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Life of Christ (1996-1998)

On Hypocrisy

Matthew 23

It is a curious but noteworthy fact that Jesus never expressed anger at anyone except the hypocrites. Of all sinners he met, from thieves to prostitutes, the only ones to experience his wrath were the hypocrites. It is instructive therefore to hear what he has to say to his disciples about those hypocrites.

On Obedience

(Mat 23:1-3 NIV) Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: {2} "The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat. {3} So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach.

It might seem unusual to you that Christ would tell you to do what the hypocrites instruct you to do. Our natural reaction is to defy such hypocrisy (or so we think) – or worse yet, to cooperate with it. Jesus tells us to obey. There are at least three reasons for this:

·         First, because they “sit in the seat of Moses.” That is to say, you are obeying not the hypocrite but the real thing. You don’t throw away the wallet just because you found a counterfeit bill. A hypocrite must, by definition, be an imitation of the real thing – and it is the real thing you are obeying.

·         Second, because such defiance is the use of the weapons of this world. Do not be overcome by such evil, rather, overcome evil with good.[1]

·         Third, there is always the possibility that you are wrong in your judgment – and for such things it is best to “judge not.” Sometimes what sounds like a hypocrite in public prayer is actually just a poor attempt at it. Only God can truly judge the heart of a man.

The tests of the hypocrite

There is a comedian now making a lot of money off of one joke: “You might be a redneck if…” Christ now gives us three tests of the hypocrite:

(Mat 23:4-12 NIV) They tie up heavy loads and put them on men's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them. {5} "Everything they do is done for men to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; {6} they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; {7} they love to be greeted in the marketplaces and to have men call them 'Rabbi.' {8} "But you are not to be called 'Rabbi,' for you have only one Master and you are all brothers. {9} And do not call anyone on earth 'father,' for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. {10} Nor are you to be called 'teacher,' for you have one Teacher, the Christ. {11} The greatest among you will be your servant. {12} For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.

So what, then, are the tests of a hypocrite? It may surprise you to know that they can be applied to some people who would never think of themselves in that light.

·         First, to the hypocrite his own burdens are heavy, while those of others are light. So he has no compunction about adding to the burdens of others while complaining of his own load. Do you hear this? “Oh, my life has been such a weary road, I have so many troubles, …” And some do. But for most of us, if we were compelled to take an equal share of life’s troubles, we’d feel very happy to leave carrying that with which we came. The true Christian knows this, and feels the burdens of others as heavily as his own.

·         Second, everything is for show. Phylacteries were the sign of the pious, reminders of the Word of God. The tassels were the outward symbols the Jews were to wear to distinguish themselves from others, a people apart for God. The trap in such things is that the outward show can become the goal. The Christian is admonished to wear good deeds rather than adornment – and even those are to be done so that the right hand doesn’t know what the left is doing.

·         Finally, there is the love of status. This is a particular temptation to the teacher, I find. It feels so good to be “greeted with respect.” It feels even better to be considered someone’s “spiritual advisor,” which is as close to “rabbi” as one can get in the church. (A teacher’s goal should be to bring his students to spiritual maturity!) The corrective is given to the teacher here: remember who the real teacher is. Nothing I say, nothing I teach, should ever come from my mouth unless its source is the Lord Jesus Christ. He is the real teacher; I’m just the retailer.

There is a great comparison here. The world works on power and status, and the hypocrite applies the world’s methods to the church. The church is in the world but not of the world, and therefore its methods must be different. The servant of all shall be the greatest of all.

The Seven Woes

Christ now pronounces seven woes upon the Pharisees (eight, if you include verse 14, which seems to have been transcribed from Mark’s account). These are, if you will, the indictment of the hypocrite – the crimes with which the hypocrite is charged:

#1 Blocking the entrance

(Mat 23:13 NIV) "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men's faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.

How many people are utterly “turned off” by the hypocrite! How often the hypocrite stands at the door of the church and by his poor example convinces the spiritual orphan that there is no home here. Even if the orphan decides to try it, he will have to go through the pride of the hypocrite to get there. Here we see that subtle, yet firm, indication that some people are “just not good enough” to get into this church (perhaps you should try the Salvation Army post down the street?)

#2 Converts worse than the teacher

(Mat 23:15 NIV) "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are.

This one may not seem too obvious at first, but consider this: how do you win praise from your teacher, when your teacher’s primary concern is to be praised himself? Only by exceeding him! If you are going to succeed at being a hypocrite, you have committed yourself to a competition. You certainly don’t want to hear, “He’s a pretty good teacher, but nothing compared to old Joe….”

