October 25, 2020

Difficult Scriptures

Ok, iMonks. Time for another edition of Difficult Scriptures. And I need your help with this one. Matthew 11:12 is a key passage in an essay I am working on for this site. Just what do you think Jesus is referring to here?

From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and violent men take it by force. (Matthew 11:12, NASB)

Who are these violent men? What kind of force are they using? And why are they attacking the kingdom of heaven? What do they hope to gain? I thought we were all supposed to be gentle and nice and all just get along…

Break this one down for us. Share your thoughts and insights. Leave nothing on the table this time. I want your best efforts to help me make sense of this verse.


  1. It would seem to me that the “Kingdom of Heaven” is quite similar to “The kingdom of Rome” Jesus was establishing a colony here on earth.. God grant people Citizenship of the foreign power — much like Saul was a Citizen of the kingdom of Rome, we become citizens of heaven.

    The Kingdom of God does not have citizens dispursed accross the globe on vacation, all waiting to rush home… We are here as colonists, redeeming the nations, and transforming cultures.

    So yes, the kingdom of God is opposed. Violently. By men. But it is the kingdom of heaven that is leavening it’s way through the earth that is being attacked — People aren’t firing rockets into space hoping to knock off a few angels in heaven.

  2. One of my favorite verses. Thomas Watson, a Puritan pastor, wrote a fantastic treatise called “Heaven Taken by Storm,” subtitled, “Showing forth a holy violence in the pursuit of Heaven.” I won’t detail his exposition because I don’t have a copy nearby to reference. But I will say this, it is one of the most fantastic, energizing books I’ve ever read. It’s like listening to the theme from Rocky.

    Aside from the book, the verse suggests something that is hinted at throughout scripture: God esteems the bold. There’s confusion in our modern minds between humility and timidity; between assertive and self-willed. I think Christ was heralding an unnamed virtue: a combination of courage and intention.

  3. Buford Hollis says

    The context is something about John the Baptist really being the return of the prophet Elijah (who, you’ll recall, ascended to heaven in a fiery chariot). It may be portending the violence done to John (beheading), though this hasn’t happened yet in the narrative, or it may be a more positive way of describing all these zaddikim who have been “taking heaven by storm” recently.

    The imagery makes me think of the parable of the unjust judge (who helps a widow not because it is the right thing to do, but because she pounds on his door and bawls all night). Is God like an unjust judge? Surely not, but prayer might very well be like banging on heaven’s door, and that is very likely the point. The startling incongruity of the image is one of the rhetorical traits Jesus is famous for.

  4. I think the difficulty lies within the actual translation/s. As I view it (I am not a Greek scholar by any means) it might better be rendered along this thought line: Up until the time of the presentation of Christ as Messiah the Kingdom of God had truly suffered violence (both from within and without through the auspices of humanity and the demonic). I don’t believe we should presume that these issues would diminish once Christ completed His work at the cross. That being said, we need to understand that positive movement in both ones personal maturity and our success in reaching others with the Gospel will not happen through slip shop, blase’ efforts. It will take serious applications of the principles outlined within the Word and earnest physical and spiritual efforts and disciplines to grow in grace and see lives changed. Hence we see in James 5:16 about our effectiveness (availing much) is through the combination of God’s power and grace and the fervency, earnestness of God’s people as we live our lives in community with one another and in the context of the fallen world around us.

  5. Religion not only contains power struggles, but priests (pastors, etc) use religion to manipulate people and to enjoy prerogatives of power. This has been done since dawn immemorial and certainly in Jesus’ time. In particular, John was opposed and plotted against as well as Jesus himself. The power hungry use violence to take the Kingdom Of Heaven as theirs. John was beheaded and Christ crucified.

  6. I happen to think this is the hardest verse in the NT. So far, I’ve found three ways to look at it.

    This is the only part of scripture I asked N.T. Wright about when I had the chance to speak with him over coffee a couple of years ago. His answer was related to Jesus speaking to the political order and expressing something about Empire. I love the man and his work is hugely significant in my life; this is one of the very few thoughts of his that has seemed to miss something out.

