Flashy Is not Godly
Topic: Expository Passage: Matthew 6:1-4
There are times when worldliness is obvious. For example, if I showed up to preach this morning wearing a Playboy t-shirt, “A,” you’d probably check me into a mental institute, and “B,” you would all recognize immediately the worldliness of that shirt. That’s because everything about Playboy screams ungodliness.
But let’s suppose that in the next few months our church put together a fundraising campaign for a building project. We want to persuade you to give extra money, so we promise that if you give $10,000, we’ll put a 12’x12’ golden brick on the side of the building with your name on it. For $5,000, a 6’x6’ brick and so forth.
Most people wouldn’t bat an eye, because nonprofits do this sort of thing all the time for fundraising, and it works well. Afterall, everyone loves a little public praise.
But Jesus has demonstrated throughout the Sermon on the Mount isn’t interested in merely going with the flow. Rather, he demands that we root worldliness out of the deepest recesses of our hearts and that we replace it with sincere godliness. This pattern continues in our text for today, where he addresses our motive for giving (read).
Verses 1–18 confront a subtle form of worldliness. Namely, we twist godly activities—giving to the poor, prayer, and fasting—into means of gaining praise for self rather than praise for God. It’s subtle because everyone does this. We all are tempted by the pride of life, and we all want praise.
But Jesus doesn’t care about what the world thinks; he cares about genuine godliness. And in vv. 1–4 he confronts his audience for giving alms for worldly praise instead of God’s praise. Therefore, we are going to be challenged about the motives behind our giving. But beyond that, Jesus also challenges us to think about why we engage in any form of Christian service. He teaches us that flashy does not equal godly. We must serve for God’s praise not man’s praise. Notice first that…
I. Flashy religion displeases God (v. 1).
We need to back up for a moment and notice where this verse fits within the broader Sermon. Notice again what Jesus said in 5:20. Jesus demands a deeper, purer righteousness than the flashy, external show of the Pharisees. Then he follows in vv. 21–48 by deepening the demands of the Law and by addressing our relationships—how we love and respect others.
6:1–18 continues to challenge us about genuine righteousness, but Jesus’ focus shifts from loving our neighbor to living for God’s pleasure. He makes this point by addressing 3 important aspects of Jewish godliness—almsgiving (vv. 2–4), prayer (vv. 5–15), and fasting (vv. 16–18). Jesus will point out how the Jews had turned 3 vital aspects of godliness into means of self-glory and with hypocrisy.
He introduces this theme in v. 1, and notice the temptation Jesus is concerned that we avoid. He says, “Take heed…”
In the context of 5:20, righteousness refers to good deeds that God has called us to perform. Again, Jesus addresses almsgiving, prayer, and fasting, but his warning equally applies to every work that God requires.
Specifically, Jesus warns not to subtlety shift our focus from doing these things for God’s pleasure, to practicing them “before men to be noticed by them.” Interestingly, the Greek verb, translated noticed, comes from the world of theatre. Therefore, the idea is, “Beware lest your religious deeds become a theatrical production to gain the attention and praise of people.”
We’ve all seen children do this sort of thing. They can’t just do a chore; they have to put on a full drama so that everyone sees how hard it is. It’s not impressive; it’s ridiculous.
Many athletes do this too. I think it’s great when an athlete expresses genuine excited about winning. But I can’t stand it when they feel the need to rip off their jerseys, beat their chests, and demand that everyone looks at them. One is communicating, “I can’t believe we did it.” The other is saying, “Look at me, and praise me.”
And sadly, this sort of behavior is all too common even in Christian ministry. Many churches and pastors love to put on a flashy show that is more about them than God. When people leave, they aren’t amazed by God but by the show, with how funny the pastor is, or how intelligent he is.
And the same temptation bleeds down to every level of the church. Some Christians who are very good at putting on an impressive front of godliness. They show up on Sunday looking spiritual, they are involved in every ministry, and they know all the right things to say.
But when you get under the hood, they are a mess of ungodliness. The flashy show is not about pleasing the Lord or loving people but about maintaining a image and impressing people.
As a result, notice the consequence about which Jesus warns (v. 1b). Jesus assumes that God knows our hearts perfectly. You might be able to fool everyone in this room, but you cannot fool God.
And Jesus warns that no matter how impressive a deed may appear on the outside, if I am driven by the praise of men rather than the praise of God, God sees it, he is not pleased, and I will not receive a heavenly reward.
This is a great tragedy, because no amount of earthly praise or blessing comes remotely close to God’s praise and God’s eternal reward. The Bible doesn’t give us many specifics about heaven’s rewards, but it’s clear that nothing in this life can compare. So, to sacrifice God’s praise for the praise of a few measly people is a devastatingly foolish choice. Don’t do that!
Now, I do need to offer a couple qualifiers. First, Jesus is not calling you to despair anytime you sense mixed motives in your heart. I emphasize this, because if you are prone to introspection, this verse can suck the life out of you. Afterall, our motives are never 100% pure. If you wait to serve Jesus until your motives are perfect, you will never serve him.
