If you spend any amount of time with little kids, a particular phrase will be heard more than once: “Watch this!” Perhaps they’ll perform a new trick they learned on the playground or show you how fast they can run on their budding legs. And it’s cute to watch. They are learning life and enjoying the thrill of using their newly-discovered, God-given skills.
But it’s quite another thing when the, “Watch this!” isn’t shed by the adult years. And it’s not so cute any more when “Watch this!” becomes the underlying operating principle for which we do life and religion. In fact, far from being cute, Scripture gives it a name: hypocrisy. The New Testament idea comes from a word used to describe an actor who would put on a certain mask during a theatrical performance. You get the idea. Hypocrisy is that thing which is all-too easy to see and diagnose in others, but might be more present in us than we’d like to see and admit. It’s a deep sickness, showing itself in several ways.
Here are 7 things we might see in a portrait of a hypocrite:
1. Hypocrites love to be beheld.
Christ gave the famous hypocrite-warning in the Sermon on the Mount: “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven” (Matt 6:1).
Now, a hypocrisy disclaimer: it’s not a violation to want someone to be pleased by our actions. Christ is not forbidding an action which results in the recipient being pleased. There’s something else going on.
The issue is the motive for the action. The word, “before,” in Matthew 6:1 has the idea of, “in the sight,” or, “in the line of sight of.” Further, “to be noticed by them” means more than a casual glance. It’s akin to, “attentive looking upon, as accompanied with spectators,” or, “beholding some lofty spectacle.” It was the same Greek word used in Acts 1:11 to speak of how the disciples gazed or watched intently as Jesus ascended back into heaven. It’s also the Greek word from which we get our English word, “theatre.” Thus, the warning is against doing what we do in the line of the spectator’s sight, like a religious star performing for the onlooker’s applause, blowing the trumpet for every good deed (Matt 6:2). We are to expose and eradicate the potential spiritual trumpet syndrome from ourselves.
So, the hypocrite’s plan is to be theatred for its religious acts. It does what it does with the hope of the spotlight; to be a lofty spectacle; to secure gaze. Deeds are skillfully conducted to solicit observance and admiration from one’s particular sub-culture. Hypocrites love to be beheld.
2. Hypocrisy is good at doing the right thing outwardly.
It had to be surprising to many when Jesus confronted Judaism’s superstars head-on. When he did so, he did not line up the flagrantly immoral on one side of the synagogue and the outwardly moral on the other and say, “Ok, everyone be as moral as the outwardly moral.” He lined up the most outwardly moral and said, in effect, “Do not be like them.”
Externally speaking, many whom Christ deemed hypocrites were good at Judaism’s essentials—praying, giving, sacrificing, fasting, sabbathing, and festival-observing, for example. He confirmed their external skill when he said, “…you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and of the platter” (Luke 11:39). To be sure, many of them were good at doing the right thing outwardly.
Hypocrites are some of the most skilled religionists you will ever meet. They are professionals. When it comes to externals, they know where to be, when to be there, how to be there, and with what to be there. They know what to say, how to say it, to whom to say it, and when to say it. They know what to pray, how to pray it, when to pray it, and before whom to pray it. They know what to give, when to give it, how to give it, and at what time to give. They know in what ways to serve, how to serve, when to serve, for whom to serve, and before whom to serve. The hypocrite is exceptionally skilled in calculating religious performance.
But the value of human action is not merely determined by whether or not it’s the right thing. There’s more to it.
3. Hypocrisy values the glory of self higher than the glory of God.
Often hypocrisy is myopically defined in terms of sincerity/insincerity. But the portrait of a hypocrite features much more than insincerity. When Christ sounds the alarm in Matthew 6:1, he is saying more than, “Be sure you really mean what you say,” and, “Be sure that if you say something, you are sincere.” Mere sincerity is not the chief issue. God’s glory is.
An individual could be 100% sincere in kissing the feet of a beggar. However, he could simultaneously and sincerely believe that kissing the feet of a beggar is a meritorious work by which he presents himself satisfactory to God. They are sincere, but in error. They mean what they do, but they do it for their glory. Therein is the problem.
Christ ascribes no virtue to the idea of one’s attitude matching their action. Hypocrisy is not merely an action which lacks the motivation of human sincerity. It is an action which lacks the motivation for the glory of the biblical God.
Notice how Christ diagnosed the champion hypocrites: “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and love respectful greetings in the market places, and chief seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets… and for appearance’s sake offer long prayers. These will receive greater condemnation” (Luke 20:46-47).
Notice the focus on what they loved: “long robes,” “respectful greetings,” and their appearance. These hypocrites were sincere in that they sincerely liked their religious theatrics. The issue was that they performed their actions to honor self instead of God.
Sometimes you hear people say, “Those Christians, they’re hypocrites.” And, of course, the one lobbing the accusation probably does not realize how true it is, in some sense. However, he too is a raging hypocrite, which he would discover if he asked himself, “How often do I think, say, and do what I do for God’s glory instead of my own?”
Hypocrisy is fundamentally about what a person values. Few people start out and say, “I’m going to be a raging hypocrite.” But all of us naturally operate for the glory of self over the glory of God. That’s where the value of an action rises and falls, absolutely. Bottom line: the fundamental worth of human activity can be determined in light of whether or not it is motivated by and for the glory of God.
