Jesus’ rebuke of the Pharisees should not lead us merely to despise their hypocrisy but also to examine our own hearts. In this sermon, R.C. Sproul continues his expositional series in the gospel of Luke with a call for Christians to assess their relationship with the Lord.
Let us continue now with our study of the Gospel According to Saint Luke. We are in the eleventh chapter. I will be reading Luke 11:37–54:
And as He spoke, a certain Pharisee asked Him to dine with him. So He went in and sat down to eat. When the Pharisee saw it, he marveled that He had not first washed before dinner.
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.”
Then one of the lawyers answered and said to Him, “Teacher, by saying these things You reproach us also.”
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 altar 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.”
And as He said these things to them, the scribes and the Pharisees began to assail Him vehemently, and to cross-examine Him about many things, lying in wait for Him, and seeking to catch Him in something He might say, that they might accuse Him.
We have heard from Jesus this morning. This is His teaching. This was His admonishment to the religious leaders of His day. At no time during His earthly ministry did we hear our Lord speak with such vehemence against a particular sin than He did on this occasion. We must ask this morning that the Holy Spirit will give us ears to hear what our Lord said in this text. Let us pray.
Our Father and our God, the last thing in the world that we want is to incur Your displeasure. We know that You have every right to be displeased with us as we fail to honor You and keep Your commandments. But we pray this morning that You will give us ears like the Pharisees did not have, that we might hear what they refused to hear. By the power and the mercy of Your Holy Spirit we ask. Amen.
“The Church Is Full of Hypocrites”
Many years ago, my friend Archie Parrish, who led the Evangelism Explosion program at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, called me up. He said: “R.C., for years now, we’ve been going out and proclaiming the gospel to people in their homes. We encounter a significant amount of resistance from people. We listen to various objections to the proclamation of the gospel. We’ve kept notes over the years and collated the objections we hear with regularity. Of all the objections that people raise to the gospel, we have listed the top ten in terms of numerical frequency. I want you to write a book answering these ten objections.” So, I wrote a book by the title Objections Answered.
Included in the list of top ten objections that people raise to the gospel was this one: the church is full of hypocrites. Have you ever heard that objection? The church is full of hypocrites. When Dr. Jim Kennedy would hear that complaint, he used to say: “There’s always room for one more.” He would also say: “If you find a church that is perfect, whatever you do, don’t join it. You’ll ruin it.” He was trying to resist the argument in a half-hearted comical way.
Bottom line, the charge that the church is full of hypocrites is, I believe, slander against the church. I simply do not think it is true that the church is full of hypocrites. There may be hypocrites in the church, I do not doubt that. But is it true that the church is filled with them? I do not think so.
Not All Sin Is Hypocrisy
Why is it people make the charge that the church is full of hypocrites over and over again? I think it is partly because they do not understand what hypocrisy is. If you ask them why you think the church is full of hypocrites, they say: “Well, I know Mr. So-and-So, and I know he never misses church on Sunday morning. In fact he’s an elder at the church down the street, but during the week I see him do A, B, and C.” I say, “In other words, you see him sin.”
If a man claimed that he was not a sinner and then you saw him sin, he would indeed be guilty of hypocrisy. But hypocrisy is only one sin among many. In fact, for a Christian to sin does not make that person a hypocrite. Why not? Well, the only organization I know that requires you to be a sinner to join is the Christian church.
If the complaint were that the church is full of sinners, that would be an accurate evaluation. However, hypocrisy is a particular sin. It is the sin of fraud by which a person claims to be something that he is not. If I claim to be sinless and then sin, I am guilty of hypocrisy. If I say I do not do X, Y, and Z, and in fact I do X, Y, and Z, that would be hypocrisy, because a hypocrite is a person who lives a life that is a sham.
In antiquity, the idea of a hypocrite came from the theatre, where a hypocrite was a playactor. The actors pretended to be something that they were not. They put on a façade, an outward appearance of being something that they, in fact, were not.
Do you remember the old Western movies where the cowboy would ride into town? There would be a general store and a saloon, and you would see several buildings. Then you find out at the backlot at Hollywood that these were just front structures, sometimes made of cardboard, and there was nothing inside. Outwardly they appeared to be true buildings, but inside there was nothing. This is what Jesus dealt with in our text.
The Pharisee’s Trap
The passage begins with this contextual introduction: “A certain Pharisee asked Him to dine with him.” This was the beginning of the hypocrisy. It is obvious from the rest of the text that the Pharisee did not ask Jesus over for dinner as an act of graciousness or kindness. He was not interested in giving Jesus a nice meal. He was trying to trap Jesus in one way or another.
