May 11 – What about Public Prayer?

They love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full.—Matt. 6:5b

In Jesus’ time, the synagogues were the likeliest and most appropriate places for sincere public praying. Devout Jews also offered many prayers on street corners, if that’s where they were at the appointed hour of prayer. But the word Jesus uses here indicates a major street, and therefore a major street corner where a bigger crowd would likely be. By inference the hypocrites were at fault for wanting to pray before the biggest possible audience. No location is intrinsically forbidden as a place of prayer. But it’s not right to consistently choose such a spot just to attract the largest audience.

As with anything tainted by human ambition and pride, the sin of praying in the wrong place begins in the heart. Like the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable (cf. Luke 18:11), the hypocrites He mentions here prayed primarily to themselves and before others, not to God—and He wants no part in that.

Some Christians have thought Jesus’ warnings here rule out all forms of public prayer. But to do so was not our Lord’s intention. He prayed many times with His apostles (e.g., Luke 11:1) and in the midst of much larger crowds (e.g., Matt. 14:19). The early church rejoiced and “lifted their voices to God with one accord” (Acts 4:24) after the Jewish leaders released Peter and John. Public praying also is available to us, whether in church, Sunday school, or any smaller meeting of fellow believers.

What reward do those who perform their religious practices for show actually receive? And why isn’t this enough to really satisfy—even when it’s paid “in full”?[1]

The Audience of Prayer

The False Audience: Other Men

And when you pray, you are not to be as the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners, in order to be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. (6:5)

No religion has ever had a higher standard and priority for prayer than Judaism. As God’s chosen people the Jews were the recipients of His written Word, “entrusted with the oracles of God” (Rom. 3:2). God spoke directly to Abraham and to many of his descendants, and they had spoken directly to Him. No other people, as a race or as a nation, has ever been so favored by God or had such direct communication with Him. Of all people, they should have known how to pray. But they did not. Like every other aspect of their religious life, their praying had been corrupted and perverted by rabbinic tradition. Most Jews were completely confused about how to pray as God wanted.

William Barclay, in a most helpful discussion of this passage in The Gospel of Matthew ([Philadelphia: Westminster, 1958], 1:191), points out that over the years a number of faults had crept into Jewish prayer life. For one thing, prayer had become ritualized. The wording and forms of prayers were set, and were then simply read or repeated from memory. Such prayers could be given with almost no attention being paid to what was said. They were a routine, semiconscious religious exercise.

A faithful Jew would repeat the Shema early in the morning and again at night. That prayer, which began, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord,” was a composite of selected phrases from Deuteronomy 6:4–9, 11:13–21 and Numbers 15:37–41. Often an abbreviated version (Deut. 6:4 only) was used.

Another formalized prayer Barclay refers to was the Shemonēh ˓esray, (“The Eighteen”), which embodied eighteen prayers for various occasions. Faithful Jews prayed all eighteen each morning, afternoon, and evening. It, too, had an abbreviated version.

Both the Shema and the Shemonēh ˓esray were to be said every day, regardless of where one might be or what one was doing. Wherever one was-whether at home, in the field, at work, on a journey, in the synagogue, or visiting friends-at the appointed time the devout Jew stopped what he was doing and offered the appropriate prayer. The most common times were at the third, sixth, and ninth hours (9:00 a.m., 12:00 noon, and 3:00 p.m., according to the Palestinian mode of time).

The ritual prayers could be given with three basic attitudes: sincerity, indifference, or pride. Those Jews whose hearts were right used the times of prayer to worship and glorify God. They thought about the words and sincerely believed what they prayed. Others went through the words perfunctorily, mumbling the syllables as fast as possible in order to finish. Others, such as the scribes and Pharisees, recited the prayers meticulously, making sure to enunciate every word and syllable properly. Three times a day they had a ready-made opportunity to parade their piosity.

