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Sermon on the Mount: Practicing Righteousness

The gift of spiritual disciplines.

Written by David Steltz on .


Introduction & Recap

Good morning! We’ve had a break for the last couple weeks from our study through the book of Matthew, but we’ll be going back into it today, at least for one week before Christmas.

Two weeks ago was Thanksgiving, so I talked a bit about gratitude, and last week we got to hear from Tim Kubacki, Ellie’s dad, about the work he and his wife Betsy are involved with in Angola. We got a glimpse into Angolan culture, and really a powerful call to truly follow Jesus by being moved to compassion for the poor, sick, and starving people of the world, and not just the feeling of compassion, but the action of compassion.

If you missed his presentation you can watch the video online, complete with his whole slideshow of photos. I know some of you are probably thinking you never want to see some of those images again! And I don’t blame you, a few of them were pretty rough, though I also know he definitely left out a lot worse, so you can thank him for actually keeping it relatively tame for us! And even though it can be uncomfortable to see, I think it’s important to be aware of the suffering going on, not just on the other side of the world, but even in our own neighborhoods. 

Jesus said that if we fail to serve those in need, to clothe the naked and feed the hungry, then we’ve failed to serve him. And we can’t serve those in need if we turn a blind eye to them.

I thought it was worth bringing Tim’s message up, not just in case you missed it, but also because I think his call to action actually ties in well and leads into the passage we’re going to look at today.

We left off three weeks ago at the end of Matthew chapter five. Mike wrapped up the last bit of the section we’ve been calling the “six intensifications,” otherwise known as the “six antitheses.” And that wraps the first of the three chapters known as the sermon on the mount, Jesus’s most famous sermon.

His sermon started with the “Beatitudes” or “Blessings,” then he talked about being Salt and Light, and then he made a very clear statement that he didn’t come to get rid of or contradict Old Testament scripture, but that he would fulfill the requirements of the law. And then he went on to make six statements starting with “You have heard it said...” followed by “But I tell you this...” which almost sounds like he is contradicting the Old Testament, but really he’s helping people understand it more adequately, while also helping people understand their need for someone else to fulfill the law, because everyone has failed, even the people who tried their hardest to.

We pick up today in chapter 6, and I just want to make sure we remember we’re still in the same, one sermon that Jesus gave, and even though the topic and focus is going to shift a little, there are still going to be common threads through the flow of thought, and all of it is grounded in Jesus’s understanding of the kingdom of heaven.

Passage Reading

**But Jesus does introduce somewhat of a new thought in chapter six, and I want us to read through the first eighteen verses of chapter six together. Jesus introduces a concept, he makes a statement, a teaching, and then follows up with three specific examples of how to apply that teaching, and from there the thoughts kind of continue to evolve.

But I want us to read through all three examples to get an overview, and then we’ll come back and contemplate the underlying thread running through all three.

Matthew 6:1–18 CSB
1 “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. Otherwise, you have no reward with your Father in heaven. 2 So whenever you give to the poor, don’t sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be applauded by people. Truly I tell you, they have their reward. 3 But when you give to the poor, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 5 “Whenever you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites, because they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by people. Truly I tell you, they have their reward. 6 But when you pray, go into your private room, shut your door, and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 7 When you pray, don’t babble like the Gentiles, since they imagine they’ll be heard for their many words. 8 Don’t be like them, because your Father knows the things you need before you ask him. 9 “Therefore, you should pray like this: Our Father in heaven, your name be honored as holy. 10 Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. 11 Give us today our daily bread. 12 And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. 13 And do not bring us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one. 14 “For if you forgive others their offenses, your heavenly Father will forgive you as well. 15 But if you don’t forgive others, your Father will not forgive your offenses. 16 “Whenever you fast, don’t be gloomy like the hypocrites. For they make their faces unattractive so that their fasting is obvious to people. Truly I tell you, they have their reward. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that your fasting isn’t obvious to others but to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

Alright, so Jesus gives these three examples, and they all refer back to his command, his warning in verse 1:

Matthew 6:1 CSB
1 “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. Otherwise, you have no reward with your Father in heaven.

