Taking the Kingdom by Force (Matthew 11:12)

Have you ever been under fire? I’m not necessarily referring to being literally shot at by an enemy, although I can attest to the fact that this is not a pleasant experience (having been in a good many “fire fights” while a gunner for a helicopter attack squadron in the Mekong Delta of South Vietnam). 

No, I’m talking about experiencing persecution for your faith; being assaulted, whether verbally or physically, for your convictions. It can be unsettling. I can personally attest to this as well. Among even the strongest of our Lord’s devoted disciples there may be moments of weakness and uncertainty; times when we are quite vulnerable, and when our hearts are troubled. Such a moment, in my view, occurred in the life of one of the giants of faith — John the Baptist — as he sat in a prison cell.

“Now when John, who was in prison, heard of the works of Christ, he sent his disciples to ask Him, ‘Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?'” [Matt. 11:2-3]. What a shocking question from the one who earlier had boldly, and with unwavering confidence, declared, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” [John 1:29] and “I have seen, and have borne witness that this is the Son of God” [John 1:34]. “Again the next day John was standing with two of his disciples, and he looked upon Jesus as He walked, and said, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God!'” [John 1:35-36]. And yet, even a man like John, of whom Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptist” [Matt. 11:11], struggled at times with his faith. We all do, don’t we? “Lord, are you really the one? Or, should we put our hope and trust elsewhere?” John was struggling with himself … and within himself.

There were doubts and questions eating at him. He wanted answers. Jesus provided them. “Go and report to John what you hear and see: the blind receive sight and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed is he who keeps from stumbling over Me” [Matt. 11:4-6]. Jesus didn’t rebuke John; He didn’t go into a long theological defense. He simply said: Judge Me on the evidence of My ministry! Similarly, when Nathanael wondered if anything good could possibly come out of Nazareth, Philip wisely placed the same challenge before him: “Come and see” [John 1:46]. I have no doubt that John the Baptist’s doubts were very short-lived, as were those of Nathanael. The evidence before them was simply too overwhelming. This was indeed the Expected One … the Son of God … the Lamb who would atone for the sins of the world.

As the disciples of this great forerunner of the Messiah “were going away, Jesus began to speak to the multitudes about John” [Matt. 11:7]. He had nothing but the highest of praise for this man of faith, and He also challenged the crowds to strive for similar excellence of faith in their own lives. “He who has ears to hear, let him hear” [vs. 15]. Within the midst of this discourse about John the Baptist, Jesus made a statement that has puzzled biblical scholars for centuries. There is literally no end to the heated debate that has arisen over the countless attempts to interpret this passage. Some have even suggested the verse should be removed; that it is so out of character with the rest of the passage that it must have been added by some mischievous scribe at a later date. The disputed verse is Matthew 11:12. “And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and violent men take it by force” [NASB]. What did Jesus mean by this? Is He actually suggesting that “violent men” have somehow, at some point in time, in some manner or other, been able to force their way into the kingdom of heaven? Is such still happening? Was/is our almighty God, along with His myriads upon myriads of angelic forces, powerless to repel this assault upon His kingdom by these violent men? That certainly seems to be the intent, at least in the minds of some befuddled biblical interpreters. And just who are these “violent men” of whom our Lord speaks? Clearly, this has proven to be an extremely troubling passage for many disciples of Christ down through the centuries; one that the Expositor’s Bible Commentary characterizes as “enigmatic;” one that “has called forth a host of interpretations” [vol. 8, p. 265], being “notoriously difficult to interpret” [ibid, p. 989]. It is a rather brief verse that has nevertheless “created much diversity of opinion, which it would take long to recount” [Dr. W. Robertson Nicoll, The Expositor’s Greek Testament, vol. 1, p. 173].

  • Compounding this exegetical and interpretive confusion of students of the Word is a somewhat similar passage found within the writings of Luke. “The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John; since then the gospel of the kingdom of God is preached, and everyone is forcing his way into it” [Luke 16:16, NASB]. Once again, we encounter this figure, at least as presented by this particular translation, of people forcing their way into the kingdom of God. This is an incredibly troubling thought to most people! Why would God allow such a thing? Or, is He powerless to stop it? The latter is unthinkable! And yet, what are we to make of these two passages? They seem to suggest that if one is violent and aggressive enough, one can literally force his way into God’s kingdom. The temporal and eternal ramifications of such a possibility are simply much too horrifying to even contemplate!

