Today’s reading: Matthew 11-12.
Oh, my brethren, what we want today in the churches is violence, not violence against each other, but violence against death, and hell, against the hardness of other men’s hearts, and against the sleepiness of our own. Charles Spurgeon
Some Bible verses stump even the experts, and today’s passage includes one of them. I’m no expert, but after reading and meditating on these few words I appreciate the difficulty of understanding them. Jesus is talking about John the Baptist when he makes a comment about the kingdom of heaven.
“I tell you the truth: Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it. For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come.” Matthew 11:11-14, NIV
It’s the twelfth verse which causes consternation. Words about force or violence. Here are some other translations.
And from the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away. Douay-Rheims
And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force. King James
From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and men of violence take it by force. RSV
In the Greek, the kingdom of heaven “biazo kai biastes harpazo autos harpazo.” Biazo can be an active verb, meaning to use force, or a passive verb, meaning to be forced or to have it forced upon you. Kai biastes refers to the ones who use force, the forceful or violent ones. Harpazo autos harpazo explains that they snatch the kingdom by grasping it. Thus, the kingdom of heaven is either (1) forcing itself as forceful men take hold of it or (2) being forced or acted upon violently by forceful violent men who grab it.
Jesus’ words about the kingdom of heaven rose out of his discussion of John the Baptist. John, in prison for criticizing the moral failures of Herod, sent messengers to Jesus to confirm whether he was truly the Messiah. Jesus sent word back to John that one only needed to see the miracles he was doing to know the answer. Jesus then went on to explain John’s role as the messenger who prepared the way for the Messiah. Jesus said that up until the time of John’s arrival there had been no greater man than John. Jesus called this the time of the Law and the Prophets. He went on to say that in spite of his greatness John was less than the least man in the kingdom of heaven, the new age initiated by Jesus and based on the new covenant of grace. Jesus made John the dividing line between the old and the new covenants.
So the kingdom of heaven is the new age of grace based on Jesus’s ministry of teaching, miracles, sacrificial death on the cross, and resurrection. Jesus’ arrival caused a major upheaval spiritually, politically, culturally, and in many other ways. The kingdom of heaven was caught up in that upheaval, propelling it and being propelled by it. Luke’s gospel gives another angle on this same statement by Jesus about the kingdom and how it was changing:
“The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John. Since that time, the good news of the kingdom of God is being preached, and everyone is forcing their way into it.” Luke 16:16 NIV
On the one hand we get a picture of the kingdom advancing forcefully as a result of the work of John and Jesus. People were responding to the message and taking hold of the promises. It’s unlikely that they were all believers, but they were a huge crowd pressing forward to learn more. In contrast to the eager crowd there were strong men opposed to the message who were pushing back against it, men like Herod, who violently murdered John, and men like the religious leaders who would soon kill Jesus. Perhaps there is truth in both these interpretations of the twelfth verse. I like William Barclay’s interpretation of this passage, which states that the forceful opposition to the gospel required an equal or greater force of devotion among believers.
It is likely that we will get the full meaning of this difficult saying by putting together the recollection of Luke and Matthew. What Jesus may well have said is: “Always my Kingdom will suffer violence; always savage men will try to break it up, and snatch it away and destroy it; and therefore only the man who is desperately in earnest, only the man in whom the violence of devotion matches and defeats the violence of persecution will in the end enter into it.” It may well be that this saying of Jesus was originally at one and the same time a warning of violence to come and a challenge to produce a devotion which would be even stronger than the violence. William Barclay, Daily Study Bible
Image “The Beheading of St. John the Baptist,” by Caravaggio, 1608