Acts by Gary DeLashmutt (1995)

Spiritual Hypocrisy

Photo of Gary DeLashmutt
Gary DeLashmutt

Acts 4:32-5:14



Repeat theme that there were problems the early church had to overcome.  Last week, we studied one of them--social opposition.  This week we’ll look at another one.

Read 4:32-37.  Remember that thousands of Jewish pilgrims had come to Christ on Pentecost, and decided to stay in Jerusalem to learn more about Jesus.  But before long they ran out of money.  This need became an opportunity for sacrificial generosity.  Many who had extra assets liquidated them and the money was used to help the needy.

One of the most generous evidently was Barnabas.  Probably one those Pentecost converts, his family evidently had land in Israel.  This was the first of many expressions of a heart that was sold out in love to Jesus and other people.  He becomes a key player in Acts, as we will see.

But now something evil, diabolical happens.  Read 5:1-11.  Wow!  No wonder great fear came upon the whole church!  We need to deal immediately with two common misconceptions:

Some think Ananias and Sapphira were rejected by God and sent to hell.  There is no basis for this, however.  They were evidently true believers in Christ (nothing in the text indicates differently), so they went to join the Lord in heaven.  They just got there ahead of schedule.

Still, this is pretty severe action.  What did they do to bring this on?  Some say it because they didn’t give all of their money to the church.  This would make a hum-dinger sermon text for a pledge drive!  It would also make all of us nervous, because none of us has done this.  But this is not the reason.  Peter makes this very clear in vs 4.  They could have kept the land, kept the proceeds, etc. without incurring God’s intervention.

The issue here was deception (vs 4b)--a special kind of deception that is aimed at God in the sense that they tried to deceive God’s people. It is a form of deception that is a spiritual cancer that can kill a spiritual movement.  The Bible has a word for this kind of deception--hypocrisy.

What is hypocrisy?

Hypocrisy is a word transliterated from the Greek (hypokrites).  It was used by the Greeks to describe an actor who had not fully identified himself with his role and thus gave an unconvincing performance.  Thus it came to refer to anyone who operated by pretense, put on a false front.

Religious hypocrisy is even worse.  It is spiritual play-acting for selfish gain.  This is doubly shabby: faking commitment to God in order to gain power or money or people’s adulation.

For the person who has experienced the love God and new life in Christ, the only reasonable response is to make Christ the center of his life--relating to him, following him, serving others for him, and pleasing him rather than self or others.  This is what Barnabas personified.  He sold his property as a way of saying “Thank you” to God by loving other people.  The praise and recognition he got for this was appropriate, but that wasn’t why he did it.

But Ananias and Sapphira were religious fakers.  They evidently saw the response to Barnabas’ sacrifice and generosity, and coveted it.  So they conspired together to get that recognition without the sacrifice.  They sold their land and banked part (probably the majority) for themselves, but they told everyone else they were giving the entire amount of the sale (DRAMATIZE: public setting; emotional affect).  They weren’t sacrificing to serve Christ and needy people; they were using people to promote themselves!  Like politicians who stage a baby-kissing photo session and then refuse to talk to kids off camera, they were counterfeiting authentic spirituality in a calculated way to move up in the popularity polls.

Even though God took them home early instead of damning them to hell, his action still communicates the message loud and clear: “I don't want any hypocrisy in my church!”

Why is it so serious?

We’re going to switch now to a different base text--Matt. 23.  This is the original hell-fire sermon--it climaxes in vs 33 (read).  To listen to many preachers today, you’d think Jesus was talking to a group of sexers and boozers.  But that’s not the case--he never spoke to them this way.  They had a different problem, but at least they were open about the fact that they were into sin.  This scathing rebuke was directed to the religious leaders, and he let them have it for their hypocrisy.  Eight times he hurls this charge at them (vs 13,14,15,23,25,27,28,29). 

He gives several examples of religious hypocrisy.

Read vs 14.  Here you’ve got clergy making house-calls to old widows and praying long prayers for them.  But they’re not doing it out of love for the widows; they’re trying to get them to sign their wills over!  Does this sound familiar?  The televangelist scandals of the 1980’s (BAKKER; TILTON) were this all over again!

Read vs 25-28.  They lived double lives.  They were great at talking the spiritual talk and condemning everyone for their sins in public, but in private they were guilty of the exact same sins!  Remember Jimmy Swaggart preaching God’s judgment on America because of its sexual immorality and pornography--only to be busted for hiring a prostitute?  His denomination (Assemblies of God) disciplined him by demanding that he withdraw from public ministry for a year to demonstrate his sincerity and get restored, but he refused.  Within the next year, he was busted for the same thing.  Yet he continues to draw thousands of people...

Read vs 23,24.  They were scrupulous about keeping the Old Testament tithe tax--right down to 10% of their garden herbs.  Jesus wasn’t down on them for doing this per se.  But he hated the way they elevated this into the definition of spirituality while they ignored the really important spiritual issues like love and mercy and justice.  You could be a really mean, unforgiving, unfair person--as long as you sent in your dill!  How many of us have dealt with people like this?  GORDO’S NEIGHBORS: they never miss a church service, but they won’t even talk to their neighbors!

