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“The Peril of Hypocrisy”

Matthew 23:13-39
Bob DeGray
March 2, 2014

Key Sentence

Hypocrisy can keep our hearts, and others, from the Savior’s call!


I. The Peril of Hypocrisy (Matthew 23:13-15)
II. Majoring-on-the-minors Hypocrisy (Matthew 23:16-24)
III. Inside-outside Hypocrisy (Matthew 23:25-28)
IV. Murderous Hypocrisy (Matthew 23:29-36)
V. The Hope of the Savior’s Call (Matthew 23:37-39)


It won’t surprise anyone to learn that I’ve read a few books lately. The world could be rolling up under the inferno and I’d still be reading a book. Two of those book shared a common theme, the hypocrisy of the communist regimes in their various heydays. One was called Winter in Madrid and it told the story of the Spanish civil war in the 1930’s. Hitler provided arms and support to General Franco, the dictator who eventually won the war. Russia provided support for the Republic, a left leaning and eventually communist controlled people’s revolution. For a while Madrid was in the hands of the communists, but they proved to be as ruthless, vengeful and murderous as Franco’s forces. They said “Only Communists have the ruthlessness to destroy Fascism” The other book Island of the World by Michael O’Brien, is set in Yugoslavia, and details the atrocities of the ‘peace loving’ ‘communism with a human face’ regime under Joseph Tito, including its genocide against the Serbian people.

The truth is, hypocrisy knows no boundaries of race, ethnicity, class, gender or creed. Throughout history Christians have been guilty of hypocrisy. It’s true. So have practitioners of every other religion, political persuasion, social movement or ideology. I remember being struck by the substantial hypocrisy of the labor movement’s early leaders in Britain when I did research on them last fall.

But if hypocrisy is universal, it is also, rightly, universally despised. There is almost no sin more dangerous or deadening to the human spirit. This is why it’s condemned: conservatives accuse liberals of it, liberals accuse conservatives. Atheists accuse Christians, and Christians accuse atheists. Capitalists accuse Socialists and Socialists accuse Capitalists. Not to mention Democrats and Republicans. And on some level all these are likely to be right; all hypocrites.

So it’s no surprise that in Jesus’ day the leaders of the Jewish nation were practitioners of hypocrisy. What is especially sad about their case is that their hypocrisy had the effect of distorting the truth God had given them, and kept them, and others from responding in faith to the Messiah God sent. The same is true today for us. As believers we have received God’s truth and beauty in Jesus. We need to be on guard because hypocrisy can keep our hearts, and those of others, from responding to the Savior’s call and the Savior’s way.

Our text today is Matthew 23:13-39, Jesus’s long list of woes against the hypocrites who led God’s people. He begins by summarizing the peril of hypocrisy, then describes three degrees of hypocrisy, which I’m calling ‘majoring-on-the-minors’ hypocrisy, ‘inside-outside hypocrisy,’ and ‘murderous hypocrisy.’

Yet Jesus ends with words of hope, for though the Jewish leaders were not willing to turn to Him for rescue, we still can. So we have to look at why he pointed the finger at them, and then examine ourselves, point the finger at ourselves, so that we can take hold of the hope of our Savior’s sacrifice and calling.

We begin with the peril of hypocrisy, verses 13 to 15: “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in. 15Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.”

The woes Jesus pronounces in this chapter are like a bookend to the blessings he announced in the Sermon on the Mount, chapter 5: blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven; woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, for you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. And these woes do not come out of nowhere; for several chapters we’ve been seeing the growing opposition to Jesus by the scribes and Pharisees and leaders of the people. Last week we studied the trap they tried to set for Jesus with the question about taxes. The remainder of chapter 22 shows continuing attempts by the leaders to trap him, and Jesus’ brilliant responses. Finally, at the start of chapter 23 he turns to the people and directly warns them about the scribes and Pharisees who tie up heavy burdens and lay them on people’s shoulders, but are not themselves willing to lift a finger. They do all their deeds to be seen by others.

Now he turns directly to the leaders and pronounces these woes, these anti-blessings, because by their hypocrisy they shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. Hypocrisy is always damaging: hypocrisy disillusions, beats down and often hardens the hearts of those who see it or are its victims. But this hypocrisy, by people who were supposed to be teaching and living God’s truth, is especially damaging because it distances people from the truth, putting roadblocks on their journey to God. That’s why we, believers, and the church need to be so sensitive to our own hypocrisies, because eternal stuff is at stake if we, by hypocrisy, shut the doors of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces.

Yet, Jesus says, the Pharisees are evangelistic; they travel across land and sea to gain a single convert. The Jewish faith was evangelistic in the first century. Many Romans and the people they conquered were disillusioned with the old gods and their brutal ways. The one God of the Jews had great appeal. Those who had come to believe in him, but had not been circumcised were called God-fearers. Look for them in the book of Acts. The existence and growth of this group was one of the ways God prepared the world for the coming of his Son.

