Luke 16:16&17 “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. It is easier for heaven and earth to disappear than for the least stroke of a pen to drop out of the Law.”
Let us begin our examination of these words by reminding ourselves of the one who is speaking them. Who is this person? He is the one who claimed that one day he was going to judge the world, and he was going to separate all mankind as a shepherd separates his sheep from the goats. Men are going to receive their eternal destinies from his lips, but even more than that staggering claim; he laid down the criterion by which men and women are going to be judged. It is their relationship to Christ himself. Have they obeyed him? Have they bowed to him? Have they been ashamed of him, or ashamed of his words? Their destinies are going to hang upon such actions and emotions as those. More even than that, this speaker claims preexistence. “Before Abraham was I am,” he says. And even more than that: he claims absolute equality with God, “I and my Father are one.” John’s Gospel begins, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God” (John 1:1-2), and it ends with Thomas saying, “My Lord and my God,” (John 20:28).
This, then, is the Jesus Christ of the Bible. He is the Maker of heaven and earth. He designed the human brain. He upholds all things by the Word of his power. If the sparrow is going to fall then Jesus Christ must give the word of permission. If a meteor will burn up in the earth’s atmosphere, the Lord has decreed the destination of the meteor’s trajectory. Nothing whatsoever can happen without him. There can be no rogue molecule in the universe refusing to come under his authority. He upholds all things by the word of his power. I believe all the laws of the universe are his. When our children bring home their textbooks from the new school, those forbidding volumes of mathematics and physics, such books are simply the attempt of men to describe the world Christ made and sustains, and what his thought patterns are. One day he will come again in power, majesty and great glory to take apart this universe atom by atom. He will also put it all together again, a whole new universe in which righteousness will dwell.
Everyone must appear before him. We shall meet him and receive from his lips the destination of our eternities. When we consider him we are meeting ultimate and final reality. We believe he’s the only God there is. He is the whole form of God, and the very glory of God. In Jesus Christ all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are found infinitely and immeasurably. We confess the infallibility of Jesus Christ, and that means for us he can say nothing wrong. He speaks on marriage, and on divorce. He speaks on creation, both primary creation of all things from nothing, and then secondary creation of those creatures the Lord made out of the dust of the earth – the animal world and man. He speaks on the human predicament and explains why people kill other people. He knows the heart of man as none other knows it and all its devices. He speaks on death and what lies beyond; he knows the eternal world. This is the spokesman whose words are found before us today. Then let us now pay heed to what he says.
THE MESSAGE OF GOD’S LAW AND HIS PROPHETS WAS PROCLAIMED UNTIL THE MINISTRY OF JOHN THE BAPTIST.
Here is the incarnate God, Jehovah Jesus, and in these words of our Lord in verse sixteen we are given his view of the Old Testament Scriptures. How are we to understand the Old Testament? Here is the clear position taken by God the Son as he considered his Bible. He gives us its two most obvious divisions, the Law of God (which refers to the writings of Moses, the first five books of the Old Testament), and then he speaks of God’s prophets and their writings, the rest of his Bible. See that he isn’t merely acknowledging that all these books had been in existence from the time of Moses. His exact words are that they have actually been preached in the world from the moment that Moses and the prophets wrote them, century after century, right up to Jesus’ own day when Christ’s herald, John the Baptist, the last prophet, appeared and he also proclaimed them.
These books were not simply dusty parchments, hidden away in clay pots in caves in the Dead Sea wilderness. Their words were the proclamation of God; they had life; they had energy; they had come from God and immediately they demanded to be preached on for 1500 years – right up until Jesus’ day with the preaching of John the Baptist. This is what Christ believed, that the Scriptures were the preaching of God to mankind, and our Lord Christ knew them. He had read them and in them he meditated day and night. He had memorized them and he could answer the temptations of Satan by quoting from the law of Moses what he had learned – “It is written . . .” He also prayed that we might be sanctified by their truth for God’s word was truth. “The Scripture cannot be broken,” he said. They were the stuff of divine proclamation to mankind. Theirs was the message that John the Baptist had preached.
Our Lord would never allow any theological or biblical difference between himself and John. There was not a membrane you could slip between John and Jesus, Jesus insisting that John baptize him and refusing to take ‘No’ for an aswer. You know that you might find some strange books on my shelves. They are there for consultation purposes, books by Darwin, and Freud, and Chairman Mao, and by Hitler – the great supremos of our age – but you would not accuse me of being a follower of any of those men merely because I had their books on my shelves. But if I actually joined their movements, signing my name on some membership cards, and paying my subscription each year to them then I would be identifying with what those men believed.
