Luke 16:16 “The Law and the Prophets were until John…”
This verse is sometimes misunderstood to be saying the law and prophets ended upon the arrival of John the Baptist. The interpretation is primarily derived from the words “until John”. Does this mean John the Baptist abolished God’s law? Actually, the very next sentence spoken by Jesus tells us the law has not become void.
“But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one dot of the Law to become void.” (Luke 16:17)
What did Jesus mean by the “until John” statement? Scholars and translators have been wrestling with this question for centuries. Here’s my view.
Starting in Luke 15:1, Jesus began talking to tax collectors and sinners. This perturbed the Pharisees.
“Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.“” (Luke 15:1-2)
In chapter 16 (same audience), Jesus turns his words toward the Pharisees. He began pointing out things Jewish leadership did that were contrary to God’s law. They were lovers of money (vs 14). They justified their bad behavior before men (vs 15). They were committing adultery (vs 18).
Verse 18 almost seems to be a random comment in the middle of rebuking Jewish religious leaders.
“Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.” (Luke 16:18)
However, we know from Luke 3:19 that the tetrarch of Galilee and Perea, Herod Antipas, had been reproved by John the Baptist for marrying his brother’s wife and niece, contrary to the Torah. Thus Luke 16:18 could have easily been recognized by Pharisees and scribes as another example of the leaders ignoring God’s law.
Next Jesus tells another parable. One of the characters in the parable was a rich man (vs 19, 21, 22). He lived in extravagant wealth (vs 19). We also learn that he had five brothers, all of whom had the writings of Moses and the Prophets (vs 28 & 29). Another character in the story was mentioned by name; Lazarus. Did this parable also accuse Jewish religious leadership of ignoring God’s law?
In the parable, Jesus said the five brothers would not be convinced even if someone should rise from the dead.
“But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.‘” (Luke 16:29-31)
Where do we find five brothers who definitely had Moses and the prophets? The high priest that year, according to verse 49, was Ciaphas; a rich Jewish ruler. Ciaphas had five brothers-in-law who all served terms as high priest from AD 16-63 (Eleazar, Jonathan, Theophilus, Anan and Matthias).
Did Ciaphas have a connection to someone named Lazarus that was raised from the dead? Yes indeed! John 11:47-53 records a meeting between the chief priests and Pharisees to discuss how they were going to respond to the raising of Lazarus from the dead. With Caiaphas in the top position, the chief priests ultimately made plans to put Lazarus to death.
“So the chief priests made plans to put Lazarus to death as well, because on account of him many of the Jews were going away and believing in Jesus.” (John 12:10-11)
Jesus concluded his parable by pointing out that the rich man’s brothers would not listen to Moses and the Prophets even if someone rose from the dead. Lazarus was raised from the dead and they were not convinced. The chief priests would also be complicit in the murder of Jesus and remain unconvinced when he rose from the dead.
The overall point Jesus was illustrating in Luke 16 is that some in Jewish leadership acted contrary to the instructions of Moses and the Prophets.
Now that we have the context of the chapter, let’s go back to Luke 16:16. Here’s the whole verse.
“The Law and the Prophets were until John; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is preached, and everyone forces his way into it.” (Luke 16:16)
It helps to understand that the words “good news of the” do not appear in the Greek text of Luke 16:16. I would venture that John’s message was not embraced with euphoria. Rather, it was understood with a sense of alarm.
In the first century, the dominant expectation of how Messiah would return involved rage, fury, destruction, slaughter, blood, enemies eating their own flesh, vengeance, wrath, recompense, fire, corpses, doom and making a full end of nations. (Isaiah 34:2-3, Isaiah 41:11, Isaiah 49:26, Isaiah 59:17-18, Isaiah 63:2-6, Isaiah 66:15-16, Jeremiah 46:10, Jeremiah 46:28, Isaiah 66:24, Ezekiel 11:21, Ezekiel 30:3-4, Joel 3:1-3, Obadiah 1:15-16, Zephaniah 1:17-18, Zechariah 10:11, Zechariah 14:12-19, Malachi 4:1) Here came the first prophet in hundreds of years and he was urgently declaring the Kingdom of Heaven to be “at hand” – while dressed like Elijah and evoking Isaiahs ‘voice of one crying in the wilderness’. The people were sobered, compelled, expectant and probably somewhat terrified.
Is that what we see when we examine John’s preaching? Take a look.
“As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall become straight, and the rough places shall become level ways,and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’” He said therefore to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” And the crowds asked him, “What then shall we do?” And he answered them, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.” As the people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ, John answered them all, saying, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” (Luke 3:4-17)
John the Baptist was getting people fired up!
Finally, let’s look at a couple Greek words in these verses.
Luke 16:16 says, “…and everyone forces his way [βίαζομαι] into it.”
Thayer’s Greek Lexicon says βίαζομαι means, “a share in the heavenly kingdom is sought for with the most ardent zeal and the intensest exertion”. HELPS Word Studies says it can mean, “laying hold of something with positive aggressiveness.”
Now we can put it all together.
- “…it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one dot of the Law to become void.” (Luke 16:17) Jesus was not saying the law was made void by John or anyone else.
- The overall point Jesus was illustrating in Luke 16 is that Jewish leadership acted contrary to the instructions of Moses and the Prophets. (Luke 16:14-15, 18, 29-31)
- The law and prophets told of the coming Messiah, but the people had become complacent after hundreds of years. There was no longer a sense of urgency prior to John’s arrival. John changed the urgency of the message. He dressed like Elijah and Jesus said he was “Elijah who is to come”. John spoke with the spirit and power of Elijah. His preaching was alarming and people flocked to him with urgency. The time was now!
- The words sometimes translated as force and violence can also be accurately translated with words like zeal, aggressiveness, eager pursuit and being “fired up”.
If we understand Luke 16:16 in all this context we might derive a summary something like:
“The law and the Prophets were calling for obedience and foretelling the Kingdom prior to John, but you’ve only been making a show of obedience while in your hearts you’ve been loving money and committing adultery. Since John arrived, the Kingdom has been preached with urgency and people are eagerly responding because he’s preaching the kingdom as imminent while dressed like Elijah and in the power and spirit of Elijah because he IS the Elijah that was foretold in Malachi.” (Jeff’s expanded paraphrase of Luke 16:16)