But, Jesus says, this whole enterprise is ruined if you bring people to the true God and then teach them they can please him by following the minute details not only of the Law of Moses, but of the stupid trivial encrustations the Pharisees and Scribes had put in place. Even worse if you tell them they have to do these things, but you don’t do them yourself, as the Jewish leaders did. There are hypocrites in every ideology and arena of life, but the harm done by hypocrites who are supposed to be loving and serving and depending on God is the worst. From a human point of view these hypocrisies turn people against the very God who longs to save them, shutting the door of salvation in their faces.

But let me also say not all Christian hypocrites are thoroughgoing hypocrites. Many are sincere followers of Jesus, but still have areas of life where they contradict the faith they say they believe. This hypocrisy can do a lot of damage, but if you and I recognize it, even dimly and turn from hypocrisy to God with a soft heart, he will forgive and I believe protect those around us from our hypocrisy. Recognition, repentance and a real relationship with Jesus can mitigate the damage caused by hypocrisy, both in our own lives and the lives of others.

So what should we look for? Verses 16-24 describe a ‘majoring on the minors ’ kind of hypocrisy: Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.’ 17You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the temple that has made the gold sacred? 18And you say, ‘If anyone swears by the altar, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gift that is on the altar, he is bound by his oath.’ 19You blind men! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred? 20So whoever swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. 21And whoever swears by the temple swears by it and by him who dwells in it. 22And whoever swears by heaven swears by the throne of God and by him who sits upon it. 23“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. 24You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!

The Pharisees specialized in trivia, majoring on the minor things while neglecting the truly significant. Jesus’ first examples are far from our experience, yet still amazing. They said that if you took an oath ‘with the temple as my witness’ or ‘I swear by the temple’ you’re not bound by that oath. But if you take an oath on the gold of the temple, you’re bound by it. Ridiculous! If you swear by the altar, it’s like crossing your fingers. No promise, no foul. But if you swear by the gift on the altar, you have to keep that oath. Jesus already said not even to swear an oath, but to let your yes be yes and your no, no.

And I’m sure the leaders were using these absurd distinctions to get out of what they promised. We do the same thing: “you said you’d do your homework!” “No, I only said I would work on my homework. And I did, before I went to the movie.” Hypocrites use the letter of the law to avoid its intent.

Verses 23 and 24 make this clear. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. 24You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!” The Mosaic law required giving a tenth of all that one produced for the ongoing work of the Lord. The Pharisees were so scrupulous in following this injunction that they paid a tithe even from their smallest garden crops. Jesus does not say that they were wrong in this but that they should do this without neglecting the far more important matters like justice and mercy and faithfulness. He may be thinking of Micah 6:8 “He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” The Jewish leaders had read that verse and could have been in the business of loving God and caring for others. But they preferred to count mint leaves.

They strain out a gnat, Jesus says, but miss the camel. The rabbis did strain their wine to remove even smallest, unclean insects that could contaminate it. The camel, the largest land animal in Palestine, was also unclean, but they swallow the camel whole. Jesus is speaking, as he often does, in hyperbole, an intended overstatement to make a point. The Pharisees had become lost in the minute details, while neglecting the law’s overarching intent.

Now the good news is that we never fall this trap. We never substitute external conformity for heart obedience. Well, almost never. Some of us might, at times focus more on modesty of dress than on openness of heart. Because, you know, its easier. Some of us might focus more on external politeness than real engagement with Jesus. Some might focus more on how loud and fast the music is than what the lyrics say. Here’s a fragment of a song by LeCrae: (20 seconds) Here it is with lyrics: We're created for Him; Outta the dust he made us for Him; Elects us and he saves us for Him; Jesus comes and he raises for Him; Magnify the Father why bother with something lesser; He made us so we could bless Him; To the world we confess Him; Resurrects Him; So I know I got life; Matter fact better man I know I got Christ; If you don't see His ways in my days and nights; You can hit my brakes you can stop my life; Then I lost my rights; I lost my life; Forget the money cars and toss that ice; The cost is Christ; And they could never offer me anything on the planet that would cost that price; Don’t wanna waste my life; life; life.”

You don’t have to like the music or the style, but you can’t condemn the heart behind it, because most of the time this man gets it. We’re hypocrites if we focus on the externals, major on the minors and miss the heart. Jesus is all about what’s inside, not what’s outside, and points the finger at this ‘inside-out’ hypocrisy.

Verses 25-28 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 26You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean. 27“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. 28So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.

Hypocrisy is often defined as being one thing on the outside but another on the inside. The word comes from a Greek word for ‘play actor,’ somebody hiding behind a mask. Sometimes it’s not just hurt and brokenness that we hide, but lust, anger, deceitfulness and dishonesty that we cover up with nice words or religious and social conventions. Jesus will have none of this. He paints a graphic word picture of a cup that appears clean on the outside but if you look within it is full of rot; greed and self-indulgence. That’s what any of us is like on the inside if we are not made clean by Christ, by redemption and renewal. So if you put on a happy face to the world, but inside you’re consumed with anger, if you’re create a pure façade but inside you are overwhelmed with lust, if you’re always lookin’ good, but inside you’re just seeking the next high or the next toy, you’re a hypocrite. Me too. We’re all hypocrites at some level, and the only safe route out is to turn to Jesus, humbly confess, and cry out for cleansing. The Pharisees, Jesus says, are like tombs in a graveyard; the beautiful monument surrounds a casket that cannot do anything but rot.