Verses 2-18 are all examples of how not to practice righteousness, and instructions on how to practice righteousness instead. Then actually the second half of verse 1, the warning, is that if you don’t do it this way, you have no reward in heaven, and verses 19-24 refer back to the second half of verse 1 and expound on that.

But we’ll get to that later on, for today I just wanted to get the big picture of verses 1-18, and then focus really just on the first half of the first verse, because everything else stems from that one statement. 

There’s a whole lot to unpack in the three topics he brings up, :

  • Giving to the poor, and not letting your left know what your right hand is doing
  • How to pray, and how not to pray, and the Lord’s Prayer, I mean just the Lord’s Prayer itself has a whole lot going on, doesn’t it?
  • And then how to fast and how not to fast, and putting oil on your head, I mean what’s up with that?

Some of the details he brings up with these might also be more or less relatable to us as he makes some specific references to their culture and the norms of how they practiced these things.

But the point he’s making in all three cases is the same, and it’s pretty simple:

None of these things should be done to draw attention to yourself, to be seen by others, to make yourself feel better.

Practicing Righteousness

They’re each just different examples of how to properly practice righteousness.

So, I think before we delve into the details of each example, we should first spend some time thinking about this concept of practicing righteousness.

I don’t know about you, but that’s not a phrase I’ve used very often up until I started preparing for this message. What does it even mean to “practice righteousness?”

It (was) a Given!

Well, first of all, let’s acknowledge the fact that Jesus did NOT say “Hey you really ought to practice righteousness, and you ought to do it this way...” He said “Be careful not to practice your righteousness...” in this way. In other words, WHEN you practice righteousness, here are some tips for you.

His assumption is that the people listening to him don’t even need to be told they should be practicing righteousness, they already know that, and they DO, but at least some of them need to be corrected in their methods of doing so.

His first example references something that was a daily, habitual part of Jewish life, he says “when you do tzedakah,” “when you practice charitable giving,” and then it’s “when you pray,” and “when you fast.”

Now, I think we are probably all pretty accustomed to the idea of praying, and giving to the poor is familiar at least as a concept in our culture, and again we’ll get into the details of those later on. Fasting is one we don’t tend to talk about as much here, and some of us may be more or less familiar with that one, so I’m excited for us to think through that one together as well.

But again, each of these are just a few examples of practicing righteousness, and it’s not even an exhaustive list! They’re just 3 that Jesus knew would have been a given for his followers. Three that he knew they would already be practicing.

I wonder, if Jesus were talking to an average church-going crowd in Carthage, NY what three examples he would pick? Maybe it would be the same ones, maybe not, I don’t know, but it’s kind of fun to think about. What are some of the ways we most commonly “practice righteousness,” at least in our own eyes?

What is Righteousness?

Maybe, before answering that question, we should first define “righteousness” itself!

What is righteousness? Here’s a definition from the Lexham Bible Dictionary:

The English word “righteousness” refers to the quality of being righteous or in the right and is cognate to “just,” “justness,” and “justice.” In biblical usage, “righteousness” possesses ethical, forensic, salvific, and socioreligious connotations, depending on the context. Generally speaking, in relation to God, “righteousness” can refer to a divine attribute or to a divine activity, while in relation to human subjects, “righteousness” primarily denotes a legal and social status or a moral state.

So, that’s a rather verbose definition, and it gets even more complicated as it goes into the nuances of righteousness in the Jewish world, but I think we can simplify this a little.

The bottom line is that “righteousness” is the actions pertaining to or state of being “right.” It’s being right and doing the right thing. Right living. And what defines what is right is the very nature of God himself. Anything that is consistent with God’s nature, and his design for creation, is “right” and “pleasing” to God.

So, righteousness, in a nut-shell, is that which is right and pleasing to God. Which is a simple statement to make, but we have a 66-volume library of books which tell a story attempting to make sense of what that actually means! And of course that story points to Jesus as the only true source of righteousness, the only way to truly get “right” with God is to place our trust and hope in Christ’s accomplishing that work for us!

