Unrighteous Righteousness. Matthew 6:1-4 HCSB

Matthew 6:1-4Holman Christian Standard Bible

How to Give

“Be careful not to practice your righteousness[a] in front of people, to be seen by them. Otherwise, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. So whenever you give to the poor, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be applauded by people. I assure you: They have got their reward! But when you give to the poor, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. [b]

The Word of God for the Children of God. Gloria! In Excelsis Deo! Alleluia! Amen.

Unrighteous Righteousness!

This sounds like an oxymoron – two totally incompatible concepts.

But that is the theme of this part of the Sermon on the Mount.

In the whole of this magnificent Sermon from the lips of Jesus one finds what it means to live the good Christian life the way God intends it to be lived. 

The man, Rabbi Jesus introduces the issue in the text. It is the matter of righteousness.

The passage of Scripture that this verse introduces seems to focus primarily on four major concepts.

This devotional message will strive to deal with each of these as I believe they become self- evident in the passage.

1. Righteousness Defined.

What is meant by the word righteousness?

Briefly, it is nothing less nor more than rightness in one’s person, purposes, plans, procedures, practices, processes, and productions.

It is the outward expression of what one’s heart and soul is on the inside.

Two things need to be said about this word.

First, it is an attribute of God.

In other words, the Bible teaches us that God is righteous. (Jeremiah 23:5-6)

That means what He is, what He thinks, what He says, what He plans, and what He does have the characteristic of “rightness.”

Second, it is the anticipation of God relating to the human beings He made in His image.

The image of God is intended to be the image of His moral attributes, His righteousness evident in human beings.

There are many things about the image of God that are not a part of His image in human beings. Those fall into the category of His natural attributes.

For example, God is all powerful; people are not. God is all knowing; people are not. God is everywhere present; people are not.

God is pre-existent, had no beginning, not so with people. (Psalm 139:13-18)

Since there are things about God that are not true of human beings, it must be concluded that the image of God in human beings is very specific.

The focus then, is on the moral image of God that is the attribute of God and the anticipation of God for His moral creatures.

For example,

God is love! (1 John 4:7-11)

He expects people to possess and express love in appropriate ways.

God is kind and gentle, and He expects His people to be kind and gentle.

The righteousness of God is the expression of the nature or character of God, and that is summed up in the word holiness.

In other words, the moral image of God as the character of the human beings He made and is anticipated to be the character of His people is to be the expression of His holiness (divine character) and His righteousness (divine action.)

Ergo, therefore, “righteousness” is defined as the outward actions of what defines a “person.”

It includes his/her purposes, plans, procedures, practices, processes, and productions … whatever those may include.

2. Righteousness Depraved.

There is a serious problem.

Human beings are a big problem!

The Apostle Paul made this very clear: “There is no one righteous, not even one!” (Romans 3:10) This is Paul’s paraphrase of the last of Psalm 53:1.

So, what is the real problem?

The heart, the spiritual control center of a person!

The Prophet Jeremiah caught the issue:

“The heart is more deceitful than anything else and desperately sick – who can understand it? I, the LORD examine the mind, I test the heart to give to each according to his way, according to what his actions deserve.” (Jeremiah 17:9-10) (HCSB)

Therefore, man’s spiritual control center, the “spiritual” heart is seriously infected.

This is what creates the problem that results in “unrighteous righteousness.”

And how does this happen?

The Bible makes it clear. Hear the counsel of King Solomon:

“Guard your heart above all else, for it is the source of life.” (Proverbs 4:23) (HCSB)

Again, Solomon speaks:

Proverbs 23:7NKJV

For as he thinks in his heart, so is he.
“Eat and drink!” he says to you,
But his heart is not with you.

Think of the space exploration program of the United States.

When our space shuttle was rocketed into space for whatever mission it was designed, there is an amazingly intricate internal control center on the shuttle which functions under the skilled and well-trained hands of the astronauts.

But there is also an equally amazingly intricate external control center.

We are acquainted with that external control center being in Houston, Texas.

The internal control center must comply with the instructions and directions of the external control center. If it does not, then serious complications can arise.

The problem in human beings is with the internal spiritual control center … the “spiritual heart” of people.

Since our own “spiritual control center” is badly infected with that disease called “sin,” one can expect that which comes out of the inner control center will reflect outwardly what is already inside there.

That is why the words of Jesus have meaning, when He said in the Sermon on the Mount, our text:

“Be careful not to practice your righteousness before people, to be seen by them; for if you do, you will have no reward from your Father Who is in heaven.”

We were created to be righteous, but truth is, our track record is abysmal.

There is a vacuum between what we are and what we are supposed to be.

Self-righteousness is nothing but unrighteousness sort of dressed up to look like righteousness.

How did Rabbi Jesus address the “unrighteous righteousness” of His audience?

He spoke to four basic areas of life that can well be outward expressions of righteousness:

(1) compassion for others,

(2) crying out to God in prayer,

(3) constraint in lifestyle (self-denial), and

(4) cumulating wealth.