A second fault that had crept into Jewish prayer life was the development of prescribed prayers for every object and every occasion. There were prayers for light, darkness, fire, rain, the new moon, traveling, good news, bad news, and so on. No doubt the original intent was to bring every aspect of life into the presence of God; but by making the prayers prescribed and formalized that purpose was undermined.

A third fault, already mentioned, was the practice of limiting prayer to specific times and occasions. Prayer was offered when the given time came or situation arose, with no relation to genuine desire or need. As with prescribed wording, prescribed times did not prevent true prayer from being offered. Many faithful Jews like Daniel (Dan. 6:10) used those times as reminders to open their hearts to the Lord. Even in the early church, because most Christians were Jews and still worshiped at the Temple and in the synagogues, the traditional hours of prayer were often observed (see Acts 3:1; cf. 10:3, 30).

A fourth fault was in esteeming long prayers, believing that a prayer’s sanctity and effectiveness were in direct proportion to its length. Jesus warned of the scribes who, “for appearance’s sake offer long prayers” (Mark 12:40). A long prayer, of course, is not necessarily an insincere prayer. But a long public prayer lends itself to pretense, repetition, rote, and many other such dangers. The fault is in praying “for appearance’s sake,” to impress others with our religiosity.

Ancient rabbis maintained that the longer the prayer, the more likely it would be heard and heeded by God. Verbosity was confused with meaning, and length was confused with sincerity.

A fifth fault, singled out by Jesus in Matthew 6:7, was that of meaningless repetitions, patterned after those of pagan religions. In their contest with Elijah on Mt. Carmel, the pagan prophets “called on the name of Baal from morning until noon saying, ‘O Baal, answer us,’ ” and they “raved until the time of the offering of the evening sacrifice” (1 Kings 18:26, 29). Hour after hour they repeated the same phrase, trying by the very quantity of their words to make their god hear and respond.

Through the centuries the Jews had been influenced by such pagan practices. They often added adjective after adjective before God’s name in their prayers, apparently trying to outdo one another in mentioning His divine attributes.

By far the worst fault, however, was that of wanting to be seen and heard by other people, especially their fellow Jews. Most of the other faults were not necessarily wrong in themselves, but were carried to extremes and used in meaningless ways. But this fault was intrinsically evil, because it both came from and was intended to satisfy pride. Whatever form the prayer may have taken, the motive was sinful self-glory, the ultimate perversion of this sacred means of glorifying God (John 14:13).

It is that despicable fault that Jesus zeroes in on. And when you pray, you are not to be as the hypocrites. Prayer that focuses on self is always hypocritical, because, by definition, the focus of every prayer should be on God. As mentioned in the last chapter, the term hypocrite originally referred to actors who used large masks to portray the roles they were playing. Hypocrites are actors, pretenders, persons who play a role. What they say and do does not represent what they themselves feel or believe but only the image they hope to create.

The hypocritical scribes and Pharisees prayed for the same purpose they did everything else-to attract attention and bring honor to themselves. That was the essence of their “righteousness,” which Jesus said had no part in His kingdom (5:20).

An old commentator observed that the greatest danger to religion is that the old self simply becomes religious. The hypocrites of whom Jesus speaks had convinced themselves that by performing certain religious acts, including various types of prayer, they became acceptable to God. People today still deceive themselves into thinking they are Christians, when all they have done is dress their old nature in religious trappings.

Nothing is so sacred that Satan will not invade it. In fact, the more sacred something is, the more he desires to profane it. Surely few things please him more than to come between believers and their Lord in the sacred intimacy of prayer. Sin will follow us into the very presence of God; and no sin is more powerful or destructive than pride. In those moments when we would come before the Lord in worship and purity of heart, we may be tempted to worship ourselves.

