Matthew 23 has the clearest theme of any chapter in the New Testament: hypocrisy. The entire chapter is devoted to Jesus roasting the Pharisees over their central vise, and His words serve as a warning both to those original offenders, and also to those of us tempted to follow in their footsteps.
But what is hypocrisy? It is clear Jesus strongly condemns it… but what is it?
The Greek word Jesus uses here literally means “actor” - someone who “puts on a role” or a “false face.” Jesus is accusing the Pharisees of pretending to be someone they are not. The term is fitting - the Pharisees put on an excellent show of being pious religious people who simply wished to be holy. In reality, however, their real purpose was not to glory God, but themselves. They didn’t care about being righteous - only looking the part.
One important note before we move on - Jesus’ problem with the Pharisees isn’t that they wanted to be good. Notice in verse 2 that He says, “So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach.” He actually commends the Pharisees for saying all the right things. His problem is that this appearance of holiness is only skin-deep - beneath the surface, they are “white-washed tombs” who have no real love of God nor desire to be like Him. They want the recognition and respect of others that comes from being “godly,” but aren’t willing to put in the work.
If you’ve spent any time at church you have undoubtedly seen someone who fits this description. We’ve all known that condensing preacher who rails against every sin in the book… except those to which he is tempted. We have all met the stuck-up church lady who is quick to condemn the fashion taste or language of others, but is completely obvious to her own arrogance and hatred. In fact, hypocrisy is such a problem in the church that it is regularly cited by former-Christians as a chief reason they left the church. Modern day Pharisees are just as eager to “shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces” (v.13) as their ancient predecessors.
If we are truly honest with ourselves, and with God, we will realize that, not only have we seen that person at church, but in our own reflection. We have all BEEN that person. That admission - that I am not perfect, that I need forgiveness and do not live up to the message I preach - is difficult. So difficult, in fact, that most Pharisees in Jesus’ day and our own would rather suffer damnation than admit it. Yet, acknowledging that truth is the first step to recovering from our own hypocrisy. We should all learn to adopt the tone of Paul, who preached boldly that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst.” (1 Tim. 1:15 NIV).
Such vulnerability is not only the best cure to our hypocritical tendencies, but is also critical for our own witness in the world.