The Law as Promise, but the Gospel as Fulfillment
Passage: Luke 16:14–16:17
The Law as Promise, but the Gospel as Fulfillment
We’re returning to our series in the Gospel according to Luke, and today we find a somewhat familiar setting – Jesus in controversy with the religious leadership of Israel. The passage before us is a controversy that has eternal consequences. How does one come into the presence of God? How do fallen sinners like us relate to a holy, infinite Creator? This is a controversy over eternal realities.
As is often the case in Luke’s Gospel, there are two very clear sides to this controversy. On the one side, we have the Pharisees with their scrupulous adherence to the Law of Moses, and on the other, we have Jesus, who preaches the good news of the kingdom of God. Who determines the way into the presence of God – the Pharisees or Jesus?
Of course, the Pharisees have a strong case to make. They profess to take the Old Testament Scriptures very seriously. They know the Law, they apply the Law, they study the Prophets. These are the kind of people who even tithe on their herb gardens! So, if eternity hangs in the balance, then these are the kind of men you would expect to have answers. They appear very devout.
But if there is one consistent truth that runs throughout Scripture, it’s this – God cares about more than appearances. When God looks at a person, he looks to the heart. It’s all through the Bible, and this has been a consistent theme in Jesus’ preaching as well. In fact, if you’ve been with us through our study in Luke’s Gospel, then you already know the answer to this controversy. You can anticipate where Jesus is going. “Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks,” Jesus preached in Luke 6. The good soil is the one who “hears the word and holds it fast in an honest and good heart,” Jesus said in Luke 8. “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also,” Jesus reminded, Luke 12. This passage is no different. As has been the case throughout his preaching, Jesus hears the challenge of the Pharisees, and Jesus goes to the heart of the matter.
That being said, there is a unique element to this passage, and it has to do with the Old Testament itself. In answering the Pharisees, Jesus shines a light on what it means to correctly uphold the Old Testament, particularly the Law of the Moses. And Jesus’ insight here is momentous. In short, Jesus says, “If you want to understand the Old Testament, then listen to my gospel. If you want to uphold the Law, then respond to my message.” You see, it’s a momentous, history-defining claim from the lips of Jesus. What Jesus does in this controversy is again position himself as the turning point – the hinge – of redemptive history. Everything up until John the Baptist, including the Law, was a promise – a shadow and hope of something greater to come. But now, everything in the gospel is the fulfillment. And standing at the center of that transition from promise to fulfillment is Jesus Christ.
So, back to what we said at the outset, about this being a controversy with eternal consequences. How do sinners come into God’s presence? Who determines the way? Amazingly, Jesus says, “I do because the Law and the Prophets are all fulfilled in what I preach, in my gospel.”
Now, how exactly does Jesus make this case? How does he settle this controversy? Well, that’s what we plan to consider this morning. You can think of this passage as examining the Old Testament Scriptures, particularly the Law, from three perspectives. One is negative, and we see this in the example of the Pharisees. The other two are positive, and we see these in Jesus’ striking claims in vv16-17. So, let’s consider these three perspectives, beginning with the negative.
How the Law Exposes Our Feeble Attempts to Fool God
In vv14-15, we see from the Pharisees how the Law exposes our feeble attempts to fool God. Since we’ve been away from Luke for a few weeks, it would be good to remember what happened just before this passage. So, look back just one verse – v13 – which is a nice summary of Jesus’ teaching. V13, Jesus said, “No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other.” That captures the point of the parable that opened chapter 16. How we steward our possessions reveals the allegiance of our hearts.
And then Jesus puts it even more succinctly. Notice the end of v13 – “You cannot serve God and money.” That’s kingdom-minded stewardship in one sentence – “You cannot serve God and money.” Only one thing can have mastery in your heart. You can either devote your life to accumulating stuff, or you can devote your life, including your stuff, to making much of God. So, ss we come to this passage, that’s the sermon from Jesus that is still ringing in people’s ears.
Now, notice what happens in our text, v14 – “The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all these things, and they ridiculed him.” So, the Pharisees are uncomfortable, aren’t they? Jesus’ teaching has stung them. They love money. The word here is the same one Paul uses in 2 Timothy 3 to describe godless people in the last days, which means Jesus is challenging the spiritual bankruptcy of the Pharisees. They hear too much of themselves in Jesus’ teaching, and they don’t like it.
So, the Pharisees do what most of us do when we want to escape that biting sense of conviction – they criticize. Notice Luke’s word – he says they ridicule Jesus. They mock him. It’s the same word used in chapter 23 to describe those who scoffed at Jesus on the cross. “He saved others,” they derided, “let him come down and save himself.” The Pharisees have the same attitude here. In an attempt to preserve their position of spiritual authority, the Pharisees ridicule the Lord.
