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Sermon on the Mount
53. Guard Against Hypocrisy (Luke 11:45-12:3)
James J. Tissot, 'Curses Against the Pharisees' (1886-94), gouache on gray wove paper, 6.4 x 9.4 in., Brooklyn Museum, New York.
"45 One of the experts in the law answered him, 'Teacher, when you say these things, you insult us also.' 46 Jesus replied, 'And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them.
47 Woe to you, because you build tombs for the prophets, and it was your forefathers who killed them. 48 So you testify that you approve of what your forefathers did; they killed the prophets, and you build their tombs. 49 Because of this, God in his wisdom said, "I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and others they will persecute." 50 Therefore this generation will be held responsible for the blood of all the prophets that has been shed since the beginning of the world, 51 from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who was killed between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, this generation will be held responsible for it all.
52 Woe to you experts in the law, because you have taken away the key to knowledge. You yourselves have not entered, and you have hindered those who were entering.' 53 When Jesus left there, the Pharisees and the teachers of the law began to oppose him fiercely and to besiege him with questions, 54 waiting to catch him in something he might say.
1 Meanwhile, when a crowd of many thousands had gathered, so that they were trampling on one another, Jesus began to speak first to his disciples, saying: "Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. 2 There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. 3 What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs.'" (Luke 11:45-12:3, NIV)
More than all other causes combined, people fail to live as witnesses of Jesus Christ because of their fear of being called "hypocrites." And they'll be right. They are hypocrites. Even the people who say that they don't pretend to be good Christians because they don't want to be hypocrites -- are hypocrites in spite of themselves.
Hypocrisy is a serious obstacle to consistent Christian living, to the integration of our outer actions with our inner motives, to integrity as a person. We disciples must understand and get a handle on hypocrisy or we are doomed to live it.
The Gospels give a multitude of examples of hypocrisy that we can learn from. In the previous lesson, we studied an amazing dinner conversation. A Pharisee has invited Jesus home to dinner, and along with Jesus and his disciples, he has invited a few of his friends, other Pharisees and scribes. They have come to set Jesus straight. But at their very first judgmental question, Jesus begins to speak very directly about their weaknesses and blind spots. He castigates the Pharisees for a concern with outward appearance and a neglect of inner holiness. He blasts them for blatant hypocrisy.
With them at dinner were some "lawyers" (KJV, RSV), or "experts in the law" (NIV). The Greek word Luke uses to describe them is nomikos, "learned in the law," hence substantive, "legal expert, jurist, lawyer."481 They are the same group that are elsewhere called "scribes," Greek grammateus, among Jews of the New Testament era, a term for "experts in the law, scholars versed in the law, scribes."482 While the Pharisees as a whole were part of a lay movement, some of the Pharisees were professional teachers and Torah scholars. They "applied the general instructions of the Torah to daily living, and even extended the Law to theoretical situations to build a safety fence against inadvertent breaches." They would teach the law in synagogue schools and other centers of instruction. When legal cases were brought, they were asked to serve as judges, and often were found as part of the local Sanhedrin or civic ruling body. They also guarded the traditions of Judaism and sometimes copied the Scripture.483
In general, the scribes arrayed themselves against Jesus as opponents. But on a few occasions, Jesus seems to approve aspects of their teachings (Mark 9:11-13; 12:34). However, at the dinner table this day, the scribes present are feeling threatened by Jesus' criticism of the Pharisees. Jesus is hitting too close to home for comfort.
"One of the experts in the law answered him, 'Teacher, when you say these things, you insult us also.'" (11:45)
One of the scribes spoke up that he was feeling insulted. The Greek word is hubrizō, "treat in an arrogant or spiteful manner, mistreat, scoff at, insult."484
"Jesus replied, 'And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them.'" (11:46)
Jesus is speaking of the scribes' role in formulating Jewish Law. Since the Torah didn't cover every single situation that could come up in everyday life, the scribes would extend their understanding of the Law to other situations. Often their laws were a very great burden. Because of the scribes' theological construct, not the actual Mosaic Law, many people just gave up trying to observe the Law. Notice that Jesus faults the scribes for not assisting people fulfill the law. They are shepherds who create barriers, but don't help people get over them. It is a kind of detached, arbitrary, "ivory tower" role. And Jesus faults them for it.
