God Condemns Hypocrisy

Romans 2:17-29
P.G. Mathew | Sunday, April 27, 2008
Copyright © 2008, P.G. Mathew

A hypocrite is an actor. He practices the opposite of what he preaches and his outward appearance does not match his inward condition. History is replete with famous hypocrites-politicians who prosecute people, only to be caught in the same crimes; ministers who preach vigorously against certain sins, only to be secretly indulging in such sins themselves; or leaders who claim to stand with and for the poor, even though they themselves live in exclusive neighborhoods and enjoy lavish lifestyles.

Fallen man is a sinner and a hypocrite. We all have varying degrees of hypocrisy in us. This sin of hypocrisy is particularly a problem for leaders-for politicians, judges, parents, and pastors. James warns, “Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly” (Jas. 3:1). The self-righteous accusers of the woman caught in the act of adultery could not stone her to death because they were convicted by Jesus Christ of committing sin themselves (John 8:3-11). Paul declares, “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things” (Rom. 2:1). Jesus Christ alone was righteous and without hypocrisy. He even challenged his enemies, saying, “Can any of you prove me guilty of sin?” (John 8:46).

In Romans 2:17-29 Paul destroys the false confidence of the Jews by exposing their hypocrisy. Jesus did the same, telling his disciples, “You must obey the teachers of the law and Pharisees who sit in the seat of Moses, and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach.” The entire chapter of Matthew 23 is an exposé and denunciation of the hypocrisy of the Jewish leaders. For example, Jesus exclaims, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones 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” (Matt. 23:27-28).

The situation is the same today. In fact, when we read Romans 2, every time we see “Jew,” we can substitute the word “Christian,” because Paul’s words apply to us. In this television age, perception is all that matters. Therefore, may God’s Holy Spirit expose our Christian hypocrisy that we may dispose of it by the blood of Jesus Christ. From this passage we want to examine the image, the contradiction, and the reality.

The Image (Rom. 2:17-20)

Paul uses eight verbs to describe the privileges and status and blessings of the Jewish people in Romans 2:17-20.1

  1. “Now you, if you call yourself a Jew” (Rom. 2:17). Paul is addressing those who called themselves Jews. The word “Jew” means “praise to God.” A Jew was the chosen one, a child of Abraham with whom God entered into a covenant. Being any descendant of Jacob, a Jew was, therefore, a covenant child. The Bible says salvation was of the Jews, which was true, for Jesus himself was a Jew. The Jews looked down on the Gentiles, whom they called dogs. A Jew was pleased with himself, thinking he was superior to the Gentiles simply by being born a Jew.

    Yet Jesus disagreed with this smug self-analysis of the Jews. To the church of Smyrna he wrote, “I know your afflictions and your poverty-yet you are rich! I know the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan” (Rev. 2:9).

  2. “If you rely on the law” (Rom. 2:17). The Jew rested in the law (i.e., in the Old Testament). He thought possession of the word of God would exempt him from the judgment and wrath of God. He would say, “Only Gentiles are under the wrath of God because we Jews possess superior knowledge. Have we not been given the special revelation of God’s law?” But listen to the prophet Micah: “Her leaders judge for a bribe, her priests teach for a price, and her prophets tell fortunes for money. Yet they lean upon the Lord and say, ‘Is not the Lord among us? No disaster will come upon us.’ Therefore because of you, Zion will be plowed like a field, Jerusalem will become a heap of rubble, the temple hill a mound overgrown with thickets” (Mic. 3:11-12). Their security was proven to be false. Paul also writes, “For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous” (Rom. 2:13). Hypocrites shall be condemned.
  3. “If you . . . brag about your relationship to God” (Rom. 2:17). The Jews correctly boasted that the God of Israel was the true God, while the Gentiles worshiped idols. Their God was a national asset. To glory in God, as John Murray says, is the greatest act of piety.2 Isaiah says that we are created for God’s glory (Isa. 43:7). Paul declares, “Let him who boasts boast in the Lord” (1 Cor. 1:31). But when a hypocrite boasts in God, he is really boasting in himself.
  4. “If you know his will” (Rom. 2:18). The Jew knew God’s will and could quote the Bible. He condemned the view of the Gentiles of God; he had special revelation. Although he knew that God’s will is revealed in the Bible, his was only an intellectual knowledge. The Jew took great delight in arguing about the will of God. He was thoroughly orthodox, but so is the devil. Orthodoxy without orthopraxy cannot save anyone. This is not just a Jewish problem. Today it is specifically a Christian problem, the problem of those who pride themselves as being evangelicals. Such people correctly say they know God’s will, but they refuse to submit to it in practice. Many modern evangelicals have abandoned obedience and holiness in favor of antinomian lawlessness. To such the Lord will say on that day, “Depart from me, you workers of lawlessness (anomia).”
  5. “If you know his will and approve of what is superior” (Rom. 2:18). Not only did the Jew know God’s will, but he approved it. The Jews were able to discern what was excellent, moral, and right. They had a moral consciousness that was based, not on conscience, but on God’s special revelation. They approved the Ten Commandments in theory but not in practice.
  6. “You are instructed by the law” (Rom. 2:18). As God’s people, the Jews were catechized in the word of God. Each Jewish father had the responsibility to teach his children God’s law. A Jewish home was a place of teaching the Bible. The Jews also went to the local church, called the synagogue, which was not only a place of worship but also a school where God’s law was taught. It was Jesus’ custom to go to the synagogue every Sabbath where he learned God’s word (Luke 4:16), which was also taught in the temple in Jerusalem. So we see Jesus discussing the Scriptures with the doctors of the law in the temple (Luke 2:46-47).
  7. The Jew was convinced of certain responsibilities he had toward the Gentile world in view of the entrustment of this special revelation of God to the Jews (Rom. 2:19-20).

