The most common accusation against Christianity is hypocrisy. There are various reasons why Christians are labelled hypocrites, among which the accusations that they don’t always do what the Bible says or don’t always act in a way that pleases everyone sit at the top. Christians aren’t immune to these accusations and often accept them as the definition of a hypocrite. We tend to think hypocrites are people who don’t do what they say they will do or live how they say they should live. That may be true at a surface level, but it doesn’t get to the heart of hypocrisy.
Jesus, however, shows us the real heart of hypocrisy.
In Matthew 23, Jesus pronounces woes upon the scribes and Pharisees. We must know in that time period these men weren’t religious nuts, they were the godliest people around, and the masses revered them. We know this from the Sermon on the Mount when Jesus used them as the best example of law-keepers anyone could have (Matthew 5:20). At a surface level, they, above anyone, did not deserve to be called hypocrites. So why did Jesus call them hypocrites?
In Jesus’ woes, He coupled the accusation of hypocrisy with the accusation that their actions did not match their hearts. It wasn’t that they didn’t do what they said they would do; they lived according to the law. Their problem was their lack of integrity, and more fundamentally, their lack of love for God.
“Woe to you…because you shut off the kingdom of heaven from people; for you do not enter in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in” (23:13).
Jesus’s first woe addresses the kingdom of heaven as a spiritual kingdom, entered only by faith in Christ. Those who attempt to enter through the law will not enter, and if they teach others similarly, they keep others from entering who otherwise were prime candidates. Essentially, the kingdom of heaven has to do with the heart.
“Woe to you…because you travel around on sea and land to make one proselyte; and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves” (23:15).
The fruit of the Pharisee‘s ministry revealed their hearts. These men worked as hard as possible to make converts, but the converts ended up worse than them. Jesus points out that their trajectory was misguided from the start.
“Woe to you…who say, ‘Whoever swears by the temple, that is nothing; but whoever swears by the gold of the temple is obligated’” (23:16).
Jesus explains this woe by showing the scribes and Pharisees their inability to discern the heart of making oaths. Outward appearances of oaths do not strengthen or diminish the integrity of the oath itself; oaths must be kept because they are oaths. Likewise, the outward appearance of righteousness does not make the heart righteous.
“Woe to you…For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these things you should have done without neglecting the others” (23:23).
Jesus builds upon the previous woe, accusing the scribes and Pharisees of neglecting major aspects of the law by over-emphasizing the minor elements. Their intent was to keep the entire law, but just as they failed to discern the heart of oaths, they failed to distinguish the law's levels of importance. All laws were to be kept, but some demanded more attention than others. Because their hearts were not right, their priorities were skewed.
“Woe to you…For you clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside they are full of robbery and self-indulgence” (23:25).
“Woe to you…For you are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness” (23:27).
Here we come to the heart of the matter, the heart of hypocrisy. According to Jesus, hypocrisy is the absence of integrity—the outside does not match the inside. Real hypocrites are not those who say one thing and do another, but those who act opposite of who they truly are. This is why the tax-collectors and prostitutes were closer to the kingdom of heaven than the Pharisees. They lived as they were, their heart showed through in their actions, and they saw their unrighteousness before them. The Pharisees were blinded by law-keeping to the unrighteousness of their hearts and could not see their need for a saviour.
Hypocrisy does not apply to those who feel uncomfortable expressing their hearts in their actions and need to hide behind a mask of their own creation. It applies only to those seeking to appear righteous in their deeds without being righteous in their hearts.
“Woe to you…For you build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the monuments of the righteous, and say, ‘If we had been living in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partners with them in shedding the blood of the prophets’" (23:29-30).
The last woe shows the mindset of the hypocrite toward the faults of others. Again, they are blind to the unrighteousness in their hearts and do not realize they would act similarly to those who do evil if put in their shoes.
The Death of Hypocrisy
The gospel of Jesus changes us from the inside out. In His use of the Pharisees as an example of law-keepers in the Sermon on the Mount, we find Jesus's expectation of us (and the Pharisees) to extend beyond human capabilities. For all the Pharisees' outward moral goodness, they continued to fall short of God's standard of righteousness. "For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5:20). Christ's righteousness surpassed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees because it didn’t feign moral perfection. Christ’s righteousness is moral perfection! He never intended to stop law-keeping, but to increase it by fixing the heart of the matter.
In the gospel, hypocrisy dies. To Nicodemus, a Pharisee, Jesus said, "You must be born again" (John 3:1-21). That is to say, regardless of moral goodness, all who enter the kingdom of God must enter with a foreign heart and righteousness. They come wretched, blind, and naked to Him. They only enter when God changes their nature.
What must Christians do to combat hypocrisy? They must recognize that Christ is their life, that they have no righteousness of their own, and that nothing they do makes God more or less pleased with them. That is how hypocrisy dies.