A businessman who was well-known for his unscrupulous business practices boasted to Mark Twain, “Before I die I mean to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. I will climb Mount Sinai and read the Ten Commandments aloud at the top.” Unimpressed, Twain offered a suggestion. “I have a better idea,” Twain said. “You could stay at home in Boston and keep them.”
Like Twain, the apostle Paul had little patience for those who passed judgment on others for the same things they did themselves. Some of his readers who had been raised in the Jewish tradition and had been taught the Mosaic law since childhood felt morally superior to Gentile believers who had come to faith without knowing the law. While they condemned others for their ignorance of God’s standard, these religious hypocrites failed to address their own moral inconsistency.
In a stinging rebuke, Paul challenged his readers’ view of themselves, implying that they had broken the same commandments they had tried to enforce on others. One wonders why they couldn’t see the inconsistency in their actions. Like the Pharisees that Jesus condemned in Matthew 5:20, they may have interpreted the law so narrowly that they were unable to see how they had done the very things they had condemned in others. Or perhaps they were convinced that simply knowing the law gave them a “pass” when it came to obedience.
Something about the nature of hypocrisy makes it easier to spot in others than in ourselves. It seems doubtful that those Paul criticized would have considered themselves to be violators of God’s law. It is also sobering to note that many of the things they affirmed in verses 17–20 are statements that a follower of Jesus might make as well. Fortunately, one of the functions of God’s Law is to help us see our own sinfulness. Thankfully, a true understanding of its nature will inevitably show us our need for Jesus Christ.