Can you see how closely Jesus identified himself with John? Jesus didn’t simply nod to John, or hold in his hand the same Old Testament books that John the Baptist preached. He didn’t say, “He’s my cousin but he’s six months older than me . . .” They were far closer than that; Jesus actually chose to be baptized by John, against John’s protests of his unworthiness to do that. Jesus identified in the closest possible manner with the ministry and witness and proclamation of John. The law and the prophets were proclaimed right up until John, and including him. Here was a long dispensation that began at the time of the patriarchs, and it finally climaxed in the last prophet whom God sent, John the Baptist.
So our Lord Jesus is speaking here in our text and once again he is endorsing all the words of that covenant that have come from God through Moses and the prophets right up to and including John the Baptist. Jesus is attesting to their absolute integrity and total credibility. Jesus is affirming that John was grafted into that whole Old Testament prophetic tradition, a living story of men summoned and gifted by God, men who denounced the religious life of the sick professing people of God urging the remnant to escape from the coming judgment. John stood erect in that line of men called by God to bring the sternest criticisms of how these favoured people were living, to speak to them with intense moral stringency and uncompromising theological statement. It proved always to be a ministry that provoked intense hostility. Their hearers persecuted them and stoned the prophets that God had sent to them. John the Baptist was scorned by scribes and Pharisees and finally he was executed by Herod. Our Lord had stood in the moment of his own baptism in the river Jordan alongside John, and our Lord was aware of the significance of John’s ministry and the religious resentment it fuelled, but Jesus ignored all that and he deliberately endorsed John. In his actions he submitted to John, insisting that he must be baptized by John. In his words he submits to John declaring that amongst those born of woman none in that dispensation was greater than John the Baptist.
But not only is Jesus validating John personally but Jesus is endorsing the whole Old Testament prophetic testimony of law and prophets. They are those whom God has sent. He owns them, “They are my servants the prophets.” “Amen!” said the Son of God. John, I say, is the culmination of that dispensation, and in Jesus’ words elsewhere, we learn that John was the greatest and most outstanding figure of that age. Our Lord was endorsing all that Old Testament prophecy. Our Lord was saying, “There is nothing in the law or the prophets that I condemn. There is nothing in its letter or spirit which is ever to be deemed by my followers a contradiction of who and what I am, or think or do.” The Lord Jesus, and all his followers, supports the whole of the Old Testament moral law and prophecy. His apostle Paul speaks on behalf of us all when he says, “the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good” (Roms. 7:12). And Peter speaks on behalf of us all when he says, “Prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet. 1:21). Elijah the prophet had once proclaimed God’s word in the valley of the Jordan, and now Elijah in the form of John – I mean by that, John consumed and filled by the same spirit and power that was in Elijah – John also preached in the same place with the same message about the sins of the same nation. “The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John.” That is Jesus’ view of the 39 books of the Old Testament and the message of John the Baptist. They are to be received by us as God’s proclamation to our fathers.
2. THE OLD TESTAMENT SCRIPTURES ARE INVIOLABLE.
But we must go further, not only is he endorsing the Old Testament prophets, Jesus tells us that their words are inviolable. He says, “It is easier for heaven and earth to disappear than for the least stroke of a pen to drop out of the Law” (v.17). Not a jot, and not a tittle of it may be removed from those Scriptures, from Genesis to Malachi, until all of it is fulfilled. Consider the vastness of our universe. The radius of the universe is ten billion light years, so that if you could travel constantly at the speed of light and you went round the edge of the cosmos it would take you about 63 billion light years to get back to where you started from. Again, if we should ask how many stars would you have circled there in the universe on your ultimate voyage then the scientific answer is extraordinarily vague. There are between 200 billion and 400 billion stars in our own galaxy – the Milky Way – and there are 100 billion galaxies in the universe so multiplying those two together men have estimated that there’d be about 3 septillion stars in the universe and that is about as many stars as there are grains of sand in the world. But other scientists claim there are a thousand stars for every grain of sand on earth. My point is this, imagine the amount of work it would take to annihilate a single star, then consider annihilating the entire heavens and earth. Yet all that, Jesus says, would be an easier task than eliminating one divine jot or one divine tittle from Scripture, because God is holding on tight to every jot and tittle. Nothing can drop out of the Law. The Scriptures cannot be broken up or broken down or broken apart. The effort is utterly futile.
