Whenever you translate one language into another, things are never perfect. This is hardly surprising when we remember that it was God who set us all up with different languages in the first place. At the beginning of Genesis 11, we read that everyone in the world spoke the same language. When God didn’t like what people were up to, He came up with a creative way to force them to disperse and to prevent them from being able to work together easily: He caused them to speak different languages so they could no longer understand each other. Look around at the world today and you’ll find a vast variety of languages. Some use letters, others use symbols. Some sound melodic, others sound like a series of clicks and pops. We simply have no hope of keeping up with a God who is obsessed with variety. When it comes to learning languages, we find that each one has its own set of unique words and phrases that simply don’t translate well into another language. And because so many words have many possible definitions, trying to figure out what some dead guy meant by what he wrote is especially challenging because a dead guy can’t give you any clarification.
The New Testament was mainly written in a version of Greek that is 2,000 years old. God keeps languages in a constant state of flux, with the same words changing drastically in meaning over time. Then there is sentence structure. Every language has its own way of organizing the parts of speech: nouns, verbs, and connecting words like “the” or “and.” Sometimes we come across a sentence that seems to be out of order—was that a mistake or was the writer being clever? We can’t ask him, because he’s dead. All we can do is guess.
So what does all of this mean for you? It means that when you pick up an English translation of the Bible and think you’re reading exactly what the original authors said, you’re wrong. What you find in an English Bible is someone’s best guess at what the original authors said. In reality, there are many passages in the Bible which are so awkwardly worded that modern day translators really aren’t at all certain about what’s being said. When you never check out other versions of the Bible, you don’t realize how much disagreement there is among translators. The guys who put your translation together don’t bother to tell you all the other ways that a particular passage could be interpreted. They just present you with the version they like best, and this gives you a false sense of confidence about how accurate your version is.
In this post, we’re going to tackle two passages in which Jesus makes some very similar yet very strange comments about the Kingdom of Heaven. The wording of these passages is difficult and unclear. In both cases, Jesus is saying something about violent people, force, and the Kingdom of Heaven. To give you an idea of how unclear the wording is, let’s see how various translators have tackled Matthew 11:12-13.
NCV: Since the time John the Baptist came until now, the kingdom of Heaven has been going forward in strength, and people have been trying to take it by force. All the prophets and the law of Moses told about what would happen until the time John came.
KJV: And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of Heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force. For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John.
HCSB: From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of Heaven has been suffering violence, and the violent have been seizing it by force. For all the prophets and the Law prophesied until John.
NLT: And from the time John the Baptist began preaching until now, the Kingdom of Heaven has been forcefully advancing, and violent people are attacking it. For before John came, all the prophets and the law of Moses looked forward to this present time.
NIV: From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of Heaven has been subjected to violence, and violent people have been raiding it. For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John.
GNT: From the time John preached his message until this very day the Kingdom of Heaven has suffered violent attacks, and violent men try to seize it. Until the time of John all the prophets and the Law of Moses spoke about the Kingdom.
While some translations make the kingdom of Heaven sound like it has been victoriously expanding despite resistance, others portray the kingdom as the suffering victim of relentless beatings. Which is the correct meaning, and what did Jesus mean when He said this? Here is where we have to look at context.
THE CONTEXT OF MATTHEW 11:12
After spending his adult life preaching about the coming Messiah, John the Baptist has been thrown into jail by Herod. He’s only in his early thirties. He seems too young to die, and yet things are looking very black. As he sits in his miserable cell, John starts getting very depressed. He starts second guessing himself. What if his cousin Jesus really isn’t the Messiah after all? John told everyone that Jesus was the One they’d all been waiting for. What if John had made a mistake?
John gets so desperate that he throws pride out the window and sends his friends to go find Jesus and publicly ask Him if John messed up. John still has a lot of disciples in the land. It’s not going to do anything for his reputation to sound like he has lost all confidence in his own message, but this is how low John is.
When John’s boys get to Jesus, they deliver John’s message. Instead of giving a clear, direct answer, Jesus reminds them of all the miracles He’s doing.