But Jesus knows this. Yes, he wants you to reflect on your motives and work toward purer ones; otherwise, these verses wouldn’t be in the Bible.
But when you recognize sinful motives, don’t despair; instead, confess it, learn from it, and get up praying that the Spirit will overwhelm your pride with a deeper love for the Lord. Look ahead; don’t look behind.
A 2nd qualifier is that Jesus is not saying that all public notice or recognition is sinful or negates God’s blessing (5:16). Jesus says that we should live out our faith before the world. Therefore, 6:1 cannot mean that if anyone ever notices your good works that you’ve done something wrong.
Rather, the issue is who am I seeking to glorify? 5:16 says to live before the world in such a way that they “glorify your Father who is in heaven.” In other words, when my good works reflect the power of the gospel, people will not glorify me; they will glorify God. That’s a good thing. It’s very different from the hypocritical stage production Jesus condemns in 6:1.
John the Baptist perfectly reflects Christ’s spirit, when he says, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). That’s how godly people think. They know that they are nothing except for the grace of God, and they want others to know that grace. Therefore, their passion is to manifest the grace of God and to point others to that grace.
Paul said, “May it never be that I would boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Gal 6:14). I hope that is your heart. You love to serve, and you want to manifest the power of the cross in how you serve. You want Christ to be seen. So, v. 1 states the general warning, flashy religion displeases God. Then vv. 2–4 apply this warning to almsgiving. The basic challenge in v. 2 is…
II. Reject flashy religion (v. 2).
To appreciate this verse, we first need to recognize that almsgiving played a vital role in Israelite society. Afterall, they didn’t have the government aid programs of the modern world. Therefore, if you were an orphan, disabled, a widow, or elderly, your life truly depended on the generosity of family and of society in general.
As such, the OT taught that giving alms was an important aspect of loving your neighbor. “At the end of every third year you shall bring out the tithe of your produce of that year and store it up within your gates. And the Levite, because he has no portion nor inheritance with you, and the stranger and the fatherless and the widow who are within your gates, may come and eat and be satisfied, that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hand which you do” (Deut 14:28–29).
And this emphasis only grew in the centuries leading up to Christ. Listen to these quotations from the Apocrypha. “It is better to give to charity than to lay up gold. For charity will save a man from death; it will expiate any sin” (Tobit 12:8). “As water will quench a flaming fire, so charity will atone for sin” (Wisdom of Sirach 3:30). These quotes indicate that the people of Jesus’ day did not view giving alms like we do as a low priority; rather, they believed that giving alms purchased salvation.
Of course, Jesus rejected this idea, but notice that he still saw almsgiving as an important part of godliness. Verses 2, 3 both assume that Jesus’ disciples will be generous (read).
And the NT reflects this. “But whoever has this world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him” (1 John 3:17)? Similarly, James 2 teaches that failing to be generous calls into question the sincerity of yourfaith.
Therefore, it’s important to be clear that Jesus is not discouraging generosity. The NT assumes that anyone who has truly received the love of God in the gospel will be generous in return. However, Jesus once again is forced to confront a way that his contemporaries had twisted a sincere act of love into a means of selfish gain. Notice…
The Nature of Flashy Religion: Jesus commands his audience that when they give, “Do not sound…” Jesus paints quite the sarcastic picture. The synagogues and the streets were common places for religious attention.
The local synagogue was the center of Israel’s religious life and during various feasts and fasts, the Jews would parade through the streets performing rituals. So, if you really want to let the world know about your generous gift the synagogues and the streets were the places to do it.
And Jesus pictures this person blowing trumpets while he deposits his offering. There’s no evidence that the Jews literally did this, so it seems that Jesus is using hyperbole to drive home the absurdity and hypocrisy of it all. This guy is doing everything that he can to celebrate himself before the world.
And what does Jesus call this man? He’s a hypocrite. Interestingly, this Greek word was originally used of an actor who wore a mask during a play. That’s a great illustration of what a hypocrite is. It’s someone who is one thing on the inside but hides it behind a deceptive mask.
Throughout the OT God frequently confronted Israel for hiding ungodliness behind a mask of religious deeds. “I hate, I despise your feast days, and I do not savor your sacred assemblies. Though you offer Me burnt offerings and your grain offerings, I will not accept them, nor will I regard your fattened peace offerings. Take away from Me the noise of your songs, for I will not hear the melody of your stringed instruments. But let justice run down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream” (Amos 5:21–24).
What does God really think? He despises hypocrisy. And Jesus sharply confronted the hypocrisy of his contemporaries. “He answered and said to them,“Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written:‘This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me’” (Mark 7:6).
God cares deeply about why you do what you do. He wants your heart. He wants you to love him sincerely and to truly love your neighbor, and he wants you to follow him in genuine obedience, not in some hypocritical show.
Don’t get lost in the game of religious pomp, where you crave attention, compete to be the most spiritual, and use it as justification for harboring an evil heart. You may be able to fool us, but you will not fool God. And notice tragically what the end result will be.
