SYNOPSIS – The point of his comment about violence and the Kingdom was that violent men were attempting to seize the kingdom of God – Matthew 11:12

In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus described how “violent men are seizing the kingdom of God.” This passage has caused great confusion over the centuries. Was he referring to malevolent men on the outside who would attempt to seize control of the Kingdom, or to the need for Christians to aggressively pray and otherwise press into it? Must his disciples “forcefully seize” the promises from God? Is the Kingdom to advance on the earth through forceful action?

(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.”

The context of the passage is a discussion about John the Baptist and his ministry – What John was and how he was received by the Jewish people. Jesus 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 was “greater than John.” This declaration leads directly to his statement about the Kingdom “suffering violence.” John 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 Jewish leaders of his day treated John and, subsequently, their own Messiah. John came as an ascetic and prophet of old, yet they charged him with having a demon. In contrast, 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, he had “upbraided the cities in which had been done his noblest mighty works, because they repented not.”

In short, the issue was how the Jewish nation had treated and rejected John the Baptist, then Jesus, the Messiah of Israel for whom John had 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 discussion is the period beginning with the ministry of John up to that 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, meaning, to “use force.” Here, it is in the passive voice and the present tense, signifying the violence that is being 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 here. The present tense indicates the violence was an ongoing activity, at least when Christ said these words. This fits a context in which Jesus was describing how the multitudes received and rejected the ministries of John, as well as 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, the verb harpazō is plural, in the active voice, and the present tense. The subject of the verb is the “violent men.” Since the verb is in the active voice, it is the “violent men” who were committing attempting to “seize” something. The object of their action was “it,” a pronoun in the accusative case and, therefore, the direct object of the verb. 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 that the “Kingdom” is “suffering violence” – It is the recipient of the violence. The ones that are inflicting the violence are the “violent men” mentioned in the verse.

Contextually, this understanding fits best with the discussion about how John was ill-treated by many of his fellow Jews. Beginning with his ministry, the Kingdom began to suffer violent assaults at the hands of his opponents. This was demonstrated in how they mistreated, rejected, and otherwise abused the representatives of the Kingdom; that is, 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 the 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.

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