“Go and tell John the things which you hear and see: The blind see and the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear; the dead are raised up and the poor have the gospel preached to them. Blessed is he who is not offended because of Me.” (Mt. 11:4-6)
The problem with this answer is that Jesus is not the first prophet to heal people and raise the dead. Elijah and Elisha did these kinds of miracles as well. Elijah even called fire down from heaven on multiple occasions. But this is the only answer Jesus is going to give John. Well, John already knows that Jesus is doing miracles. If the miracles were enough, John wouldn’t be drowning in doubt. Have you ever been desperate for God to give you a clear answer and He just won’t do it? Why is Jesus being so difficult? Because He’s pushing John to exercise the faith muscles that He knows John has. John is tired of exercising his faith and he’d just like some clear confirmation. Often God is far more eager for us to grow than we are.
Now as John’s disciples walk away feeling less than helped, Jesus launches into a speech about John. He says that John is the prophet who Yahweh spoke about in Malachi 3:1. Then He says:
“I assure you: Among those born of women no one greater than John the Baptist has appeared, but the least in the kingdom of Heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of Heaven has been suffering violence, and the violent have been seizing it by force. For before John came, all the prophets and the law of Moses looked forward to this present time; if you’re willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who is to come. Anyone who has ears should listen! (Matt. 11:11-15)
While we often think of “the kingdom of Heaven” as a synonym for the New Covenant Church, this is really a reference to Heaven—that eternal paradise where everyone who God approves of will end up. Jesus also uses the term “the kingdom of Heaven” to refer to the citizens of that kingdom. Under the current Covenant, we call the citizens of Heaven Christians. But before Christ came, the kingdom of Heaven was constantly gaining new converts. Elijah, Moses, Job, Abraham and Noah all qualified as citizens of the kingdom of Heaven. We shouldn’t think of “the kingdom of Heaven” as only a reference to Christians.
Now in this speech, Jesus is giving a quick summary of how the citizens of Heaven have been treated in the world since Yahweh established His Covenant with Israel (what we call the Old Covenant). Let’s go through Jesus’ speech line by line.
“I assure you: Among those born of women no one greater than John the Baptist has appeared, but the least in the kingdom of Heaven is greater than he.”
Here Jesus identifies two groups of people. First there are “those born of women.” That’s a reference to all people, not just believers. Jesus says John is the greatest man who was ever born. Does He really think this? No, He’s intentionally exaggerating as a way of complimenting John.
Now after saying John is a superstar among humans in general, Jesus then says John is nothing compared to “the least in the kingdom of Heaven.” Now He’s comparing John specifically to believers who will end up in Heaven. He says that the biggest nobody in Heaven is greater than John.
Now wait a second—surely John qualifies as a citizen of Heaven. John has certainly proved himself to be faithful to Yahweh, so why does Jesus insult John like this? It almost sounds like Jesus is saying John isn’t even saved, because he’s so surpassed by the least of all believers. Well, no, that’s not what Jesus is saying.
In the current crowd that Jesus is speaking to, there are a lot of devoted John fans. During his baptizing days, John collected quite a following. Many men even called themselves John’s disciples, and they really thought John was tops. First Jesus agrees that these men are correct to have such a high regard for John. But then He says there is a far greater prize to focus on. His point is this: “Don’t just be wowed by John. Don’t just focus on being loyal to a man. Focus on pleasing Yahweh and being accepted into His kingdom, for that is the far greater prize.” It’s not about saying John is a loser, it’s about getting people to turn their focus off of a man and onto God.
From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of Heaven has been suffering violence, and the violent have been seizing it by force.
This is awkward wording. What Jesus really means by “from the days of John the Baptist until now” is “from the beginning of the Old Covenant until now”. Here He is looking back over Israel’s history and acknowledging that Yahweh’s followers have always had a very tough time of it on earth. When we read through the Old Testament, we find that believers in Yahweh were always in the minority. They were constantly being harassed by their countrymen. Countless prophets of God were brutally slaughtered, beaten, and bullied. Israel’s capital city of Jerusalem was the sight of so many prophet executions that she gained a reputation as being a slaughterhouse for God’s loyal guys. Several times throughout the Gospels, we’ll find Jesus angrily referring to Israel’s long history of intentionally trying to stomp out Yahweh’s followers. It is this aggressive attempt to exterminate true believers that Jesus is referring to when He talks about the kingdom of Heaven suffering violence and the violent seizing it by force.
What kinds of images would come to your mind today if you heard that violent men assaulted the kingdom of China? You’d picture a bunch of Chinese people getting hurt and killed. When a kingdom is attacked, it is the citizens of that kingdom who suffer, not just land and buildings. On earth, the kingdom of Heaven is represented by its citizens—there is no physical territory to attack. So when Jesus speaks of the kingdom of Heaven being attacked on earth, He’s referring to believers being attacked.
