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.
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?