That was the confidence that had given Jesus backbone in his full frontal confrontation with Beelzebub in the wilderness, and overcoming him by using Scripturess: “It is written,” and if it is written then it stands for ever, alive and powerful. God has said it. The tragedy is that many religious people in Wales have been concerned to drive a wedge between the Old Testament and the stance of God the Son. “Not the Old Testament,” they still say, “not its moral stringency, and its righteousness, and its awesomeness, and the fearfulness of Jehovah God found there. It is Jesus we want,” they say. “Give us the living Christ not a dead book.” “They have no right to do that,” Jesus is saying. They cannot make the Old Testament disappear like that; easier to make the universe disappear than the least jot or tittle vanish from the Word of God. The Lord Jesus spoke no word of disavowal of the Old Testament, and tolerated no word of criticism of the Scriptures. Jesus is saying in our text, “That kind of disdain can never plead my support. What Scripture says, I say. I believe and obey the Old Testament.”
The Lord Jesus spoke out without error on every single item that you and I meet in life. He alone was free from all the prejudices, misconceptions and traditions that cluttered his age. We are creatures of our time. He was not a creature of his time. He was the incarnate God of eternity. Some religious people living during his days thought that it was wrong to eat ears of corn on the Sabbath day. Some believed it was wicked to eat food without first ceremonially washing their hands. Others thought it was right for a man to divorce his wife for any reason if she offended him. There were those who thought they might be freed from the responsibilities of caring for aged parents by simply pronouncing the word, “Corban,” meaning “my help to you is now a gift of God.” There were those who thought it was acceptable to love their neighbours and then to hate their enemies. Jesus was surrounded with the confusion of people who were children of their time. He was not a child of his time. He was God’s “Holy Child Jesus,” and he corrected his generation on all such issues and many more. He stood against the tide and against his foes, even if it meant that they crucified him. He could never be bought nor bribed. He could not be silenced by a smile or intimidated by a frown. He never taught error. This is the Son of God who said, “I am the truth,” and it is around this Christ that men want us to unite. We have no objection at all to be doing that. If the disciple is not greater than his Master, then we are committed to believe in an infallible Bible. The issue of the inspiration and truthfulness of the Old Testament is not an intellectual one it is a moral one. Will we obey he who is our God?
You might protest, “But to err is human. We can’t have human activity without sin or error.” The issue is a different one. Is Almighty God able so to superintend, control and overrule the operations of the human mind as to ensure that men say exactly what God wanted them to say, and to write precisely what God wanted them to write? Is this an impossibility with God, that he can make the universe and raise the dead but he cannot prepare a man in his providence so that the man inscribes just what God wants? It is interesting in Revelation 10:4, where John is about to write down some words and God intervenes and says to him, “Write them not.” So God assisted Moses in writing the law and the prophets in writing their prophecies with their distinctive personalities, the exercise of their faculties, minds, memories and emotions. God freely enabled them to use their experiences and even a number of biographical references. In all their writings God determined that they freely put down and recorded what transpired to be exactly what he wanted them to say. The Lord worked all things after the counsel of his own will. He prevented them, as the foundation of the church for the next two thousand years, from laying a foundation which is a mixture of truth and error and no one can say for certain which is which.
So in our text the Lord Jesus is teaching us the doctrine of Scripture (as he often does). It is fascinating to learn that there are 179 verses of Jesus’ own teaching in which he repeats the Scriptures, in other words, about ten per cent of his recorded ministry consists of quotations from the Old Testament. He appeals to virtually all those passages that men grumble about today. He refers to Genesis 2 saying “In the beginning God made them male and female.” He appeals to the murder of Abel and to Noah’s flood; he reminds them of Lot leaving Sodom with fire and brimstone falling upon it – “Remember Lot’s wife,” he says. He refers to Moses being spoken to at the burning bush, Moses lifting up the serpent in the wilderness, Jonah in the whale, the men of Nineveh repenting, Namaan being cleansed from his leprosy, Elijah going to the widow of Zarephath, and the Queen of the South coming to Solomon. He quotes five prophets directly. He quotes every part of Isaiah as “Isaiah” saying those words. He quotes from eight Psalms. He is familiar with Old Testament biblical theology and its whole history of redemption. His teaching is full of Scripture.