Now again, let’s remember context. John’s loyal disciples are very upset by their great leader being in jail. Of course they’re afraid that he’ll be executed by Herod. Jesus knows how upset John’s followers are, and He’s being sympathetic here by acknowledging how hard it’s always been for men who are trying to obey God. Israel has a long history of killing Yahweh’s prophets, and now it looks like she’s going to kill John.
For before John came, all the prophets and the law of Moses looked forward to this present time; if you’re willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who is to come. Anyone who has ears should listen!
All humans exaggerate, and when God is talking to humans, He exaggerates as well. To say that all of the prophets in the Old Testament looked ahead to the New Covenant is a complete exaggeration. When Jesus refers to “the Law and the Prophets”, He’s referring to the Old Testament Scriptures. “The Law of Moses” was how the Jews referred to the Torah—the first five books of the Bible which Moses authored. We’ll find other places where Jesus claims Moses clearly taught about His coming, yet in real life, Moses never spoke about Jesus directly. The closest we get to a passage which can be viewed as Messianic is when Moses quotes Yahweh as saying:
“I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. I will put My words in his mouth, and he will tell them everything I command him. I will hold accountable whoever does not listen to My words that he speaks in My Name.” (Deut. 18:18-19)
This passage is a nice fit for Christ, but it also fits many other prophets as well. Yahweh always held people accountable for ignoring the messages He spoke through His various prophets. So we can hardly say that this passage is clearly Messianic. Samuel, Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel all played major roles in Israel’s history. Samuel was an especially close match to Moses, for like Moses, Samuel acted as both a prophet and a judge for Israel. He even functioned as a priest—something Moses was not allowed to do. While Samuel was alive, the whole country looked to him for guidance.
So what point is Jesus making by saying:
For before John came, all the prophets and the law of Moses looked forward to this present time; if you’re willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who is to come. Anyone who has ears should listen!
Well, Jesus’ main mission is to help everyone transition to Yahweh’s New Covenant. Right now all the Jews He’s talking to are entrenched in the Old Covenant. When they look back over Scriptures, they see the Old Covenant being constantly promoted by Yahweh with relatively few references to some new, brighter era coming in the distant future. Contrary to what many teachers will tell you today, Christ is most definitely not “preached on every page of the Old Testament.” If we compare all the passages that have nothing to do with a Messiah with those that do, we’ll find references to Christ in the Old Testament are much rarer than we pretend today. They are certainly there—but they don’t occur with anything close to the frequency that modern day scholars try to say. Pull up a list of 300+ Messianic prophecies on the internet today, and if you start checking context, you’ll find that most of the entries have nothing to do with a Messiah.
During the Old Testament, Yahweh wanted His people to focus on the Covenant that was currently in force—not spend their lives pining for events that they’d never live to see. But during the Gospels, Jesus wants the Jews to change their focus, so He intentionally exaggerates how often the New Covenant is hinted about in the Old Testament. He says that up until the time of John the Baptist, everyone who spoke for Yahweh throughout the Old Testament was anticipating the day when He’d change things up. Well, no, they really weren’t, but Jesus’ point is to get everyone excited that they are living in the days when those longed for changes are actually taking place.
…if you’re willing to accept it, John is the Elijah who is to come. Anyone who has ears should listen!
Earlier Jesus said that John is fabulous, but that the far more worthwhile focus is getting into Yahweh’s kingdom. Now He says that John’s coming marked the beginning of a period of major change which Yahweh has been prophesying about for centuries. The point is this: everyone needs to be focusing on Yahweh. Everyone needs to realize that Yahweh’s kingdom rules are in a state of flux—the old requirements for salvation are being thrown out and new rules are being established. Jesus is saying, “Don’t get so focused on John the man that you miss seeing what he represents. You are all living in the days that the prophets of old spoke about. It’s happening now! This is it! Now is the time when ancient prophecies are finally being fulfilled so pay attention to what I’m telling you!”
But are people paying attention? Unfortunately, no. Jesus now continues His speech by comparing His ministry to John’s. John had the reputation of being some somber weirdo who the Pharisees labeled as demon possessed. John fasted a lot. He was antisocial. He wasn’t Mr. Bright and Cheerful.
