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No. 38: All Things New

BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 38
June, 1992
Copyright 1992, Biblical Horizons

Virtually all Bible commentators and theologians agree that verse 17 is a disclaimer to the radical discontinuity Christ has been proclaiming in Luke 16. They argue that, after declaring that the Gospel had replaced the Law and the Prophets, Jesus said, "But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one stroke of a letter of the Law to fail"(NASB) in order to prevent anyone from thinking that the Old Testament was no longer binding. Their reasoning is rather straightforward: Since "heaven and earth" have not passed away, every "stroke of a letter of the Law" must still be binding.

Second Thoughts

There are two problems with this interpretation, however, which should cause us to consider other possibilities. First of all, while every stroke of the Law is undoubtedly "inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for training in righteousness; that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work" (1 Tim. 3:17), nevertheless, we are no longer to obey many of the direct commands contained in the Old Testament. The Mosaic dietary laws were done away with by Jesus (Mark 7:19) and the Apostle Paul rebukes with strong language those who would continue to enforce them (Col. 2:16-22). Paul also explicitly rejects the binding authority of the Old Testament calendar (Gal. 4:8-11). Christ’s sacrifice once and for all ends the need for animal sacrifices (Heb. 10:1-14). Whereas the people of the Old Covenant worshipped God in Jerusalem, Christians worship God in heaven (Gal. 4:24-26; Heb. 12:18-25). Given these New Testament alterations, it is hard to see how the traditional understanding of Luke 16:17 does not contradict the clear message of Jesus and the Apostles that "when the priesthood is changed, of necessity there takes a place of change of law also" (Heb. 7:12).

The other major problem with the popular understanding of Luke 16:17 is that it doesn’t seem to fit the situation. To show how this is the case, we must try to do justice to the overall context of the passage.

In Luke 15:1-2, the situation that provokes Jesus to tell a number of parables is established:

Jesus launches into a series of parables to rebuke the Pharisees and exhort them to repent. The parable of the one lost sheep out of the flock of ninety-nine (15:4-7) and the parable of the woman who lost one coin out of ten (15:8-10) are both quite simple to understand. Jesus wishes to demonstrate that His ministry to "sinners" is justified. The parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32) is more pointed than the others. The Pharisees are compared to the jealous older brothers (vv. 25-32).

At this point chapter 16 begins, "Now he was also saying to the disciples . . ." perhaps indicating a change of subject. In 16:14, however, we are told that the Pharisees "were listening to all these things," so we can be pretty certain that Christ is still referring to the Pharisees. Furthermore, His parable of the unrighteous steward (16:1-13) only makes sense if understood to be referring to the Pharisees–the "stewards" of the Old Covenant who were about to lose their position. Jesus exhorts them to reduce the burdens they are placing on those who were going to inherit the Kingdom so that they could find a place in it. After the passage in question, the subject of judgment on the Pharisees climaxes in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). Once again the Pharisees are contrasted with the downtrodden who inherit the blessing of the Kingdom while they are consigned to eternal fire. This parable is especially pointed since Jesus used the name of His friend, whom He had raised from the dead and whom the Pharisees were conspiring to kill (John 12:10-11). The point of all this is that judgment on the Pharisees and salvation for others is a theme running through Luke 15-16, and readers should expect the theme to be carried on through 16:14-18. (For an extended discussion of the Parable of the Unjust Steward, see James B. Jordan’s essay in Biblical Horizons No. 17.)

Jesus rebukes the Pharisees for their scoffing (v. 14), telling them that they are "detestable in the sight of God" (v. 15; NASB). Then He warns them in verse 16 that they should not allow their pride to prevent them from entering the Kingdom of Heaven along with all those–that is, the multitude of "sinners and tax-gatherers" mentioned in Luke 15:1–who are "forcing" their way into it. Since John, he tells them, "the gospel of the kingdom of God" is preached, as opposed to the Law and the Prophets which came before. In light of the parable of the unrighteous steward which has just been told, Jesus is obviously exhorting the Pharisees to throw in their lot with everyone they see taking advantage of the Gospel before it is too late.

Skipping to verse 18: Seemingly out of the blue, Jesus lectures the Pharisees on divorce and remarriage–telling them that to do so is adultery. In context, it is probable Jesus was referring to the fact that the Pharisees, by attempting to serve two masters, had in fact abandoned God for Mammon. Thus, they were guilty of covenantal adultery. Furthermore, by focusing on the husband who divorces his wife and marries another, Jesus emphasizes the Pharisees’ infidelity to Israel. Israel was the bride and the teachers of the Law were to represent the Bridegroom. Because of their infidelity, the Pharisees will not be His representatives to His new Bride, the Church.

To put verse 17 in context, then, the entire passage emphasizes a discontinuity between Israel and the Church and, in verse 16, a discontinuity between the Old Covenant and the New. This discontinuity involves a transfer of the Kingdom and judgment on the unfaithful stewards of the Old Covenant–the Pharisees.

Yet, virtually all commentators think that verse 17 taught that every "jot and tittle" of the law is still in force. The readers of Luke 16:17 assume that "heaven and earth" refers to the physical universe (Gen. 1:1) which will not pass away until the second coming (Gen. 8:22). They argue that, after declaring that the Gospel had replaced the Law and the Prophets, Jesus said, "But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one stroke of a letter of the Law to fail" (NASB) in order to prevent anyone from believing that the Old Testament was no longer binding. Is this really what Jesus meant?

Covenants and Creations

While there are several ways to demonstrate the faultiness of this interpretation, perhaps the simplest case comes from the prophecies of Isaiah:

Here, God describes the covenant He made with Israel as the creation of the world. A few chapters later in Isaiah, He promises that He will bring about a new creation:

This passing of the old creation and the bringing in of the new cannot refer to the return of Christ because the resurrection of the dead has not yet taken place. People live a long time, but they are not yet immortal. The most obvious interpretation is that Isaiah is prophesying the New Covenant which was instituted by Jesus Christ.

Interestingly, the Greek word at the beginning of Luke 16:17 which the NASB translates as "But" can just as easily be interpreted as "And." Thus, there is nothing in the verse that must be interpreted as a contrast to the rest of the passage.

In verse 17, then, Jesus tells them what the preaching of the Gospel, as opposed to the Law and Prophets portends: The old creation is passing away with the old covenant, the Pharisees need to switch to the new it they wish to avoid passing away with it.

For these reasons, it seems that Luke 16:14-18 indicates, not the continuing binding validity of the Law and the Prophets, but the imminent passing away of the old creation in the death of Christ. Jesus is warning the Pharisees: Because they have annulled the Law and the Prophets and so taught others (see Matt. 5:17-20), they are in danger of becoming least in the kingdom of heaven which Christ was soon to inaugurate through His death and resurrection – bringing the old creation to an end and ushering in a new heavens and a new earth.