The Signs of Hypocrisy: Part One

by J. R. Cuevas

I have a family friend who once told us the story of the day she checked herself into the hospital. She was at her home and, upon looking at the mirror in her bathroom, noticed something strange in her eyes. She immediately rushed herself to the hospital, because she knew that she was having a stroke. Sure enough, she was correct. She was experiencing a stroke, and her quick thinking enabled her to get immediate treatment (the story ends well; today, she lives as a healthy grandmother). But how did she know that she was experiencing a stroke? After all, WebMD didn’t exist back then. The answer: she was a doctor. Having practiced internal medicine for nearly thirty years in multiple countries, her eyes were trained to discern the signs and symptoms of an internal cardiovascular condition whose presence would go largely unnoticed to the pedestrian eye.

Sin is first and foremost a condition of the heart. But, as Christ said, whatever is in the heart will eventually go forth from it (Matt 15:19). A tree is known by its fruits; who a man is will show in what he does and how he lives (Matt 7:15-20). Hypocrisy, the most deadly of spiritual diseases, cannot remain hidden. It will manifest itself and affect the entire life of a person. Its symptoms may go unnoticed to the pedestrian eye, but not to the trained eye, and definitely not to the eye of the Great Physician Himself. His eyes saw their hearts. But Christ did not simply condemn their hypocrisy privately; he confronted their hypocrisy publicly with great detail to equip and warn His disciples whom He had called to be shrewd as serpents and discern the presence of the wolves in their midst (Matt 10:16).

As disciples of Jesus Christ, the church is called to exercise keen discernment. We are to be innocent in the purity of our character, but shrewd in our ability to discern good and evil (Heb 5:14). When it comes to the sin of spiritual hypocrisy, we need to know its signs and symptoms, so that we may flee from it. What, then, are the signs?

Sign #1: Hypocrites are Selfishly Competitive
Jesus begins the sermon with the first of the seven woes:

But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you shut off the kingdom of heaven from people; for you do not enter in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in.

Matt 23:13

Jesus accused the religious leaders because they “shut off the kingdom of heaven” from people. Throughout their false ministries, the Pharisees and scribes had esteemed themselves as the ones who could lead people into the kingdom of heaven. They postured themselves as the ones who knew the way to God, belonged to God, and could lead others to God. Their religious chicanery was exposed in the way they treated both John the Baptist and Jesus Himself.

For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, “He has a demon!” The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Behold, a gluttonous man and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!

Matt 11:18-19

Jesus had designated John the Baptist as the greatest man born of women (Matt 11:11). John pointed people to Christ and the true way to heaven (John 1:29; 3:22-30). Yet the religious leaders opposed him and claimed that he was demon-possessed (Matt 11:18). It is no surprise, then, that John the Baptist exposed the Pharisees as a “brood of vipers” (Matt 3:7). They weren’t born of Abraham, but of the devil! And when Christ, the King Himself, came and preached the kingdom of heaven over and over again, the Pharisees accused Him of being a glutton (Matt 11:19) and also of being demon-possessed (Matt 12:24). Such persistent rejection of both John and Jesus exposed two realities.

First, the Pharisees were unregenerate and were therefore not entering the kingdom. Second, the Pharisees and scribes did not want people to find God’s kingdom. They were driven by a jealous, competitive, and self-centered spirit. Their selfishly competitive heart was exposed when someone greater than themselves came—someone who actually was selected by God to declare the truth. Their jealousy was first seen in their interaction with John the Baptist, and then with Jesus. When John and Jesus came to lead people to the kingdom, the Pharisees discredited them, defamed them, and led people away from them, thus shutting people out of the kingdom of heaven. Jesus was the door to eternal life and the kingdom of heaven (John 10:7-9). And yet, by discrediting Jesus, the Pharisees and scribes had attempted to lead people away from the entrance into heaven. Their deflection of the people away from Jesus was not due to ignorance, but due to their desire to conceal what Christ was exposing: they did not care to lead the Jews to the kingdom of heaven; they cared only about leading the people to themselves.

