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Sermon Message

"The Leaven of Hypocrisy"

Luke 12:1-3
Theme: This passage warns us of the dangers of spiritual hypocrisy. 

(Delivered Sunday, August 5, 2001 at Bethany Bible Church.  All scripture quotes, unless otherwise noted, are from the New King James Version.)  


Someone once defined Christianity as "a religion that believes that the Bible is inspired by God and is perfectly suited for one's neighbor." We all have a tendency to think about how the Bible applies to someone else - especially the particularly indicting passages. I know that I've been guilty of doing that at times; and I suspect that you have been too. And if there was ever a portion of the Bible that would be tempting to pass off on to our neighbor, it would this morning's passage. We almost always have someone else's face in mind whenever we hear it.

But if there was ever a time to resist that temptation, this would certainly be it. I urge you - as I also exhort myself - not to dismiss what God has to say, as if it applied to someone other than yourself. Please let the Holy Spirit do His work in you through Jesus' words in Luke 12:1-3. It's there that we read;

In the meantime, when an innumerable multitude of people had gathered together, so that they trampled one another, He began to say to His disciples first of all, "Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. For there is nothing covered that will not be revealed, nor hidden that will not be known. Therefore, whatever you have spoken in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have spoken in the ear in inner rooms will be proclaimed on the housetops" (Luke 12:1-30).

* * * * * * * * * *

Nobody likes a hypocrite. And what's more, nobody likes to think that he or she really is one. And so, simple arithmetic will tell you that a lot of us are kidding ourselves. This reminds me of the man who invited a friend to his church; only to hear his friend brushed the whole idea off. "Aw; church is full of hypocrites." "Which is exactly why you should go," came the reply; "... You'll feel right at home."

But what exactly is a hypocrite? Some people believe that, if you say you love Jesus Christ and profess to follow Him, but then stumble and fall in sin, then you've earned the right to be called a hypocrite. That's why, I suspect, many people say that the church is "full of hypocrites". Actually, it's more accurate to say that the church is full of sinners who are forgiven of their sins, and are being taught to leave those sins behind. Our church is a church full of sinners; some of whom are hypocrites. But it doesn't necessarily follow that, if someone stumbles in sin, that they've been hypocritical about their profession of faith. I believe that one of the distinguishing marks of a true disciple of Jesus Christ is that he or she is ready to admit to being a sinner. There's nothing hypocritical about admitting the truth of how far short we are of what we should be.

Rather, a hypocrite is someone who puts on the pretense of being all that they should be; but who, in reality, is not. A hypocrite is someone who pretends to be, in the eyes of people, something that he or she really isn't in the eyes of God - pretending even to the point of deceiving himself or herself in the process.

Someone who pretends to be a follower of Jesus Christ, knowing full well that they really aren't, is a hypocrite. And someone who pretends to have it all together, and who boasts that they don't need God - when the truth is that their life is a mess and they know it - is being just as much of a hypocrite as a spiritual phony.

The 'hypocrisy' sword cuts two ways.

* * * * * * * * * *

Do you know how the word "hypocrite" came to be? It comes from a Greek word: hupokrites. Many centuries before the New Testament was written, the ancient Greeks used the word hupokrinomai to describe the act of explaining or interpreting something. And so, originally, a hupokrites was the noun form of the word used to describe a great orator or great speaker; someone who, in the ancient world, was masterful at reciting great poetry, or expounding on great ideas. One ancient writer, for example, paid the great orator Demosthenes a complement; saying, "He is an exceptional and many-talented hypocrite." (How would you like to have a complement like that paid to you? Well however you might have felt about it, Demosthenes would have been flattered!)

Later, the name hupokrites came to be given to anyone who was a professional actor in a theatrical play. Usually, these plays involved the recitation of poetry; and so, it was natural that they would be called "hypocrites". By the time the New Testament was written, however, the word came to be extended beyond someone who was 'acting in a play' in a professional sense to someone who was 'play-acting' in an ethical sense - someone who was pretending to be something he or she was not. Such a person, who pretends to be something on the outside that he or she isn't on the inside - hiding, as it were, behind a theater mask of phoniness - is a hypocrite in the sense we've become accustomed to today.

A sinner who is sorrowful is truly honest before God; and such a sinner will always find God to be gracious toward them. But the fundamental characteristic of a hypocrite is dishonesty. A hypocrite doesn't care about how he or she looks before God. All such a person cares about is how he or she looks before people. As I read the Bible, I find - thankfully - that Jesus is always very compassionate and understanding toward sinners who are truly sorrowful over their sins, and who struggle to leave those sins behind. But I've also noticed that He reserved some of His most sharpest rebukes and most harshest words for "hypocrites".