    Number two is what most people are taught, and is even the only view that I have encountered (yet) in EOrthodoxy: A person has to really want the Kingdom of God (not “salvation” as in “getting to Heaven”, but more like “whatever it is God is up to, and how do I get to be a part of it”), and make an effort to move into it. Pretty straightforward, and as long as Jesus is not understood to be advocating actual violent behavior, it can serve.

    Number three is actually the one that I think makes the most sense. I have only heard it from one source, a gentleman named Roy Blizzard who used to be a guest on TBN years ago, and wrote a book called “Understanding the Difficult Words of Jesus”. (A quick Google search reveals he is still alive and teaching.) Being the language geek that I am, an understanding of Hebrew and the structural aspects of the bible were (and are still) important to me.

    Blizzard’s contention is that, in the context of discussing John the Baptist as the forerunner of the Messiaih, Jesus is making a messianic/kingly claim by using a term that is found in the Hebrew of Micah 2 (though not a direct quote from my Rahlfs LXX). The picture in 2.12 is of the Lord gathering the people of God like sheep in a fold -already a familiar picture from John 10. Then:

    2.13: The one who breaks out will go up before them; they will break through and pass the gate, going out by it. Their king will pass on before them, the Lord at their head. NRSV

    So “the one who breaks out”, the Poretz, Heb, is the King/messiah/God at the head of his people who are streaming forth into the world — just as the Kingdom of God is breaking through beginning with the announcement of John the Baptist. Jesus is announcing himself as “the one who breaks out” at the head of the people, the Messiah, the true King, and indeed, the Gr biazo does mean “to break through” as well as “suffer violence”. (This is entirely consistent with Wright’s major writings on Jesus’ self-understanding; I’m not sure how he missed this narrative/structural thing. Oh well. I certainly don’t have the academic chops and language experience he does; I could be wrong.)

    And on either side of the discussion about John the Baptist/the Kingdom breaking forth, the pericope is bracketed at the beginning of ch 11 by Jesus’ message to John about miraculous signs (related to himself), and at the end of ch 11 by Jesus castigating the Jews for not believing God is at work with the evidence of miraculous signs he is doing. Pretty powerful little package, it seems to me.


    • I always found the one about I did not come to bring peace but to bring a sword far more troubling in Matthew 10:34.

  7. I believe that it is speaking of the Pharisees and the Sadducees, although it could be also be referring to Herod and Herodias as they threatened John and like paulms said, later beheaded him.
    There are many wicked people, and also Jesus’ own disciples and John the Baptist, who try and stall the kingdom of heaven.
    Jesus could also be using John as a summation of all of the Prophets and showing how many of them were killed, chased out of the city, and tormented by the Jews and Gentiles.
    As far as what they were hoping to gain, that Jesus would have been prevented from going to Calvary and that Satan and his minion would be ruling the Earth.

  8. I’ve heard a few different interpretations of this from Orthodox priests, but the most common one is that it refers to John the Baptist.

    The remainder of the passage from 11:7 – 11:15 seems to be focused on John. We’re told that John is a prophet and more than a prophet — a forerunner to prepare the way — and that there is no one born of woman who is greater than John the Baptist, but that this is still lesser than the least in the Kingdom of Heaven. The Orthodox Church generally understands this as meaning that John is the capstone of the OT Prophets, and that Mt 11: 11 is explaining that the glory of the Kingdom as revealed by Jesus is greater than the revelations of the OT, even the capstone of them, as manifested in John. Following on this focus on John, the “violence” referred to in 11:12 is the personal, self-directed “violence” of asceticism as manifested by John the Baptist: John is described as quite ascetical (e.g., Mt. 3:4), and since his days (since his birth) the Kingdom of Heaven suffers violence and the violent take it by force — in other words, John’s example of asceticism is an example of a kind of self-directed “violence” which “assaults” the Kingdom of Heaven (here either the new covenant or salvation itself) “by force”, in terms of directing that force against *oneself* through the path of death to self, self-denial, taking up one’s cross and so on. John is, in this view, being held up here as an exemplar of self-denial, which is a kind of self-directed “violence” which takes the Kingdom by force … even though this is not, of course, the case for John *himself*. We’re next told that John has, in the eyes of Christ, the role of Elijah, something which echoes Lk 1:17.