#3 Blind Guides

(Mat 23:16-22 NIV) "Woe to you, blind guides! You say, 'If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing; but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.' {17} You blind fools! Which is greater: the gold, or the temple that makes the gold sacred? {18} You also say, 'If anyone swears by the altar, it means nothing; but if anyone swears by the gift on it, he is bound by his oath.' {19} You blind men! Which is greater: the gift, or the altar that makes the gift sacred? {20} Therefore, he who swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. {21} And he who swears by the temple swears by it and by the one who dwells in it. {22} And he who swears by heaven swears by God's throne and by the one who sits on it.

“Blind guide” is almost an oxymoron. You can easily pick up that they were guides in the spiritual sense – just look at the incredible “theological” detail that was attached to the concept of taking an oath. So these men had indeed accepted the role of guides. But from the incredible stupidity of the result, they were clearly blind.

Sometimes the teacher needs a reality check. It is necessary to remember that all of Scripture is consistent; if your teaching on one part of the Bible negates that of another part, something is wrong. Your opinions should come from what God says; they should not be imposed on what God says. (For example, how often we “know” that the homeless don’t “deserve” help. But where does it say they must deserve it for us to give it?)

#4 Tiny legalism

(Mat 23:23-24 NIV) "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices--mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law--justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. {24} You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.

The herbs mentioned here are rather small – the kind of thing today that would be grown in a kitchen garden. But, according to the law, they were crops, and therefore to be tithed. Christ does not tell them to ignore the law on this point; rather, he tells them not to substitute the tiny points of the law for the major ones. The key is to do both. Don’t neglect the small stuff – but don’t make it a substitute for the large stuff.

#5 The outside is clean, the inside is filthy

(Mat 23:25-26 NIV) "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. {26} Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.

Character still counts. What you do in private does affect what you are in public. In this “woe” Christ places the emphasis on two things: greed and self-indulgence. In this day a person’s financial dealings can be kept quite discreet. Indeed, we do not often recognize greed as a sin; it usually masquerades as an “investment strategy.” But one must ask: what has been your stewardship of your money? Will the poor rise up at the last judgment and bless your name for your gifts? Or was all your money tied up in mutual funds? Worse yet, did you take the earnings from those funds to spend entirely on your own appetites? And then hide that fact under a cloak of Sunday morning plastic smiles?

#6 The “whited sepulchre”

(Mat 23:27-28 NIV) "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men's bones and everything unclean. {28} In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.

The word here translated “wickedness” is perhaps better translated “lawlessness.” That’s how it is in the New American Standard and Revised Standard; the King James has “iniquity.” The meaning of the word (the Greek is anomia) is that of one who has no law. We would see it today as being a law unto oneself. This is someone who is so sure of what he is doing that “those rules don’t apply to me.”

The illustration is a telling one. One of the ways in which a Jew can become “unclean” is to handle the bones of the dead. The Pharisees extended this to walking over a grave, even if you didn’t know the grave was there. So graves were often whitewashed to mark them.

#7 Decorating the graves

(Mat 23:29-32 NIV) "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. {30} And you say, 'If we had lived in the days of our forefathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.' {31} So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. {32} Fill up, then, the measure of the sin of your forefathers!

There is a curious parallel here in our time. We are debating “affirmative action.” In that debate there is a frequent comment like, “If Martin Luther King were alive, he would….” This is amusing in a painful way, for it is a work of the “spin doctor.” Here we have an earlier example of it. The prophets are honored, now that they are dead. But surely we would have been good to them, surely. The hypocrite honors the name of the one whose principles he does not follow.

The Fate of the Hypocrite

Jesus now foretells the fate of these hypocrites – and the warning should be a lesson to us today.

(Mat 23:33-39 NIV) "You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell? {34} Therefore I am sending you prophets and wise men and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town. {35} And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. {36} I tell you the truth, all this will come upon this generation. {37} "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing. {38} Look, your house is left to you desolate. {39} For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, 'Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.'"

The sentence is this:

·         First, there is the clear statement that they are going to hell. Time is short, eternity is long, hell is hot – but Jesus saves.

·         Second, there is the statement that they will be given enough rope to hang themselves. It is a fitting fate. The hypocrite above all else wishes to appear righteous; these Pharisees did. How fitting it is that the word “Pharisee” is now a synonym in many languages for “hypocrite.” The reason is simple: they crucified the innocent Messiah.

·         In the sense that the innocent blood of Christ is a type of the blood of the innocent everywhere, we can say that these men were the representatives of the hypocrites of all time. For this, they were to suffer God’s wrath. It is interesting to note that the Babylonian captivity lasted 70 years, a punishment for wickedness and idolatry. The dispersion of the Jews from Jerusalem which began in AD 70 did not end until 1967. The comparison is worthy of note.

·         But note the last verse: the account is not yet closed. He is coming again to judge the living and the dead. Will he spare the Pharisees of our time?


[1] Romans 12:21

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