So, what are we to make of this statement by our Lord? After all, it seems so contradictory to other assertions of Jesus, such as: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me” [John 14:6]. Was Jesus wrong when He made this remark to Thomas? May “violent men” bully their way to the Father apart from His Son; forcing their way in by sheer brute strength? Again, this certainly seems to be the meaning, based upon the rendering of these two passages in many of our translations. For example, the NEB says, “violent men are seizing it” [Matt.] and “everyone forces his way in” [Luke]. Bro. Hugo McCord, in his NT translation, wrote, “violent men forcefully lay hold of it” [Matt.] and “everyone forces his way into it” [Luke]. The RSV states: “men of violence take it by force” [Matt.] and “everyone enters it violently” [Luke]. This is just a sampling, but it clearly leaves the impression that “undesirables” have found a rather effective methodology for breaching the walls of the heavenly kingdom. “If you won’t open the door to us, when we demand entrance, then we’ll huff and we’ll puff and we’ll blow it down!” It worked for the big, bad wolf … why not for “men of violence”?

Although the interpretive challenge before us seems rather daunting — some might even say insurmountable — it is my conviction there is a reasonable, exegetically rational, approach to these two puzzling passages that will result in an interpretation consistent with the remainder of biblical teaching. The key to understanding these two statements by our Lord lies in the proper handling of a single Greek word. Is this word negative or positive in intent? Does its verbal form appear in the middle voice or passive voice? How we answer these questions will determine our interpretation. It is my belief that these two questions have been incorrectly answered by far too many translators and interpreters in times past, which error has resulted in the current confusion. Thankfully, the vast majority of NT scholars today have perceived this failing, and through their revised translations and commentaries the true meaning of these statements by Christ is being revealed.

The Greek word in question here is biastai (the plural form of biastes), which a good many versions translate: “violent men.” This is the word that appears in Matt. 11:12 — “violent men take it by force.” The verb form of this word, which appears in both Matt. 11:12 and Luke 16:16, is biazo. “The kingdom of heaven suffers violence” [Matt. 11:12]. “Every man entereth violently into it” [Luke 16:16, ASV]. In both of these passages where the verb form appears, the form of the verb used is biazetai, which is present indicative, 3rd person singular. The verb speaks of that which is actually happening, and which action is continuous in nature. The interpretive challenge facing us, however, is that this particular form, with regard to voice, may be either a middle or a passive. Only a very careful study of the context, both immediate and remote, can determine which of the two is intended by the author. Therein lies our problem. Just which did Jesus intend? The passive voice suggests the subject of the clause is the recipient of the action of the verb, whereas the middle voice suggest the subject itself performs the action of the verb. Thus, in the above referenced renderings from Matthew and Luke (in the NASB and ASV), we see the passive used in the former, whereas the middle is used in the latter. The kingdom of heaven “suffers violence” (passive), but men “enter violently” into it (middle). This is purely a judgment call on the part of the translators and commentators. It is my conviction that in the Luke passage the verb has been correctly identified by most as a middle, however I believe it has been misidentified by many in the Matthew passage as a passive. In my view, it should be translated in the middle voice.

  • “In Greek sources relevant to the NT, biazetai is considerably more common in the deponent middle than in the active or passive voices” [The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 8, p. 266]. This is a rather rare word in the NT writings, appearing only here in these two passages. However, in the extra-biblical sources, the overwhelming testimony with regard to its use is that the middle voice is by far the more common usage. Its employment as a passive is almost unheard of. Thus, “the best solution is to take the verb in its most likely voice: the middle” [ibid, p. 267].

Most will agree that the middle voice makes the most sense in Luke 16:16. In other words, people are not being violently forced into the kingdom (although we find examples in history of attempts to do just that — the Crusades, for instance), but rather they themselves are forcing their way in. The middle makes sense here, and almost nobody translates it as a passive in the Luke text. The problem, however, in the minds of many people, arises when the middle voice is used in translation of the clause in Matthew. This would make the kingdom of heaven the facilitator of the violence specified, rather than the recipient of it. That is simply unacceptable to the sensibilities of many disciples of Christ (although, again, that understanding has been used in history by militant groups to further the cause of Christ at the point of a sword or spear — i.e., the Crusades, etc.). This dilemma is easily overcome, however, when one realizes that this Greek term may be used either positively or negatively. Unfortunately, most translations and commentators in the past have assumed the negative connotation of the term, and have rendered it thusly. I believe this is an error, and has led to the current confusion over these two passages.

When used negatively, this Greek term does indeed signify “violence; malicious aggression.” When used positively, however, it signifies “one who is forceful in eager pursuit; to press earnestly forward” [The Analytical Greek Lexicon, p. 69]. I am thoroughly convinced that in both the Matthew and Luke passages this term is not only in the middle voice, but it is also being used with a positive connotation. W. E. Vine, in his classic work “An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words,” agrees, saying that the positive “meaning is abundantly confirmed by the similar use in the papyri.” R. C. H. Lenski, in his commentary on the passage in Matthew, agrees, saying, “the idea of violence is too strong an idea in the present connection” [p. 437]. Dr. Charles Ellicott concurs: “There is no thought of hostile purpose in the words” [Ellicott’s Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 6, p. 66]. Dr. Craig S. Keener correctly notes: “the text does not read like censure” [A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, p. 340], which most certainly seems to imply that Jesus views His statements as depicting positive qualities and actions.

