The Hypocrisy Controversy

Intro: When you think about the word “Pharisee” what other word comes immediately to mind? It is probably the word “hypocrite”. In fact, we sometimes use those terms interchangeably and speak of the hypocrite as being pharisaical. This connection certainly comes from Jesus’ ongoing confrontation with the Pharisees and His words of reproof toward them.

  • The word hypocrite is used 22 times in the N.T. (NKJV). 15 of those occurrences are found in Matthew, and were spoken by Jesus in description of, or in direct rebuke toward, the Pharisees. He addresses the Scribes and Pharisees as hypocrites 7 times in Matthew 23.
  • Read with me the first 33 verses of Matthew 23. Contemplate seriously what Jesus condemns in these words.
  • Jesus had a serious objection to the hypocrisy of the religious leaders of His day. We will explore some aspects of His rebuke in this lesson. But first…

I. What is a hypocrite? However we might strive to define it, most of us know one when we see one. We object. No one defends him. We appreciate genuineness, even among our enemies. Hypocrisy assaults our basic moral sensibilities.

A. The Bible Definition: The word in Matthew for hypocrite is hupokrites (hoop-ok-ree-tace’) – an actor under an assumed character (stage-player), i.e. (figuratively) a dissembler (Strong’s). The word literally meant “one who answers” or “plays a part”.It was the custom of Greek and Roman actors to speak while wearing large masks in order to augment the force of their voice in the theater. Thus the word came to be used to describe an actor, or one who played a part in a play. (If we were ancient Greeks we might say, “there are a lot of hypocrites in Hollywood”.)

1. Nelson’s Bible Dictionary says that a hypocrite is: In the Greek theater, a hypocrite was one who wore a mask and played a part on the stage, imitating the speech, mannerisms, and conduct of the character portrayed. Unger says, “The hypocrite is a double person, natural and artificial. The first he keeps to himself, and the other he puts on, as he does his clothes, to make his appearance before men.

2. Through the amplification of their voice and the appearance of their mask the Greek actor would make the audience believe that he was someone else on stage. It was all a show.

II. What are Jesus objections of Hypocrisy? The Lord exposes several elements of hypocrisy that are opposed to genuine godliness. These are the heart of the matter.

A. Hypocrisy is Pride. It is focused on others more than God. Matt 23:5-12But all their works they do to be seen by men. They make their phylacteries broad and enlarge the borders of their garments. 6 They love the best places at feasts, the best seats in the synagogues, 7 greetings in the marketplaces, and to be called by men, ‘Rabbi, Rabbi.’ 8 But you, do not be called ‘Rabbi’; for One is your Teacher, the Christ, and you are all brethren. 9 Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. 10 And do not be called teachers; for One is your Teacher, the Christ. 11 But he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. 12 And whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.

1. Phylacteries and tassels: When Moses referenced the commandments of God he said in Deut 6:8-9You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. 9 You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. 3 Times in the O.T. this command is repeated. Not once is there any indication that the Israelites of the OT took that any way except figurative. But the Pharisees’ literalized the command and wore small leather boxes on their forearms and foreheads, known as phylacteries, containing the three passages where the command was found. These were worn as symbols of faithfulness to God’s law, and they were made larger so that everyone could see them. Tassels were a commanded part of the Jewish attire. The Pharisees wore larger ones than others to be seen by all. Spirituality defined outwardly.

2. Matt 6:1-2Take heed that you do not do your charitable deeds before men, to be seen by them. Otherwise you have no reward from your Father in heaven. 2 Therefore, when you do a charitable deed, do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory from men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. – 3 But when you do a charitable deed, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 that your charitable deed may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will Himself reward you openly.

a. God specifically instructed the Jews to care for the needy and made benevolent work a duty (NKJ) God was serious about protecting the widow, orphan, and those who were needy. He expected His people to reflect His kindness. In Deut 14 God commanded the Jews in the third year to bring the tithe of their produce and store within their gates specifically to help the poor and those who had no inheritance in the land (Levites) that they “may come and eat and be satisfied, that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hand which you do.” In Deut 15 God warns them not to harden their heart against the poor or shut their hand from him. “but you shall open your hand wide to him and willingly lend him sufficient for his need, whatever he needs.

b. Unfortunately, the Pharisees had turned this act of kindness into a show of pretentiousness and false piety. Jesus denounces those who do good deeds “to be seen of men”. To do things to be seen by others robs even righteous acts of their spiritual value. Jesus says the only reward they produce is the outward applause itself. Three times here (with alms, prayer & fasting) Jesus says that the hypocrite has his reward in the glory he seeks from men. Even though he gives, prays, and fasts more often than others God will not reward him for at least two reasons:

            • God expects more. He is looking for change in the heart, and He wants us to desire to do good and pray.
            • God sees more. Unlike us, God is not fooled. He sees your heart and knows why you do what you do. The hypocrite openly denies that God sees all. Luke 12:1-3 – In the meantime, when an innumerable multitude of people had gathered together, so that they trampled one another, He began to say to His disciples first of all, “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. WHY? … For there is nothing covered that will not be revealed, nor hidden that will not be known. Therefore whatever you have spoken in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have spoken in the ear in inner rooms will be proclaimed on the housetop.

B. Hypocrisy is Selfishness. It is focused on self more than God. The hypocrite is not interested in what is true or right, or the other person to whom he is being disingenuous. (Coaches that pretend to like you and be your friend in order to get the calls to go their way, until their team begins to lose the game.) The Pharisees loved to be exalted and called Rabbi, Rabbi.

