The Kingdom of Heaven Suffers Violence
Matthew 11 :12
“From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven
suffers violence, and violent men take it by force.”
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Expository Bible Studies
1.1 Violence and the Kingdom Proclamation. Jesus explained that proclaiming the word of the kingdom brings forth violence. Many of the Jews listening to Jesus expected that Messiah would establish His kingdom on earth and overthrow His enemies with violence. Instead, Jesus revealed that the kingdom of heaven had come and the kingdom of heaven would suffer both spiritual and physical violence. The spiritual violence comes from the devil, who “snatches away” the word of the kingdom of heaven from the hearts of some people who have heard the word of the kingdom. Furthermore, the devil also directs physical violence toward the person who sows the word of the kingdom. So when you share the word of the kingdom today, expect that violence will be coming against both you and the people who hear you, because the devil inflicts both spiritual and physical violence against the kingdom of heaven. He rules the kingdom of men.
1.2 John the Baptist Imprisoned. Jesus preached on this subject of violence directed toward the kingdom of heaven in the Gospel of Matthew. When John the Baptist was imprisoned, he sent messengers to Jesus to inquire if Jesus was the “Expected One” or not? Should they be looking for someone else? Jesus provided an answer based upon Isaiah’s prophecies. He commanded the messengers from John the Baptist to return and report what they heard and saw, a fulfillment of certain Messianic prophecies of Isaiah. Jesus then began to praise John the Baptist, and proclaimed that no one born of women has arisen greater than John the Baptist. Yet, Jesus continued, the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than John the Baptist. Then Jesus said: “From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and violent men take it by force” (Matthew 11:12). Some people have found great difficulty in relating the first part of Matthew 11:12 (violent or forceful men) with the second half of the verse (forcing, advancing, or snatching away or seizing). The Bible actually presents a clear answer. I want to study Matthew 11:12 in more detail, but briefly.
2.1 John the Baptist and Violence. John the Baptist had personally suffered violence because King Herod had John the Baptist arrested and bound in prison. King Herod reacted very negatively to John the Baptist telling King Herod that it was unlawful for King Herod to have married the ex-wife of his brother, Philip. As John the Baptist suffered violence and imprisonment, Jesus revealed spiritual truths about violence and the kingdom of heaven. Let me summarize the basic points Jesus made in Matthew 11:12.
2.1.1 Time Period. Jesus limited the time from the “days of John the Baptist” until now (“ἀπὸ δὲ τῶν ἡμερῶν Ἰωάννου τοῦ βαπτιστοῦ ἕως ἄρτι“), when John the Baptist was imprisoned. The appearance of John the Baptist signaled a new spiritual season: no longer would the Law and the prophets be proclaimed. John the Baptist inaugurated the preaching of the kingdom of God and the kingdom of heaven (Luke 16:16).
2.1.2 Violence. The kingdom of heaven suffers violence. The original text contains the word “violence” (“βιάζεται”) used as a verb. Parsing shows that the verb is a present passive or middle indicative, third person singular. If you translate the verb as middle voice, then the violent men act against themselves, or in some reflexive sense. If you translate the verb as passive voice, then the subject is not expressed, and the action of violence is emphasized. The verb may have a transitive force (suffer violently) or intransitive force (enter forcibly, advance with effort). I favor the passive voice so that Jesus focused upon the target of the violence, namely, the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, we know that the violence was real, continuous, and God emphasized with the passive voice that violence fell upon the kingdom of heaven, without focus upon who inflicted the violence. The next phrase will identify who did the violence. As a side note, Jesus said that the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than John the Baptist. Jesus meant that John the Baptist was imprisoned, and so still suffered violence. In comparison, when the kingdom of heaven blooms full during the millennial reign of Christ upon earth, such violence will not fall upon the least in the kingdom of heaven.
2.1.3 Violent Men. The text highlighted the activity of the violent ones in the next clause. Jesus called the men, working at the direction of the devil (the devil–Luke 8:11), the “violent ones” (“βιασταὶ“). John the Baptist stands as a perfect example of such violence against the kingdom of heaven. I recall Jesus confronting Saul of Tarsus on the Damascus road: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” (Acts 9:4). Jesus meant that persecuting believers was actual persecution of Jesus Himself. Likewise, violence against believers amounts to violence against the kingdom of heaven and Jesus Himself. Jesus declared that violent men inflict violence upon the kingdom of heaven.
2.1.4 Snatch Away. At this point, the New American Standard makes a choice in translation: “violent men take it by force.” A better translation would be “violent men snatch away the kingdom of heaven.” The issue focuses upon the translation of the Greek word for “snatch away” (“ἁρπάζουσιν“) used in Matthew 11:12. We need a brief word study on the term “snatch away.” Various Bible versions translate Matthew 11:12 in various ways. Some translations describe the verb (“ἁρπάζουσιν“) as “advancing” or “forcing.” Some people see the “forceful men” as good men and the “advancing” as a good thing. Other people see different permutations of good and bad in the first and second parts of Matthew 11:12. The context and the word study below oppose any sense of violence and snatching away as good things done by good people. Jesus dealt with the issue of John the Baptist suffering violence in prison for proclamation of the gospel of the kingdom of heaven.