But we ought to press this a little deeper. Notice again in the text that the Pharisees ridicule Jesus because of his teaching. They heard all these things, Luke says, and therefore they mock him. I’ll contend that what the Pharisees are doing is positioning themselves as having greater spiritual authority than Jesus. When it comes to interpreting and applying the Law, Jesus is a joke in the Pharisees’ eyes. That’s what is going on in v14. They’re painting Jesus as a fool. They understand the challenge Jesus represents, and so, in an act of sinful self-perseveration, they mock the Lord. “We’re the ones who understand God,” they say. “This man Jesus is a fool. Listen to us.”
How does Jesus respond? Look at v15, where we see the Lord’s rebuke. V15 – “And he said to them, ‘You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts.’” Jesus cuts straight to the issue, doesn’t he? And the issue is the heart. The Pharisees’ problem is that their religious observance is oriented toward other people. Why do they profess to uphold the Law? So that other people will see them as devout. Why do the tithe even their herb gardens? So that they can position themselves as more scrupulous than others. That’s what Jesus means when he says they justify themselves before men. The Pharisees are more concerned with the opinion of men than they are with the verdict of God.
That is a hallmark sign of self-righteousness, and it lurks in the heart of every single one of us this morning. Whenever we use our religious pursuits for the goal of impressing other people, then we have strayed from the path of heart-felt devotion that pleases the Lord. Even good things – like adherence to Scripture – can become exercises in self-justification if our aim is the opinion of others more than the verdict of God. And that is the problem here with the Pharisees. While they professed that God was their treasure, they loved money in their hearts. While tithing their herb gardens for all to see, they inwardly craved more possessions, more wealth, more status.
But with one phrase, Jesus eviscerates that approach to spiritual life. With one phrase, Jesus demolishes the delusion that we can fool God by merely impressing people. Note that one phrase in v15. It’s the one phrase that ought to get your attention when you read this text – “but God knows your hearts.” That’s powerful. That’s the bedrock of biblical spirituality in one phrase. That’s the antidote to the self-righteousness that resides in all of us – “But God knows your hearts.” In other words, you may be able to fool other people, but you cannot fool God.
And that is what the Pharisees fail to recognize at this point. They think their outward devotion to the Law is enough. But what they don’t recognize – or at least won’t admit – is that the Law was always intended to uncover the heart. The Law was never intended to be a rulebook that allowed us to justify ourselves. No, the Law always more like a searchlight that exposed those dark recesses of the heart that no amount of self-righteousness could clean up. And so, the Law, properly understood, was always pointing God’s people to the fact that a deeper remedy was needed, a remedy that could reach even to the heart.
Consider, for example, how Deuteronomy summarizes the entirety of the Law. Deuteronomy 6.5 – “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” That’s not a call you can keep with mere outward performance. That’s a call for heartfelt devotion. Or, consider the OT prophets when they rebuked the nation of Israel. What was the essence of their rebuke? It wasn’t that Israel failed to offer sacrifices. No, it was that Israel offered those sacrifices while their hearts were far from the Lord. Hosea 6.6, “I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,” God says.
Again, I want you to hear the emphasis. From Deuteronomy, which is the highpoint of the OT, all the way through the Prophets, who close the OT – what is God doing through his Law? Exposing the hearts of his people. Calling his people to see that what they need is something mere outward performance cannot provide. They need a change at heart.
This is why Jesus speaks so strongly at the end of v15. Notice how the verse ends – “For what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God.” That’s a warning. The Pharisees love money, in part, because they love what money can buy them – people’s admiration and envy. But Jesus says those things are an abomination to God. That is strong language. It means God hates such things, and his wrath will one day be unleashed against such people. The only thing self-righteousness will earn you is the burning hot judgment of God.
Why is that? There are many sins mentioned in the Bible, but only a handful are said to be an abomination to God. Self-righteousness is one of them. Why? Why does God hate this kind of outward-only religious performance? Well, it is because self-righteousness makes a mockery of God. Just like the Pharisees ridicule Jesus in v14, so also self-righteousness ridicules God. It mocks him, as though he does not see, as though he is not sovereign and holy and pure. To justify yourself before men is to scoff at the God who made the universe. It’s to treat God as though he is a fool, as though he is a tottering old man you can get one over on. But God will not be mocked and that is why Jesus uses such strong language.
If you are here this morning because you believe that religious performance pleases God, I pray you receive this warning from Jesus. Merely keeping the rules and checking the boxes cannot save you on the last day. That was never the purpose of the Law. In fact, that is the opposite of what the Law was intended to teach. No amount of church attendance, no amount of morality, no amount of charitable giving, no amount sacrificial service can save you. And that’s because those actions, while outwardly good, cannot change your heart. They cannot pay your sin debt before God.
