Hypocrisy and Jesus

We are a people lost in our own hypocrisy. I often get to talk with people who claim to love Jesus about why they are not a member of a local church. Almost always, the answer is that the church is full of hypocrites. We might jokingly say, “There is always room for one more!” but the devastating reality for the church is that hypocrisy really is a cancer. It causes people to lose faith in the church, and this is devastating particularly as we think about Christ’s command for us to go and make disciples. Hypocrisy can be simply defined as saying one thing and then doing another. For instance, we might say that we are to love all people while, in reality, only loving those who are like us or have something to offer. At church, we look holier than we do at home or at work. We hear things like, “You can’t say that in church!” We emphasize the importance of prayer and Bible reading but only do so in the church building. Unless others are watching, we don’t help the poor. We preach that Jesus is king, but still give ourselves over to the political atmosphere of our worldly nation.

Have you ever had a teacher that did something or said something that caused you to realize that he or she was incompetent to teach a certain subject matter? Hypocrisy directly affects discipleship. What is hypocrisy? Can we safeguard ourselves from hypocrisy in our own lives and in the church?

Luke 12:1-7 HCSB

In these circumstances, a crowd of many thousands came together, so that they were trampling on one another. He began to say to His disciples first: “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. There is nothing covered that won’t be uncovered, nothing hidden that won’t be made known. Therefore, whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in an ear in private rooms will be proclaimed on the housetops.

“And I say to you, My friends, don’t fear those who kill the body, and after that can do nothing more. But I will show you the One to fear: Fear Him who has authority to throw people into hell after death. Yes, I say to you, this is the One to fear! Aren’t five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight. Indeed, the hairs of your head are all counted. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows!

Fight hypocrisy

From the beginning of Luke’s gospel onward, the message has been clear. We are to produce fruit that is consistent with a lifestyle of repentance. Repentance precedes godly fruit in our lives. God’s turning of our hearts precedes repentance. Repentance was not to be a one time act. It is, in fact, a lifestyle that the genuine believer adopts for his or her own life and is a result of Christ’s regenerating work in the believer’s heart and mind. In the first three words of Luke 12, we notice that this part of the story is not isolated (and no part of Scripture is). There is a context, and Luke makes it obvious for his readers that Jesus is saying what we read here within the context of a broader story in which something else is also being reported. Before we can consider, rightly, Jesus’ words in this passage, we must consider the previous part of the story. Jesus was having a conversation with a group of Pharisees that developed from a private conversation He was having with just one. We get this picture of Jesus sitting down with one man, and by the end of the conversation all of those who take the Pharisee position regarding theological topics have ganged up on Jesus. This tendency is not unfamiliar to us. Every time a political conservative speaks, many (but not all) liberals in the country commences ad hominem attacks on his character. Popular evangelicalism ostracizes the Calvinist as soon as he begins speaking about the doctrines of grace. So, we see right away that hypocrisy as Jesus will speak about it, has infected not only the church but also every arena of life. If the goal is to escape hypocrisy, we will never escape it on this earth because people are sinners and wolves according to Luke 10.

I want to walk through Jesus’ conversation with the pharisees in Luke 11:37-54 before we discuss Luke 12 and Jesus teachings on hypocrisy:

As He was speaking, a Pharisee asked Him to dine with him. So He went in and reclined at the table. When the Pharisee saw this, he was amazed that He did not first perform the ritual washing before dinner. But the Lord said to him: “Now you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and evil. Fools! Didn’t He who made the outside make the inside too? But give from what is within to the poor, and then everything is clean for you.

As He would often do, Jesus did something (or in this case did not do something that would regularly be done) in order to illustrate something that He was about to teach. Jesus did not wash before sitting to eat with this man. After sitting down, Jesus taught that at least some Pharisees, those of the same order with the man who sat with Him, only wash on the outside without being clean on the inside. Jesus’ insinuation was that if the inside was not clean, then outward cleanliness meant very little, or even nothing. Whatever cleanliness, including good deeds, come from the person ought to be done from a genuinely clean heart. Works-based systems of religion, then, always encourage hypocrisy. The only way to avoid hypocrisy is to recognize that transformation precedes pure religion. Fruit is consistent with a lifestyle of repentance, and it is God who gives, as a gift, the repentant heart. If we only say that people ought to practice what they preach, then we are still guilty of encouraging hypocrisy. In this passage, Jesus Himself has brought us to the heart of an issue that we don’t often think about. Hypocrisy begins when we try to will ourselves to look religious or spiritual or clean or intelligent or wise. Genuine living, in contrast, begins when we adopt a lifestyle of repentance. Then we might produce fruit that is consistent with repentance. So, it is possible for people to not be hypocrites. By God’s grace, we can be honest about our shortfalls and reject any sort of human-merit based system. We don’t have to look clean on the outside. Instead, we pursue God genuinely as He enables us and let the work that God is doing in our hearts overflow in godly fruit that we cannot force or muster for ourselves. Jesus continues:

“But woe to you Pharisees! You give a tenth of mint, rue, and every kind of herb, and you bypass justice and love for God. These things you should have done without neglecting the others.