    There are other interpretations I have heard in the Orthodox Church as well, such as (1) in 11:12 the reference to the Kingdom of God is a reference to Christ Himself, and the violence he has suffered in the fallen world since his Incarnation, and how he will be “taken by force” at the crucifixion, or (2) 11:12 refers to the opposition of the Jewish authorities to Christ and the Gospel (and to John as well, as the forerunner). Any of these is a possible interpretation, I think, but I prefer the one above because it seems to fit the rest of the passage more closely in terms of extolling the virtues of John the Baptist.

  9. I am way in over my head here, but maybe I can learn something.

    The NASB is the translation that I’ve used sense high school. I think I heard Josh McDowell say it was very accurate.

    When the NIV got “popular” for quite a few years, I continued to use the NASB so as not to be part of the “fad.”

    After reading a few views of this verse, maybe the NIV translation is closer to the correct meaning.

    It reads:

    “From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it.”

    I just finished reading a long description of why this is a more accurate translation..

    It’s Greek to me.

    This translation, if correct, would be easier to explain.

    One commentator who took this view stated:

    “The kingdom of our God advances powerfully, and no force can successfully thwart that forward progress throughout the world as long as our Lord wills it so. The gospel is being proclaimed, and it will not be stopped. Similarly, those determined to be a part of this marvelous eternal kingdom of God will advance toward it, and enter into it, with a forceful determination that will surmount any obstacle. They too will not be stopped.”

    I’m just parroting someone who seems to know Greek well and the explanation seems to fit well with other scriptures.

    • Chris,

      What book had the “long description of why this is a more accurate translation..”?

      I am curious because looking at the Greek it says:
      From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven(s) suffers violence and evil men seize her (kingdom of heaven).

      Norman L. Geisler and Thomas Howe in “The Big Book of Bible Difficulties” has “However, Matthew says ‘the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force.'”

      • Jason,

        I went pretty deep into Google search posts on this verse and I’m having trouble finding the specific one that I’ve quoted here.

        It sounds like you know more about Greek than I do, so I’m sure you know the issues relating to why the NIV translated the verse the way it did.

        FYI…when I wrote:

        “I just finished reading a long description of why this is a more accurate translation,” I was referring to the opinion of the author, not mine.

        When I wrote this, I though it was obvious that I had no clue which translation was better by the rest of my post.

        I will continue to look for the source that I quoted. If I find it, I’ll post it here.

        God’s blessings…

      • Jason,

        I found the article. Would it be possible, in a concise way, to explain to me why this way to translate the verse is less correct than the way you understand it.

        Thank you,


        • Chris,

          Thank you for the article. I thank you for posting it as I know you were showing what the author of it stated. I am a novice Greek-ie myself that has had a little bit of language skills.

          My contention with this is the way that “biazetai” is being translated. In the NIV it is being taken as “has been forcefully advancing” which the author of the article states is the “present indicative, 3rd person singular.” I agree with that.

          He goes on to say that “In Greek sources relevant to the NT, biazetai is considerably more common in the deponent middle than in the active or passive voices” [The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 8, p. 266].” I’ll take that for what it’s worth.