In fact, Jesus saved up some of His best satire for teaching about hypocrisy. He said;

Take heed that you do not do your charitable deeds before men, to be seen by them. Otherwise, you have no reward from your Father in heaven. Therefore, when you do a charitable deed, do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory from men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But when you do a charitable deed, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, that your charitable deed may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will Himself reward you openly.

And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.

... Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly (Matthew 6:1-6; 16-18).

And why do you look at the speck in your brother's eye, but do not consider the plank that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, 'Let me remove the speck from your eye'; and look, a plank is in your own eye? Hypocrite! First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye (Matthew 7:3-5).

Jesus sometimes spoke humorously about how silly religious hypocrites can be. But it was also something that He spoke of in very serious terms. The religious leaders of Jesus' day accused Him of disregarding their ceremonial traditions; but He accused them of using their traditions as an excuse for disobeying the commands of God. He told them, "Hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy about you, saying: 'These people draw near to me with their mouth, and honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men'" (Matthew 15:7-9). And that's truly the heart attitude behind 'hypocrisy' - drawing near to God in outward appearances; but keeping far from Him in the heart. All their "worship" is in vain.

* * * * * * * * * *

Jesus loves and forgives sinners; but He passionately hates hypocrisy. He hates it because its a lie; and because it keeps people from admitting the truth about their sin and from being saved by Him. He used strong words to warn us about it; and we need to pay attention to what He says. First, notice ...


The context of these words is an encounter Jesus had just had with the Pharisees and the Scribes. The Pharisees were members of a political and religious party within the Jewish culture of Jesus' day. They were not priests; but they had set aside a significant portion of their time to study the law of Moses, and to see to it that it's implications were applied to the details of everyday cultural life. They worked in close relationship with the Scribes (or Lawyers); who were professional scholars of the law of Moses. They sought to study it, and interpret it to the Jewish people.

The crowds were beginning to gather around Jesus in remarkable numbers. And even though some tension existed between Jesus and the Pharisees, a particular Pharisee invited Him - along with some other Pharisees and some Scribes - to dinner. Perhaps it was because they wanted to get to know this very popular Teacher, and to learn what it was He was teaching first hand.

But things didn't get very far. Something happened when Jesus sat down to eat that resulted in Jesus launching into some of His harshest words of rebuke in all the gospels. The Bible says that, when the Pharisee watched Jesus sit to eat, "he marveled that He had not first washed before dinner" (Luke 11:38).

This wasn't a matter of hygiene, by the way. The Judaistic writings had added traditions to God's law about ceremonial washings and cleansings before eating - traditions that were the inventions of man, and that had nothing whatsoever with true holiness. The only purpose of these ceremonial washings was so that the one performing them might appear holy to others - washing one's self, as it were, from the defilement of the world. They accomplished nothing with respect to the condition of the heart before God.

No one seems to have said anything to Jesus; but perhaps their looks betrayed their shock that He hadn't 'washed' before eating. And for Jesus, this particular display of their hypocrisy was the last straw! (I don't know if He had a napkin; but in my imagination, I see Him wading it up and throwing it onto the table in anger.) Jesus really let them have it; and what He said teaches us much about the hypocrisy that He hated so much.

Then the Lord said to him, "Now you Pharisees make the outside of the cup and dish clean, but your inward part is full of greed and wickedness. Foolish ones! Did not He who made the outside make the inside also? But rather give alms of such things as you have; then indeed all things are clean to you. But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and all manner of herbs, and pass by justice and the love of God. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone. Woe to you Pharisees! For you love the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like graves which are not seen, and the men who walk over them are not aware of them" (vv. 39-44).

Jesus' words describe four characteristics of the sort of hypocrisy He saw in the Pharisees. First, it's only concerned with the outward appearance, and not with the heart. It focuses on cleaning the outside of the cup; ignoring the fact that the inside - which is the most important part of the cup - is filled with all sorts of sin.

Second, it's concerned with minor details, and not with weightier issues. It focuses on ridiculous minutia - counting out seeds and herbs to make sure that a tenth is given to God - yet not concerned with giving a heart to God that seeks justice and love.

Third, it's concerned with being applauded by people, and not with being pleasing to God. It makes a goal out of sitting in the seats of honor, or being greeted on the streets as a 'holy man' - but not of seeking the honor from God that will never fade away.

Finally, it's concerned with being outwardly admirable, not not caring that others might be defiled in the process. In Jesus' day, the Jews would sometimes clearly mark graves so that no one would inadvertently walk over them and thus be defiled by contact with the dead. But He said that the Pharisees were like human 'unmarked graves'. People could interact with them as religious leaders; and yet never realize how truly defiling that interaction was, because everything looked so good on the outside.

