Matthew 23--Religious Hypocrisy: part 3

Last winter, I attended a conference of church planters in California. A statement was made during a presentation that has stuck with me ever since. The speaker was relating a meeting he had with the head of a major theological seminary in the United States. That leader stated that if Jesus were to show up today, doing and saying what he said 2000 years ago; he would encounter the same unbelief, ridicule and rejection as he did then. Not by Pharisees and scribes but by modern day religious leaders. In fact, this head of a seminary said, he would probably be so despised that all efforts would be made to silence him.

If some God hating unbeliever had said these words it would be easy to handle. But for them to come from the mouth of a religious leader is astounding. I have pondered for almost a year the fullness of the meaning of this statement. Why would the religious leaders of our time reject the man and the message of the Son of God if he were personally present on earth? The only answer is the same answer given by the person who made the statement. Jesus would expose the darkness, lies and hypocrisy today just as he did 2000 years ago.

Jesus Christ was, is and always will be the light of the world. Light dispels darkness and light makes manifest what lurks in the dark shadows before the light was turned on. Jesus Christ was the Word (logos) made flesh. The Word of God is, according to Hebrews 4:12 is living, powerful and sharper than any two-edged sword. Jesus could perceive the thoughts of people's hearts and confront them with the truth of the Word of God. That is what made him extraordinary in his ministry and able to do so much for so many in such a short amount of time.

The first recorded dissertation of Jesus' ministry was the "sermon on the mount." In Matthew 6:2, 5 and 16 Jesus lays out important information necessary to our understanding of Matthew 23. Reading from the Holman Bible:

"So whenever you give to the poor, don't sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be applauded by people. I assure you: They've got their reward!
Whenever you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites, because they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by people. I assure you: They've got their reward!
Whenever you fast, don't be sad-faced like the hypocrites. For they make their faces unattractive so their fasting is obvious to people. I assure you: They've got their reward!"

Here at the beginning of Jesus' ministry, he refers to a certain category of people as "hypocrites". A hypocrite in the Greek basically meant one who played a role such as an actor in a play. A hypocrite is not genuine, for what he does is only for show. A good actor makes the audience believe his character is for real. Hypocrites are excellent actors, unfortunately they are on God's stage and the audience consists of God's people.

Hypocrites are more interested in human praise when they give to the poor than in God's reward. Hypocrites want to be praised for their piety when they pray in public. Hypocrites wanted the whole world to know when they fasted so everyone would think them exceedingly "spiritual". In each case, Jesus said "they've got their reward." In other words, they will get what they deserve in due time.

In Matthew 7:1-5, hypocrites are shown to be guilty of being judgmental of others' faults while ignoring their own. In Luke12:56, hypocrites could interpret the weather, but not the signs of the times. In Luke 13:15, hypocrites were more concerned about the rules of the Sabbath than the physical healing of a woman bound by Satan for 18 years. In Luke 20:20, hypocrites pretended to be sincere when asking Jesus about paying taxes to Caesar. In all these cases, hypocrites appear to be one thing, but are in reality another. That is because they are actors playing a role and are not sincere or genuine.

That which is not genuine is counterfeit. Hypocrites are always counterfeits. No matter how sincere they appear, they are not the real thing. It takes an expert many times to differentiate between the genuine and the counterfeit in money, jewelry and art. It took Jesus Christ, the expert in everything, to clearly demonstrate who the spiritual hypocrites were. In Matthew 15:1-9 he called the Pharisees hypocrites because of the discrepancies between their external actions and their internal attitudes. Jesus also clearly showed this in the first 12 verses of Matthew 23.

I once read that the reason Dustin Hoffman was so exceptional in his portrayal of "Babbit" in the film "Rain Man", was he so studied autism, that he basically became autistic for the movie role. It was an incredible performance worthy of the Academy Award he won. Actors themselves have said that many times they have a horrible time separating the character they portray from their real self. A true hypocrite would win every award for "best actor" for that is all hypocrisy really is-acting out a part.

This is how hypocrisy works; those guilty of it are so wrapped up in their character, they honestly believe it is real. This was the state of the religious leaders of Jesus' time. They were as sincere as anyone could be, but they were total hypocrites because it was not real. Always remember that sincerity is no guarantee for truth in any matter or in any person.

