Beware of the Leaven of the Pharisees, Which is Hypocrisy

Hypocrisy has been defined as “Simulation; a feigning to be what one is not; or dissimulation, a concealment of one’s real character or motives. More generally, hypocrisy is simulation, or the assuming of a false appearance of virtue or religion; a deceitful show of a good character, in morals or religion; a counterfeiting of religion.” (Webster’s 1828 Dictionary of the English Language). The term itself was used by the Greeks to identify actors, who would wear a mask for each part they played, covering their true face with a mask. Literally, hypocrisy means to be below the capacity to be properly judged. In other words, this is a very difficult and, at times, impossible sin for man to judge. In reading through the gospels recently, I was struck again with how thoroughly and unapologetically Jesus condemned the sin of hypocrisy. I would like to share two areas of hypocrisy that Jesus dealt with in His teaching: hypocrisy in relationships, and hypocrisy in worship.

First, let’s take a look at Jesus’ teaching on hypocrisy in relationships. Hypocrisy in relationships demonstrates itself when we want other people to think something about us, generally something that we consider positive or good, that is not totally or actually the case. For example, one might want his friends to believe that he is benevolent to the poor, and so add false or exaggerated details when relaying his “good deeds.” Or, someone might want to “share a prayer request” out of concern for others, which is just another way of spreading malicious gossip or slander.

Just as the prophets did before Him, Jesus our Lord came down very hard on the sin of hypocrisy:

Matthew 23:2-5, The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat: All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not. For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers. But all their works they do for to be seen of men.

Note the “chief end” of hypocrisy in relationships: “to be seen of men.” The face of God is not the context for such a life, but the face of man.

Jesus gave the antidote to this hypocrisy in relationships when teaching us to fear God:

Luke 12:1-5, In the mean time, when there were gathered together an innumerable multitude of people, insomuch that they trode one upon another, he began to say unto his disciples first of all, Beware ye of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. For there is nothing covered, that shall not be revealed; neither hid, that shall not be known. Therefore whatsoever ye have spoken in darkness shall be heard in the light; and that which ye have spoken in the ear in closets shall be proclaimed upon the housetops. And I say unto you my friends, Be not afraid of them that kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. But I will forewarn you whom ye shall fear: Fear him, which after he hath killed hath power to cast into hell; yea, I say unto you, Fear him.

In other words, hypocrisy in relationships is a symptom of not fearing God. If we only cared for God’s judgment of whether we are benevolent, then we would not seek our reward in the approval of men. If we want to truly care for our neighbor, we must protect his good name. We must refuse to listen to, approve of, or spread an evil report about him. We must never slander him, and if we are made aware of an evil report concerning our neighbor, go and speak to him about it. That is the pathway marked out by God’s law for properly fearing Him, and sincerely loving our neighbor.

However, Jesus not only condemned the sin of hypocrisy in relationships, but, as alluded to above, He primarily condemned hypocrisy in the worship of God. The First and Great Commandment of the law is to love the LORD our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. This commandment is in turn fleshed out by the first four commandments of the Ten Commandments. For instance, God forbids men seeking to hide their false gods, reminding us that all that we do is “before me.” In other words, all that we do, all that we worship or serve is literally “before the face of Jehovah” (that is the literal sense of “before me” in Exodus 20:3).

Jesus particularly focuses in on the Second Commandment when counteracting the hypocritical leaven of the Pharisees’ in the gospels. The Second Commandment forbids men from worshiping the true God by the works of their own hands. God alone has the authority, goodness, and wisdom to establish what constitutes true worship, and the means by which true worship is accomplished. Jesus pointed this out in His encounter with the Samaritan woman:

John 4:20-24, Our fathers worshipped in this mountain; and ye say, that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship. Jesus saith unto her, Woman, believe me, the hour cometh, when ye shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father. Ye worship ye know not what: we know what we worship: for salvation is of the Jews. But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him. God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.

Note that worshiping God according to the devices of our own hearts, or according to the traditions passed down by “our fathers” is full of ignorance and is rejected by God. Such worship does not accompany salvation, but rather ignorance of God.

Worse than ignorance, however, Jesus condemns hypocrisy in worship. The good intention that men feel in worship is to honor God, and to give Him the glory. However, Jesus points out that no matter how good an intention, God alone has the authority to ordain the means by which He is worshiped. For instance, the Pharisees sought to honor God by remaining clean prior to eating:

Mark 7:1-9, Then came together unto him the Pharisees, and certain of the scribes, which came from Jerusalem. And when they saw some of his disciples eat bread with defiled, that is to say, with unwashen, hands, they found fault. For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, except they wash their hands oft, eat not, holding the tradition of the elders. And when they come from the market, except they wash, they eat not. And many other things there be, which they have received to hold, as the washing of cups, and pots, brasen vessels, and of tables. Then the Pharisees and scribes asked him, Why walk not thy disciples according to the tradition of the elders, but eat bread with unwashen hands? He answered and said unto them, Well hath Esaias prophesied of you hypocrites, as it is written, This people honoureth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. Howbeit in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men. For laying aside the commandment of God, ye hold the tradition of men, as the washing of pots and cups: and many other such like things ye do. And he said unto them, Full well ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your own tradition.

The relationship between “the commandment of God” and “your own tradition” or “the tradition of men” is like that of two sides of a scale: as one side goes down, the other side goes up, and vice versa. The moment our wicked hearts devise or adhere to a worship practice not ordained by God, at that moment we have rejected the commandment of God. Worse, such actions are done with the name of God on our lips! We have the impious gall to draw near to God with our lips, all the while rejecting His commandments. This is the essence of hypocrisy in worship. And every one of us carries the leaven of the Pharisees in the loaf of our hearts.

Long ago the prophet Isaiah had identified this sin we are very prone to. He stated that when our worship is taught by the precept of men, it is mere lip service, because we don’t honor God as King and Lord of His worship, but we honor the devices of men, and their sincere intentions:

Isaiah 29:13 Wherefore the Lord said, Forasmuch as this people draw near me with their mouth, and with their lips do honour me, but have removed their heart far from me, and their fear toward me is taught by the precept of men.

Jesus condemns such man-made worship as hypocrisy. The mask says “we are honoring you, God,” but the face under the mask says “we don’t care to listen to your commandments.” The more we embrace the one, the more we reject the other. We cannot serve God and man.

In conclusion, we have seen what the leaven of the Phrarisees is, hypocrisy. Hypocrisy is a “deceitful show of a good character, in morals or religion; a counterfeiting of religion”. Jesus condemned hypocrisy as betraying a singular lack of the fear of God, both in how we relate to one another, and in the means by which we worship God. For all who love the Lord Jesus, we must take His commands and teachings seriously. We must follow our Master by abandoning the fear of man, and the vain worship traditions handed down from our forefathers. We must love our neighbor’s good name, and not seek the praise of men. We must worship God as He has commanded, and not according to the vain and hypocritical traditions of men. As mentioned above, this leaven of the Pharisees is within each of us. Yet Jesus came to call sinners to repentance; even the hypocritical sort. Let us forsake our hypocrisy in relationships and worship, seeking the compassions of the Lord to erase all our sins, through the very One Who points out our hypocrisy. Christ is the friend of sinners, and will abundantly pardon.


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