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In our modern communities we often see warnings. Places are dangerous, so we are commanded to keep out, or medicines are dangerous, so we are warned not to exceed the prescribed dose or that some medications are not to be taken internally, etc.. All sensible people take due notice of such warnings of danger and act accordingly, but strangely enough, Christians tend not to take some of the warnings of Scripture seriously, even though it is the Lord Jesus Himself who cries, “Beware”.

Read Luke 12:1-12. In this instance the Lord was surrounded by eager crowds, but it was to His disciples that He spoke ‘first of all’: “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees which is hypocrisy”. Here, then, is a solemn warning of danger which the Lord directs to all of us who are disciples.

We may be surprised that such a warning was directed especially to them. Were they more in danger of becoming hypocrites than the general mass of people? Yes indeed they were! And so are we! Especially when we imagine ourselves to be exempt from this sin. Perhaps it is just because we regard ourselves as out of danger that we can be caught in this snare.

In fact, a good deal is said in the New Testament about hypocrisy, so the matter must be important. The Lord Jesus seems to have been more severe about this sin than about most others. He called it “the leaven of the Pharisees”, presumably to stress how hypocrisy permeated everything they said or did, even in those matters in which they appeared to be so pious and sincere. Hypocrisy is a secret sin which can spread its influence in ways which are not readily detected.

The disciples were being warned about a special kind of hypocrisy, for in the original it reads: “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees which is hypocrisy”. The Lord was speaking about religious hypocrisy. Just as the principle of sin is more than just outward acts of sinfulness, so hypocrisy is more than what might be obvious. It is a power, just as sin is a power. And as every sinner is a slave of sin, so every hypocrite is a slave of hypocrisy, though often quite unaware of his bondage.

The sinner thinks only of sin as a moral concept, not realising that it is a spiritual power. In the same way, the hypocrite thinks only of hypocrisy as a moral concept and does not suspect that it is also a spiritual power. He thinks that hypocrisy is putting on a show of godliness, making out that one is what one is not, but the subsequent words of the Lord Jesus reveal that there is much more to it than this.

Having given the warning to His disciples, the Lord Jesus went on to say: “There is nothing covered up that shall not be revealed… what you have spoken in the ear in the inner chambers shall be proclaimed upon the housetops” (vv.2-3). At first glance these words do not seem difficult to understand, for the Lord was warning against that kind of hypocrisy which we all detest, whispering bad things about people in so-called ‘confidences’ while speaking smoothly to the faces of those concerned. That is all too common, but it is easy to understand. What is more difficult in this context is the warning which follows.

Having said that a day will come when He will bring all those secret evils into the light, He continues: “I say unto you My friends, be not afraid of them which kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. But I will warn you whom you shall fear; Fear Him which… hath power to cast into Gehenna; yes, I say unto you, fear Him” (vv.4-5).

Here are two safeguards about hypocrisy. The first is that in the light of the coming disclosures we should fear ourselves, but the second is the suggestion that we shall be protected from hypocrisy if we truly fear God.

Why should we fear ourselves? Because it is all too possible to seek to defend God’s interests with a mind which is contrary to the mind of God. This is indeed the leaven of the Pharisees, for they fought wholeheartedly for what they imagined to be the will of God. Perhaps that is why the Lord amplified this warning about the leaven of the Pharisees by His subsequent words about those who can kill the body, for He went on to enlarge on this theme by foretelling the behaviour of these hypocrites who would persecute and seek to destroy the disciples (verse 11). Why would they act in this way? Simply out of a mistaken zeal for God.

Saul of Tarsus is the great example. Who was more wholehearted than he? No doubt he detested obvious hypocrisy, as we all detest being something in secret that is not true openly, yet he was a slave of hypocrisy for he sought to defend God’s interests with a heart that was hard and quite contrary to God.

How easily can we do the same! If we think of the words of Jesus which say that to be angry is to kill, we wonder what will be manifested when our true spirit in His service is brought into the light. Has it not been hypocrisy when we have fought for the truth with hard and angry hearts? We think that God is with us as the Pharisees also thought, but we are quite mistaken. God is never on the side of the Pharisees.

We might think it unnecessary to warn true disciples about this kind of hypocrisy, but has it not so often been evidenced by Christians who have sought to serve Christ in an un-Christlike spirit? If there has been anything which has characterised the history of the church, it is fighting for the truth with an unbroken heart, fighting for God without really fearing Him. Men have been adept at taking the lives of other believers, robbing them of their honour and reputation, instead of being adept at laying down their lives for one another, as true Christians should. Alas, much that has claimed to be zeal for the Lord can only really be described as “the leaven of the Pharisees”.

