Take a moment and imagine the following. You are a good Christian who has found a need in your little corner of the world that you can minister to. Yay! You are quite happy and content to quietly do your ministry … until one day you realize one of two things (if not both): 1) the need in your community is bigger than you can personally handle, so you need others to provide needed resources and/or to join you in your efforts, and/or 2) somebody notices the good you are doing and wants to interview you so the public can be aware of the need and/or of the good you are doing. What do you do?
Oh, and there’s one more thing more factor in this little scenario. You’ve been reading the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew and noticed Matt. 5:14-16 seems to contradict Matt. 6:1-4! So, now what do you do!? Do you shine your light so others can see your good works (as chapter 5 says), or do you go about your charitable work with such stealth (as chapter 6 implies) that spies could learn a few things from you?
Recently a friend basically asked me these questions, trusting I could resolve this apparent contradiction she noticed in these two passages. I happily accepted the challenge, grateful for the opportunity to look again at familiar scriptures from a fresh perspective—through the eyes of a practical need. What follows is the answer I was able to provide (refined at least a little, of course, to be blog-worthy).
Let me reassure you, these bible verses about doing good for others are NOT saying opposing things. Hopefully, I’ll be able to make it clear without writing a whole bunch.
First, let’s look at the Matthew 5 section. Notice how Jesus makes state-of-being declarations: “You are the salt…” (v.13) and “You are the light…” (v.14). He’s telling us what His followers are—something that cannot be denied. He made us to be a light—“a candle” or “a lamp” (v.15, KJV & WEB, respectively), so His intention is not for us to be clandestine or secret believers (“put under a bushel”—v.15, KJV).
In fact, Jesus goes on to basically say that when a room needs some light, the candle gets elevated so that its light can radiate unobstructed! Yes, that puts the candle out there where it can be seen—no getting around that; but if the candle is doing its job, the bright light has a way of obscuring the candle. After all, how many people go around staring at their light fixtures!? No, we utilize them so we can see something else!
Okay, so I hope I’ve made clear what Jesus is intending in Matthew 5—telling us what we are and that we are not to act contrary to what He intended. We are meant to shed light, and we do that illuminating through our good actions that draw attention to the Father. Let me restate that so nobody misses it: our good actions are to draw attention to the Father. This is important to remember, especially when we talk about Matthew 6.
But first, let’s talk briefly about what is in between these 2 passages. Why? Because context is critical to understanding any passage.
In between these two passages, Jesus talks about God’s law and outward behavior. He confirms that God’s way for us to live isn’t changing, but the Pharisee’s focus on the external behavior has got to go! Matthew 5:20 tells us that we’ve got to do better than the Pharisees, and they were all about external compliance but did not—indeed, really could not—deal with the heart issues (motivations) behind the behaviors. So, after digging down to the motives behind several actions (murder, adultery, etc.), Jesus talks about how the hypocrites practiced their righteousness (a term that had come to mean charitable giving), which gets us to the Matthew 6 passage.
Jesus continues talking about motives in Matthew 6. The hypocrites (who may or may not be Pharisees) did what they did—not to bring attention to God the Father, but to draw attention to themselves. They wanted everyone to know just how “righteous” they were, so they made sure as many people as possible were watching. Wrong motivation! Jesus is telling his disciples to not play that game. “Don’t even come close” is what He basically says through His hyperbolic (exaggerated) statement about hands keeping secrets from each other (Matt. 6:3).
See the difference? The candle or lamp has an original purpose of providing light so people can see. In this case, the goal (or motivation) is for people to see God and Christ because of the way we behave. The fact that people literally see us as we do our good works is just part of the job. The Pharisees/hypocrites, on the other hand, did their charity/righteousness due to motivation that was not altruistic. They wanted to be seen for their own benefit. (Which begs the question: if nobody was around to see them, would they have done their charity at all?)
So, I hope I’ve managed to clear this up and show that Matt. 6 does not conflict with Matt. 5; in fact, Matt. 6 expounds and clarifies Matt. 5! To summarize: Jesus says that as His lamps, we are meant to be seen and meant to shine brightly, BUT we must never think we are to be the center of attention. We’re not “in the spotlight;” we are the spotlight … shining on Jesus, drawing attention to Him. When we “quietly” go about doing the good works God has ordained for us to do (see Ephesians 2:10), not drawing attention to ourselves in excessive ways, we are then shining “before men, that they may see…and glorify [our] Father” (Matt. 5:16, KJV).
Let’s go back, now, to our opening scenario. How do you abide by the biblical instruction yet still garner the help you need and/or explain to others what you’re doing? By now, this should be a whole lot easier to figure out! You most certainly are free to utilize any form of media to present the need and the helping opportunity you are working, or creating, so others may join in. Remember: the lamp has to be out on the lampstand—where it can be seen—in order to provide the illumination it’s designed for. In this regard, we do kind of end up being “in the spotlight;” but “putting ourselves out there” for the purpose of doing what God has called us to do is different from seeking out the spotlight so we can talk about how great and wonderful we are! Just keep the emphasis on the right places any time you have the chance to speak to anyone, be it to large crowds or one-on-one.
Thanks for reading!