* * * * * * * * * *

I've often wondered what constitutes the stupidest statement recorded in the Bible. In my opinion, the words of the man who spoke next in the story is a sure contender. The Bible says, "Then one of the lawyers answered and said to Him, 'Teacher, by saying these things You reproach us also'" (v. 45). This guy must have wanted to have his own foot for dinner! His arrogant, self-righteous outburst simply led Jesus to turn His attention to the lawyers.

And He said, "Woe to you also, lawyers! For you load men with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not touch the burdens with one of your fingers. Woe to you! For you build the tombs of the prophets, and your fathers killed them. In fact, you bear witness that you approve the deeds of your fathers; for they indeed killed them, and you build their tombs. Therefore the wisdom of God also said, 'I will send them prophets and apostles, and some of them they will kill and persecute,' that the blood of all the prophets which was shed from the foundation of the world may be required of this generation, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah who perished between the alter and the temple. Yes, I say to you, it shall be required of this generation. Woe to you lawyers! For you have taken away the key of knowledge. You did not enter in yourselves, and those who were entering in you hindered" (vv. 46-52).

Here, then, were three more characteristics of the sort of hypocrisy that Jesus hated. First, It's more concerned with rules than with people. In fact, it seeks to load people down with a burdensome, pointless set of rules and regulations - none of which were going to be kept by the ones who gave them. It was all just to help them make a good outward show of phony religiosity and pseudo-spirituality.

Second, it's more concerned with fake reverence and showy displays of sorrow than with true reverence and repentance of the heart. Jesus accused the lawyers of spending a bunch of money and effort in decorating the tombs of the prophets - whom their fathers had killed - instead of sorrowing over the fact that their fathers were murderers and, in true repentance, seeking to follow the godly example of the prophets whose bodies were buried in the tombs.

Finally, it's more concerned with handling the things of God for other people, than with allowing those things to change them. The lawyers pretended to be the trustees of God's word, and to hold the responsibility of ministering it to God's people; but instead, they obscured its true meaning, rebelled against it, and hindered others from obeying it.

I'm sure that, after that, dinner was over! The Bible tells us that the Pharisees and lawyers vehemently argued with Him; and then went off to find ways to trap Him - showing the true character of their hearts. An encounter with Jesus usually reveals what's really going on under the mask of hypocrisy.

But as I study the characteristics of the hypocrisy Jesus describes, I have to wonder how often I've been guilty of much of it. It's pretty easy to say that I'm not hypocritical - if I don't get into details. But when I think about hypocrisy in Jesus' terms, I have to admit to more "Pharisee" in me than I'd like to. How about you?

* * * * * * * * * *

Next, let's consider ...


First of all, I'd like to suggest that it's dangerous because of the ease with which it permeates our lives once we allow it to get a foothold. Jesus called it "the leaven of the Pharisees". "Leaven" (or "yeast" as it's translated in some Bibles) is a fungus that gets kneaded into bread dough to introduce fermentation into it. When the bread bakes, the fermentation causes gas bubbles to pop within the bread dough; and that's what causes bread to rise and have that 'spongy' look. One of the main characteristics of leaven is that it permeates the whole bread dough, and spreads its fermenting influence throughout the whole lump. The Jews were often required in the Scriptures to eat bread made without leaven; and so they often removed all leaven from their homes during the celebration of certain feasts.

Jesus is using leaven as an illustration of how, once hypocrisy is permitted into our spiritual life, it permeates the whole thing. Someone can't keep a little bit of hypocrisy isolated to one area of their life and leave the rest of life unaffected, anymore than a baker can bake a loaf of bread half-leavened and half-unleavened. If the leaven is there, it'll spread and invade the whole thing. It's like the old saying: "O, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive!"

Someone doesn't simply wake up one morning and say, "Today, I'm going to become a total hypocrite!" It's something that happens because they thought they could live a lie in one area of their life and not have it affect the whole thing. Once we begin to covet the applause of other people for what they see on the outside - hiding our sins from the eyes of others so we don't lose those precious applause - then we will soon find that we've built our whole life around a lie. We will cease to be honest with God so we can maintain honor in the sight of men. Once we've permitted such hypocrisy to invade our lives, it spreads its influence all the way through into every other area. It's like "leaven" - spreading it's fermenting properties throughout the whole lump. And so, Jesus says, "Beware ..." Don't even go there.

A second reason that it's dangerous is because it ignores the fact that God knows the truth. The Bible says, "For the LORD does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart" (1 Sam. 16:7). We may be able to keep things a secret from people; but as the Bible says, "... Does not He who weighs the heart consider it? He who keeps your soul, does He not know it? And will He not render to each man according to his deeds?" (Prov. 24:12).

