Don’t you just love it when the Bible contradicts itself?
Now before you get upset (if you believe the Bible) or cheer (if you don’t), hear me out.
A friend called me the other day with a question: “In your message yesterday you said we are supposed to do our good works so people can see them so that we bring glory to God, but I was always raised that we’re supposed to do good works in secret so we have our reward in heaven. Which one is right?”
I had been sharing a message about the glory of God called “The Surface and the Substance” (listen to the podcast here) and had referred to Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:16, “In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”
My friend was remembering Jesus’ words just one chapter later, in Matthew 6, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven… 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.”
On the surface, it seems like a contradiction. Jesus says first to do good deeds out in the open, then says to do them in secret. So which one is it? What I’ve learned, though, is that every time the Bible presents a contradiction on the surface, there’s a deeper truth that’s the substance underneath, if I’m willing to dig to find it. I do love it when the Bible “contradicts itself”, because every time it’s an opportunity to go deeper and discover something wonderful. In this case, as usual, context is the key…
Here’s the expanded section from Matthew 5, where Jesus instructs His disciples to do their good works where people can see them…
“You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet. “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”
Think about what salt does; it enhances and brings out the flavor of the food to which it’s added. Too little, and the food may be perceived as bland. Too much, and the salt ruins the whole thing. Salt is supposed to highlight the main dish and draw attention to the main thing.
Think about what a lamp does when it’s brought out at night. It lights the way for the lamp holder. It reveals the truth of the surroundings and opens the way for people to see. Too little, and it’s not much good at all because it does nothing to reveal the reality of its surroundings. Too much, and it draws attention to itself and overpowers the situation, obscuring the very thing it should have illuminated.
Jesus is saying that the call of the disciple is to live in such a way that we draw attention to the goodness and glory of God, not to ourselves. Doing nothing to help the world around us draws attention to us as uncaring people who have no love for anyone but ourselves. Doing things for others in a flashy or flamboyant way draws attention to us as prideful people who want the world to know how wonderful we are. The call of the disciple is to do good works in such a way that people “see…and give glory to your Father who is in heaven”, that they would not say “what great people”, but rather, “what a great God they serve.”
–( selah )–
Now, that’s all well and good, but we still haven’t answered the question, “What about Matthew 6 and doing good works in secret so we have a reward in heaven?”
For that, we’ll have to dig a little deeper… tomorrow.