If I am correct in my assertion that the verb should be understood in the middle voice, and if I am correct that this term is being used in its positive sense, then how might these two verses be translated? I would suggest the following for Matthew 11:12 — “The kingdom of heaven earnestly and forcefully presses forward, and it is entered into by earnest, eager pursuers of it.” Luke 16:16 could be rendered in the following manner: “The gospel of the kingdom of God is being proclaimed, and everyone is eagerly, intently and purposefully pursuing entrance into it.” By removing the negative connotation of “violence,” and adopting the positive connotation of “pressing forward eagerly and earnestly,” and by employing the middle voice in both of these verses, we have rendered the two statements of Christ Jesus not only meaningful, but consistent with the immediate context and the remainder of the teaching of Scripture. This, incidentally, is how many of the more modern translations are rendering the passage. “From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it” [Matt. 11:12, NIV]. “John introduced the Good News that the Kingdom of God would come soon. And now eager multitudes are pressing in” [Luke 16:16, Living Bible]. “The kingdom of God is being declared as good news, and every sort of person is pressing forward toward it” [Luke 16:16, New World Translation].

The kingdom of our God advances powerfully, and no force can successfully thwart that forward progress throughout the world as long as our Lord wills it so. The gospel is being proclaimed, and it will not be stopped. Similarly, those determined to be a part of this marvelous eternal kingdom of God will advance toward it, and enter into it, with a forceful determination that will surmount any obstacle. They too will not be stopped. “The kingdom has come with a holy power and magnificent energy that has been pushing back the frontiers of darkness. The kingdom is making great strides; now is the time for courageous souls, forceful people, to take hold of it. This is no challenge for the timorous or fainthearted” [The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 8, p. 266]. I believe Luke alludes once again to this need for a determined spirit in the face of opposition in Acts 14:21-22 where he says that Paul and Barnabas, “after they had preached the gospel to the city of Derbe and had made many disciples, returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying, ‘We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.'” Because of the obstacles that lie ahead, it will take earnest, eager, forceful, determined men and women of great faith to face such opposition and to lay hold of the prize. Paul wrote, “I press on in order that I may lay hold of (seize) that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus. … One thing I do — forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” [Philp. 3:12-14]. Paul sought to seize (lay hold of) the prize, just as the men of purpose in Matthew 11:12 were seizing (laying hold of) the kingdom of God.

The Greek term employed by both Matthew and Luke “simply expresses the enthusiastic drive of those determined to enter the kingdom. These were people whose values were in order and who were energetically seeking the kingdom” [The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 8, p. 990]. Jesus urges us to “Strive to enter by the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able” [Luke 13:24]. Half-hearted attempts will fail; nominal devotion and effort will not secure the prize. Victory requires a total commitment of faith. Lukewarm won’t cut it; we must be headed for home full speed ahead. “The words describe the eager rush of the crowds of Galilee and Judea, first to the preaching of the Baptist, and then to that of Jesus. It was, as it were, a city attacked on all sides by those who were eager to take possession of it. These are men of eager, impetuous zeal, who grasp the kingdom of heaven — i.e., its peace, pardon and blessedness — with as much eagerness as men would snatch and carry off as their own the spoil of a conquered city” [Dr. Charles Ellicott, vol. 6, p. 66].

In the immediate context of this verse in Matthew 11, our Lord was speaking about John the Baptist: a man of great purpose and resolve. “As John’s disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: ‘What did you go out into the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind?'” [vs. 7]. If so, then they would be disappointed. John was a man of tremendous determination. He was pushing back the darkness with great force. He was not a preacher/prophet who tickled ears or tried to be politically correct. He told it like it was. The kingdom of heaven was moving forward with power; it had come to conquer. Those who would be a part of this march forward into the darkness around them must be men and women of strong character and forceful resolve, not “reeds swayed by the wind.” Yes, John, as he languished in a prison cell, had a moment of doubt, yet he knew how to resolve those questions — he appealed to Jesus. Jesus calmed the winds of doubt, and John remained loyal and devoted unto death! Jesus knew that John might be shaken, but he would never be swayed; he would buckle and bow before no other. It is such courage of conviction, and strength of resolve, that is required of those who would enter the kingdom of our God. Walking in the light with our Lord is not for the faint of heart. “From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it” [Matt. 11:12, NIV]. May we each, like John, strive to be such people of purpose, for of such is the kingdom of God.