One of the reasons why hypocrisy can go unnoticed to the untrained eye is because those who practice it are not always overtly malicious, violent, or belligerent people. County sheriffs aren’t commissioned to look for hypocrites. It would be unfitting for a judge to sentence someone to prison because “they showed signs of hypocrisy.” Hence, it must have felt like an electric shock to the both the onlookers and the religious leaders themselves when Jesus publicly denounced their character and warned His disciples to beware of them. But if they weren’t breaking into homes, sleeping with multiple women, murdering the innocent, or selling drugs, what were they doing that warranted such condemnation? If hypocrites pose no physical threat to society, how can you identify them? How do you identify a most dangerous of vices when those who exhibit it don’t seem to be outwardly hurting anyone?
Thankfully, our Good Shepherd has not left His sheep alone to craft our own list of signs and symptoms. Picking up from where we left off in the previous article in this series, we will now consider four more signs of hypocrisy.
Sign #4: Hypocrites are Morally Disproportionate
As He continues to address the morality of the Pharisees and scribes, Jesus unveils another facet of their hypocrisy in Matthew 23:23-24:
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others. You blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!
The Pharisees were traditionalist tithers, and they were fastidious about their traditions. Christ exposes their particular way of tithing, “you tithe mint and dill and cumin.” As a practice, the Pharisees would take every tenth strand of the mint and dill leaves, (already very thin), separate them out and give them to the offering. It was a method of tithing that was incredibly meticulous, arduous, and disciplined. It was also non-mandatory. God never commanded the tithing of mint, dill, and cumin in the Old Testament Law.
There is nothing wrong with doing something for the Lord that isn’t mandated Scripture and that Scripture doesn’t condemn. There are plenty of practices today that are part of Christians’ regular disciplines that Scripture doesn’t prescribe but that can be helpful nevertheless. Journaling, reading ten chapters of the Bible a day, fasting, or going on prayer walks around the lake are but a few examples that some Christians have found useful. The Pharisees were not hypocrites because they tithed mint and dill and cumin. They were hypocrites because of their twisted motives and the disproportion that characterized their spirituality as a whole. The Pharisees wanted to make it seem as if they were going above and beyond what was required of them in the area of giving, mostly to show off. And this motive was revealed in their neglect of the weightier matters of the Law.
This is the condemnation: they were diligent and above-and-beyond with their tithing, but neglected the heavier priorities of the Law, the priorities that would not come to an end even after Christ’s sacrifice was completed: the exercising of justice, mercy, and faith (see Mic 6:8). The Pharisees were fastidious about tithing, but they neglected the proper treatment of people. They were so concerned about their own traditions that they neglected caring for people’s needs.
We see this disproportionate concern for their traditions when Jesus healed the man with the withered hand (Mark 3:1-6) and the woman with a bent back (Luke 13:10-17). On both occasions, the Pharisees asked whether or not it was lawful to heal on the Sabbath. Nowhere in the Old Testament did God say that one could not tend to sick people on the Sabbath. Christ points out that domestic livestock that fell into a well on the Sabbath day were to be helped out of the pit (Matt 12:11; Luke 14:5) and even an ox or donkey that was parched on the Sabbath was to be given water (Luke 13:15).
I personally remember one particular instance when, because of a very tragic event that had occurred in my family’s life, I requested a month off from my pastoral duties to heal. On one particular Sunday evening during that month, I decided to attend a church event. After the event ended, I found myself in a conversation with one of the young men who I was discipling. What was supposed to be a small talk conversation quickly turned into a counseling conversation in which he began to share some of the problems he was struggling with. I stopped him in the middle of it and said, “John, you do realize that I’m on time off, right?” He responded, “If one of your cattle falls into the well on the Sabbath, aren’t you supposed to help him back out?!” Humorous as it was, it was a sharp reminder that the needs of people are more important than the extra-biblical policies I set for myself, regardless of how helpful I may find them to be. The Pharisees did not get this. They were pretending to be over-and-above in their obedience to the Law, when in fact they were being wholly disobedient to the most crucial parts of the Law.
Hypocrites carry out their lives disproportionately. They are imbalanced at best and are not comprehensive regarding which parts of the Bible they read and apply. They love to correct others on secondary gray matters yet they neglect to actually love God and love people. Such is the man who loves to wear a suit and tie to church every Sunday because he wants to “Give God his best” and yet is willing to be untruthful about his taxes and fibs on his time clock at work—pretending to give glory to God in sporting attire that the Bible doesn’t prescribe, and yet disobeying God’s command to be truthful and have just balances (Prov 11:1). Such hypocrites are those who attend every Sunday school class, every fellowship meal, every church event in order to make themselves appear to be devout Christians and at the same time fail to care for their aging parents while continuing to provoke their children to anger. This is the man who likes to debate the finer points of eschatology with theologians yet neglects to provide for his household. These are the people who are hyper-critical in their disapproval of electric guitars and drums played during the church worship service and yet fail to ever ask anyone around them how they are doing and never pray for their leaders.