There used to be a song that was taught to children in Sunday School; but like most of those songs, this one is profound enough for all ages: "Be careful little hands what you do. Be careful little hands what you do. There's a Father up above, and He's looking down in love; so be careful little hands what you do." We should sing the same warning for "big hands" too. One of the dangerous aspects of hypocrisy is that it deliberately ignores this truth. It behaves as if God doesn't see or know what's going on. It wickedly asks, "How does God now? And is there knowledge in the Most High?" (Psalm 73:11).

Jesus issues this sobering promise: "For there is nothing covered that will not be revealed, nor hidden that will not be known" (Luke 12:2). I don't believe this means that all of the sins of all the saints will be, one day, paraded on a humiliating big-screen in heaven for all to see. Those of us who have confessed our sins and have repented of them can be confident that the blood of Jesus has covered it all. But I do believe those who deliberately cover-up the sin in their own lives in a hypocritical spirit - seeking the applause and praise of men in exchange for the forgiveness of God - will be featured stars in a special public screening. Jesus' blood is the only sure covering for our sins; and if we would have them covered then, we should seek the covering of His blood now.

And thirdly, the leaven of hypocrisy is dangerous because it gives us a false sense of security in our sins. It makes us think that, if we can cover our steps, it doesn't matter where we put our feet. In other words, hypocrisy emboldens us into further sin.

Jesus put it this way; "Therefore whatever you have spoken in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have spoken in the ear in inner rooms will be proclaimed on the housetops" (Luke 12:3). And it gives us a picture of someone who thinks that they're safe in living a double life - speaking and doing evil - because they can do what they do in the dark, and speak in hushed whispers in the ears in inner rooms; far from the eyes and ears of the people they don't what to have see or hear. Jesus promises that such secret deeds will all be revealed by God; but they do what they do because they think that it won't be revealed. And that's perhaps the most insidious aspects of hypocrisy: it actually hardens us in our sins, and emboldens us into further areas of sin.

* * * * * * * * * *

This leads us, finally, to ...


I'd like to suggest that, as a general principle, one of the most important things we can do to defeat hypocrisy in our own lives is to draw close to Jesus in a personal and intimate relationship. The closer drawn we are to Jesus, the more honest and real about our spiritual life we'll be. And conversely, the more committed we are to cover up our sins, the further we'll withdraw from Jesus. Jesus said, "And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who does the truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be clearly seen, that they have been done in God" (John 3:19-21).

You cannot genuinely draw close to Jesus and still keep a hold of sin. The closer you draw to the light of Jesus' holiness, the more the truth about our sin is exposed - and the more desirous we are to repent of it. So, we should cultivate a deep, personal relationship with Jesus if we would defeat hypocrisy in our lives.

Second, I'd like to suggest that we ask God to take away our 'fear' of men. Proverbs 29:25 says, "The fear of man brings a snare, but whoever trusts in the LORD shall be safe." We can either "fear" man in that we're afraid of other people; or we can "fear" man in that we have an inordinate desire to be well-thought-of in the sight of people. Either way, the fear of man is a snare. People put on a hypocritical display of phony religion in order to maintain an image in front of other people - not God.

Now this, of course, isn't saying that we shouldn't care how our lives affect other people. Obviously, we're to be paying attention to other people. But we mustn't let a fear of other people become the ruling principle in our lives. And so; we should seek God's help in ridding ourselves of the fear of man, and cultivate instead a sense of reverence toward God. In the passage before us, Jesus goes on to say, "And I say to you, My friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear Him who, after He has killed, has power to cast into hell; yes, I say to you, fear Him!" (John 12:4-5). We should live in the general principle that the writer of Hebrews spoke of; "So we may boldly say: the LORD is my helper; I will not fear. What can man do to me?" (Heb. 13:6). "Confess your trespasses to one another," James writes, "and pray for one another, that you may be healed" (James 5:16).

And finally, I suggest that we can defeat hypocrisy in our lives by cultivating a sense our true value to God in Christ. Jesus went on to say, "Are not five sparrows sold for two copper coins? And not one of them is forgotten before God. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Do not fear therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows" (Luke 12:6-7).

Jesus is speaking here of why we can be confident of God's protection over us when threatened by people who are hostile to our faith. But I believe it also has bearing on the fear of man that causes hypocrisy to take root in our lives. When we cultivate a sense of how much God loves and values us - of what infinitely greater value we are to Him than the sparrows over which He carefully watches - then we're less inclined to try to inflate our value in the sight of men. Paul wrote, "But 'he who glories, let him glory in the LORD.' For not he who commends himself is approved, but whom the Lord commends" (2 Cor. 10:17-18). If we have the love and acceptance of God in Christ - who forgives all our sins and cleanses us from all unrighteousness - then we certainly don't need the approval of man.

* * * * * * * * * *

May God keep us from the sort of hypocrisy that Jesus hates so much. May we love Him so much that we hate the hypocrisy in us too. May we learn to be so real with God that we can be real with each other. May God help us to "Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy."

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