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The word piety does kind of stick in the throat. What does it mean? Being pious for some can mean a holier-than-thou attitude that is off-putting at best and at worst is downright filled with spiritual pride. For others, being pious is deeply rooted in the history of the evangelical pietism of the Moravians, who influenced John Wesley and thus the whole evangelical awakening of the eighteenth century and on into our day. Most probably think of piety as some practical “spiritual disciplines” for the individual.

Chapter 6 of Matthew’s gospel, the center of the famous Sermon on the Mount, is then instructive for our presumptions of what piety means and how to put it into practice in a number of interesting ways. First of all, notice the list of topics that our Lord chooses. Giving, prayer, fasting—so far, so normal in terms of what we would expect under the topic of piety—then money again, this time from a different angle, which is perhaps not so surprising given the preponderant difficulty that most humans have with money and possessions. But then Jesus finishes with a long section on anxiety or worry, which is not exactly a “spiritual discipline” as such, and in the middle of that is one of the more well-known statements in the Sermon on the Mount about seeking first the kingdom of God.

Second but more importantly still, notice the ongoing contrast that runs throughout this chapter. Over and over again, Jesus is telling His followers not to be “like them,” those who make a display of piety, but instead to be “like this,” those who give thought only to God as their audience. You can see this contrast in Matthew 6:1–2, where Jesus describes the extraordinary showy behavior of givers at the time and then tells His followers, “Sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others.” So don’t be like them. Instead, be like this: “When you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing” (Matt. 6:3).

You can see the same contrast when He teaches on prayer: “When you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites” (Matt. 6:5). So don’t be like them. Instead, be like this: “When you pray, go into your room . . .” (Matt. 6:6).

We can see the same contrast in Jesus’ teaching on fasting: “When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites . . .” (Matt. 6:16). Instead, “when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face . . .” (Matt. 6:17). Don’t be like them; instead, be like this.

The key to real, godly, biblical piety is both to know God and to want to please Him.

The only break in this pattern is with Jesus’ teaching on treasures in heaven. He does not explicitly follow the same kind of wording, but the contrast is implicit: “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth” (Matt. 6:19), implying that this is the sort of thing that many people do. We are not to be like them. Instead, “lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven . . .” (Matt. 6:20).

Jesus’ teaching at the end of the chapter on worry or anxiety has the same contrast once more. Having described all the anxiety that comes from running after the things of this world, He says, “The Gentiles seek after all these things . . .” (Matt. 6:32). So don’t be like them. Instead, be like this: “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness . . .” (Matt. 6:33).

To understand what Jesus is saying here about piety, then, we must understand the two groups He is contrasting in His teaching. There are those whom Jesus calls hypokriteai or “hypocrites” (Matt. 6:2, 5, 16) and another group he calls ethnikoi, “Gentiles” (Matt. 6:7, 32). When it comes to giving, prayer, and fasting, we are to avoid the example of the hypocrites. When it comes to avoiding the example of the gentiles, we must beware of their example of prayer also, but singularly only their example when it comes to anxiety. Presumably both hypocrites and gentiles have a problem when it comes to storing up treasures on earth.

Given that “Gentiles” must refer to the non-Jewish religiosity of the ancient world, mainly the Greco-Roman culture of the time, it follows that the religiosity that Jesus is referring to by the term “hypocrites” relates to the practices of some of the Jews of His day. Indeed, He makes that association irrefutable by mentioning the “synagogues” in verses 2 and 5. We may not conclude that Matthew means that all followers of the Jewish way of life were hypocrites in his day. After all, he has already warmly described the piety of Joseph and Mary, not to mention that he himself was also a Jew. The point is that there were religious leaders in Jesus’ day who were hypocrites, putting on a show of religiosity, of piety, but who did not have the real thing. Similarly, there were pagans or gentiles in Jesus’ day who had also gotten it wrong when it came to piety.

The hypocrites appear to have a right idea of God, broadly speaking, but a basic lack of interest in pleasing Him versus looking good in the eyes of other people. On the other hand, the gentiles have a wrong idea of God and a wrong view of piety. They think they will be heard for their many words (Matt. 6:7), meaning that they have a sort of magical idea of prayer that stems from a pagan view of God. Or they are anxious because they don’t understand that our heavenly Father knows that we need these basic necessities (Matt. 6:32). The hypocrites, by contrast, are just much more interested—in practice—in what people think than in what God thinks. They want to be “seen” by men (Matt. 6:1). They announce their giving with “trumpets,” obviously so that it can impress people (Matt. 6:2). Or again, the hypocrites pray outside where everyone can see their prayerfulness (Matt. 6:5), and if they are fasting, they make sure that they look really miserable so that everyone can know that they are fasting (Matt. 6:16).

The key, then, to real, godly, biblical piety is both to know God and to want to please Him. We need to avoid the mistake of the gentiles, thinking that God is like some sort of divine slot machine, that He is bound to hear us and give us what we want if we pray long enough and with enough fancy theological words. Further, we must also not think that somehow God is so distant from the world that He doesn’t really care what happens to us, so we’d better make sure that we take care of ourselves. “God looks after those who look after themselves” might be a well-known phrase, but it’s not a biblical one.

But we also need to avoid the mistake of well-brought-up religious people who may know who God is in theory but in practice display religious behavior that betrays a fundamental commitment to impressing people. How easy it is to be like that, to act for the praise of people in everything from standard acts of piety such as prayer to writing books and articles. That is not to say that we should be deliberately rude or unwise in how we treat people. (A topic for another article is the need for godly kindness in our dealings with our fellow human beings.) But it is to say that, as Jesus puts it, we should seek first God’s kingdom and His righteousness, trusting that all these other things will be added to us too, as we need them, and according to our Father’s wisdom.

One of the most influential sermons I ever read was preached by Jonathan Edwards on this text about seeking first the kingdom of God. He made the point at some length that we have in front of us the best possible deal that any of us could imagine. If we will commit to minding God’s kingdom, His affairs, His business, then God will commit to minding our affairs for us. Who would not throw his lot in with God and let God take care of him? That is the heart of kingdom piety. All the details of what it means day to day will be sorted out as we not only know who God is but actually commit to seeking first His kingdom. Then we will truly give, pray, fast, and—in our anxiety-driven age, perhaps most importantly of all—not worry.

The Kingdom’s King and Law

The Heavenly Kingdom and the Earthly Kingdom

Keep Reading A Manual for Kingdom Living: The Sermon on the Mount

From the March 2023 Issue
Mar 2023 Issue