Compared to John, Jesus is Mr. Party. Jesus is always hanging out with people. He doesn’t bother with fasting. He’s constantly receiving invitations to dine at people’s houses. Jesus is very social.
Jesus points out that He and John have approached the Jews with two very different styles, yet they’ve both been preaching the same message. Have the Jews responded to one style better than another? No, they’ve rejected them both on the grounds that they didn’t like the approach each man used. They said John was too standoffish. Now they say Jesus is too social. Jesus’ point is that these people are stubborn little twerps who are impossible to please.
“To what should I compare this generation? It’s like children sitting in the marketplaces who call out to each other:
We played the flute for you, but you didn’t dance; we sang a lament, but you didn’t mourn!
For John did not come eating or drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon!’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.” (Matt. 11:16-19)
Jesus then goes on to denounce those who have refused to listen to Him despite all the miracles He’s performed in front of them to prove the validity of His God connection. Here in Matthew 11, we find a very grim message. Israel has a long history of trashing Yahweh’s followers, she’s locked John in jail, and she’s now rejecting Yahweh’s Messiah. Israel gets a big thumbs down from Jesus.
Now let’s jump over to Luke 16. Once again we find Jesus talking about Yahweh’s kingdom suffering violence. Once again our Bible translators find themselves stumped by wording. Here are various attempts to translate Luke 16:16.
HCSB: “The Law and the Prophets were until John; since then, the good news of the kingdom of God has been proclaimed, and everyone is strongly urged to enter it.”
NASB: “The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John; since that time the gospel of the kingdom of God has been preached, and everyone is forcing his way into it.”
NKJV: “The law and the prophets were until John. Since that time the kingdom of God has been preached, and everyone is pressing into it.”
NLT: “Until John the Baptist, the law of Moses and the messages of the prophets were your guides. But now the Good News of the Kingdom of God is preached, and everyone is eager to get in.”
NOG: “Moses’ Teachings and the Prophets were in force until the time of John. Since that time, people have been telling the Good News about the kingdom of God, and everyone is trying to force their way into it.”
RSV: “The law and the prophets were until John; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is preached, and every one enters it violently.”
So what is going on here? Are people eager to get in, or are they being nasty about it? This forcing business sounds very negative. Since when can we blast our way into Heaven? It’s time to look at context.
THE CONTEXT OF LUKE 16
This time, the setting is different. Jesus is in the middle of a sparring match with the Pharisees. They’re standing around publicly scoffing at what He says so He’s coming right back at them with nasty zingers.
Now to understand this scene we have to understand a few facts about the Pharisees. The apostle Paul was a Pharisee before he became a Christian. The Pharisees thought that they were the ultimate examples of righteousness on earth. They honestly believed they were perfect in Yahweh’s sight. They had invented their own ridiculous interpretations of Yahweh’s Laws so that God’s Laws would appear to support whatever carnal thing they wanted to do. Cheat, lie, steal—we can make the Bible support any sin we want to engage in. Today many teachers in the Church tell you that the Bible totally supports the idea of you bossing God about in your prayers, bribing Him with your offerings, and saying that God can’t ever violate His own written command. You’re told that it’s biblical and God-honoring to say that God can’t lie, that He can’t be around sin, and that He could never be involved with evil. Well, no, the truth is that such claims are unbiblical and God-insulting. But these are the games we play today, and the Pharisees played the same games in their day. You can convince yourself that the Bible says anything you want to hear. This is why it’s so foolish to think you can simply rely on a book to guide you in life. Such a system is guaranteed to lead you into egotistical delusions, for it’s never the book we’re relying on, but our own interpretations of the book.
There were two main groups of religious leaders in Jesus’ time. There were the Pharisees and the Sadducees. Both groups were rich and snooty, but the Sadducees had superior bloodlines. If you’re just an average citizen, who are you going to feel more identity with: the rich man who inherited his wealth from a long line of billionaires, or the average Joe who used to be on your economic level until he got lucky? You’re going to vote for the guy who understands what life is like for the lower and middle classes. That was the Pharisees. The Pharisees were the heroes of the Jewish commoners. The Sadducees were society’s elite and the common people just couldn’t relate to them. The Pharisees and Sadducees fiercely competed with each other. They were like Burger King and McDonald’s: two groups who put out similar products, yet they both wanted to be top dog in the market. Both the Pharisees and Sadducees claimed to be superior experts on Scripture, yet they violently disagreed on many doctrines. For example, the Sadducees said that the only valid Scriptures were the books of Moses: Genesis through Deuteronomy. But the Pharisees said the entire Old Testament should be viewed as Divinely inspired. It is because Paul grew up as a Pharisee that he tells Timothy “all Scripture is God-breathed.” If Paul had grown up as a Sadducee, he would have said, “only the Torah is God-breathed.”
