In this lesson Jesus warns us to be very cautious regarding religious hypocrites. He gives us six characteristics to be aware to help us protect ourselves and our family from their deception and to help us not become one ourselves. 

A common definition of a hypocrite that I come across reads something like this, “A hypocrite is someone who believes one thing, but acts in a different manner.” Now you and I know there are some things that we believe that we fall short of when it comes to our actions. As Christians we believe we should read the Bible, but if you don’t read the Bible very often does that make you a hypocrite? By this definition, then you are a hypocrite. If I were to ask you, “Do you believe Christians should read the Bible?” You would say, “Yes.” Then I would ask, “Do you read the Bible?” You might say, “Well, not as much as I should. I should read it more, but I’m so busy or lazy or just haven’t developed the habit.” Some people think they are a hypocrite because they believe one thing, but their actions don’t line up with their belief. Listen carefully, that’s not what a hypocrite is, that’s honesty. The very fact that you answer honestly rules you out as a hypocrite.

Let me give you a definition of what a true hypocrite is. A hypocrite is someone who pretends to be someone who he is not. Now, let’s ask the real hypocrite if they read the Bible; “Do you read the Bible?” They would say, “Absolutely! I love God’s Word. I love reading it and studying it. As a matter of fact, I have it with me right here. I read every chance I get.” The reality is they haven’t read the Bible in weeks or months, they carry the Bible around for show so people think they read it, and they will often demand others should be reading the Bible like them. A hypocrite pretends to read the Bible when they don’t.

A religious hypocrite will pretend to love God, pretend to be spiritual by saying and doing all the right things in public. A hypocrite is not honest with themselves and they are not honest with others. A hypocrite will intentionally grab a mask and put it on in order to fool you into thinking they are someone they are not.

Today, Jesus wants to caution us to be on guard and protect ourselves from religious leaders who are hypocritical. These hypocritical religious leaders are in small churches, medium churches, large churches, mega churches, and in various parachurch ministries. I’m convinced that most church leaders are authentic, genuine, and they love Jesus and love their people.

I find it both interesting and significant that as Jesus approaches the cross (He is within a couple of days of being crucified) He takes the time to address this issue for His followers. There is something important here that Jesus wants us to consider. He is giving us a warning today. We see this in Mark 12:38.

Jesus also taught: “Beware of these teachers of religious law! For they like to parade around in flowing robes and receive respectful greetings as they walk in the marketplaces. 39 And how they love the seats of honor in the synagogues and the head table at banquets. 40 Yet they shamelessly cheat widows out of their property and then pretend to be pious by making long prayers in public. Because of this, they will be more severely punished.” (Mark 12:38-40, NLT)

A couple of things before we get to deep into this.

  • Jesus was a teacher. Mark begins this section by saying, Jesus also taught…. Jesus taught many things. He taught about the kingdom, prayer, evangelism, and how to love God and love others. Jesus taught many things and with great authority. He has divine insight like no other. He is fully God and fully man (Mark 12:35-40). He is God incarnate. He is Wisdom incarnate. When Jesus teaches something it is always significant and life changing. It is always true and perfectly accurate. So, when Jesus says something we need to listen carefully.
  • This Jesus gives us a warning. Jesus starts off by saying, Beware of these teachers of religious law! These teachers of religious law were the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 23:2). They were the religious leaders of that day. Jesus says, “I want you to beware of these guys.” Have you ever gone to someone’s house and they have a fence with a sign that says, “Beware of dog”? When I do, before going into the fence I’m looking around to see if I can see the dog, then I enter slowly, and while I’m walking up to the door I’m looking around carefully to make sure some dog does not sneak up on me and take me by surprise. When Jesus used the word beware (blepo) that is what He meant. Beware means to be on your guard, watch carefully for any signs of danger, and to be attentive. If you have been on some nature trails they will have signs that say “Beware of snakes” or if you are on some beaches it will say “Beware of sharks.” The snakes and sharks that Jesus wants you to watch out for and protect yourself against are the hypocritical religious leaders.

When Mark tells us about this event he summarizes what took place and what was said. Matthew tells about the same thing in Matthew 23, but gives much more detail. Matthew tells us that while Jesus was teaching about this he called the teachers of religious law hypocrites seven times (Matthew 23:13, 14, 15, 23, 25, 27, 28).

Here in Mark, Jesus gives us six characteristics that identify a hypocritical religious leader. Here is what you are going to do with this today.

