Luke 16:16 has baffled many Bible interpreters. What does it mean in its own historical and textual context?
This post is organized as follows: I offer my translation, my exegesis (close reading), the formal definition of a Greek lexicon, many translations, commentaries, and my interpretation.
This post is part of my translation and commentary on the Gospel of Luke. Readers are encouraged to look at other translations at biblegateway.com.
16 The law and prophets were until John; from here on, the kingdom of God is proclaimed as good news, and everyone is pressed into it. 17 It is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one stroke of the law to fail. (Luke 16:16-17)
The “law and prophets” mean the entire Old Testament. It was in force until John and now a shift is happening. John represents the old order, and Jesus is the embodiment of the new order. The Old Testament was built on laws and rules to compel people to remain within the Sinai Covenant, while the gospel is being proclaimed to compel people to enter the New Covenant for the first time. Abraham in the next parable (16:29) says that Moses and the prophets are sufficient to teach people to repent. It is an allusion to these Pharisees that if they truly believed in the law and prophets, they too would repent and follow Jesus.
See my posts about the kingdom of God:
Begin a ten-part series here:
Here the good news stands in contrast to the law and prophets. And it is so powerful that it compels people to enter the kingdom.
“everyone”: it is either rhetorical hyperbole, which means strategic exaggeration to make a point, or it refers to the Gentiles, much like the Parable of the Great Banquet included them as the final invitees (Luke 14:15-24). In the culture Jesus was speaking to, people could be born into the Chosen People, and when the Israelite kings reigned in the past, the Israelites were born into the kingdom of God (of sorts). The gospel, on the other hand, must be preached and people must be compelled by powerful persuasion to enter it. It shakes and upsets people to their core. No more kingdom privileges by natural birth.
“pressed”: it comes from the verb biazō (pronounced bee-ah-zoh), and I take it to be passive (the Greek form of the verb in this verse can be passive or middle). But I went back and forth on the optional translations, until I finally settled on mine.
BDAG, considered by many to be the most authoritative lexicon of the Greek NT, says the verb biazō means, depending on the context: (1) “to inflict violence on, dominate, constrain”; (2) “to gain an objective by force, use force”; (3) “go after something with enthusiasm, seek fervently, try hard”; (4) “constrain (warmly).”
BDAG even suggests the fourth definition for Luke 16:16, if the verb is considered passive (as I do). The editors of BDAG refer to Gen. 33:11 and Judg. 13:15. In Gen. 33:11 Jacob insists that Esau receive a gift from Jacob. Esau resisted, but finally gave in. “Thus he urged him, and he took it” (v. 11, ESV). In Judg. 13:15 Manoah, Samson’s father, urged the angel of the Lord to stay and eat a meal with Manoah. The angel stayed (but did not eat). With those two verses as background, BDAG writes: “the sense would be to invite urgently of the ‘genteel constraint imposed on a reluctant guest’” …. I believe they understate their definition with the word genteel but invite urgently is right. The kingdom urgently compels people to come in, by persuasion only.
In any case, here are various translations of the key clause from major versions and commentators. I prefer the last four, but you can certainly choose any of the others:
Every man presseth into it (KJV)
Everyone is pressing into it (NKJV)
Everyone is forcing his way into it (NASB, NIV)
Eager multitudes are forcing their way in (NLT)
Everyone tries to enter it by force (NCV)
Everyone is trying hard to get in (CEV)
Everyone forces his way into it (ESV)
Everyone is using violence against it (Culy, Parsons, Stigall)
Everyone is trying to attack it (Wright)
Compelling invitation to every man and woman (MSG)
Everyone is urged to enter it (NET, Green)
Everyone is pressed into it (Garland)
Everyone is pressed into it (Fitzmyer)
Everyone is urgently invited to enter it. (CSV, HCSB, CSB)
Everyone is urged to enter it. (CEB)
Everyone is trying to force his way into it. (EHV)
Everyone forces their way in. (GNT)
Everybody enters it enthusiastically. (ISV)
Men are forcing their way into it. (Philip’s)
Everyone is urgently pressed into it (LEB)
Now eager multitudes are pressing in. (TLB)
Everyone who enters does so with violence. (NABRE)
Everyone is pushing his way in. (NLV)
Everyone enters it violently. (RSV)
Everyone tries forcing his way in. (TLV)
Hence the saying can also be taken positively, ‘Men of violence seize at the opportunity of entering the kingdom’, or negatively, ‘men of violence snatch away the kingdom from those trying to enter’; the arguments in favor of the former meaning are the stronger. Hence it appears probable that the saying in both of its forms refers to the effort men should make in order to get into the kingdom; but few sayings in the Gospels are so uncertain in interpretation as this one.
