Tough Text Thursday: Matthew 11:12

“From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.” –Matthew 11:12

The kingdom of God is about Jesus our King establishing his rule and reign over all creation, defeating the human and angelic evil powers, bringing order to all, enacting justice, and being worshiped as Lord. Tragically, there are many erroneous views of the kingdom that misrepresent the glories of God's eternal kingdom.

The kingdom is not like the cartoonish inanity that shows heaven as a white cloud upon which we will sit wearing diapers and playing harps with wings too small to carry us anywhere fun.

The kingdom is not the naïve dream of liberalism, that with more education and time sin and its effects will be so eradicated from the earth that utopia will dawn.

The kingdom is not the deceptive dream of Christ-less spirituality where all learn to nurture the spark of divinity within themselves and live out their true good self in harmony.

The kingdom is not the political dream that if we simply get the right leaders in office and defeat all the bad guys, good will rule the earth.

But the kingdom is both a journey and a destination, both a rescue operation in this broken world and a perfect outcome in the new earth to come, both already started and not yet finished.

Just how exactly is the kingdom of God advanced and entered? Matthew 11:12 seems to indicate that either the kingdom of heaven advances by force, people take it by force, or that people are forcefully fighting their way into it. As always, context will be key in determining the meaning of this verse.

Context of Matthew 11:12

Matthew 11:12 falls within the context of Jesus’ teaching about John the Baptizer in Matthew 11:1–19. After Jesus’ cousin John the Baptizer heard from prison the deeds of Jesus, he sent some of his disciples to him to ask some questions. After telling John’s disciples to go and tell him what they heard and saw, Jesus then tells the crowd that John was the prophet foretold by Malachi.

Jesus then informs the crowd that no one born of a woman has been greater than John the Baptizer, “yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he” (11:11). Jesus then follows that up with the verse in question today, “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force” (11:12).

Matthew 11:12 may be read in one of several ways, depending on how one interprets Matthew’s use of the Greek word biazō (usually “to force one’s way in”). Today’s English translations are divided over whether to see this verse as a positive or negative statement. The Greek grammar alone gives us a range of possibilities, so the discussion must be decided on the basis of the context. 

Negatively Speaking

Many commentators see this verse negatively. This position suggests that “the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and violent men assault it, meaning either that hindrances are placed in its way, or that it is forcibly introduced.” With this position, the Greek verb is interpreted in the passive voice (see below), but seen as referring to “violent men who take it by force.”

While Jesus does not specify who forces their way into or assaults the kingdom, the original audience might have understood it to refer to zealots or insurrectionists such as Barabbas. This view does make a lot of sense of the immediate context: Matthew 10 refers to opposition from outside, such as the opposition that landed John in prison. Craig Evans suggests that given the political nature of the opposition to John’s preaching, this verse could refer to Herod and the political powers. What is more, the “violent men” might also be seen as anyone who opposes the in-breaking of God’s kingdom.

Others have recently suggested that Jesus was using the word “violence” a bit more figuratively, referring to the religious leaders of his day who were trying to usher in the kingdom through their own efforts. N.T. Wright suggests some possible overlap here, because many “of the most ardent revolutionaries were in fact the hardline Pharisees.”

Although many have made this point, the parallel text in Luke’s Gospel (16:16) does not strongly influence this view and even lessens the validity of this interpretation. Darrell L. Bock has suggested that Luke 16:16 is not a parallel to Matthew, but refers instead to “the persuasion of preaching in his version of the image.”

What this view attempts to emphasize is that the kingdom will face significant, even violent opposition from outside—but that nothing will stop its growth. 

Positively Speaking

Interpreters have traditionally gone in one of two ways to see this verse as a positive statement:

(1)  The verb is in the passive voice, meaning, “many are fighting their way in,” or

(2)  The verb is in the middle voice, meaning, “the kingdom is forcefully advancing.”

Often these two views are taken together. Though many contemporary English translations do no translate the verse this way, it is found this way in the New International Version.

This view has its origins in Clement of Alexandria and was later popularized by Martin Luther. Commenting upon this passage, Craig Keener suggests that there is a legal precedent: the verb biazomai can also be used to refer to “forcible acquisition” in legal complaints. In support of this view, Keener cites the following, “One second century Jewish tradition [that] praises those who passionately pursue the law by saying that God counts it as if they had ascended to heaven and taken the law forcibly, which the tradition regards as greater than having taken it peaceably.”

Personally, I lean towards understanding Matthew 11:12 as referring to those who press into the kingdom of heaven “violently” (the middle voice of biazō). Not that people were or should use violence as a means of advancing or entering into the kingdom of heaven, but rather that the kingdom of heaven is “violently” advancing, in a figurative sense, against the kingdom of darkness (Matthew 12:28; cf. Luke 10:18) and those who enter it through faith in Jesus exercise a sort of “holy violence.”

Conclusion

The church needs more "violent" men and women who take the kingdom of heaven by force. The church is in need of men and women who have been captivated by faith in Jesus to pursue him passionately and vehemently, doing whatever it takes to live the life of faith required by the radical message of the kingdom and to share that message of hope and healing with others.

This is not to say the kingdom is or should be advanced through physical violence (John 18:36). However, there is room for just war and self-defense. Jesus brought a message that ran counter to the powers of his day and today. It was a message that brought Jesus and his followers into direct confrontation with the established religious and political leaders. But Jesus ushered in God’s kingdom, not through retaliation or force, but through a way of preaching and living that was at once peaceful and relentless. He was willing to die, and did die, for our sake and the sake of his kingdom. Through his example we learn that the manner of the kingdom’s arrival must reflect the nature of the kingdom itself. 

This means that those who say they have encountered Jesus and yet live a life that reflects no change is similar to saying they’ve been hit by a cement truck and weren’t hurt. As I’ve written before, we cannot meet Jesus without being changed into a new creation, with new desires to please Jesus and despise sin, by the power of the Holy Spirit (2 Corinthians 5:17).

Commenting upon this passage many years ago, John Calvin says:

The meaning therefore is, a vast assembly of men is now collected, as if men were rushing violently forward to seize the kingdom of God; for, aroused by the voice of one man, they come together in crowds, and receive, not only with eagerness, but with vehement impetuosity, the grace which is offered to them. . . . The tendency of our Lord’s statement is to show, that those who pass by in a contemptuous manner, and as it were with closed eyes, the power of God, which manifestly appears both in the teacher and in the hearers, are inexcusable. Let us also learn from these words, what is the true nature and operation of faith. It leads men not only to give, cold and indifferent assent when God speaks, but to cherish warm affection towards Him, and to rush forward as it were with a violent struggle.

At the end of the day, as Christians and citizens of God’s kingdom, we’ll face persecution, some more extreme persecution than others. But in those times, we must find our identity in Christ, who suffered more then we’ll ever suffer, and believe in faith that no amount of force or violence will stop the advancement of God’s kingdom or strip our citizenship from it—and that, ultimately, those who bring violence and advance against the kingdom will face just judgment in this life or the life to come (2 Thessalonians 1:3–12).

The good news is that we know Jesus wins in the end, and as his church, we are privileged used by him to usher his kingdom in. His kingdom has come, is coming, and will ultimately be established in the new heaven and new earth, where the wicked will face judgment and the righteous will go unto eternal life where there is no more pain, sickness, and tears.

For Christians, this is the great hope of our salvation. For those who are not Christians, Jesus calls you to come to him and receive this gift of eternal life in this life before that end does come.