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Kingdom of Heaven Suffers Violence

Posted by Matt Postiff June 4, 2018 on Matt Postiff's Blog under Kingdom of GodĀ  InterpretationĀ 

Today's question:

What does it mean in Matthew 11:12 that the kingdom of heaven suffered violence, and the violent take it by force?

Here is the text from three modern English translations:

And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force. (Matt. 11:12 NKJV)

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. (Matt. 11:12 NIV-2011)

From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it. (Matt. 11:12 NIV-1984)

Initially, I find it interesting to note that the 2011 NIV changed the 1984 NIV translation, albeit with a footnote mentioning the earlier translation.

A careful study of three key words in the verse seem to me to be determinative that the NKJV and NIV-2011 are in fact correct.

The verb "suffers violence" is a passive verb that seems to follow BDAG's first definition, namely to inflict violence on, dominate; or, in the passive, to be afflicted with violence or to be dominated. The second semantic domain, "to gain an objective by force" seems only to fit in a triumphalist interpretation of the verse and the kingdom of God. The problem with this interpretation is that the kingdom of God is not, at Matthew 11, in triumphant mode. It is being rejected by many in the nation of Israel, and its leaders. By chapter 12, it is clear that the leaders want nothing to do with Jesus and His kingdom announcement; and in chapter 13, the Lord adopts the parable method of teaching in order to conceal truth from the unbelieving in his audiences.

The noun "violent" (really, "violent ones" or "violent men") is a fine translation, and most modern English versions render it this way. Unfortunately, this is a hapax, but given the negative things happening to the kingdom proclamation in Matthew at this point, the connotation is not good. Violent people are doing something bad to the kingdom.

The next verb, "take it" or "have been raiding it" fits this negative connotation. The verb is harpadzo, the same verb used for the rapture in 1 Thessalonians 4:17. It means to seize, steal, kidnap, snatch, to (attempt) to take control of something. Of course at the rapture, the snatching up of believers is a good thing. But it doesn't seem so here with the kingdom. The national leaders of Israel have been and will continue to attempt to shut up the kingdom of heaven to potential entrants (Matthew 23:13). They are, by their actions, effectively taking the kingdom away from the generation present during Jesus' public ministry. They would soon kill John the Baptist, and not long after, they would kill Jesus as well. The murder of John the Baptist puts him squarely in the line of prophets in the Old Testament, which often suffered similar fates at the hands of the rebellious houses of Israel and Judah throughout Old Testament history.

In addition to the above, it is important to consider that believers are not well described with words such as "violent" and "seize."

The parallel passage in Luke 16:16 presents somewhat of a difficulty for this view, but perhaps Jesus said something in addition to what Matthew 11:12 records. And I think it could be argued that instead of "everyone is pressing into it," a valid translation would be "everyone is (trying to) dominate it." It it obvious that not everyone is trying to enter the kingdom, for there are a large number of people who are rejecting Jesus' teachings. But neither is everyone trying to destroy the kingdom either. Perhaps pessimistically, I assume that there were more who were against Jesus and His kingdom than for it; in that case, everyone would be a bit of a hyperbole, meaning "basically everyone is against it."

For full disclosure, let us hear the opposing viewpoint from John MacArthur in his study Bible:

But the kingdom can never be subdued or opposed by human violence. Notice that where Matthew says, "the violent take it by force," Luke has "everyone is pressing into it" (Luke 16:16). 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." Thus again Christ is magnifying the difficulty of entering the kingdom..."

In response, I would say that the kingdom was in fact opposed by human violence. Humans killed its first messenger—John the Baptist. They also killed its second messenger—Jesus Christ. They did much the same to the apostles. This happened because God permitted it to be so for His own good purposes, not because it was out of His control. In the end the kingdom cannot be opposed, but along the way, it in fact has been opposed.

In addition, MacArthur lets Luke 16:16 control the interpretation of Matthew 11:12, whereas I advocate for the reverse.

In the big picture there is little difference in our theology of the kingdom, at least in its future manifestation, for I agree that the kingdom will eventually take over the whole earth--not in a postmillennial way, but suddenly when Christ returns. And the way of entry is narrow into this kingdom. We can learn this much from a synthesis of other Bible texts. I'm convinced that we don't learn it from Matthew 11:12.

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