1. It is easy for us to re-orient God’s things and God’s work to point back toward us. Worship and acts of obedience become acts of self-appeasement and self-exaltation. God did not create the church with a public relations department. Though we are to let our light shine before men, and shine as lights in a perverse world, the activity of the church and every Christian is to be focused in only one direction – toward God. It is not about us.

2. In the first chapter of Ephesians, where Paul catalogues the great blessings we have in Christ, and speaks about the purpose of God’s work in our behalf, 3 times he states it is for the “praise of His grace” and the “praise of His glory” (1:6, 1:12, 1:16)

3. Jesus does not give us any room for compromise here – if it is done to receive the glory of men (vs. 2) it cannot also be to bring the glory to God. Consider the harsh judgment of Moses at Meribah: Deut. 32:48-52 “Then the LORD spoke to Moses that very same day, saying: “Go up this mountain of the Abarim, Mount Nebo, which is in the land of Moab, across from Jericho; view the land of Canaan, which I give to the children of Israel as a possession; “and die on the mountain which you ascend, and be gathered to your people, just as Aaron your brother died on Mount Hor and was gathered to his people; “because you trespassed against Me among the children of Israel at the waters of Meribah Kadesh, in the Wilderness of Zin, because you did not hallow Me in the midst of the children of Israel.” That humbles me to know that God would judge a man such as Moses on the basis of his attitude in an act of obedience.

4. Preachers can be especially vulnerable to this problem. Paul encountered some who preached the truth, but did it from “self-ambition, not sincerely” (Phil. 1:15, 16)

5. In Matt. 6 Jesus says to not blow a trumpet (vs. 2) – avoid the opportunity to announce what you are doing. This takes away the temptation to be motivated by the applause.

6. Jesus says “do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing” (v.3) , proverbially speaking it means to keep something hidden. Would you do good it if no one could know?

C. Hypocrisy is Impurity. (specifically of the heart). As surely as false doctrine contaminates the practice of the Christian, so hypocrisy contaminates the attitude of the Christian.

1. This concept is clearly behind Jesus’ definition of the hypocrite in Mark 7:6-7 – He answered and said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written: ‘This people honors Me with their lips, But their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, Teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’

a. The contrast between the lips and the heart reflect the ability of the hypocrite to comply outwardly (by saying the right things) without making inward changes (heart is far from me.)

b. Obedience is then defined as outward conformity alone, and others are judged by this incomplete standard. So the proselyte (convert) of the hypocrite is not truly converted to God, but to a false or superficial standard of conduct. A person is deemed “faithful” if he attends assemblies regularly, without reference to his attitude or action at other times.

c. The hypocrite learns to make arbitrary distinctions in what God requires of himself and others. Matt 23:23-24 – “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone. 24 Blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel! Jesus analogy of straining at a gnat refers to a common practice when the Pharisees would pour their water through sieve to strain out any unclean insects that were too small to see with the naked eye. But they were willing to swallow a camel, the largest animal in Palestine!

d. Ironically these arbitrary distinctions are utilized, not to produce obedience to the law, but excuse disobedience. If one is careful to only swear by the Temple, and not by the gold of the Temple, he can lie and not keep his vows.

2. We are constantly challenged to look deeper than the surface, especially as we judge ourselves. Matthew 23:25-2725 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cleanse the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of extortion and self-indulgence. 26 Blind Pharisee, first cleanse the inside of the cup and dish, that the outside of them may be clean also. 27 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness.

D. Hypocrisy is Infectious. When one person decides to live a lie and deny his own conscience it can embolden others to do the same. Paul confronted Peter on this issue. Gal 2:11-13 – 1 Now when Peter had come to Antioch, I withstood him to his face, because he was to be blamed; 12 for before certain men came from James, he would eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing those who were of the circumcision. 13 And the rest of the Jews also played the hypocrite with him, so that even Barnabas was carried away with their hypocrisy.

1. The hypocritical leader can do enormous spiritual damage. If his hypocrisy is not exposed, he lowers the standard for all who follow him. Matt 23:15- 5 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel land and sea to win one proselyte, and when he is won, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves. If his hypocrisy is exposed, his good influence is reversed. Jesus warned his disciples about the failed leadership of the Pharisees. Matt 23:2-4 – “…they say, and do not do. 4 For they bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers. Leaders who constantly call on others to sacrifice and work, but are unwilling to do it themselves are, not only ineffective, but they are hypocrites.

III. How can I avoid being a hypocrite? I must fight the tendency to play a part rather than live by the truth. Let me suggest three steps to avoid hypocrisy:

A. Step One: Dig down deep and acknowledge that I am a sinner. As Paul said in the first verses of Romans 12 “not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think soberly,” (Rom 12:3) Bill Vaughan, the late syndicated columnist, once said that “In the game of life, it’s a good idea to have a few early losses, which relieves you of the pressure of trying to maintain an undefeated season.” Isn’t that what hypocrisy is often about? — trying to give the impression to other people that we live lives which are undefeated?

B. Step 2: Focus on service rather than status. We can never overcome the temptation to be a hypocrite until we overcome the fleshly tendency to live for ourselves instead of others.

C. Step 3spend more time on the inside than the outside of our lives – How much time do we spend dealing with the outside of our lives? (The impression we make, the clothes, makeup, hair, cars, houses) How much time do we spend on the inside? (Prayer, Bible study, reflection, confession)

Conclusion: Jesus is real. He expects us to be real.

Scroll to Top