The prevalence of such lopsided behavior is a tragic reality. Quite frankly, there are a lot of things about church life that are so meticulously discussed that have little value in the larger picture of God’s global redemptive work. Whether or not the church sanctuary has blue or brown carpet does not matter. Whether we sing hymns or contemporary worship songs is a matter of preference, not doctrine. Whether the pastor should dress in a suit or tie doesn’t matter (and changes anyway, depending on where he’s preaching geographically). Whether Sunday service starts at 8:00 am or 11:00 am should make no difference for God’s people. Whether the pastor preaches from the NASB Bible or the ESV Bible can make a difference but should not be a matter of debate or division. The type of food served in the post-service church lunch should not be a matter of great debate or importance. Whether or not, as a Christian, you drink coffee or abstain from soda is of little value in the kingdom of God. Whether or not we split Sunday school classes by age brackets or life-season demo-graphics should not be a hill to die on.
Matters that are not explicitly addressed in Scripture should be given less weight than ones that are. What matters is that the Word is preached and the ministry of the gospel is furthered to the ends the earth. What matters is that the saints of God are worshipping in the Spirit and glory of Christ Jesus. What matters is that once immature Christians are growing in their maturity and active in their ministry. What matters is that the Christian marriages in the church reflect Christ’s relationship with His church. What matters is that the saints are filled with moral purity and continually call upon the name of the Lord in prayer. Hypocrites, by nature, love to make mountains out of molehills and yet fail to rescue the sheep stuck at the edge of the cliff!
Sign #5: Hypocrites are Wrongly Motivated
It feels almost as if Christ’s voice is getting louder by the line. As He continues to expose the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, He rebukes them for their ulterior motives in 23:25-26:
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside they are full of robbery and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee, first clean the inside of the cup and of the dish, so that the outside of it may become clean also.
The Pharisees and scribes were fastidious not only in their tithing practices but also in their cleansing rituals. Again, so many of the practices that they prescribed to the people of God were extra-biblical. That included all that they did regarding cleansing rituals. While there was physical cleansing prescribed in the Old Testament, particularly in the book of Leviticus, the religious leaders of Jesus’ time took it to another level in their cleansing of cups and dishes. Jesus uses this as an illustration of their corrupt motives. He says that they were those who “clean the outside of the cup and of the dish” but inside they are “full of robbery and self-indulgence.”
The Pharisees and scribes were those who were focused on their external appearance rather than their internal state. They loved fasting and publicly praying and making people aware of it (Matt 6:1-5). But while they were disciplined in practicing their cleansing rituals, they also took advantage of people and robbed the homes of widows. They didn’t care for people, but rather used people for their own gain. They tithed with mint and dill, but internally they were lovers of money. They pretended to be pious on the outside but they were corrupt on the inside. They were those fleeced people for selfish gain, all in the name of holiness. It was no surprise then that, on two separate occasions, Jesus entered the temple and cleansed it, saying that the people had turned what was meant to be a house of prayer into a den of robbers (John 2:13-22; Luke 19:45-46). It can be assumed that the Pharisees and scribes, the keepers of the Law and managers of the temple, spear-headed such corruption.
One of the most important questions I was ever asked in a pastoral candidacy interview was the following: “What would you do if you saw the senior pastor taking money from the church offering plate?” I gave the obvious answer: “Of course I would call him out.” In my head, I remember thinking, “What Christian would ever do such a thing?” Sadly, years later, I realize that things of this nature actually happen, and they do so more often than I would have expected. That question wasn’t asked for the sake of hypothetical theory, but from previous experience. Corruption exists. It exists in the world, and it exists in the church.
Hypocrites are wrongly motivated. They care more about how they come across to other than what God sees when no one is looking. They are obsessed with how others think of them, to the extent that they spend large amounts of time “cleaning the outside of the cup” but not the inside of the cup. They are master-manipulators with hidden agendas, pretending to have a deep concerned for the things of God and the needs of people but in the end are motivated by selfish gain at the expense of others’ welfare. Some even make a living off of taking advantage of people. Their speech—the outside of the cup—is smooth; they work on their charisma. Yet, they don’t care about anyone else but themselves. But the truth inevitably comes out over time.
