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Put Away Hypocrisy – Part 1



One of the greatest dangers to a person’s spiritual health is hypocrisy. Jesus teaches His disciples that “you must not be like the hypocrites” (Matthew 6:5; see also Matthew 6:2, 16).[1] Later in the New Testament, the apostle Peter tells Christians “to put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander.” (1 Peter 2:1, italics added) The matter is urgent, because ongoing and unaddressed hypocrisy demonstrates that one is on the path to hell: “the master of that [wicked] servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know and will cut him in pieces and put him with the hypocrites. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 24:50-51, italics added) 

In light of the above Scripture passages, it is important that we understand what hypocrisy is and that we either avoid it or, if we have gotten tangled up in it, to put it away. So I’d like to work through this in a three-part series. In Part 1 (today), we will attempt to understand what hypocrisy is and provide several examples of it. In Part 2, we will take time to hear the Scripture’s call upon us to live in unhypocritical devotion to our Lord Jesus Christ. Finally, in Part 3, we will consider what needs to happen in order for people with flawed hearts to live authentically faithful lives that are not hypocritical in God’s sight.

What Hypocrisy Is

The Greek word that stands behind our English words hypocrite/hypocrisy invites us to consider the world of theater. A ‘hypocrite’ is an actor who puts on a mask and acts in accordance with the mask (or in accordance with the costume). A ‘hypocrite’ pretends to be someone else, and acts the part. Thus ‘hypocrisy’ refers to wearing a mask, or pretending to be someone other than who you actually are. Of course, if you work with a local theater company and are assigned a part in a play, then ‘putting on a costume’ and ‘getting into character’ and ‘playing the part well’ is what you are expected to do, and everyone attending the performance understands that you are acting. 

The problem, of course, is when human beings turn real life into a theatrical performance in which they pretend to be someone that they aren’t. The sin of hypocrisy involves such pretending, pretense, insincerity, duplicity, putting on a show and acting a part that is disconnected from who you really are. So, to put the matter clearly, a hypocrite is someone who pretends to be devoted to God even though his heart is far from God. Or a hypocrite is someone who pretends to love people even though his heart is wrapped up in his own selfish agenda. Hypocrisy is inherently deceptive in nature: a hypocrite is either self-deceived and doesn’t realize that his religiosity is contrived, or a hypocrite is deliberately deceiving others as he ‘plays to the crowd’ to win the approval of others. In either case, despite the mask of piety, a hypocrite is a phony at the heart level. 

Snapshots of Hypocrisy

Matthew 6:2-18

Now that we understand what hypocrisy is, let’s consider a number of examples that are given to us in the Scriptures. In Matthew 6:2-18, Jesus instructs His disciples to be different than the hypocrites. What do the hypocrites do?

“Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others…. And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others…. And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others.” (Matthew 6:2, 5, 16)

In each of the above cases, the hypocrites create an appearance that is at odds with what is actually going on in their hearts. When the hypocrite gives to someone in need, it looks like he has a generous concern for the needy. When the hypocrite prays, it looks like he has a heart for God. When the hypocrite fasts, it looks like he is earnest in his devotion to God. The success of the hypocrite’s performance depends on you not knowing the motives of his heart. If you knew that the hypocrite was preoccupied with his own self-exaltation and craved your applause, you wouldn’t applaud. The truth of the matter is that a person ought to give to the needy because he has a heart for the needy, and a person ought to pray and fast because he has a heart for God. But for the hypocrite, the external action is designed to create an appearance that creates a favorable impression and builds their fan base. The hypocrite is using charitable contributions and religious exercises as a publicity stunt. The hypocrite is actually using both people and God in order to draw attention to himself. This may be the worst form of idolatry on the planet: using God to get other people to praise you! 

