The word has come to mean someone who says one thing and does another–or, even more commonly, one who holds others to a standard that he himself does not live up to.
But that isn’t what hypocrite always meant.
According to the Zondervan Pictorial Bible Dictionary (edited by Merrill C. Tenney), the word hypocrite in the New Testament comes from the Greek hypokrinomai: to act a part in a play.
Being a hypocrite doesn’t mean saying one thing and doing another. It means acting one way and being another.
An awareness of the true meaning of hypocrite draws Jesus’ indictment of the Pharisees in Matthew 23 into sharp relief.
“But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut up the kingdom of heaven against men; for you neither go in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in.”
The scribes and Pharisees made themselves out to be arbiters of the kingdom of heaven, claiming by their rules to determine who goes in and out. Yet for all their playacting, they had no entry into the kingdom themselves.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel land and sea to win one proselyte, and when he is won, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves.”
The scribes and Pharisees went around making converts, proselytizing Gentiles that they might become “sons of Abraham.” Yet they themselves were not sons of Abraham but sons of hell (cf. John 8:39, Romans 4:11-12).
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone.”
The scribes and Pharisees made great show of their attention to the law, but really they had no regard for the law. Their tithes were only playacting, a pretense.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cleanse the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of extortion and self-indulgence.”
The scribes and Pharisees had elaborate rituals for ceremonial cleansing–and worked diligently to never be declared “unclean.” Yet their cleaning was like a young child polishing the outside of a cup full of mud–nothing more than dress-up.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. Even so you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.”
The scribes and Pharisees took great care to be seen as righteous. They got into character every morning. But this was a role they played, not character they possessed. Really, they were playactors who despised God’s righteousness.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! Because you build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the monuments of the righteous and say, “If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets.'”
The scribes and Pharisees made a show of mourning at the graves of the righteous, saying that they would never have rejected those righteous ones as their fathers did. Yet this was only an act, for the Righteous One stood before them and they rejected Him–even sending Him to the cross.
Actors on a stage.
Pretending to be righteous, to be devout, to be sons of God.
It’s only a play-act, a charade, hiding who they really were.
Lawless, revelation-rejecting sons of the devil.
Only when the costume is torn asunder, when the charade ceases, can they be seen for what they are.
Only when the costume is left behind, when the players break from their lines, can they be transformed into what they had earlier only pretended to be.
Leave behind the ACT.
Leave behind the bravado that makes you think you are strong.
Leave behind the baubles that makes you think you are rich.
Leave behind the costume that makes you think you are clothed.
Stand exposed as wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked.
Buy gold and become rich.
Buy white garments and be clothed.
Get eye salve that you may see.
Come to Jesus, and BE.
“Because you say, ‘I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing’—and do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked— I counsel you to buy from Me gold refined in the fire, that you may be rich; and white garments, that you may be clothed, that the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed; and anoint your eyes with eye salve, that you may see. ”