So, what did He say about these?

Notice the following teaching of Jesus in each of these four areas of life:

“When you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others.” (v 2)

“When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others.” (v 5)

“When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting.” (v 16)

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.” (v 19)

Jesus did not mention the Pharisees by name in this chapter.

But He undoubtedly had them in mind when He referred to the “hypocrites.”

In Matthew 23, shortly before His crucifixion, Jesus spoke seven woes on the Teachers of the Law and the Pharisees.

In six of those “woes” He specifically referred to “teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!” (Note Matthew 23: 13, 15, 23, 25, 27, and 29)

Six times Jesus went to the heart of the problem and “grabbed them by their collective throats and said: “You pretenders … you pretenders … you pretend to be spiritual, but you are not!”

Now what do we know about the Pharisees?

There is nothing absolute in writing, but the obvious result of Jewish activity speaks loudly.

It was during the intertestamental period, between Malachi and Matthew, that there was a group of Jewish leaders who sat together and reasoned:

“Why is it that God has promised to make us a great nation, but we have been constantly pushed around, nearly destroyed, and today we are as nothing? First it was the Babylonian Captivity, and then the Persian Empire. What is wrong?”

They concluded that Moses was correct.

After Moses had instructed the people as they traveled out of Egypt, they responded positively.

“When Moses went and told the people all the LORD’S words and laws, they responded with one voice, ‘Everything the LORD has said we will do.’” (Exodus 24:3)

That group of “spiritual men” during the time between Malachi and Matthew read the Scriptures and believed what it said.

They knew Israel had failed in their commitment, and the result was tragic.

And so, the Pharisees were in the beginning a spiritual movement concerned with the holiness of people and the holiness of the nation of Israel.

What they were saying was:

“We need to get back to obeying all the words of God’s law and become the vehicle through which God’s purposes can be fulfilled.”

There was nothing wrong with that desire.

Holiness is God’s will for His people.

And there have been various “holiness” movements in history.

The powerful and effective ministry of John and Charles Wesley stands at the pinnacle of such movements.

Reverend John Wesley preached the Biblical truth of holiness of heart and life and quite literally, England was rescued from the brink of total destruction.

But here is the problem with the Pharisees, and in some respects with the holiness movements in general.

As “movements” they were all born as revival movements in times of desperate spiritual need. The great concern was that their hearts were right with God.

The problem with that group of “spiritual men,” quite similar to the problem in some in the holiness movement, was before long the emphasis moved from the inner holiness of one’s own heart to the outer conformity to practices deemed to be “righteous acts” to “prove” they were a part of the “holiness movement.”

They became “writers of the law” instead of “keepers of the law.”

The Pharisees wrote what they believed to be the interpretation of God’s Law and came up with 614 regulations they determined would be “righteous acts,” deemed to be holy because they were “justified” by the Words of the Torah.

The Word of God does have lifestyle standards that are to characterize every follower of Jesus Christ.

But the problem lies in defining “holiness” or “righteousness” by the length of a lady’s dress, or the style or length of their hair, their wearing of make-up or watching a movie, or dancing or buying a paper on Sunday or going out to eat on Sunday, or other such relatively mundane “family and friends” activities.

The Bible insists that the “goal of advancing God’s work by faith is love from a pure heart.” (1 Timothy 1:5)

The problem does not lie in the “rightness” or “wrongness” of some of the activities to which I just referred.

The problem is that these become the center issue.

People can do all these kinds of things and have no real concern with what is in their heart and what and whom is in charge of their soul.

Keeping rules is one thing but knowing nothing of the heart is the basic and tragic problem.

“Unrighteous righteousness” is prominently keeping the rules as a display on the near wall or an attempt to “show” our high level of spirituality to others.

That is precisely how Jesus dealt with the Pharisees in Matthew 23.

Outwardly everything looks right.

Yet, holiness has migrated from the inner life to the outer life.

That becomes our standardized measuring stick and concerns, and activities are external because that is exactly and exactingly where the holiness criteria have not so subtly migrated to from the heart. And that is righteousness depraved.

3. Righteousness Derived.

Of course, there was nothing wrong with the desire that our lives become outward expressions of what is inside.

Righteousness – doing right things – for the right reasons, as the defining outward characteristic of one’s internal character becomes the observable (sometimes hypocritical) evidence of the reality of that person’s true nature.

What is the “source” of righteousness?

In this devotional message there is no intention of getting into the theological debate focused on “imputed righteousness” versus “imparted righteousness.”

Let’s just let the Scriptures speak plainly.

It is important to know that righteousness is not generated inherently just because a person is a moral creature having been made by God.

Righteousness is a gift from God.

Hear the Apostle Paul on this matter:

“Since by the one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive the overflow of grace and the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.” (Romans 5:17)

Of primary importance in this matter is that we each understand that when God exposes our unrighteousness it is not to humiliate or embarrass us.

It is always that when we recognize it, He might change us.

On the heels of this we need to also recognize that righteousness becomes ours because it is a gift from God through His Son, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Righteousness does not begin with acts or doing.

