"Woe, to you, hypocrites!" This cry resounds seven times in Jesus' address to the scribes and Pharisees. "So you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but within you are full of hypocrisy and iniquity!" (Matt. 23: 28). The same is true of us Christians today. It often happens that others think we are believers, but really our hearts are full of sins such as bitterness, judging, pride, lying, strife, etc.
Jesus calls this hypocrisy. Hypocrisy is pretending to be pious when we are really not. It is an especially ugly type of deceitfulness, since piety is supposed to be a life with and for God, who is Light and Truth. That is why Jesus says the hypocrites will come under serious judgement. He tells us in advance what the terrible fate of the pious hypocrites will be: "You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?" (Matt. 23: 33). Jesus' warning shows us that Satan, the liar from the very beginning, wants to make every effort to catch people who have escaped from him by believing in Jesus. Now he wants to catch them in the fishnet of hypocrisy without their realizing it. Satan usually succeeds very easily, because we who know Jesus Christ as our Redeemer are in danger of becoming too certain that we live for Jesus, in the realm of divine truth through the word of God. But in reality our Christian life is often just a facade. Behind it there is a different reality.
For instance, we can say that Jesus has reconciled us and we can preach reconciliation to others, and yet be unreconciled with someone, concealing bitter, critical thoughts in our hearts. We do not hear Jesus pronouncing judgement over us, "You hypocrite!" (Luke 6:42), because He knows that we are not living what we preach.
Furthermore, the "woes" that Jesus spoke to the Pharisees will also apply to us if we hypocritically maintain that we are disciples of Jesus and yet refuse to take up our cross. We complain about every burden, need and type of suffering. We even grumble when the smallest things turn out to be unpleasant. Or we rebel when we think we are not treated well enough by people, when we are sick or other difficult things hit us. Yet Jesus has said, "Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple" (Luke 14: 27).
We may have a special talent for preaching and seem to be accomplishing a great deal in the souls of men, or we may put much time and energy into service and prayer for the kingdom of God. Still Jesus has to threaten us with judgement. Why? Because our ministry for Jesus was just a show. When we worked for the Kingdom of God, we were not really interested in Jesus and His honour, as people thought we were. We did not perform our ministry out of love for Him, but rather to satisfy our own ego, or to gain the admiration of others and to make a reputation for ourselves. That is, we had ulterior motives.
Yes, we can do great deeds for Jesus, perform miracles, heal the sick and still become Satan's prey, if we do not do the will of God at the same time, as Jesus clearly taught us in His interpretation of the Ten Commandments in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 7: 22 f.). The enemy is triumphant, if he can find criticism, slander, sensual desires, perhaps some type of licentiousness, lack of love for parents, and similar things in our lives. The greatest trick of the enemy is to keep us Christians from realizing that we are leading a two-track life.
To live hypocritically means to think that we are committed Christians, to pray much, read the Bible, be active in a Christian fellowship, perhaps even do missionary work, yet not practise what we read in the Bible, pray about and tell others to do. As hypocrites we do not realize that we have fallen into the sleep of the self-certain, who are sure that they have been saved and will go to heaven one day, while Satan laughs scornfully. To a great extent we do not practise what we preach. This is a shocking fact; it ought to shake us up. When we live such a hypocritical life, we become guilty towards our fellow men. We not only destroy the credibility of the Gospel for others, but we even cause them to reject Jesus. And we ourselves will be struck by Jesus' shocking verdict, "The hypocrites will be cast into outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth" (Matt. 24: 51). As hypocrites we will become children of hell (Matt. 23: 15).
Our hypocrisy provokes the wrath of God, because He is only pleased when we lead our everyday life according to His Word. There is scarcely any other sin that Jesus threatens to judge so severely as the sin of hypocrisy. Therefore, we have to put all our efforts into being freed from the chains of this sin.
How does this happen? First, by recognizing the root of hypocrisy. Jesus called the pious, hypocritical Pharisees "blind" (Matt. 23: 16). What were they blind about? Their weaknesses and their sins. They thought they were perfect. So whenever we think we are good Christians, we ought to be filled with holy uncertainty and ask ourselves whether we are leading a hypocritical life. If we do not want to fall into this sin, we have to ask Jesus ever anew, "Place me in the light of Your truth-reveal in Your light everything in my life that is not pure!"
To be saved from this sin and to be kept from falling into it entails asking for the light of truth over and over again. Our eyes have to be opened so that we can see our blindness, our self-certainty and sleepiness. For only if we can see our sins and be frightened by them, can we bring them to Jesus and be freed. A sick person can only be helped if he recognizes and admits that he is sick. Otherwise he would not go to the doctor and the disease would get worse and worse, and, if it is dangerous, it could lead to death. Disciples of Jesus should follow this advice: Do not be sure that you are all right. Unknown to us there may be a very serious sin in God's sight that is covered up by a pious life. Only if we have a holy uncertainty and alertness, can we deal with the danger of hypocrisy.
We will probably all experience the same thing. Whenever we bring our thoughts, words and actions into the light of truth and measure our lives quite concretely according to the standards of Holy Scripture, we will be amazed and frightened at the difference between pretence and reality in our lives. We know what is in the Scriptures, yet we do not practise it in our lives. We confuse knowledge and action. If we use the Holy Scriptures as our standards,* we will begin to hate hypocrisy, and our repentance will drive us to a battle of faith to lead a genuine life of discipleship.
Being alert in our effort to live up to the standards of the Word of God, requires time for meditation. It is advisable to take one Sunday every month, or any other definite day (besides the usual daily quiet time) to settle accounts. Then we will have several hours of quiet when we can do our spiritual bookkeeping, using the commandments of God as a mirror of conscience, and asking God to test the genuineness of our discipleship. His light will fall into our imaginary world and we will recognize the truth about ourselves and will once again recognize sin for what it is.
It will also help us if we ask those around us to tell us what we do and say that is wrong. Only those who are willing to hear the truth about themselves will be freed from the sin of hypocrisy. Those who admit their hypocrisy will be compelled to go to the Physician, who alone can heal this disease: Jesus, who is the Truth. His redemption is the guarantee-if we claim it in faith-that we can be freed from all untruthfulness in our pious lives.
* It may be of help to read the pamphlet Mirror of Conscience by M. Basilea Schlink.
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