Martyn Lloyd-Jones writes,

We tend to think of sin as we see it in rags and in the gutters of life. We look at a drunkard, poor fellow, and we say, there is sin. But that is not the essence of sin. To have a real picture and a true understanding of sin, you must look at some great saint, some unusually devout and devoted man, look at him there on his knees in the very presence of God. Even there self is intruding itself, and the temptation is for him to think about himself, to think pleasantly and pleasurably about himself and to really be worshiping himself rather than God. That, not the other, is the true picture of sin. The other is sin, of course, but there you do not see it at its acme, you do not see it in its essence. Or to put it in another form, if you really want to understand something about the nature of Satan and his activities, the thing to do is not to go to the dregs or the gutters of life. If you really want to know something about Satan, go away to that wilderness where our Lord spent forty days and forty nights. That’s the true picture of Satan, where you see him tempting the very Son of God. (Studies in the Sermon on the Mount [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977], 2:22–23)

From what we know in the scriptural record, Jesus’ two most intense times of spiritual opposition were during His forty days of solitude in the wilderness and during His prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night He was betrayed and arrested. On both occasions He was alone praying to His Father. It was in the most private and holy place of communion that Satan presented his strongest temptations before the Son of God.

The hypocrites loved to stand and pray. Standing was a normal position for prayer among the Jews. In the Old Testament we see God’s faithful praying while kneeling, while lying prostrate, and while standing. In New Testament times standing was the most common position and did not necessarily indicate a desire to be noticed.

The synagogues were the most appropriate and likely places for public prayers to be offered. It was the place where Jews worshiped most often, especially those who lived great distances from the Temple. The synagogue was the local place of assembly, not only for worship but for various civic and social gatherings. If done sincerely, prayer at any of those functions was appropriate.

The street corners were also a normal place for prayer, because devout Jews would stop wherever they were at the appointed hour for prayer, even if they were walking down the street or visiting at the corner. But the word used here for street is not the same as that in verse 2, which refers to a narrow street (rhumē). The word used here (plateia) refers to a wide, major street, and therefore to a major street corner, where a crowd was most likely to be. The implied fault here is that the hypocrites loved to pray where they would have the largest audience. There was nothing wrong with praying at a major intersection if that was where you happened to be at the time for prayer. But something was very much wrong if you planned to be there at prayer time for the specific purpose of praying where the most people could see you.

The real evil of those hypocritical worshipers, whether in the synagogues or on the street corners, was the desire to display themselves in order to be seen of men. It was not wrong to pray in those places, but they happened to afford the largest audiences, and were therefore the places where the hypocrites preferred to pray.

As always, the sin began in the heart. It was pride, the desire to exalt themselves before their fellow Jews, that was the root of the sin. Like the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable, those hypocrites ended up praying to themselves (see Luke 18:11) and before other people. God had no part.

Some overly reactionary believers have used these warnings of Jesus as a reason to renounce all public prayer. But the Lord taught no such thing. He Himself often prayed in the presence of His disciples (Luke 11:1) and in public, as when He blessed food before feeding the multitudes (Matt. 14:19). Scripture records many public prayers that were entirely appropriate and sincere. At the dedication of the Temple, Solomon prayed an extended, detailed prayer before all the priests, Levites, and leaders of Israel (2 Chron. 6:1–42; cf. 5:2–7). When, under Ezra’s leadership, the covenant was renewed after the Exile, a group of eight Levites offered a heartfelt, moving prayer of repentance before all the people (Neh. 9:5–38). After Peter and John were arrested, questioned, and then released by the Sanhedrin shortly after Pentecost, the whole group of their companions rejoiced and “lifted their voices to God with one accord” (Acts 4:24).