    A guide to the blind (v. 19). Because the Gentiles were blind to the truth of the Scriptures, it was the Jews’ responsibility to guide them into the truth. Ironically, these hypocrites were total failures in this task, as Jesus pointed out: “They are blind guides. If a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit” (Matt. 23:15-16; Luke 6:39).

    A light for those who are in the dark (v. 19). Israel’s mission was to be light to the world of Gentiles (Isa. 9:2; 42:6-7; 49:6).

    An instructor of the foolish (v. 20). With his knowledge of God’s word, the Jew was to correct, rebuke, and counsel the Gentiles.

    A teacher of infants (v. 20). The Jew was responsible for teaching those who knew nothing of the word of God.

    The Jews were convinced of their obligations to the world of Gentiles. But note Jesus’ analysis of their careful carrying out of these responsibilities: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are” (Matt. 23:15).

  8. “Because you have in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth” (Rom. 2:20). The Jew possessed the Bible, the very word of God, God’s revelation of knowledge and truth. No such truth can be found anywhere else-not in pagan wisdom and philosophy, which Paul calls “hollow and deceptive philosophy” (Col. 2:8). True truth is found in the Bible, which was the inheritance of the Jewish people.

The Internal Contradiction of the Jew (Rom. 2:21-24)

The Jewish leaders failed not in their preaching of the truth but in their practice of it. In verses 21 through 24, Paul asks five diagnostic questions to expose the hypocrisy of these Jews who were resting in a false security from divine judgment. We see such an insightful exposé also in the book of Revelation, when Jesus speaks to the church of Laodicea. They said they were rich and had need of nothing. But Jesus discloses their true condition: “You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked” (Rev. 3:17). Our self-exaltation and self-praise mean nothing. What matters is what God says about us.

  1. “You, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself?” (Rom. 2:21). The problem with the Jews was that they taught others God’s law but failed to teach themselves and practice it. They saw the speck very clearly in other people’s eyes but failed to see the plank sticking out of their own eyes. This is especially a problem of parents, pastors, and teachers.
  2. “You who preach against stealing, do you steal?” (Rom. 2:21). These Jews preached against stealing even while they were engaging in theft. In fact, they were worse than normal thieves because most thieves do not say, “Do not steal.” They just steal. But these people were teaching that it is wrong to violate God’s commandment even while they were stealing.
  3. “You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery?” (Rom. 2:22). Here again, these people were preaching against adultery even while they were practicing it.
  4. “You who abhor idols, do you rob temples?” (Rom. 2:22). The Jews self-righteously opposed the idolatry of the pagan Gentiles, but they themselves were robbing temples, either to worship those idols or to sell the idols to make money.
  5. “You who brag about the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law?” (Rom. 2:23). As we noted before, these people took great pride in their possession of God’s law. But they dishonored God by breaking the law in their daily lives. As a result, Paul says, “God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you” (Rom. 2:24). The Gentiles learned about the God of the Jews by observing their conduct. The people of God always reflect God to the unbelieving world, even if the picture we give of God is false. Therefore, a lazy Christian is portraying a lazy God; a lying Christian reflects a lying God; an adulterous Christian reveals a God who condones adultery; and a defeated Christian is declaring a powerless God. God has created us for his glory, but if we are not obeying God’s law, we bring shame and dishonor to God.

