Hypocrisy is appearing to be something you’re not or saying one thing while doing another. It demands standards of other people while not sticking to those standards yourself. In the art world it’s “forgery.” In business it’s “fraud.” Of money it’s “counterfeit.” Of goods it’s “a cheap imitation.” People who are hypocrites are said to be “living a lie.” The New Testament Greek word hupokrites envisions stage actors behind face masks, playing roles. No wonder nobody likes a hypocrite! Sincerity or truthfulness is the opposite of hypocrisy. In the Middle East it means “without wax.” Large water jugs, ziirs, on sale in Sudan are tested by applying heat. Any wax used by the potter to disguise cracks melts away exposing the true value of the jug. A hypocrite’s life has lots of wax hiding flaws. My dictionary says a hypocrite is “a person who pretends to be what he is not.”
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus warned against charitable giving, praying and fasting in order “to be seen by men” (Mt. 6:2,5,16 NIV). Seeking the commendation of a community for personal piety is crass. Heaven’s eternal reward is judged by God our Father, not by the general public. He sees both our public and private Christianity (Mt. 6:4,6,18). He awards our stewardship of gifts and graces more when done secretly. Sincerity, whether secret or public, is what God wants.
In Matthew 7:5 Jesus warned against judging another without first doing self-examination. Besides hindering the clear sight necessary to help anyone else, the presence of a “plank in your own eye” comically highlights an obvious impossibility. Jesus wants us to be concerned about our own business before meddling in that of others. Put your own house in order before starting on the one next door. It will affect your heavenly reward (7:2).
In Luke 12 Jesus used the “hypocrite” word again. Verses 1-3 teach that hypocrites hide their real selves, but He confirmed that they will be exposed by God in the end. In 12:56 Jesus warned that pretending to be interested in the things of God is a dangerous hypocrisy. People in the crowd following Jesus could forecast the weather by reading the signs in the sky. However, they did not pay proper attention to the person and work of Jesus; they missed the signs of the Savior. Many who call themselves Christians today may be frauds – cheap imitations of real Christian disciples. What would Jesus say of us?
Once in an Indonesian market, a man tried to sell me a carved ebony statue. The price came down and down as I refused to buy. When I started to leave, the man thrust the statue into my hand, saying, “O.K. You can have it for your price.” I paid him, thinking of my good bargain! Only when I got home did I realize that the carved statue the man had given me was not the ebony one we had bartered over! He had craftily exchanged it for one made of cheaper wood stained to look like ebony! I keep it to remind me to be a real Christian, not a cheap copy!
The Yeast Of The Pharisees
There are at least four instances where Jesus called the Pharisees and teachers of the Law “hypocrites,” sometimes with very descriptive adjectives. In Luke 12:1 Jesus warned His disciples, “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy.” Definitions of “Pharisee” and “yeast” are needed to help us see the meaning of this. A Pharisee was a member of a Jewish sect teaching Mosaic and rabbinical law, and strict observance of Jewish traditions. Yeast, in the right conditions, will raise dough for bread or ferment sugars for beer, etc.
Jesus was telling His followers not to become tied up trying to obey Old Testament Law. Over- concentration on one part of the Law will hamper Christian discipleship. He said, “Be on your guard” (12:1). As a night watchman looks over his employer’s estate, doing what his master would do if he were there, so disciples must guard against the slightest sign of hypocrisy within their own lives. Once yeast gets into the dough it works its way through everything, becoming an unavoidable influence. It cannot be removed, therefore it must be prevented at its source.
Matthew 15:1-20, Mark 12:13-17 and Luke 13:10-17 give examples of the Pharisees confronting Jesus over their interpretation of the Law compared to His and His disciples’ practice: His disciples were seen eating without a ceremonial washing of hands; Jesus’ position on paying taxes to Caesar was tested; The healing of a crippled woman on the Sabbath was criticized. In every one of these cases Jesus’ reaction was instructive: “You nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition” (Mt. 15:6).
• Ceremonial Washing
The Pharisees and teachers thought they were keeping the Word of God. But Jesus saw that their obedience to God was only skin deep. “These people honor Me with their lips but their hearts are far from me” (Mt. 15:8), He warned, quoting Isaiah 29:13. Since loving God is our highest priority, it’s easy to see why our Divine Lover looks into our hearts! Jesus said this of the Pharisees’ vain worship: “You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men” (Mk. 7:5-9).
The Christian’s lover is Jesus. He is always more important than the Law and the Prophets. He came to fulfill them, and that’s precisely what He did. I’ve found I am able to live and worship with Christians who do not believe exactly as I do when I concentrate on my love and their love for our Lord. This is the core of Christian unity (Mt. 22:34-40). Matthew warns us that some hypocrites are blind to their own position. This is dangerous as God promises to root out people who are not His own (Mt. 15:13-14). Following the warning about being uprooted, the key to identifying hypocrisy is what comes “from the heart … and … out of the heart” (15:18-19). Hypocrites don’t love Jesus. Genuine Christians do. One can tell who we love by how much time we freely give to our love. Do we give more time to loving Jesus or to dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s of the Law?