“Woe to you Pharisees! You love the front seat in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces.

“Woe to you! You are like unmarked graves; the people who walk over them don’t know it.”

One of the experts in the law answered Him, “Teacher, when You say these things You insult us too.”

Then He said: “Woe also to you experts in the law! You load people with burdens that are hard to carry, yet you yourselves don’t touch these burdens with one of your fingers.

“Woe to you! You build monuments to the prophets, and your fathers killed them. Therefore, you are witnesses that you approve the deeds of your fathers, for they killed them, and you build their monuments. Because of this, the wisdom of God said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, and some of them they will kill and persecute,’ so that this generation may be held responsible for the blood of all the prophets shed since the foundation of the world — from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary.

“Yes, I tell you, this generation will be held responsible.

“Woe to you experts in the law! You have taken away the key of knowledge! You didn’t go in yourselves, and you hindered those who were going in.”

When He left there, the scribes and the Pharisees began to oppose Him fiercely and to cross-examine Him about many things; they were lying in wait for Him to trap Him in something He said.

Jesus continued to talk about all of this outward stuff people were doing. All it did was hide their spiritually dead soul. Such is mere religiosity, the hiding of a dead soul with a clean appearance. Jesus is not interested in appearance. He is interested in actual regeneration and actual transformation of the heart. Thus, we arrive in Luke 12. Jesus instruction to His disciples was that they should be on their guard against the yeast, or the hypocrisy, of the Pharisees. Don’t fall into this trap of thinking that you have to appear to be religious or spiritual. Be genuine. Be honest. Actively pursue transformation in Christ.

As soon as our goal is to appear to be spiritual, religious, perfect, or to be the best teachers who are closest to God, we have not only become hypocrites but have also become the very people who cause others to also fall into hypocrisy. As soon as we think that we are the person worthy of some place of honor, we have become the most dishonorable person before God. In order for discipleship to work, we must admit our shortfalls and point those we are teaching to the all-sufficiency of Christ. We must guard against trying to look religious or sound like we know all the answers or ourselves hold to the perfect theological idea. This is Jesus’ challenge to His own disciples. Don’t think more highly of yourselves than you ought to (Romans 12:3).

We cause hypocrisy when we try to wash ourselves clean.

Fear God

Jesus also taught that whatever is hidden will one day be revealed. So, we can be the person who hides the condition of our heart by doing much that we think to be good. There will be a day when the God of the universe will strip us bare and observe our hearts. Everything that we have said and done in secret will be revealed. Therefore, Jesus said, “Don’t be afraid of those who can kill only the body.” We should not, regardless of whatever worldly pressure there might be, give into the demands that sinful people, both in the preverbal church walls and out, to appear to be religious or just do all the right stuff. We should, however, fear God because it is God who has the authority to throw people into hell after the death of the body. The indication, here, is that God looks at the condition of the heart, not all of our accomplishments or even our religiosity. If we have a transformed heart we are accepted by God. If we have only cleaned our bodies or appeared to be religious or spiritual without transformation that comes only from God by grace and through faith, then we will be thrown by God into Hell.

If we say, “I am a good person,” or, “I do all this good Christian stuff,” but are without a clean and regenerate heart, we have no place with Christ. I believe that Hell will be full of people who are trying to look clean and do good things. God has graciously provided them the choice to be self-righteous forever. They will also be forever separated from genuine love and joy because they chose to earn their salvation rather than be loved and delighted in by the God of the universe. We should not fear people who try to force their religiosity upon us. Instead, we fear God who throws the self-righteous into Hell forever.

In Matthew, chapter seven, we even witness Jesus teaching this:

“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord!’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of My Father in heaven. On that day many will say to Me, ‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in Your name, drive out demons in Your name, and do many miracles in Your name?’ Then I will announce to them, ‘I never knew you! Depart from Me, you lawbreakers!’” (Matthew 7:21-23).