"Woe to you, because you build tombs for the prophets, and it was your forefathers who killed them. So you testify that you approve of what your forefathers did; they killed the prophets, and you build their tombs. Because of this, God in his wisdom said, 'I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and others they will persecute.' Therefore this generation will be held responsible for the blood of all the prophets that has been shed since the beginning of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who was killed between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, this generation will be held responsible for it all." (11:47-51)
He also faults the scribes for their pride in building tombs for the martyred prophets, but asserts scathingly that by their hardness of heart they would have been the very ones who would have killed the prophets. Indeed, the scribes were partly responsible for the mock trial that resulted in Jesus' own death.
"Woe to you experts in the law, because you have taken away the key to knowledge. You yourselves have not entered, and you have hindered those who were entering." (11:52)
Perhaps Jesus' most biting criticism is that the scribes have taken away (Greek airō) the "key of knowledge." He means that they themselves possess a tremendous amount of knowledge about the Scripture, and have set themselves up as experts. But now, as experts, they do not sincerely seek out God themselves, and because of their "expert" role, discourage others from seeking out God either.
When I attended a nominally Christian college in the mid-1960s, all students were required to take a course entitled, "Introduction to Biblical Literature." I had many friends who as freshmen professed a Christian faith, but after they took "Bible Lit," they became agnostics or atheists. Why? The Religion Department was filled with liberal professors, many of them unbelievers, who seemed to take a special delight in disabusing students of their sincere but untested faith. These professors were the experts, but they did not seek God for themselves, and mocked those who had a simple faith in the Bible. They took away the key of knowledge, and, by their expert status, made it very difficult for students to take it back.
Up until now, Jesus' confrontations with the Pharisees have been a glancing blow. Jesus would heal someone and they would object that it was on the Sabbath. But as Jesus' popularity grew, the scribes and Pharisees saw Jesus as more and more of a threat. He challenged their sway over the minds of the people and the direction of religious belief in Palestine. By their open slander that Jesus cast out demons by Beelzebub, they have declared war on Jesus, and are now actively seeking to discredit him. At Jesus' dinner with the Pharisees and scribes on this occasion, Jesus now faces them head on with their sins and the responsibility they bear for preventing people from hearing the truth.
"When Jesus left there, the Pharisees and the teachers of the law began to oppose him fiercely and to besiege him with questions, waiting to catch him in something he might say." (11:53-54)
Now the warfare is out in the open. Instead of critics at the sidelines, the Pharisees and scribes deliberately seek opportunities to discredit him before the people.
"Meanwhile, when a crowd of many thousands had gathered, so that they were trampling on one another, Jesus began to speak first to his disciples, saying: "Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy." (12:1)
I've tried to faithfully explain Luke 11:37-54 concerning Jesus' comments to the scribes. But, for the most part, I don't think that their condemnation speaks very loudly to modern readers. The opposite is true, however, of Luke 12:1-3. Jesus' summary to his disciples is very much a word we present-day disciples need to hear with all its power:
"Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy."
First, let's examine the three key words in the sentence. Greek prosechomai is a relatively common word meaning "go to, approach," but here it has a special meaning of "turn to or occupy oneself with something,"485 or "care for, pay attention to" or "beware of."486 Jesus is telling his own disciples to pay attention to the Pharisees' characteristic sin.
The second important Greek word is zumē, "yeast, leaven."487 Leaven was commonly used in baking the round, relatively flat barley or wheat loaves that were the common fare of the Israelites. Generally, a piece of leavened dough from the previous day's baking was set aside and, after softening with water, was mixed with the dough for the next day's baking, passing the live yeast from one batch to the next.488 Each year, just before Passover was the Feast of Unleavened Bread, celebrating the Israelites' escape from Egypt so quickly that their bread did not have time to rise (Exodus 12:34,39). During that feast, the Israelites in Jesus' day would bake their bread without any leavening agent at all in commemoration of this event.
Leaven is used in New Testament teaching in both positive and negative ways:
- The kingdom of heaven is compared to leaven. (Matthew 13:33; Luke 13:21)
- The teaching of the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Herod is compared to leaven. (Matthew 16:6, 11-12; Mark 8:15)
- Boasting over tolerance of sin in their midst is compared to yeast that can affect the whole congregation, with clear references to Passover (1 Corinthians 5:6-8)
- Belief in salvation by works is compared to yeast that will affect the entire batch of dough. (Galatians 5:9)
Because the idea of yeast is used both positive and negatively, I believe that the point of yeast in Jesus' words is its ability to influence other dough by contact with it and to become pervasive throughout the whole lump of dough.489 When Jesus says watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees, he is saying, be careful that the mindset of the Pharisees doesn't influence you, too.
