Strong word. It carries its own kind of sting; it’s a scathing rebuke. There are a few words I never want to be called. “Politician”
is, as far as I’m concerned, a negatively connoted word, at least now. “Liar” is another. “Hypocrite” is one step lower. It is not a word one would use to “win friends and influence people.” Yet this is the word Jesus used to describe some of the movers and shakers of the church in His day.
In fact, according to some versions of the Bible, such as
the King James and the New American Standard, Jesus used this word seven times in Matthew 23 to describe the religious leaders of His day.1 He based it on their activity in very specific areas. Seven is the “perfect” number. Did Jesus use it seven times to denote that these false religious leaders had reached a mature level of hypocrisy? Had they perfected the art of hypocritical living?
But never mind the scribes and Pharisees of centuries ago. What about our own lives? Would Jesus use this word
to describe us? Would He use it to describe our church?
I’ve read Matthew 23 several times in my life, but I recently read it again. It seemed to grab my attention as never before. Maybe because I really don’t want the word to fit me, I’m afraid it may. Perhaps as I reach middle age I’m more concerned about being an authentic Christian—the genuine article—than ever before. Maybe the Spirit is working with me afresh, causing me to reexamine my life. I know I don’t want to be a hypocrite.
First, a Definition
In New Testament Greek the word “hypocrite” comes from hupocrites, which means “actor”; and from hupokrinesthai, “to play a part, pretend.” A hypocrite is one who practices hypocrisy.
Hypocrisy is the false profession of desirable or publicly approved qualities, beliefs, or feelings; especially a pretense of having virtues, moral principles, or religious beliefs that one does not really possess.2 A hypocrite is a pretender, a fake, a fraud. Hypocrites perpetrate appearances without expressing reality. They are “all show and no go.”
A religious hypocrite is like a criminal deemed “armed and extremely dangerous” because of the spiritual damage they may inflict on others. Armed with the appearance of righteousness, cloaked with the garb of religion, hypocrites can stealthily gain entrance to the lives of the unsuspecting and naive and wreak eternal havoc.
I don’t want to be a hypocrite.
Jesus must have been concerned about the religious leaders, the scribes and the Pharisees, being hypocritical. He spoke the words of Matthew 23 in His farewell address, the last opportunity he had to speak to the crowds in the Temple courtyard. The last public speech He gave before moving to the cross was about hypocrisy.
If we understand the book of Matthew to be chronological in order, after Jesus spoke in the Temple courts, He then gave the prophetic signs of His return and the end of the world (chapter 24). Next He spoke three powerful parables relative to personal preparedness for His return (chapter 25); then the judicial murder plot unfolds (chapter 26).
Hypocrisy must have been an important issue to our Lord. It should, therefore, be important to us.
Why did Jesus speak so strongly about the hypocrisy of His contemporaries? This is the lovely Savior, who usually spoke with tears in His voice when He rebuked, corrected, or chastised a wayward soul.
But it’s easy to imagine that He might have used strong, pejorative language both as a means of liberating the masses from the manipulative control of the fallen religious leaders by exposing them, and simultaneously attempting to reach the very ones He described—shocking them with the truth.
Ellen White observed: “In the parables which Christ had spoken, it was His purpose both to warn the rulers and to instruct the people who were willing to be taught. But there was need to speak yet more plainly. Through their reverence for tradition and their blind faith in a corrupt priesthood, the people were enslaved. These chains Christ must break. The character of the priests, rulers, and Pharisees must be more fully exposed” (The Desire of Ages, pp. 611, 612).
Again, she wrote: “His voice, that had so often been heard in gentleness and entreaty, was now heard in rebuke and condemnation. The listeners shuddered. Never was the impression made by His words and His look to be effaced. Christ’s indignation was directed against the hypocrisy, the gross sins, by which men were destroying their own souls, deceiving the people and dishonoring God” (p. 619).
I’m convinced that Jesus loved the scribes and the Pharisees just as surely as He loved everyone else. There couldn’t have been a bigger hypocrite than Judas, yet Jesus maintained Judas’s membership among His corps of disciples for the duration of His ministry—not because Judas was a saint, but because Jesus wanted to reach him, convert his false heart, heal his hypocrisy, and make Judas an authentic Christian.