We Must Practice Righteousness!

Jesus himself said that HE came to fulfill righteousness, fulfill the law, and made it clear nobody else could do it on their own!

And yet, there’s this very clear understanding that although we won’t achieve perfect righteousness this side of eternity, there’s still this expectation to practice righteousness anyway!

In fact, remember how chapter 5 ends?

Matthew 5:48 CSB
48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Let me just say that Jesus is not afraid to speak in hyperbole! Jesus knows that none of his listeners are perfect, but he’s calling them to imitate the Father, to make an effort to reflect God as much as they can.

We know that we are covered by Grace, through the blood of Christ, so that we ARE perfect in God’s eyes! But that doesn’t mean we ought to be gluttons of grace, rather that we respond in a manner pleasing to God, that we strive for righteousness regardless of how many times we fail.

Paul of course puts this very bluntly in Romans:

Romans 5:18–6:2 CSB
18 So then, as through one trespass there is condemnation for everyone, so also through one righteous act there is justification leading to life for everyone. 19 For just as through one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so also through the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. 20 The law came along to multiply the trespass. But where sin multiplied, grace multiplied even more 21 so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace will reign through righteousness, resulting in eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. 1 What should we say then? Should we continue in sin so that grace may multiply? 2 Absolutely not! How can we who died to sin still live in it?

Romans 6:12–15 CSB
12 Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body, so that you obey its desires. 13 And do not offer any parts of it to sin as weapons for unrighteousness. But as those who are alive from the dead, offer yourselves to God, and all the parts of yourselves to God as weapons for righteousness. 14 For sin will not rule over you, because you are not under the law but under grace. 15 What then? Should we sin because we are not under the law but under grace? Absolutely not!

In this context, Paul is talking about practicing righteousness by offering ourselves to God, by being living sacrifices, surrendering our own desires to God’s will.

That’s exactly the mindset Tim was talking about last week when he said to pray to God not just that he would fix things and solve the world’s problems, but to pray “God, how can I help?” That is one way in which we literally offer ourselves to God, to be the hands and feet of Christ through the power of the Spirit.

How do we Practice Righteousness?

Speaking of the Spirit…let’s not forget the importance of the Holy Spirit, his guidance and gifts which empower and equip us! It’s by being filled with the spirit that we displace the other idols in our lives, like Paul says in Ephesians:

Ephesians 5:18 CSB
18 And don’t get drunk with wine, which leads to reckless living, but be filled by the Spirit:

Here he’s talking specifically about being overcome by alcohol, displacing that idol of the heart which corrupts our desires for physical pleasure, with the presence of the Spirit, and I would say this applies to anything, not just alcohol, but anything, which can overcome us as objects of our worship, idols of our hearts.

“Practicing Righteousness” often manifests in physical ways, like giving to the poor, or fasting, those are physical actions, but for them to truly be considered an act of righteousness, even physical actions must be spiritually motivated. Motivated by a desire to please God, and initiated by a heart which has been spiritually renewed.

Because of this, and because historically Christians have understood this, there’s another phrase that I think is helpful when thinking about “practicing righteousness” and that’s the idea of pursuing “spiritual disciplines.” Essentially, they’re synonymous terms referring to the same category of practices or ideas. 

But, for me at least, it seems a little easier to define specific spiritual disciplines that we can practice, or at least it gets me thinking more specifically about ways in which we can practice righteousness, rather than just the concept of righteousness as a whole.

Giving, praying, fasting, these are all spiritual disciplines. I talked a couple weeks ago about gratitude being in itself a spiritual discipline.

What other things might come to mind when you think “Spiritual Discipline?”

There are a lot of things that could be described this way, aren’t there? I’ll list a few, but first I want to point out a few attributes of spiritual disciplines.

