SYNOPSIS: Violent men attempted to seize the Kingdom of God, beginning with John the Baptist and continuing in the ministry of Jesus – Matthew 11:12.
A passage from the Gospel of Matthew is often read as an exhortation for Christians to engage aggressively in prayer, to “press in” and “forcefully seize” the promises of God to which, apparently, they are entitled. Some interpreters and popular preachers even speak of employing “spiritual violence” to advance the Kingdom of God, whatever that is.
(Matthew 11:12 – N.I.V.), “And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it.”
A proponent of this view wrote: “Faith may quietly press in, or it may cry out very loudly, but it is always violent in the spirit world. It grabs hold of an invisible reality and won’t let go. Taking the Kingdom of God by faith is the violent act that is necessary to come into what God has made available” (emphasis added).
The context of the passage is a discussion about John the Baptist and his ministry by Jesus, what John was, and how he was received by the Jewish people. He spoke highly of John, not only calling him a “prophet” but, also, identifying him as the very forerunner foretold in the Book of Isaiah. Nonetheless, even the “least” of men in the kingdom of God is “greater than he.” This declaration leads directly to his statement about the kingdom “suffering violence.” Prior to this discussion, John the Baptist heard about the deeds of Jesus while he was in prison. Perplexed, he sent his disciples to inquire of him.
Jesus gave a parable highlighting how the Jews of his day treated John and, subsequently, their own Messiah. John came as an ascetic and prophet of old, yet they charged he had a demon. Jesus came “eating and drinking,” yet he was rejected as “a gluttonous man, a drinker of wine, a friend of tax–collectors, and sinners.” Consequently, Jesus “upbraided the cities in which had been done his noblest mighty works, because they repented not.”
In short, the underlying issue is how the Jewish nation treated and rejected John the Baptist, then Jesus, the Messiah of Israel for whom John prepared the way.
The verse reads – “Yet, from the days of John the Baptist until even now, the kingdom of the heavens is suffering violence and violent men are seizing it.” The timeframe under is the period beginning with the ministry of John up to the work of Jesus. The kingdom experienced violence beginning with John, violence that continued throughout the ministry of Christ until his own rejection and death.
According to Jesus, the kingdom was suffering “violence,” which translates the Greek verb biazomai – To “use force.” Here, it is in the passive voice and the present tense, signifying the violence is done to the kingdom. It is the victim, not the perpetrator of the violence.
If Jesus meant to say the kingdom was forcefully advancing, it would necessitate a verb in the active voice, which is not the case. The present tense indicates the violence was an ongoing activity, at least, at the same Christ spoke. This fits a context in which Jesus was describing how the multitudes received and rejected the ministries of John and his own.
Jesus next referred to “violent men.” This translates the Greek noun baistés, which is related to the verb biazomai. It is a strong word that refers to a violent person, a violator, one who uses force (only here in the New Testament). Here, it is masculine and plural, thus, “violent men.”
The verb used with it is harpazō, another strong one. It means, to “seize, snatch, plunder, steal, take away, forcibly seize.” In Greek literature, it commonly referred to taking something as plunder. Note the following New Testament examples of harpazō:
(Matthew 12:29) – “Or how can anyone enter the strong man’s house and plunder his property, unless he first binds the strong man? And then he will plunder his house.”
(Matthew 13:19) – “When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and seizes what has been sown in his heart. This is the one on whom seed was sown beside the road.”
(John 6:15) – “Jesus, therefore, perceiving that they were intending to come and take Him by force, to make Him king, withdrew again to the mountain by Himself alone.”
(Acts 23:10) – “And as a great dissension was developing, the commander was afraid Paul would be torn to pieces by them and ordered the troops to go down and take him away by force, and bring him into the barracks.”
In Matthew 11:12, harpazō is plural, in the active voice, and in the present tense. The subject of the verb is “violent men.” Since the verb is in the active voice, it is the “violent men” who commit the action to “seize” something. The object of their action is “it,” a pronoun in the accusative case, meaning, it is the direct object of the verb “seize.” The pronoun is singular and feminine, which in this sentence can only refer to the “kingdom” (singular, feminine). In other words, the thing the “violent men” were forcefully “seizing” was the “kingdom of God.”
Grammatically, the statement can only mean the “kingdom” is “suffering violence”; it is the recipient of the violence. The ones inflicting the violence are the “violent men” mentioned in the last clause of the verse.
Contextually, this understanding fits best with the discussion about how John the Baptist was ill-treated by many of his fellow Jews, as also was Jesus. Beginning with John’s ministry, the kingdom suffered violence at the hands of critics and opponents. This was demonstrated in how they mistreated, rejected, and, otherwise, abused the kingdom’s representatives, both John and Jesus.
This is not to say that other New Testament passages do not teach Christians to exercise importunity in prayer. Spiritual warfare is discussed in several other places. However, the point of this passage is not persistence in prayer or spiritual warfare.
Finally, in the light of the example of Jesus and the teachings of the New Testament, we ought to ask whether a term like “spiritual violence” is not inherently oxymoronic.