; the motive plays a vital role as well.
SECONDLY, it may be helpful to look at the reasons why people seek to be noticed by others. This will allow us to see why this motive is wrong.
(1) The most common reason is spiritual blindness. Sin darkens our eyes from seeing the piercing glory and majesty of God. As long as our eyes are blind to true greatness, we will admire the praise and approval of those who are ultimately not worth pleasing. Born again Christians themselves are not immune to this sin. The same culprit is responsible for this. Spiritual light shines in our hearts, but darkness still lingers. Such darkness is to be mortified and cast out by continual thoughts of the great glory and supremacy of God.
(2) A second reason, which is closely related to the previous one, is that such people lack assurance that they are on good terms with God. Such people doubt whether or not they are saved and so seek the approval of other people to comfort their burning consciences.
(3) A third reason consists in a lack of a fear of God. I do not intend a slavish, terrified fear of God with conceptions of Him as a monster. Instead, a reverential fear is intended. God is too small in our comprehension and so therefore we do not strive to please Him alone.
So, it is evident why such a motive is wrong—it reveals a deeper underlying problem, which is spiritual deadness. Here are a few simple questions that you may ask yourself to see whether you are in such a condition, a condition of people-worship:
- Am I only careful to be holy in public where I can be seen, but not in private?
- Do I avoid some sins merely because they would bring me shame and ruin my reputation?
- What is the motive behind my desire to be holy? Is it because it is honorable in front of people to be so? This may not apply to us as much while we are young. However, we must remember this as we grow older, because the temptation to think and act in such a way will be greater then.