3.1 Parables of the Kingdom of Heaven. In Matthew 13, Jesus presented several parables about the kingdom of heaven. Then He explained those parables to His disciples, because God had granted them to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but others did not have that honor, and had only the parables, as Isaiah prophesied (Isaiah 6:9-10). Jesus presented the parable of the sower and the seed. In Matthew 13:19, Jesus explained to His disciples that: (1) some people hear the “word of the kingdom”; and (2) they do not understand (“μὴ συνιέντος“) it; and (3) the evil one comes and snatches away the word of the kingdom sown in their hearts. Notice that the evil one (“ὁ πονηρὸς“) “snatches away” (“ἁρπάζει“) the word of the kingdom (“τὸν λόγον τῆς βασιλείας“). So, let me summarize the action here.
3.1.1 Word of the Kingdom Proclaimed. The sower, like John the Baptist, sows the word of the kingdom into the hearts of people, spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
3.1.2 People Hear the Word of the Kingdom. As John the Baptist preached the Gospel of Jesus Christ, people were hearing (“ἀκούοντος”–present active participle, genitive masculine singular) the word of the kingdom. The participle relates directly to the main verb of “sows” the word of the kingdom. In effect, at the same time the sower sows the word of the kingdom, people are hearing (present force of the participle) the word of the kingdom. The sowing and hearing relate directly to each other. One person sows and the other person hears. As we will see, violence will be directed towards each of them, in the form of “snatching away.”
3.1.3 People Do Not Understand the Word of the Kingdom. Hearing the Gospel of Jesus Christ does not mean you automatically “understand” (“συνιέντος“) the word of the kingdom. You do not have eternal life if you never understood the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and believed in Him and His word for salvation. Jesus used the same root word for “understand” in Matthew 13: 14-17 to describe the relationship between hearing and understanding. Israel would keep on hearing (“Ἀκοῇ ἀκούσετε“–translating שִׁמְעוּ שָׁמוֹעַ) the word of the kingdom, but Isaiah prophesied that they would not understand (“οὐ μὴ συνῆτε”– translating וְאַל-תָּבִינוּ; please notice the οὐ μὴ emphasizing that absolute lack of understanding).
3.1.4 The Evil One Snatches Away the Word of the Kingdom. Please notice also that the evil one actively opposes the sowing of the word of the kingdom. The evil government arrested John the Baptist and imprisoned him, and ultimately beheaded him. His ministry of proclaiming the word of the kingdom came to a violent, abrupt end at the hands of evil men. The devil also snatches away the word of the kingdom sown by God into the hearts of people who heard, but did not understand. A continuous, violent, spiritual and physical battle surrounds the spreading of the word of the kingdom. In Matthew 13, Jesus focused upon the spiritual activity of the devil “snatching away” the word of the kingdom sown into hearts. In Matthew 11, Jesus focused upon the physical violence directed toward the sowers, like John the Baptist, who sow the word of the kingdom, and, indirectly, the recipients who hear the word of the kingdom. The disciples of Jesus needed to understand why John the Baptist was sitting in prison because he proclaimed the word of the kingdom. We should also consider Luke 16:16: “The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John; since that time, the gospel of the kingdom of God has been preached, and everyone is forcing his way into it” (NASB). Actually, Luke used the phrase “each one in it suffers violence” (“πᾶς εἰς αὐτὴν βιάζεται“–see also Luke 18:17–the only other use of εἰς αὐτὴν in Luke). This translation follows the same sense of the term “suffers violence” (“βιάζεται“) in Matthew 11:12.
3.1.5 The Heart. Please notice that the “evil one” snatches away the “word of the kingdom” sown (“ἐσπαρμένον”) in the heart (“ἐν τῇ καρδίᾳ “) of the person who heard, but did not understand, the word of the kingdom. The evil one acts with spiritual violence to “snatch away” the word of the kingdom sown in the hearer’s heart, but the hearer had no understanding of the significance of the word of the kingdom. In contrast, the evil one cannot touch the believer (1 John 5:18), and no one can “snatch away” (“ἁρπάσει“) the believer from the hand of Jesus holding every believer (John 10:28). Likewise, the Father also holds every believer in His hand and no one is able to “snatch away” (“ἁρπάζειν“) the believer out of the Father’s hand (John 10:29). Once saved, always saved and every believer remains eternally secure in the hands of Jesus and the Father. John the Baptist, like all born-again believers, remained eternally secure, even while he suffered imprisonment by violent, evil men.
4.1 Translation of Matthew 11:12. Based upon the following reasons, I prefer the translation of Matthew 11:12 as follows: “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence and violent ones snatch it away by force.”
4.1.1 The Context of Matthew 11–John the Baptist Imprisoned. Jesus was not discussing an abstract issue of violence, but rather the specific violence being inflicted upon the kingdom of heaven. John the Baptist was imprisoned, and the Jews were opposed to Jesus and His message of salvation centered upon the word of the kingdom. Therefore, violent ones were already at work “snatching away” the kingdom of heaven by arresting and finally silencing John the Baptist.
4.1.2 The Snatching Away of the Word of the Kingdom. In addition to the snatching away of the kingdom of heaven by silencing John the Baptist and others, we know that the evil one snatches away the word of the kingdom from the hearts where the sower sowed the word of the kingdom, but those hearts never understood the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Therefore, the violent ones snatch away the word of the kingdom proclaimed by John the Baptist and others through physical violence upon the messengers and the recipients, but the evil one also uses spiritual violence to snatch away the word of the kingdom from the hearts of people who heard the word of the kingdom sown in their hearts, but without understanding.
4.1.3 Eternal Security. For everyone who heard, understood and believed the word of the kingdom, both Jesus and the Father hold every believer in their hands, and no one can snatch away the believer from those divine hands. We know the evil one can never touch us there.