Marks of Hypocritical Religion
Passage: Luke 11:37–11:56
Marks of Hypocritical Religion
Throughout Luke ch11, we’ve heard Jesus say a number of hard things. “Whoever is not with me is against me,” Jesus warned, v23. “This generation is an evil generation,” v29. “The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment…and condemn this generation,” Jesus predicted, v32. As the chapter comes to a close, this is what we’ve witnessed – Jesus saying hard things.
But as we come to these final verses today, we find that Jesus has saved his sharpest words for last. If Luke 11 recounts Jesus saying hard things, then this passage is the hardest. You heard it as we read – here we find Jesus utterly denouncing the hypocrisy of the Jewish religious leaders. If this is an evil generation, then Jesus wants everyone to know that the wickedness starts at the top. From the Pharisees and scribes on down, the religion of Jesus’ day is largely devoid of life, opposed to God, and infected to the core with hypocrisy. And therefore, everyone – and Jesus means everyone – ought to repent of their wickedness and receive God’s Word as proclaimed by Jesus.
That’s really the takeaway of this passage, brothers and sisters. No amount of outward performance, no display of clever religious reasoning, no level of lip-service devotion can bring you to God. The only way for corrupt and depraved sinners to be saved is by submitting themselves to the good news that Jesus himself proclaims.
And that gives us our marching orders for today, friends. What this passage demands of us is humility – the humility to see where we too ought to repent. In fact, the quickest way to misunderstand this passage is to assume it has nothing to say to you. The rebuke Jesus gives these religious leaders also confronts us. So, our starting place must be humility – a willingness to admit where Jesus’ sharp words convict us.
In terms of an outline, then, we’re going to consider six marks of hypocritical religion, largely following Jesus’ woes against the religious leaders. We’ll move pretty quickly through those marks, and then at the end, we’ll come back and answer the pressing question of the passage – what hope is there for hypocrites? So, six marks of hypocritical religion from Luke 11.
Hypocritical Religion Minimizes True Holiness
Luke gives us the setting for the scene in v37, as Jesus is invited to share a meal with a Pharisee. The Pharisees, you may remember, viewed themselves as the guardians of OT Law. They were so concerned with protecting the commandments that they built an entire system of tradition around the Scriptures. Think of this tradition like a fence – it kept people from even getting close to breaking the actual commandments. But over time, this tradition became essentially as important to the Pharisees as the Law itself.
And that explains the controversy that erupts in v38. The Pharisee is stunned that Jesus does not follow the tradition of ceremonial washing, which was a very elaborate ritual that went beyond anything prescribed in the OT. This is key, friends. In the Pharisee’s mind, Jesus is not careful about purity. Jesus is playing fast and loose with holiness, at least as defined by the Pharisees.
So, Jesus responds, and he does so with a stinging rebuke. Notice v39 – “And the Lord said to him, ‘Now you Pharisees cleanse the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness.’” In short, the Pharisees are hypocrites, Jesus says. They have elaborate rituals for cleaning the outside of cups and dishes, but in the end, they don’t do anything about the dirt and grim that’s stuck on the inside, on their hearts. For all their bluster about purity, the Pharisees are really just hiding behind a façade.
And so, Jesus confronts them with the foolishness of attempting to hide from God. Notice v40 – “You fools! Did not he who made the outside make the inside also?” This is the Pharisees’ problem, friends. They misunderstand holiness because they misunderstand God. Their view of God is too small, and therefore, their view of holiness is too limited. “If we get the plate clean enough,” they think, “then God won’t notice that our hearts are greedy and wicked.”
But friends, that’s the very height of foolishness! As Jesus says, God made both the outside and the inside, which means he sees all of you. You can’t fool God with hypocritical religion. The only person you’re fooling is yourself. In God’s eyes, there is not a public you and a private you. In God’s eyes, there is just you, and his expectation is that all of you be holy before him.
And so, Jesus directs this Pharisee to where the correction is needed. He directs the Pharisee to the heart. Notice v41 – “But give as alms things that are within, and behold, everything is clean for you.” Alms, according to the OT, were a gift of mercy to those in need. It was a display of devotion to God. But Jesus is speaking symbolically here in v41. He’s saying don’t just go through the motions of religion; instead, give God the offering of the heart. Offer to God a truly godly life.
