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What Makes a Hypocrite?
The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger.
- Matthew 23:2-4, ESV
How many times have you heard people say that the church is full of hypocrites? What do they mean by that? What is hypocrisy? I'm afraid that too often "hypocrite" can be used like the word "legalistic," as a weapon to silence those with whom we disagree. Today passage in Matthew is Jesus' longest rebuke of the scribes and Pharisees and also the best teaching in the Bible to help us understand what hypocrisy really is.
The word "hypocrite" comes from the Greek theater and refers to those who wear the mask and play a part on the stage. It essentially means someone who pretends to be something they are not, usually to gain power or favor or social status.
From Jesus' condemnation of the scribes and Pharisees, we can compile a list of character qualities of a true hypocrite:
1. Hypocrites proclaim things which they have no intention of doing themselves. "For they preach, but do not practice." - v. 3
2. Hypocrites only do religious things for a show to impress others. "They do all their deeds to be seen by others." - v. 5
3. Hypocrites look for loopholes so they don't have to keep their commitments. "Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.’" - v. 16
4. Hypocrites major on the minors and totally neglect the majors. "You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!" - v. 24
5. Hypocrites only care about the outside appearance of their lives and not the internal state of their hearts. "For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence." - v. 25
6. Hypocrites angrily oppose those who truly speak the word of God. "Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town." - v. 34
So, based on these descriptors, is the church full of hypocrites? Sure, some churches at some times are. But so is the world. It's part of our human nature. But notice also what hypocrisy is not: Hypocrisy is not sincerely believing and trying to follow the Lord, but still falling into sin and falling short of your best aspirations.
Most believers that I know sincerely believe in the Lord and desire to follow Him and honor Him with their lives, but they also struggle with ongoing sin in their lives. They will readily admit that they are sinners who fall short and are not trying to pretend they are something else other than they are.
Are there exceptions? Absolutely! The church is home to real hypocrites. And all of us can be tempted to play the hypocrite at times, especially when we're ashamed of our sinful behavior and so we pretend that we're doing better than we are. The good news of the Gospel gives us grace to admit when we're broken, inadequate and falling short. We will never be self-sufficient, and we don't have to pretend that we're so good that we don't need Jesus. Jesus frees us from hypocrisy and invites us into a life of authentic, humble discipleship fully dependent on Him!
Prayer Based on Psalm 53:
The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.”
They are corrupt, doing abominable iniquity;
there is none who does good.
God looks down from heaven
on the children of man
to see if there are any who understand,
who seek after God.
They have all fallen away;
together they have become corrupt;
there is none who does good,
not even one.
Heavenly Father, we cannot possibly save ourselves. Our hearts are naturally sinful and selfish, denying You and doing only what pleases ourselves. We only confess our helplessness to be righteous or to please You in any way.
Have those who work evil no knowledge,
who eat up my people as they eat bread,
and do not call upon God?
There they are, in great terror,
where there is no terror!
For God scatters the bones of him who encamps against you;
you put them to shame, for God has rejected them.
Father, when we look around us at this world that You have made and at the people who bear Your image, we are stunned by the violence of those who oppose You and Your people. Militant Islamists execute Your people, steal their homes and burn their churches. Militant atheists mock and ridicule Your people and blaspheme Your name. You oppose those who oppose You. Bind them and keep them from harming Your people and thwarting Your Gospel's advance in the world.
Oh, that salvation for Israel would come out of Zion!
When God restores the fortunes of his people,
let Jacob rejoice, let Israel be glad.
We look to You for our salvation, O Lord! You alone can restore the fortunes of Your people. You alone can give us a joy that surpasses all of our circumstances and strengthens us to live for Your glory! We love You, O Lord, and we look to You to keep Your promises and bless Your people.
In Jesus' name, Amen.
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