God hates hypocrisy for it is nothing but deception, and God never deceives. Deception is only available through the ability of the counterfeit to appear exactly as the genuine. The devil is the author of hypocrisy for he is the great deceiver. He deceived Eve by appearing to be something he wasn't. Everyone who has ever been "beguiled" by Satan has fallen for his age old trick of appearing to be something he is not.

The reason Jesus had to close his earthly teaching ministry by confronting the scribes and Pharisees, was to expose their hypocrisy so the people would no longer by deceived by them. If Jesus had not exposed the hypocrisy and deception of the scribes and Pharisees before they captured, tried, and condemned him; then the people would have always believed the religious leaders did the right thing by silencing him forever.

Jesus had to make sure the people, and especially his disciples, knew beyond any shadow of a doubt, that those who were their leaders were inspired by and working for the enemy. This was plainly evident by their hypocrisy and conscious acts of deception. Seven times in Matthew 23 Jesus used the phrase; "Woe unto you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites" and one other time he said "woe unto you blind guides." After he was done exposing the hypocrisy of Jerusalem's leaders, he bewailed the city and in so doing, the very faith it represented.

"You hypocritical religious leaders, woe to you because ..." is really the essence of what Jesus said 7 different times. The specifics of the "woes" are important and will be dealt with later; but the fact that the root cause of each woe was hypocrisy is that which is vital to our understanding the significance of this chapter. God hates hypocrisy, especially when practiced by those responsible for His people. A hypocritical "leader" is nothing more than a fraud; and a fraud is a counterfeit through and through.

Does God demand perfection from those responsible for His people? Of course not, and the Bible is full of documentation on this point. Does God demand honesty from those entrusted with the oversight of His heritage? He not only demands it, but in a record such as Matthew 23, He proclaims loud and clear that those who are not honest, are in reality nothing but hypocritical frauds.

The ultimate declaration of how much God detests hypocritical religious frauds is found in Matthew 23:33 at the conclusion of the "woes" discussion.

"Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?"

These words are probably the strongest Jesus ever spoke on earth. Serpents, or better translated "snakes", are used in the Bible as a symbol for evil and for the devil himself. Jesus accused the scribes and Pharisees of being as evil as Satan himself. Vipers are poisonous snakes. Their bite is venomous and deadly. Jesus accused the scribes and Pharisees of being as deadly as a spawn of vipers. There are really no stronger words that could be used to describe the evil character of these hypocrites and the poison found in their "bite" than snakes and vipers.

Being so inherently evil, corrupt and devilish, it's no wonder the final question Jesus asks rhetorically is; how can they possibly escape the judgment and not end up in hell? It is truly troubling to think that the religious leaders of Jesus time were compared to snakes and vipers and doomed to hell. It is even more troubling to think that the head of a modern seminary said in so many words, that the religious leaders today are probably no different than in Jesus' time. There is some "food for thought" to munch on over the weekend.

Andrea Lynn @allforhim ·

The hammer hits the nail squarely on the head with this blog. Amazing insight and definitely something to chew on. We must examine our own hearts for any hyprocrisy we might have. Thanks for a very insightful lesson. Blessings! Andrea

Matthew Nickl @tornconflicts ·

I've read my bible... and went to church quite a lot. I vaguely remember hearing a sermon about how when he comes... we'll all fall to our knees.


Richard Mcclatchey @penguin ·

I, too, have had that question imposed on me. However, let's examine this for a minute. If somebody claimed they were Jesus, I would be highly skeptical, knowing what our Lord told His disciples in Matthew 24:5 "For many will come in my name, claiming, 'I am the Christ,'" and will deceive many. Then later on in the same chapter, Christ speaks about those who claim to see Him, Christ Himself warns us not to believe it. So, let's sum it up: Christ will not return to earth until his second coming. Then He will come down as King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

Kirk M @blessings2you ·

I absolutely agree that Jesus will not return until His second coming. Any references to him coming before then are strictly hypothetical and to stimulate thinking only. If the religious leaders were to have honestly looked at their Old Testament scrolls, they could have seen Jesus came when God said he would the first time. Unfortunately, we have no such absolute date this time around.

Do not include honorifics.

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