How did Jesus instruct His disciples to worship God? How did this private worship toward God contrast with the practices of the religious hypocrites?
In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6), Jesus stated that His disciples should do charitable deeds, pray and fast. However, they were not to do these charitable deeds or practice their religion for the purpose of impressing others.
Why would Jesus be concerned about the need to keep their practices of worship private?
Three acts of private worship toward God
Three times Jesus told His disciples not to worship like the hypocrites whose desire in worshipping God was to be seen by, and receive credit from, men.
“Therefore, when you do a charitable deed, do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory from men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward” (Matthew 6:2, emphasis added throughout).
“And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward” (verse 5).
“Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward” (verse 16).
In each case, whether doing a good deed, praying or fasting, the disciples were warned not to draw the attention of others. If that was their motive, then that—being seen by men—would be their only reward. It is important to know that it is toward God we worship, and the Father “who sees in secret will Himself reward you openly” (verses 4, 6, 18).
A charitable deed
Jesus gave His disciples this admonition: Do not do a charitable deed before men to be seen by them. “Otherwise you have no reward from your Father in heaven” (verse 1). Instead, “When you do a charitable deed, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, that your charitable deed may be in secret” (verses 3-4).
What does this expression mean? The left and right hands are connected to the same body, so how can one hand not know what the other hand is doing? Notice what Barnes’ Notes on the New Testament says about this verse:
“This is a proverbial expression, signifying that the action should be done as secretly as possible. … The encouragement for doing this is, that it will be pleasing to God; that he will see the act, however secret it may be, and will openly reward it. If the reward is not greater in this life, it will be in the life to come. In multitudes of cases, however, alms given to the poor are ‘lent to the Lord’ (Prov. xix:17) and will be repaid in this life. Rarely, perhaps never, has it been found that the man who is liberal to the poor, has ever suffered by it in his worldly circumstances.”
There are a number of scriptures that encourage charitable giving. One in particular says: “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all, especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Galatians 6:10). Our works of giving should be done for God’s glory. Keeping a mental tabulation of “good deeds” takes us in the wrong direction.
Jesus knew that if we emphasized our charitable giving with pride—to be seen by men—then we would only be hurting ourselves and miss out on the open reward that would come from God.
Jesus then taught His disciples about the second act of worship—prayer. “But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly. And when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words. Therefore do not be like them. For your Father knows the things you have need of before you ask Him” (Matthew 6:6-8).
Now, there are times when an official prayer is made in public on behalf of others, as in asking for God’s blessing on a church service or over a meal. But Jesus said that a disciple’s own personal prayer to God should be focused and be done in a private room (a separate, quiet, private place), away from distractions and interruptions. There, alone with God, one can pray without pretense. He wants our undivided attention, and He commands that we put Him first (Matthew 22:37).
Jesus then presented the “outline” of prayer, which included things to pray about to God. All this was to be done in private—in the “secret place.” And the reward for doing so in this manner will be an open reward that will come from God.
For further details about prayer, please read our article on “How to Pray.”
The third act of worship toward God is fasting, which is going without food and water for a period of time. Everyone is commanded to fast once a year on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 23:32). However, faithful Israelites fasted at other times, such as when they faced a crisis (Esther 4:16) and when they wanted to draw close to God in repentance (2 Samuel 12:13-18; Psalm 51).
Jesus fasted before He confronted Satan (Matthew 4:2), and He told His disciples that they would fast after His resurrection (Mark 2:18-20). The apostle Paul wrote that he fasted often (2 Corinthians 11:27).
Fasting is toward God; it is an affliction that reminds us of our dependence on God. It is not just a ritual, like what the Pharisee practiced in Luke 18:12. He fasted twice a week and gained a feeling of personal satisfaction for going without food and water. It was not a humble fast, but one of pride.
Jesus’ instructions were: “But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly” (Matthew 6:17-18).
For further information on how to fast, please read our article on “What Is Fasting?”
Even though Jesus emphasized the quiet, private worship toward God by charitable giving, praying and fasting, there are other forms of worship that are just as important and should not be neglected. One such form of worship is to assemble together on God’s Sabbath and holy days to honor God and to fellowship with fellow members of God’s Church.
“And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching” (Hebrews 10:24-25).
Another form of worshipping God during church services is in singing hymns. The apostle Paul states the following: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord” (Colossians 3:16).
Start worshipping as Jesus instructed
When all these forms of worship take place as Jesus instructed, they strengthen our relationship with God. And the final reminder is that “whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him” (Colossians 3:17). God promises to openly reward those who sincerely worship Him.
Now is a good time to start worshipping God as Jesus instructed!