In ancient Greece, actors in the theater typically wore a smiling mask if they were reciting funny lines and a frowning mask if they were reciting sad lines. The Greeks called these actors hypokrites, which is where we get our word hypocrite—someone who wears a mask.
We often wear a mask when it comes to our sin—even as Christians. In Matthew 23, Jesus confronted the religious elite of Israel—the scribes and Pharisees—and unmasked their hypocrisy, shining light on five characteristics of sin:
1. Sin is detectable. Sin can be defined as any failure to conform to the moral law of God in act, attitude, or nature—and God can always detect it. Here, Jesus could smell the hypocrisy of the religious elite a mile away, and He confronted it.
2. Sin is dangerous. Eight times in this chapter Jesus said "woe" to the scribes and Pharisees, or "Man, are you in trouble." That's because the disease of sin is dangerous. For instance, in verse 13, Jesus said, "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut up the kingdom of heaven against men; for you neither go in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in." Sin in its undetected and unrepentant form bars a person from heaven, separates them from God, and brings His eternal judgment.
3. Sin is diverse. It takes many forms. Jesus here touched not only on what the scribes and Pharisees did, but on what they didn't do. They tithed their spices, which they weren't required to, but they were so meticulous about that small, insignificant thing that they neglected big things like mercy, justice, and compassion (see v. 23).
4. Sin is deceptive. Jesus described the scribes and Pharisees as "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" (vv. 27-28). They were skillful at making a good appearance of right living, but they did "all their works…to be seen by men" (v. 5). In the same way, you can cover up a lot with a Bible in your hand, a cross around your neck, and a smile on your face.
5. Sin is dismissible. Jesus' tender language at the end of this chapter revealed His desire to forgive, heal, and dismiss the sin He had just confronted (see vv. 37-39). That's the good news: sin is forgivable. It's the whole reason Jesus came from heaven to earth.
And I contend that you can't understand our great salvation until you understand how much you need it—then you can appreciate the Savior you have.
Every single one of us live by and desperately need God's mercy and grace. So let's be thankful those are ours through Jesus Christ and, in turn, take off our self-righteous masks of hypocrisy and be much more gracious with the people around us when they falter and fail.