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Hypocrites: How to Spot Pharisees

Featured Verse: Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees that is hypocrisy. - Luke 12:1

Featured Verse: Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees that is hypocrisy. - Luke 12:1


So what's a Pharisee and why would I care to spot one? The term Pharisee has come to symbolize legalism, haughtiness, and hypocrisy. The Pharisees were the religious leaders of Jesus' day. Some readers might even be surprised to learn that Jesus' most severe words were not directed toward those who openly opposed Him, but these Pharisees Jesus identified as hypocrites in the church.

Jesus' frequent and escalating exchanges with the Pharisees were an intricate part of Jesus' experience, and warrant special attention from us to this day. While Jesus had some harsh words for the Pharisees, rebuking and exposing the Pharisees was by far the most loving thing Jesus could have done. This revealed to the Pharisees themselves their own true spiritual condition, as well as it serving as a warning to the common people over whom the Pharisees exercised so much influence with their zealous clinging to the Old Testament law, as well as the more than 500 extrabiblical rules they added. Jesus said in Matthew 23:4 that they burdened the backs of the people, but they themselves are unwilling to even lift a finger to help.

However, being a Pharisee is not considered a hopeless condition before God, since Paul, formerly Saul of Taurus, who ultimately wrote so much of the New Testament after his Damascus Road experience and becoming the Apostle Paul, was himself a Pharisee who zealously persecuted Christians as documented by the death of Stephen. Barnabas was also sympathetic and responsive to Jesus, but for the most part the Pharisees were adversarial.

First, we look at the issue of grace, as in being saved "by grace through faith" alone, as opposed to legalism or works. Then we note how God hates arrogance. Building upon this foundation, as we continue developing our long-established habit of looking into the meaning of our terms, in this case "leaven" and "hypocrite," in the featured verse. Lastly, we glean what we can use in recognizing the characteristics of hypocrites.

New Testament Grace v. Legalism

The Old Testament is under the law, while the New Testament is under grace with the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ being the dividing point. While Jesus explained He did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it, the law convicts of sin but can do nothing to save. Hence, without the law there would be no sin, and since you are unable to keep the whole of the law, the law points to the conclusion that a savior is needed.

In an interesting twist, it was a former Pharisee, the Apostle Paul, who explains the doctrine. While faith without works is dead, salvation is solely "by grace through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is a gift of God. Not of works, lest any man boast." Ephesians 2:8-9. Recall also that God hates arrogance. - Proverbs 16:5

In other words, salvation is not based on works, and Christianity is the only main religion the author is aware of that is not based on works. You can not earn your salvation. Salvation should result in good works, but it is an outgrowth, not the merits of salvation.

There is no forgiveness of sin with God without the shedding of blood (Hebrews 9:22). While God is merciful, He is also just, and it is His justice that requires it. So, after the fall of man in the garden, sin entered the world and we were in a hopeless situation which we could do nothing on our own to save ourselves. The penalty of sin is death (Romans 6:23).

The law was not given than any man could keep the whole of the law, but to point to the conclusion you have need for a savior, and then provided that Savior in Jesus Christ. God the Father then took it upon Himself to provide the solution in His Son, Jesus Christ. Jesus died a substitutionary death on the cross, the unblemished Lamb of God, taking our sins upon Himself, and dying in our place.

When Christ was crucified, the veil ripped from top to bottom, the veil to the Holy of Holies, the very presence of God (Matthew 27:51). This was to signify that Jesus opened the way for each of us to have a personal relationship with the Father, through the Son. In John 14:6 Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me."

Old Testament priests never sat down to signify that their work was never done. Jesus sat down at the right hand of God on High, to signify it is done (Hebrews 10:11-14). The work for salvation was completed with Jesus' work on the cross. He is our great High Priest forever. You either accept it or reject it.

The Pharisees Accuse the Son of God

The Pharisees were the most influential at the time of Christ, one of the main Jewish sects, and recall that the Jews are God's chosen people. There were also the Sadducees (the wealthy, elite priests); the Zealots (political revolutionaries who sought independence from Rome); and the Essences (ascetic monastics).1

The Pharisees were devout and extremely zealous for the Mosaic law and and their own extrabiblical traditions:

"You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.” -Mark 7:8

The scribes were closely associated with the Pharisees. The scribes were the professional scholars and it was their theological foundation that provided for the Pharisee's teachings.2

The Pharisees were generally laymen from the middle class, but they taught the law in the local synagogues. While the Pharisees were highly influential among the people, they saw themselves are superior to the common people. Recall also that the Pharisee's theology was in many ways scripturally sound, but they abandoned the true religion of the heart for an external one.3

At times this focus on the law did become legalism in the negative sense -- either because the concern for legal obedience overshadowed other important issues (cf. Matt 23:23) or because such obedience made people "confident of their own righteousness" (Luke 18:9).4

While pretending to be devout, the Pharisees were hypocrites who failed to live up to their own strict teaching regarding the law (Matt. 23:3).5 One cannot achieve salvation through ritual, rule-keeping, or one's own "righteousness," to attempt to do so is to invalidate the cross. Jesus Christ, and Him crucified is the very foundation of the Christian faith. The Pharisees, the experts in the Old Testament law and their own rabbinic rules, the religious leaders of their day, did not recognize or accept Jesus Christ, the very Son of God, but quite the opposite!