We see the Pharisee’s intentions right away: “A certain Pharisee asked Him to dine with him. So He went in and sat down to eat.” Jesus said, “Yes, I’ll have dinner with you,” then He entered the house and sat down to eat. The Pharisee saw something that shocked him. What was it? He was shocked that Jesus did not first wash His hands before going to the table.
Why was Jesus not washing His hands shocking to the Pharisee? According to the Pharisees and the laws of the rabbis, it was a requirement—not for hygiene, cleanliness, or health reasons, but for religious, ceremonial purposes—that a person go through the liturgical rite of cleaning their hands. This law was not required by God in sacred Scripture, but was a tradition instituted and ruled over by the Pharisees. In other words, it was a law added to the law of God. It was an act of legalism.
Jesus would have nothing of the Pharisee’s legalism. He did not go in and say, “I’m not going to wash My hands.” He did not make a big deal of it. He simply omitted it, went in, and sat down to eat. No human being ever sat down for dinner with cleaner hands than Jesus Christ.
Cleaning Only the Surface
In Psalm 24, the psalmist raised the question: “Who will ascend into the mountain of our God?” The answer is this: “He who has clean hands and pure heart.” Jesus’ hands were clean, and His heart was perfectly pure. In vivid contrast to Him, the Pharisees were assiduous in making sure that their hands were clean, but their hearts were filthy. That was the point Jesus made. He said, “You Pharisees make the outside of the cup and the dish clean, but your inward part is full of greed and wickedness.”
Our house almost burned down this week. In the middle of the night, Vesta awakened me because she smelled acrid smoke. I went into the kitchen and there was the dishwasher, which had shorted out and overheated. The island was red hot, there was smoke and burned plastic—it was awful. I said, “These dishwashers, they’re ready to kill us.” But can you imagine washing the dishes and only cleaning the outside of a glass that had been for something to drink? How about only cleaning the back side of the plate but not the part where all the scraps adhere to the surface? Nobody in his right mind would wash dishes that way.
Jesus said to the Pharisees: “You make the outside of the cup and the 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.” In other words, He was saying, “You look good on the surface, but inside, the filth remains.”
Woe on Empty Tithers
Jesus made use of an oracular formula in which a prophet of God pronounces an oracle of doom, prefaced by the word “woe.” Anytime you see the word “woe” in sacred Scripture, you need to take notice, because this is the strongest verbal form of judgment and warning that God gives by His prophets. So, after the conversation about the inside and the outside of the plates and cups, the conversation heated up.
Jesus, standing in the prophetic tradition, pronounced a divine judgment on His host and his friends who were gathered for dinner. He said: “Woe unto you Pharisees! For you tithe…” He was not pronouncing judgment on them for tithing. He said, “For you tithe mint and rue and all manner of herbs, but you overlook the weightier matters of the law: justice, mercy, and the love of God. You are tithers. You know to give 10% of your produce, your increase, your flocks, and so on, but if you find a little piece of mint on the ground, you make sure that a tenth of that goes into the plate.” The people who received the judgment of God were scrupulous in their tithing. I wonder what He would say to those of us who do not tithe. We are not even qualified to be Pharisees.
Jesus said, “You tithe with great scrupulousness, but you omit the weightier matters of the law.” Matthew’s version identifies “justice and mercy” as weightier matters (Matt. 23:23). What was Jesus saying? He was saying that anybody can tithe. That is easy. To be a follower of God, tithing is elementary. It is foundational. To be a tither does not make you a super-Christian or a super-believer. He said, “These things you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone.” So, Jesus was not saying to the Pharisees, “Don’t tithe, just keep the weightier matters instead.” Rather, He was saying: “Yes, tithe, but don’t think that just because you tithe, you’ve done that which is pleasing to God. There is so much more. The heavy matters are justice, mercy, and manifesting the love of God.”
Woe on Hidden Graves
The text continues with another oracle of judgment: “Woe to you Pharisees! For you love the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces.” Where were the best seats in the synagogue? When people came to the synagogue, those of honor and status, such as the visiting rabbi, got to sit right up in front in the chief seat of the synagogue.
The Pharisees loved it when they were walking down the street and the people would recognize them for their religious austerity and greet them with honor. This is a problem usually reserved for the clergy, as was the problem in the first century.
Jesus continued: “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.” If you ever visit the Mount of Olives in Palestine, you will see a cemetery there. All the graves are whitewashed. Matthew speaks of white-washed sepulchers: beautiful, pristine, and clean on the outside. But inside, they are filled with dead men’s bones.
Jesus was alluding to a custom in the ancient world. During times of feast days, when pilgrims would come from all the different villages to Jerusalem for a feast, it was custom to put fresh coats of whitewash on grave sites. Not all the graves were in cemeteries, but they could be found outside of cemeteries. You would be ceremonially unclean if you walked over somebody’s grave. So, to keep people from accidentally becoming defiled by stepping on a grave, the owner or the family who owned the grave were required to whitewash them as an indication that this was a grave site. In other words, whitewashing was a way of saying, “Do not walk here.” Jesus said: “You’re just like these graves, the ones that haven’t been whitewashed. Nobody can see them, and people walk over them without being aware.”