That’s the correction to hypocrisy, friends. It’s to recognize that holiness is never merely an outward observance. True holiness in the eyes of God always begins in the heart. It always flows outward from a life that has been transformed by grace and is now submitted to the Word of God at the core of your being. Holiness requires heart transformation.
And so, note what this means, friends. It means that no amount of religious observance is enough to cover up the sin of our hearts. Apart from God’s grace, our hearts are full of greed and wickedness. You can construct the most elaborate ritual that produces the most meticulous approach to religion, but as Jesus says here, those outward solutions won’t change a single thing about the state of your heart.
Why is that? Why can’t outward rituals clean us up? Because every sin, at the core, is an assault on the glory of God. Imagine thinking that the Creator of the Universe could be bought off with a few rituals. Imagine thinking that the Almighty God could be fooled with mere outward performance. Do you see the foolishness of such a scheme, friends? But that’s what we’re trying to do whenever we pursue hypocritical religion. We may think that the problem with hypocrisy is that it tells a lie about us, and that’s true on some level. But the real heinousness of hypocrisy is that it tells a lie about God.
Sin is no small matter, friends. That’s what we ought to see. Paradoxically, a right view of holiness begins, first of all, with a right view of sin. If we think sin is small, then we’ll often be content with hypocritical, outward solutions. But if we sin for what it is, then we’ll recognize that no amount of religion can ever clean our hearts in the sight of God, and we’ll cast ourselves on grace. If we want to deal with sin, we have to go where Jesus goes, and that is to the heart.
Hypocritical Religion Substitutes Little Things for the Main Thing
The second mark of hypocritical religion continues this theme. Notice v42, where the second mark is this – Hypocritical Religion substitutes little things for the main thing. Jesus begins a series of woes against the Pharisees. A woe is simply an expression of lament that highlights the danger of a situation. So, Jesus is vocalizing what a dangerous position the Pharisees are in.
And this first woe captures their tendency to substitute little things for the main thing. Notice v42 – “But woe to you, Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue, and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God!” The OT instructed God’s people to tithe on their yearly crops, but the Pharisees went further. They would even tithe on their herbs – the smallest yield of the garden. And of course, they believed this demonstrated their commitment to holiness.
But again, Jesus points out their foolishness. No amount of miniscule ritual can take the place of loving God and loving your neighbor as yourself. That’s what Jesus means when he talks about justice and the love of God. He’s summarizing the first and second great commandments.
So, notice what the Pharisees have done. They’ve sidelined the main thing by emphasizing their observance of a small thing. Why would Pharisees do such a thing? It seems rather obvious that this is a ridiculous approach to pleasing God, so why would they do it? Think about the cost of tithing your herb garden vs the cost of loving your neighbor in need. Which one is easier? Tithing the herb garden, of course. You just tweeze a little corner of the mint leaf, drop it in the offering box, and you’re done. Not that difficult, right? And then, when you drive past your neighbor’s house and your heart convicts you, you can quickly say, “But I give what God requires! I even do it with small things.”
It’s a bit like a guy who boasts that he never parks in the handicapped space at work. “I never do that because it’s wrong!” He even polices everyone else in the parking lot too. “I’m a good employee,” he says. But meanwhile, he gets out of his correctly parked car, goes inside his workplace, and steals from his employer.
Do you see what has happened? You’ve taken a relatively trivial thing – parking rules – and you’ve used it as cover for a major disobedience – failing to love God and neighbor. To say it another way, you’ve lowered the standard for holiness to something you can meet, and then you’ve used that self-made standard to dull the point of Scripture. That’s hypocritical religion, friends. It substitutes little things for the main thing, and it does so in order to lower the standard to something I can meet on my own.