Jesus was furious about this because he knew how insidiously it distorted people’s view of God.

Read vs 13.  True seekers were so turned off by their hypocrisy that they “throw the baby out with the bath-water.”  People who are really looking for God can smell religious hypocrisy a mile away.  This is why skits like “The Church Lady” are so popular--people recognize much of Christian fundamentalism for what it is: self-righteous hypocrisy.  The tragic part is that they lump Jesus Christ and true Christianity into this.  Unless they Christians who are real and honest and genuinely loving, why should give Jesus Christ a second look?

Read vs 15.  Those who follow them catch the same disease.  Hypocrisy is highly contagious.  In Lk.12:1, Jesus likened it Old Testament leaven--it gradually spreads until it permeates everything it touches.  This is especially true if leaders get into it.  You can forget about renewing a church if the people leading it are hypocrites.  That’s why it must be dealt with severely.  God didn’t continue to slay everyone in the church who got into hypocrisy, but he made it clear through Matt.23 and Acts 5 that we should expose it, not reward it.

>> No wonder God says 1Pet.2:1 (read)!!

Who struggles with hypocrisy?

>> I would be a double hypocrite if I said I didn’t struggle with this myself!  Jesus warned the disciples about the insidious nature of hypocrisy (Lk.12:1), and he empowered Peter to discern it and judge it.  But Peter still fell victim to it himself (explain Gal.2:13)!!  If you don't believe that you are vulnerable to hypocrisy, consider the following questions:

Do you ever embellish your good deeds to others, perhaps even make some up?

Are you ever irked when others receive praise?  Do you ever turn the conversation in a direction that is more likely to bring you praise?

Is your motivation to serve God and others equally strong when no notices it?  How do you respond when people don’t appreciate your service?

Do you deliberately hide your problems or moral failures from others, or only talk about them well after the fact?

Do you get defensive when people point out problems in your life even when you know they are right?

Do react with outrage when someone sins, even though you have committed the same sin?

>> If your answer to any of these questions is "yes" (mine are), you are looking at the seeds of hypocrisy.  The truth is that all of us have a tendency toward hypocrisy in our own hearts because we are fallen people.  Hypocrisy is not a selective problem; it afflicts all of us.  That's why it is so important to know how to nip it in the bud...

How to avoid it

Live your life under God’s grace.  Hypocrisy can grow anywhere, but it thrives in a legalistic environment.  By legalism, I mean earning and maintaining acceptance by your performance.  Many people try to earn God’s acceptance by their performance; others live for other people’s acceptance the same way.  In either case, you will eventually fail to meet the standard--and then resort to covering it up.  This is the beginning of hypocrisy.

But living under God’s grace cuts the nerve of hypocrisy by removing the need for dishonesty.  You can be in a relationship with the most important Person in the universe, the One who knows you with all of your sins--and yet who loves you and accepts you just as you are! This frees you from any need for pretense. 

GOSPEL: This means realizing that God’s acceptance is what matters most, that you can never be good enough to earn it, and trusting in Jesus’ work alone (rather than your own works) to make you completely and permanently acceptable to God.

CHRISTIANS: This means staying focused on grace...

Be open with others about your sins and problems.  This is one of the surest proofs that I am living under God’s grace.  If I really believe that God’s acceptance is what matters, and that I have it, I will be increasingly open with others (including and especially those whose opinion I value) about my moral failures.  I can talk about them in the midst of struggle, not just after I’ve overcome them.

This is why the New Testament says Eph.4:25 and Jas.5:16 (read).  We expect people in the world to be false and posture--they don't have God’s unconditional acceptance.  But in the Christian community, people should be able to drop the pretense and get real.  Sadly, the church is often worse than the world!  The level of superficial “niceness” can be absolutely nauseating!  Get involved with other Christians on this level, or you’re just playing church and in danger of hypocrisy.

Practice “secret” spirituality.  In Matt.6:1-18, Jesus warned his followers not to imitate the Pharisee’s hypocrisy.  They prayed, but they only prayed in public.  They gave money to God’s work, but only in ways that drew people’s attention.  To avoid hypocrisy, he said we should do these things “in secret.”  This was hyperbole.  The New Testament tells us to pray with other Christians, and it does not say all giving should be anonymous (Barnabas’ wasn’t).  He just got done saying that we should live out our walks with God in front of people so that they “see our good works and glorify God.”  His point was that we should “beware of practicing our righteousness before people to be noticed by them.”

The easiest way to do that is to be sure that a good part of your walk is “low visibility.”  Be sure your prayer life isn’t only or predominantly with other people.  Be sure that you give in ways that most people don’t notice.  There is a satisfaction in such prayer and giving guards you from the temptation of hypocrisy.