In the course of my life I have spoken to victims of youth workers who used their position of spiritual leadership to sexually molest them. I have interacted with ministers whom I would later find out were using their positions as counselors as an opportunity for adultery, taking advantage of the emotionally fragile women they were counseling. I have known men who used their leadership positions to steal money from the institution where they worked.
People of integrity, on the other hand, refuse to take advantage of people. They have no hidden agendas; what you see is what you get. They refuse to take what belongs to others to make it theirs. They simply do what they do because they care, never asking the question “What can I get out of this person?” but instead always asking, “What can I give to this person, even if it costs me something?” As they understand that Christ gave up His life for them, so also they give up their lives for others and seek no gain in the process, truly loving with deed and truth (1 John 3:16-18).
Sign #6: Hypocrites are Pretentiously Unwholesome
Just when one thought Christ’s diatribe could not become harsher, it does. When He arrives at His words in Matthew 23:27-28, Christ switches from exposing what the Pharisees and scribes were doing to now exposing who they were. He gives the following denunciation:
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. So you, too, outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.
In first-century Jerusalem, there were no memorial parks with underground tombs and epitaphs like we see today. Tombs were used to encase Israeli people’s dead bodies, but these tombs were usually above ground, so tomb-keepers took great pains to decorate and burnish the exterior of these tombs. They washed them and kept them pure looking from the outside. Thus, all foreigners visiting Jerusalem would have been impressed by the appearance of the tombs. They were well-presented, and well constructed. Indeed, it would have been quite painstaking to maintain these tombs. But a tomb-keeper, for all his effort and labor, was only called to take care of the external part of the tomb. No efforts were made to care for the inside of the tomb. It would have been unclean to do so. Thus, these white-washed tombs were beautiful structures on the outside but filled with rotting flesh and deteriorating bones in the inside.
It would have been the ultimate insult to compare someone to a whitewashed tomb, but this is just what Jesus did with the religious leaders. Jesus was condemning their hypocrisy in light of their pretentious, unwholesome nature. Previously in Matthew’s gospel Christ taught that it is those who are pure in heart who are blessed, for they will see God (Matt 5:8). For the Pharisees, there was an incongruity between their external appearance and their internal motives, and that is the contrast Christ is making here. The Pharisees were interested in appearing righteous, but they were not actually hungry and thirsty for righteousness. They were interested in being seen as spiritually honorable. In reality, they were spiritually unregenerate. They wanted recognition, not righteousness.
There was a doctor who once told a story of a man in his mid-twenties who was admitted into the hospital and close to death. He was chiseled, muscular, and in appeared to be in terrific shape. Given his physical condition, he should have been running routes and dodging tackles on the football field or hiking up Everest. Yet there he was, on the hospital bed. The reason was that he had taken so many steroids to amplify his outward appearance that he had damaged his internal organs—particularly his liver. And he’s not alone. There are, according to this same doctor, many young men today in their mid-twenties and thirties who are dying because of heart disease linked to steroid use which they used to make themselves look more muscular.
At the same time, you might find many senior citizens north of sixty who are still playing sports and running marathons. They don’t look physically impressive because they spend a lot less time worrying about their external physique and more time worrying about the internal physical condition.
Hypocrites, like the man dying from steroid use, exhibit an incongruity between what people see on the outside and what is actually happening on the inside. Who we see is not who they are! I remember a woman who would regularly flatter my wife to her face. We later found out that she was gossiping about my wife behind her back. She exhibited this sign of hypocrisy, with her external words not matching up with her internal motives. Likewise, are men who love to kiss and hug their wives and kids in public but humiliate them in private. These are the men who praise God lavishly in public, but rarely if ever pray to Him in private. They sing songs loudly during the worship hour, but really don’t find God beautiful or glorious in their hearts. In fact, they rarely ever think about God. These are the men who preach themselves as examples of purity to younger people, yet are living lives of immorality without repentance in private. As Christ said, they are those who “honor Me with their lips, but their hearts are far from Me. In vain, they worship Me” (Mark 7:6-7).
The reason why such people are like this is because, as hypocrites, they’re obsessed with the external. They’re obsessed with titles and accomplishments (Matt 23:7). They’re obsessed with saving face and primarily concerned about their public reputation than they are about the internal condition of their heart and soul. It’s for this reason that they pray long and fancy prayers in front of people, but rarely ever pray when no one is looking. It’s for this reason that such people love to carry around large study Bibles when they show up in church, and yet almost never read it. They’ll fake an appearance in order for people to think a certain way about them that is disingenuous.
