The most dramatic revelations often arrive in the most subtle packages. Those who are sensitive to the “still small voice” are capable of recognizing the enormous significance, while most just drift on by.
The Savior of humanity came in shocking obscurity: a helpless baby, born to a poor couple, outside of his hometown and away from human dwellings. We are told that he came with nothing that would make us desire him—plain and boring to the point of individual insignificance. And yet, he was and remains the Creator of all: recognized by a few; rejected by most.
So it is with revelations of truth in Scripture. One of the most significant issues, in understanding the ongoing will of a holy God, is explaining how his own defined Law, given through Moses, has changed in how it relates to Christians. No other issue is cited within Scripture as more divisive or damaging to the early Church than this issue. Not even paganism, idolatry, sexual immorality, greed or power are identified as deceitful in turning believers away from Christ than syncretism of the Law into Grace. And it continues to distort a huge part of Christian doctrine even to this day.
It is the basis for the double-curse: “may they be eternally condemned”—those who preach and teach that Christians need to keep practicing commands given through the Old Covenant. The Gospels and Acts record continual confrontations over this subject. Romans and Galatians were written specifically to refute the Jewish distortion of pushing the Mosaic Law on Christians who had come to faith by grace. It is the main conflict addressed in Scripture by the Apostle Paul. The writer of Hebrews focuses on the supremacy of Christ and his New Covenant expectations, and how these have made the former system “obsolete”. In fact, nearly every letter written in the New Testament documents this struggle of theology in grasping how a God-given system, known as “the Law”, could shift in application upon believers while still remaining the breathed word of God.
The President of a Christian University preached last week to his student body that Christians who keep the laws given through Moses, although not specifically saved by their efforts, will be more rewarded in Heaven than those who follow Jesus without such obedience. The conflict rages on!
What you believe about this issue will directly determine whether you are an imperfect-and-righteous Christian who lives by their faith, or a professing Christian who is “alienated from Christ”.
Early translators of Scripture added chapters and headings to various sections of the Bible, in a sincere human effort to help students in their study and preachers in their references to God’s word. One of those sections, placed within Luke’s Gospel, and in the middle of a chapter, falls under the subtle heading of “Additional Teachings”. It is part of an uninterrupted discourse by Jesus—all red letter words.
It is a curious heading, because it gives the impression that those words recorded by Luke don’t appear to fit with anything leading up to it, nor to what follows. It is as if they were an after-thought, or a recording of Jesus’ words that somehow lost connection with a changing context. They appear out-of-place. They are like a still small voice, that most pass by with little recognition, and even less interest, while possessing enormous significance to those with ears to hear.
Within this passage, the unexpected and often ill-defined statement is made:
“the good news of the kingdom of God is being preached, and everyone is forcing his way into it.”
[The thought was to break this into several chunks here, but with the aim of teaching with consistency on difficult subjects, this will be presented as a whole].
Transitions are often the most difficult part of travel. When an airplane crosses into the upper atmosphere, there is often a stomach-stirring transition called turbulence. When a body moves from a warm fire into the cold outdoors, the skin complains with a swollen layer of goosebumps. Eating is a pleasure that most enjoy, but the transition to emptying the leftovers is an unpleasant reality that rightly gets hidden in a private closet.
In the plan of God, such a transition makes for a rocky shift between Old and New Covenant. What is defined in holy Scripture as two different contractual agreements between God, and those he accepts as genuine believers, has jolted the atmosphere with a turbulence of spirit that will make even the most seasoned sea-captain puke overboard.
The Lord declared his expectation upon his people, through his servant Moses, in the form of a system of worship and obedience for daily living, encapsulated in the term: the Law. It was holy and perfect. It remains just as godly and important in hearing the voice of God as ever. Through the incarnation of God in Jesus, a new form of worship and expectation upon daily living has been introduced, encapsulated in the term: Grace.
Biblically, the former is called old, the latter is identified as new. The systems have changed; God remains the same yesterday-today-and-forever. However, the air has become electrified, and all who come to God will be confronted with convulsions over the collision between Law and Grace.