When it comes to their ambitions, hypocrites are selfishly competitive. That’s not to say that all competition is bad. In fact, competition can be good. The apostle Paul affirms that all who run must run in such a way that they can win (1 Cor 9:24). It can be healthy for Christians to participate in competitive athletics, academics, and similar endeavors, because such competition promotes personal growth and skill-development. What Jesus is addressing in Matthew 23:13 is competition in the spiritual realm. When it comes to spiritual growth, ministry, and influence, Christians have no business seeking to out-compete one another. It is why the apostle Paul says to do nothing out of selfish rivalry (Phil 2:3).

When it comes to spiritual growth, ministry, and influence, Christians have no business seeking to out-compete one another.

Hypocrites, on the other hand, are competitive with other Christians in these realms. They are particularly competitive with those who have a similar sphere of influence. Like Diotrophes (3 John 9), they “want to be first” in people’s lives. They care less about the progress and joy of people’s faith (Phil 1:25) and only desire for others to “grow” if it glorifies them in the process. But as soon as someone else comes along who seems to be more gifted, more charismatic, and more capable of doing the job than they in leading those people to God, they try to compete with that person and even discredit them, be it directly or indirectly. In doing so, they lead people away from the vessel whom God may have truly sent to lead His sheep to His kingdom. They are hypocrites in the sense that they are actually leading people away from the place where they claim to be leading people. They are hypocrites because they pretend to care about people’s spiritual growth, but in reality only care about the esteem they receive from people. They pretend to care about the glory of God, but in reality only care about their own glory.

How many times have we been guilty of this? How many times have we been in some kind of a spiritual leadership capacity during which we claimed that all we desired was the sanctity and holiness and growth of God’s people, but when someone else comes along who exceeded us in talent, maturity, giftedness, and charisma and who could actually lead people to such growth and holiness, we find ourselves jealous, competing for his position, and even attempting to discredit him—however subtly—in the process. The irony of it all is that those who seek to cause others to question the integrity of a godly leader are the ones who lack integrity.

The man of integrity, on the other hand, is driven by the philosophy of John the Baptist as seen in John 3:30. As soon as Jesus arrived and began His public ministry, people began to be drawn away from John and toward Jesus. Some came to John and told him about it, only for John to respond that he himself is only the friend of the bridegroom and not the bridegroom himself. Now that Jesus had arrived, John said, “He must increase, and I must decrease” (John 3:30). Study the Scriptures, and you’ll find that this was true. John the Baptist is rarely mentioned in the Gospels after Christ’s baptism, and he is not mentioned at all in the epistles. The man of integrity cares not about the personal glory he can receive from leading people in the faith. All he truly cares about is that people find Christ, believe in Christ, and follow Him. He considers Christ’s glory of such value and preeminence that he forgets about his own. In contrast to hypocrites, people of integrity gladly allow themselves, like John the Baptist, to decrease, if that’s what is required for a more competent person to increase in his influence.

As a Christian—especially if you are a leader in the church—you must exercise extreme caution and care when you choose to discredit another person, especially one who is in a position of spiritual leadership in Christ’s church. You must also be careful when endorsing another person or leader. Proverbs 20:25 says that it is rash for man to say too quickly, “It is holy.” There are times when, as a pastor and elder, I have to discredit a person who may truly be a false teacher. A pastor functions as both sheepdog and livestock guarding dog. He must not only shepherd the sheep to the green pastures of the Word, but warn them when wolves are present lest he stand guilty before God (Ezek 33:7-9). But motives are of utmost importance. Discredit another believer because you are afraid that God’s sheep may be led astray from a pure devotion to Christ (2 Cor 11:3). Don’t discredit because you are afraid of losing your influence and preeminence in the lives of people, for that may inevitably cause you to discredit those who truly are teachers of the truth. Guard your heart from being selfishly competitive, lest you fall into hypocrisy.

Sign #2: Hypocrites are Culturally Legalistic

After accusing the Pharisees of shutting off the kingdom of heaven from people, Jesus continued the accusation by giving the second of the seven woes in the following verse.

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you travel around on sea and land to make one proselyte; and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves.

