#70. Pressing into the Kingdom (Luke 16:16-18)

by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
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Text

Luke 16:16-18

[16] "The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John. Since that time, the good news of the kingdom of God is being preached, and everyone is forcing his way into it. [17] It is easier for heaven and earth to disappear than for the least stroke of a pen to drop out of the Law.

[18] "Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery, and the man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.


Exposition

This short passage is about the Mosaic Law, and seems like an abbreviation of Jesus' teaching on how the Law ought to be understood and interpreted. We see a fuller teaching on this in Matthew 5:17-48. Since this isn't a major theme in Luke, I don't want to develop it as fully as I did in my study on the Sermon on the Mount (www.joyfulheart.com/manifesto). But let's briefly look at the themes:

  1. Jesus sees the "good news of the Kingdom" as a new era, in contrast with the former period of the Law and the Prophets (16:16a), and
  2. Observes that the kingdom require "forcible entry" (16:16b),
  3. He affirms the permanence of the Law (16:17), but
  4. Insists that the Law must be interpreted correctly, such as in the case of marriage commitment, which had become very lax in his day (16:18).

Law and Prophets vs. Good News of the Kingdom (16:16a)

"The Law and the Prophets were [proclaimed] until John. Since that time, the good news of the kingdom of God is being preached, and everyone is forcing his way into it." (16:16)

The phrase "the Law and the Prophets" can refer to the actual books of the Old Testament, or, as here, to the teaching of these books. Jesus encouraged his disciples to follow the Golden Rule and said, "for this sums up the Law and the Prophets" (Matthew 7:12). When he gave the two great commandments, he said, "All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments" (Matthew 22:40) (See also Acts 13:15; 24:14; 28:23.) 

John the Baptist is the watershed between the two eras: (1) the law and the prophets age and (2) the kingdom age. He straddles these them. He is proclaiming the new era: "The time has come. The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!" (Mark 1:15). But in some way John is the last of the Old Testament prophets, for Jesus says, "Among those born of women there is no one greater than John; yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he" (Luke 7:28). As Moses sees the Promised Land but never enters it himself, so John proclaims the Kingdom but is not quite a part of it as Jesus begins to reveal it.

A key word for Luke is "good news" or "gospel": the noun Greek euangelion, " 'good news' as a proclamation,' and the verb euangelizo, " 'bring good news, announce good news,' usually specifically 'to proclaim the divine message of salvation, proclaim, preach.' "[1] The prophets -- Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, Amos, Joel, Malachi, and the rest -- proclaimed the Law and called Jews to repent of their sins and turn back to obedience to God's Law. And that was right and good.

But now Messiah has come and ushers in the new age only glimpsed by the prophets. For centuries it is just a vision; now it is here in the person of Jesus:

"The time is coming," declares the Lord, "when I will make a new covenant
with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah.
It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers
when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt,
because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them," declares the Lord.
"This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time," declares the Lord.
"I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts.
I will be their God, and they will be my people.
No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, 'Know the Lord,'
because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest," declares the Lord.
"For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more."
(Jeremiah 31:31-34)

What great news! What good news!

Forcing Your Way into the Kingdom (16:16b)

"Since that time, the good news of the kingdom of God is being preached, and everyone is forcing his way into it." (16:16b)

The last phrase of 16:16 is one of the hardest in the New Testament to interpret, since we are not privy to the full context surrounding this saying. It appears in both Matthew and Luke in slightly different settings. In Matthew, Jesus is commenting on John the Baptist's role after the imprisoned John has sent some followers to Jesus to confirm that he is indeed the Messiah. Jesus praises John, and proclaims him greater than any prophet before him. Then he says:

"From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing (Greek biazo, middle or passive), and forceful men (biastes) lay hold (harpazo) of it." (Matthew 11:12)

Luke's record of the saying is similar:

"Since that time, the good news of the kingdom of God is being preached, and everyone is forcing his way (Greek biazo, middle or passive) into it." (16:16b)