Instead, Judas hung on to his pride and was led by Satan to betray the Lord. Have you ever met anyone named Judas? I haven’t. People don’t even name their dogs Judas. What a different ending might have been written about Judas’s life if only he had let Jesus transform his life. And just as Jesus tried to reach Judas, He was trying to reach the scribes and Pharisees in this last chance He had.
Jesus spoke strongly to warn the scribes and Pharisees of the danger of hypocrisy, but His warning applies to us as well. Hypocrisy is something with which we all have to struggle.
Now, a Distinction
We have to make a distinction between a person who is struggling to gain victory and one who is a hypocrite.
True children of God are committed and engaged in a struggle to overcome sin. They are serious about loving God. A hypocrite merely gives the appearance of loving God. Hypocrites pretend to be one thing to the people they try to impress, when in fact they live a completely different life if they think no one’s looking. They have mastered the language of the church, but the Master of the church has not captured their hearts.
Our age has mastered “the look” without the corresponding content. We often focus on externals, appearances, and ignore the content of our characters. We forget that “form follows content”—that there has to be a corresponding reality to the appearance. Looking like a Christian—if there is such a look—isn’t enough. We must demonstrate the integrity, honesty, and love of a Christian; we must be for real.
I have a watch I sometimes wear. The word “Rolex” appears on its face. It claims to be an “Oyster Perpetual Date” model. It also says “Yacht Master, Superlative Chronometer, Officially Certified.” Eight “diamonds” are set around the watch’s face.
Rolex watches are known for their accuracy and ruggedness. I understand that the case of a real Rolex is carved from a single block of metal. Rolex watches are costly; the cheapest one I found on one Web site listed for $750. The most expensive one listed at more than $13,000.
Yes, a Rolex is quite a chronometer, quite a timepiece. The one I own, however, is a fake.
Externally, it looks like the real thing. One watch salesman complimented me on it. He didn’t get to look inside at the works. In fact, it doesn’t work accurately. It runs fast and must be adjusted every day or so. It looks nice on the outside, but something’s wrong on the inside; it’s not the genuine article. My son bought it at the mall for $60. When he got tired of wearing it, he gave it to me. The Rolex Company would be rightfully disappointed if this fake were presented as the genuine article.
God doesn’t want us to present a flawed representation of what it means to be a Christian as though it were the genuine article. He wants us to be genuine Christians. Indeed, I don’t want to live as a hypocrite. Yet I admit that the virus of hypocrisy has infected me. Sometimes I struggle with what I should do versus what I want to do.
Doing and Being
Our doing is an extension of our being. Who we are—flawed, fallen humanity—often demonstrates its being in our doing. But Jesus isn’t merely a behaviorist, One whose
primary focus is our behavior. Jesus
is certainly concerned about what we do, but His interest in us goes beyond our activity to the source of our actions. He is concerned about character reformation. Jesus knows that when our character is “fixed,” our behavior will be “fixed,” too.
Behavior often reveals character, but character development must be our focus. If we are intent on being like Jesus in character, our character will shape our behavior.
Hypocrisy presents certain dangers. There is the danger of misrepresenting God. By living a life void of real victory and love, the hypocrite gives a false representation of our wonderful heavenly Father. The misrepresentation gives a false picture of what God can do for humanity. The hypocrite is content with “a form of godliness,” which actually denies God’s power.
In Jesus’ time the scribes and Pharisees claimed to know God. Yet their representation of Him was limited to a legal listing of dos and don’ts that made God out to be a cruel and arbitrary deity. Their lives and ministries should have demonstrated the true character and nature of God—exactly what Jesus did in His representation of the Father. The leaders of Christ’s day were to be oracles of truth. But instead of revering God and accepting the Messiah sent by the Father, they clung to their prejudices, hated the Son of God, and conspired to kill Him.
How to Honor God
People are watching us. They need to see what a true Christian is. God needs people who will represent Him truly and draw others to Him.