Matt 23:15

The description is figurative; the condemnation is stunning. The Pharisees thought they were headed to heaven, but Jesus called them sons of hell. Why? Because they “traveled around on sea and land to make one proselyte.” Christ speaks figuratively, in that the Pharisees and scribes were not sea voyagers by trade. What Christ was saying was that these religious leaders went to great lengths to accomplish something. They were, in fact, missions-minded people in a very real sense of the word. Christ is not condemning foreign or international missions. The apostle Paul was God’s chosen vessel to the Gentiles, and he had to travel around on sea and land to make disciples of Christ in the Greco-Roman region outside of Judea and Samaria. The Pharisees had the same intensity as Paul did in their missionary efforts. But their mission was not to make disciples of Christ and worshippers of God. It was to make proselytes.

A proselyte was a Gentile who converted to Judaism and particularly adopted all of the traditional Jewish customs as outlined by the religious establishment, but they were not necessarily regenerate. Read enough of the Gospel accounts and compare them to the Old Testament and it won’t take long to realize that the Pharisees had prescribed a number of things to the Jewish community that were never explicitly commanded by God in the Old Testament and condemned those who did not follow them. They had treated several of their man-made traditions as law to the point where they had neglected the word of God itself (Matt 15:6, Mark 7:8). What Christ was exposing about these religious leaders was their false zeal, making converts not of the truth, but of their own traditions. They were less concerned about the spiritual state of the people and more concerned with their customs and traditions being passed down. They were hypocrites in that they were pretending to convert people to be followers of God, when in reality they were wanting people to become followers of themselves and their own extra-biblical traditions. They were unashamed legalists.

Hypocrites are, by nature, culturally and traditionally legalistic. They love to promote their personal ways of doing things more than they do the principles of Scripture. They love to speak of and promote their personal disciplines, practices and convictions. They love to talk about and promote how they structure their family lives, how they raise their children, how they dated, how they structure their devotional times. While doing so, they silently condemn those who seek other ways of applying Scripture, and insist that their way is the only way. They’re often intense and diligent about telling people their detailed practices of how they live out their faith and do so in an unwarranted manner or in an unsolicited way. They neglect to take into consideration that others may have different convictions and ways of doing things, failing to understand the words of Romans 14:5-6: “one person regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind.”

It should be no surprise, then, that hypocrites love to take the form of mentors. They love to “disciple” people, even when they are never approached for discipleship. Over the years, I’ve taught younger believers who are hungry for spiritual growth and discipleship to be wary of those who approach them and say, “You look like you need some discipling. How would you like it if I discipled you?” I offer this warning because hypocrites tend to be eager to be in positions of influence. And when they do disciple or mentor individuals, they have a tendency to be very intense and particular. The discipleship relationship is filled with the passing down of rules and practices more than principles. I myself have seen enough in the life of the church to know that so many of these same people who try to “pass down their wisdom” have lives that are completely disheveled. They don’t need to be traveling around land and sea mentoring people; what they need is help getting their lives together! Yet, they don’t, because they’re not truly concerned about spiritual growth or Christ. They’re concerned about culture and tradition. It’s no wonder that such people, though they claim to be transformed by the truth, tend to only spend time with people who are just like them—be it ethnically, socio-economically, or traditionally.

Over the last few years, my wife and I have spent a substantial amount of time watching documentaries on different cults. Though these cults are unrelated and express their false religion differently, they each share some common key features. One of the features that usually exist within a cult a culture of uniformity on just about everything, including what people eat, how they dress, where they live, how they talk, how they approach their children’s education and discipline, and much more.

Uniformity to such a degree issues a red flag, because God’s church was not designed to have uniformity across every facet of Christian living. Uniformity is different from unity and harmony. Unity and harmony are to be pursued amongst God’s people (Phil 2:1-2). But with unity, there also ought to exist diversity in the manner with which different Christians carry out the same biblical principles. The apostle Paul states:

One person regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it for the Lord, and he who eats, does so for the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who eats not, for the Lord he does not eat, and gives thanks to God.

Rom 14:5-6

The reality of Christ’s lordship over believers will be expressed in a variety of forms, even within the same local body. This applies to eating, drinking, observing particular days over others, children’s education, views on television and social media, and family devotions, to name a few. Genuine discipleship allows for the presence of such differences among God’s people without sacrificing the principle of Christ’s lordship (Rom 14:7-8). Hypocrites, however, go beyond this principle and insist on their detailed practices. They say: “I home-school, and so should you. I fast one Monday a month, and so should you. I pray submerged in the swimming pool for 3 minutes every morning, and so should you. I abstain from all forms of television, and so should you.”