The third important word in this sentence is Greek hypokrisis. The word was used in classical Greek in the sense of "act a part in a drama." Greek-speaking Jews frequently use the word group in the sense of "pretending" or "playing a part with intent to deceive."490 In the New Testament, the word is used in the sense of "hypocrisy, pretense, outward show."491
Throughout the Gospels, Jesus tags the Pharisees' behavior as hypocritical. Here are some examples:
- The Pharisees feign innocence in asking Jesus whether they should pay taxes to the Romans, trying to get him to side either with the Romans or with the Jews, and turn one or the other against him. Jesus is aware of the hypocrisy of their dissimulation. (Mark 12:13-17)
- Jesus skewers a censorious, judgmental, critical attitude as hypocrisy, and commands that the critic take the timber out of his own eye in order to be able to see the speck of a fault in another's eye. (Luke 6:41-42)
- Jesus criticizes as hypocrites those who do acts of righteousness, such as giving to the needy or praying with the motive of being seen by others as pious. (Matthew 6:1-8)
- Jesus lambastes the synagogue ruler who complains that a woman with scoliosis is healed on the Sabbath. Jesus replies that the man unties his donkey to water it on the Sabbath; how much more should a woman be loosed from her infirmity on the Sabbath day. (Luke 13:10-17)
- Jesus quotes Isaiah 29:13 as describing hypocrites: "These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me." (Mark 7:6)
- Many of the "woes" against the scribes and Pharisees we have just studied in Luke 11:39-52 are prefaced in Matthew 23 with the phrase "you hypocrites."
- Paul accuses Peter and Barnabas of hypocrisy by avoiding meals with Gentile Christians only when the Jewish Christians from Jerusalem are present. (Galatians 2:11-13)
Unfortunately hypocrisy is not the exclusive sin of the Pharisees. And it is not coincidence that at the very time the crowds are increasing greatly in size, Jesus warns his disciples "Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy." The greater the crowd size, the greater the greater temptation the disciples have to put on airs as the pious inner circle of Jesus' disciples (12:1).
I fear that hypocrisy is also the sin of many Christians who wish to appear pious. I have been guilty of hypocrisy. These are some of the characteristic actions of hypocrites:
- To tell others what they should be doing, and criticize them for their failures, at the same time as we fail to practice what we preach. (See Matthew 23:3; Luke 6:41-42.) I have done that. Preachers and parents are especially liable to this form of hypocrisy.
- Acting the part of the pious Christian in public in order to impress people who expect such a show, while loathing the "act" we are required to perform. I have done that.
- Doing good things for selfish motives. I have done that.
I believe that many church cultures breed hypocrisy. Where we require people to say the "proper" thing rather than accept them for who they are, warts and all, this encourages hypocrisy. There is a fine line between tolerating sin in the Body of Christ and encouraging contrite honesty among us. We must accept the fact that each of us sins from time to time, and we must love each other in spite of it. But we must never allow ourselves cockiness or boasting or a sense of inevitability about our sins, for that destroys a sense of holiness and the fear of God among us. (See 1 Corinthians 5 for a corrective.)
The only antidote I know to hypocrisy is the willingness to contritely confess our sins quickly and openly to those before whom we have sinned. This kind of humble piety is fertile soil for spiritual growth.
Let me give you an example. Let's say that at your work you use an entirely different kind of vocabulary than you do at home or at church. You feel like a hypocrite at work, and this keeps you from even mentioning that you are a Christian or that you go to church. You don't want to bring discredit upon Christ and his church, so you do not identify yourself with either for fear of being branded a hypocrite. But you are a hypocrite. You put on a show for each group. Instead of being a single, integrated person you are two-faced.
This is how I believe you can get this two-facedness straightened out. Say something like this individually to your friends at work.
"I owe you an apology. I am a Christian, but I really haven't been acting like it here at work. My language has been pretty profane and my jokes sometimes pretty obscene. Some of my business practices have been questionable, too. I haven't been a very good example of a Christian at all.
"But I want to try to change that. Though I'm never going to be a perfect Christian, I'm afraid, I really want to be consistent with what I believe. So please forgive me for my hypocrisy and inconsistency and bear with me while I try to get my act together. Thanks for taking the time to understand."492
None of this is easy. When we say something like this our friends may or may not accept it at face value. The word will get around and people will test us to see if we mean what we say. We'll blow it inevitably, and have to confess and apologize again. And that's hard on the ego.