  • You are going to use this information to protect yourself and your family against the religious leaders who are phonies. Who want to use you and manipulate you for their own personal gain.
  • You are also going to use this information to evaluate yourself to protect yourself from becoming one of them.

To protect yourself from religious hypocrites what should you look for?

Lovers of ostentation

Number one, they are lovers of ostentation. Ostentation is excessive display. It is a vain and unnecessary show for the purpose of attracting attention, admiration, or envy. Ostentation is a non-verbal way of letting people know how smart and important or wealthy you are without saying a word. As Megamind once said, “The difference between a villain and a super villain is presentation.” Ostentation is using your appearance to brag about how great you are.

In describing these teachers of the law, Jesus said in verse 38, For they like to parade around in flowing robes…. During Jesus’ day men wore robes to travel in, to go to town in, to go to church, or to go visit someone was normal. Robes for men were as common as the shirt and pants you are wearing today.

Instead of wearing a normal robe they would wear these religious robes. On these robes would be these tassels at the end of them and these tassels served as a reminder of God’s Word. Each tassel would represent key commands in the Bible and certain scriptures and the like. The idea was if you are wearing it, you were living by it. There was nothing wrong with this because Jesus wore something similar to this when the woman touched the fringe of His rob and was healed (Matthew 9:20). When Jesus was on the cross some soldiers gambled over the under garment of this rob because it nice and expensive. Wearing something religious or nice is not the issue. The issue is that these teachers of the law would design their robes to be large and flowing and with extra-long tassels (Mathew 23:5). The idea behind this was to be religiously impressive in appearance and to demonstrate by what you wore how godly and religious and holy you were. As Jesus said, they like to parade around showing off their commitment to God. Instead of bringing attention to God, they wanted to bring attention to themselves.

If a person dresses in a way that tries to communicate they are godly and real close to God that may be a red flag.

Lovers of Recognition

Number two, they were lovers of recognition. Jesus says in verse 38, they liked to receive respectful greetings as they walk in the marketplaces. The Sanhedrin, which these religious teachers were a part of, had a book called the Talmud. In it there were all kinds of civil and ceremonial laws. If you look up Sanhedrin 88 you will find it saying, “It is more punishable to act against the words of a scribe than the words of Scripture.” They over estimated their importance. They wanted people to honor them and respect them by how they were greeted and especially by their titles.


Jesus commented on this in Matthew 23 when He said that these religious teachers wanted to be called “Rabbi” or “Father” or “Teacher” (vs. 7, 9, 10). There is nothing wrong with these titles or calling someone by a title. The issue is these religious leaders viewed these titles as a sign of their spiritual authority over the people. They liked, wanted, and loved for people to greet them by identifying the authority they had. These titles fed into their ego and their pride. If you didn’t greet them correctly, they would correct you.

Jesus is saying, be careful when you are around a spiritual leader who demands titles. When a spiritual leader demands that you call him Revered or Elder or Doctor or Deacon that is a caution sign and red flag that something may not be right.

Several years ago I was driving through Missouri and I was going through a small town and came across this church. The sign out front had the typical information like the churches name and the times they meet. At the bottom of the sign was the name of the pastor but it read like this, “The Most Holy Right Reverend John Smith” (not his real name). My first thought was how overwhelming a title like that would be for me and the other thought I had was why would any pastor want that title printed on their church sign.

Lovers of Distinction

Number three, they are lovers of distinction. They love being separated from the common person. They like to be elevated over others and they love it when that happens in public, especially the church. Jesus put it this way in verse 39, And how they love the seats of honor in the synagogues….

These seats of honor refers to the bench at the end of the synagogue before the chest where the sacred scrolls were kept. These seats faced the audience and were reserved for the leaders and people of distinction. There is nothing wrong with having seats of honor, but these guys loved those seats. If they didn’t get one of those seats, they would be offended. They loved attention and they wanted people to recognize how godly and great and powerful they were.

When I started preaching at churches the pastor or one of the leaders would want me to sit up on stage in one of those “throne” type chairs you find in older churches. I did the first few times, but after that I would tell them I would prefer to sit on the first row. It was awkward for me and didn’t feel right for me. I felt like there was to much attention brought to me. Religious hypocrites would love to sit on stage.

I know this one church that the front row was reserved for the faithful and committed Christians. I know personally they asked one of their members who was sitting on the front row to move to the second row because she hadn’t attended faithfully enough over the past few months. Religious hypocrites would love to sit on that front row.

