Jesus says some very surprising things in our reading today in Matthew 11. He says that John the Baptist was greatest of those born of women. OK, maybe that not so surprising, but then he adds “whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” But it what Jesus says next in verse 12 about that is the most surprising and perplexing. It is also translated very differently in our English translation—
From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been subjected to violence, and violent people have been raiding it. (NIV)
From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it. (NIV85)
From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. (ESV)
From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and forceful people lay hold of it. (NET)
We can understand how the kingdom had been rapidly advancing since John began his preaching. After all, John’s message was, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.” But what does it mean that the forceful or violent were “laying hold of” or “forcing their way into” the kingdom of God?
Jesus is here commenting on the totally different reactions to this message of the kingdom. If we expand the context here a little further in this chapter, it becomes obvious that Jesus is referring to two different groups of people and their response to Him:
First, some rejected him. They had rejected both John the Baptist and Christ (v. 18-19), and they had even refused to believe the testimony of the miracles Jesus had performed (vs 20-24). It’s obvious, is it not, that those he discusses here were the Pharisees and religious leaders of the Jews. They had been the ones to reject John and denounce Jesus, and they explained away the miracles as Jesus being demon possessed. They considered themselves the children of the kingdom, but they had rejected the king and would miss kingdom of God.
- Second, there were others who were listening to Jesus and John and were taking hold of the kingdom. These were the so-called “sinners” rejected by the Pharisees. They are “desperate men” and “desperate women” whose desperateness came from the fact that they knew their own sinfulness. When they heard the good news of the kingdom, they were ready to act. In Jesus' imagery, these were forceful men who storm the walls of heaven in an effort to get in.
No matter how the verses is translated or understood, Jesus is talking about these two groups. He could be saying that the people of violence who were trying to seize the kingdom were the Pharisees and religious leaders who were trying to manage, twist and control the kingdom for their own purposes. The kingdom was forcefully advancing despite the effort of the religious traditionalist to keep it controlled and manageable.
Or it also could that the forceful people taking hold of the kingdom were those willing to believe and seek God despite the roadblocks created by their religious leaders. In Matthew 23, Jesus pronounces a series of woes on the Pharisees and teachers of the law that include these two—
“They tie up heavy loads and put them on men's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.” (Matthew 23:4)
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men's faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.” (Matthew 23:13)
Even though religious leaders were putting heavy burdens in their way and shutting the door of heaven in their faces, Jesus says that there were forceful men and women who fought their way into the kingdom anyway. They wanted God so desperately they took the kingdom by force!
Either way, there were some who were trying to control and manage the kingdom of God for their own purposes and there were others who were taking hold of the kingdom even though it meant fighting their way in despite the other group. It seems like we have to be ion one group or the other-- those desperately fighting to enter the kingdom or those who are standing in the way.