In essence, “hypocrisy” refers to the act of claiming to believe something but acting in a different manner. The word is derived from the Greek term for “actor” - literally, “one who wears a mask” - in other words, someone who pretends to be what he is not.
Two forms of sin
The Bible calls hypocrisy a sin. There are two forms hypocrisy can take:
- that of professing belief in something and then acting in a manner contrary to that belief and
- that of looking down on others when one himself is flawed.
The prophet Isaiah condemned the hypocrisy of his day:
“The Lord says, ‘These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is made up only of rules taught by men’” (Isaiah 26:13).
Centuries later, Jesus quoted this verse, aiming the same condemnation at the religious leaders of his day (Matthew 15:8-9). John the Baptist refused to give hypocrites a pass, telling them to produce “fruits worthy of repentance” (Luke 3:8). Jesus took an equally staunch stand against sanctimony. He called hypocrites “wolves in sheep’s clothing” (Matthew 7:15), “whitewashed tombs” (Matthew 23:27), “snakes,” and “brood of vipers” (Matthew 27:33).
One cannot say one loves God if one does not love one's brothers (1 John 2:9). Love must be “without hypocrisy” (Romans 12:9, NKJV). A hypocrite may look righteous on the outside, but it is a façade. True righteousness comes from the inner transformation of the Holy Spirit, not an external conformity to a set of rules (Matthew 23:5; 2 Corinthians 3:8).
There are a few different ways of being a hypocrite and each is shown in the Bible. The first type of hypocrisy can be found in Matthew chapter 6.
In verse 2, Jesus says, "So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full." Jesus goes on to say, "And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their rewards in full."
Jesus addressed the other form of hypocrisy in the Sermon on the Mount: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye” (Matthew 7:3-5). Jesus was not teaching against discernment or helping others overcome sin; instead, he was telling his followers not be so prideful and convinced of their own goodness that they criticise others from a position of self-righteousness. A Christian should do some introspection first and correct our his shortcomings before he goes after the “specks” in others (cf. Romans 2:1).
During Jesus’ earthly ministry, he had many run-ins with the religious leaders of the day, the Pharisees. These men were well versed in the Scriptures and zealous about following every letter of the Law (Acts 26:5). However, in adhering to the letter of the Law, they actively sought loopholes that allowed them to violate the spirit of the Law. Also, they displayed a lack of compassion toward their fellow man and were often overly demonstrative of their so-called spirituality in order to garner praise (Matthew 23:5–7; Luke 18:11). Jesus denounced their behavior in no uncertain terms, pointing out that “justice, mercy, and faithfulness” are more important than pursuing a perfection based on faulty standards (Matthew 23:23). Jesus made it clear that the problem was not with the Law but the way in which the Pharisees implemented it (Matthew 23:2-3). Today, the word "pharisee" has become synonymous with "hypocrite".
It must be noted that hypocrisy is not regarded as the same as taking a stand against sin. For example, it is not hypocrisy to teach that drunkenness is a sin, unless the one teaching against drunkenness gets drunk every weekend. That would be hypocrisy.
Christians are called to strive for holiness (1 Peter 1:16). They are to “hate what is evil” and “cling to what is good” (Romans 12:9). They should never imply an acceptance of sin, especially in their own lives. All they do should be consistent with what they believe and who they are in Christ. Play-acting is meant for the stage, not for real life.
Verses dealing with hypocrisy
- 1 John 4:20: If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot[a] love God whom he has not seen.
- James 1:26: If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person's religion is worthless.
- Matthew 7:5: You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye.
- Matthew 6:1: “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.