Hypocrisy – the practice of claiming to have moral standards or beliefs to which one’s own behavior does not conform. This is a charge often leveled at Christians both by nonbelievers and by fellow believers. Throughout Scripture, we see examples of religious leaders and others who were guilty of hypocrisy in their words and actions. As we examine the Bible, who stands out as the biggest hypocrite? There are several contenders for this notorious title.
- The Pharisees were repeatedly guilty of hypocrisy in their legalism and judgmental attitudes.
- Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus with a kiss after being with him for years.
- Peter denied knowing Jesus three times after boldly declaring his loyalty.
- Solomon lived in opulence and married foreign women despite clear commandments against it.
- The hypocrisy of religious leaders receives strong condemnation from Jesus.
The Pharisees were members of a religious sect in Judea during Jesus’ earthly ministry. They emphasized strict adherence to the Law of Moses along with the traditions of the elders that had developed over the centuries. Although there were some sincere Pharisees, the group as a whole tended toward hypocrisy and received some of Jesus’ harshest rebukes (Matthew 23).
One example is found in Luke 11:37-44. Jesus attends a meal at the house of a Pharisee and begins pronouncing woes on them for their hypocrisy. He condemns them for focusing on external ceremonial cleansing while neglecting internal spiritual cleansing. They tithed spices like mint, rue, and herbs but neglected justice and the love of God. They sought honor and recognition while failing to address their own greed and self-indulgence.
Another instance is recorded in John 8:1-11. The Pharisees bring a woman caught in adultery to Jesus and quote the Law of Moses that she should be stoned. However, they cared nothing for true justice or mercy. They were using the woman as a trap in hopes of finding grounds to accuse Jesus. But Jesus turns the tables and confronts each of them about their own sins.
Throughout the Gospels, the Pharisees opposed and sought to entrap Jesus at every turn. They twisted the purpose of God’s Law for their own aims. Though trained in Scripture, they rejected the Messiah and were blind to the truth (Matthew 15:1-9, 12-14). Their outward religiosity masked corrupt hearts filled with pride and hypocrisy.
Judas Iscariot stands as history’s most notorious hypocrite. After being with Jesus for three years, witnessing His miracles and hearing His teaching, Judas betrayed the Savior for a mere 30 pieces of silver (Matthew 26:14-16).
Not only did Judas betray Christ, he did so with an act of friendship – a kiss. At the last Passover meal with the disciples, Jesus declares one of them will betray Him. Each asks, “Is it I?” Judas plays the part of a confused, concerned follower while knowing full well his intent to hand Jesus over to be crucified (Matthew 26:20-25).
Later that night in Gethsemane, Judas arrives with soldiers and identifies Jesus with a kiss – a sign of warmth and intimacy. What stunning hypocrisy after enjoying such close fellowship with the Son of God! Judas exchanges the priceless for the worthless, savaging their relationship for a paltry sum. His underlying greed and deceit is fully exposed in this ultimate act of betrayal.
Simon Peter often stands out for his boldness in following Christ. At Caesarea Philippi, he confesses Jesus as the Messiah while others are uncertain (Mark 8:27-30). When Jesus foretells His death, Peter rebukes Him, unwilling to accept it (Mark 8:31-33). Peter later promises to remain loyal even if all others fall away, and then acts rashly in cutting off the ear of the high priest’s servant when Jesus is arrested (Matthew 26:31-35, 51-52).
Yet for all his confidence, Peter famously denies being associated with Jesus not just once, but three times:
Now Peter was sitting outside in the courtyard. And a servant girl came up to him and said, “You also were with Jesus the Galilean.” But he denied it before them all, saying, “I do not know what you mean.” And when he went out to the entrance, another servant girl saw him, and she said to the bystanders, “This man was with Jesus of Nazareth.” And again he denied it with an oath: “I do not know the man.” After a little while the bystanders came up and said to Peter, “Certainly you too are one of them, for your accent betrays you.” Then he began to invoke a curse on himself and to swear, “I do not know the man.” And immediately the rooster crowed. Then Peter remembered the saying of Jesus, “Before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times.” And he went out and wept bitterly. (Matthew 26:69-75 NKJV)
After his bold pledges of allegiance, Peter buckles under pressure. Rather than stand by Jesus in His hour of need, Peter pretends not to even know Him. This makes his denial a bitter hypocrisy and betrayal. The Gospel accounts testify that Peter did indeed love Jesus despite his failures. Still, this incident remains a sober reminder that the best intentions can waver in difficult circumstances.