In contrast, men of integrity don’t go around trying to make disciples of themselves. They don’t go around land and sea trying to promote themselves. Rather, their lives speak for themselves, and people imitate them because they witness the outcome of their lives (Heb 13:7). Such people don’t really care if anyone else in the church desires to imitate them directly, as long as they know that those people are living for the Lord.

In contrast, men of integrity don’t go around trying to make disciples of themselves.

On a higher level, churches that are marked by integrity are churches that don’t try to shove a lifestyle down people’s throats. They don’t force people to be on a particular Bible reading plan. They don’t guilt-trip their married couples into going on weekly date nights (even though they can be very helpful!). They don’t guilt the families in the church into thinking that sending their kids to public school is akin to selling their souls to Satan. They don’t promote a uniform standard of living. They don’t pretend to teach the Bible when they’re in fact teaching culture. They are, instead, primarily concerned with how their members are relating to Christ Himself, for He Himself is the one Leader of His people (Matt 23:10).

One of the most significant, and difficult, lessons that I’ve learned when it comes to shepherding God’s flock is that the more authority is vested in me, the less freedom I actually have to share my opinions on certain matters of life. It sounds counterintuitive, but it is a biblical reality nevertheless. The reason is due to the title I carry. The title of “pastor” connotes the presence of authority. And with authority comes weight of opinion on the shoulders of those under your care. I’ve come to realize that my opinions carry more weight than they would had I not been a pastor—for the better or for the worse. If I am not careful, what I intend to be an opinion could be taken as law or even wisdom, and it is much harder for Christians to shake off opinions of their pastors than it is fellow church members, even if they themselves don’t agree with those opinions.

As a father, for instance, I certainly have my preferences about which educational system would be best for our children among the choices of public schooling, home-schooling, private secular schooling, or private Christian schooling (We have tried three of these four with our son). I realize, however, that I have to be careful in sharing my opinion to fellow fathers in our congregation. It may be that God is leading him to send his children to a different system than I have chosen to send mine, yet because of my position he may feel pressured to do the same as me. Because of my pastoral position, members regularly ask for my opinion about everything—whether they should buy a bigger house, what I think about their girlfriend as a potential spouse, whether or not I think they should move to this or that state, whether they should pursue a graduate degree, whether they should leave and find another church, what Bible reading plan they should be on, whether they should allow their children to spend time with non-believing classmates, and many more. I have learned to be cautious so that I don’t end up making a proselyte instead of a disciple of Christ. For true men of integrity seek not to make personal proselytes, but disciples of Christ.

Sign #3: Hypocrites are Morally Inconsistent
Continuing His condemnation of the Pharisees and scribes, Christ described their hypocrisy seen in their moral inconsistency in Matthew 23:16-21:

Woe to you, blind guides, who say, “Whoever swears by the temple, that is nothing; but whoever swears by the gold of the temple is obligated.” You fools and blind men! Which is more important, the gold or the temple that sanctified the gold? And, “Whoever swears by the altar, that is nothing, but whoever swears by the offering on it, he is obligated.” You blind men, which is more important, the offering, or the altar that sanctifies the offering? Therefore, whoever swears by the altar, swears both by the altar and by everything on it. And whoever swears by the temple, swears both by the temple and by Him who dwells within it. And whoever swears by heaven, swears both by the throne of God and by Him who sits upon it.

In exposing their hypocrisy, Christ specifically exposes the error of the scribes and Pharisees teaching about swearing by the temple. With regard to swearing and making oaths, the religious leaders had taught that their obligations to fulfill the requirements of their oaths was dependent upon whether or not they appealed to the gold of the temple in the making of the oath. In the same way, they taught that the one who swore by the altar was not obligated to fulfill that oath if there was no sacrifice present on the altar at the time of the oath; they were only required to fulfill their oath if there was a sacrifice present. The religious leaders were making distinctions between swearing in different settings and circumstances, claiming that it was acceptable to swear yet not fulfill an oath in some instances and not others, based on a superficial set of criteria. In effect, they were promoting compartmentalization and inconsistency. They focused not on the integrity of their character but on behaving differently depending on what suited them best and basing their decision on shallow reasons.