Hypocritical Religion Loves the Appearance of Godliness but Lacks the Substance
We see this in Jesus’ second and third woes to the Pharisees, vv43-44. This is really a two-part critique from Jesus. It begins, v43, by pointing out the Pharisees’ pride – “Woe to you Pharisees! For you love the best seat in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces.” So, on a basic level, Jesus rebukes the Pharisees for their very public arrogance. When the Pharisees go out, they like to be hailed as important. When they arrive at the synagogue, they love to be recognized as godly and pious. In short, the Pharisees pride themselves on their position, and they want other people to see it as well.
Pride, in and of itself, is a problem. Pride is at the core of hypocrisy. Why does a hypocrite put up a front and pretend to be something he’s not? Because he wants the prestige that comes with his pretended position. Pride animates hypocrisy, and that alone is a reason for Jesus to rebuke the Pharisees.
But there’s another piece to Jesus’ rebuke, and it comes in the woe of v44. Notice how Jesus exposes what the Pharisees are truly like – “Woe to you! For you are like unmarked graves, and people walk over them without knowing it!” Some OT background is important here. In the book of Numbers, ch19, God warned his people that any contact with a corpse or with a grave would make someone unclean. That is, for seven days, you would not be able to participate in religious worship, and you would have to offer a specific sacrifice for your cleansing.
So, when Jesus calls the Pharisees unmarked graves, he’s saying their prideful pretense masks their true condition. They boast about purity, but in reality, they’re unclean and they make others unclean as well. So, these are not people to be celebrated and promoted. These are not people who should sit in the best seats in the synagogues. The Pharisees are people to be avoided. They look good on the surface, but underneath, there is contamination and corruption.
Friends, let’s not miss the warning here. Maintaining a public appearance should never be mistaken for true holiness. Craving public prestige is no substitute for having a pure heart before God. This is one of the subtle dangers of pride. By trying to maintain an image, we end up blinding ourselves to what we truly need – transformation of the heart. And that’s what we see with the Pharisees. Hypocritical religion loves the appearance of godliness but lacks the substance.
Hypocritical Religion Demands Holiness But Does Nothing to Help
That brings us to Mark #4, from vv45-46 – Hypocritical Religion demands holiness but does nothing to help. At this point, a lawyer speaks up, v45, and he points out that Jesus woes’ insult the Jewish scribes as well. So, what does Jesus do? He eliminates any confusion by giving the lawyers their own set of woes! Jesus is an equal opportunity rebuker. If the lawyer is wondering about Jesus’ intent, then the Lord makes it clear. Here’s a set of woes just for you.
And this first woe takes on the scribes’ harsh legalism that harms others. Notice v46 – “And [Jesus] said, ‘Woe to you lawyers also! For you load people with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not touch the burdens with one of your fingers.’” So, what Jesus is confronting here is a “do as I say, not as I do” approach to spiritual leadership. The scribes, with their extra-biblical system of tradition, were placing a heavy burden on people’s backs. In fact, they were crushing people under rules and regulations that no one could bear. Then, to make matters worse, the scribes were not willing to help the very people they burdened! That’s the sense of v46. The scribes tied burdens on people’s backs, and then they wouldn’t even lift a finger to help them.
But at the same time, the scribes were experts at escaping those burdens themselves. Remember, these lawyers are the masters of interpretation, often able to find loopholes that the regular people couldn’t see. So, they would wiggle out from under the burden, while others were crushed. It’s a “do as I say, not as I do” approach to spiritual leadership, and what it reveals is a callous attitude toward the very people they were meant to lead.
This is an overlooked effect of hypocrisy, friends. Hypocrisy often hardens us toward the situation of others. We’re so busy keep up appearances and maintaining our position that we grow cold toward other people. That’s poor spiritual leadership, and it’s exactly what we see from the scribes. “Do as I say, not as I do” – hypocritical religion demands holiness from others but does nothing to help them.
Hypocritical Religion Affirms God’s Word in Theory But Opposes It in Practice
Mark #5 from vv47-51 – Hypocritical Religion affirms God’s Word in theory but opposes God’s Word in practice. Jesus makes a historical argument here, and his point is to warn the scribes and Pharisees of judgment. It begins in vv47-48 – “Woe to you! For you build the tombs of the prophets whom your fathers killed. So you are witnesses and you consent to the deeds of your fathers, for they killed them, and you build their tombs.” So, what is Jesus getting at? It helps to remember the history of the prophets in OT Israel. More often than not, OT Israel rejected God’s prophets. Take Jeremiah for example, who spent a good portion of his ministry in prison. Or, think of the prophets that the wicked Queen Jezebel killed, 1 Kings 18. That was the pattern of prophetic ministry in OT Israel. God would send his word through his prophets, but the people would reject and often kill God’s messengers.
