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Religious Hypocrites

A closer look at Matthew chapter 23.

Written by Mike Biolsi on .


As David pointed out last week, this section of Matthew (chapter 23) is about the hypocrisy of the religious leaders. He also mentioned the way the word was used on Greek culture:

‌The Wycliffe Bible Encyclopedia Hypocrisy, Hypocrite

In the context of Gr. drama the term hypocrite was applied to an actor on the theater stage. Since an actor pretends to be someone other than himself, hypokritēs was applied metaphorically to a person who “acts a part” in real life, pretending to be better than he actually is, one who simulates goodness.

The word ὑποκριτής is used 17 times in our New Testament. All of them in the gospels, and 7 of them in this single chapter on Matthew’s record of the life and teachings of Jesus. 

The root is the word κρινω which means, “to judge or pass judgement on”.

When you think of that together you get a pretty good understanding of what is going on this passage. 

Jesus is literally passing judgement upon the religious leaders because they are pretending to be something they are not. 

If you are watching online because you are hoping to get some great materials to strengthen your position that religious people are hypocrites - you are in the right place! Welcome. However, in watching for the reason of pointing out the flaws in others you are joining the ranks with the rest of us hypocrites.

And that is the inherent problem with preaching on this topic. Which of us is consistent enough in our lives to be able to stand confidently before others and call out hypocrisy? No one, unless they are perfect. Which is why I am glad Jesus spoke on it - because only he was without it!

That means that this morning I share on a topic that will need to convict me as much as it does anyone else who hears it. I have no right to stand and judge, other than that I am sharing with you the words of Jesus, for certainly there is no merit of my own that affords me this right. 

So with that disclaimer in place, let’s look at religious hypocrisy together. 

The Initial Example

Before Jesus began calling people hypocrites, he defined what he meant by it, thus giving us a formula, or a litmus test if you will, to hold actions against. 

Matthew 23:2–3 CSB
2 “The scribes and the Pharisees are seated in the chair of Moses. 3 Therefore do whatever they tell you, and observe it. But don’t do what they do, because they don’t practice what they teach.

Mike’s Paraphrase:

Matthew 23:2–3 (NLT)
2 “The teachers of religious law and the religious scholars are the official interpreters of the words God gave to Moses that we refer to as the first five books of our Bible. 3 So practice and obey whatever they tell you, but don’t follow their example. For they don’t practice what they teach.

‌MANY, many years ago, when I was in youth group, I had a youth pastor at Richville Baptist Chapel named Tim Baird. He used to say, “Don’t talk the talk unless you are going to walk the walk.” That stuck with me.

Have you ever heard the phase, “practice what you preach?” Any idea where it comes from?

Titus Maccius Plautus (254-184 BC) was a Roman playwright, whose comedies were the most popular dramatic works of their day. Twenty-one of his 130 plays survive, revealing his theatrical craftsmanship and total mastery of farce. The first expression of the saying came two centuries before Matthew in the works of the Roman playwright. ‘Practice yourself what you preach to us’ appears in the comedy, Asinaria (A Comedy of Asses), Act 3, Scene 3.

The actual phrase, “practice what you preach” may not be found in the Bible as such, but the verses in Matthew 23:2-3 certainly teach that very principle! A large part of the hypocrisy found in the religious teachers was that they were not doing the things they were telling others to do, they were not practicing what they were teaching. 

This is the test of what Jesus is defining as hypocrisy - does someone’s actions line up with their teachings. This broad definition of hypocrisy can be found in every corner of society, right? These things often make the headlines:

  • Political figures that mandated the banning of large gatherings during COVID and then went to large gatherings made the headlines across the nation. 
  • This month there was a police officer in our area that was issued a DWI while ON DUTY. You can bet that made the headlines. 
  • Hollywood stars that speak out about climate change and being good earth stewards by promoting electric vehicles and bashing oil companies, and then fly around in their private jets consuming more fossil fuels than the rest of us. 

In an even narrower sense, the question we are asking this morning is whether or not someone’s actions line up with God’s teaching. THIS is the foundation for “religious hypocrisy”. 

Last week, David shared the unfortunate hypocrisy of a religious teacher of our day that rocked the media with scandal posthumously. 

Let’s be real - the religious world gets called out on hypocrisy a lot. Unfortunately.


If hypocrisy is not living what you teach, what would be the definition or term for anti-hypocrisy? The simple answer is living what you teach or doing what you say, or walking the talk. To one-word it might be: integrity, authenticity, or faithfulness. To be anti-hypocritical in our faith means that we are faithful to God’s teachings, authentic in our motives and are people of integrity in our actions. To one-word this might be: righteous.

