The pastor who is never in doubt, no matter whether he’s right or wrong, is part of the problem. In fact, he is a huge problem.
Such a minister will attract a certain kind of church member, the kind that likes pure certainties with no grey areas and nothing left undecided. This church member prefers someone else do his thinking for him. When asked what he believes or why he believes a particular doctrine, he replies, “See my pastor.”
What the know-for-certainty-in-all-areas pastor does, however, is to drive away anyone with a critical faculty, the kind who thinks matters through and asks uncomfortable questions. Luke found such Christians in Berea, who examined the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so. (Acts 17:11)
Let’s address this tendency in some of us preachers to be the court of last resort, the final word on all things theological, for our people.
Woe to you experts in the law! You have taken away the key of knowledge! You didn’t go in yourselves, and you hindered those who were going in! (Luke 11:52)
The scribes started out as copyists of the Word when it was hand-written on parchment or skins and costly to possess. The scribes filled a helpful role and provided a needed service. In time, however, they ended up as self-appointed experts whose word was law.
I’m tempted to say, “Beware when anyone calls you an expert on anything.” But worse than that–and this is where we’re focusing today–is when you think of yourself as an expert. That was where the scribes had landed the day Jesus castigated them.
When you start thinking of yourself as an expert on any matter that concerns ministry, a number of things happen. None of them good.
When you start believing yourself an expert on God things….
1) You begin to pontificate. You become insufferable.
2) You cannot bear for someone to disagree with you. You become intolerant of dissension.
3) Pride becomes your chief adornment.
4) You close yourself to new insights, further revelation, and people with helpful input.
5) You begin to shrivel inside.
6)) You set yourself up as a judge on all who believe or do otherwise from your recommendation.
7) You become a challenge for all nearby. They begin to hunger to see you humbled. You might as well draw a target on your back, for from that moment on, you are in their crosshairs.
I recall reading somewhere that President Franklin D. Roosevelt had an innate distrust of experts. That’s not a bad thing to have when you’re trying to lead a nation out of a depression and through a world war and are surrounded by advisors telling you how to do your job. I think it’s fair to say from reading history that there were no genuine experts in either economics or military matters in those days or ours. There are people with experience or book learning or philosophies or ideas and theories, and who think this sets them apart from the masses.
After he ended his second four-year term as the mayor of New Orleans, our most recent leader (whose name I shall forego) signed on with a speakers bureau as an expert on disaster recovery and city leadership. However, once the succeeding administration revealed the level of corruption and ineptitude that existed during those eight years, the former mayor dropped out of the picture and we never hear from him again.
It would be funny if they were not so serious. On the Weather Channel, various meteorologists with Ph.D. after their names are introduced as the resident “hurricane expert” or “tornado expert” or “disaster expert.” Anyone who thinks there are experts in weather-forecasting has not been paying attention.
Preachers fall into this trap.
A preacher who loves to study his Bible and dedicates himself to learning the biblical languages is all set to do some serious work in the Word. Nothing wrong and everything right with that.
The danger comes when he lights in on some pet theory or favorite theologian or event in theological history and goes to seed on it. In time, he may actually know more about that person or event than almost anyone. At this point, he’s walking on his “high place.”
That’s what it’s called in Habakkuk 3:19 and Psalm 18:33. I like to think of that as scaling Everest. Finally you arrive at the peak. The view is magnificent, the feeling is breath-taking, and the sense of accomplishment is inspiring. However, the air is thin and the footing slippery.
Be careful on your high places, preacher. You could get in big trouble up here.
Treat this as simply a call for continuing humility and childlikeness. When you have done it all–gotten those terminal degrees, written those books, spoken from those public forums, and received all those awards–say to yourself, “I am an unworthy servant; I have only done my duty.” (Luke 17:10)
Back to the scribes for a moment or two.
You have taken away the key of knowledge. You did not enter in yourselves and those who were entering in, you hindered.
1) They had the key of knowledge.
The point here is that knowledge was the key. Before one can be saved, he/she needs to know how. And how shall they know unless someone tell them, as Paul said in Romans 10.
The student of the Word learns how to be saved and to live for God. He reads and sees and knows what Christ said and presumably, knows what it means. He has the key of knowledge.
A key is a powerful thing. With it, you can open lots of doors.
2) They refused to enter.
Learning was more important to the scribes than actually doing. Intellectual delights had become their meat and potatoes, as the saying goes. The Lord Jesus said, If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them. (John 13:17)
I seem to remember from C. S. Lewis’ “The Great Divorce,” a fantasy about a busload of people in hell being allowed to visit Heaven and then decide whether they wanted to remain, that one of the priests in perdition asked a Heavenly resident whether intellectual inquiries were welcomed in the land of God. After all, he said, he was set to deliver a paper in hell next week on the search for the historical Jesus. Or some such.
The temptation to study and inquire and write without ever appropriating is ever with those whose delight centers in the study.
3) They hindered those trying to get in.
The scribes rejected both John the Baptist and Jesus. By their teaching, they emphasized the petty demands of the law and laid them without pity on the poor souls coming to them for counsel.
Two residents of Jericho came to Jesus over the hindrances of the people about them. At the end of Luke 18, it was blind Bartimaeus who ignored the shushings of the crowd in order to get to Jesus. In Luke 19, it was Zaccheus who was unable to see the Lord because of the crowd lining the street and his own small stature.
Once in the late 1970s, Yazoo City’s Jerry Clower, the celebrated Christian entertainer, told the state Baptist convention in Jackson about an integrated choir from the local Baptist college being invited for a concert in his church. Once some people heard that the choir contained an African-American or two, they went ballistic. So, in the time-honored way by which we Baptists resolve our differences (to the extent we can!), a church-wide business meeting was held.
What struck Jerry about that was that people whose names were on the church rolls but who never came to church, showed up to vote against the choir concert. Jerry said, “Think of it. They don’t come to church themselves. And the only time they show up is to vote to keep someone else from coming.”
Jesus called the scribes and their cohorts, the Pharisees, hypocrites. They were the opposite of what they seemed to be.
Hypocrisy is ugly in anyone except ourselves. We see politicians preaching frugality in government and voting themselves extra benefits. We see leaders building careers on patriotic issues and family values, then being revealed to have sold their souls for an hour of pleasure or a few dollars.
With ourselves, however, hypocrisy shows up not as the ugly monster it appeared in the politician, but as a friend. Our own hypocrisies are simply our attempts to deal with our weakness of the flesh, our need for security for our family, our desire to be re-elected so we can go on acting in the public interest.
One writer says the scribes of the First Century turned God’s Word into a book of riddles and puzzles which only they could interpret. Caught up in a religion of their own making, they no longer had anything to offer a seeking, hurting soul.
They had shut the door of God’s mercy and grace and thrown away the key.
One of the most endearing qualities of a spiritual leader is the humble realization that he too is an unworthy sinner in desperate need of a daily outpouring of God’s grace; the constant awareness that if he got what he deserved, he would be in hell; and that when he stands to preach God’s mercy and grace, no one is needier than himself.
Once he quits believing this, he becomes part of the problem and no longer an aspect of the answer.
“Humble yourself under the mighty hand of God” was written not just for the pagan outsider, but for the righteous believer also.
Thanks Joe. This is exactly what we all need to read. Hank