Matthew 15:1-9

We get another snapshot of hypocrisy in Matthew 15:1-9. In verses 1-6, we learn that the Pharisees and scribes invented their own tradition and, in so doing, set aside God’s Word. They thus invested their own man-made tradition with greater authority than God’s command. This earns them a well-deserved rebuke from the Lord:

“You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said:

“This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me;

in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.”” (Matthew 15:7-9)

What is especially important for our study of hypocrisy is to notice the disconnect between their speech and their heart. The Pharisees and scribes “[honored God] with their lips”. They could engage in pious-sounding God-talk, Bible-talk, worship-talk, love-talk. Perhaps even their “teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” gave the appearance of extra special devotion to God, as in: ‘We’re so devoted to God that we have created additional ways (man-made religious traditions) to demonstrate our devotion.’ But God was not fooled! In reality, the hearts of the Pharisees and scribes were “far from [God]”. Their religiosity was all talk. Their piety was superficial. Their worship was vain. And their far-from-God hearts were manifest in the fact that they did not walk in obedience to God’s Word: “So for the sake or your tradition you have made void the word of God.” (Matthew 15:6) Religious devotion to man-made traditions can look impressive to ordinary and ignorant human beings, but God sees the façade!

Matthew 23:1-36

In Matthew 23:1-36, Jesus blasts the scribes and Pharisees for their hypocrisy. Jesus addresses them five times with the phrase: “woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” (Matthew 23:13, 23, 25, 27, 29). Here again we learn that the scribes and Pharisees were focused on presenting a carefully crafted appearance in order to win public acclaim: “They do all their deeds to be seen by others.” (Matthew 23:5) They focus on minor things – “you tithe mint and dill and cumin” (Matthew 23:23) – which gives the appearance of zeal (wow! they even tithe out of their herb garden!), but they “neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness.” (Matthew 23:23) They were careful to advertise themselves with a squeaky-clean exterior: “you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.” (Matthew 23:25) Tragically, beautiful tombs are a fitting metaphor for their spiritual lives: “you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” (Matthew 23:27-28) In all these things, the outward appearance differs from the inward reality – and that, of course, is the hypocrite’s standard mode of operation.

Some Other Passages

In addition to the above passages, there are a number of other passages that shine the spotlight on the sin of hypocrisy, even if the word itself isn’t used. For example, Paul says of certain people: “They profess to know God, but they deny him by their works.” (Titus 1:16) Similarly, John says, “If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.”” (1 John 4:20) In both of these instances, the person claims to be in a right relationship with God, even though the truth of the matter is that their heart is not right with God, as evidenced by their disobedient works and especially by the absence of brotherly love.

The sin of Ananias and Sapphira is that they pretended to be more generous than they actually were (they only gave a portion of the proceeds on the sale of land, which would have been just fine, but they decided to give the impression that they were giving all of the proceeds). Their playacting in the presence of God earned them immediate censure and death. (Acts 5:1-11)

Another species of hypocrisy is to employ ‘sweet talk’ as a way to advance a sinister scheme against someone you hate: “His speech was smooth as butter, yet war was in his heart; his words were softer than oil, yet they are drawn swords.” (Psalm 55:21) All kinds of oppressors, abusers, and persecutors deploy smooth speech as a way to manipulate or lure or mislead or set a trap for their victims. This is what the Pharisees and Herodians did when they used flattery in their attempt to trap Jesus: 

“Teacher, we know that you are true and do not care about anyone’s opinion. For you are not swayed by appearances, but truly teach the way of God. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?” But, knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, “Why put me to the test?”” (Mark 12:14-15, italics added) 

Jesus knew the difference between an earnest questioner and a hypocritical schemer.


The bottom line is that hypocrites, sometimes knowingly and sometimes unknowingly, are playing a game. In some instances, they perform actions that give off ‘righteousness vibes’, but internally they are profoundly unrighteous in that they are worshiping themselves, not God. In other instances, they talk a big religious game and claim to be in right relationship with God, but their hearts are actually not in fellowship with God; and in their case, their evil hearts produce evil deeds that expose the phoniness of their pious claims. Finally, there are times when a person feigns friendliness as a tactic that covers or facilitates their intent to destroy his ‘friend’.

This ugly thing called hypocrisy is a temptation common to human beings. It must be avoided or put away at all costs, otherwise you will face a miserable end: “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of God.” (Matthew 5:20) Remember what we learned above: the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees was hypocritical, superficial, and directed to the public eye. Those who would enter God’s kingdom must have a righteousness that is genuine, heartfelt, and directed to the audience of One. 



[1] Scripture quotations are from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway. Used by permission. All rights reserved.