‌The word righteous from a biblical perspective means to be in right-standing with God.  Jesus is going to use this word 4 times in this chapter to point to things that are the opposite of the hypocrites. 

None of us can live completely righteous, so in a sense we are all hypocrites at times.  It is my hope that through our study of these “woes to the hypocrites” that we be encouraged to live righteously and to make that our life’s goal. 

IMPORTANT: while all of us our hypocrites, and none of us is completely righteous, the amazing thing about God is that he KNOWS that. That is why he sent Jesus to earth. It was not just to call out the hypocrisy in our lives, it was to provide a way for us to be righteous before God. Those of us who are Jesus-followers are seen as “righteous” before God because of Jesus. 

Romans 10:9–10 CSB
9 If you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 One believes with the heart, resulting in righteousness, and one confesses with the mouth, resulting in salvation.

‌So lets dive in...

Hypocrisy #1 - Turning People Away from God

Matthew 23:13 CSB
13 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you don’t go in, and you don’t allow those entering to go in.

‌As we just read in Romans, the only way to being truly justified is by faith in Jesus. The religious leaders rejected Jesus and did everything they could to push people away from Jesus. 

We just read in chapter 22 how the religious leaders were trying to trap Jesus so they could discredit him, and even find a way to sentence him to death. 

They appeared to be pointing people to God through teaching the Torah, but in reality they were pushing people AWAY from God. 

Jesus came so that you and I could be reconciled to God. God sent Jesus so our relationship with Him could be restored.

2 Corinthians 5:19 CSB
19 That is, in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and he has committed the message of reconciliation to us.

‌By rejecting Jesus they were shutting the door for themselves and others to be near to God. 


‌How much we push people away from God with our teaching?

There are some “religions” today that appear to be Godly - they have pastors, church buildings, and even talk about Jesus, but they fail to accept that Jesus is the son of God. 

‌But what about you and me?

NOT telling people about Jesus? By not revealing the door we are, in a very real sense, slamming the door in their faces. 

By promoting religious systems over the truth of the scriptures we can push people away from knowing God. 

2 Timothy 2:15 CSB
15 Be diligent to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who doesn’t need to be ashamed, correctly teaching the word of truth.

‌Hypocrisy #2 - Misplaced Zeal

‌Matthew 23:15 CSB
15 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to make one convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a child of hell as you are!

‌This simple verse carries with it a few subtle digs at the religious leaders. Making proselytes was not forbidden, it would have been encouraged.  However, they were meant to be a light to the nations to point all people to Yahweh. They pushed away their Gentile neighbors and shut them out as “unclean”, yet they would make converts to their teachings to have a greater following. 

It appears as though their zeal was for growing their kingdom and their school of thought and NOT the kingdom of God. 


We need to make sure we are sincere in our efforts to “convert” people - and that we are focused on having them come of Jesus and not just our church, or program, or study. It they come to Jesus and attend another church family they are still part of the kingdom - we recruit for the kingdom, not for our programs. 

‌COMBINED, Woes 1&2 people to a misdirection of people away from God to a human agenda or program. We were made in the image of God to point people to God, and when we live our lives pointing people to anything else we become the hypocrite.

Hypocrisy #3 - 

‌Matthew 23:16–22 CSB
16 “Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘Whoever takes an oath by the temple, it means nothing. But whoever takes an oath by the gold of the temple is bound by his oath.’ 17 Blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the temple that sanctified the gold? 18 Also, ‘Whoever takes an oath by the altar, it means nothing; but whoever takes an oath by the gift that is on it is bound by his oath.’ 19 Blind people! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that sanctifies the gift? 20 Therefore, the one who takes an oath by the altar takes an oath by it and by everything on it. 21 The one who takes an oath by the temple takes an oath by it and by him who dwells in it. 22 And the one who takes an oath by heaven takes an oath by God’s throne and by him who sits on it.

‌This long dialog seems to focus on taking oaths and the proper way to do it. However, the REAL issue is not about what you take an oath on, but on keeping your oath or not making them at all. 

The judgement is coming because the leaders appeared to make excuses for people who did not want to keep their oaths, and the logic they used placed more value on things than God. 

What Jesus is really saying is that every oath you make is binding - and is accountable to God. 

Notice it is not the gold but the temple that is important, right? The temple was the dwelling place of the glory of Yahweh. 

It is not the sacrifice on the altar but the altar that was important, right? The altar was the place to give gifts to God either as a thanks or as a payment for a sin. 

Jesus nails the point by saying that anyone why takes an oath by heaven takes an oath by God’s throne and God himself. 

‌God’s presence, God’s gifts, God’s throne… Yahweh, God. 

To think that the oath is binding or not because of what we swore the oath on it ludicrous. Each of us is accountable for what we say. 