What Jesus preached and what the Bible teaches is that the only means of coming into God’s presence is the gospel of Jesus Christ. The gospel begins with the Law’s verdict against us – that we are all sinners who fall short of the glory of God. But the gospel’s remedy is what the Law could not provide – complete atonement, lasting forgiveness, and a resulting transformation of the heart that delights to obey God. The good news is that Christ himself kept the Law in our place, so that his righteousness – his obedience – is credited to our account. He took our sins upon himself, shedding his blood to pay for our failure to keep the Law, and then he gives us – freely and completely – his righteousness, so that we can stand before God. That’s the gospel, friend, and if you came here today thinking your performance could save you, then I pray you will find freedom in this good news. The Law exposes our feeble attempts to fool God. Self-righteousness cannot save; it will only condemn. Today, God calls you to trust in Christ, to receive his gospel, and to find salvation in his name.
The Law Leads Us to the Gospel as Salvation’s Fulfillment
Now as we continue in our passage, there is a question facing us. It’s the question that I assume the crowd and the Pharisees would have been asking, and it’s a question about the authority of the Old Testament Scriptures, particularly the Law. Since Jesus has positioned himself as opposed to the Pharisees, does that mean he believes the Old Testament and the Law have no authority? That’s the issue at play, and in v16, Jesus answers in a profoundly important way. This is the second perspective we ought to consider – the Law leads us to the gospel as salvation’s fulfillment.
Notice the very abrupt transition Jesus makes in v16. He’s just declared that self-righteousness is an abomination to God, v15, and then v16, he shifts to the Old Testament Scriptures. Listen again – “The Law and the Prophets were until John; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is preached, and everyone forces his way into it.” Now, what is Jesus getting at here? Well, he’s talking about redemptive history, and more specifically, the transition from the old covenant era to the new covenant era. Remember, God relates to his people on the basis of covenant, and generally speaking, everything up to and including John the Baptist was the era of the old covenant. This included the Law of Moses, the Prophets – all of the OT Scriptures. And in this OC era, it was the Law and the Prophets that were the binding authority from God. To know God during this OC era, you had to submit yourself, by faith, to his revelation in the OT.
But now, Jesus says, a new era has dawned, and that new era corresponds to the new covenant, which the OT itself promised. This is extremely significant. The OT itself anticipated that something greater was to come. The Law itself looked forward to a greater sacrifice, a final sacrifice. The OT prophets consistently spoke of a new covenant, with Jeremiah 31 being the most well-known example. So, the OT itself anticipated that something greater was to come.
And in v16, Jesus is saying that this something greater is here. Notice the contrast Jesus makes. The Law and the Prophets were until John the Baptist, but now where is God’s revelation received? In the good news of the kingdom. Do you hear the progression? From the Law and the Prophets to the gospel of the kingdom. Jesus is saying that redemptive history is advancing, progressing. God’s purposes are unfolding and being fulfilled. The new era has come.
But ask yourself – Who in Luke’s Gospel is preaching the good news of the kingdom of God? Jesus, of course. So, do you see the claim that Jesus makes? It’s an astonishing statement of authority. Under the old covenant, it was the Law and the Prophets that revealed God’s Word to God’s people, but now, where is God’s Word heard and received? In the gospel message of Jesus Christ. He is the authority in God’s kingdom. He reveals the purposes and plan of God. He speaks with divine authority because he is himself God. The Pharisees think they are the authority because they take the Law so seriously, but Jesus says, “You’re missing the point. You’re missing what God is doing. The old is coming to an end, and that end is me.” If you want in on what God is doing, then you must respond to Jesus.
In fact, this is exactly the point that Jesus makes in the last line of v16. Look again at what he says – “The Law and the Prophets were until John; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is preached, and everyone forces his way into it.” Now, we’ve got a translation issue here that we need to clear up in order to understand this verse. If you have the ESV, you may see a footnote there in your text. You could also translate this final phrase like this – “and everyone is forcefully urged into it.” You can see that footnote at the bottom, and that footnote is a better translation of what Jesus is getting at. I don’t believe Jesus is saying that everyone is forcing his or her way into the kingdom of God. Rather, I believe Jesus is saying that right now, through his preaching, everyone is forcefully urged to enter God’s kingdom, but only through the gospel.
Jesus’ point, then, is that the Pharisees have got it all wrong. They ridicule Jesus’ teaching, but in doing so, they miss out on the very kingdom they purport to desire. For all their supposed devotion to the Law and the Prophets, they’re missing the Reality to which the Law and the Prophets pointed. They’re missing the gospel.