God is always in agreement with himself and so the truth spoken and revealed through both Law and Grace are consistent and valid at all times. His covenant systems, however, are incompatible. Scripture declares, “he set aside the former, in order to establish the latter.” The resulting turbulence has caused untold grief and distress for believers for the entire existence of the Church.
Last time, we introduced the idea of hidden truth packaged in unlikely and unexpected ways, so that only the discerning who can hear the subtle references of the Holy Spirit will catch what most mistake as irrelevant and trivial. The following passages, recorded by both Luke and Matthew, present one of the most dramatic revelations on this juxtaposition between Law and Grace in all of the Bible:
“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. Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery, and the man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” (Lu 16:16-18)
“From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it. For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come. He who has ears. Let him hear.” (Mt 11:12-14)
The center of this statement revolves around the truth that the kingdom is experiencing violence and the violent take it by force. It is amazing the diversity of opinions on what this means.
One well known commentator says that this means there is only a brief time remaining until the kingdom of God arrives, so Christians need to “rush into it, without delay, as the Romans are about to do into Jerusalem.” This interpretation has absolutely nothing to do with the context that speaks of the transition between the Law being preached and the gospel of the kingdom.
Another commentator says that “sinners, all indiscriminately, are pressing into it” and that those who are under the Law are missing out. Although the Jews as a whole were rejecting Jesus and his kingdom message, it is a meaningless statement to suggest that sinners are pushing into it without discriminating consideration. The idea of being saved, without any mental or spiritual consideration is unbiblical, and probably an extension from the popular belief that God has predestined a group who will be saved and they don’t even have to know anything to just push their way into salvation.
A broadly accepted commentator writes that believers are to press into the kingdom with a “holy violence” that strives against the stream, contrary to the main crowd. He goes on to suggest that Jesus is making a distinction between a moral law and a ceremonial law, upholding the necessity of still practicing the former, but not needing to do the ritual parts. The problem here is that God never makes such a division of his commands—all God’s laws are moral, such that disobedience to a ritual is punishable by the same condemnation as all other types of commands. Although it may be true in other passages that the Lord expects believers to come out and live separate from the mainstream, this passage is not presented in that context. This one is about the confluence where the Mosaic Law meets the gospel of grace.
In one commentator’s opinion, the Old Covenant Law enforced “some things which were connived at by the law, for the preventing of greater mischiefs, the permission of which the gospel has indeed taken away, but without any detriment or disparagement to the law, as in the case of divorce.” In this view, divorce under Moses was focused on restraining further mischief, but under the gospel that has been taken away—but Jesus is clearly adding more restraint, not less, so again this interpretation is skewed.
Another modern commentator claims that Jesus is answering the objection that the Mosaic covenant and its moral demands are outdated, such that divorce is used to add further limits. Again, this writer assumes that this passage is recorded to preserve that Law, not to reveal anything about the transition between the ending of preaching that Law and into the preaching of the kingdom. Regarding the violence reference, he suggests that Luke is intentionally tempering Matthew’s stronger language, and that it just means “ordinary people eager to enter”. In other words, he completely rejects the meaning of the words violence and force which both writer’s of Scripture document.
Several commentators, as seen in volumes that parallel several well known scholars, completely skip this passage, avoiding any exposure to teaching what these words of Jesus actually mean.
In every example above, all the commentators take this passage in very different ways, with one exception: they commonly think it is recorded to teach that Christians need to keep practicing that former Law. This belief hasn’t changed since the start of the Church. It continues to dominate the landscape of Christian belief—that the Mosaic Law, or some hybrid idea of a moral law, remains as expected by God upon the practices and worship of believers.
What none of the numerous commentators acknowledged was the Spirit’s distinction between what Jesus taught and what Moses taught, as it applies to those who profess to believe in God:
“For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” (Jn 1:17)
This passage presents these two teachers of God’s words in contrast, not as extensions one-to-the-other. The enormous irony to the whole issue is that the Lord was the Word who spoke the Law as well as the Word who spoke Grace. Nevertheless, the reader should listen carefully to the distinction that God reveals, for as was declared at the Transfiguration, that placed Jesus together with Moses (the Law giver) and Elijah (the Prophet): “this is my Son, listen to him!”