Ellen White wrote: “Christ is seeking to reproduce Himself in the hearts of men [and women]; and He does this through those who believe in Him. The object of the Christian life is fruit bearing—the reproduction of Christ’s character in the believer, that it may be reproduced in others” (Christ’s Object Lessons, p. 67).
A religious hypocrite can mislead people looking for salvation. All around us are people looking for a better way of life, a life lived in relationship with God. Do they see that in us?
Christianity is a relational experience with God through faith that brings meaning to our existence. Our changed lives testify to the power of God. If the world sees Christians only as fakes, frauds, and phonies, people will be deceived and lost.
Religious hypocrites have a false sense of their own spiritual security. While they are pretending, posturing, and misleading others, they are actually leading themselves to hell. “You snakes! You brood of vipers!” Jesus exclaimed. “How will you escape being condemned to hell?” (Matt. 23:33).
Self-delusion is a powerful thing. We can lie to ourselves so much and so effectively that we begin to believe our own stories. We compare ourselves with those we deem worse than we are and wrap ourselves in a false sense of security. We reason that because we don’t do what the vilest among us do we have a kind of spiritual merit by comparison.
Jesus loves hypocrites. He loved them then and He loves them now—not because of what they are, but because of what they may become.
So the question comes, How can we become the genuine article in our Christianity?
1. We must accept Jesus’ diagnosis and admit that He is always right. The religious leaders of Christ’s day weren’t the only ones who had to struggle with hypocrisy. That potential dwells within us all; without Jesus we are all hypocritical in heart. “The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse—who can understand it?” asked the Lord. “I the Lord test the mind and search the heart, to give to all according to their ways, according to the fruit of their doings” (Jer. 17:9, 10, NRSV).* We can’t even be sure of our own motives because of our own self-deceit.
2. We must meet Jesus continually. Before meeting Christ, the apostle Paul thought he was on the right track. He was a Hebrew of Hebrews, a Jew among Jews, a leading Pharisee.
But Paul was wrong in his understanding of God and what God wanted. In His plan to save Paul and use Paul for His own glory, God stopped Paul in his tracks and set him in the right direction. After Paul met Jesus on the Damascus road, he was changed, transformed by his encounter. He accepted Jesus as his Savior and began an intimate relationship with Him.
Paul wasn’t the only one who needed to meet Jesus. We need to reacquaint ourselves with Him daily, or our selfishness will lead us to the depths of hypocrisy. Hypocrites suffer from selfishness to the extreme. Selfishness is the reason we present ourselves a certain way in order to gain the approval of others, promoting ourselves as the genuine article when we are not.
Our selfish hearts lead us to want to gain the approval and acceptance of those in the Christian “club” we belong to, so we focus on orthodox behavior—we eat right, dress right, and send our kids to the “right” school. We focus on the outward appearance of what it means to be a genuine Christian while often forsaking the everyday internalization of God’s values—His love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
In the daily surrender of our hearts to Jesus, He transforms us from hypocritical phonies to the genuine Christians we long to be. We must see Him and allow Him to change us from fakes and phonies to genuine, loving Christians.
3. We must die to self. Paul understood this. He shared His secret of genuine Christian living in these words: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20).
In college our Greek teacher told
us a story about Augustine. Before becoming a Christian, Augustine lived a life of debauchery and promiscuity. Nevertheless his mother’s prayers for his conversion were constant.
One day after becoming a Christian, Augustine was walking down a street when one of his former female associates recognized him. The woman spoke to Augustine, but he ignored her. She spoke to him again, but he continued to walk past her. Finally, she ran a few steps ahead of him. Opening her dress, she displayed her body and said, “Augustine, it’s me.”
Without missing a step, Augustine replied, “Madam, you may be you, but I am no longer me.”
Is there hope for hypocrites? Yes, when we meet Jesus and allow Him to enter into our hearts He will change us from hypocritical Christians and make us the genuine article after His own image.
*Bible texts credited to NRSV are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission.
1The New International Version omits Matthew 23:14.
2See Random House Webster’s College Dictionary (2000), p. 651.
Ricardo Graham, D.Min., was recently elected president of the Pacific Union Conference, which consists of the states of Arizona, California, Hawaii, Nevada, and Utah.