The verb has a softened force and is in the passive voice: “All are urged insistently to come in” …. This fits remarkably well in the current context. Why is Jesus warning and exhorting his opponents so constantly? Because he is attempting to persuade them to respond morally. In a sense his mission is bound up in his proclamation to and effort toward those most opposed to him, those on the road to rejection. The opportunity is always placed before them. The risk is always expressed to them. Indeed, the special nature of the time creates the urgency. People may think that they can take or leave the kingdom message, but the warnings are necessary because the message will take or leave them, depending on how they respond. Thus the need to urge insistently. Jesus presents his message to all, and all are given the chance to enter and share in the kingdom benefits (14:15-24 is similar in thrust). The time of fulfillment has come and all are united to share the good news. The kingdom comes, regardless of whether one responds. But if one is to share in the kingdom message, one must respond to Jesus’ authority—not scoff at it (16:14). (vol. 2, pp. 1353-54)
He translates the key clause as “Everyone is pressed into it.” Then he writes:
Rendering the verb as a passive “Everyone is pressed into it … best fits the context and universal reference to “everyone.” It would parallel the passive “is proclaimed” … in the first clause and match the images in the previous parables of compelling persons to enter the banquet (14:23), resolutely searching for what has been lost (15:1-10), and pleading with an elder son to join the party to celebrate his younger brother’s return (15:25-32). It would fit the use of the verb in the LXX [a third-to-first century translation from Hebrew into Greek] to mean “to urge or to invite insistently” (Gen. 33:11; Judg. 13:15-16; 19:17; 2 Sam. 13:25, 27; 2 Kgs. 5:23 [textual variant]; Also see 4 Macc. 2:8; 8:24; 11:25). … A papyrus document (P.Oxy. II:294-16-28, dated around AD 22) uses the verb with a similar meaning: “I (Sarapion) am being pressed to become a member of the household of Apollonius, the chief usher” (in Egypt). The urgency of “being pressed” does not imply that persons are compelled against their will, as if at gunpoint, but recognizes that it is a “narrow door” (13:24) and it requires pressure for people to choose to enter it. (p. 660)
Fitzmyer agrees with Garland; in fact, Garland got the reference to the papyrus from him. So Garland agrees with Fitzmyer because the latter published his volume in 1985 (vol. 2, 1117).
I finally settled on my translation, not only because of BDAG but mainly because of the Parable of the Great Banquet (Luke 14:15-24). The key verse reads: “The master said to the servant, ‘Go out into the roads and hedges and compel them to come in, so that my house is filled up!’” The verb compelled is different, but parallel. In 14:23, the verb is anagkazō (pronounced ah-nahg-kah-zoh). BDAG says it means: (1) “to compel someone to act in a particular manner, compel, force”; (2) “strongly urge / invite, urge upon, press.”
In that parable, the master is Jesus or God, and he ordered the servant to compel people. The servant is the inviter or preacher of the kingdom, and the implication is that proclamation of the kingdom is forceful. And here in 16:16 Jesus also said the good news of the kingdom is proclaimed. Therefore, a strong force—the kingdom itself—can compel people into the kingdom. Therefore, the verb biazō is a virtual synonym to anagkazō in 14:23.
Here in 16:16, as the forerunner, John the Baptist powerfully proclaimed Jesus who was the groundbreaking pioneer and “usher” of the kingdom. John was the servant, while Jesus was the master of the kingdom. Both of them strongly urged people by compelling preaching to enter the kingdom.
Also, throughout the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is in the process of performing signs and wonders to provide extra compulsion of the kingdom. The disciples were called to do the same in Acts and even in the Gospel during their special commissioning (Luke 9:1 and 10:9). Neither John nor Jesus, or the disciples, used actual or physical violence on people. And certainly no human can attack the invisible kingdom, God’s kingdom, with any kind of physical violence. (Someone could object that crucifying Jesus was attacking the kingdom, but the kingdom of God never budged, and he was raised from the dead. The kingdom was never hurt.)
Further, damage by spiritual violence (not physical violence) can also be inflicted on Satan’s kingdom, by rebuking and expelling demons and preaching the gospel in the power of the Spirit. Every person who enters the kingdom of God expands it and necessarily shrinks the kingdom of Satan. So there is a component of spiritual warfare in kingdom compulsion.
Many translations assume the passive form of the verb, and I believe they are right because it is the kingdom that works hard on people to compel them to come in, by the proclamation of the gospel. The kingdom is the active agent in the process while people are the passive partners, but without surrendering their free will; therefore, that’s why the preaching of the gospel must flow from the power of the Spirit, even including signs and wonders, which Jesus is currently performing and his disciples in Acts will also do (and during their special commission in the Gospel).
How does this post help me grow in my knowledge of Scripture and God?
Remember: Luke-Acts is very charismatic, and Spirit-filled preaching and signs and wonders are very compelling. All of this kingdom power and words bring about nonphysical “violence” on people’s stubbornness only in the sense of a strong compulsion drawing them into the new kingdom. It’s how Paul had to act towards the Corinthians. “And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. … in demonstration of the Spirit and power (1 Cor. 2:1, 4, ESV).
But there is no physically violent attack from kingdom citizens on the stubborn or from the stubborn attacking the kingdom. It is impossible for puny humans to use physical violence on God’s invisible, nonmaterial kingdom. Instead, the resistant are pressed into the kingdom, by powerful proclamation and by surrendering their strong will to the kingdom, where the real battle happens, in their souls.
So let’s keep preaching the gospel of the kingdom by the power of the Spirit. This will “press” people into the kingdom.
Bock, Darrel L. Luke 9:51-24:53. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Vol. 2. (Baker 1996).
Culy, Martin M., Mikael C. Parsons. Joshua J. Stigall. Luke: A Handbook on the Greek Text. (Baylor UP, 2010).
Fitzmyer, Joseph A., SJ. The Gospel according to St. Luke, X-XIV. The Anchor Bible. Vol. 28A. (Doubleday, 1985).
Garland, David E. Luke. Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. (Zondervan, 2011).
Marshall, I. Howard. The Gospel of Luke: A Commentary on the Greek Text. The New International Greek Testament Commentary. (Eerdman’s, 1978).
Wright, N. T. Luke for Everyone. (Westminster / John Knox, 2004).