Luke 16:16 is a difficult verse to interpret. It is part of a small interlude (verses 14-18) between two parables relating to possessions, wealth, and selfish desires. In the ESV, verse 16 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.”
Speaking on the kingdom of God, Jesus says, “everyone forces his way into it.” What does that mean? The verse elicits an image of a person using physical force or violence to secure their position in God’s kingdom. That obviously is not what Jesus has in mind.
We can consider two possible interpretations by examining the immediate context of verse 16 and the larger context of Luke chapter 16. The immediate context – the thing Jesus just said – is that the preaching of the good news of the Kingdom is what carries authority. This is the message that was prophesied all along in the old covenant. The larger context of Luke 16 – including the parable of the dishonest manager – is that we need to be wise and shrewd with our available resources and use them for eternal purposes. Store up riches in heaven, so to speak.
Thus, the immediate context involves preaching the good news. The larger context involves acting wisely with resources for eternal purposes.
An additional interpretive element is the ambiguity of the verb “forces.” Greek verbs come in one of three “voices” – active, middle, and passive. The verb “forces” could be signaling a passive voice, which would mean that the action or “force” is being applied to everyone. In other words, the people receive the action. Or, the verb could be in the middle voice, which would mean that the people (“everyone”) are the agent of the action and are acting in relation to themselves.
Passive voice example: The child was hugged by his dad.
Middle voice example: The child hugged himself.
Back to verse 16. If we were to take the verb “forces” in the passive voice – that the force was being applied to everyone – then we would look at the immediate context of preaching the kingdom and conclude that through the preaching of the good news of the gospel, everyone is strongly urged to come to faith in Jesus, and thus, enter the kingdom. That is the way I tend to view it.
But, if we were to take the verb in the middle voice, then we would look at the larger context of using resources wisely to say that people should eagerly and urgently place faith in the gospel message. We could even argue that everyone must use “force” on their own selfish desires and repent of their sin.
Now, here is what is so fascinating. Bible translations have to decide how they will make these kinds of interpretive decisions. We don’t think about this too often when reading our English bibles, but every verse is an exercise in grammatical interpretive work.
Watch how neat this is. The Christian Standard Bible (CSB) is a relatively new and fresh translation birthed from the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB). Here is how the CSB translates Luke 16:16 –
“The Law and the Prophets were until John; since then, the good news of the kingdom of God has been proclaimed, and everyone is urgently invited to enter it.“
Do you see what the CSB did there? They landed on the passive voice option for the verb “forces” and takes it in the immediate context of preaching. I think that is exactly right.
Most translations opt for the middle voice option. Thankfully, both options speak truth. Through the preaching of the good news of the kingdom, all people are invited to enter by grace through faith. And, it is also certainly true that all people must “die to self” in order to live for Christ.
We need to be thankful for the men and women that God uses for biblical translation. What a gift to the church of Jesus Christ!