          The problem comes into how best to translate the middle or the passive voice as the word should be translated “has been forcefully advancing” [NIV] or “suffers violence” [NASB]. If it is to be taken in a middle voice it would be basically “suffer for itself” as the middle voice is best described as “[verb] for [my/your/his/etc]self.” This is hard to describe in English. The passive voice is one being acted upon, which the author states. The problem with the NIV in my opinion with this verse is the way that it renders the English “has been forcefully advancing.” This “has been” is either and imperfect action, one in which it is a past action up to the present, or a pluperfect progression a past action that endured but it is in the past. This is hard to show in English, if more examples are needed I can try to come up with them. The problem lies with the author stating that this is a present indicative verb, it is not an ongoing action from the past, it is a present reality.

          In English would you say that “He is married” or “He has been married” if you are talking about this present time (I would go with “He is married” as it shows that he is currently married compared to the “He has been married” as this is a past time up to the present). If Matthew had written this in the imperfect I would not be talking about this. If the NIV had stated “the kingdom of heaven is forcefully advancing” I would not be talking about this.

          The problem is the language used in the NIV is trying to make sense of the previous portion, “From the days of John the Baptist until now” portion. The Greek says that this is a present action and that’s what I’m trying to show.

          Hopefully this is not too long but informative.


          • Jason,

            You seem better than a novice Greek-ie to me.

            Thank your for making such an effort to try and explain it to me. I’m going to go back and read what you have written a few more times to try and fully understand it. I’ll compare it to the article that I posted.

            I was going to keep my NASB either way, by the way.

            I’ve read enough to know that more than a few scholars agree with you that the verse is “the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force,”

            If that is the correct translation, do you have an opinion as to what it means?

            Again thanks,


          • Never mind trying to explain it to me, Jason.

            I was reading above and saw the possibilities you think may explain the verse.

            God’s blessings…

  10. Isaac (the poster formerly known as Obed) says

    OK, I think it’s important to look at this in its context. First, it definitely seems that Ch11 is beginning a new story, so to speak, and Ch12 does the same. So it seems that Ch11 is the entire context. So, let’s outline the chapter (note, I’m exegeting on the fly here; I’ve never given the passage much thought before):

    1. Jesus finishes private teaching and starts some urban public teaching
    2. JtB sends his crew to ask Jesus whether or not he is the “one to come” (i.e. promised Messiah?)
    3. Jesus points to the miracles and tells the crew to report what they’ve seen to JtB.
    4. Jesus starts talking about JtB and his role as a prophet
    5. Jesus rebukes “this generation” for unbelief, fickleness, etc., in receiving John, Jesus, and the prophets, noting that the cities in which he’s preaching will be in for a surprise come the Eschaton.
    6. Jesus thanks God for giving his revelation to the simple, weak, etc. rather than to the intelligent and powerful.
    7. Jesus discusses the simplicity of coming to the Father through the Son.

    The passage in question seems to be a transition from point 4 to point 5. In light of that, here’s my conclusion: The Kingdom of God is undergoing a radical change due to coming of the Messiah. In the OT, Israel was supposed to become powerful and mighty, but had instead fallen from power and had become an occupied people. Folks were expecting the Good Old Days of K. Dave and his boys when Messiah came to claim his great-great-granddaddy’s throne.

    Jesus is saying that it ain’t gonna happen like that.

    To the Israelites, the Kingdom of God/Kingdom of Heaven is the post-Eschatological state when Israel is restored to Davidic Greatness. Just as it took butt-kicking for David to get the throne, they were expecting God to kick some butt to restore it (violent folks taking the Kingdom) ‘Cuz let’s face it, Israel has been getting its butt kicked for way too long (kingdom suffering violence)

    Jesus is saying that it ain’t gonna happen like that.

    Instead, the Kingdom will be a kingdom of helpless babies (v25), given by God as a gift through his son.

    So, I think that verse is part of the pre-“punchline” setup for Jesus’ point that they’re looking at this Kingdom thing all wrong.

    So, how ’bout that Christian America saving the world from godless commies (50 years ago) and godless Muslims and atheists (now)?