Now the Sadducees were the lords of the Temple—they did all the priestly functions. Since the Temple was located in Jerusalem, the city of Jerusalem was their personal stronghold. But the Pharisees reigned everywhere else—in the towns and cities throughout Israel where the working class went through their daily grind. The Pharisees were the ones who came up with the idea of synagogues: community meeting places where Jewish men could gather together to have their minds molded by the Pharisees.
Now whose turf was Jesus invading as He traveled from town to town in Israel? The Pharisees’. This is why we always read about the Pharisees hounding and heckling Jesus when He’s trying to preach. He’s taking away their followers. He’s threatening their kingdom. The Pharisees hate Jesus intensely. Well, the feeling is mutual.
Now at the beginning of Luke 16, we find Jesus firing off a parable about money. Whenever you find Jesus getting financial, look for a reference to Pharisees being in His immediate audience and realize that they are the ones He is talking to. With their lips, the Pharisees claimed to worship Yahweh. But in their hearts, they worshiped money. Jesus hates the Pharisees for so many reasons. In the first place, they’re unrepentant rebels who despise Yahweh and delight in sinning. In the second place, they are intentionally leading the Jews astray by constantly mangling the meaning of Scriptures. In the third place, they go out of their way to harass anyone who is sincerely trying to get right with God. As far as Jesus is concerned, the Pharisees do their best to try and prevent people from getting into Heaven.
“But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You lock up the kingdom of Heaven from people. For you don’t go in, and you don’t allow those entering to go in!” (Matt. 23:13)
“Woe to you experts in the law! You have taken away the key of knowledge! You didn’t go in yourselves, and you hindered those who were going in!” (Lk. 11:52)
So now that we understand how much hatred there is between Jesus and the Pharisees, we realize that the parable about money that Jesus tells at the beginning of Luke 16 is an intentional effort to slap the Pharisees in the face. They respond by scoffing out loud at Jesus for everyone to hear.
The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, were listening to all these things and scoffing at Him. Then He told them: “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the sight of others, but Yahweh knows your hearts. For what is highly admired by people is revolting in God’s sight!
The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John. Since that time the gospel of the kingdom of God has been preached. Everyone is trying to force his way into the kingdom of God, but it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one stroke of a letter of the Law to fail.
Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery, and everyone who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.” (Lk. 16:14-18)
So what does all this mean? Well, let’s go through Jesus’ comeback line by line.
“You are the ones who justify yourselves in the sight of others, but Yahweh knows your hearts. For what is highly admired by people is revolting in God’s sight!”
The Pharisees were greatly admired by the Jewish commoners. Here Jesus says that although the Pharisees have succeeded in making others think they are oh so righteous, they haven’t fooled Yahweh. The very things people are applauding the Pharisees for are the things that God is condemning them for.
“The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John. Since that time the gospel of the kingdom of God has been preached. Everyone is trying to force his way into the kingdom of God, but it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one stroke of a letter of the Law to fail.”
Notice the but. Words like but, yet, and therefore, are very important to note as you read. These words give you a heads up that whatever is about to be said is a continuation of what has just been said. Don’t let chapter headings and paragraph breaks distract you: whenever you come across a but, yet, or therefore, back up and read what came just before that word.
So in our little excerpt, we first find Jesus pointing out that the coming of John the Baptist has marked a new era in kingdom preaching. Before John, the Old Covenant was in effect. “The Law and the Prophets” is a Jewish term for “the Old Testament.” Well, now that John has come, a different message is being preached—one which Jesus dubs the gospel or the good news. He’s not being original with this—Yahweh was the first One to call His New Covenant the good news through the mouth of the prophet Isaiah. What exactly is this good news? Yahweh has come up with a whole New Covenant. This one is going to be better than the last one.
Now at this point, no one has any clue about how the New Covenant works. The New Covenant revolves around an understanding that Jesus is God Almighty, and none of the Jews will even begin to get serious about accepting that shocking idea until after Jesus resurrects from the dead. Right now when the Pharisees look at Jesus, they just see a regular human being. The fact that Jesus is performing many miracles makes Him seem like another kind of Elijah—a regular human who seems to have some special in with Yahweh.