These are the only two verses in the New Testament where the Greek verb biazo is used, which makes it difficult to have certainty about how the word is being used. "In Greek literature biazo is most often used in the unfavorable sense of attack or forcible restraint." The most recent Greek-English Lexicon gives four possible definitions of biazo in these two verses: (1) "to inflict violence on, 'dominate, constrain,' (2) to gain an objective by force, 'use force,' (3) to go after something with enthusiasm, 'seek fervently, try hard,' or (4) 'constrain (warmly).' "[2] The noun used in Matthew, Greek biastes, is used in other literature in a negative or pejorative sense, "violent, impetuous person."[3]

One of the most popular interpretations sees biazo as passive and takes the saying as meaning that the Kingdom suffers violence as its servants (e.g., John the Baptist and Jesus) are maltreated by the enemies of the Kingdom. But instead of trying to list each of the possible interpretations, let me outline what I think it means and why.

I am taking biazo as the middle voice instead of the passive voice (the forms here are exactly the same) with the second definition above, "to gain an objective by force." In other words, Jesus is saying that people must actively, aggressively, forcibly to seek entrance into the Kingdom.[5] You don't enter the Kingdom of God by osmosis or family tradition. A number of Jesus' teachings about the Kingdom indicate the radical nature of taking hold of the Kingdom. Let us look at a few:

  • Being born again (John 3:3, 7). If you've ever given birth or been present at a birth, then you know first hand that birth is a violent, radical event, "natural" though it may be.[4]
  • Cutting off your hand, plucking out your eye that causes you to sin (Mark 9:47).
  • Hating one's family (Luke 14:26).
  • Bringing not peace, but a sword (Matthew 10:34).
  • Giving up everything for the treasure hidden in the field and for the pearl of great price (Matthew 13:44-46). Radical action was required of the rich young ruler (Mark 10:21).
  • Counting the cost of building a tower or waging war (Luke 14:28-33)

Too often we want the blessings of the Kingdom, but are not willing to do whatever it takes to follow Jesus. We are "rice Christians," "fair-weather Christians" who aren't following Jesus the Master but adopting a religion. When you take Jesus' teachings seriously and look at them fairly, it's pretty obvious that he is asking for everything that we have -- our heart, our allegiance, our obedience, our willingness to risk all to follow. Jesus mention any comfortable middle ground, though the timid part of us earnestly would like to find it.

In this verse Jesus says:

  • "Everyone," Greek pas, that is, everyone who becomes part of the Kingdom...
  • "is forcing his way," pushing through the door, seeking to enter while it still possible, making every effort...
  • "into it," Greek eis, that is, into the Kingdom.

One of my favorite verses, and perhaps yours, too, is: "Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well" (Matthew 6:33). The verb "seek" is Greek zeteo, "seek, look for, search for ... try to obtain, desire to possess."[6]

The Permanence of the Law (16:17)

"It is easier for heaven and earth to disappear than for the least stroke of a pen to drop out of the Law." (16:17)

The Pharisees followed strictly their rather rigid interpretation of the Law, later written down in the Mishnah. They criticized Jesus as if he didn't take the Law seriously because he didn't adopt their particular interpretation. But Jesus affirms that the Law, rightly interpreted, remains and will endure. The Sermon on the Mount is largely a reinterpretation of the spirit of the Law, which begins with Matthew's quoting of the saying in this verse (Matthew 5:17-20). We must reject the Pharisees' picky, legalistic approach to the Law, but must understand and affirm its purpose and spirit. At the same time we realize that much of the Law is obsolete since Messiah has come and is doing a new thing, proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom. 

The Enduring Nature of Marriage (16:18)

Now Jesus gives an example of the enduring nature of the Law's intent. In Jesus' day some of the Pharisees themselves had become permissive, allowing men to divorce their wives on the most trivial grounds. For example, Rabbi Hillel taught that divorce could be justified by a wife spoiling her husband's dinner. Rabbi Akiba would permit divorce if a man found someone prettier than his wife,[7] making a mockery of the Law. Jesus reaffirms the bond of marriage in no uncertain terms:

"Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery, and the man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery." (16:18)

I know that many Christians are troubled this verse and its parallels in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew 5:31-32; 19:3-12; Mark 10:2-12), as well as Paul's discussion of marriage and divorce in 1 Corinthians 7:1-16. Many have been wounded in spirit by a divorce that they could not prevent. Others have divorced because of abandonment, abuse, and worse.

