Scripture in Focus: Matthew 11:12
“From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force” (Matthew 11:12 ESV).
This is a difficult scripture for many people to understand. How, we might ask, could the very Kingdom of God himself be “taken” by force? However, there are at least two possible meanings to Jesus’ words that seem to reflect what he may have meant.
Certainly the inhabitants of God’s growing Kingdom – including Jesus himself – have suffered violence at the hands of those opposed to them throughout the ages. But if that is the meaning of the first half of the verse, does the second half of the scripture signify that the human enemies of the Kingdom would “take” it by force in the way an enemy army might “take” a castle or city it besieged? Jesus promised his followers that the very “gates of hell” would not prevail against the Church that he would build (Matthew 16:18). Because the Church and Kingdom are intertwined in the post-New Testament era, it seems unlikely that the Kingdom of God could be overthrown by human aggression, but not the Church.
Another possibility is that Jesus meant something quite different. The NIV and Holman versions both give a variant translation for the first half of the verse – that rather than being “subject to violence” the Kingdom of Heaven has been “forcefully advancing,” and the ESV gives the similar variant “has been coming violently.” There are grammatical reasons why this might be correct. The sentence can be understood as being in either “middle” or “passive” voice – both possibilities could be correct – we must choose which makes the most sense. If we view Jesus’ statement as being in the “middle voice” (as “forcefully advancing”), the second half of the scripture “…and the violent take it by force” would then mean that those striving to enter the Kingdom are doing so.
The New Testament commonly uses words such as “struggle,” “fight,” “wrestle” and other terms of this type to signify the Christian calling and life, and so it need not be surprising that Jesus would say the “violent take it by force” in the sense of “the energetic take the Kingdom by vigorous action.” In that sense, the expression is not a lot different from what we see in Paul’s epistle to Timothy: “Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called …” (1Timothy 6:12a NIV).
So, understood this way, the two halves of Jesus’ statement recorded in Matthew 11:12 fit together and make good sense. It is perhaps more likely then, that rather than the Kingdom of God being susceptible to suffering violent overthrow (something which hardly applied “From the days of John the Baptist” till the ministry of Jesus), the Kingdom was indeed “forcefully advancing” at that time. And those who were willing to forcefully act on the knowledge they had were “taking” or entering it.