This label has never been flattering. The Lord saved His most confrontational words for the hypocrites. They were pretenders who wore a mask to hide their true identity. Their ultra-righteous exterior was not a true reflection of their hearts.
Could it be possible that such a title would relate to true believers? You would think this is a subject for the scribes and the Pharisees, for the enemies of Christ and His gospel, and for false believers and heretics. But true Christians? Hypocrites? Really?
Here’s a difficult, but Biblical reality: the seeds of hypocrisy lie in the heart of every true believer. You don’t believe it? Just read carefully through Galatians 2. It’s the story of Peter’s “play-acting” which led to the hypocrisy of many true believers, including Barnabas. Yes, you heard it right. Peter, the apostle, the man who stood up and preached with courage to thousands at Pentecost, was involved in hypocrisy.
If Peter, Barnabas, and many Jewish Christians in Antioch could behave this way, it seems obvious that the danger still confronts us, as well. Today’s issues may be different, but the “play-acting” lives on.
This was not the first time that Peter had put on the mask. In the shadow of the cross, he hid his true identity and denied any connection to the Lord. In that incident, and in the events of Galatians 2, the reason for the hypocrisy was the same – the fear of men mixed with a lack of devotion to the truth and dependence on Christ.
When Peter visits Antioch, he has agreed that both Jews and Gentiles approach God on the same basis of faith in Christ alone. He has also established that Jews and Gentiles have equal status in Christ, and that nothing should be added (2:6).
Then some men showed up in Antioch with status and influence. These men believed strongly that there were levels to Christianity. They argued that Jewish traditions somehow added value to Christianity. They were proud of their Jewish heritage, and wanted to preserve it, even in the Christian community.
The moment they walked through the door, Peter’s demeanor changed. He “withdrew and separated himself” (2:12) from the lower-class Gentile Christians. Why? He wanted to make a good impression on the “circumcision party,” and he was intensely afraid of being shunned and rejected by those he saw as reputable. The fear of man had gripped him and he was not willing to pay the price for the truth.
Some might consider Paul’s reaction to be somewhat extreme. Was it really worth the trouble? Did it have to be so public? This could have severely divided the Christians. Paul’s forceful, public response to Peter’s hypocrisy raises the question: Is hypocrisy really such a big deal? Paul explains what the big deal was. He “saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel” (2:14 ESV). His concern was not centered on the hypocrisy. He was concerned with the fallout of the hypocrisy. It was distorting the gospel! This was his underlying concern in his letter to the Galatian believers. He recounted this story to show the subtle way that hypocrisy leads to a “different gospel.”
When we find ourselves consumed by all the side issues that Christians focus on, we must ask ourselves one basic question. How does the outcome of this issue affect the truth of the gospel? When we try to manufacture the impression that we are a “higher quality” of Christian because of our behavior or traditions, we are not merely putting on a mask. We could be in danger of distorting the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.
In Paul’s public response to Peter, which continues to the end of chapter 2, he makes it abundantly clear that our approach to God is by Jesus Christ and nothing else. We do not earn righteousness in any other way. We come to God through Christ. Period. We are accepted by God in Christ alone. Anything added to this distorts and denies the gospel. The seriousness of this is clear (1:6-9). Our actions and lifestyles matter as much as our words.
The call of God on our lives is to live and communicate the gospel without hypocrisy. While Peter shows us what to avoid, Paul gives us an example to follow. There are three factors that define Paul’s actions. He told the Galatians of the first factor in chapter one. He made it clear (1:10) that his ambition was not to seek the approval of men, but only of God. He served Christ. Therefore, what men thought or did had no effect on him.
Secondly, his love and reverence for the truth defined everything he did and said. He lived a gospel-focused life. His actions were defined by the “grace of God” (2:21) and he would not nullify such grace by living a performance-based life. His concern was that his life would reflect truth bigger than himself.
These two factors in themselves are not enough. Where does the strength come from to live this out? After pointing out the damage caused by Peter’s hypocrisy, he pointed to the true power behind gospel-focused living (2:19-20). While performance-based living relies on human strength to achieve status and reward, gospel-focused living denies any human achievement or power. Its only power is found in someone else: “the Son of God who loved me and gave Himself for me.”
We do not achieve acceptance with God by good behavior. It is achieved through the sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ. Without Him, we have and can do nothing. With Him, we have been given all things, and in a life lived “by faith in the Son of God,” He receives all the glory.