Can Hypocrisy Exalt Christ?
As our elders have been preaching through the Sermon on the Mount, the topic of hypocrisy has come up in Jesus’ teachings about prayer, fasting, and giving (Matt 6:1-18). Hypocrisy, as we have heard, basically means play-acting – pretending to be something we are not. Jesus called out the religious “play-actors” of the day for pretending to be spiritual in order to receive praise from men rather than serving God from a pure heart.
Hypocrisy is one of the reasons people sometimes use to avoid engaging in conversation about Jesus or the gospel. “Christians are a bunch of hypocrites,” so they say; and sometimes Christians have a snappy comeback like, “You’ll fit right in!” Perhaps a better question would be, “Why does that even matter?” Or, as the younger generation likes to say, “Why is that even a thing?” Let me ask a different question. How come no one ever says anything about Buddhist hypocrisy or Muslim hypocrisy or any other kind of religious hypocrisy? Why is Christian hypocrisy the only kind worth mentioning?
Well, what does it take to be a Muslim? Recite the Islamic creed, pray five times a day, give alms to the poor, fast during Ramadan, and make one pilgrimage to Mecca. Anyone can do that. What does it take to be a Buddhist? Believe the four noble truths and follow the noble eightfold path to Nirvana. Anyone can do that.
What does it take to be a Christian? Be holy as God is holy (Lev 19:2). Be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect (Matt 5:48). NO ONE can do that! If a Muslim grabbed a snack during Ramadan when he wasn’t supposed to, why would anyone care? If a Buddhist hadn’t quite reached Nirvana yet, why would anyone care? When followers of other religions fall short of the standards, it’s really not that big a deal. But when Christians fall short of God’s perfect standard, people tend to notice. The fact that Christians fall so short so often is a testimony to the perfection of a standard that no one is ever able to meet.
This is why it takes the Holy Spirit to be a Christian. Without God’s transforming power, we would never even know what the standard is, much less attempt to meet it. And even though our best attempts at Christ-like living will always come up short of the perfection of Jesus, God’s Spirit is in the process of transforming us into people who are pure in heart, peacemakers, merciful, and all the other qualities that reflect the character of Christ. Will we fall short? Yes. But the fact that people notice when we do fall short says more about Jesus than it says about us.
This brings us to a more sobering question. If hypocrisy means play-acting, what is the nature of the hypocrisy when people who claim to be Christians act in a completely un-Christlike way? Are we sinners pretending to be Christians or Christians pretending to be sinners? When Jesus confronted the Pharisees, the answer was clear – they were not true followers of God; they were only pretending.
But what about us? In a few weeks we’re going to hear about a pretty scary warning straight from the mouth of Jesus: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven…” (Matt 7:21-23). There are people right now in 2020 who think that they are Christians but are going to find out on Judgment Day that they were only pretending to be Christians. How can we tell if we are true Christians or pretend Christians? We’re going to find out one way or the other on Judgment Day, but is there any hope of assurance before then that we’re not just pretending?
As the elders have mentioned in their recent sermons, the answer has to do with motivation. Why do we do what we do? Why do we worship God and read the Bible and fellowship together? Are we in it to make ourselves feel spiritual and receive praise from other people? Or are we serving God out of deep gratitude that He saved us from sin and brought us into everlasting relationship with Him. It’s not enough to just “do things for Jesus.” The ones denied entrance into the kingdom are those of whom Jesus said, “I never knew you” (Matt 7:23).
The good news is that God wants us to know Him and wants us to know that we know Him: “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13). I am profoundly grateful that Jesus saved me from a “works religion” that was all about checking the spiritual “boxes” and brought me into a relationship in which He knows me and allows me to know Him. For all who have been rescued from sin and brought into eternal relationship with God, even though we fall short in our day to day life, God has promised that He will complete the work that He began in us (Phil 1:6).
Glory to Him who is able to keep us from stumbling and present us blameless before the presence of His glory with great joy.
~ Alex Morris