Jesus calls the Scriptures “the commandments of God.” He refers to them as “the Word of God.” When he repeats words from a Psalm he says, “David himself said in the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 22:41-45). That is a very interesting doctrine of Scripture: there came a time when the Spirit of revelation came upon David and then he wrote the 23rd Psalm or his other Psalms. Jesus also is telling us in our text that the Bible is going to endure. For the Lord Jesus Christ the Scriptures are inviolable. They “cannot be broken” (John 10:35). “Verily, I say unto you, till heaven and earth pass away not one jot or tittle shall in any wise pass from the law till all be fulfilled. He says the Scriptures are true. “Thy word is truth” (John 17:17). He appeals to the way Scripture is phrased: “Jesus answered them, ‘Is it not written in your law, I said ye are gods? If he called them gods, unto whom the word of God came, and the Scriptures cannot be broken’” (John 10:34&35). Again, “But as touching the resurrection of the dead, have ye not read that which was spoken unto you by God saying, I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob? God is not the God of the dead but of the living” (Matt. 22:31&32).
This was the doctrine of Scripture that Jesus is teaching in our text. He taught the doctrine of the nature of God. He taught the doctrine of redemption. He taught the doctrine of the eternal state. But in these words before us he is teaching his people what their attitude to the Old Testament should be. Now, if the Word of God were full of mistakes should he not have warned us – would he not have told us? Wasn’t there one occasion on which he said, “If it were not so I would have told you?” (John 14:2). So Jesus taught the inviolability of the Old Testament when he said here, “It is easier for heaven and earth to disappear than for the least stroke of a pen to drop out of the Law.”
NOW THE GOOD NEWS OF GOD’S KINGDOM IS BEING PREACHED.
“Since that time, the good news of the kingdom of God is being preached” (v.16). There was a time when the people of God only possessed the law of Moses, and the writings of the prophets, and the preaching of John the Baptist. That was the fulness of God’s revelation to them. They were living at a time of preparation; a time of anticipation; a time of promise. They were told that the Seed of the woman was going to come one day and crush the head of the serpent. The Seed of Abraham was going to appear and the good news of his coming was going to go out and out and it would fill the whole world. All nations were going to be blessed through the coming of the great Abraham’s greater Son. That was all in their future. All they had was hope and promise.
I lived the first seven years of my life in days of preparation and anticipation that the Second World War was going to end. I had an uncle fighting in north Africa; I had a father on A.R.P. fire watch in the nights – ‘Air Raid Precautions’ and I had my own gas mask; we heard reports of victories in Europe and Japan, but there were still tens of thousands in concentration camps, and we lived with rationing and with the blackout, no street lighting at all in the night or the bombers would see and drop their bombs on us. The A.R.P men would knock on your door and ask you to close the curtains and pull down the black out blinds. They were years of longing that victory and peace would come one day as the Prime Minister had promised.
Jesus tells these Jews that the preparatory years of the Law and the prophets had finally come to an end. They were all over. The King had come and so the long promised kingdom of God was at hand and good news was being preached, that God hadn’t sent his Son into the world to condemn the world but that the world through him might be saved. No longer is the message of the coming Christ restricted to the Old Testament people of God. Now the nations of the world can be saved through what the Lord Jesus had come to do. The coming of the King marks a major shift in human history. Before Christ was the time of the law, and the prophets. John the Baptist was telling the people that God’s axe was being laid to the root of the tree of decadent Israel. Of course, even in those days God offered people his grace. “Look unto me all the ends of the earth and be saved, for I am God and there is none other . . . Come let us reason together; your sins though they are as scarlet can be whiter than snow.” So the prophets preached, but always in anticipation of the Saviour who was still to come. John the Baptist told the people that he was not the promised one. He was a voice crying in the wilderness, ‘Prepare ye the way of the Lord.’ He preached of the coming One who wouldn’t be baptizing with water but with the Spirit. He would be the Lamb of God who would take away the sin of the world. Everyone from Adam all the way up through John the Baptist was waiting for this kingly Messiah to come. They were looking forward to the day when the Saviour would appear in all the power of God’s saving grace.
Then Jesus of Nazareth came preaching the gospel of the kingdom, of the reign of grace over this dark world. Right from the beginning of his earthly ministry, he announced that he had been sent by God to proclaim “the good news of the kingdom of God” (Luke 4:43). The King had come and he had not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance. What good news! Incarnate grace had appeared, and men had seen its glory. The holy and merciful One had appeared and would die on the cross for the abomination of our sins, and then rise from the dead with the power of eternal life. He would send his servants out from Jerusalem to the uttermost parts of the earth to preach everything he had said, making disciples of all those nations. This is the good news that God has for us in the gospel. All we have failed to do keeping what God’s law requires has been kept by God the Son. All we deserve for breaking God’s law has been laid on the head of the Lamb of God and he has dealt with all that guilt and shame and blame. We can do nothing to save ourselves and so we must look to Jesus. We must put our trust in his sacrifice, in his life of righteousness. We must cry to God for mercy in the name of Jesus. “Pardon me for his sake!” There was a recent opinion poll in which church attenders were asked if the message of Christianity was ‘God helps those who help themselves,’ and 90% of the people asked said, “Yes!” What ignorance! God helps those who know they cannot help themselves, who have fled for refuge to Christ. Help me Jesus or I die!