As the Lord warned the followers of John the Baptist and the crowds, who specifically came to him to question whether his teachings and actions were supportive of what their Law declared about the Messiah: “Blessed are those who don’t fall away on account of me”. This theological turbulence, in how Jesus confronted issues where the Law and Grace intersected in the minds of believers, often so disturbed those following Jesus “that they no longer walked with him”.
That doesn’t mean they stopped thinking of themselves as Jews, any more than those who think they remain Christians, but who continue to live according to that Law of Moses. They passionately believe they will be saved, but they have refused to bow to what the Lord taught about this shift of focus between Law and Grace. It didn’t actually matter that he was speaking truth; what he said and did often confronted their comfort zone so violently that they vehemently rejected him in order to sustain their traditional views. That remains the primary obstacle on this same issue for many professing Christians to this day.
Scripture declares that the Law came through Moses, grace came through Jesus. Regarding that Law, the Apostle Paul wrote that Christians are “no longer under law, but under grace”. He goes on to define his own meaning by saying that those who believe that observing the commands given to Israel will ensure they are right with God, will find in the end that they are “alienated from Christ”. Why such a severe reaction? Because that Law is not compatible with grace, and those who insist on continuing in it reject the new approach that Jesus taught. A believer can’t do both because they focus on different objectives and rely on different methods.
This truth gets at the heart and core of the New Covenant gospel teaching on the kingdom of God. Hanging onto the Law, or some vain attempt to defend practicing aspects of that Law, will prevent a believer from grasping the revelation of grace. God will not accept overlap in anyone other than his Son. That Law pointed to and was intended to find its culminating fulfillment in Jesus. No other human in history could do that. Grace is taught as a focus of faith upon Jesus. No other human in history can have grace point to them. Jesus alone is the focus for both. Both systems of worship find their glorious objective in him.
Not only is it sacrilege to assume that the Law or Grace focuses on anyone other than Jesus, no other human is capable of practicing both simultaneously. This is the point of turbulence, so fasten your seat belts and get your eyes focused on a stable object that isn’t swirling about, namely Jesus.
The Law and Prophets–speaking of their messages as part of the Old Covenant system (rather than of individual prophets)–were allowed to be taught and followed until the time of John the Baptist. Whether that means the start of John’s ministry, somewhere mid-stream, or until his days were concluded, hardly matters to the meaning, because the focus here is that Jesus was going to change the approach through which people came to and followed God. The time of John is used as a marker of a seismic shift in how people need to relate to God, but the actual shift itself revolves around Jesus. He is the lightning rod of a new covenant and an entirely new way of living.
Previously, the Law dictated step-by-step directions on how to walk before a holy God. The people could identify and measure who belonged to God, how to worship him, how to get right with him, when to do just about everything, including when and where to defecate and how to deal with mold. The days and times and ages and ingredients were all spelled out in exhausting detail.
Through Jesus, the concept of how to walk before a holy God remains just as significant, but the color-coding has completely changed. Grace teaches that God has done all the detail necessary to please a holy God and a believer can be credited with this righteousness by “living by faith”. This idea of faith is two-fold: the first is that a person must put their trust in Jesus, what he has accomplished, and what he declares. The second, is that such a professing believer must also live by faith and not by sight.
Listen carefully; grace does not teach: live by faith and back it up with sight. Grace does not teach that a Christian can live by faith as the heart’s magnification of the law. Grace does not teach that a believer can please God by putting faith in Jesus while supplementing it with days, seasons, years, and sabbaths.
Living by faith means that we have to seek an entirely new approach toward how to figure out the detail of how, when, how much, to whom, and in what way to live Christlike. God hasn’t changed his expectation that his followers “be holy”. In other words we have to choose to submit to a system of living that either allows self-assessment—like the Law; or we surrender to living according to the Spirit’s direction—which doesn’t fit well with self-measuring.
The two approaches are not compatible–like new wine in old wineskins, which if combined will ruin both–because they require completely different methods and objectives. A person who thinks they can apply parts of the Old Covenant to how they live, will place those legal, step-by-step practices as an obstacle in front of their ability to trust the Spirit for guidance on what to do, how to do it, when to do it, and every possible detail on how to reflect Jesus in daily living.