Matthew 5:33–37 CSB
33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to our ancestors, You must not break your oath, but you must keep your oaths to the Lord. 34 But I tell you, don’t take an oath at all: either by heaven, because it is God’s throne; 35 or by the earth, because it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, because it is the city of the great King. 36 Do not swear by your head, because you cannot make a single hair white or black. 37 But let your ‘yes’ mean ‘yes,’ and your ‘no’ mean ‘no.’ Anything more than this is from the evil one.

‌NOTE: that is from the Sermon on the Hill, and MANY of these teaching are reflected back in that section of teaching.

The Pharisees used their rules/laws to make it easier for people to get out of their promises. Rather than help people be accountable to God and faithful to their words. 


It is possible that the modern day church could easily create rules that encourage people to do things that would displease God, rather than helping them be accountable to God. The “rules” or principles they apply may even sound godly! This might look like condoning living together because society has allowed it, or ordaining ministers who are part of the lbgtq community. 

‌When we allow societal norms or failures to shape our theology we are hypocrites. 

Hypocrisy #4

Matthew 23:23–24 CSB
23 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You pay a tenth of mint, dill, and cumin, and yet you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy, and faithfulness. These things should have been done without neglecting the others. 24 Blind guides! You strain out a gnat, but gulp down a camel!

‌Again, Jesus does not condemn their practice of tithing. They even tithed from their spice cabinet! Wow!

However, they focused on the material and not the relational. Giving what you have to God is superficial unless that giving includes giving your life to God and others. Just recently, Jesus put it this way:

Matthew 22:21 (CSB)
21 ...“Give, then, to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

‌While the first fruits of our labor belongs to God, so do our lives. To give our possessions to God and treat others wrongly is hypocritical. 

The things that the Pharisees were missing were named in the message Micah had for the nation of Israel:

‌Micah 6:8 CSB
8 Mankind, he has told each of you what is good and what it is the Lord requires of you: to act justly, to love faithfulness, and to walk humbly with your God.

‌While the Lord desires our gifts, even more he desires our fellowship, with him and each other. 


‌We can be blinded by a legalistic view of religion that focuses on hyper-obedience at the expense of people. For instance, a church that will not allow someone to become a member if they were previously divorced might make a good case for God not liking divorce, but is the grace of God only available to those who have never divorced? You get the idea. 

COMBINED, Woes 3&4 are about ignoring the principles of the Word of God to pander to society and the opposite of having a form of legalism that missed the point of holiness. In both cases, those around us are the ones that suffer and while we may appear to be doing these things for their good we are only harming them.

Hypocrisy #5

‌Matthew 23:25–26 CSB
25 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 26 Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside of it may also become clean.

‌Ritual cleaning was an important part of the Jewish lifestyle. Mark talked about this in detail:

Mark 7:1–4 CSB
1 The Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him. 2 They observed that some of his disciples were eating bread with unclean—that is, unwashed—hands. 3 (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, keeping the tradition of the elders. 4 When they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they have washed. And there are many other customs they have received and keep, like the washing of cups, pitchers, kettles, and dining couches.)

‌In the passage in Matthew, the point was that they looked pure, they looked clean, but they were full of greed and self-indulgence. Their heart was far from God. 


We cannot say we follow God and live in selfish and purely self-indulgent ways. This is not saying that it is a sin to enjoy the good things that God has given us, but more about what we live for - what we treasure. 

‌Matthew 6:21 CSB
21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

‌Hypocrisy #6

Matthew 23:27–28 CSB
27 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which appear beautiful on the outside, but inside are full of the bones of the dead and every kind of impurity. 28 In the same way, on the outside you seem righteous to people, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.

‌This is beyond just being selfish, now they are dead on the inside, full of lawlessness. In this context, lawless would mean that they were purposefully living contrary to God’s law. 


‌It is possible to look very religious but be very far from God. I have heard of pastors coming to Jesus AFTER being pastors for years! Just because you go to church, wear the gear, prayer before every meal, and have 16 bible apps on your phone does not mean you have a relationship with God. We must also be careful not to make people think that following God means wearing certain clothes, having a certain haircut, or attending every service every time the doors of the church building are open. 

This is the form of hypocrisy we most often associate with Christians, right? They act one way around church people and a different way at home or work? 

COMBINED, Woes 5&6 are about appearing to be religious but being dead inside and having disingenuous religion. Putting on a false front about following God. Pretending. You cannot fake it until you make it! We cannot teach God’s word and then choose to live the exact opposite of it. 

