What does Matthew 11:12 mean?

Hi friends,

As recorded in Matthew 11:12, Jesus said,

From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been suffering violence, and the violent have been seizing it by force.

I recently heard there are many interpretations of this verse, and I thought it could bring clarity and encouragement to discuss them together.

Many sources argue that Jesus is referring to the energetic enthusiasm of the crowds to hear his message, and the zeal that his disciples should have.

Here’s GotQuestions:

The “kingdom of heaven suffers violence,” figuratively speaking, in that people were so thronging to hear the gospel that they resembled an army trying to besiege a city. And the “violent take it by force”; the people entering the kingdom were not violent literally, but their eagerness to see the coming of the Messiah was so overwhelming that it was as if they were attacking a city and beating down the doors to enter.

Charles Spurgeon, in his devotional “Holy Violence,” argued the violence is a kind of spiritual zeal:

Only the violent are saved, and all the violent are saved. When God makes a man violent after salvation, that man cannot perish. The gates of heaven may sooner be unhinged than that man be robbed of the prize for which he has fought.

Ah, my fellow men, if ye sit down and fold your arms, and say, “I am so good I have a right to heaven,”—how deceived you will be. But if God has convinced you of your lost, ruined, and undone condition, and if he has put his quickening Spirit within you, you will use a bold and desperate violence to force your way into the kingdom of heaven.

A similar interpretation from John MacArthur (other concerns with MacArthur are here):

So the sense of this verse may be rendered this way: “The kingdom presses ahead relentlessly, and only the relentless press their way into it.

However, I want to propose a different understanding. Dr. Craig Blomberg, in the New American Commentary, proposes this translation of the Greek:

from the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and violent people attack it.

There are two reasons that Dr. Blomberg provides for preferring this interpretation.

First, it better fits the Greek syntax and vocabulary.

Second, it better fits “the narrative flow of Matthew.”

Let’s look at the second argument since that’s easier to evaluate without technical knowledge of the Greek.

First, in Matthew, do we see anyone violently attempting to become a disciple of Jesus? No, not really.

Second, are the disciples seized with zealous enthusiasm for God? Again, no, not really.

Third, does Matthew repeatedly illustrate how violent men are attacking the kingdom of God, ultimately culminating in the crucifixion of Jesus? Yes, definitely.

In particular, for me, the decisive text in determining between these choices is Matthew 26:36-56.

First, this passage shows that the disciples in God’s kingdom do not demonstrate holy zeal, much less spiritual violence, but hapless sleepiness.

The disciples fall asleep in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:36-46). But even though the disciples have very weak resolve, Jesus graciously includes them in his kingdom.

Second, we do see the kingdom of heaven, personified in Jesus, suffering violence, and violent people attacking him.

In particular, in this passage, a large mob comes with weapons to arrest Jesus. And Judas uses a kiss to betray Jesus.

Third, when we do see a disciple attempting violence in the name of Jesus, they are rebuked, and Jesus overturns their action.

We read that one of Jesus’ disciples (Peter) draws his sword and cuts off the ear of the high priest’s servant.

But Jesus responds by saying, put your sword away. Why? “Because all who take up the sword will perish by the sword.”

So Jesus emphatically rejects violence on his behalf, even to the point of publicly rebuking Peter for being violent.

And in Luke 22:51, we get the note that Jesus healed the servant’s ear. That is, Jesus acts to undo the effects of violence.

How do you understand Matthew 11:12? What other interpretations have you heard?

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This is one of the saddest things about translations and the divisions it creates among religions today. It’s like trying to translate pictures where everyone sees a different meaning. There is so much evidence against violence with only a few demonstrations of even anger. “Violence” is a dangerous word in itself that gives righteous allowance for it to be repeated. Even causing some religions to be motivated by it! Causing "wars and reports of wars’ (MAT 24:6) to be a constant way of life in an area where it started in a garden wanting to be “like God knowing good AND bad” (GEN 3:5) (not good FROM bad) and we still haven’t decided how to balance either one together like our Creator…there will always be negative and positive energy within this reality.

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I’m not a Biblical scholar but I wonder if the violence can be referring to killing the old man, Adam. Only, I’m not sure if that’s been taught already by this time.

