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Posts Tagged ‘Matthew 6’

We’re talking about prayer again today. Last week we looked at fasting as a prayer amplifier. That is, a way of increasing the effectiveness of our prayers. In the words of Isaiah 58:4, a way of making our “voice to be heard on high.”

We saw how fasting makes our prayers more effective because it’s a way of humbling ourselves before God when we pray. And when we are lowly, we are closer to God; when we are truly humble, we gain God’s favor.

This week we look at almsgiving as a prayer amplifier. Let’s start with –

Some basics on alms

And we begin with the question what are “alms”? It’s not a common word today. It means giving aid to the poor and needy. The word comes from a Greek word whose root means “mercy” or “compassion.”

Isaiah 58:7 gives a good description of almsgiving. It means “to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; (and) when you see the naked, to cover him.”  Jesus gives a number of examples of alms in his teaching on the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25:35-36. “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.”

Alms in the Law. Giving to the poor was encouraged for individuals in the Law. For instance lending money to the needy (Deuteronomy 15:11). And these loans were forgiven every seven years, which means some of them became gifts.

But the Law also required alms of everyone at points. The third year tithes (Deuteronomy 14:28-29) were stored up and used to feed Levites, immigrants, orphans and widows. And harvest was left in the field (Leviticus 19:9) in order for the needy to gather it and have something to eat.

Alms in later Judaism grew in importance. Giving alms was considered second in importance only to study of the Law (or Scripture). It was considered greater than all other commandments. It even became Synonymous with the word “righteousness” it was so highly esteemed.

We are to give to the needy

If there might have been a question about fasting, there is no dispute about this. It is an expression of love for the person in need, and it is an expression of righteousness on our part.

Jesus taught about giving alms a lot. Here is just one example, “Sell your possessions and give alms” or give to the poor – Luke 12:33. He is saying, take of your excess and help those who don’t have enough.

Paul also taught giving alms, “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.” –  Galatians 6:10. ‘Doing good’ is another way to say helping the needy.

Jesus also practiced giving alms – John 13:29. As did Paul, as we see in the case of the Jerusalem offering for the poor in Jerusalem – 1 Corinthians 16:1-3.

There are a number of –

Scriptural promises

– connected to giving alms, and I want us to see some of these.

  • Proverbs 22:9 – “Whoever has a bountiful eye will be blessed, for he shares his bread with the poor.”
  • Proverbs 28:27 – “Whoever gives to the poor will not want, but he who hides his eyes will get many a curse.”
  • Psalm 41:1 – “Blessed is the one who considers the poor! In the day of trouble the Lord delivers him.”
  • Psalm 112:5 – “It is well with the one who deals generously and lends.”
  • Proverbs 14:21 – “Whoever despises his neighbor is a sinner, but blessed is he who is generous to the poor.”

Alms as a prayer amplifier

The connection of prayer and the giving alms to the blessings in these promises comes out in several places:

1. Matthew 6:2-5. Here alms are spoken of as a way of seeking the reward of God’s attention or favor. And in this passage it is linked to prayer and also fasting. This is, in fact, why these three things are grouped together by Jesus. Prayer is seeking God and giving alms and fasting are prayer amplifiers.

2. Isaiah 58. We looked at this last week because it also talks about fasting. v. 7 says if you give alms, that is, if you help the hungry, help the homeless and clothe the naked, then v. 9 says, “Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’” Your voice will, for sure, be heard on high by God – v. 4.

3. Acts 10. In this example of Cornelius the connection between alms and prayer comes out clearly. v. 2 says that Cornelius was “a devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms generously to the people, and prayed continually to God.”

Then one day an angel came to him and said in v. 4 – “Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God.” As Cornelius recounts this in v. 31 the angel said, “your prayer has been heard and your alms have been remembered before God.”

So God answered his prayers, sending Peter to him to preach the gospel. And this great favor came to him, in part, because of his almsgiving and prayer. As the verses say, your alms have been remembered. And so when he prayed God heard his prayers and blessed him.

Why do alms make our prayers more effective?