A quick exegesis here reveals that religiosity, and even good works, are not enough. Jesus states clearly that we must do the will of the Father in order to enter the kingdom of heaven. Then He also states that those who do good works, or who are merely outwardly religious, will not make it. We have learned in our study of Luke’s gospel that the goal of discipleship is repentance. It is not behavior modification. It is not religiosity. The one who does God’s will is the one who is inwardly repentant, being cleaned by Christ and producing outward fruit that is consistent with repentance. All of those who believe in Jesus will be saved because Christ has transformed their hearts. He knows them relationally. Those who are merely outwardly religious, only having the appearance of what they perceive to be Christian, will be thrown into Hell where they can continue to practice the outward religiosity that they love so much. That is the warning. Jesus wanted His disciples to know this. Hypocrisy, or outward religiosity without a genuinely transformed and repentant heart, simply anathematizes the pain of spiritual death. It is why dying churches simply want to do a lot of stuff. Being a church and practicing genuine discipleship is about more than just doing outward stuff. This deals only with the symptoms rather than the disease. We want to be spiritually alive, which means doing less stuff and really living in genuine, repentant, and Christ-abiding community.vExcusing the cliche, doing much outward stuff truly is like spraying cologne on a corpse.

We are dead in our trespasses against God. No degree of outward religiosity or spirituality can revive our dead spirit. This is the single greatest truth that we must realize about our own human nature. In discipleship, we model this and teach this with love, gentleness, and respect, so that we might share the hope that we have.

Hope? Yes, you read that correctly. Even though we are dead, there is a great hope.

Religiosity deals only with the symptoms rather than the sin disease.

Find value

Luke takes the time to assure his readers that we are worth a great deal to God. We are worth so much that God takes great care even to know the number of hairs on our heads. Even though we are unable to be good enough to breathe life into our lifeless souls, God, the life-giver, breathes life into those who are repentant by His own graces.

In Matthew 11:25-30, in the context of addressing a people full of religiosity but also lacking repentance, Jesus taught concerning the true requirements of God:

At that time Jesus said, “I praise You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because You have hidden these things from the wise and learned and revealed them to infants. Yes, Father, because this was Your good pleasure. All things have been entrusted to Me by My Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son desires to reveal Him.

“Come to Me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. All of you, take up My yoke and learn from Me, because I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for yourselves. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.”

The first thing we notice is that God is the gatekeeper of knowledge and wisdom and distributes knowledge and wisdom according to His good pleasure. This includes knowledge of Himself. This is why no one can come to the Father, or have a repentant heart, except through the Son, Jesus Christ. In the context of heavy religiosity, Jesus implores people who are weary and burdened to come to Him because He gives rest. This is where we might ask the question, rest from what? The implied answer that we draw from the context of the passage is religiosity and works-based righteousness.

Those people who are trying to look clean, religious, spiritual, good, or like they are the most intelligent are carrying a burden that people were never given the responsibility to carry. God is the one who draws the heart into repentance and God is the one who reveals knowledge and wisdom at His own discretion for His good pleasure. When we promote mere religiosity or works-based righteousness, we are trying to usurp God’s position and this is what causes us to be hypocritical in the way that we practice religion. Sadly, most human religion is this way. When we genuinely come to Jesus, Jesus states that His yoke is easy and His burden is light. Why? Because it is not our work that makes us righteous or our outward cleanliness that brings us life. God just wants our hearts. He will turn us to Him and produce fruit in our lives that is consistent with repentance. The burden of Christ is light because we do not have to be self-righteous. We get to take on the righteousness of Christ!

This does not mean that we won’t be burdened about social injustice or about sinfulness in the world. It does not mean that the death of our loved ones will not burden us. It does mean that in Christ, we no longer have to bear the weight of righteousness on our shoulders. Even Adam and Eve could not bear it. Instead, the righteousness of Christ is imputed to us. Christ saves us. We don’t have to look like we have it all together. We don’t have to even look religious. Christ died so that we might experience genuine heart regeneration and transformation. So, Christ wonderfully regenerates our hearts. He alone makes it possible for us to follow Him. He saves us. He produces godly fruit in our lives. For us, His burden is light because His work of salvation depends not on our religiosity, but on His gift of salvation to those who have repentant hearts by grace alone.

Jesus frees us from hypocrisy.

So, we think about hypocrisy in the world. The truth is, each of us is a sort of hypocrite. Jesus teaches us about the only grace that can free us from a life of hypocrisy and of teaching hypocrisy to others. When we understand and are under the law of grace, which God has graciously given from the foundation of the world, we are no longer under the law of sin and death:

“Therefore, no condemnation now exists for those in Christ Jesus, because the Spirit’s law of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death” (Romans 8:1-2).

We cause hypocrisy when we try to wash ourselves clean.

Religiosity deals only with the symptoms rather than the sin disease.

Jesus frees us from hypocrisy.

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