• Paying Taxes
Replying to a trick question about paying taxes to Caesar, Jesus said, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” (Mk. 12:17). We should pay what is due to the powers that be. This is part of paying God what is due Him, because governments, good or bad, are His servants (Rom. 13:1-7). But it was the questioners’ hypocrisy that Jesus highlighted. These Pharisees and Herodians used a loaded question to trap Jesus into taking an incriminating side, either with the Jews or the Romans. But He saw into their hearts and “knew their hypocrisy” (Mk. 12:15). This should challenge us. What does Jesus see in our hearts?
• Working On The Sabbath
The synagogue ruler reminded the people that there were six work days and one day of rest. Jesus had just healed a crippled woman on the Sabbath, breaking the rules of God as the people saw them. In Luke 13:15 Jesus called them hypocrites because their private menial tasks (loosing an ox, watering a donkey) betrayed their interpretation. Hypocrites have tougher rules for others than for themselves. The woman Jesus healed was “set free from what bound her” (13:16). This spiritual victory was more important than legalistically observing a Sabbath rest. Jesus’ hypocritical opponents “were humiliated” (13:17). Were they ashamed enough to repent of their hypocrisy? We are not told.
Thankfully, forgiveness is available. If we are hypocrites, we do not have to remain hypocrites: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn. 1:9). Confession is cleansing. The spirit of the Law is why laws are made. Follow the spirit and don’t be hypocritically obsessed with the letter of the Law.
In Matthew 23:1-39 Jesus spoke to the crowds and to His disciples about the Pharisees. He used severely descriptive phrases to describe those who “do not practice what they preach” (23:3). According to Jesus they were: self-exalting (12), hypocrites (13, 15,23,25,27,29), sons of hell (15), blind (16,17,19,24,26), snakes (33) and murderers (35). This was tough talk by our Lord. We see how hypocrisy stirred His righteous anger. “Everything they do is done for men to see” (23:5). Their self-importance was the exact opposite of a true Christian attitude. Our God deserves all our worship, praise and glory! As His servants, we must take nothing at all from the glory of God.
As God looks at our hearts, what does He see? Are we self-exalting or self-sacrificing, hypocritical or authentic, blind guides or discerning leaders, blind fools or wise Christians, seekers of high positions or humble servants, murderers or those who bring abundant life to others? Hypocrisy imposes “heavy loads” (23:4). God will judge all hypocrisy (23:33-39; 24:51).
Hypocrisy In The Early Church
Ananias and Sapphira “lied to the Holy Spirit” and did “agree to test the Spirit of the Lord” (Acts 5:1-11). The word “hypocrite” is not used here, but they definitely tried to appear to be something that they were not. How foolish to try to deceive the all-knowing God! Peter confronted it as Satan’s activity (5:3). God intervened and struck them dead (5:5,10). No wonder “great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events” (5:11). Note how seriously God views our attempts to be something we are not.
Peter and Barnabas (Gal. 2:11-21) withdrew from mixing with the Gentiles after the influence of the “circumcision group” of Judaizers. Even these highly respected Christian leaders who were used by God were not yet ready to be totally “crucified with Christ” (2:20). They wanted to be in favor with everybody, while God was calling them to take a stand unpopular with some. Thank God Paul stood his ground in this very difficult confrontation.
Did Peter have this incident in mind when he wrote, “Therefore rid yourself of all malice and deceit, hypocrisy, envy and slander of every kind” (1 Pet. 2:1)? He knew Christians should live as strangers in the world, more concerned about heaven than earth. Life is too short for hypocrisy to be tolerated for very long.
Paul warned us that the last days would be characterized by false teachers and “hypocritical liars” (1 Tim. 4:2). Legalistic tendencies, which place outward appearance over heartfelt love for God, are to be avoided. Godly living (4:7-8) is our inner devotion to God working itself out in public view. It is not the ritualistic, outward practices working themselves into us that make us better Christians.
Nobody likes a hypocrite. Nobody wants a life that’s a forgery, fraud, fake, cheap imitation or a living lie. I don’t like plastic flowers, however realistic they may appear. I find them disappointing on restaurant tables, in homes and churches. Real flowers are alive! They bend with the breezes. They release pleasing fragrances. They show the colors of life which can never be hypocritically faked. Real flowers brilliantly do what the Creator intended them to do (Mt. 6:28-29).
What do our friends, neighbors and God think of us? Are we the real thing or an imitation? The main limitation of an imitation flower is that it can’t reproduce. May our lives be so genuine that others will choose to become authentic followers of Jesus because of the truth they see in us. Hypocrisy does not fool God, so why fool ourselves?
By Colin Salter
With permission to publish by: Sam Hadley, Grace & Truth, 210 Chestnut St., Danville, IL., USA. Website: www.gtpress.org