Can they remarry? Is their second or third marriage adulterous? Are they now living in sin? These questions trouble people seeking to please the Lord. We've seen churchmen make their pronouncements. We've seen people tragically alienated from the church. I wish I had the wisdom to answer all the questions that arise, but our passage in Luke is not the place. It is a single sentence given only as an example of the continuing importance of the Law when rightly understood. 

But I must say that Jesus is one who calls sinners to himself, forgives them, and sends them into the world washed and cleansed (1 Corinthians 6:11). Jesus upholds the sanctity of marriage, but at the same time, he reaches out those who have sinned. Jesus puts his arms around those who have failed to keep a marriage together. He loves you and forgives you and calls you to follow him in spite of your past sin or present situation.

Sometimes divorce and remarriage are treated as unforgivable sins. They are not. Remember Peter's terrible three-fold denial that he even knew Jesus? Recall also Jesus' three-fold restoration of the broken apostle: "Feed my lambs ... Take care of my sheep ... Feed my sheep" (John 21:15-17). Jesus forgives today, too, and restores you to ministry for him.

The Bottom Line

As I look at Jesus' teaching on the Law which is compressed into this week's three verses, I the Son of the Father affirming the Law with which his Father had guided and prepared the Jewish people. But Jesus also affirms that he is ushering in a new day, a day characterized by the Good News of the Kingdom. And offers us disciples a new imperative to force our way into the Kingdom (16:16b) at any cost.

As I ponder these verses I ask myself disciple-questions: Have I fallen and can't get up? Jesus reaches out to help me. Have I become complacent, passive?  I must press into God's plan and desire for me. I must aggressively seek the Kingdom with all my heart. That is my desire, and, I am sure, yours too.


Prayer

Father, I am not just a Christian, I am a disciple. But in some ways I have become passive. Forgive me. Let me seek you with an unflagging zeal. I long to be in the very center of your present will for my life. I long to know you better. With Paul, I want to forget what is behind and strain forward toward what is to come. I want to press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:13-14). I seek you, Father, with all my heart. Help me to do so, and pick me up where I fall short. In Jesus' name, I pray. Amen.


Key Verse

"Since that time, the good news of the kingdom of God is being preached, and everyone is forcing his way into it." (Luke 16:16b)


Questions

JesusWalk: Discipleship Training in Luke's Gospel, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
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  1. Extra Credit: How did John the Baptist's message (3:3, 16) differ from the prophets who came before him?
  2. Just what IS the "good news of the Kingdom of God"? Put in your own words what this good news is.
  3. Why do you think Jesus was accused of doing away with the Law? Did he?
  4. Is it possible to hold a high view of the sanctity of marriage at the same time as we love as Christian brothers and sisters those who have been divorced and remarried?
  5. Why do we need to "force" our way into the Kingdom of God? Why should it be so difficult? Shouldn't salvation be easy?
  6. How can we both press fervently towards perfection and at the same time have peace and contentment in Christ? Aren't these mutually exclusive?

References

Common Abbreviations www.jesuswalk.com/faq/abbreviations.htm

  1. BDAG 402-403.
  2. BDAG 175-176.
  3. BDAG 176.
  4. The verb gennao can mean either "become the father of, beget" or "bear, give birth." In John, Nicodemus understands Jesus' statement (doubtless spoken in Aramaic) as referring to "giving birth." In 1 Peter 1:23, however, the verb seems to indicate "become the father of."
  5. In this interpretation I have followed pretty closely the position of my former professor, George Eldon Ladd, Jesus and the Kingdom (Harper & Row, 1964), pp. 154-160. This book was later republished under the name Presence of the Future: The Eschatology of Biblical Realism (Eerdmans, 1996; ISBN 0802815316).
  6. BDAG 428.
  7. Gittin ix.10; 90a. See Edersheim's discussion in Life and Times, vol. 2, pp. 332-337.

Copyright © 1985-2014, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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