4. Hypocrisy values subjective feelings over objective truth.
On paper, hypocrisy often appears concerned for truth. But functionally, hypocrisy does cares little for it.
Christ came to Pharisees teaching truth, fulfilling otherwise impossible to fulfill prophecies, and backing it up by stunning miracles. How did they respond? “Wow, ok…what this Jesus is saying is true, we better listen to every word, repent of our sin and follow him…”
Not so much. They killed him.
The reason they did was not ultimately because they were on a noble quest for, and protection of, objective truth. They were about their man-made system of calculated performance for self-flattery and self-actualization through skillful observance of externals. It’s the way hypocrisy works. On paper, it was a guarding of truth. Functionally, it was about the religious high received from their self-praising works. It wasn’t about truth, but their feelings.
And it’s often too common today. We will say that we care for the truth. But in the meantime, we gravitate en masse to First Church of Flattery Fluff and Self-Actualization because it makes us feel good. Never mind if truth is taught, applied, and lived out. I can sit there, play some religiatrics, get affirmed in my sin, feel great, and be challenged just enough to feel like I’m being challenged, but never really have to change, repent, and grow. It’s all blindly, yet carefully, calculated to cherish feelings over truth.
5. Hypocrisy has a low view of sanctification.
Jesus calls out the Pharisees by identifying their motives time and time again. They were playing religious theatre. If they would have humbled themselves and repented, Christ would have forgiven them and they would have changed. But they would not have it. They were not interested in sanctification and personal holiness.
Like all hypocrites, they supposed change was only for the drunk in the gutter. After all, they had so many friends, they were respected by many (other hypocrites of course), and so they esteemed themselves as having graduated from the school of holiness and mortification of sin, though they never attended.
Hypocrisy, then, is more interested in putting on a moral performance than actually discovering one’s sin so as to repent and become more like Christ.
Holiness is not the goal for hypocrisy. It’s too caught up in maintaining the show and cherishing the flesh. There’s a theatre to put on, after all. Church becomes a skillful melodrama. The flesh loves it and sends a signal to the soul that, “Well, this is pleasing to the soul, so it must be right.” The whole system becomes quite comfortable and addicting since the flesh rarely gets exposed and eradicated. Sanctification is a low priority, which then further fosters the show. It all works together so well. It’s a complete ecclesiological sleight of hand. There is little focus on personal repentance and largely on stroking the flesh.
Additionally, hypocrisy’s devaluing of sanctification is seen as it excuses self and executes others. It’s far more angry at others’ sins than its own. Hypocrisy’s favorite activity is whatever does not involve repentance.
Hypocrites, then, are shocked at the idea that holiness is a priority; that they have actual sin needing confession and repentance. Sure, they would admit, generally, “Yes, perhaps, I have sin, I’m not perfect,” as a pretense in their religiatrics. But it’s never tangible sin they have. It’s never anything they would ever dare let anyone identify. Thus, their approach to sanctification is smoke and mirrors.
Consequently and tragically, hypocrisy will sometimes use a form of obedience to cover up deeper disobedience. It will grab onto things like, sitting in a church, charity, and altruism, for example. It grabs those things which can project an image of obedience enough to distract people with a little show. But all the while it covers up a much deeper disobedience and hardness of heart. Hypocrisy values personal religious performance over personal sanctification.
6. Hypocrisy functions as if self is god.
Externally, hypocrisy performs good deeds and religion out of devotion to, and worship of, self. The church-going, the giving, the so-called spirituality—it’s all to actualize self and justify self. Self becomes the highest being and end. All things are done for the glory and affirmation of self. Thus, hypocrisy functions as if self is god.
7. Hypocrisy values earthly, temporal rewards more than heavenly, eternal rewards.
The reward of hypocrisy is to be theatred before others. For that reason, it operates with a dangerously narrow view of time. Eternity future and the judgment—they are out of view. Standing before God is eclipsed by standing before men. The lure of man’s applause intoxicates the soul to a point where it can’t see beyond the next religious performance. For that reason, it forfeits the only reward that matters. Hypocrisy is a devastating exchange, trading the glory of infinite God for the praise of sinful man.
Finally, Christ made it no secret that hypocrisy deserves eternal punishment.
His necessary warnings were as clear as they were frightening:
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves” (Matt 23:15).
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!…Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers. You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?” (Matt 23:29, 32-33).
“And in his teaching he said, ‘Beware of the scribes…They will receive the greater condemnation’” (Mark 12:38, 40).
Bottom line: religious performers deserve the wrath of God in hell for eternity.
However, the good news is that hypocrisy can be forgiven and cleansed by faith in Jesus Christ.
Though deserving of a hot hell, even the most rank hypocrite can be forgiven by trusting in the Person and finished work of Christ. His substitutionary death on the cross was sufficient to eradicate the hypocrite’s hell. As evidence, consider the testimony of one of the greatest hypocrites of all time:
If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith (Phil 3:4-9).
This Pharisee of Pharisee was a gold medal Pharisee. As such, he was a gold medal hypocrite. Prior to surrendering his life to Christ, there probably never was a greater religiatrics expert than the Apostle Paul. Yet, Christ took him and made him the Apostle of grace. Among other things, Paul becomes the prototype of God’s willingness to forgive and cleanse hypocrites by faith in Jesus Christ.