Attributes of Spiritual Disciplines

Here are a few ways to think about what spiritual disciplines are or are not:

Some are personal and private, just between you and God. Others are corporate, and can be done as a collective body of believers. Prayer is a great example of that, and Jesus himself modeled both personal and corporate prayers.

Disciplines are actions not attitudes, and again this echoes what Tim said last week. Spiritual disciplines are things we do, and they result in a transformation of who we are, not the other way around. Now, with the exception of salvation and the indwelling of the Spirit transforming who we are in Christ, that of course happens first. BUT it’s the continual work of the Spirit and our willing partnership with God that produces sanctification, mature faith, and the fruit of the spirit. But the fruits of the spirit aren’t spiritual disciplines, spiritual disciplines produce the fruits of the spirit.

Spiritual Disciplines are based on scripture. That is to say, a spiritual discipline which is truly an act of practicing righteousness ought to be modeled or taught in the Bible. Now, someone might say that painting or gardening or exercise is a spiritual discipline, because they feel it brings them closer to God. Well, there’s nothing wrong with that, and just about any activity that’s not inherently sinful can and should have an element of positive, beneficial spirituality to it! But I bring this up because those things, while good, should not take the place of the actual disciplines we’re commanded to practice in Scripture. I’ll get to some of the crucial ones in a moment.

One last attribute, and this kind of goes along with the second one, but to just remind ourselves that the disciplines themselves are not the end goal. They’re important elements in a Christian’s life, but they’re tools, they are means to an end. They can help cultivate our hearts to produce the fruit, and ultimately the goal is righteousness, godliness. To become more like God and more attuned to and fulfilled by his presence.

1 Timothy 4:7–8 NASB95
7 But have nothing to do with worldly fables fit only for old women. On the other hand, discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness; 8 for bodily discipline is only of little profit, but godliness is profitable for all things, since it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.

Examples of Spiritual Disciplines

So, given these criteria, which aren’t necessarily exhaustive but should at least point us in the right direction, I’ll throw out a few examples of what fits, and there are probably others I haven’t thought of but here are some of them. And I could back each of these up with a verse but there are a lot of them so you can just take my word for it. OR feel free challenge me if you think any of these are not biblical!

  • Acts of Service (caring for others, especially the needy)
  • Prayer (both corporate and individual)
  • Fasting (abstaining from food for a period of time)
  • Expressions of Praise and Gratitude (whether whispered, shouted, or sung)
  • Meditation (on scripture and God)
    • This may involve other things that are not inherently spiritual disciplines, but help us to get to a place of meditation…like going for a walk in the woods. Jesus did this a lot! 
    • Solitude could even be seen as a spiritual discipline itself, though the model for that is always as a temporary measure, to prepare oneself for re-entering the community.
  • Studying (specifically, to know and understand Scripture)
    • This is related to, but different from meditating on scripture, and both are important!
  • Baptism & Communion (two rituals Jesus specifically commanded his followers to observe)
  • Fellowship (specifically, gathering with other believers in corporate worship, which involves doing these things together)
  • Obedience (specifically, to God, and also to the authorities he has placed over us, though God’s authority always supersedes human authority)
  • Confession (directly to God AND to any humans we have wronged)
  • Discipleship (sharing Jesus and helping others in their spiritual journey)
    • This could be viewed as a two-way discipline, as both the act of discipling and seeking to be discipled are both crucial to spiritual maturity!
  • Celebration (Does this one surprise anyone? Think about how often the Jews were commanded to party!)
    • This kind of goes along with praise & worship, but it’s a reminder that God does want us to celebrate the joys in life, and to do so as a community! It facilitates healthy relationships with each other, and reminds us of all the reasons we have to give thanks and praise to God!
  • Mourning (for everything there is a season)
    • Just as we are to share in the joys of life, we must share the pain and sorrow too, and for the same reasons! It strengthens a family and provides a network of support for when we go through hard times, and it forces us to place our faith and hope in God rather than in our circumstances.

Now, again, this is just my own list, and isn’t necessarily a comprehensive list. I did borrow from some other people who have compiled lists and some are shorter, some are much longer, and there are different approaches to categorizing and defining each discipline. But I think this is at least a good place to start.

