Let us turn to the 6th chapter of Matthew’s gospel, the 5th and the 6th verses and read here the word of God as follows: “When thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily, I say unto you, they have their reward. But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut the door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.”
Christ instructs His disciples to pray behind the closed door. This cannot mean that here he lays His people under a law requiring that always they refrain from praying in public. We know from the Scriptures that God wills also the public prayer. The duties that belong to the office of pastors and teachers include the task of blessing the flock of God in the name of Christ and of voicing its common needs before the Throne on the meetings for public worship. Isn’t it true that public prayer is with God’s believing people an institution for all their assemblies—namely, prayer, in which the one saint at the request of the several voices audibly before the face of God the felt needs, the sanctified thoughts and desires of the several; and thus a prayer in which the several poin the one and in which all are joined together by a common faith in Christ. It is not true therefore that what Christ means to be telling us is that the only prayers to which the Father inclines his ear are such as His people offer Him in private. Besides, such prayers can be just as abominable as the prayers of the hypocrites of our Scripture passage, though they be made behind closed doors. It all depends on to whom they pray, to the Father or to an idol.
Yet, certainly, the believer has need also of praying behind the closed door. For as member of the redeemed family of God, the believer, like the hand, the foot, the eye, and the ear of the human body, is distinguishable by an individuality—individual gift and function—that is his own. And in this life, still lying as he does in the midst of death, the believer is distinguished, too, by individual sins, miseries, weaknesses, troubles, trials, and temptations. Each believer therefore has his own need of Christ’s God and of His love and grace, which can just as well be made known to the Father behind the closed door. The believer also has need of being with his Heavenly Father alone. There are always things that he wants to tell the Father, that are meant only for the Father’s ears.
There is, then, the public and the private prayer. And the Father inclines His ear unto both, to the latter as well as to the former. For He is Father to His people collectively but just as certain is He Father to each of His people individually. He dwells also with the lone broken of heart, the lone sheep, giving Himself to him wholly in Christ, instructing, reproving, and comforting him by Christ’s Spirit and word, as he has need.
Christ reveals that the hypocrites of His day were praying much in public. They were praying not as pastors, voicing on meetings for public worship the common needs of the flock of God. Nor were they praying as leaders of societies addressed to the task of searching the Scriptures and assembled in the synagogues for that purpose. But as lone petitioners they prayed. Standing solitary in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, they prayed, at least apparently so, judging from their posture. Their praying in these places was certainly vile. Christ, who knew men’s hearts, reveals the reason.
They loved to pray in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets to be seen of men. That was their sin. Not, to be sure, that it is as such wrong to want men to see us worshipping God. It is our calling, isn’t it, to let our light shine that men may see our good works. We must penetrate to the heart of the matter. These hypocrites wanted men to see them praying because they were glorying in themselves and not in God and because, accordingly, they wanted to be glorified of men. And so, to achieve their aim, they prayed in the corner of the streets meaning to produce the impression that they were men of surpassing piety with a monopoly on godliness. And some of them, or even perhaps several of their number, so Christ elsewhere reveals, had an additional motive. They lusted after the property of widows and orphans; and to throw these defenseless members of their commonwealth off guard, they cloaked themselves in the forms of religious worship; they made long prayers in the synagogues and in the corners of their streets, in order that, however full of dead men’s bones they might be, they might nevertheless appear beautiful to men, particularly to the widows and orphans whose houses they were planning to plunder.
Need we wonder at the teaching of the Scriptures elsewhere that the prayers of the ungodly are an abomination in the sight of God? However, in pronouncing with Christ sentence of condemnation on these hypocrites, it is well to consider that, wherein we judge them, we condemn ourselves. For apart from Christ’s grace, we are no better. This is evident, isn’t it? Take notice once more of the basic trouble with these people. They gloried in themselves and wanted to be glorified of men. It means that they were strutting the earth as prostrated in their hearts before the shrine of their own ego instead of paying homage to the Father. And their robbing the houses of the widows under the pretense of making long prayers—what does it indicate but that they had their affection set on the things on this earth, which they were determined to acquire by means fair or foul. Such were the basic troubles with these men.