A Christian who holds to Jesus’ teachings, rather than to Moses’ teachings, will find themselves dependent upon God intervening and guiding them every step of the way. They won’t claim to know what exactly to do at a difficult moment or situation, rather they will strain for recognition of that still-small-voice. They won’t look for some legal definition on what to do, but instead will live by faith that the Holy Spirit promises to guide believers into all truth. Such a believer won’t be able to measure their performance, nor outwardly identify a race of people that belong to God, because none of it will be measurable or controllable by sight, or by human, fleshly methods, or by checking the box of Law-keeping.
We are told that “it is for freedom that we have been set free”. Such a freedom of grace, that just has boundaries, but very few details on how to live in daily life or how to respond to relationships or conflict, seems scary, especially to those who have found safety in their traditions, their laws, their practices, and their ability to press those same expectations on other believers.
Again we are told, “everything is permissible, but not everything is beneficial”. Such wide open permission, in the name of grace, seems like chaos. No wonder many well-meaning church leaders, like their Jewish counterparts, have introduced religious restrictions and doctrinal expectations on fellow believers, because living by pure faith, without some kind of measurable standard is unthinkable.
But that is where the error is really a function of blindness. Grace is not lawlessness. As Paul wrote to those who retorted that without the Law, Christians would go on sinning, “God forbid”. True Christians have died to sin. It is not the Law that keeps them away from sin, but their faith and desire to please the Lord. This new approach is scripturally called “the law of Christ”, and in context is specifically set in contrast to the Mosaic Law. The standard has shifted from the Ten Commandments to the Life and words of Jesus. Faithful believers measure their walk with God by how the Spirit leads them in harmony with New Covenant teachings in Scripture. They determine when to act or restrain their involvement per how the Spirit directs them, and not by commands that were part of an old system.
Believers don’t live in sin because they have the seed of Jesus actively expanding in them—the Holy Spirit—not because they keep the Law. Believers don’t need a command not to murder, because grace teaches that, just like Jesus, we don’t do any harm to our neighbors. Christians don’t look to the command “do not worship idols”, because our devotion is to God in Christ-alone, so much that we willingly demonstrate it by putting our own fleshly desires for this life to death so as to make more room for the desires of the Spirit. We don’t need a sabbath rest command, because as the book of Hebrews declares, a new rest has been announced such that we find our complete satisfaction and rest in our belief in Christ.
Again, those who try to also keep the Law, put that system in the way of sensing the direction of the Spirit. It becomes an obstacle to living by faith. That is why grace teaches that Christians are not under law, but grace. This has nothing to do with some mystical separation between moral and ceremonial laws; rather, it is a difference between what we depend upon to know how to follow a holy God—the Law or the Spirit of Grace.
So back to our revelation in Luke’s Gospel. The previous system in how to follow God was presented in the Law and through the Prophets up until the astounding transition of John the Baptist, who was sent to prepare the way so people could receive Jesus as God, as well as his new covenant method in how to follow God. Not that John new all those details, but Scripture tells us that is what God was doing through him.
Many were unwilling to accept Jesus as Immanuel, because their tradition interpreted the biblical revelation that their was only one God in such a way that they were incapable of understanding how this man could be God. As Luke records, “they rejected God’s purposes for them, because they refused to be baptized by John” and insisted on adhering to the Mosaic Law. The turbulence was too much for them, and without baptism (which their law did not teach), they could not hang on through the transition. They rejected God’s purpose that people accept Jesus as God. They also rejected God’s purpose that believers live like Abraham, through faith. They chose the Law over Jesus, just like many professing Christians do to this day.
From that pivotal moment in history, the Law stopped being preached by those who actually served God, so that grace could become the new method of worship and living for God. Because it is a new method that emphasizes faith through dependence upon the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the activity of believers is much more fluid and dynamic. Think about this carefully—where there is freedom, there is much less structure that can be recognized, repeated, or promoted. It can look and feel out-of-control to those who can’t see the guiding presence of the Spirit, nor the devoted heart of the believer to love and obey through faith rather than through sight.