Now whenever you find references to the Law in the Gospel, it’s a reference to Yahweh’s Old Covenant Laws. We find most of these spelled out in the books of Exodus through Deuteronomy. The Pharisees are constantly quoting these Laws to other people, while at the same time they claim to be perfectly keeping them. And because they are perfectly keeping them, the Pharisees claim that they are members of Yahweh’s kingdom. But are they?
When you don’t want anyone to come into your house, what do you do? You lock the door. Then if someone wants to come in, they have to knock. When they knock, you peek to see who it is, then you decide if you want to let them in or not. Yahweh operates His kingdom similarly. He keeps the door to the kingdom locked so that no one can enter without His permission. Then He says that He won’t let anyone in unless they meet certain requirements.
Now it’s commonly thought that under the Old Covenant, Yahweh required perfect adherence to all of His Laws before He’d let someone into Heaven. This is not true. All that Yahweh required under the Old Covenant was a devoted heart. If you sincerely wanted to be pleasing in Yahweh’s sight and if you were living in alignment with Him by maintaining a soul attitude of, “Pleasing You is more important to me than pleasing myself. I really want You to have Your way in my life,” then it didn’t matter how often you messed up. Salvation has always been the reward for a right soul attitude, not for perfect behavior.
So at the time Jesus is talking, the Old Covenant is still in effect. Yahweh keeps the door of His kingdom locked, and the only people He lets in are those who sincerely care about pleasing Him in their hearts. Well, that’s not the Pharisees. In their hearts, the Pharisees hate God. But they still want to get into that kingdom. Since God refuses to open the door, they’re trying to break it down. Their attitude is: “Hey! You have no right to keep us out of this kingdom because we meet our own requirements for getting in. We’re perfectly keeping the Law, and we’ve decided that it’s perfect obedience—not heart attitude—that counts. You might be God, but we get to tell You what to do, so get out of our way because we’re coming in!” This is why Jesus says that people are trying to force their way into Yahweh’s kingdom. Jesus is talking to the Pharisees who are rolling their eyes and mocking what Jesus is saying as Jesus preaches about how important heart attitude is to Yahweh. The Pharisees don’t care about heart attitude—they think they should get to decide what the rules of the game are, and they want to compete on the basis of good works, because they consider that to be their strong point. This kind of attitude is still alive and well in the world today. Ever hear someone say, “Of course God will let me into Heaven—I’m a good person”? This is an example of people trying to force their way into the kingdom of God. Will they succeed? Of course not.
Now after calling the Pharisees out on the fact that they’re trying to force their way into Heaven on their own terms, Jesus goes a step further by pointing out how much they fail to even succeed at their own requirements for salvation. The Pharisees have decided that salvation is rewarded to those who succeed at perfectly keeping the Law. This is what they preach with their lips, but in their hearts, they’ve actually thrown the Law out as irrelevant. By the time you change the meaning of everything God ever said, are you keeping His Law? Not hardly. If God says “don’t lie” but you come up with a hundred different scenarios in which lying is acceptable, you are trying to throw out God’s Law. This is what the Pharisees were doing. While they told themselves that they were earning their place in Heaven through perfect behavior, in reality, they were just trying to force their way in as depraved, rebellious beasts who delighted in doing evil. Jesus now tells the Pharisees that if they think they can just chuck Yahweh’s Law out the window, they’re very much mistaken. It would be easier to uncreate the whole universe than to change one word of Yahweh’s Law.
“Everyone is trying to force his way into the kingdom of God, but it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one stroke of a letter of the Law to fail.
Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery, and everyone who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.”
So what’s with the random reference to adultery? It isn’t random at all. Adultery is one of many sins that Yahweh condemns in His Law, but naturally the Pharisees have fiddled around with the adultery laws quite a bit—revising and rewording them until they could dump their wives by the side of the road without having to admit that they were less than morally perfect in God’s sight. Jesus knows all about the shenanigans the Pharisees are up to. He also knows that the Pharisees He’s talking to right now are guilty of adultery games so He chooses to give them a little refresher on Yahweh’s definition of adultery.
“Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery, and everyone who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.”
