In this passage Christ strikes at the heart of religiosity. Christ has no use for spiritual showboating, even if it is of the most subtle variety. The Father sees the heart in our acts of charity; He also sees the heart when we come into His presence in prayer.
“And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly. And when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words. Therefore do not be like them. For your Father knows the things you have need of before you ask Him” (Matt. 6:5-8).
Before attending to Christ’s teaching, we must first guard ourselves against a rash application. There is a legitimate place for public prayer. Our Lord is not forbidding His people to gather for prayer, or to pray in the presence of others. We know this from the teaching of Scripture elsewhere, and the examples found in Scripture. So we must obey Christ’s teaching here, but not woodenly.
1. Teaching — “And He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you have made it a ‘den of thieves.’” (Matt. 21:13).
2. Examples — “These all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication, with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with His brothers” (Acts 1:14).
“but we will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4).
Nevertheless, Jesus warns us against “horizontal praying.” True prayer is addressed to God. It should be vertical. The temptation is to forget the One we are addressing and start speaking to those around us — praying horizontally. Such prayer is rudeness to the Almighty. The sin can be seen when:
1. A Christian lets people know that he prays “in secret.”
2. When Christians pray in restaurants in order to be seen, or “have a witness.”
3. When Christians kneel and pray in the end zone after making a touchdown. At least the pagan pranchers have the virtue of honesty. “Look at me!”
4. When a preacher preaches at the congregation in his prayer. “And Lord, Thou knowest that this verb is in the aorist tense . . . ” When any public prayer strikes us as directed at us, it should be an indication of danger.
The Greek word here is battologeo, and the translation is “vain repetition.” The word is only used this one time in the entire New Testament. It refers to spiritual yammering, a halting stammering, repetitious prayer. This requirement of Christ’s is violated in various inventive ways.
1. “Just, Lord, we just Lord, want to thank you, Lord, for just Lord blessing us here today, Lord.” With prayer, as with all uses of words, if you do not have something to say, then shut up. “Do not be rash with your mouth, and let not your heart utter anything hastily before God. For God is in heaven, and you on earth; therefore let your words be few” (Ecc. 5:2).
Should we then react like the disciples did on the subject of marriage? “If this is so, then it is better . . .” No — the Bible says we are to be devoted to prayer (Col. 4:2). But before we speak, we must remind ourselves of the identity of the One we address. We must not pray glibly; we must tremble.
2. What some may call “speaking in tongues.” Of course this is no critique of the extraordinary gift of languages that God gave the first-century church. The problem with “tongue-speakers” today is not that they speak in tongues, but that they do not. Nonsense remains nonsense in any language.
We also have to remember what prayer does not do. The point of prayer is not to “fill God in.” In many prayer meetings, the tendency is to talk in detail about all the requests, then call God into the room, and go over it all again. But prayer is not for the purpose of teaching Him anything. As Christ so plainly puts it, the Father knows what we need before we ask Him. So why ask Him at all? As this passage shows, the purpose of prayer is to teach and encourage us. We must learn our constant dependence upon Him. He does not need to learn what we need. We need to learn that He is the one who provides.