Perhaps you may have seen salmon returning upstream, where the waters become shallow. Or maybe you have watched fish that gather and jump around a fish-ladder to try and reach their spawning grounds. The water is frothy, tails and fins are slapping the water and other fish. The whole seen looks crazy with activity, passion, and chaos. Yet, every one of those little creatures is focused on the same objective. There is nothing crazy or insane about their efforts. Rather, they are all working toward the same ultimate goal. So it is with Christians.
We have been given freedom to follow Christ by faith under this new covenant system of grace. We may not stand neatly in line, like kindergarten kids being led into class. As such, the scene may appear to outsiders as lawless, when in reality, each believer is trying to use their freedom to please God with their life by sensing through the Spirit of faith how to reflect him, how to care for others they bump into, and how to seek and offer forgiveness when conflict arises.
This approach results in violent activity that doesn’t have the neat, orderly appearance of one defined by laws, but that is only a surface observation. It remains true, that without specific laws that define every step of life, we are bound to make a lot of mistakes, which will result in the kingdom experiencing violence, but God remains in complete control. The secret is that he has chosen to control this menagerie by an internal guide rather than an external one.
Christians are very likely to bump shoulders, to rush like fans toward the music star on stage, to inadvertently offend each other, and while representing Jesus to even be the fragrance of Christ that smells like the stench of death to outsiders. This approach of grace gives a wide door of operation to believers. It also gives room for partial believers, false believers, and outright wolves and weeds to enter the kingdom through the simple claim of faith in Jesus.
The church is cautioned against witch hunts. We are told to separate from and avoid those who distort the truth and don’t live according to this gospel, but we are not to go about trying to root out the evil that has violently entered the kingdom. The Lord has commanded that the hidden weeds be left in the ground with the wheat, until the time of the end when he will separate Christians like sheep and goats. The prophecy is that the chaff will be removed from the kingdom by angels at the return of Christ, but in the mean time, the kingdom is advancing with violence from every corner. Although we are not to try and purify the church by our own efforts and labels of who is godly and who is an impostor, we are warned that the resulting turbulence can make us spiritually sick if we don’t make distinctions in our associations:
“But avoid foolish controversies…about the law, because these are unprofitable and useless. Warn a divisive person once, and then warn him a second time. After that, have nothing to do with him. You may be sure that such a man is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned.” (Tit 3:9-11)
Those who insist on pushing the Mosaic Law on Christians, even after confronted with the gospel of grace, are self-condemned, and faithful Christians who encounter such people in the Church are commanded to personally break off all contact with such individuals or risk their own contamination. This threat is so serious to our own salvation and identity as a disciple of Christ, that Jesus says it must be applied even if that person is a family member.
Like Simon Magus, the magician who was baptized after watching Philip do amazing miracles; or, like some of those elders in Ephesus that Paul said would become wolves and harm the church; so this method of grace allows for people to enter the Lord’s kingdom with violent activity. True believers will respond with increasing grace and forgiveness, humbly repenting of their own shortcomings in the process. Either way, the forceful grab onto it with a force of will and activity that desperately needs greater refinement.
In other words, what may be allowed to be forceful, violent, and seemingly lawless, needs to mature. The kingdom may be suffering violence on the front end, but true believers will be maturing into a more orderly and dignified body, if they respond to the biblical instructions under the New Covenant. As Paul taught, “the spirit of the prophet is subject to the control of the prophet.” Because God is a God of order, not disorder. With this understanding, the Christian is informed that although they may be allowed some freedom in how they operate, they need to seek greater orderliness by intentionally choosing the self-control of restraining their internal desires and impulses to increasingly mature submission to the leading of the Holy Spirit.
Grace seems lawless to those who can’t see either the Spirit or the purpose for why God has called believers to a new system of faith. The former system of Law dictated orderliness; the new system invites believers to participate in becoming orderly by willing submission to the Spirit while traveling through an environment of freedom. We do it not because we are commanded, but because we desire to reflect the heart of God who does everything decently and in order. We look to Christ for our standard.