The basic idea is that when we give alms it pleases God very much; it gains God’s favor. There are several different ways of saying this:

1. Giving alms is lending to the Lord. And God will repay you, when you call out in your time of trouble. Proverbs 19:17 says, “Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will repay him for his deed.”

2. Almsgiving is a sacrifice that gains God’s favor. The language in Acts 10 is sacrificial language, his alms “ascended as a memorial before God.” It is like a burnt offering in the Old Testament, the smoke of which went up into heaven before God.

Hebrews 13:16 uses similar imagery. It says, “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.” After receiving a gift of alms, Paul says in Philippians 4:18-19 – “I am well supplied, having received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God.”

3. The prayers of the righteous carry more weight. James 5:16 says, “The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.” And almsgiving is very righteous. As we saw, often the word for alms was synonymous with the word for righteousness, the association was so close.

Let me end with a caution on giving alms from Jesus.

Beware of false seeking

In other words, don’t give alms in order to seek the attention of people; to show that you are spiritual or righteous. We always have a way of taking something good and then making it self-centered. And this is the case here.

Jesus said in Matthew 6:2 – “When you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.” Jesus is saying, they will get nothing from God because they already got what they wanted – the people’s attention.

Rather, Jesus says in Matthew 6:3-4 – “But when you give to the needy, 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.”

When we give to help others (besides showing love for the person in need) we are to focus on getting God’s attention alone; or pleasing God. And then God will see what we do in secret, and remember it. And when we call out in our time of need – our prayers will be amplified. The intensity of our concern will be fully conveyed to God for consideration. As I said last week, this doesn’t force God’s hand but it makes sure that we are heard and fully considered by God.

William Higgins

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(edited) How many of you would like your prayers to be more effective? When I say ‘prayer amplifier’ I mean something that will do precisely this; something that will make our prayers be heard on high.

I want us to look at two prayer amplifiers. And today, the topic is fasting.

Some basics on fasting

Fasting means refraining from all food for a time. Another way of talking about fasting is to say that someone is “eating no bread” (Luke 7:33) with bread standing for food. We call other things fasts today, but in the Bible it means no food.

The Day of Atonement fast is the only one required in the Law of Moses. This was an annual, national fast (Leviticus 16:29). Although a fast could be called in any time of crisis (Joel 2:12-13).

There are a number of examples of individual, voluntary fasts in Scripture. And in later Judaism this kind of fasting became quite prominent. In Jesus’ day many fasted twice a week, on Mondays and Thursdays (Luke 18:12).

Should we fast?

We don’t talk much about fasting anymore. But the answer to our question is certainly yes, with regard to individual, voluntary fasting.

You can see this first of all in Jesus’ teaching. Matthew 9:14-15 – “Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, ‘Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?’ And Jesus said to them, ‘Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.’”

Jesus is saying, since he is present with them, they are to be joyful and celebrate – like at a wedding. And in Judaism wedding guests were released from ordinary religious duties.

But after he is taken away, that is, after he is killed, “then they (his disciples) will fast.” And this refers to us as well. In the time that we live in, Jesus says, we will fast.

And then in Matthew 6:16 Jesus said, “And when you fast . . .” and then he goes on to talk about how to fast correctly. We will look at this Scripture again in a minute, but clearly Jesus is giving instructions that assume his disciples will fast.

You can also see that we should fast from various examples in the New Testament:

  • Jesus fasted for 40 days in the wilderness before he began his public ministry.
  • The early church fasted – Acts 13:2-3. Paul and Barnabas were chosen for and then sent off to their missionary work with “fasting and prayer.”
  • Paul fasted – Acts 14:23, when he appointed Elders with “prayer and fasting.”

These examples of fasting become a recommendation to us to fast as well.

OK, so we should fast, but –

What’s the point of fasting?

One reason we don’t practice it more, I believe, is that we don’t understand what it’s all about; what we are doing when we fast. We have images of monks and asceticism; of useless torturing of our bodies like Paul warns against in Colossians 2:18; 23. But this isn’t what fasting is about.