And that is the profound point that Jesus makes here regarding the OT. Not only is Jesus claiming divine authority for himself and his message, but Jesus is also saying that true belief in the Law and the Prophets ought to lead you to trust in the gospel. The gospel of Jesus Christ is the true end of the Law. The gospel of Jesus Christ is the true goal of the Prophets. The gospel of Jesus Christ is the right and God-intended fulfillment of everything revealed in the OT – beginning in Genesis and running all the way through Malachi. If you want to crow and strut about your faithfulness to the Law of Moses, then you should run to embrace the gospel of the kingdom of God.
This is why we ought to reject any view of the OT that does not elevate and prioritize Jesus Christ. Whether it is our eschatology or our belief about the continued application of the OT commandments, if Christ is not at the center of our view, then we need a better view. To be thoroughly biblical Christians – indeed, to be New Testament Christians – we must insist that Jesus Christ and his gospel are the end of everything written in the Law and the Prophets. And that’s not because we say so. That’s because Christ says so, right here in Luke 16.
The Law Teaches Us the Unchanging Character of God
As before, this raises another, final question that we ought to address. If Christ and his gospel are the end of the Law and the Prophets, does that mean that the OT Scriptures have fallen away? Should we disregard what God revealed under the Old Covenant? The answer is, “No,” and Jesus tells us why, at least in part, in v17. This is the third perspective we ought to consider – the Law teaches us the Unchanging Character of God. In the passage, Jesus anticipates the objection of his critics. He’s just positioned his gospel as the focal point of redemptive history, but then he quickly answers the objection that he knows will come. Look at v17 – “But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one dot of the Law to become void.”
You can imagine the objection Jesus anticipates. “If the gospel is central, then that must mean the OT is worthless, right?” Absolutely not, Jesus says. Indeed, it would be easier for creation to crumble than it would be for the smallest stroke of the Law to become void. In other words, every day that you wake up to the sunrise, every step you take on the solid ground of the earth, every moment you draw breath from the atmosphere – that moment is a reminder that God’s Word, from old covenant to new, will never fall. It would be easier for the world to vanish that it would be for the Law to become void.
Why is that, we ask? Well, it is because of the character of God. Remember that all Scripture, both Old and New Testament, is the revelation of God himself. Scripture tells us what God is like, but Scripture also takes its own character from God himself. The Bible is inerrant because God cannot lie. The Bible is trustworthy because God is faithful. The Bible is good for us because God is good. And the Bible – all of it, Old and New Testament – will endure forever because God never changes. God never fails, and therefore, his Word will never become void.
So, then why does Jesus position his gospel as being the climax of the Law and the Prophets? Why is the gospel now centerstage if the Law will never become void? That’s a great question, and the answer is found in the difference between two words – nullified vs. fulfilled. To nullify means to deprive something of value. To fulfill means to finish and complete. That difference is the answer. The Law has not been nullified; it has been fulfilled. The gospel does not mean the Law and the Prophets have no value. Rather, the gospel means that the Law and the Prophets have been fulfilled in the death and resurrection of Christ.
Again, this is why we must insist that the gospel is the right and proper end of the Old Testament. That’s the one grand point of this passage. If you aim to take seriously what God said in the Law and the Prophets, then you must repent and believe the gospel. You must come to Christ by faith. At the same time, we should also see how the Law and the Prophets continue to show us what God is like. They continue to teach and train us in the character of God – how he is faithful to his promises, fulfilling them in Christ; how he is holy and calls his people to be holy; how he is unchanging, so that the God he was to his people under the Old Covenant is the God he continues to be in Christ Jesus. That’s why we read the Psalms and remember the crossing of the Red Sea and listen to Isaiah’s prophecies. It’s not because we live under the Old Covenant, but it is because God’s revelation under the old covenant leads us to Christ and continues to disciple us in the character of the God who never changes.
So, as we close, I pray we see how this passage speaks to eternal realities. What began as a controversy between the Pharisees and Jesus ends up being a moment of clear instruction for those who desire to know God and walk in his ways. God is not satisfied with mere outward obedience. His Law exposes our feeble attempts to fool him. God has not left his promises unfulfilled. His Law leads us to the gospel as salvation’s fulfillment. And God has not changed. His Law reveals his enduring character.
So, whether we are reading Genesis or Romans, what we ought to see is the gospel of Christ. That gospel was promised under the old covenant, and that gospel has come to pass through the new covenant. May God give us eyes to see, and more importantly, may he give us hearts that are quick to respond with repentance, faith, and obedience in Jesus Christ. Amen.