This dependence is a matter of how we find direction for our lives, rather than an issue of whether or not the words of that former Law remain impactful upon Christians. This is a very important distinction. The entire Bible speaks God’s word and none of it is better or more truthful than another. That is why Jesus declared in this context that not one detail of the words spoken in that Law would either disappear or fail to come about. That Law still teaches and remains a valid declaration from God; however, the Old Covenant commands themselves were part of a limited system of worship and practice that only applied to ancient Israel until the One to whom it referred had come, and never to Gentiles (see Dt 5:3 and Gal 3:25).
When Luke notes Jesus’ words about divorce in this section, it likely appears like a complete sideline reference that doesn’t fit the context, but with the above understanding in mind, consider what it reveals about how the Lord will deal with those who use their freedom in pursuit of the kingdom in ways that negatively impact others.
Believers may well have a wide and seemingly boundless degree of freedom in their choices, but that permission doesn’t translate into approval from God. We may have permission, but we will still have to answer for every choice, action, word, and thought. In terms of marriage, if a believer divorces their mate, they cause violence to both parties and expose both to the desperate need for intimate relationship. That need, if pursued, will result in having sexual relations with another person, while we remain bound-for-life-until-death-do-us-part with our first mate. That is why this and several other Bible passages declare that divorce will cause adultery.
Many who want to justify their natural desire to break away from their marriage commitment, will change the biblical “explanation” that is given in context into an “excuse”. So, where the Lord stated, “except for marital unfaithfulness”, he explained the reason why divorce becomes adultery. He did not provide an excuse to get divorced and then remarried. The point here is that a person’s freedom to get divorced impacts another person in a very hurtful way and causes them to become vulnerable to stumbling into sin, except for the one case where that mate has already caused themselves to be identified before God as an adulterer by virtue of their own actions of marital unfaithfulness. Under either conditions, when divorce has occurred, the command to Christians, through Paul is “remain single” or reconcile with your mate.
This example of divorce and how the freedoms to choose can cause violence upon others that God will judge upon the one who puts others in such a position, is the same truth repeated in the same sermon when Jesus spoke about those who cause one of these little ones to stumble. Sin will occur, the Lord reveals, but “woe to the one through whom it comes”.
Grace teaches salvation through faith in Jesus, but it also warns believers that they had better produce fruit in keeping with repentance that can only be developed when connected to the Vine of Christ. In other words, it is only through faithfully following the lead of the Spirit, in contrast to any methods of human measurement or control, including the Mosaic Law, whereby a Christian can mature in the fruitful character and likeness of Jesus.
Jesus’ teaching in the passage immediately follows his statement that what man values is highly detestable in God’s sight, to which he announces the contrast between the Law and grace. The Law was highly valued, even more so than Christ himself, by the religious believers in that day, and sadly it continues to be highly valued over the biblical gospel of grace through faith in Jesus that ought to be taught today.
The parable immediately following this text, is that of the rich man and Lazarus, which most Christians distort into a text about the afterlife, and thereby completely miss the contextual connection to this revelation about the Law and Grace. What Jesus reveals in this parable—remember the Bible declares that he never spoke to the people except by parable—was that ultimately both the Law and Grace speak the truth that God wants known.
There were a few back when it was in effect, very few, who heard God through that Law. Those who did, like Moses, Joshua, and David, would be the same type of people who would still be able to hear the truth through the new system and preaching of the kingdom. On the other hand, the majority who did not listen carefully to the words of that Law, are the same type of people who will never listen, not even if they witness dramatic miracles, like the dead being raised to life. The point is that God speaks truth, and those who respond in faith hear. Whether or not someone tries to continue practicing that old Law is irrelevant to being able to hear and follow God. Those who think they can follow Jesus better while striving to measure their activity and beliefs through the Old Covenant commands are deceiving themselves by placing a religious idol—that former Law—in their way of living by faith through dependence upon the Spirit.
Let go of the Law and let Christ be the Lord and lead of your every thought, action, decision, desire, and response while you try to mature in the Spirit, as you rejoice in your freedoms and use them to restrain your self-indulgence for the sake of helping those around you who are also experiencing the violence of activity and learning that is occurring at the threshold of the kingdom.
Remember, the peace offered at this time is designed primarily for the inside, while we all experience the turmoil and turbulence of suffering, persecution, and transformation around us.