Jesus had enemies. As soon as he’s declared Son of God in the Gospel of Mark, he’s driven into the wilderness to face Satan, his first and greatest adversary (Mark 1:12).
Satan lurks behind all opposition to Jesus, and his demons show up repeatedly to entice and corrupt, but surprisingly, his henchmen are more often theologians than demons. Satan is mentioned only five times in Mark, and demons only thirteen times. But the scribes and Pharisees are mentioned 29 times, and in 27 of those verses, they are wielding their knowledge of the Scriptures in opposition to the Christ.
When Jesus told his disciples how he would die, he didn’t blame the evil ruler of this world (2 Corinthians 4:4), but the rulers of his own chosen people,
“We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles. And they will mock him and spit on him, and flog him and kill him.” (Mark 10:33–34; also Mark 8:31)
It wasn’t the tax collectors plotting to put an end to Jesus (Mark 14:1). It wasn’t the drunks or the thieves shouting, “Crucify him!” (Mark 15:11). It wasn’t the sexually immoral who executed him. It was the morally respectable and theologically refined who murdered the Author of life (Acts 3:13–15).
Jesus almost immediately set himself apart from the Jewish religious leaders — the grand masters of theology — in his day. The people in the synagogue “were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes” (Mark 1:22). He did not come as the supreme scribe, but as something categorically different — all the same knowledge and more, but a different heart and different authority.
Who are the scribes and Pharisees today? Who are the men and women so infatuated with their mastery of Scripture and doctrine that they wind up missing Jesus completely? Christian theologians of every kind abuse such knowledge, but we Calvinists — refined and Reformed, systematic and attentive to detail — can be some of the most vulnerable.
How do we know when our systems for understanding God have become sick with sin and paradoxically subtle justifications for opposing him?
When we study the 27 times Mark mentions the scribes and Pharisees, we learn how even theology can be twisted to blind us to God and rob us of real life and joy when our systems become lackeys of our sin. Consider these six flags that our theology might be leading us away from him.
The scribes were blind to their sin, and saw themselves as superior to other sinners. “The scribes of the Pharisees, when they saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, said to his disciples, ‘Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?’” (Mark 2:16).
Does our theology — our understanding of who God is and what he has done for us — stir us to love and serve sinners?
If we can’t understand why Jesus would move toward the least deserving sinners in society, our theology has not only blinded us to him, but it has blinded us to ourselves. Faith says, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost” (1 Timothy 1:15). Self-righteousness seizes theology for self-promotion and selfish ambition. As the apostle Paul warns,
“Knowledge” puffs up, but love builds up. If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. But if anyone loves God, he is known by God. (1 Corinthians 8:1–3)
The scribes worked hard to appear a certain way, being quick to judge and condemn others, while secretly protecting pet-sins in their own hearts. They relentlessly tried to ambush Jesus by proving he had broken the law, when in reality he had come to fulfill it in their place. For example, the Jews had developed traditions of external cleanliness — religiously and ruthlessly cleaning not only their hands, but their cups, their vessels, and even their “dining couches” (Mark 7:3–4). So, they were furious when Jesus’s disciples did not wash up (Mark 7:5).
Jesus rebuked them. “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me’” (Mark 7:6). They had developed ways of appearing to be godly without preferring and prioritizing God in their hearts. The same truths that were meant to bring conviction of sin, and passion for Christ, tragically led them to glory in their own “obedience” and ultimately reject and destroy him. They hated what Jesus said about them because they had fallen in love with what their theology said about them.
Does our love for the doctrines of the sovereignty of God over all things and total depravity and unconditional election still leave us broken and humble over our own sin?
The scribes could not stand to watch Jesus rise in power and influence. “The chief priests and the scribes heard it and were seeking a way to destroy him, for they feared him, because all the crowd was astonished at his teaching” (Mark 11:18). They feared what his message might cost them — in authority, in prestige, probably even in money — not knowing that rejecting him would cost them everything. They lacked John the Baptist’s joy-filled humility to say, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).
