A Word for Today: Play-acting, Pretence, Hypocrisy (Gk. Hypokrisis)


Sadly, we live in a world that is characterized by hypocrisy. How often do we hear politicians saying one thing on the hustings, and then completely reverse their policies when in government? Or the financial institutions, who regularly emphasize the importance of corporate governance, yet are later found guilty of some form of commercial malpractice? Even religious leaders are not exempt from this form of duplicity when, for example, they publicly criticize pay day loan companies only to find that their own establishment is heavily invested in these companies! The Bible is not slow to condemn all forms of hypocrisy, as we shall find as we look at the use of the Greek word hypokrisis. William Barclay points out that ‘in the New Testament there is no sin more strongly condemned than hypocrisy, and in popular opinion there is no sin more universally detested’.1

The word hypokrisis and its related forms are rarely used In the Septuagint (LXX). Where they are used, it is by way of metaphor to represent someone who is considered to be a pretender or dissembler, hence, a hypocrite. In two references found in the book of Job, both characterize hypokrisis negatively as sin or impiety. In Job chapter 34 verse 30, Elihu in one of his dramatic speeches reveals that in the affairs of men God is known to keep the godless or hypocrite from ruling over His people. He also makes the point in chapter 36 verse 13 that the hypocrite finds it difficult to have any sense of inner peace, being constantly angry with himself. The idea of impiety being equated with hypocrisy is developed further in Psalm 12 verse 2 where even the righteous who actively sin are judged to be hypocrites. Later contemporary writers, such as the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria, make a similar use of the word hypokrisis in the context of dissembling or concealing the truth. Josephus is, however, typically ambivalent about the word hypokrisis when in the life of Joseph he thinks that his subterfuge, or play-acting, ‘personate an angry man’,2 led to ultimate blessing, whereas he soundly condemns John of Gischala as a ‘ready liar’ and a ‘hypocritical pretender to humanity’.3 These observations reveal that both the Old Testament and Jewish writings (in the main) make an explicit distinction between what is genuine, i.e., true/truthful and what is essentially pretence, or playing a role. This thought of role playing was later vividly captured in the Greek theatre where the word hypokrisis was often used for the term ‘play-actor’, and for someone in a play who put on a mask to hide their real identity. So deception is an integral part of hypocrisy, i.e., pretending to be something or someone that the actor is not, and the avoidance of such a state in God’s people is seen as a mark of spiritual integrity, cp. Ps. 26. 4. The influence of the word in the Greek theatre was subsequently carried over into the New Testament to the extent that whenever hypokrisis is used by writers, it always refers to the sin of hypocrisy. But the acts are masked, as William Barclay acerbically writes, by ‘theatrical goodness’!4

Turning then to the New Testament, we find that the group that comes under most attack for the sin of ‘hypocrisy’ is the Pharisees. ‘The Pharisees are the protypical hypocrites of the Bible’.5 Our Lord denounced them for various aspects of hypocrisy, and, by analyzing His comments, we can see the different ways in which this sin, so prevalent among these religious leaders, manifested itself. It will also provide us with a salutary and timely warning as to our own personal conduct before the Lord and others. The first thing that one notices about the Pharisaic approach to religious life is that it was ostentatious. Their whole perspective on life was about playing to the gallery by seeking the plaudits of men rather than seeking approbation from God.6 This was evident in respect of almsgiving, Matt. 6. 2, and prayer, Matt. 6. 5. Even in those basic observances of life, such as honouring the fifth commandment, Exod. 20. 12, they found a way of circumventing this requirement by declaring that goods or money that would have been used in support of their parents had already been set aside for the temple treasury, thus becoming korban, Lev. 27. 9, 16; Num. 30. 3; Matt. 15. 5-6. Michael Green states that korban was such a sacred vow that it could not be revoked, even in order to care for one’s parents in their old age. But it was agreed that you could continue to use korban money during your lifetime!7 Such a practice made the commandment of God null and void; it was a pious deception, but God was not deceived, Matt. 15. 6b. The second aspect of their hypocrisy can be judged as simply form without substance, paying lip service to religious minutiae when all the time their hearts were far away from God, Mark 7. 6. They were punctilious about such matters as washing cups, Matt. 23. 25, observing the Sabbath, Mark 3. 2, and making certain that when fasting they drew attention to themselves, Matt. 6. 16. The Pharisee in the parable in Luke chapter 18 refers to the fact that he fasted twice a week as well as giving tithes of all he possessed. These works were intended to provide evidence that the Pharisee was righteous before God. Instead, they simply confirmed that the Pharisee was reliant on his own self righteousness. Fasting and tithing were not wrong per se. It was the pride and arrogance of the Pharisee that condemned his actions before God. The most solemn warning is given by the Lord about the final end of such hypocrites, Matt. 25. 30.

Outside the Synoptic tradition, hypokrisisis used by Paul to describe the hypocritical actions of certain Jewish believers who, together with Peter, withdrew themselves from fellowship with Gentile believers, Gal. 2. 13. Their action led Barnabas astray.8 Perhaps Peter learnt from this experience when he encourages us later to rid ourselves of a number of sins including hypocrisies, 1 Pet. 2. 1. In the Pastorals the word has developed an even more sinister meaning when it is directly linked to apostasy. One of the features of the ‘latter times’ will be the hypocrisy of deceitful liars whose consciences will be cauterized to prevent them from discerning the truth of God, 1 Tim. 4. 2.

It has been said that hypocrisy is the easiest of sins to fall into, and one of the most difficult to put off. Deceiving oneself is bad enough, but deceiving others can ultimately prevent them from entering the kingdom of God, Matt. 23. 13-15. In the light of the warnings contained in our Lord’s teaching concerning the sin of hypocrisy, let us endeavour to drop any future pretence in our lives and seek to live in all sincerity before Him, 2 Cor. 2. 17.

Further reading/study


  • Word Pictures in the New Testament (volume 1) – Gospel According to Matthew (pages 50 – 51) comments on úpo-krisij in Matthew 6. 2 by A. T. Robertson (Baker)


  • Galatians (pages 109-110) – comments on hypokrisis in Galatians 2. 13 by Hans Dieter Betz (Hermenia)



New Testament Words, pg. 140.


The Antiquities of the Jews (2. 9. 160), Whiston edition.


The Wars of the Jews (2. 21. 585), Whiston edition.


New Testament Words, pg. 142.


Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, pg. 415.


Contrast Paul’s approach in Galatians chapter 1 verse 10.


The Message of Matthew, The Bible Speaks Today, pg. 170.


The Greek word here to ‘lead astray’ literally means to be carried away with some form of error, cp. 2 Pet. 3. 17.


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