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This is one interpretation I have heard before but with a twist, with a layer a positive confession teachings added on (which can be a separate discussion all by itself!). In a nutshell, the teaching in connection with this verse is that Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross has paid for healing for all sicknesses and all promises of God and believers can have their prayers answered and promises fulfilled in their life depending on how strongly they declare with faith that something will happen. I disagree with this interpretation on many levels. Like you mentioned @Carson , the context seems to suggest violent people have been attacking the spread of the message of the kingdom of God. Secondly, believers violently praying that God satisfy their demands doesn’t convey humility before God. We dont always know to pray in God’s will and not all promises of God are universally applicable to all in all situations.

@renee2 mentioned possible problems with bible translations. To be fair to the many good bible translations, the religious wars seem to be related to the false interpretation of descriptive narrative texts and abuse of bible as a means toward a selfish end. Yet, I think she raises an important concern about differences in translation when it comes to this particular verse. Matt 11:12 ESV, Matt 11:12 NKJV, Matt 11:12 NASB, Matt 11:12 NLT give slightly different interpretation.

I find that the meaning conveyed in NASB and NLT translations fit the context better. In Matt 11: 16-19, Jesus explains how that generation wasn’t receiving the words of the gospel of the kingdom and attacking its messengers. In other words, the kingdom of God is suffering violence. This theme of violence or expecting persecution for faith is what Jesus ends Matt 10 with as well.

This idea is also seen in Hilary of Poitiers AD 368 commentary from the Catena Bible, which explains violence as rejection of Jesus’ message by the religious authorities of the day.

What violence? People did not believe in John the Baptist. The works of Christ were held to be of no importance. His torment on the cross was a stumbling block. “Until now” prophecy has been dormant. But now the law is fulfilled. Every prediction is finished. The spirit of Elijah is sent in advance through John’s words. Christ is proclaimed to some and acknowledged by others. He is born for some and loved by others. The violent irony is that his own people rejected him, while strangers accepted him. His own people speak ill of him, while his enemies embrace him. The act of adoption offers an inheritance, while the family rejects it. Sons refuse to accept their father’s last will, while the slaves of the household receive it. This is what is meant by the phrase “the kingdom of heaven suffers violence.” Earlier expectations are being torn apart. The glory that was pledged to Israel by the patriarchs, which was announced by the prophets and which was offered by Christ, is now being seized and carried off by the Gentiles, through their faith.

Its great to hear different viewpoints! Killing the old man is a good way of applying the gospel message. Matthew Henry’s commentary had a similar idea presented and he seems to be interpreting this verse in terms of believers laying hold of the gospel with force by denying themselves.

Multitudes were wrought upon by the ministry of John, and became his disciples. And those strove for a place in this kingdom, that one would think had no right nor title to it, and so seemed to be intruders. It shows us what fervency and zeal are required of all. Self must be denied; the bent, the frame and temper of the mind must be altered. Those who will have an interest in the great salvation, will have it upon any terms, and not think them hard, nor quit their hold without a blessing.

Scholars seem to be divided on interpretation of this verse and its difficult to come to a straightforward answer. This seems to be because the Greek verb used here may be either in the middle voice, “forces its way violently,” or passive as in English translations - “the kingdom of God suffers violence”, though passive is preferred given the context. Also in the second part, ‘the violent take it by force’ - the Greek noun is without the article, “men who are violent or use force’. ( Ellicott’s commentary).

No matter how we apply the violence, to believers or unbelievers, what is definitely a misapplication is demanding God for what we want based on some bible promises taken out of context. In Luke 4, Satan tried to tempt Jesus to test if God will keep his promises, which was clearly wrong ( Luke 4:12).

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Yes, this seems to be more like casting magic spells than Christian faith…

The message is: “If you learn the right techniques, the right names for the deity, the right spiritual energy, then you can direct what the supernatural being does.”

That’s something out of a spell book, not the Bible!

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Hi @diane1,

It could be, but one thing we can all do, Bible scholar or not, is see what details would support that interpretation.

We know that God wants to make us like Christ. That would require removing sin from not only our behavior, but also the sinful tendencies from our hearts.

For instance, consider Ezekiel 36:24-27,

“‘For I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries, and will bring you into your own land. I will also sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean. I will cleanse you from all your impurities and all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will remove your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will place my Spirit within you and cause you to follow my statutes and carefully observe my ordinances.

It seems that this verse supports the idea that the initiative and grace of God cleanses us. And that the process continues as we rely on the Spirit’s work in our hearts.

Do you know of any verses that teach that we should be violent with ourselves?

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