Then how shall we fight for the truth? There is a parallel passage earlier in this gospel which affirms this same truth that, “nothing shall be hid that shall not be made manifest; nor anything secret that shall not be known and come to light” (Luke 8:17). It is commenting on “the good ground, those who have an honest and good heart, having heard the word, hold it fast and bring forth fruit with patience” (8:15). This is the positive side of 12:2-3, for it encourages us by saying that the hidden work of the Word will later be revealed and the secrets (of the inner life) be finally displayed in their full glory. It reminds us that all we have whispered in the inner chambers of secret prayer will be proclaimed from the housetops.

We will be delivered from hypocrisy if we are careful to see that God’s interests are served by keeping close to Him, hiding His Word daily deep in our hearts and proving that the Holy Spirit will teach us what we ought to say (12:12). To have recourse to use carnal means in an attempt to serve God’s interests will bring us under the power of hypocrisy. Clearly, then, the Lord Jesus was telling the disciples to find their liberation from hypocrisy by fearing themselves and fearing God. So shall we best serve Him.

But what if this provokes the persecutors to kill us? It is in this connection that the Lord Jesus spoke His comforting words about the five sparrows and the hairs of our head (vv.6-7). What is more striking is that He had already disclosed that God’s wisdom governs all: “Therefore also said the wisdom of God, I will send unto them prophets and apostles; and some of them they shall kill and persecute…” (Luke 11:49). So it is the wisdom of God which governs what happens to His servants, and it is the same wisdom which will be given by the Spirit to teach them what to say under such circumstances (verse 12).

What is true of us personally is also true of our service, the work committed to us. We have to look back to verses 2 and 3 to remind ourselves that nothing of the glory and riches of the Word which seemed hidden in our hearts will remain so, but will be revealed and proclaimed from the housetops. In other words, this means that our words will be proclaimed much more widely and with much more effect than we can imagine when they are being met by hatred and persecution. Our task, therefore, is just this, to confess the Lord before men and not deny Him (vv.8-9).

But here again, it is so important that we beware of hypocrisy, for the words of our confession must be matched by concern never to meet our adversaries with enmity and bitterness, but only in the Spirit of Christ. If we truly confess the Lord by having a right heart attitude towards Him, then nobody can hinder that testimony from being spread abroad. Who can destroy the power of our prayers whispered in the inner chambers? No-one! Nothing!

We glory in the title of ‘Evangelical Christians’ and are perhaps inclined to feel that we know the truth better than others, being specialists about the infallibility of the Bible and the doctrine of justification by faith. This is excellent, but only if our testimony is substantiated by that sacrificial love which is the mark of what belongs to the gospel and can therefore truly be called ‘Evangelical’. We must agree that there can be no greater catastrophe than that evangelical Christians should be exposed as hypocrites.

Yet everything that calls itself Christian and does not correspond to Christ is stamped by the Lord as hypocrisy. And it is in the realm of love that the peril of hypocrisy is greatest; not least when we think that our own love is the same as the love of Christ. We are inclined to be severe when our Lord is mild and then tolerant when He is severe. And even when we are rightly severe in our attitude, we can be inwardly lacking in the tender compassion of the Saviour. It is temptingly easy for us to express our natural feelings and imagine that these are the same as the love of Christ, or to put on some outward show of what we think is love without having the inward reality.

Do we not know that without the mind of Jesus, that is, without His pure, self-sacrificing love, all our critical words about our brothers, however much they may seem to be justified, make us into sounding brass or clanging cymbals or, in other words, hypocrites?

Now I will not enlarge on this further, for surely it is clear to us that hypocrisy is a deceptive power, just like sin, and that in ourselves we are just as helpless and powerless as regards hypocrisy as we are with regard to sin. The difference may be that we are more on our guard against what we know to be sin, whereas we need to be constantly warned about hypocrisy. In a sense, hypocrisy is an intensified form of sin; I might even say that it is the sin to which Christians are most prone.

Yet we need not despair, however much we may or should be afraid of ourselves in this connection, for with regard to hypocrisy in its innumerable shapes and forms, Christ is our perfect Redeemer. When the trembling sinner comes to Him with all his sin, he finds grace and freedom and is relieved – not in the sense that the lightening of his conscience makes him treat sin lightly, but in the sense that he knows himself to be liberated from his guilt and sin. In the same way, when the trembling disciple comes to Christ with his hypocrisy, which may seem to him so great, he also finds grace and can breathe freely again – not that he treats hypocrisy lightly, but that he now keeps closer to his Saviour than ever before and finds that heart fellowship with Christ brings him deliverance from hypocrisy. In this passage Luke reminds us that the Lord not only voiced a solemn warning, but also gave real heart encouragement. In the same passage in which He tells us to beware, He also speaks His gracious words, “Fear not!” (verse 7).

Published in “Toward the Mark” magazine, January 1983. 

Poul Madsen (1916-2009)