And it’s because there are so many, and with some room for interpretation, that I wanted to first give the attributes as a guideline for discovering them yourself. As long as it’s grounded in Scripture and brings Glory to God, then whatever it is, it’s worth pursuing!

Application & Challenge

Another result of their being so many things, so many actions that can fall into this category of “spiritual disciplines” or “practicing righteousness” that each of us will naturally be more inclined to practice some more than others! 

Part of that is due to culture - some are just a given, because of what happens to be common in our culture and traditions, while others might be more often neglected in one culture versus another.

But it’s true also on an individual level! For example, an introvert might be really good at solitude, meditation, and [individual] prayer, while an extrovert might be much more inclined towards discipleship, celebration, and [corporate] prayer.

Now, to an extent this is just part of the beautiful diversity of the church! God made us all different, and that’s OK! That’s more than OK, that’s wonderful! And nobody can be dialed up to 100 on every single discipline all the time! Some people will focus more on some than others, and through different seasons of life that focus will ebb and flow, and there’s nothing wrong with that! What IS wrong is to totally neglect any of these altogether. 

To spend all your time in solitude and never in fellowship is to miss out an a crucial aspect of spiritual maturity! And the same would be true to spend all your time in fellowship and never in solitude! Or all your time celebrating and never mourning, or always fasting and never celebrating! You get the idea.

There’s a balance, and that balance will look different for different people at different times of life, but all of the weights should be on the scale somewhere! Maybe a more helpful image would be like a pie chart that has all of these disciplines, and each person’s pie chart has varying percentages of which disciplines get more time and energy, and it’s constantly fluctuating throughout life, which is fine! As long as no pieces are missing, or practically missing because they’re down to less than 1%.

Eventually, we’ll be looking in detail at each of the 3 examples Jesus gives in this passage, but in the meantime I want to challenge you to think about the bigger picture, the whole “pie” of “practicing righteousness” or “spiritual disciplines” and examine yourself. I’m not saying there’s a magic, perfect balance of percentages, and I can’t necessarily tell you how and where you need to adjust your pie. But if we examine ourselves honestly, and ask God to reveal where we might be neglecting a slice of pie, we’ll find room for improvement, and often an opportunity to get out of our comfort zone a little. But I challenge you to do that!

Ask yourself, and ask God: Are there any pieces missing in my pie? Or is one piece at 99% while the rest are less than 1%? And whatever God shows you, DO something about it!

Final Thoughts

A few last thoughts as I wrap this up for today.

With all these lists, and talk about pie charts and percentages, we might start to feel like “practicing righteousness” or pursuing “spiritual disciplines” is a burdensome, tiresome, ordeal!

Well, the way the pharisees were teaching how to practice righteousness, that would be an accurate description!

But Jesus came on the contrary to lift that burden! Tim quoted this verse last week, and it’s worth quoting again, from a few chapters later in Matthew:

Matthew 11:28 CSB
28 “Come to me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.

So no, my point isn’t to burden you or overwhelm you with a list of all the things you need to do, or all the math you have to try to do in Excel to calculate your pie chart! No, let’s see this vast array of spiritual disciplines and rejoice at all the ways in which we get to grow, individually, and with each other! Spiritual disciplines are so many and so varied, because they touch every aspect of life! Just like worship is accomplished in every aspect of life! And that’s a beautiful, wonderful thing!

In every aspect of life, we can rely on spiritual disciplines to renew our spirits! And even our imperfect practice of righteousness draws us closer to God and cultivates the fruits of spiritual discipline, as we drink from the pure waters of God’s spirit through the fountain of Christ, we are connecting to our source of life, our source of true love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control!

A life of pursuing spiritual discipline is not burdensome, or deprived of joy and pleasure, rather it fills us with the ultimate source of joy and pleasure, which in turn allows us to experience the pleasant things we don’t even deserve all the more fully!

Sermon on the Mount: Practicing Righteousness