verse XXV – Heavenly Reward?
In Matthew 6:1, Messiah teaches, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before others to be seen by them; otherwise you have no reward from your Father in heaven.”
When some approach this verse, they are troubled by the idea of being rewarded for their good deeds in heaven; as if the idea of reward is contrary to the teaching of Messiah Yeshua/Jesus.
Some find the idea of reward for good deeds contrary to the life of a disciple – even contrary to Scripture itself – not recognizing that there is a difference between being rewarded by men and by God, as Paul writes, “For the rest, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, shall give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all those loving His appearing” (II Tim. 4:8). The apostle John also wrote of being rewarded, as he said, “See to yourselves, that we do not lose what we worked for, but that we might receive a complete reward” II Jn. 1:8).
Is it wrong for us to consider reward in Heaven?
How are we to understand Matthew 6:1, and other verses speaking of reward? At the conclusion of Matthew 5, Yeshua instructs us to live in a way contrary to human nature – to love your enemy and pray for those persecuting you (Matt. 5:44-45). This escalating expectation of holiness concludes with, “Therefore, be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). What is described is not a practice or a walk intended to gain or draw attention to yourself, as Messiah warned, don’t practice righteousness in order to be recognized by others, as that type of walk will result in a forfeiture of the reward promised by Yeshua.
The language of reward.
The language of reward is an important strand in the teachings of both Yeshua and Paul, actually the entire canon of Scripture. Even with our discomfort, the idea of reward in New Covenant faith must be considered. The bottom-line is that it is a motivation of mercy, causing us to either do, or abstain from doing. It is as simple as a child receiving a prize for good behavior – but that doesn’t sound very “New Testament.”
Did you ever?
Have you ever used a “reward” as a bribe with your children, something like, “If you behave while we are at this store, you can get a toy.” Were you ever embarrassed when they told someone that if they are good they will get a toy, because you had to bribe your child to behave? I think that most of us can relate to this in some way.
Let me ask you, did your “little deal” with the child change or modify their behavior from that point forward? Probably not, because even they can understand that there is something in it for them to continue to make deals with you. So what does this mean to us?
So what is Yeshua teaching us? Why speak of reward at all?
Many of us are unknowingly influenced by the Kantian idea that we should do our duty for duty’s sake, reward never taken into consideration. Scripture, however, repeatedly uses the language of reward to motivate obedience. Kant, as brilliant as he was, influenced us with a rather unbiblical notion. The God breathed Scriptures speaks of reward for obedient action on so many occasions that we should take the matter more seriously than we do. His promise of reward should be embraced with thanksgiving, not despised in an attempt to appear more pious. Our good works, commanded by the Father, should be done, not only because it is the right thing to do, but that it pleases the Father to bless us for obedience. This, it should go without saying, is not referencing salvation by works or merit (cf. Eph. 2:8-10).
He rewards us because it is pleasing to Him, not to avoid embarrassment.
Considering the Sermon on the Mount in its entirety, Yeshua is correcting the misunderstanding and misapplication of the Torah, the instruction of God, in people’s lives – doing so corrects their behavior.
Many of the Sadducees, Pharisees and scribes of the day, did their religious observance and devotion for the outward acclaim by men. It was not for the purpose of being light to surrounding peoples or to elevate their lives, but for personal recognition. Of them Yeshua said, “How can you believe if you accept praise from one another, yet make no effort to obtain the praise that comes from the only God?” (Jn. 5:44).
While Matthew 5 focused on the inward righteousness of the follower of Messiah, Matthew 6 focuses on the outward “acts of righteousness” that should be part of discipleship in Him. The Pharisees focused on “inward” purity, and often overlooked “outward” action. Matthew 6:1 addresses the dichotomy between “inward” and “outward” righteousness. The outward acts of righteousness were fruit of the inner condition. Again, Yeshua did not warn against doing acts of righteousness, but doing them in order to be noticed by those around you. He advises caution, “Be careful,” because to be acknowledged by others is a tempting reward in itself.
It is natural for humans to want praise, recognition and acceptance – this, when unsought by us is acceptable and should not be rejected as some form of pious humility, but as Yeshua cautions, “Take heed that you do not do your charitable deeds before men, to be seen by them,” in other words, to be recognized and praised because of them – for this will be your only reward (Matt. 6:2). Yet, we find an issue, in Matthew 5:16 Yeshua said, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”
To be seen or not to be seen, that is the question.
In one place we are told to be a light and to be seen while doing our good works, while in another place, Matt. 6:1, 3, we are told not to do our good works before men to be seen by them. Isn’t this a contradiction? Actually there is no contradiction at all; it is just that Yeshua is teaching in a classically Jewish way, with subtlety that demands our keen attention.
In Matthew 5, Yeshua is speaking of our duty to let the world clearly see how our lives have been changed by the grace of God – and that we are unashamed to be identified as the people of God. This we might understand as the fulfilling of our ethical and moral duty to the Lord, and our surrounding community.
In Matthew 6 and 7, Yeshua is warning us not to attempt to appear pious in order for people to admire us and be in awe of us – we are not to glorify ourselves by our “show” of righteousness. He is warning us that our devotion to the Lord, in order to be done correctly and wholeheartedly for Him, must be done solely unto Him, for His good pleasure, as He is a jealous God.
Both of these, in reality, are pointing to the same thing – the glorification of the Lord. As people see the light that we shine forth, as Yeshua said, they will “glorify your Father in heaven.” And as we do our good deeds for His joy, not for the recognition of men, He will honor that work in due time, with what Paul called the “crown of righteousness,” that will eventually be laid before the feet of Yeshua in heaven. New Testament scholar F.F. Bruce explains it succinctly, “Show what you are tempted to hide, hide what you are tempted to show.”
Show – Hide.
Show that you are a disciple of Yeshua, that you are following the Word of the Lord in your life. Hide your prayer life, and your charity, just as examples. In Matthew 5:16, Yeshua is encouraging us to overcome cowardice; while in Matthew 6:1, He is pointing us to resist the temptation of vanity.
Yeshua, by these words, is giving us the opportunity to doubly bless the Lord: 1) by our outward morality – living in godliness for people to see; and 2) through inward obedience – that only the Lord can see.
The final question becomes whose “well done” are we more interested in, the recognition of man or that of the Lord? When we seek to have our deeds or works accepted and appreciated by man, we have lost the reward promised us in heaven. When people acknowledge what we have done, without our fishing for recognition, that is acceptable; but we must be ever cautious to do all things as unto the Lord, desiring His approval, not that of man – as man can, and will, disapprove of what the Lord approves.
The reward of heaven is great, and He is faithful to give it; but we must be patient, faithful, humble and obedient to Him alone.
Shalom. Be well.