But the public prayers of the typical scribe or Pharisee were ritualistic, mechanical, inordinately long, repetitious, and above all ostentatious. Like the hypocrites who gave for the sake of men’s praise (Matt. 6:2), those who prayed for the sake of men’s praise also had their reward in full. They were concerned only about the reward men could give, and that is all the reward they received.[2]

  1. Also, whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to say their prayers standing up in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by the people. The reference here is to prayer in general, including thanksgiving, praise, adoration, confession of sin, personal petition, intercession for the needs of others, etc. Among the Jews, though prayers were always appropriate, there were set times for prayer, when the pious were expected to attend to their devotions. Thus, there were morning, afternoon, and evening prayers (Ps. 55:17; Dan. 6:10; Acts 3:1). According to Josephus (Antiquities XIV.65) sacrifices, including prayers, were offered in the temple “twice a day, in the early morning and at the ninth hour.” There was also a sunset service. Naturally, if one were living or staying in or near Jerusalem and could get to the temple in time, that would seem to the devout Israelite to be the best place to pray (Luke 18:9, 10; Acts 3:1). Otherwise, the synagogue would do, or even the street.

Now Scripture nowhere condemns public prayer (2 Chron. 6:14–42; Neh. 9; Acts 4:24–31), nor individual prayer offered in a public place. Neither the Pharisee nor the publican sinned by praying in the temple (Luke 18:9, 10). What the Lord condemns here is ostentatious praying, that is, having one’s private (?) devotions in the most public place, with the intention of being seen and honored by the people. That was, however, exactly what the hypocrites were in the habit of doing. When the Pharisee of Christ’s famous parable (Luke 18:9–14) entered the temple, he took care not to be standing in some corner or at a considerable distance from the front, like the publican. He stood up in front, in full view of everyone who might be present. What happened in the temple took place also in the synagogue. And even at the street corners! Note: here not alleys or alleyways as in 6:2, but the corners of the busiest streets. Did the hypocrites just happen to reach the most conspicuous place at exactly the right moment? However that may be, their motive and purpose was “to be seen by the people” and to be admired by them. It is this that Jesus condemns.—From this it appears clearly that in the teaching of Jesus it is the inner disposition that counts. It is the heart truly and humbly devoted to God upon which the divine approval rests (John 4:24).

As to the hypocrites and their vain display, Jesus repeats the words spoken just a moment ago (see on verse 2): I solemnly declare to you, they have already received their reward in full.

The negative condemnation of the wrong practice is followed by the positive exhortation to follow the right practice, just as in verses 2 and 3 in connection with giving to charity, and in verses 16–18 in connection with fasting. From start to finish the sermon is arranged in a very orderly, systematic, and logical manner.[3]

5 Again Jesus assumes that his disciples will pray, but he forbids the prayers of “hypocrites” (see comments at v. 2). Prayer had a prominent place in Jewish life and led to countless rabbinic decisions (cf. m. Ber.). In synagogue worship, someone from the congregation might be asked to pray publicly, standing in front of the ark. And at certain times prayers could be offered in the streets (m. Taʿan. 2:1–2; see comments at v. 2). But the location was not the critical factor. Neither is the “standing” posture in itself significant. In the Bible people pray prostrate (Nu 16:22; Jos 5:14; Da 8:17; Mt 26:39; Rev 11:16), kneeling (2 Ch 6:13; Da 6:10; Lk 22:41, Ac 7:60; 9:40; 20:36; 21:5), sitting (2 Sa 7:18), and standing (1 Sa 1:26; Mk 11:25; Lk 18:11, 13). Again it is the motive that is crucial—“to be seen by men.” And again there is the same reward (cf. Mt 6:2 and 5).[4]

6:5 Next Jesus warns His disciples against hypocrisy when they pray. They should not purposely position themselves in public areas so that others will see them praying and be impressed by their piety. If the love for prominence is the only motive in prayer, then, Jesus declares, the prominence gained is the only reward.[5]

[1] MacArthur, J. (2008). Daily readings from the life of Christ (p. 140). Chicago: Moody Publishers.

[2] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (pp. 362–366). Chicago: Moody Press.

[3] Hendriksen, W., & Kistemaker, S. J. (1953–2001). Exposition of the Gospel According to Matthew (Vol. 9, pp. 321–322). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.

[4] Carson, D. A. (2010). Matthew. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew–Mark (Revised Edition) (Vol. 9, p. 199). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[5] MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (p. 1224). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.


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