Such conduct is akin to the man who says, “It’s fine to curse when I’m around my non-Christian friends, but not in front of my Christian friends” or “it’s acceptable to lie when I’m at work, so long as I don’t do it at church.” The Pharisees, in implementing these loopholes into their oath making, were trying to justify lying and morally inconsistent behavior. Christ, therefore, calling them blind, twice interrogates them with rhetorical questions and then declares: “Whoever swears by the temple, swears both by the temple and by Him who dwells within it. And whoever swears by heaven, swears by both the throne of God and by Him who sits upon it” (Matt 23:21-22). In other words, God is present both in the temple and in the throne of heaven. Thus, if you swear by the temple, you are swearing by God. And when you swear by heaven, you are swearing by God. Either way, God is present to hear your oath. What difference does it make then, Christ asks, that you made your oath before the temple or the altar or by heaven? Regardless of the circumstances, God was there.

So, for the high school kid who has a Clorox-wiped mouth in church and a potty-mouth at school: he ought to remember that he speaks before God who is present with him both at the Wednesday school hour and at Sunday church service. The Pharisees would have argued otherwise because they were characterized by moral inconsistency—pretending to be one way in one setting but behaving another way in a different setting.

To be clear, I am not advocating uniform behavior in every set of circumstances. Proverbs 27:14 wisely instructs timeliness for certain exhibitions of behavior: “He who blesses his friend with a loud voice early in the morning, It will be reckoned a curse to him.” Different events do, at times, call for different codes of conduct. You can cheer when you’re with your kids at a baseball game, but you probably shouldn’t cheer during your grandmother’s funeral.

What I am emphasizing here is the moral portrait of a man. Hypocrites are morally inconsistent by nature. They are compartmentalizers, behaving according to one set of moral criteria when they’re at home and another one when they’re with the church family, and yet under another one when they’re with their coworkers at work. It’s for this reason that I’ve learned, when trying to inquire of the spiritual condition of an individual, to not ask the question “How are you doing spiritually?” It’s not necessarily a bad question. But if you want to know how people are doing spiritually, the better thing to do is to ask them about every other area of life. Ask them about their marriage. Ask them about their relationship with their children. Ask them how things have been going at work and how they’ve been submitting (or not submitting) to their boss. Look at their financial budget and how they spend their money. Inquire about their relationship with their parents. Ask them to list out how they spend their free time. And then ask yourself, “Are you seeing the same person morally in all of these areas?” A hypocrite, because he is morally inconsistent, will not. They will make superficial distinctions and demarcations rather than focusing on the consistency of his or her character. They are experts in crafting double, triple, and quadruple standards. They’re akin to chameleons, changing the color of their conduct depending on the people they are around. They are hypocrites because they pretend to be one person in one setting and another person in another setting.

Men of integrity are those who carry the same moral reputation amongst all spheres of relationships. They are men who, contrary to hypocrites, are morally consistent.

Men of integrity, on the other hand, do what they do with the cognizance that the God who the heavens and the earth cannot contain is everywhere, all the time, and always in their presence. No matter where they are they don’t change their principles of conduct, because they understand that God does not change in what He expects from them. They realize that wherever they are, they are called to the same standard of holiness (1 Pet 1:15-16). It is for integrity’s sake that 1 Timothy 3:7 demands that the man who serves as an elder have a good reputation outside of the church, for a man who behaves one way outside of the church and another way inside of the church has no business being behind the pulpit preaching the Word of God that he so inconsistently heeds. Men of integrity are those who carry the same moral reputation amongst all spheres of relationships. They are men who, contrary to hypocrites, are morally consistent.

Are you the same person on and off the court? Do you exhibit the same level of morality and standard of ethic regardless of who you are around? If I were to ask five different people who interact with you from five different relational spheres (i.e. home, church, work, athletics, extended family) to describe the kind of person you are, would they all paint the same portrait?   

Yet, five people giving a consistent testimony about you doesn’t exonerate you. Spiritual morality is more than just being consistent. You can be consistently wrong. Further, being a staunch ecumenist (the opposite of being competitive), a flaming antinomian (the opposite of being legalistic), and morally rigid (the opposite of being morally inconsistent) does not equate to being a person of integrity. Needless to say, Jesus does not stop after identifying the first three. He identifies four more, all of which will be explored in further articles.

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