by William J. Stewart
This past week, I received an interesting e-mail from a visitor to our web site, in which I was accused of being disobedient to the Lord and of hypocrisy, because I pray openly in church. Needless to say, I was a bit surprised at such an accusation. The correspondent cited Matthew 6:5-6 as an injunction against praying openly in church and on the street corners. Let us consider the Lord’s words in that text, and the testimony of Scripture with regard to where one ought to pray.
You Shall Not Be Like The Hypocrites
The Lord said,
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. 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. (Matthew 6:5-6)
How were the Jewish leaders guilty of hypocrisy? It was their desire to be seen by men, and receive the praise of men. This they did with regard to charitable deeds (Matthew 6:1-4), prayer (Matthew 6:5-8), and fasting (Matthew 6:16-18). In each case, the Lord comments, “…they have their reward”, namely, the glory of men. Their intent was to look good before men, and they did, but their deeds and attitude displayed before God the filth of their hearts. Elsewhere, Jesus said of the Jewish leaders:
But all their works they do to be seen by men. They make their phylacteries broad and enlarge the borders of their garments. They love the best place at feasts, the best seats in the synagogues, greetings in the marketplaces, and to be called by men, ‘Rabbi, Rabbi.’ (Matthew 23:5-7)
He goes on to describe their hypocrisy in this fashion:
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees! For you are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. Even so you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. (Matthew 23:27-28)
The Pharisees’ desire to look good before men caused them to use the service of God as a stage. They acted the part of faithful servant well enough to convince most of the populace, but God was not fooled by their performance. They sought an audience and the glory of men; they received their reward.
Hypocrite – Gr.hypokrites
“an actor under an assumed character (stage-player), ie. (figuratively) a dissembler…” (Strong’s)
does praying in public make one a hypocrite? If the intent is to be seen by men, then most certainly it does. However, Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:5-6 are not an injunction against public prayer. It is a warning of the attitude which permeated the life of the Pharisees – the craving for the attention and praise of man.
If Matthew 6:5 absolutely excludes public prayers, then Matthew 6:6absolutely confines the location of all prayer to a closet. That was not the Lord’s intent. In fact, just 3 verses later, Jesus lead a prayer, in public. Again, it was their “…love …to be seen by men…” that Jesus condemned.
There are numerous occasions throughout Scripture, both Old Testament and New Testament, where we see prayers in the midst of an assembly being offered, whether it be in the open air, at the tabernacle, in the temple, at someone’s home, etc.. Consider a few examples:
- While Zacharias was ministering in the temple, we’re told that“…the whole multitude of the people was praying outside at the hour of incense.” (Luke 1:10)
- When Jesus was baptized by John, we’re told that “…while He prayed, the heaven was opened.” (Luke 3;21)
- Luke lists the apostles of the Lord, and said, “…these all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication, with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with His brothers.” (Acts 1:14)
- When Herod had Peter locked up, “…constant prayer was offered to God for him by the church.” (Acts 12:5), and again, we are told after Peter was released from prison by the Lord, “…he came to the house of Mary, the mother of John whose surname was Mark, where many were gathered together praying.” (Acts 12:12)
- In the city of Philippi, Paul and Silas “…went out of the city to the riverside, where prayer was customarily made…” (Acts 16:13)
- Regarding prayer when the church is assembled, Paul wrote, “For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my understanding is unfruitful. What is the conclusion then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will pray also with the understanding. I will sing with the spirit, and I will also sing with the understanding. Otherwise, if you bless with the spirit, how will he who occupies the place of the uninformed say ‘Amen’ at your giving of thanks, since he does not understand what you say? For you indeed give thanks well, but the other is not edified.” (1 Corinthians 14:14-17)
- Paul instructed Timothy regarding “…how you ought to conduct yourself in the house of God…” (1 Timothy 3:15).
- Paul said, “I desire therefore that the men pray everywhere, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and doubting.” (1 Timothy 2:8)
There is certainly a time for private prayers, the manner of which Jesus speaks of in Matthew 6:6. Prayer is our communication with the Lord, and thus, we should seek to engage in prayer often. When we intend to speak with the Lord individually, we need to find a suitable location. We see Jesus departing to a solitude place for prayer (Matthew 14:23; Matthew 26:36; Mark 6:46; Luke 6:12; Luke 9:28; John 6:15). That is the thought in the Lord’s words about going into our closet, that we might pray in a secret, a secluded place. And yet such is not always possible.
Paul and Silas, after being arrested in Philippi, found themselves in prison.“But at midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them.”(Acts 16:25) They were in a solution where it was not possible to have seclusion. Did they thus choose not to pray? No! They prayed, and did so with an audience in their midst. But, notice what makes Paul and Silas differ from the Pharisees whom Jesus condemned – these men were not focused on the attention of men, but upon glorifying God. Their willingness to pray, even when others were nearby, resulted in an opportunity to influence several people for good.
What is the conclusion? Whether it be in public prayer or in private prayer, let us endeavour to do so with our focus upon the Lord. Let us take advantage of every opportunity to communicate our thanksgiving, our joys, our sorrows, our needs, with the Father of spirits. Let us be given to prayer; let us“pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17).