The greatest reality that we must be consumed with is the glory of God, not of ourselves. Heaven, hell, and all creation exist to proclaim God’s glory, and he will not tolerate any diminution of that glory through violations of his law. For example, when our children do not obey us, they are dishonoring us. But more than that, they are dishonoring God.

How do we violate God’s law? We steal when we fail to worship God when we ought, when we fail to work hard for our employers, when we fail to love our spouses or train our children in piety. We commit adultery when we look lustfully at another (Matt. 5:27-28). James Boice says, “We break [the first commandment] whenever we give some person or some object or some worldly aspiration the first place in our lives, a place that belongs to God alone. Often today the substitute god is ourselves or our image of ourselves.”3 John Stott says about keeping the first commandment: “[It is] to see all things from his [God’s] point of view and do nothing without reference to him; to make his will our guide and his glory our goal; to put him first in thought, word and deed; in business and in leisure; in friendships and in career; in the use of our money, time and talents; at work and at home.”4 May God help us, whether we are pastors or elders or fathers or mothers or teachers apply this truth to ourselves.

To the Jews who prided themselves in being keepers of God’s law Jesus said, “But do not think that I will accuse you before the Father. Your accuser is Moses, on whom your hopes are set” (John 5:45). Jesus exposes our hypocrisy. (PGM) He sees our image and contradictions, our outside and inside. To the foolish virgins who thought they were authentic Christians, Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, I don’t know you” (Matt. 25:12). Others came to Jesus and declared, “Did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?” These “Christians” were hypocrites. Jesus told them, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!” (Matt. 7:22-23).

God similarly exposed the hypocrisy of David. After David’s grievous sins of adultery with Bathsheba and the murder of Uriah, the prophet Nathan came to David telling a story about a rich man who had many cattle and sheep. There was also a poor man who bought a ewe lamb and raised her in his house as a pet, letting her eat, drink, and even sleep with her owner. When a traveler came to the rich man, instead of using his own flocks, the rich man stole the poor man’s ewe lamb, killed her, and made a feast for the visitor. “David burned with anger against the man and said to Nathan, ‘As surely as the LORD lives, the man who did this deserves to die! He must pay for the lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity.’ Then Nathan said to David, ‘You are the man!'” (2 Sam. 12:5-7). How carefully and clearly we see other people’s problems but not our own.

We all are in danger of falling into hypocrisy. If a preacher cannot manage his own house and himself, he cannot be an effective and God-approved minister of the gospel. So every time I preach, I must preach to myself first. We must keep in mind the words of the psalmist Asaph: “But to the wicked God says: ‘What right have you to recite my laws or take my covenant on your lips? You hate my instruction and cast my words behind you. When you see a thief, you join with him; you throw in your lot with adulterers. You use your mouth for evil and harness your tongue to deceit. You speak continually against your brother and slander your own mother’s son. These things you have done and I kept silent; you thought I was altogether like you” (Ps. 50:16-21).

The Reality of God (vv. 25-29)

“Circumcision has value if you observe the law, but if you break the law, you have become as though you had not been circumcised” (Rom. 2:25). To bring the Jews to the reality God is interested in, Paul turns to their final argument: they were circumcised. Circumcision was older than the law. It was given to Abraham as a sign and seal of God’s covenant of promise. The Jew was proud of his circumcision, for it set him apart from the unbelieving Gentiles.

But circumcision was only a sign to point us to the reality of a relational life to God in faithful obedience to him as the Lord of the covenant. To confuse the sign with reality is the epitome of hypocrisy. In the same way, some Christians glory in their Christian nationality, Christian family background, Christian baptism, Christian marriage, Christian church membership, and Christian Bible. But we can be Christian hypocrites who glory in outward things even while we lack the inner reality of a life of obedience. Paul tells us he received his apostleship “to call people from among all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith” (Rom. 1:5). Not only does God condemn the Jewish hypocrite, but he also condemns all Christian hypocrites who glory in their image but their hearts are corrupt. The sign of baptism can never take us to heaven. Karl Barth said, “The heroes of God without God may be compared to a traveller who remains standing under the signpost instead of moving in the direction to which it directs him. The signpost has become meaningless.”5 It is profitable only if the inner reality of a new heart and new life exists.