Hypocrisy #7

​Matthew 23:29–36 CSB
29 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous, 30 and you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we wouldn’t have taken part with them in shedding the prophets’ blood.’ 31 So you testify against yourselves that you are descendants of those who murdered the prophets. 32 Fill up, then, the measure of your ancestors’ sins! 33 “Snakes! Brood of vipers! How can you escape being condemned to hell? 34 This is why I am sending you prophets, sages, and scribes. Some of them you will kill and crucify, and some of them you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town. 35 So all the righteous blood shed on the earth will be charged to you, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah, son of Berechiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. 36 Truly I tell you, all these things will come on this generation.

‌There is a significant change in tense here in Matt 23:34 “34 This is why I am sending you prophets, sages, and scribes. Some of them you will kill and crucify, and some of them you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town.” 

This is judgement about what they are going to do to Jesus and the disciples. It is a natural follow up to the lawlessness of the previous “woe” because they are planning to kill Jesus, and that is a lawless act. 

They mention that they (the religious leaders) would have never killed the prophets, yet these same leaders will very soon be chanting, “crucify him!” and will responsible for killing the Son. That, of course, is something we just say him teach to these religious leaders via some parables. 

‌“Snakes! Brood of vipers!” and “prophets” are meant to be hyperlinks back to the ministry of John the Baptizer. 

‌Matthew 3:7–12 CSB
7 When he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Therefore produce fruit consistent with repentance. 9 And don’t presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that God is able to raise up children for Abraham from these stones. 10 The ax is already at the root of the trees. Therefore, every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. 11 “I baptize you with water for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is more powerful than I. I am not worthy to remove his sandals. He himself will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing shovel is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn. But the chaff he will burn with fire that never goes out.”

‌There was a pending judgement that John talked about for those that would not repent and humble themselves. Jesus is emphasizing the same message, only this time to that have have been unrepentant. 

‌This last Woe is about the judgement of the innocent killing of past prophets, and the future killing of Jesus and his followers, will bring about their own destruction. 


‌Do not think you are any better than those that have gone before you. Arrogance and pride are the things that bring destruction and despair. 

This last “woe” seems to stand on it own as a woe, but leads into the last part of the chapter with the grief Jesus has over the city of Jerusalem - which represents the nation of Israel and the religious leaders who lead the people:

‌Matthew 23:37–39 CSB
37 “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her. How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing! 38 See, your house is left to you desolate. 39 For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’!”

‌So, as we wrap up these very harsh statements against the religious leaders, we find Jesus judging them because of the following hypocrisies:

  1. ‌#1 - They were to point people to God, but instead they pushed people away from God
  2. #2 - They were to be a light to all the nations, but only made converts for their own agendas
  3. #3 - They made religious practices that contradicted God’s word
  4. #4 - They focused on the minor points of the law, missed the big picture
  5. #5 - They focused on outward cleanness (washing, etc) but inside were full of selfish living
  6. #6 - They appeared religious, but they lived opposite to God’s word
  7. #7 - They said they were protecting God’s people but were going to kill God’s son

 This morning I wanted to highlight the main concepts of the religious hypocrisy that Jesus called out. To study these more you could try the following:

‌Compare the 7 woes to the teachings found in the book of James!

‌Compare the 7 woes to the teachings from the Sermon on the Hill (Matt 5-7)!

Do some searching of the O.T. on things “the Lord Hates” and see how it compares to this list!

‌While each of these warning is directly aimed at the teachers of the law and the Pharisees, the lessons we read about should be a very real warning to us today. 

But as I stated in the beginning, we problem is that none of us is perfect. We are all hypocrites at times. We all have areas on our lives where we may, at times, play the actor. 

Jesus told his disciples in the beginning of chapter 23 to listen to the words of the Torah taught by the religious but do not imitate their actions. Jesus certainly did not condone all the man-made laws of the Pharisees, he attacked some of those int he woes.  The Pharisees were the ones who made it a point to define all of the ways to best “keep the law” or follow God. In the end it led to vain rituals and a shallow religion that was focused on doing things that looked spiritual but lacked the spirit of God. 

As Jesus followers we must be careful that we do not create barriers to people coming to know Jesus or following Jesus through man-made rules or false piety. We must avoid the type of legalism that pushes people away from God and we also must avoid the liberalism that would water down the truth of God’s word to conform to social norms. And on top of that we must make sure that we strive to have motives that are pure and agendas that promote God and not our kingdoms. 

That is a LOT for us to take in, isn’t it? In the end, I think the prayer that I want to pray is that my life would be sincere enough, my faith genuine enough, that people would be drawn to God. That I could say with confidence what the Apostle Paul said:

1 Corinthians 10:31–11:1 CSB
31 So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God. 32 Give no offense to Jews or Greeks or the church of God, 33 just as I also try to please everyone in everything, not seeking my own benefit, but the benefit of many, so that they may be saved. 1 Imitate me, as I also imitate Christ.


Religious Hypocrites