    • Wow, really? You think Christ is mad at us for fighting Communism? I have some experience with this, having lost 3 uncles to that fight, and another 2 who spent 10 years in Siberia. That system was pretty close to pure evil, and, yes, aggressively atheistic. I think a Christian’s duties align pretty well with that fight. Furthermore, I’m just sure that the folks in North Korea are ever so thankful we didn’t save them from godless Communism.

      • I think the US did much to be ashamed of in the way it fought communism. It pushed back gains by indigenous people for self-determination because they were perceived as communists. It overthrew democratically elected governments because they were communists. It had hearings over the associations of ITS OWN citizens (which they are supposedly allowed to assemble freely) and used the force of law to discriminate against those who were, might be or had a tangential link to Communism.

        • I won’t hijack this discussion, but for anyone who thinks the U.S. is capable of taking the moral high ground when it comes to indigenous peoples issues, just google the M’Intosh decision. Because of that decision First Nations people (a.k.a. Native Americans) in the United States are, in many ways, treated as wards of the state rather than as full citizens.

      • One of the biggest issues I have with evangelicalism today is that we have blurred the line between Christianity and Nationalism/Patriotism, to the point there the two are indistinguishable; to the point where many of us serve what has been referred to as a “generally theistic civil religion.”

        Not that I oppose serving in the military – served 4 years myself. But we need to make sure we understand what we’re doing as believers, as opposed to what we do as American citizens. The two can, but do not necessarily, dovetail. Unfortunately, at least in my experience, they don’t coincide nearly as often as we in evangelical circles like to think.

    • Isaac (the poster formerly known as Obed) says

      Sorry to spark some flames there. Mostly I was just pointing out that the “Wrong Kingdom” principle can be applied beyond Jesus’ day.

  11. Blessed Theophylact of Ohrid:

    “It would seem that this does not follow the train of thought, but it does. Consider this: Christ, by saying of Himself that He is greater than John, strongly urges them to believe in Him, showing that many are by force acquiring the kingdom of heaven, that is, faith in Him. And there is need of great force, for in order to leave father and mother and to despise one’s own life, how much force is needed?”

    I’ve also heard this used to refer to the asceticism that all Christians are called to.

  12. The context is John the Baptist. The baptism of John did not save, but it did identify those who would not enter into the kingdom: the scribes, Pharisees, teachers of the law, and the priestly class of the Sadducees. These trusted in their own power and righteousness and sought to control who could enter in – seeking to take siege of the kingdom. The epitome of their siege on the kingdom was to kill the Son of God.

    Nothing, nothing, nothing has changed. The powerful still think they can push their way in or gain a control through political power, large followings, influential religious positions, control of media, large donation bases, or massive gatherings at the Lincoln Memorial. The entrance into the kingdom is still by way of the Stone the builders rejected.

    • It could be one of Jesus’ most pointed criticisms against the ruling religious sects. If John is Elijah, and the religious leaders opposed him, were the religious leaders no different than those who killed the prophets at the time of Elijah? Are they no better than Ahab and Jezebel? Jesus basically says this in Matthew 23:27-37.

      This is why we need to be at least as discerning when dealing with so-called religious leaders as when dealing with those who openly are our enemies. Someone who claims to be leading us back to “God” or defending traditional values may be more dangerous to the kingdom than those threats with which we are so preoccupied.

    • Again, the Christianity Today article regarding the influence of Ayn Rand on evangelicals is staggering. Something so self-serving, greedy, anti-ethical, anti-neighbor, power-hungry, cold and cruel has been accepted as normal in American Christianity. This, too, is violence against the kingdom, but by those claiming to be “conservative”.

  13. i think it said everything without the need for extended probing. the violent is not christians but men attacking heaven trying to overthrow God. the violence the kingdom suffers is what these men do and the kingdom successfully fights against it. violent men take things by force. they do not ask or gain a consensus, they just take. i might be wrong.

