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Its Definition, Deceit, and Defeat

As a child, my parents would sometimes take me to the local doughnut shop in our downtown plaza. It was a quaint storefront without much room to dine but had just enough for the old men who gathered for their morning coffee. Upon entering, one was welcomed by the ding of a bell, pale yellow walls, and grease-spattered floors. But filling the rather dull atmosphere was the aroma of freshly fried doughnuts and an array of spectacular colors that uniquely coated each pastry in the baker’s rack.

On one particular day, I noticed a plate of doughnuts on the front counter–each made and styled to perfection promising to satisfy the appetite of a young boy. I energetically informed the baker that I wanted the cake doughnut with white frosting and a multitude of sprinkles. With a perceptible grimace, he told me that the doughnut was for display purposes only and was actually made of plastic. With child-like anger I realized I had been deceived–this doughnut, promising so much, was a fake and a phony. Oh, the hypocrisy!

Of course, setting aside the childhood scandal, this type of hypocrisy is found all around us. Things that purport to be something they are not: two-faced politicians hobnobbing with their constituents, duplicitous words from a coworker, and people hiding under a facade of friendship. No one likes a fraud! And when the outward appearance gives way to the inward reality, we are often left angered, frustrated, and hurt. It should come as no surprise, then, that some of Jesus’ most severe and infuriated censures fell upon hypocrites.

The Definition of Hypocrisy

The New Testament word for “hypocrite” comes from a word that means “an actor under an assumed character.” Or, more literally, it means “an interpreter from underneath.” In this sense, you can think of a stage play and an actor who hides under a mask pretending to be someone they are not–they play the role of another. Biblically, hypocrisy has nothing to do with theater but with assuming a religious character that is not one’s own. Jesus spares no words for the leading hypocrites of his day, the Pharisees.

The Pharisee’s double-crime was to appear more righteous and less sinful than they were. In Matthew 23, Jesus denounces them as children of hell (v 15), blind guides (v 16), whitewashed tombs (v 27), and a brood of vipers (v 33) saying “[you] outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness” (v 28). The imagination is not left to speculate much as to the holy anger with which Jesus –the searcher of hearts–unmasked these actors and proclaimed: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!”

Hypocrisy, however, is not reserved only for the Pharisee of Jesus’ day. It is easy to point the finger at them, but we must realize that hypocrisy resides in our own hearts. Jesus warns of many on the last day who will claim to have known him but will be unknown by him (Matt. 7:21–23). Paul admonishes those who preach against stealing because they steal for themselves (Rom. 2:21). The Apostle Peter acted hypocritically when he refused to eat with the Gentiles (Gal. 2:13). Later, that same apostle would write to many: “Put away all malice and deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander” (1 Peter 2:1). We must come to realize that even as Christians we are not immune to any sin. Every sin in the encyclopedia of sin is still present in our hearts – even the sin of hypocrisy. And, let me be clear, it is sin.

The Deceit of Hypocrisy

An expression the Puritans used to use in writing, and one that is worth reclaiming in our own day is the sinfulness of sin. Using that phrase, we might explore a little the sinfulness of hypocrisy. In a general sense, hypocrisy is sinful because it is deception. But this deception has several angles to it, each of which unmasks for us the depth of hypocrisy’s sin.

First, hypocrisy deceives self. Again, we are given such an example in those whom Jesus will cast out: “On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’” (Matt. 7:22). Notice their argument. They come so far–calling Jesus “Lord” and heaping up external and miraculous evidences that they belong to him. But Jesus’ response melts away the façade: “I never knew you.” This is one of the greatest hidden tragedies of hypocrisy: a hypocrite does not always know that they are a hypocrite. Their own appearances persuade and blind them to the reality of who they are. The sentence will be passed by the discerner of hearts and, though a bit speculative, perhaps their deception will stretch into all eternity always crying as those cast out from the presence of Jesus, “Lord, Lord, did we not?”

Second, hypocrisy deceives others. In teaching his disciples how to give to the needy and to pray, Jesus cautions us to not do these things as the hypocrites do (see Matt. 6:1–5). For, he says, when they give they do so to be praised by others, and when they pray they do so that they may be seen by others. Is that not terrible? Merciful giving and heavenward prayer are good and necessary things, but in the hands of a hypocrite, they become the means of deluding others to attract attention and adulation. It is a divine attribute that God knows all, and nothing can be hidden from his sight. But the mischief of hypocrisy is that it would if it could deceive God himself. Click To Tweet

Finally, hypocrisy deceives God. Of course, God cannot be deceived. We are told, “The LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart” (1 Sam. 16:7). It is a divine attribute that God knows all, and nothing can be hidden from his sight. But the mischief of hypocrisy is that it would if it could deceive God himself. In a stinging indictment, Israel was accused of this very thing in Isaiah 58. The Spirit declared through the Prophet: “They seek me daily and delight to know my ways as if they were a nation that did righteousness and did not forsake the judgments of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments; they delight to draw near to God” (v 2). But God did not see and he did not take knowledge of their drawing near (v 3). Why? Because when they did so, they sought their own pleasure; they quarreled and fought; they did not repent, and they did not humble themselves. Even before the very face of God, they feigned to delight in him. But it was all hypocrisy.

The Defeat of Hypocrisy

The deception of hypocrisy demonstrates why it deserves the harsh condemnation of Jesus: “Woe to you, hypocrites!” But there is hope. Hypocrisy is ultimately defeated–its penalty, its power, and one day its presence–by the power of the gospel. For the gospel of Jesus unmasks our hearts and the hidden hypocrisy therein and brings it into the consuming fire of his glorious grace which forgives, transforms, and rescues us from its devastation. Therefore, how honored by God when we learn to sing and pray in faith with the Psalmist: “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!” (Ps. 139:23–24).

Kyle Borg

Kyle Borg is Senior Pastor of Winchester Reformed Presbyterian Church in Winchester, KS.

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