The Pharisees...accused Jesus of blasphemy (Luke 5:21), of being in league with the devil (Matt. 9:34), and of breaking the law (12:2). They often planned to destroy him (12:14).

Recall for our purposes today that a servant is not greater than his master:

Remember the word that I said to you, 'A slave is not greater than his master.' If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you; if they kept My word, they will keep yours also. John 15:20 NASB

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John 3:16 - For God so loved the world...

John 3:16 - For God so loved the world...

Leaven and the Seven Woes

Next we look at the word "leaven" in our featured verse in the above photo. Yeast is a leavening substance for bread. Leaven is used as a symbol of "the penetrating influence of the Kingdom [of God]" in Matthew 13:33 and Luke 13:21, for example, but it is a symbol "of corruption and evil" in Matthew 16:6, 12; Galatians 5:7-9; and 1 Corinthians 5:6-8.6

It is the use of leaven as a symbol of of corruption and evil that is relevant to the topic today, as we are to "beware of the leaven of the Pharisees that is hypocrisy." - Luke 12:1

Mark 8:11 begins, "the Pharisees showed up, and began to argue with Jesus. To test Him they asked for a sign from heaven." (CEB) As Mark 8 continues, the Pharisees try to test Jesus, but He refuses to be tested. Instead he warns the disciples of the "corrupting influence ("yeast") the Pharisee's teaching has on true faith" (v.15).7

Ultimately, Jesus issued the seven woes regarding the teachers of the law and Pharisees. The Seven Woes can be found in Matthew 23. Jesus prefaces six of the following seven woes with, "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!"

  1. "You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people's faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those who are trying to. (23:13-14) NIV
  2. You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are. (23:15) NIV
  3. Blind guides! You say, 'If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing; but anyone who swears by the gold of the temple is bound by that oath.' You blind fools! Which is greater: the gold, or the temple that makes the gold sacred? You also say, 'If anyone swears by the altar, it means nothing; but anyone who swears by the gift on the altar is bound by that oath.' You blind men! Which is great: the gift, or the altar that makes the gift sacred? Therefore, anyone who swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. And anyone who swears by the temple swears by it and by the one who dwells in it. And anyone who swears by heaven swears by God's throne and by the one who sits on it. (23:16-22) NIV
  4. You give a tenth of your spices -- mint, dill, and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law -- justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practices the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel. (23:23-24) NIV
  5. You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean. (23:23:25-26) NIV
  6. You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.
  7. You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, 'If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets. So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Go ahead, then, and complete what your ancestors started! (23:29-32) NIV

You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell? Therefore I am sending you prophets and sages and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town. And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, form the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. Truly I tell you, all this will come on this generation. (23:33-36) NIV

Hypocrisy: What's a Hypocrite?

Hypocrisy is pretending to be what one is not. The New Testament meaning of "hypocrisy" and "hypocrite" reflects its use in Greek drama. In the Greek theater, a hypocrite was one who wore a mask and played a part on the stage, imitating the speech, mannerisms; and conduct of the character portrayed.8

The Greek word hupokrites (hypocrite) was originally a secular term referring to an actor who played a role on stage. But in the New Testament it became a religious term, used exclusively in the negative sense of one who claims to speak for God but does not -- a hypocrite. The original theatrical definition of hupokrites figuratively expresses the nature of spiritual deceivers. An actor attempts to play a convincing role on the stage, pretending to be someone that he is not. So do religious deceivers.9

Hypocrisy: Divine Condemnation and Judgment

While the Pharisees take center stage on the topic of hypocrisy during the days of Jesus, hypocrisy is condemned in the Old Testament and the New Testament, in the history of Israel, the church, and even among the apostles.

Hypocrisy in the Old Testament

These are only two examples of hypocrisy in the Old Testament:

So they come to you as people do,

and they sit before you as my people.

They listen to your words, but they

refuse to do them. Though they speak

of their longing for me, they act out of

their own interests and opinions. To

them you are like a singer of love songs

with a lovely voice and skilled technique.

They listen to your words, but no one

does them. - Ezekiel 33:31-32 CEB

And again in Micah 3:9-12:

Hear this, leaders of the house of Jacob,

rulers of the house of Israel,

you who reject justice

and make crooked all that is straight,

who build Zion with bloodshed

and Jerusalem with injustice!