The Emptiness of Flashy Religion: Jesus warns the hypocritical giver, “Assuredly…” In other words, the hypocrite gave out of a desire to be seen by men, and that’s exactly what he got. A few people clapped and were impressed.
Now, from a worldly perspective, that’s a big deal. That’s why people make big donations so their names can be on a brick or a plaque. We love the praise of men. But we can all hear the sarcasm in Jesus’ voice.
In particular, we get the fact that when you compare the praise of men with the praise of Almighty God and the rewards that he offers, the praise of men suddenly doesn’t look that impressive. Afterall, it only lasts for a short time.
And people are finicky. Very often the people who are quickest to heap the loudest praise are the first to stab us in the back. There is no joy, only anxiety in chasing worldly praise. That’s why the loudest, most boisterous, showy people are often depressed and dark on the inside.
Chasing worldly praise will not satisfy. It will only leave you empty and lost. Therefore, don’t play the game with your faith or with any other aspect of life. Teenagers and young adults, don’t waste this time of your life obsessing over the shallow opinions of your peers. No, lean on the people who love you and especially on your Savior. May all of us reject flashy religion and the empty pursuit of worldly praise. Instead…
III. Pursue God’s approval (vv. 3–4).
I’d like to offer 2 challenges from these verses. First…
Replace flashy with quiet. Once again, Jesus uses hyperbole to drive home his point. He doesn’t literally mean that somehow you need to hide your generosity from yourself, because I don’t even know how you could do that.
Rather, notice the contrast between vv. 2 and 3. The man in v. 2 is determined to broadcast his gift as far as possible; whereas, the man in v. 3 is determined to keep it as quiet as possible. The point is that rather than pursuing attention, we ought to proactively avoid it.
Now, we need to think carefully about why Jesus says this and what it means for us. Is he saying that no one anywhere can ever know about our ministry? Is he saying that any form of public acknowledgement is wrong or that the moment I thank someone publicly for their ministry, they immediately lose their reward?
No, Jesus said in 5:16 to let your light shine before the world so that God would be glorified. Therefore, we should boldly live out our faith before men.
Rather, Jesus is telling us how to confront our pride. He knows that all of us in various ways are prone to wrongly seek the approval and praise of others. You may revel in people seeing you as beautiful, stylish, tough, fit, funny, smart, spiritual, or many other things. We all want to maintain an image.
And Jesus gives us a case study of how we should respond. If you crave the attention that comes from being generous, then you should take aggressive steps to counteract it. Is it wrong for someone to know that you gave a gift? No, but if you recognize that your heart is being pulled in a sinful direction, fight back. Go above and beyond in protecting yourself from being motivated to give by the praise of men. Be extra secretive.
Of course, this is a common temptation for a lot of people. That’s why we provide offering envelopes, and it’s why only a few people who have to know, know who gives what. I recognize that if I knew what people give, I would be tempted to let it affect how I minister to various people. Therefore, I work hard to not know that information.
To broaden it out, the principal Jesus teaches other ways that we operate. For example, we try to reasonable steps to thank volunteers for their ministry and let them know that we see and we appreciate what they are doing. But we only go so far, because we recognize the deceitfulness of our hearts. We don’t want to foster prideful hearts, and we certainly don’t want people ministering for human praise. We want grace-empowered ministry.
Of course, this principle applies to lots of other areas of life. If social media has become a way for you to gain the praise of men, it doesn’t matter if your posts in and of themselves are okay, you need to change your practice, because you know your heart. The same goes for your appearance. If you are dressing to impress, even if your clothes are modest, your heart is not. You may need to make some changes to guard your heart.
The fact is that giving is just one way among many that we can live for the praise of men. Jesus is saying to watch your heart and take practical, reasonable, but aggressive steps to guard the sincerity of your motives. Replace flashy with quiet. And then ultimately…
Pursue God’s approval and reward. Notice the promise with which Jesus concludes (read). There is so much rest and encouragement in this verse because it is so easy to ring your heart with anxiety over people’s unpredictable and frequently incorrect opinions.
But God always sees us perfectly. He sees when you are generous to someone who is hard to love and can’t give anything in return. He sees how you labor behind the scenes to see the sake of the gospel. He sees your labor in the home or at work that you know is right but that not else notices.
And Jesus promises that he will be faithful to reward every sacrifice and every righteous deed. Serving Christ quietly may not seem worth it in the moment, and at times it may be really hard. But God will make it worth it all.
So, live for the approval of one. You don’t have to be a slave to the foolish opinions of people; you can rest in the perfect view of God. And if he is pleased, it doesn’t really matter what anyone else thinks. And if you receive his eternal reward, it doesn’t really matter what you may have lost in this life.
And let’s especially apply this thinking to our finances. The world says, “You have to keep up with the Joneses by living a fancy, pleasure-filled life.” But God says that you need to prioritize generosity, for “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” And considering eternity, there is no wiser investment you can make than to invest in the Great Commission.
And let’s do it all with the quiet spirit Jesus requires in our text. Replace flashy with sincere. Pursue God’s eternal reward by keeping your good deeds private.