Hypocrisy is a common charge. People on both sides of the political aisle hurl it at their opponents. The ungodly sometimes accuse preachers of it when we expose sin. Some use it to justify not becoming a Christian: “there are too many hypocrites in the church.”

What exactly is a hypocrite? Does any weakness or inconsistency in a person merit this badge? Do others’ shortcomings absolve us of responsibility for our own? What does the Bible say?

The Greek word hupokrites referred to an actor on a stage, then to a dissembler or pretender. Ralph Earle explains, “In those days actors wore masks on their faces, with hidden megaphones in them so that they could be heard. So a hypocrite is one who wears a false face” (Word Meanings in the New Testament). A hypocrite, then, is not just a man who on occasion fails to live up to what he knows is right. He is, as William Hendriksen expressed it, one who pretends to do one thing, but intends to do another (Exposition of Matthew).

In the New Testament it was Jesus who primarily used this term. What did He say about it? Who is a hypocrite?

•    One who practices righteousness to be seen of men (Matthew 6:2, 5, 16). It is not the fact that others see him being religious that is the problem (cf. 5:16); it is his motive. He does what he does publicly so that he will be seen of men. He pretends to seek God’s approval but intends to find man’s.

•    One who applies God’s law to others but will not apply it to himself (Matthew 7:5). Every sermon is for someone else. His purported concern about truth and right is thus unmasked as a farce.

•    One who professes to follow God’s law but in practicality exalts man’s rules above it (Matthew 15:7). Divine statutes are reasoned away. “Thou shalt” becomes optional and “Thou shalt not” is really okay. Jesus asked, “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?” (Luke 6:46).

•    One who says one thing but means another (Matthew 22:18). Jesus’ questioners often feigned a sincere desire to know while in reality they were attempting to entrap Him. They viewed their obligation to speak the truth as contingent on the matter at hand, not moral necessity (23:16-23).

•    One whose religion does not translate into right daily conduct. “. . . you devour widows’ houses, even while for a pretense you make long prayers” (Matthew 23:14). As James put it, “If anyone thinks himself to be religious, and yet does not bridle his tongue . . . this man’s religion is worthless” (1:26).

•    One who only selectively obeys God’s laws. “For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, 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” (Matthew 23:23). We are to be doers of God’s law, not judges of it (James 4:11).

•    One who is meticulous about his outward forms of religion but has a rotten heart within (Matthew 23:25-28). He wouldn’t dream of missing a worship assembly, but thinks nothing of the grudge that week after week prevents him from speaking to the fellow on the pew in front of him. Jesus likened it to washing the outside of your dishes while leaving the inside dirty. It makes as much sense as whitewashing a tomb.

•    One who criticizes another for doing the same things he himself is doing (Matthew 23:29-31). For example, some who would readily rescue a stranded animal on the Sabbath faulted Jesus for healing a woman on that day who had been sick eighteen years (Luke 12:10-17).

Jesus called several others hypocrites, but you get the idea. Hypocrisy is pretense. The Lord warned that it is like leaven (Luke 12:1), spreading easily and corrupting as it goes. The danger is enhanced by the ease of self-deception. Malice, guile, and hypocrisy must all be put aside (1 Peter 2:1).

Is there a greater hypocrite than one who pretends that the reason he does not serve God is because of others’ failures? Yes, there may well be some hypocrites in the church now, but they will all be in hell in eternity, along with everyone else who does not obey the Lord.

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