In the headquarters of the Royal Corps of Signals there used to hang a picture that was painted after the first world war. It was a picture of No Man’s Land; the ground is barren; shell holes abound. But out there in No Man’s Land a vital cable has been broken; the connection has been severed. A linesman has gone out, alone, unarmed, except with a few tools slung over his back. He has gone out past shell holes and craters; he has faced the fire of the enemy as he has crawled and dodged from one cover to another, until at last he has reached the cable; and lying down he has stretched out his two hands, and brought the points of the cable together until they’ve touched. And there he is in the picture, his wrists stiff in death, as, with outstretched hands, he’s made the vital contact. Underneath the picture there is but one word – “Through.” Underneath the Cross of Calvary you can write one word – “Through;” “the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Two thousand years ago our Saviour went out into No Man’s Land; he was unarmed, except by his infinite redeeming love; he went out alone, deserted by his followers, and his enemies raised him up between earth and heaven, and nailed him to a cross, and there he died for our sins. He died to make a way through to God, to restore the connection that sin had broken, to bring men into union with the living God. He once tasted death, but he rose again from the tomb, your representative and mine in the presence of God. There is only one middle man, one Mediator, one channel of blessing, and he is “Jesus Christ, our Lord.”
EVERYONE WHO HEARS THAT GOOD NEWS WILL FORCE HIS WAY INTO THE KINGDOM.
“Everyone is forcing his way into it” (v.16). Whatever this verb is saying, and it is a rare word to translate, it certainly speaks of the need of earnestness in pressing into the kingdom of God. It presumes opposition from the world from not only from our enemies but our family and friends. They don’t want us to become true followers of Jesus and it is through much trial and tribulation that we are to enter the kingdom of God. The devil will not let us leave his sphere of influence without a struggle. It is those who are in earnest who are prepared to force their way in who will enter the kingdom of God.
Remember the vivid picture John Bunyan paints of this verse: “Then the Interpreter took him and led him up toward the Door of the Palace; and behold, at the Door stood a great company of men, desiring go in, but they dared not. There also sat a man at a little distance from the door, at a table, with a book, and his inkhorn before him, to take the name of him that should enter therein. He saw also, that in the doorway stood many men in armour to keep it, being resolved to do to the men that would enter, what hurt and mischief they could. Now was Christian somewhat in a maze. At last, when every man started back for fear of the armed men, Christian saw a man of a very stout countenance, come up to the man that sat there to write, saying, ‘Set down my name, Sir.’ When he had done, he saw the man draw his sword, and put a helmet upon his head, and he rushed toward the Door and upon the armed men, who laid upon him with deadly force. But the man, not at all discouraged, fell to cutting and hacking most fiercely. So after he had received and given many wounds to those that attempted to keep him out, he cut his way through them all, and pressed forward into the Palace; at which there was a pleasant voice heard from those that were within, even of those that walked upon the top of the Palace, saying,
Come in. Come in; Eternal Glory thou shalt win!
So he went in, and was clothed with the same garments as they. Then Christian smiled, and said, ‘I think I really know the meaning of this.’” Why aren’t more of you Christians? Because you are not prepared to live and die for Jesus Christ. You do not see his preciousness. That is essential, to see it and long for him to be yours, to force your way in. You do not wait for the tingle factor. You mortify dull sloth and go for Jesus Christ! There was a girl being interviewed for church membership by the elders of a church but she did not speak well. She was nervous and tongue-tied and the elders said to her, “We think you had better wait until the next communion season.” She nodded and got up and as she was walking out she said under her breath, “Lord, I cannot speak for you, but I would die for you.” “Come back,” said an elder who overheard her and then they dealt more patiently and wisely with her and brought her into membership. You do not have to speak eloquently for Jesus but you must be prepared to die for him, and nothing in the world may you stop you from entering his kingdom. “Give me Christ or else I die!” you say. You will force your way into his kingdom. You must enter it, and he will give you grace to do so and will welcome you.
31st July 2011 GEOFF THOMAS