What is Hypocrisy in the Bible
The dictionary defines hypocrisy as the practice of claiming to have moral standards or beliefs to which one’s own behavior does not conform; pretense.
This definition accurately represents how the word is used in the New Testament because that is where the word ‘hypocrisy’ originates. In fact, it was Jesus that first used the word ‘hypocrite’ to describe those whose piety was insincere and pretentious.
In the first century, stage actors used oversized masks that represented the characters or emotions that they portrayed in their theater performances. These actors were called ‘hypokrites’ in Greek, which literally means judging or interpreting (kreti) from underneath (hypo).
So a hypocrite was an actor who interpreted a part (played a role) from underneath a mask.
Notice how Jesus’ earliest usage of this term to describe the Pharisees makes brilliant use of this imagery:
To Jesus’ original audience, the connection was unmistakable. During times of fasting, the Pharisees would mask their faces so that everyone would know that they were fasting.
Characteristics of Hypocrites in the Bible
The Pharisees’ hypocritical behavior was not just limited to times of fasting. Later, Jesus speaks more broadly of their hypocrisy, saying:
And from Jesus’ pronouncements, we thread together the traits of hypocrisy:
- Fixation on appearances.
- A desire to please people.
- An outward appearance that contradicts the heart.
The Pharisees presented themselves as somber while inwardly feeling pious and prideful. They presented themselves as outwardly clean, despite being inwardly dead. In all of these things, they sought to win the approval, praise, and respect of men instead of God, who looks at the heart.
Even though sacrifices and burnt offerings were commanded, what God asks of us is not outward ritual, but the inward transformation that the symbol of sacrifice represents. A broken and repentant heart is an honest and humble heart before God.
Is Hypocrisy a Deadly Sin?
All sin leads to death, and can only be overcome by the blood of Jesus. Still, hypocrisy is closely related to the sin of pride. Hypocrites seek the approval of others in order to elevate their own status in society.
Hypocrisy also uses the sin of deceit to hide or mask other sins. Jesus called the Pharisees whitewashed tombs because the love of God was not in them and they were full of decay. A lack of love might manifest as hatred, greed, oppression, or a multitude of other behaviors, as the stories of scripture reveal.
Examples of Hypocrisy in the Bible
King Saul: In 1 Samuel 15 the Lord instructed Saul to attack and destroy the Amalekites and all of their possessions and livestock (v 3). But when Saul attacked, he captured their king alive and kept the best of their livestock for his men (v 9).
Saul claimed to have obeyed the Lord’s decree, but a bleating sheep revealed his disobedience (v 13-14) to Samuel the prophet. Saul then claimed that the sheep was meant as a sacrifice (v 15).
Saul tried to hide, then justify, his disobedience. So Samuel deliver the rebuke preserved above in Psalm 51 and declared that God has rejected Saul as king.
The Rich Givers: In Mark 12, Jesus contrasted the rich men who gave large offerings with the poor widow who gave a tiny amount. He called the widow’s gift the greater gift, not just because of its proportion to her wealth, but because of the humble attitude with which she gave.
Jesus was likely the only person who even noticed her. The rich men tossing volumes of coin into the brass coffers would have been a noisy and attention-grabbing spectacle, designed to make a show of their wealth and generosity. But the humble widow was seen by the One that mattered most.
What does the Bible Say About Religious Hypocrites?
Since hypocrisy ultimately is about being—or not being—honest in our relationship with God, everything the Bible says about hypocrisy it says in a religious context. Although Jesus coined ‘hypocrite’ as a religious term, the Old Testament prophets had much to say about the hypocrisy of their day:
Your incense is detestable to me.
New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations—
I cannot bear your worthless assemblies.
Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals
I hate with all my being.
They have become a burden to me;
I am weary of bearing them.
When you spread out your hands in prayer,
I hide my eyes from you;
even when you offer many prayers,
I am not listening.
Your hands are full of blood!
Wash and make yourselves clean.
Take your evil deeds out of my sight;
stop doing wrong.
Learn to do right; seek justice.
Defend the oppressed.
Take up the cause of the fatherless;
plead the case of the widow. ” Isaiah 1:13-17
In the opening chapter of Isaiah, we read this pronouncement against the hypocrisy of:
- Meaningless offerings
- Worthless assemblies
- Feasts and festivals
Again; offerings, assemblies, and festivals were ordered under the law. But because these outward displays of religiosity did not spring from righteousness, God rejected them, saying that he would not listen to the prayers of those who have blood on their hands.
So God confronts their sin, the blood on their hands, by calling them to:
- Stop doing wrong
- Seek justice for the oppressed
- Care for the orphans and widows
We infer that Isaiah was addressing not a passive group of observers but those who directly engaged in oppression, whose sacrifices came from their ill-gotten wealth.
The prophet Zechariah makes a similar proclamation:
And the word of the Lord came again to Zechariah: “This is what the Lord Almighty said: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other.’ Zechariah 7:5-10
It is no surprise that the prayer that God desires the prayer that comes from a broken spirit and a repentant heart. That is the prayer that calls on the blood of Jesus to cover us with His righteousness.
Hypocrisy in the Church
Hypocrites do not merely bring God’s judgment on themselves, but they can lead others astray. Because they bring attention to themselves, they turn people’s attention away from God. It is for this reason that Paul cautions the Corinthian church:
Paul shows that the message of the hypocrite is not the message of Jesus. The message of the hypocrite is, ultimately, a message of works and of displays of piety. But the message of Jesus is the cross, where sinners receive grace and are made righteous not by good works, but by the blood of Jesus.
As believers, we must walk in humility to avoid becoming hypocrites. We must also watch that we are not led astray by the teachings of hypocrisy, which might sound eloquent, and appear as light. But ultimately, they are nothing more than masks that hide the true heart.