The everyone language tells us exactly what the Pharisees have done to the adultery laws. Somehow they’ve reworked things so that only some men who divorce their wives and marry another are guilty of adultery and only some men who marry a divorced woman are committing adultery. Now if you’re divorced yourself, don’t go sinking down into a bunch of shame and guilt. Remember that God responds to the heart. It’s why you got divorced that matters. These Pharisees that Jesus is chewing out hate God. They are getting divorced and remarried for rebellious reasons. They are not sincerely seeking God’s wisdom about what to do in the midst of problematic marriages. They aren’t longing to do right. They aren’t concerned about displeasing God. Their attitude is “I’m tired of this old ball and chain. I want to marry that hottie babe over there instead. I don’t care what Yahweh thinks.”
Whenever you find God reaming people out in the Bible for doing certain things, remember that God responds to our hearts. When our hearts are full of rebellion, God is going to go off on us for all kinds of things. When our hearts are anxious to please, God is not going to stand around pointing out all of the ways we’re technically falling short in the moral behavior department. This is why it is so important to learn how to look to God directly in your own life. Many earnest Christians listen to God chewing someone else out and then they instantly assume He feels the same way about them. Such assumptions result in all kinds of needless despair. When God is talking to you, He is going to respond to your heart attitude. When He is talking to other people, He’s going to be responding to their heart attitude. Right now Jesus is talking to men whose heart attitudes are totally foul. These men are doing many things that tick God off, including blowing off God’s feelings about adultery. Yet while they publicly violate Yahweh’s adultery commands, they claim to be perfectly keeping the Law, and they try to demand entrance into Heaven because of their perfect moral behavior. Can you see why Jesus is so angry with these punks?
It’s right after this that Jesus launches into the story of Lazarus: a poor, miserable, diseased wretch of a man who spends his life trying to survive off of the crumbs that fall from some super rich man’s table. The rich man completely ignores poor Lazarus as he lives in luxury every day. Who do you think this coldhearted rich man represents? That’s right: the Pharisees. This is another Pharisee bashing story. Jesus goes on to say how when poor Lazarus dies, angels come and carry his soul off to Heaven. But when the rich man dies, he ends up going down to Hades—a fictitious world of the dead which the Jews of this time believed in. In Hades, the rich man is in miserable torment. In the distance, the rich man can see Lazarus living the good life in Heaven. The rich man then cries out to Abraham for help. Abraham was a hero in the eyes of the Jews, and the Pharisees all prided themselves on calling Abraham their father. Remember that this is a Pharisee bashing story. Jesus describes Abraham coming to talk to the rich man in Hades. The rich man asks Abraham to make Lazarus play the part of the rich man’s servant by bringing the rich man some water amid the hot flames of Hades. Nice. But Abraham shoots the request down, saying it’s impossible to do because no one can cross the chasm that separates Hades from Heaven. The rich man then says:
“‘Then I beg you, father, that you send him to my father’s house—for I have five brothers—in order that he may warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’
But Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’
But the rich man said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent!’
But Abraham replied, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead.’” (Lk. 16:27-31)
So what do the Pharisees claim to live by? The Old Testament—what Abraham calls Moses and the Prophets. What does the rich man in the story want? Miraculous signs. He says that his relatives (who would be more Pharisees) won’t just believe the Scriptures—they need something more. But Abraham says that once a man rejects the Scriptures, even miracles won’t persuade him.
What’s Jesus’ point? Well, by now He’s performed countless miracles in front of these jerks, and are they believing His message? Nope. They’re constantly scoffing at Him and calling Him all sorts of names. Yet they claim to be living by the Scriptures. Jesus says the Scriptures point to Him. He says that anyone who is really paying attention to what the Scriptures say would accept Him as Yahweh’s Messiah. Why is this? Well, before you will really care what the Scriptures say, you have to really care about pleasing God. And once you really care about pleasing God, you’re going to be receptive to the Holy Spirit when He starts telling you Jesus is who He claims to be. You see, it all starts with the heart. Once we close our hearts to God, it doesn’t matter what kind of circus performance He puts on—we won’t be moved. But if our hearts are open to God, then even when He does something as crazy as revealing a second God to us, we will keep up with Him.
Like many today, the Pharisees tried to control how their relationship with God would work. Did they succeed? Nope. God will not be controlled by us. No one can force their way into Yahweh’s kingdom. No one can make God grant them salvation. We either submit to God or we roast forever in Hell: there is no third way.