Editor’s note: The purpose of this series is to walk our readers through the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 in order to help them understand what it teaches and how to apply it to our lives. This is our first such series here at Servants of Grace through an extended biblical passage and is part of our larger commitment to help Christians learn to read, interpret, reflect, and apply the Bible to their own lives.

SermonOnTheMountMatthew 6:5-8, “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”

Jesus says we must not pray “to be seen by men,” but He does not forbid public prayer. Moses, Daniel, Ezra, and others prayed publicly. Jesus let His disciples see Him pray. The Apostles and first Christians often gathered to pray together. They heard each other pray for boldness in their testimony and for success in their mission (Acts 4:23–31; 13:3; 14:23; 20:36). When the disciples pray, they simply do not care if anyone sees them or not.

Hypocritical prayers want to be seen. “Do not be like the hypocrites,” Jesus warns (Matt. 6:5). They love to stand and pray during public worship. Crafting elegant phrases to express lofty thoughts, they hope to impress the gathered assembly with their piety. Hypocrites also love to pray outside, “on the street corners” (6:5). By custom, pious Jews living in Jerusalem were supposed to stop, drop, and pray when a trumpet blew in the temple for the daily afternoon sacrifice. The hypocrite was pleased to find himself in a public place then, so all would see him fall to his knees and pray.

Perhaps the hypocrite even arranged to be in a public place at that hour. Perhaps the hypocrite prayed sincerely at first. Then someone praised his well-phrased prayer, so that he gained a reputation for devotion. In time, he hoped to be seen or heard praying. Jesus says that if we pray to gain the approval of men, we will gain that—and nothing more. If a prayer is blind to God, God is blind to that prayer.

It is better to “go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen,” for prayer is essentially private (6:6). Public prayer has all the distractions of a public situation: limits on time, the effects of an audience, and more. In private prayer, we can ask questions, groan, or pause, and admit our confusion. A secluded place is best for that. Hypocrites pray with at most one eye on God and at least one eye on their reputation. But if we attend to God in prayer, He gives us His ear: “Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (6:6).

It is the genuineness of a prayer that lets it surpass the prayers of hypocrites and pagans. Jesus rightly says that the pagans babble and use “many words” (6:7). First Kings 18:25–29 describes the prophets of Baal who prayed all day long, with shouts and bloodletting, for fire from their god. They invoked his name over and over and cut themselves, hoping to rouse him and gain his attention. Some written records of pagan prayers have survived to our day. They might invoke the names of many gods, in the hope of finding one who was both paying attention and well-disposed to what might be a simple request for health or safety. Our prayers may not be more impressive, but they have a nobler object—to speak to the living God—and a better spirit. For we do not pray to display our skill to many, but to reach an audience of One. More importantly, we do not imagine that we can extract a blessing from a reluctant deity. We trust that the Father knows what we need before we ask (Matt. 6:8).

Prayer is sharing the needs, burdens, and hunger of our hearts before our heavenly Father, who already knows what we need but who wants us to ask Him. He wants to hear us, He wants to communicate with us, more than we could ever want to commune with Him—because His love for us is so much greater than our love for Him. Prayer is our giving God the opportunity to manifest His power, majesty, love, and providence (John 14:13).

To pray rightly is to pray with a devout heart and with pure motives. It is to pray with a single attention to God rather than to other men. And it is to pray with sincere confidence that our heavenly Father both hears and answers every request made to Him in faith. He always repays our sincere devotion with gracious response. If our request is sincere but not according to His will, He will answer in a way better than we want or expect. But He will always answer.

It is reported that D.L. Moody once felt so blessed with God’s blessing that he prayed, “God, stop.” That is what God will do with every faithful believer who comes to Him as an expectant child to his father—smother him in more blessings than can be counted or named.