Her officials give justice for a bribe,

and her priests teach for hire.

Her prophets offer divination for silver,

yet they rely on the Lord, saying,

"Isn't the Lord in our midst?

Evil won't come upon us!"

Therefore, because of you,

Zion will be plowed like a field,

Jerusalem will become piles of rubble,

and the temple mount will become an

overgrown mound. - Micah 3:9-12 CEB

Hypocrisy in the New Testament

There are also other instances of hypocrisy in the New Testament, other than that of the Pharisees:

And in a shocking act of judgment, the lives of Ananias and Sapphira of the early church, are taken by God (Acts 5:1-11).10

In Luke 20:20-26 it speaks of the religious leaders sending spies in who pretended to be righteous in an attempt to catch or trap Jesus in some statement in order to deliver Him over to the authority of the governor:

And they watched him, and sent forth spies, which should feign themselves just men, that they might take hold of his words, that so they might deliver him unto the power and authority of the governor.

And they asked him, saying, Master, we know that thou sayest and teachest rightly, neither acceptest thou the person of any, but teachest the way of God truly:

Is it lawful for us to give tribute unto Caesar, or no?

But he perceived their craftiness, and said unto them, Why tempt ye me?

Shew me a penny. Whose image and superscription hath it? They answered and said, Caesar's.

And he said unto them, Render therefore unto Caesar the things which be Caesar's, and unto God the things which be God's.

And they could not take hold of his words before the people: and they marvelled at his answer, and held their peace. - Luke 20:20-26 KJV

Paul noted, "But it was because of the false brethren secretly brought in, who had sneaked in to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, in order to bring us into bondage." - Galatians 2:4 NASB

Even the Apostle Peter temporarily fell into hypocrisy in Galatians 2:11-14:

But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was wrong. He had been eating with the Gentiles before certain people came from James. But when they came, he was afraid of the people who promoted circumcision. And the rest of the Jews also joined him in this hypocrisy so that even Barnabas got carried away with them in their hypocrisy. But when I saw they they weren't acting consistently with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in front of everyone, "If you, though you're a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you require the Gentiles to live like Jews?" Galatians 2:11-14 CEB

Pharisees: The Biblical Embodiment of Legalism and Hypocrisy

In Luke 11:38-39 it states an illustration Jesus made as He was sitting down for a meal:

Now when He had spoken, a Pharisee asked Him to have lunch with him; and He went in, and reclined at the table. When the Pharisee saw it, he was surprised that He had not first ceremonially washed before the meal. But the Lord said to him, "Now you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and of the platter; but inside of you, you are full of robbery and wickedness." Luke 11:38-39 NASB

As Jesus, the very Son of God incarnate, sits down for a meal he was invited to by a Pharisee, the Pharisee is surprised, some translations, is astonished, He did so without following the extrabiblical ritual of ceremonial washing first. Jesus is heading right to the more than 500 additional rules or traditions of the elders, later collected in the Mishnah, that the Pharisees used to burden the backs of the people. He is intentionally making a distinction between the Old Testament law and the extrabiblical rules or traditions. This has nothing to do with Jesus' hands being physically dirty, but that He did not engage in the elaborate ritual that would have resulted in them being ceremonially clean, according to the Pharisees.

The two terms Jesus used graphically described their inner corruption. Harpages (robbery; "plunder," "pillage," "booty") refers to something seized by violent force. In classical Greek it was sometimes used of rape. False religion ravages and plunders people's temporal possessions and their eternal souls -- and the Pharisees were guilty of doing both (20:47; Matt. 23:13, 15). Poneria (wickedness) could also be translated "evil," "depravity," "malice," or "badness," -- all of which aptly describe these hypocrites whom Jesus called sons of hell. (Matt. 23:15).11

The idea that Jesus so consistently exposed and severely rebuked these teachers of the law, these religious leaders of His day, these hypocrites, in itself is enough for it to be valuable for us to glean everything He had to say for our own protection today -- both against being hypocritical, as well as being misled by their influence.