Solomon was blessed with unparalleled wisdom and wealth. He was given insight to lead Israel in righteousness, and his early reign reflected God’s blessing (1 Kings 3, 10). Yet later in life, Solomon abandoned the Law’s command for kings not to acquire many wives or accumulate wealth and horses (Deuteronomy 17:14-17).
But King Solomon loved many foreign women, as well as the daughter of Pharaoh: women of the Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Sidonians, and Hittites— from the nations of whom the Lord had said to the children of Israel, “You shall not intermarry with them, nor they with you. Surely they will turn away your hearts after their gods.” Solomon clung to these in love. And he had seven hundred wives, princesses, and three hundred concubines; and his wives turned away his heart. (1 Kings 11:1-3 NKJV)
Solomon blatantly disobeyed God’s statutes and allowed his wives to turn his heart to other gods. He built pagan altars and tolerated idol worship (1 Kings 11:4-8). Despite his unmatched wisdom, he lived in opulent disobedience, violating both the letter and spirit of the Law. His example serves as a sobering reminder that wisdom does not automatically lead to obedience. Even the wisest among us can be led astray into hypocrisy by divided loyalties.
Condemnation of Religious Hypocrisy
While all the biblical examples above reflect some level of hypocrisy, the harshest condemnations are reserved for those who claim spiritual authority and understanding yet lead others astray. Jesus pronounces woe upon the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23, concluding:
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cleanse the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of extortion and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee, first cleanse the inside of the cup and dish, that the outside of them may be clean also. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. Even so you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. (Matthew 23:25-28 NKJV)
Those who know God’s word yet use it selectively for their own purposes receive strong condemnation. Religious leaders are held to a higher standard (James 3:1). When they misuse their influence and misrepresent the truth, it breeds cynicism and turns people away from God. We must all examine our own hearts for any area of hypocrisy that needs to be repented of and cleansed by the Holy Spirit.
Who Was the Greatest Hypocrite?
In reviewing these examples, who can be considered the “greatest” hypocrite in Scripture? An argument can be made for each:
- The Pharisees – Their spiritual pride, legalism and self-righteousness earned them frequent sharp rebukes from Jesus. Their hypocrisy was both deep-seated and broad in its negative impact.
- Judas – His betrayal with a kiss after enjoying three years of Jesus’ intimate fellowship represents an almost unfathomable level of deceit.
- Peter – His fervent pledges followed by public denials highlight the unpredictability of hypocrisy.
- Solomon – The wisest man in the Bible violated direct commands, leading Israel into idolatry.
While each case is appalling, the strongest warnings are aimed at religious leaders who should know better. The sections of Scripture most consumed with condemnation of hypocrisy focus on those who claim spiritual authority while propagating a false version of godliness for their own gain and power.
For this reason, the Pharisees stand out as the “greatest” hypocrites – not necessarily in the egregiousness of any one action, but in the breadth and depth of their hypocrisy. They strictly kept parts of the Law to boost their own status while neglecting justice, mercy and faithfulness (Matthew 23:23). They embodied spiritual pride, preaching righteousness while rejecting the Messiah. Their inward corruption contaminated those under their influence. Of all the biblical examples, their far-reaching hypocrisy earned the strongest denunciation from Jesus.
Guarding Against Hypocrisy
Scripture contains these accounts of hypocrisy as a warning for us all. How can we guard our hearts against falling into hypocrisy? Here are some suggestions:
- Pray daily to walk in purity and sincerity before God. Pray for the Holy Spirit to convict you anytime your actions contradict your values.
- Study Scripture to renew your mind. Internalize God’s truth so your outward actions align with righteous principles.
- Examine your motives. Why do you do what you do? Are you seeking to glorify God or impress others?
- Confess promptly when you stumble. Don’t hide or rationalize failures. Repent quickly and change your behavior with God’s help.
- Show grace to others. Recognize that we all struggle with hypocrisy at times. Give others room to grow.
Hypocrisy can slowly creep in if we don’t maintain constant vigilance. But walking in sincere devotion to Christ grants freedom from the burden of pretending to be something we’re not. Our motivation comes from love, not external recognition. Avoiding hypocrisy begins with an open, repentant heart before God, seeking His light to expose and cleanse us from within.