When so-called theology increases our personal drive to be known, appreciated, and promoted, rather than feeding humility, something has gone wrong. Clearly the theology that killed Jesus had someone other than Jesus at the center. The person most likely to take that place in my heart is me. We should, instead, love to see Jesus lifted up over us, whatever the cost to us (Philippians 1:12–13).
The scribes traded away the truth to get what they really wanted. They lied to preserve their status and comfort in this life, and in doing so, betrayed the one way, truth, and life (John 14:6).
They confront Jesus again, “By what authority are you doing these things?” (Mark 11:28). He replies, “I will ask you one question; answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things. Was the baptism of John from heaven or from man? Answer me” (Mark 11:29–30). Suddenly they’re caught in their own trap:
“If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But shall we say, ‘From man’?” — they were afraid of the people, for they all held that John really was a prophet. So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” (Mark 11:31–33)
They didn’t care about the truth as much as they cared about getting their own way. If theology is going to be used to oppose Jesus, it must lie. It simply cannot last without lying — about God, about sin, about judgment, about Scripture, about salvation, about Jesus, about ourselves.
The scribes were driven not by godly desires for more of God, but by greedy desires for power, notoriety, and money. Jesus warns his disciples, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes and like greetings in the marketplaces and have the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, who devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation” (Mark 12:38–40).
Beware of people who know more than anyone about God, but seem to clearly live for themselves. Maybe we don’t dress loudly, or sound a trumpet when we enter the sanctuary on Sundays, or take advantage of widows, but do the rhythms of our life suggest we’re living humbly, selflessly, and sacrificially for others? Or does it look like we’re spending most of our time, energy, and money taking care of our own needs and desires?
Truly knowing more of God makes us more concerned for others, and less concerned with ourselves.
The sin of all theological sins (and the sin underneath the rest) is pride — the stubborn heart that elevates me, my understanding, and my will above God.
The scribes were skeptical toward Jesus, refusing to acknowledge their own Messiah, while crowds of lesser-educated, Bible-illiterate people were rallying to him (Mark 2:2, 6). Scholars soaked in Scripture mocked the sinless centerpiece of Scripture (Mark 15:31). They refused to embrace Jesus as the Christ, and instead accused him of being the devil (Mark 3:22), doubling down in their mutiny with blasphemy. In and under every rejection of the Truth was a heart of pride.
What attitude do you bring to the word of God? Does your theological system control how you read? Have your definitions and categories become so rigid that not even the plain words of God himself can alter them? Every encounter with the Word of God in the word of God should be another humble, open-handed prayer for truth, not a pride-filled effort to prove our own perspective. Any proud theology proves itself false in some way. Truly Christian theology produces and promotes awestruck, joyful humility.
Not Every Scribe
A developed theology is no guarantee of spiritual life or love for Jesus, but you cannot have either without theology. One scribe in Mark was not like the others. He heard the Pharisees and Sadducees trying to trap the God-man himself with their theological puzzles (Mark 12:13). Jesus answers them by rehearsing Deuteronomy 6:4–5 and Leviticus 19:18 (Mark 12:29–31).
The rogue scribe, then, risking his status and maybe even his life, responds, “You are right, Teacher. You have truly said that he is one, and there is no other besides him. And to love him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices” (Mark 12:32–33).
Jesus had rebuked the other theologians in the room, “Is this not the reason you are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God?” (Mark 12:24). But to this man, he said instead, “You are not far from the kingdom of God” (Mark 12:34). Not proud or self-righteous. Not greedy, dishonest, or jealous. Just soaked in the Scriptures, with the right heart beneath, in love with the God of the doctrines.
That marriage of knowledge and love produced humility in pride’s place, joy where jealousy once lived, honesty instead of hypocrisy, and faith stronger than any promise lust or greed might make. That kind of theology did not kill the Christ, but instead dies with him into everlasting life. It will not blind us to God, but unwrap and highlight more and more of his worth.