The only remedy for this problem of a wicked heart is being born again by the Holy Spirit. Baptism, like circumcision, is a sign and seal of the reality of that new birth. It points to the reality of a covenant relationship with God and a covenant life of delightful obedience. It is a sign and seal of the reality that we are a new creation, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, pleasing to God. John Piper states that circumcision without obedience means a disobedient Jew is, in reality, a pagan. But uncircumcision plus obedience means an obedient Gentile has now become a true Jew.6

Therefore, physical circumcision, like physical baptism, can achieve nothing. We need a circumcision of our heart performed not by man but by God himself. The Bible often speaks about circumcising our hearts: “The LORD your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live” (Deut. 30:6). Notice, the Lord himself promises to do it. Paul writes to the Philippians, “Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord! It is no trouble for me to write the same things to you again, and it is a safeguard for you. Watch out for those dogs, those men who do evil, those mutilators of the flesh.” These Jews gloried in their physical circumcision. Then he says, “For it is we who are the circumcision,” meaning those who are circumcised in our hearts by the Spirit of God, “we who worship by the Spirit of God and who glory in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh ” (Phil. 3:1-3). Elsewhere he speaks that there is no difference between Jew and Gentiles. They all are on equal footing before God.

Do not trust in baptism or circumcision, as the unbelieving Jews did. “Rabbi Menachem in his Commentary on the Books of Moses (fol. 43, col. 1) says, ‘Our Rabbins have said that no circumcised man will see hell.’ In the Jalkut Rubeni (num. 1) it is taught, ‘Circumcision saves from hell.’ In the Medrasch Tillim (fol. 7, col. 2) it is said, ‘God swore to Abraham that no one who was circumcised should be sent to hell.’ In the book of Akedath Jizehak (fol. 54, col. 2) it is taught that “Abraham sits before the gate of hell, and does not allow that any circumcised Israelite should enter there.”7

A ring is a sign of marriage. But if you do not love your wife and live with her under God’s word governing marriage, you have no real marriage. So do not boast in rings, signs, baptism, or circumcision. Boast in the Lord for he has given you a new heart, circumcised by the Spirit. The law of God is not written on a stone or on a paper. We belong to the new covenant. The law is written in our hearts and is part of our new nature. Like the saints of old, we delight in the law of the Lord. Circumcision or baptism has no intrinsic value without the reality it points to (i.e., regeneration, repentance, faith, justification, adoption, sanctification, and glorification). Without holiness no one will see God. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

The true church of God consists of all Jews and Gentiles who are circumcised by the Spirit and love and serve God without hypocrisy. Called the Israel of God, we all are on equal footing before God. Our praise is not of men but from God. The world hates the people of God, especially those who live by the gospel. But God praises us and will glorify us. He will commend us, saying, “Thou good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of the Lord.”

God’s wrath is revealed against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in wickedness. Neither Gentiles nor Jews nor Christians are exempt. In fact, Christians will be most severely judged due to the greater light of the gospel they possess. Charles Hodges says, “Whenever true religion declines, the disposition to lay undue stress on external rites is increased. . . . The Christian Church, when it lost its spirituality, taught that water in baptism washed away sin. How large a part of nominal Christians rest all their hopes on the idea of the inherent efficacy of external rites!”8

There is only one way out of this problem. The gospel of God’s Son, the gospel of God, is mighty to save. Christ died for our sins and was raised for our justification. When we believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, we will be saved. So let us repent of all hypocrisy as the Holy Spirit directs our hearts. Let us not be like the hypocrite Saul, to whom Samuel said, “Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the voice of the Lord? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams. For rebellion is like the sin of divination, and arrogance like the evil of idolatry.” May God help us to expose our hypocrisy and be completely forgiven that we may serve him with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength in all integrity.

1 John Stott, Romans: God’s Good News for the World (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 90-91.

22 John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997), 82.

3 James M. Boice, Romans, Vol. 1: Justification by Faith, Romans 1-4 (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1991), 255.

4 Quoted by James Boice, 255.

5 Quoted in A New Testament Commentary: Based on the Revised Standard Version, G.C.D. Howley, general editor, F.F. Bruce and H.L. Ellison, contributing editors (London: Pickering and Inglis, 1969), 346.

6 John Piper, “Who Is a True Jew, Part 2” (http://www.desiringgod.org/resource-library/sermons/who-is-a-true-jew-part-2)

7 Quoted by James Boice, 259.

8 Charles Hodge, A Commentary on Romans (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1989 rept.), 68.