Lovers of Exaltation

Number four, they are lovers of exaltation. This is closely related to being a lover of distinction. These guys not only wanted to be separated and distinct from the common people, but they also wanted to be exalted over them. Jesus put it this way in verse 39 saying they loved the seats at the head table at banquets.

If they were at church they wanted the seats of honor, but when they were out in the community attending a banquet, party, wedding, or some celebration they wanted and expected to be seated at the head table.

At these banquets the tables were usually set up in a U-shape. The head table was reserved for special and honored guest. This is where they wanted to sit. This is where the greatest guest would be invited to sit. That is how they saw themselves.

Before we get too irritated with them, let me remind you that Jesus’ disciples struggled with this as well. Back in Mark 9, Jesus and the disciples had been walking to a house in Capernaum. While they were headed their Jesus over heard the disciples behind arguing about something. When they arrived at the house Jesus asked them, “What were you discussing out on the road?” (I think Jesus knew what they were discussing, He was simply asking the question to get the conversation going.). Mark tells us that the disciples “had been arguing about which of them was the greatest.” They were still too interested in being exalted. Then Jesus told them, “Whoever wants to be first must take last place and be the servant of everyone else” (Mark 9:33-35, NLT).

The disciples didn’t pick up what Jesus was laying down. They didn’t learn the lesson. Sometime later they were walking to another town and James and John walked up to Jesus and said, “We want you to do us a favor.” Jesus asked, “What is your request?” These two brothers then said, “When you sit on your glorious throne, we want to sit in places of honor next to you, one on your right and the other on your left.” They had not learned the principle and power of humility yet. Jesus told them they did not have a clue to what they were asking then started teaching them about suffering for the Kingdom. When the other disciples found out what James and John had asked for they became mad (Mark 10:35-45, NLT).

One day, Jesus and the disciples were invited to a party where there were several other people attending. Luke tells us, in Luke 14, that “Jesus noticed that all who had come to the dinner were trying to sit in the seats of honor near the head of the table” (v.7, NLT). So Jesus gathers everyone’s attention and says, “When you are invited to a wedding feast, don’t sit in the seat of honor. What if someone who is more distinguished than you has also been invited? The host will come and say, ‘Give this person your seat.’ Then you will be embarrassed, and you will have to take whatever seat is left at the foot of the table! 10 “Instead, take the lowest place at the foot of the table. Then when your host sees you, he will come and say, ‘Friend, we have a better place for you!’ Then you will be honored in front of all the other guests. 11 For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (NLT).

Approach life with humility. It’s ok if people don’t think you are important. Just do what God has called you to do.

Lovers of wealth

Number four, they are lovers of wealth. They will cheat people to gain wealth and hide it behind religion. Remember, we are talking about people who intellectually know God’s Word and say they love God but remember Jesus also calls them hypocrites. They are not what they appear to be. They are something different.

In verse 40, Jesus said the teachers of religious law (also known as scribes) shamelessly cheat widows out of their property…. How would they do that and why would they do that?

The reason they did this was because they were greedy and lovers of money (Luke 16:14). So, how did they cheat widows out of their property?

Outrageous legal fees: During that time, scribes were also lawyers. Widows would hire one of them to help make out a will and manage their property and other legal matters.

Some of these scribes would charge large amounts of money for their services from these widows. These scribes were not supposed to take money for these services, but they did it anyway. The code was knowledge without price. The scribes had income coming in from others sources and they didn’t need the money. They were supposed to help the widows by using their knowledge of the legal system and protect the widows from any financial or property scams. Instead of doing that, they were scamming them.

These legal services and the payments that came with them could accumulate over time and the widow would build up such a debt to the scribe that she would have to sign her house over to the scribe.

Some of these scribes were so vicious that when this level of debt to them occurred they would kick the widow out of the house, sale the house, and keep the money for themselves.

Convince widows to give everything to the Temple: If they couldn’t get the widows money directly then they would convince her to give her money and the house to the Temple upon her death. The scribes new that they would get a large portion of that income from that gift.

If the widow was becoming mentally deficient this would be easy picking for the scribes.

This is why in Luke 11, Jesus describes these guys as “full of greed and wickedness” (v. 39, NLT).

Jesus says they did all this shamelessly (Mark 12:40, NLT). This word shamelessly (katesthio) means to eat up, totally consume, and devour. In this context it carries the idea of illegal exploitation by robbing and taking complete advantage of someone. These guys devoured these widows’ finances, livelihood, and property. And they did this without shame, guilt, or embarrassment.