Here in Luke 11, Jesus is saying that the scribes and Pharisees carry on that lethal legacy. Your fathers killed the prophets, Jesus says, but you build their tombs. In other words, the tombs you build prove you are the heirs of hard-hearted Israel. This is why Jesus, in v29, called this generation an evil generation – because they are carrying to completion Israel’s history of rejecting God’s word.
And then to make his point clear, Jesus proceeds to summarize all of redemptive history and connect it with himself. Notice vv49-51 – “Therefore also the Wisdom of God said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute,’ so that the blood of all the prophets, shed from the foundation of the world, may be charged against this generation, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, it will be required of this generation.” There is a lot to consider in those verses, but I want us to see the main point. Jesus mentions two people by name – Abel and Zechariah. Why pick those two figures? What’s the significance?
Abel, of course, refers to Adam and Eve’s son who was murdered by his brother in Genesis 4. Jewish tradition considered Abel a forerunner of the prophets, and even the writer to the Hebrews in the NT considers Abel’s life to be a prophetic anticipation of righteousness by faith, Hebrews 11. So, from the very first book of the Bible, the pattern of rejection begins with Abel.
What about Zechariah? Most likely, Zechariah here refers to a man in 2 Chronicles 24 who was killed for confronting Israel’s disobedience. He spoke God’s word to the people, and the people killed him, just like Cain killed Abel. Here’s what fascinating, friends. 2 Chronicles is the last book in the Hebrew Bible. The books of the Hebrew Bible are in a different order than our English OT, and 2 Chronicles is the last book.
So, notice what Jesus has done. Abel in Genesis, the first book of Hebrew Scripture, and Zechariah in 2 Chronicles, the last book of Hebrew Scripture – those two men represent the entire history, beginning to end, of God’s messengers being opposed, rejected, and killed. And now, Jesus is saying that entire history of rejection is culminating right now, with his ministry. That’s the point, brothers and sisters. Jesus is the fulfillment of every OT prophetic message, but despite that significance, Jesus’ generation will reject him. That means – all of Israel’s wicked history culminates here with this evil generation that rejects the Messiah, Jesus Christ.
That’s what the Jewish religious leaders don’t understand. By rejecting Jesus, they condemn themselves as deserving God’s judgment. It’s one thing to reject Jeremiah or Isaiah, but it’s something else entirely to reject the One to whom Jeremiah and Isaiah pointed. And that’s what the scribes and Pharisees are doing. In fact, they go out in vv53-54 and actually step up their opposition. The only place this ends is at the cross.
And to think, the scribes and the Pharisees are the ones who would have professed the greatest reverence for the Scriptures. They are the ones who would have argued for divine inspiration and authority, and yet, in practice, they deny and reject the very thing they claim to uphold. This is hypocritical religion, brothers and sisters. It affirms God’s Word in theory, but then it denies that Word in practice.
Hypocritical Religion Hinders People from Knowing God
And that brings us to the final mark of text, from v52 – Hypocritical Religion hinders people from knowing God. You could make the case that v52 is the worst of all the woes. Notice what Jesus says – “Woe to you lawyers! For you have taken away the key of knowledge. You did not enter yourselves, and you hindered others who were entering.” Friends, the key of knowledge refers to the truth needed to understand God’s promised plan of redemption. And the scribes, Jesus says, have taken away that key. They conceal the truth of God’s word; they obscure the means of entering into God’s redemptive plan.
And the result is tragic. Not only do the scribes not enter, but they hinder others from doing so as well. Friends, those are the spiritual stakes in play anytime God’s Word is opened. Will the key of knowledge – the truth of God’s revelation – be made clear, or will it be obscured? Will people be led to see and embrace God’s way by faith, or will they be hindered by the hypocrisy and pride of others?