But I see this as the humble life of a sincere follower of Jesus who takes pains not to come across as "holier than thou," even though this will be confused with being "holier than thou" by those who feel conviction as a result.
The antidote to hypocrisy is transparency, integrity between our beliefs and our actions, with confession and apology when we are inconsistent.
Jesus concludes the passage about the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees -- and his warning to disciples -- with these words.
"There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs." (12:2-3)
Jesus warns us that there will be a day when all posturing and pretending, all bluster and huffing and hypocrisy will be shown up for what it is -- at the second coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Day of the Lord, the Day of Judgment that the Scriptures talk so much about.
You and I, my dear friend, are not free from blame, from hypocrisy. Our only hope on that Day is self-examination and confession of sin now, before the Lord and before those we have sinned against.
(I don't encourage, however, unfaithful husbands or wives to quickly confess their unfaithfulness to their unsuspecting spouse without lots of counsel with your pastor. This kind of confession might make the "sinner" feel better, but it can dump a huge load upon the "innocent" party and may well threaten the marriage. Nevertheless, Alcoholics Anonymous' Step 5 is important to a restoration of your integrity: "We admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.")
We can expect God's help to change, even though we do sometimes sin. I have taken great personal encouragement in my struggle with sin from 1 John 1:9:
"If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness."
Why this promise is true is explained by the next couple of verses:
"My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense -- Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world." (1 John 2:1-2)
When our brothers and sisters sin, we must not be quick to judge, but rather quick to pray.
"Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ." (Galatians 6:1-2)
Jesus' final words to us disciples in our passage are quite similar to Paul's exhortation to "watch yourself." Jesus counsels us: "Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy" (12:1).
Father, I can very easily be just as hypocritical as the Pharisees who became your enemies and opponents. There, but for the grace of God, go I. Forgive me for my own sins of hypocrisy. Please strip me of my vanity and grant me the humility I need to walk before you and my brothers and sisters with integrity of life and spirit. In Jesus' name, I pray. Amen.
"Jesus began to speak first to his disciples, saying: 'Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy.'" (Luke 12:1)
Click on the link below to discuss on the forum one or more of the questions
that follow -- your choice.
- The scribes and Pharisees were caught in a rigid system of legalism to justify themselves before God. In what ways do our Christian religious cultures foster the same kind of self-justification and hypocrisy?
- What kinds of hypocrisy have you personally had to struggle with the most?
- What is necessary for a Christian to do to escape the inaccurate "public" image of himself that he may have so carefully constructed for others (and perhaps himself) to see and believe? What is the antidote to hypocrisy?
- How can we both live humbly in our churches and still foster high standards of behavior for ourselves and one another?
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 Nomikos, BAGD 541.
 Grammateus, BAGD 165-166.
 Graham H. Twelftree, "Scribes," DJG 732-735.
 Hubrizō, BAGD 831-832.
 Prosechomai, BAGD 713.
 Marshall, Luke, p. 511.
 Zumē, BAGD 340.
 Adrianus Van Selms, "Bread," ISBE 1:540-544.
 See R.K. Harrison, "Leaven," ISBE 3:97-98. Marshall, Luke, p. 511 sees leaven here "used metaphorically of the pervasive influence of the thing signified." Hans Windisch, zumē, ktl., TDNT 2:902-906, especially p. 906, observes, "The concept of zumē may be neutral. For the idea is that every man has a leaven. That is to say, every man or teacher exerts an influence, whether for good or for bad. The emphasis, then, is not on the [leaven] but on the genitive: [the Pharisees]."
 Robert H. Smith, "Hypocrite," DJG 351-353.
 Hypokrisis, BAGD 845.
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- 1 & 2 Thessalonians
- 1 & 2 Timothy
- 1 Corinthians
- 2 Corinthians
- Apostle Paul
- Abraham, Faith of
- Christ Powered Life (Romans 5-8)
- Christmas Incarnation
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- Conquering Lamb of Revelation
- David, Life of
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- Great Prayers of the Bible
- Holy Spirit, Disciple's Guide
- Jacob, Life of
- Jesus and the Kingdom of God
- JesusWalk: Beginning the Journey
- John's Gospel
- Lamb of God
- Listening for God's Voice
- Lord's Supper
- Luke's Gospel
- Moses the Reluctant Leader
- Names and Titles of God
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- Rebuild & Renew: Post-Exilic Books
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- Sermon on the Mount
- Seven Last Words of Christ