Today, you see wealthy pastors and churches manipulating senior adults, single parents, and others into selling their house, taking out a second mortgage, and giving large amounts to their church while they themselves are millionaires. I am joining Jesus today in waring and giving you a caution. Be careful who you financially support.

Lovers of Appearances

Number five, they are lovers of appearances. They loved for people to see them the way they wanted to be seen. They wanted people to see them as spiritual and close to God, even though they weren’t. To them it was all about spiritual appearances.

Jesus put it this way in verse 40 when He said they pretend to be pious by making long prayers in public. Some translations say, “for appearance’s sake offer long prayers” (NASB) or “say long prayers just for show” (CSB). They want to appear spiritual. They want to appear close to God. To do this, they say long prayers in public.

There is nothing wrong with long prayers or going on a prayer retreat where you spend extended time talking to God and listening to God. The issue here isn’t the length of their prayers, but the motive behind their prayers.

Jesus warns us about this kind of thing in Matthew 6:5 where He says, “When you pray, don’t be like the hypocrites who love to pray publicly on street corners and in the synagogues where everyone can see them. I tell you the truth, that is all the reward they will ever get. But when you pray, go away by yourself, shut the door behind you, and pray to your Father in private. Then your Father, who sees everything, will reward you” (vs.5-6, NLT). Jesus is not saying don’t ever pray in public. What Jesus is saying is don’t let your prayer life only be those prayers you pray when you are with others. Have a strong and vibrant prayer life privately and publicly.

These Pharisees are like the guy who only talks to his wife in public, but never in private. He wants to give the appearance that his relationship with his wife is great, but in reality they don’t have one. The Pharisees would only address God in public and had no real private conservation with God.

Then in verse 40 Jesus says something alarming. He says, Because of this, they will be more severely punished. Some translations say, “These will receive greater condemnation” (NASB). Jesus is saying that these religious leaders who love to use their appearance to display how great they are, who expect people to call them by their proper titles, who desire to seat in the seats of honor at church and in the public, who love money and will use their religious position to manipulate people into giving them money and property for their selfish gain, and who love to use public praying to appear close to God and spiritual when they really are not… Jesus says they will be more severely punished.

So let me say a word to religious leaders today, like me.

  • If God calls you into spiritual leadership and you become a pastor, an elder, a deacon or some other type of official leader in the church you and I need to take our role seriously.
  • We don’t have to be perfect, but we better genuine. The people you and I shepherd deserve to know that we are the real thing. They need to know that we love Jesus and that we are growing. They need to know that we are students of God’s Word and we are trying to apply His Word to our lives as we share God’s Word with them.
  • For all of us who are spiritual leaders listen closely, increased responsibility means increased accountability. In James 3:1, James mentions this when he says, “Dear brothers and sisters, not many of you should become teachers in the church, for we who teach will be judged more strictly” (NLT). Spiritual leaders, we are not asking you to be perfect we are asking you to be genuine followers of Jesus.

Discussion Questions

  1. Which definition of hypocrite have you normally used? What is the difference between the two? Why is this significant?
  2. Jesus said, “Beware of these teachers of religious law!” Describe some characteristics or behaviors of someone who has a “beware” mindset? How does that “beware” mindset look today when we are protecting ourselves from religious hypocrites. 
  3. Take a moment and read through Matthew 23 for the full version of what Jesus said about these religious leaders. What are some things that grab your attention? Why did that grab your attention?
  4. How are today’s religious hypocrites lovers of ostentation? How do they parade around displaying their so-called relationship with God?
  5. How are today’s religious hypocrites lovers of recognition? In what ways have you seen or heard some of them demand to be called a certain title or be given a respectful greeting?
  6. Jesus said they “love the seats of honor in the synagogues.” What would that look like in today’s church?
  7. Jesus said they love “the head table at banquets.” How is this on display in our day?
  8. Jesus said they “shamelessly cheat widow out of their property.” In what ways do you see something similar to this today? Why do you think people give to individuals or organizations without checking them out? Why do people believe religious hypocrites so easily?
  9. Jesus said they, “pretend to be pious by making long prayers in public.” Compare this to Matthew 6:5-6? What are your thoughts about public and private prayer?
  10. Jesus said the religious leaders who are hypocrites “will be more severely punished.” What do you think that means? What does this say to spiritual leaders today?