Woe to Burdensome Lawyers
At this point, one of the scribes—a lawyer and expert on God’s law in the Old Testament—could not take it anymore: “One of the lawyers answered and said to Him, ‘Teacher, by saying these things You reproach us also.’” To put it in another way of translating, “Teacher, when You say these things, You are insulting us.” They did not like to be insulted.
In response, did Jesus say, “I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to include you in this scathing denunciation”? No—instead, He used another woe: “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.” In other words, “You put all kinds of legal requirements on people that God does not command, but you will not obey them yourselves.”
Woe to Prophet Killers
“Woe to you! For you build the tombs of the prophets.” On the south side of Jerusalem’s city wall was the sculptured tomb of the ancient prophets of the Old Testament. There was a monument there to the great works of the former prophets. Jesus said, “You built these tombs to honor the prophets, the same prophets that your fathers murdered.”
The implication of Jesus’ statement is: “You have murdered them too. In fact, what you are doing this afternoon at this meal is setting plans to murder the supreme prophet, all the while getting public recognition for building these wonderful tombs.”
Jesus continued: “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.”
Earlier, Jesus had said, “This is a wicked and adulterous generation.” He singled out that generation of all human history as the worst, not because they were inherently more sinful, but because they received more light from God than any in antiquity. The principle was this: to whom much is given, much is required. That generation witnessed the incarnate Son of God, who came to His own, but His own received Him not.
Woe to Unbelieving Theologians
“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.” These were the theologians, the clergy of the day. Instead of opening the doors to the kingdom of God, they were closing them.
I had a conversation with somebody recently in which I said, “One of the biggest problems we have in the church today is the unbelief of the clergy.” The person looked at me like I was from another planet and said, “You’re kidding, aren’t you?” I said, “No.”
In the nineteenth century, there was a massive movement of liberal theology, which denied all the miracles of Jesus, the virgin birth of Jesus, the atoning death of Jesus, and the resurrection of Jesus. Liberal theologians won the day in Europe, which is one of the reasons that the church is almost non-existent in Europe today. Liberal theology also had a massive influence in American theology, particularly in the mainline churches.
A Swiss theologian by the name of Emil Brunner wrote a magnificent work of Christology entitled Der Mittler, that is, The Mediator. In that book, he made this observation: “The problem with liberalism is that it is simply unbelief. Those who embrace liberal theology are unbelievers.”
We have entire generations of clergy and seminaries that teach liberal theology. I heard a man rebuked in the seminary I attended when he gave his student sermon and spoke of the atoning death of Christ. The professor was furious. He said, “How dare you preach the substitutionary atonement in this day and age!” Another student was rebuked for coming to seminary with preconceived ideas, among them the deity of Christ.
I cannot read people’s hearts, but I felt confident that the vast majority of my professors in seminary were unbelievers. I would also guess, without knowing their hearts, that the overwhelming majority of students I went to seminary with were unbelievers. That is shocking to people.
Judgment on Counterfeit Clergy
We hear about the greater judgment of those who preach the Word. Those of us who have been given a responsibility of preaching the Word and tending the flock will be held to a higher judgment. There is nothing new about this. It was the clergy that hated Jesus. It was the clergy that killed Jesus.
The Pharisees began as a group committed and dedicated to righteousness. They never achieved it. They were counterfeit. When the genuine appeared in their midst, it exposed the counterfeit righteousness that the Pharisees proclaimed. That is why Jesus had to go. He was not killed because He said, “Consider the lilies, how they spin,” but because He said, “Consider the Pharisees, how they lie.” That is why He was killed.
Are You “Playing Christian”?
Luke continues: “And as He said these things to them, the scribes and Pharisees began to assail Him vehemently, and to cross-examine Him about many things, lying in wait for Him, and seeking to catch Him in something He might say, that they might accuse Him.” The scribes and Pharisees were thinking: “Listen to what He says. Write it down. We’ll use it against him. We’ll take what He says and get rid of Him.” They claimed to be religious, but it was only on the surface.
I have a question for you: Is your Christian faith and Christian commitment a matter of the surface? Are you playing at being a Christian? Or is it real? Is it the real thing? I am not asking you if you still sin. We all still sin. I want to know if your faith is something that is in you and not something that you just wear on the outside on Sunday morning.
We need to ask ourselves this question regularly. Otherwise, we are just like the scribes. We are just like the Pharisees. Instead of being friends of Christ, we would be His enemies. God grant that no such hypocrisy exists in this room this morning.
This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.