That’s why Scripture speaks so forcefully against hypocritical religion. It’s not simply that God hates the deceptive nature of hypocrisy, though he certainly does hate it. It’s also that hypocrisy obscures the truth and leads people astray. We’ve all seen that effect before, haven’t we? I know of a man who grew up in the church, but his life now is devoted to denying the truth of God. How did he get from serving God to denying him? Because he suffered greatly at the hands of a hypocritical teacher. That’s why Jesus speaks so strongly here – because hypocritical religion hinders people from knowing God.
So, we’ve reached the end. Like we said, these are hard words from Jesus. Hypocritical Religion minimizes true holiness, substitutes little things for the main thing, loves the appearance of godliness but lacks the substance, demands holiness but does nothing to help, affirms God’s Word in theory but opposes God’s Word in practice, and perhaps worst of all, hinders people from knowing God. These are hard things. And part of the reason why they’re hard is because we know that we’re guilty of such hypocrisy. Each of us, in some way, has displayed or is displaying one of these marks. We’re not any better than the Pharisees and scribes. We’re just as prone to these things.
And so, that brings me to the question that we will end with this morning. This, I would argue, is the question of the text. The question is – What hope is there for hypocrites? What hope is there for people who recognize themselves in Jesus’ woes?
The answer, friends, lies in v46, or better yet, the path to the answer lies in v46. Notice it with me. Jesus says the scribes burden people with burdens hard to bear. Imagine a person carrying a massive boulder on his back, and that burden is a standard of spiritual performance that he cannot possibly attain. That’s what the scribes do – they burden people with crushing loads, both now and for eternity.
But if we listen to Scripture, brothers and sisters, this is also where we find the hope. That word burden in v46 is used by Jesus in another passage, Matthew 11. And there, Jesus says this, “Come to me, all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me,” Jesus says, “for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy,” Jesus promises, “and my burden is light.” Friends, the only hope for hypocrites is the freedom of the gospel that Jesus provides. That’s really what we see displayed here in Luke 11 – two paths, you might say, one paved with hypocrisy, leading to spiritual death, and one paved with the gospel, leading to spiritual life. The hypocritical religion of the human heart leads only to death, but the gospel grace of Jesus Christ leads to forgiveness and life everlasting. And this forgiveness – this life everlasting – is something that only Jesus can give. “I will give you rest,” Jesus says. Surprisingly, that’s where Jesus’ rebuke should lead us – to confess our sin, to confess our tendency toward hypocrisy, and to trust that Christ alone can save us from the greed and wickedness of our own hearts.
If you do not know Christ this morning, God’s Word is calling you to repent of your sin and believe the gospel. There is no religious act you can perform that will make you right with God. There is no standard you can invent that will be enough to earn eternal life. The only hope for sinners is to trust that Jesus Christ bore the weight of our sin at the cross, and that by faith, he now gives us his perfect righteousness, so that we are freed from all that the Law could not free us. That’s the good news for sinners, even for hypocrites, and God’s Word this morning is calling you to believe that message.
If you are a Christian today, the Scriptures are calling you, once again, to see that Christ alone provides the rest your soul craves. Even as Christians, we often continue to trust in our religious performance, hoping in all the things we have done well. But as you know, brothers and sisters, that kind of spiritual treadmill doesn’t lead to life. It wears you out, it saps your joy, and it produces self-righteousness. And so, for Christians, the call of this passage is to reaffirm that Christ alone is our hope in the Christian life, that Christ alone is our aim and our pursuit. That’s the gospel remedy to hypocrisy, brothers and sisters – it’s a quickness to confess sin, a relentless pursuit of holiness by grace, and a humble, daily testimony that in the end, all I have is Christ. It’s hard for hypocrisy to grow in a heart that is enthralled with Jesus.
So, wherever you are this morning, friends, I pray you leave today with renewed sight of the Savior. There is hope for sinners and hypocrites, and that hope is the gospel of Jesus Christ. May God give us grace to trust Christ, to love him more than ourselves, and to treasure him more than what this world can offer. Amen.