Fasting is an expression of humility or lowliness. The point is that you want to humble yourself. You are putting yourself in a place of weakness. The language used in Leviticus to speak of fasting is literally “to afflict oneself.”

Sometimes this lowliness is connected to repentance. Joel 2:12 says, “’Yet even now,’ declares the Lord, ‘return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning.’” It is a way of abasing yourself before the Lord due to your wrong choices and is a part of repentance.

Sometimes lowliness is connected to mourning. David fasted as he mourned the deaths of Saul and Jonathan – 2 Samuel 1:12. And Jesus connects fasting with mourning in Matthew 9:15, a passage we just looked at. He uses the two words interchangeably.

The point in all of this is that fasting is an expression of humility and lowliness.

So when you combine fasting and prayer, and they are often connected in Scripture, it means that you are praying from a lowly place; that you are humbling yourself before God as you pray. This is the point of fasting and prayer. And –

This is why fasting amplifies our prayers

By humbling yourself, you are putting yourself in a place that gains God’s utmost attention. As Psalm 138:6 says, “For though the Lord is high, he regards the lowly.” Proverbs 3:34 says that the Lord gives “favor” to the humble. And James 4:6 says that God “gives grace to the humble.” God hears those who humble themselves before him.

  • That this is true can be seen in Isaiah 58:4, which says that fasting can “make your voice to be heard on high.”
  • And this can also be seen in Matthew 6 where Jesus talks about fasting as one of three ways to seek “the reward” of God’s attention, in connection with prayer.

When you add fasting to prayer it is a way of getting God’s full attention, as it were.

Now, this doesn’t mean that just because you fast, or fast for a really long time, that God has to grant your request. You can’t force God’s hand. For instance, David fasted so that his first child from Bathsheba might live, but the child died – 2 Samuel 12.

But it does makes sure that you are heard and the intensity of your desire is fully conveyed to God for consideration.

An example of the power of fasting and prayer can be found in the story of Ahab, who was perhaps the worst Israelite king of all. Elijah warned him that God was about to judge him and destroy his whole household. 1 Kings 21:27 says, “And when Ahab heard those words, he tore his clothes and put sackcloth on his flesh and fasted and lay in sackcloth and went about dejectedly.” And then in v. 29 the Lord said to Elijah, “Have you seen how Ahab has humbled himself before me? Because he has humbled himself before me, I will not bring the disaster in his days. . ..” God gives a very evil man a measure of mercy because of his humble fasting.

At the end here, let me give you some cautions connected with fasting. First, when you fast –

Beware of false lowliness – Isaiah 58:3-9

In v. 3 the people complain to God, “Why have we fasted, and you see it not? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?”

God’s answer in v. 5 is that outward expressions of humility, bowing down with sackcloth and ashes, aren’t enough. True lowliness doesn’t have to do with outward appearance.

And besides in vs. 3-4 we see that they weren’t truly lowly, but were lifting themselves up by putting others down; that is, they were oppressing others.

In vs. 6-7 they are told to start lifting others up and helping them – the poor, the oppressed and the hungry. Here, lowliness means to lower oneself to help the needy. This is what God cares about, not sackcloth and ashes.

If God didn’t hear them before, as he says in v. 4 – “Fasting like yours this day will not make your voice to be heard on high,” fasting with true humility gets God’s attention. Isaiah 58:9 says, “Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’”

Second, as you fast –

Beware of false seeking – Matthew 6:16-18

That is, when you seek God with prayer and fasting, make sure you are not seeking to get other people’s attention instead. Jesus said in Matthew 6:16, “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.” They are trying to get others to see how devout they are. So they are actually seeking praise for themselves.

Rather, seek the attention of God alone when you fast and pray. Jesus said in Matthew 6:17-18, “But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret.”

If you don’t get what you seek, because you are seeking the attention of others, the promise is that, if you seek God you will be rewarded. Jesus said in Matthew 6:18, “your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

So I commend this to you today. If you haven’t tried it before, do so. If you have, continue on. Lift up your concerns to God with fasting and prayer. If you have questions about the practical issues of fasting, I’m no expert, but I will be happy to try to help you.

William Higgins

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