Thoughts from the Sermon on the Mount …
Don’t be an actor.
In his novel, David Copperfield, Charles Dickens describes a man who was a perpetual actor. James Steerforth was wealthy, articulate, handsome, and cheerful to everyone he met. But he secretly used his good looks and charm in order manipulate everyone around him. People were only valuable to him for what he could get out of them. In the story, Steerforth ended in complete disaster.
When we look at the New Testament, the Greek word for actor is hypokritēs (ὑποκριτής). The actors in the ancient Greek world would cover their faces with masks, intended to express the feelings and the attitudes of their characters.
But far beyond the direct definition, hypokritēs was also used to describe a person who would go through life as an actor, pretending to like what was popular and not showing their real self. This term for an actor quickly became known in religious circles as one who only pretended to be devout, yet had no real commitment.
We know these actors today by the same word: hypocrites.
Jesus describes hypocrites in His Sermon on the Mount when teaching about good deeds. 15 It is disturbing to read through His warnings about hypocrites. They are not overtly terrible — rather, when we look closely, they can look a lot like us!
“Hypocrisy is the homage that vice pays to virtue” – John MacArthur 5
Using common examples in in righteous living, Jesus shows how easy it is for us to forget about our good deeds, and to start thinking about ourselves.
“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.
After teaching about the law (see here), Jesus next teaches about good deeds. We are expected to do good works when we know Jesus Christ and are following Him (see here). Jesus has already taught that we should let people see our good works so that they can glorify God the Father (see here): 13
In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.
But when our goal is to build up ourselves in front of others, or to look extra good or spiritual, then something is wrong. God will not reward us for putting on a religious show. Instead, we show ourselves to be hypocrites.
Jesus uses three examples of upright living. These are three activities that we should be doing in our lives, that will either bring us closer to God when done right, or reduce us to worthless hypocrites when done as a show for others.
The three activities that Jesus uses as examples are giving, praying, and fasting, or as one author put it, “What I do with others, what I do with God, and what I do with myself.” 12