Proverbs 6:16-19

Proverbs 6:16-19

Characteristics of Hypocrites

What Jesus articulated about the Pharisees may well serve us in our day, as we glean some of what Scripture has to say about hypocritical attitudes and behaviors:

1. Hypocrites masquerade, hiding the truth of who they really are while engaging in impression management, as noted beginning in Matthew 6:2 and Matthew 23:5:12

Whenever you give to the poor, don't blow your trumpet as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets to that they may get praise from people. I assure you, that's the only reward they'll get. But when you give to the poor, don't let your left hand know what your right hand is doing so that you may give to the poor in secret. Your Father who sees what you do in secret will reward you. Matthew 6:2-4 CEB

When you pray, don't be like hypocrites. They love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners so that people will see them. I assure you, that's the only reward they'll get. But when you pray, so go your room, shut the door, and pray to your Father who is present in that secret place. Your Father who sees what you do in secret will reward you. Matthew 6:5-6 CEB

And when you fast, don't put on a sad face like the hypocrites. They distort their faces so people will know they are fasting. If assure you that they have their reward. When you fast, brush your hair and wash your face. Then you won't look like you are fasting to people, but only to your Father who is present in that secret place. Your Father who sees in secret will reward you. Matthew 6:16-18 CEB

Everything they [the legal experts and the Pharisees] do, they do to be noticed by others. They make extra-wide prayer bands for their arms and long tassels for their clothes. They love to sit in places with honor in the markets and to be addressed as 'Rabbi.' Matthew 23:5-7

2. Hypocrites are arrogant and condescending, and quick to find fault with those they see as inferior to themselves.13 The following was intended to to be humorous regarding how absurd it is for a hypocrite to criticize someone else:

How can you say to your brother or sister, 'Let me take the splinter out of your eye,' when there's a log in your eye? You deceive yourself! First take the log out of your eye, and then you'll see clearly to take the splinter out of your brother's or sister's eye. Matthew 7:4-5 CEB

3. Hypocrites do not take kindly to those who expose their masquerade, but respond with malice, even deadly, premeditated malice:

Desperately trying to trap Jesus into making an incriminating statement, the Jewish religious leaders asked Him about the explosive issue of playing the poll tax required by the Romans. Perceiving both their malice (Matt. 22:19) and their hypocrisy (Mark 12:15), Jesus refuted their attempt to trap Him (Matt. 22:19-21).14

4. What many might say is needed most today is discernment from the Holy Spirit, but hypocrites masquerading as spiritual leaders in the church, of course, lack discernment as noted in Luke 12:54-57 as follows:15

Jesus also said to the crowds, "When you see a cloud forming in the west, you immediately say, 'It's going to rain.' And indeed it does. And when a south wind blows, you say, 'A heat wave is coming.' And it does. Hypocrites! You know how to interpret conditions on earth and in the sky. How is it that you don't know how to interpret the present time

They were able to interpret the weather, but unable to recognize that the Son of God was among them.

5. Due to their disdain for those they deem inferior, hypocrites lack compassion,16 or is it empathy?

Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. A woman was there who had been disabled by a spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and couldn't stand up straight. When he saw her, Jesus called her to him and said, "Woman, you are set free from your sickness." He placed his hands on her and she straightened up at once and praised God.

The synagogue leader, incensed that Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, responded, "There are six days during which work is permitted. Come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath day."

The Lord replied, "Hypocrites! Don't each of you on the Sabbath untie your ox or donkey from its stall and lead it out to get a drink? Then isn't it necessary that this woman, a daughter of Abraham, bound by Satan for eighteen long years, be set from from her bondage on the Sabbath day?" When he said these things, all his opponents were put to shame, but all those in the crowd rejoiced at all the extraordinary things he as doing. - Luke 13:10-17 CEB


While the scribes and the Pharisees take center stage on the topic of hypocrisy due to their frequent and escalating rebukes from the Son of God, you can find the prophets of God rebuking hypocrisy in both the Old Testament and the New Testament, including of Israelites, the church, and even among the apostles. Beware the leaven of the Pharisees that is hypocrisy (Luke 12:1). The only certain cure the Bible provides for hypocrisy is to honor the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.


1. The MacArthur New Testament Commentary, Luke 11-17, p. 96-97.

2. Ibid, p. 257.

3. Ibid, p. 97, 256-7.

4. Zondervan Illustrated Bible Dictionary, p. 1118.

5. The MacArthur New Testament Commentary, Luke 11-17, p. 256.

6. Zondervan Illustrated Bible Dictionary, p. 838-9.

7. The Eerdman's Companion to the Bible, p. 551.

8. Nelson's New Illustrated Bible Dictionary, p. 587.

9. The MacArthur New Testament Commentary, Luke 11-17, p. 112.

10. Ibid, p. 114.

11. Ibid, p. 99.

12. Ibid, p. 112.

13. Ibid, p. 113.

14. Ibid.

15. Ibid.

16. Ibid.


The Eerdman's Companion to the Bible, Gordon D. Fee, Robert L. Hubbard, Jr., 2011 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

The MacArthur New Testament Commentary, Luke 11-17, Moody Publishers, 2013 John MacArthur.

Nelson's New Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1995.

Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, James Strong, 2007 Hendricksons Publishers, Inc.

Zondervan Illustrated Bible Dictionary, [edited by] J.D. Douglas and Merrill C. Tenney, revised by Moises Silva, 2011 by Zondervan.

© 2019 Kelly Ann Christensen

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