People of integrity, on the other hand, are consistent. They’re not perfect, but they are virtuous on the inside. Who they are on the outside is a reflection of who they are on the inside. They are those who praise God lavishly in public and weep before Him in private. These are the men and women who sing songs loudly during the worship hour, but also love to read their Bible at home in private in order to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord. These are the saints whose secret and private devotional matches their public worship life (Matt 6:5-6).
These are the men and women who will not flatter in public but then slander in private; instead, as faithful friends, they will confront and rebuke their friend in private and affirm him before others in public. People of integrity are not primarily concerned about appearance. What they do care about is the part of them that others don’t see. Why? Because they’re primarily concerned about pleasing the God who they cannot see! They remember God’s words to Samuel in 1 Samuel 16:7: “God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart. Because of this, such people are not afraid to admit when they are wrong and they are honest about when they have fallen short. What you see is indeed what you will get. They say what they mean and they mean what they say. These are the men who don’t force their kids to pretend to love Jesus in front of people. They know that the way to the cross is not to put on a costume of righteousness, but to approach the Lord in humble contrition, understanding that Christ died because they were filthy, not because they were beautiful.
Sign #7: Hypocrites are Self-Righteous
The very last of the seven woes is by no means the least significant. Christ, in His final accusation that would be prophetic of what the religious leaders would indeed do to Him a few days later, states in 23:29-31:
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the monuments of the righteous, and say, ‘If we had been living in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partners with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against yourselves, that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets.
The first century Jews were masters of the Old Testament, particularly the Pharisees and scribes. They had known that righteous prophets like Isaiah and others were persecuted and killed, not by pagans, but by their very own countrymen. Thus, the religious leaders of Christ’s time would build tombs for the prophets to honor them as the great men of Jewish history, as if the religious leaders themselves were true men of God. They self-righteously claimed that they would have treated these Old Testament prophets better than their forefathers and ancestors did who put to death God’s mouthpieces. They claimed that they wouldn’t have acted as ignorantly, and yet, they proved themselves even worse than those who murdered the prophets. In just a few days, they would murder the Son of God Himself, who came not just as a mouthpiece of God, but as God Himself, the exact representation of God’s nature. They pretended to be more righteous than the idolatry-plagued Israelites of the old, when they were actually worse. True hypocrites they were.
Hypocrites are by nature self-righteous. Quite simply, they see themselves as better than others. Though they may not verbally admit it, they believe that they are above falling into the sins that trap others. When they read the Scriptures, they read to control others and not themselves (see Rom 2:21). I cannot tell you how many times I’ve had someone, upon completing some sermon, come up to me and say, “Pastor, that was great. I know someone who really needed to hear that!” They don’t see themselves as the ones needing the healing of the Great Physician. They don’t see themselves as the wretched sinners who need the sanctifying work of the Spirit in their lives. They are those who look at others in sin and say, “I’m above that; I would never fall into that kind of wickedness.” It’s no wonder that such people are those who are experts at pointing out specs in the eyes of others when they have the entire Sequoia Redwood Forest growing in theirs!
As Christians we need to exhibit great caution in how we respond to others’ sins. To be clear, certain sins have more destructive consequences than others. Committing murder has more severe consequences than losing one’s temper; committing adultery results in far more pain toward one’s spouse than viewing pornography. And to be sure, Christ does call us to render a verdict on the sins of others and commands the church to administer discipline on those who refuse to repent. Abstaining from self-righteousness does not mean that we tolerate sin in the church.
But as Christians, when upon hearing about the sins that others have committed—regardless of the degree of the sin—we ought never to react with an attitude of arrogance. There’s a difference in saying, “May I never commit this sin” versus saying in your heart, “There’s no way I can ever fall into this sin.” The former is the right attitude; the latter is a dangerous one. The apostle Paul warns of this in 1 Corinthians 10:12: “Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed that he does not fall.” In other words, the Christian who thinks that he will not fall into the sins he sees others commit ought to watch himself, lest he himself fall into those same sins. In Galatians 6:1, Paul instructs: “Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted.” Whenever we deal with others who have sinned, no matter how grievous the sin, we ought to have one eye on ourselves as well lest we fall into temptation of the same sin.
People of integrity understand in their hearts not only that they are sinners but that they are the chief of sinners. They understand that it was their sin that put Christ on the cross. They understand that it was their sin that was forgiven through Christ’s substitutionary atonement. People of integrity don’t see themselves as above sin or temptation that they observe in others, and therefore do everything they can to steer clear of it (1 Cor 10:12). These are the people who listen to sermons, and the first thought in their minds is, “I need to make some changes” and they immediately get to work and ask for accountability.
Beware, then, of the danger of thinking that you are above the sins of others. Don’t ever assume yourself to be a racehorse in a stable full of donkeys, or an eagle in a roost of chickens.