Woe to Whom?

By Mark D. Roberts

July 14, 2021

Scripture – Luke 11:52 (NRSV)

Woe to you lawyers! For you have taken away the key of knowledge; you did not enter yourselves, and you hindered those who were entering.


Jesus does not hold back in his criticism of lawyers. But the lawyers he had in mind were not experts in secular law. Rather, they were supposed experts in religious law, in the Torah given by God to Moses and the children of Israel. Thus, Jesus’s strong words about lawyers ought to rouse any of us who seek to interpret God’s Word for others. Whether we’re pastors, seminary professors, parents, or members of a small group, we have the responsibility of personally knowing God and faithfully helping others to know God in truth. This is indeed a high calling!

Today’s devotion is part of the series Following Jesus Today.


A recent headline in the American Bar Association Journal caught my eye. “What can lawyers do to combat their bad PR?” asks the writer, Danielle Braff. The article begins by referencing “hundreds if not thousands of lawyer jokes.” Braff notes, ironically, “there are really only three lawyer jokes – the rest are true stories.” Ouch!

I find myself feeling defensive for lawyers. To be sure, there are some bad-egg attorneys, but there are plenty of those in my pastoral line of work, too. Yet, in my experience with lawyers, they are usually people of integrity who use their legal training for good. I know several lawyers who not only care for their own clients, but also who do quite a bit of pro bono work for those who couldn’t afford legal assistance.

But then we come upon Luke 11 and Jesus’s censure of lawyers. He criticized them for loading people with impossible burdens and approving the killing of prophets (11:46-51). Then Jesus added, “Woe to you lawyers! For you have taken away the key of knowledge; you did not enter yourselves, and you hindered those who were entering” (11:52). He wasn’t making lawyer jokes here, but rather offering stern condemnation of “you lawyers.”

Now, before we start into a litany of lawyer jokes, it’s important to pay attention to what Jesus meant here. It’s true that the word translated as “lawyer,” nomikos in Greek, could refer to an expert in secular law. But in Luke 11, Jesus has another kind of lawyer in mind. He’s referring to experts in the Jewish law, the Torah that was to guide the life and faith of Israel. Lawyers, in Luke 11, aren’t those who bear the brunt of contemporary lawyer jokes. Rather, they are much more like people who have training in biblical interpretation. The lawyers Jesus had in mind were much more, well, like me.

What did Jesus have against the biblical interpreters of his day? He said that they “have taken away the key of knowledge; you did not enter yourselves, and you hindered those who were entering” (Luke 11:52). Jesus pictures knowledge of God and God’s truth as something that can be found behind a door. A key opens that door, the key of biblical interpretation. But the religious scholars of Jesus’s day did not actually use the key to find truth. They didn’t enter into the place where truth could be found. Moreover, they kept others from entering as well. Those who were supposed to interpret and teach actually kept people from knowing God and his ways.

As I read Luke 11:52, I am reminded of the significant responsibility God has entrusted to me as an interpreter of his Word. For years I did this work as a parish pastor, doing my “lawyer work” mainly through preaching in my church along with some adjunct teaching at Fuller Seminary. Today, the vast majority of my biblical interpretation goes into writing devotions. Since 2008, I have written more than 2,500 devotions, all based on a close reading of the Bible. That’s quite a bit of biblical “lawyering,” if you will.

My heart’s desire to use wisely the “key of knowledge” God has entrusted to me so that those whom I serve will truly enter into a deeper understanding and experience of God. Every time I write a devotion, I pray for God’s guidance. But I also seek to do what the religious lawyers in Jesus’s time did not do. According to Jesus, they did not enter themselves into the place of knowledge. Though they were experts in techniques of biblical interpretation, they did not know God in truth. They were not personally engaged with the God whom they studied. I know this is an easy trap for biblical interpreters to fall into. And it’s one I try to avoid by always seeking to let God’s truth touch me in a personal way as I share my insights with others.

Most of the readers of Life for Leaders are not trained as “biblical lawyers,” so to speak. Thus, you may be wondering how this devotion is relevant to you. Let me suggest three possibilities. First, though you may not have a seminary degree, you are in possession of “the key of knowledge” if you are committed to learning and doing God’s truth in Scripture. Thus, you are responsible for how you use this key, not just for yourself, but also for others. Whether you’re with your children, colleagues, neighbors, or small group partners, God can and will use you to help others engage with divine truth. Your job is to open the door, rather than hindering them from entering. (By the way, in my experience, hindering takes the form not only of poor interpretation of Scripture, but especially of poor obedience. Hypocrisy can be powerful and pernicious hindering.)

Second, if you’re going to be effective as a bearer of the “key of knowledge,” then you need to be sure and enter yourself into the place where God can be known. Don’t get so wrapped up in biblical interpretation that you fail to know truly and intimately the God who is revealed in Scripture.

Third, and finally, I would ask you to pray for the writing team at Life for Leaders (Uli, Inés, Jennifer, Sheff, Matthew, and me), and also for your pastor(s) and others who help you to understand God’s truth in Scripture. Pray that God would grant us wisdom, insight, and humility as we seek both to understand what God is saying and communicate that to you. Thank you.


Do you use the “key of knowledge” to open the door into a truthful, intimate relationship with God? If so, in what ways do you do this?

In what contexts do you act as an interpreter of Scripture for others?

How committed are you to deeper learning about God and deeper experience of God?

What helps you to know God and God’s Word better, so that you might be a trustworthy teacher of others?


Talk with God about your own growth in knowing God through the Word. Consider whether your current spiritual practices are helping you to know God more truly and intimately. If it seems right, make one commitment to doing something new or different in the next week. Then do it.


Lord Jesus, I want to know you truly, deeply, intimately. Thank you for making yourself known to me, most of all through Scripture. Thank you for giving me “the key of knowledge.” Not that this is something I own myself. Rather, this key is knowledge of the gospel. It’s knowledge of who you are. And it’s also the indwelling presence of your Spirit, who helps me to rightly understand Scripture.

Help me, I pray, to be a faithful interpreter of your Word. May I be diligent in study. May I always be open to your Spirit.

Lord, I’m quite sure that some of what I believe about Scripture isn’t quite right. I’m certainly not an inerrant interpreter of your Word. So help me, I pray, to study hard, but also to be humble before you and others.

Use me, I pray, to open the door so others might come to know you in truth. May I be a faithful steward of the “key” you have given me. To you be all the glory! Amen.

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Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the unique website of our partners, the High Calling archive, hosted by the Theology of Work Project. Commentary on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: Oy Vey! Woe Is Me!

Mark D. Roberts

Senior Strategist

Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a Senior Strategist for Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, where he focuses on the spiritual development and thriving of leaders. He is the principal writer of the daily devotional, Life for Leaders,...

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