So do I major on the minors and neglect the heart matters of faith and heart concern for the people around me? Do I put up a false front to hide my own deep addiction to sin? When Jesus confronted the Pharisees who had brought the woman caught in adultery he said ‘let him who is without sin cast the first stone.’ I believe he opened a door for each person to see the condition of their own hearts. When they did the stones dropped. May it be so for us.

Because the path the Pharisees are on leads to a murderous self-preservation. Verses 29 to 36: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous, 30saying, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’

31Thus you witness against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. 32Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers. 33You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell? 34Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, 35so that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. 36Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation.

Jesus is not one to mince words. He says the hypocritical attitude of the Jewish leaders is what led their forefathers to persecute and kill those who served God in the past. In Jesus’ day the Jews built monuments to them. They were sure they wouldn’t have joined their forebears in murdering the prophets. But Jesus disagrees. They are sons of the ones who did the killing, inheriting the same moral tendencies. Jesus knows they are already plotting to put an end to Him. Thus they will be the ones who, in killing Jesus, fill up the measure of the world’s sin and call down God’s wrath. In verse 33 he calls these people serpents, vipers. Hypocrisy is poisonous, and like the serpent who is the father of all hypocrites, the fate of those wholly given over to hypocrisy is judgment and hell. In verse 34 Jesus affirms again that these leaders are just like their predecessors who persecuted God’s prophets, teachers and wise men. He may also be alluding to the fact that after his resurrection these same leaders would be persecuting and martyring the prophets and wise men of the early church – the apostles and the deacons like Stephen, the first martyr.

Jesus says that the hypocrites will be held blood-guilty for the blood they had shed, from the blood of Abel, the first person murdered in the Old Testament to the Zechariah the last, since 2 Chronicles, where that murder is recorded, is the last book in the Hebrew Bible. There is a difficulty with the phrase son of Barachiah. In 2 Chronicles Zechariah is called the “son of Jehoiada.” The famous prophet who wrote the book of Zechariah is the “son of Barachiah” In fact some Jewish literature does say that the Zechariah who authored the Biblical book was martyred, and Jesus may have known that. Alternately it may be that the other Zechariah whose martyrdom is recorded in Scripture was known as the descendant of – the word can mean that - his grandfather Jehoiada, a well-known priest, rather than his lesser known father Barachiah.

Verse 36: Rather than respond to the unique chance they had to receive their Messiah and participate in the kingdom of heaven, the religious people of this generation would continue to spill innocent blood, that of Jesus and his followers, and so face God’s wrath.

But, despite the grim certainty of judgment for those hypocrites who spiral down into murderous defense of their hypocritical judgments, there is hope, if not for them at least for all since that day, in the Savior’s call. Verses 37 to 39: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! 38See, your house is left to you desolate. 39For I tell you, you will not see me again, until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

Do not miss that Jesus’ apparent anger, these very strong words which recognize the rottenness of the hypocritical life, lead him ultimately back to compassion. He knows that men and women trapped in a fallen world are deeply in need of rescue, from their hypocrisy and all their other sins. He says ‘I’ve called and called; I wanted to gather you like a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.’ Hypocrisy ultimately hardens the hypocrite against the call of God, leaving them desolate. And Jerusalem and the nation of Israel were ultimately left desolate, for 2000 years so far. But there will come a day when Jerusalem will say “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” He will come again and receive the welcome foreshadowed on Palm Sunday.

But the thing that struck me at the end of this chapter is the compassion. Most people who saw the hard-heartedness and hypocrisy of the Pharisees and scribes would delight to denounce them and pronounce judgment. But that last paragraph shows us that Jesus spoke these words through tears. He lamented the hard heartedness and hypocrisy even as he recognized that ultimately it would lead to his sacrificial death. Matthew makes that compassionate response the climax of Jesus’ discourse, and thus shows us that even when we fall into hypocrisy or sin, Jesus is still longing to show us compassion, to gather us up as a hen does her chicks, to cover us and protect us and care for us. But – we have to be willing. We have to be willing. In fact all we have to be is willing.

He offers us rescue, from hypocrisy and everything else, not on the basis of life change, or because we have seen the error of our ways and we’re now living for him, but because we have seen the error of our ways and know we can’t live without him. As we’re about to sing “Behold the Lamb who bears our sins away, slain for us - and we remember the promise made that all who come in faith find forgiveness at the cross.” We flee hypocrisy in ourselves and warn others of it because hypocrisy can keep our hearts from this gracious call of the Savior, and shut the door of the kingdom in the face of those who need the compassionate king. And we want to receive and we want the world to receive his compassion.