And are these not also the basic and native troubles with every one of us, namely, our carnal pride, our self-worship, our praying to gods that are no gods, our seeking the things on earth with all our heart and power, each of us for himself. The horrible hypocrisy of the hypocrites of Christ’s day only reveals to what fearful lengths we sinful men are capable of going in our effort to acquire the things which in our depravity we lust. Of course, you will realize that I speak of ourselves as we are by nature apart from the redeeming grace of Christ.
To His disciples Christ says: “Be not as the hypocrites are; but thou, my people, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut the door, pray to thy Father, which is in secret; and thy Father, who seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.’’
God’s believing people have need of this admonition, certainly. For though raised by Christ’s Spirit from their spiritual death, there is still so much of the hypocrite and idolater left in every one of them. It was as a Christian and as a spiritual Christian man that the apostle Paul complained: “For that which I do, I allow not: for what I would, that I do not; but what what I hate, that I do . . . O wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me from the body of this death.’’ But as filled with the wisdom of which the fear of the Lord is the beginning, the true disciples discern the wisdom of Christ’s admonition and by His grace do the thing that He requires of them.
Let us concentrate on this positive side of Christ’s instruction. “And your Father who is is secret . . .” The Father dwells in secret. There is a secret abode of the Father—the triune Jehovah, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, unto which no man can approach. It is the light, the total of His glories, where He dwells solitary. But there is also a secret place of the Father accessible to the believers through Christ’s blood. It is the sanctuary above, the house of God over which Christ has been set a great high-priest. Here the believers, the contrite of heart, find the Father on the wings of prayer. To be truly praying is to be with
Christ and His Father in His sanctuary, pouring out our hearts to Him. If a man is only in the sanctuary where Christ is at the right hand of God all is well with that man, no matter where he may be praying, behind the closed door, or in the streets, or on the farm, or in the office or factory, or on the battle field amid the din and roar of war with death stalking all about him,—if he is in the sanctuary, it is well with His soul. For the eye of God is on that man in love. Though he may be blown to bits, nothing can harm him really; for he dwells in the shadow of God’s wings.
But in order to be with God through prayer in His sanctuary, in order to be drawn into His presence by His love and Spirit, it is not necessary that we pray in the corner of the streets. True, if we want to be seen of men, we must make an open show of our private prayers. For men see only what meets the outward, physical eye. Men cannot see in secret. Their eye does not penetrate the walls and doors of our closet. But it is different with the Father’s eye. His eye is all-seeing. There is no place where His eye does not penetrate. It pierces, does the eye of the Father, even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the hearts of men. If so, why should the followers of Christ be praying in public, if there be no cause? Let them in this case by all means retreat to their closet and shutting the door, let them pray not to an idol but to their Father. And their Father which seeth in secret shall reward them openly.
For they pray to the Father. They seek after the Father, after their heavenly Father of the heavenly Christ. Hence, they seek not the things on earth, but the things above where Christ is at the right hand of God. And therefore the Father will surely reward them. For they pray to their Father; they seek their Father and their Father’s glory, and their Father’s heavenly things. Such petitions are always heard, rewarded, without exception. In the way of their prayers, the Father’s very own work in them, such worshippers receive the things they seek—they receive the reward—the reward of grace. And what a reward it is? It includes the Father Himself. He is the reward of His people, exceeding great. And therefore the reward includes also grace and always more grace for the good fight of faith which Christ’s disciples, His redeemed people, must fight and do fight, toward the victory that is theirs in Christ. It includes, does this reward, the new earth, where the tabernacle of God, of the Father, will be with men, the men of the Father’s good pleasure, whom He will clothe at the appearing of Christ with the perfection and glory of the heavenly because in this present dispensation of the world they prayed to the Father. So will He reward them openly before the eyes of angels, men, and devils, so that all will see that in this life they prayed to the Father. For they who honor the Father, the Father will honor.
And consider in comparison herewith the reward of the hypocrites. The reward that they have. It is the vain praises of men and the property of widows, and rightly called the curse reward of the wicked, the things on earth that they sought. For the Scriptures predict that the elements will melt, that all the works of men will burn, and that the hypocrites who persistently sought the things on earth and loved the world and its lusts and pride will be driven into everlasting darkness by the curse of the Father and of Christ. That, too, must be included in the reward of the hypocrites because they prayed to idols and not to the Father. It is this wages of sin, which is death.
What a reward!