  14. Charles Fines says

    Chaplain, you certainly identified this passage correctly as “difficult”. As with Jesus requiring that we “hate” our family members to enter the kingdom, I wish He had picked another word.Given that presumably He said what He said, the meaning must be hiding underneath the surface. Otherwise Pastor Jones of Gainesville has his burn permit.

    My understanding agrees with a, to me, surprising number of other commenters. The violence required to enter the kingdom is something on the order of firm resolve or strong determination, but perhaps that is not forceful enough to carry what Jesus intended to convey. For his listeners and those to come, it certainly included a willingness to die if it came down to it. Apparently, as far as Jesus was concerned, just reciting the sinner’s prayer didn’t punch your ticket.

    As with many of Jesus’ teachings, I believe this idea of all out effort is only half the story and has to be counterbalanced with the other half where we effortlessly grow with God’s power into the kingdom like a mustard plant or a bowl of bread dough. Both are true and both need doing.at the same time. Easier said than done in my experience.

    • Wouldn’t that be similar to the concept of what jihad has evolved to mean among many Muslims, that it is a resolve to live their life in holiness and the word includes the struggle to so do?

      • Charles Fines says

        Cermak, not sure what you mean by “the word” there, but certainly Islam seems to also involve a forceful personal determination to find God, not that Islam is any more monolithic than Christianity. I do know that “jihad” is not generally interpreted as holy war on others except by the extremists. I don’t know if Islam includes what might be called the passive side of spiritual growth depending on God’s power and direction. But this would be sidetracking the purpose of this discussion..

  15. Brother Bartimaeus says

    Jesus is talking about John the Baptist’s ministry in relation to the persecution he spoke of in Matt 10:16.  It’s a condemnation, not an affirmation of violence.

    John the Baptist’s ministry was to start bringing people into the kingdom of heaven, not the Heaven in the sky, but the one that is to become like it on earth.  His baptisms were symbols of bringing people under the new covenant. He was getting people to forswear their allegiance to Man and to reinstate their allegiance to God, thus giving them citizenship within the new kingdom.

    When the “kingdom of heaven suffers violence”, Jesus is talking about the opposition John faced by the “brood of vipers”.  When “violent men take it by force”, he’s talking about John’s arrest.  They don’t take it by force because they want it, the take it by force because they think it’s heresy and want to destroy what Jesus and John are doing.


  16. ” ‘John’s baptism—where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or from men?’ They discussed it among themselves and said, ‘If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ But if we say, ‘From men’—we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet.’ ” -Matthew 21:25-26.

  17. Whatever it means, I think you should all run right out to the library and check out Flannery O’Connor’s second novel, “The Violent Bear It Away.”

    Here is the first sentence in the book:

    “Francis Marion Tarwater’s uncle had been dead for only half a day when the boy got too drunk to finish digging his grave and a Negro named Buford Munson, who had come to get a jug filled, had to finish it and drag the body from the breakfast table where it was still sitting and bury it in a decent and Christian way, with the sign of its Saviour at the head of the grave and enough dirt on top to keep the dogs from digging it up.”

    And here is the last sentence in the book:

    “His singed eyes, black in their deep sockets, seemed already to envision the fate that awaited him but he moved steadily on, his face set toward the dark city, where the children of God lay sleeping.”

    What happens in between is a violence not to be missed.

    If that doesn’t whet your appetite to read Flannery O’Connor, nothing will.

  18. What about Dallas Willard’s suggestion (somewhere) that what is implied is that people are so attracted to the Kingdom once they see it that they will trample over each other to get into it, much like when Macy’s has a huge sale on some Saturday and folk line up hours ahead of time waiting for the doors to open and when they open the doors people will literally tample over each other to get into the store? Has a nice ring to it? Any support for it, scholars?

  19. James E Clark says

    It would seem that the suffering refers to the persicusion towards Christians and those violent men are the ones who wish to control the Chrisitan Church. I thinking something like the Judizers Paul had to fight in Galatians chapters 3&4 and other letters he wrote. They wanted to establish their view of the church.