It is so common for people to think by doing good things one can become good.

It is the reverse of that.

This is precisely why Jesus addressed His disciples in the Sermon on the Mount with the caution that forms the text for this devotional message.

Doing does not produce being, being produces doing!

That is, becoming the right person enables one to do the right things with the right attitude.

This is why the Apostle Paul wrote:

“He made the One who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” (2 Corinthians 5:21)

Righteousness is primarily about what we are, and only then does it become what we do.

It is necessary that we come to the cross and in the words of the Apostle Paul, be “crucified with Christ” so that we might live!

But, you say, there are things we are supposed to “do” as Christians.

True. And now note it is in the same Sermon on the Mount that Jesus said:

“Let your light shine before men, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16)

Now He says,

“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of people, to be seen by them.” (Matthew 6:1)

Sounds like a contradiction?

On the surface, yes.

But there is something missing.

The difference lies not in the act of righteousness itself, but rather in the source of that act of righteousness.

If it is my righteousness the attention will be on me.

If it is God’s righteousness that is God’s gift placed within my heart, then the attention will be on Him and Him alone.

In other words, the origin of the act determines the object of the act.

This is precisely why the Apostle Paul wrote:

“Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.” (Colossians 3:17)

Note if you will, this is how Jesus in His humanity lived.

He was a real human being.

He was not simply disguised as a man. 

John 1:14 states it clearly:

“The Word became flesh and tabernacle among us.”

It was in this humanity that He said:

“The Son is not able to do anything on His own, but only what He sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, the Son also does these things in the same way.” (John 5:19)

In the same 5th chapter in John’s Gospel, we note Jesus saying, “I seek not to please myself but Him who sent me.” (v 30)

What I believe Rabbi Jesus was saying is: “I am not trying to please myself; I am not trying to please the crowd. I seek only to please My Father.”

Therefore, it is not the object of our acts of righteousness but the origin that will determine WHO is the recipient of “praise.”

It is the nature of our heart and soul which lies behind the act of righteousness that make the difference.

4. Righteousness Delivered.

The word “delivered” is important in dealing with what Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount.

It is a word that necessarily demands identification of two very specific focal points:

(1) delivered from and (2) delivered to.

In the context of the text passage for this devotional message note Rabbi Jesus focused on four areas of “righteous acts”:

1. Compassion for others, expressed in giving.

2. Crying out to God, expressed in praying.

3. Constraint of desire, expressed in fasting.

4. Cumulating wealth, expressed in gaining.

Rabbi Jesus did not condemn any of these acts.

There is no inherent sinfulness in giving out of a heart of compassion for others.

It is not sinful to call out to God in prayer.

There is no wickedness in expressing one’s personal lifestyle constraint relating to normal activities.

And there is nothing wrong with cumulating wealth in a legitimate manner.

The problem is the attitude of the heart related to these acts.

They may be acts that are truly righteous, or they may be acts that are very unrighteous.

The initial clue to having our righteousness delivered from being self-focused to being Jesus-focused is found in the closing verse of Matthew 5:

“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

The form of the verb Jesus used is both a statement and an imperative.

Take either and you have what Jesus intended to disclose.

The object of the verb is the word that indicates “completeness.”

Some people want the noun to indicate “moral perfection” or “holiness” as that word is used in the theology of some movements.

Biblically the word is more than “holiness” as understood from the use of the word “hagios” or “holy” as it is usually translated.



The word “tevleio” as Jesus used it in verse 48 of Matthew 5 connotes the idea of “total complete-ness.”



Understood from Scripture then, it includes both that holiness of the heart to which Peter referred in Acts 15:9 and that “completeness” that is the result of being “conformed to image of His Son,” (Romans 8:29).

This is the result flowing from a pure heart that allows the refining, instructing, correcting, reproving work of the Holy Spirit to continue unhindered.

This is why “holiness” must be understood as a crisis within a process.

The process – doing righteousness – cannot become reality without first the crisis.

And the crisis – that instantaneous act of God purifying the heart – cannot be maintained apart from the process that flows from the “growing up” under the tutelage of the Holy Spirit.

God will not do through us what He does not first do in us!

When God works “in us” His cleansing, purifying work, then the truth of Jesus’ solutions for “unrighteous righteousness” will become reality.

He gave the divine solutions for each of the four areas He mentions in Matthew 5:3, 6, 17, and 20.

We must intentionally work hard and labor much to make very sure the inner spiritual control center is fully complete – pure – and then the outer control center – God’s power – will produce the evidence of “righteous righteousness.”

In the name of God, the Father and God the Son and God the Holy Spirit,

Let us Pray,

Lord who is our Righteousness, I thank you because people look at the outside, but only you can see our inside. Please open our eyes to see that you are the God who’s watching in secret, so that we may be willing to follow your word in our daily life. I thank you and pray in the victorious name of my Savior Jesus, Alleluia! Amen!


Author: Thomas E Meyer Jr

Formerly Homeless Sinner Now, Child of God, Saved by Grace.

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