Can you explain Matthew 11:12?

CAN YOU EXPLAIN MATTHEW 11:12?

by Shawn Brasseaux

Matthew 11:12 is considered yet another difficult passage. Like verse 11, however, it is easy to get when we just let the Bible speak for itself. We read: “And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force.” What does Scripture mean “the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence,” and “the violent take it by force?” Many consider that last phrase particularly mysterious. Let us do some verse comparisons; the Bible will interpret itself.

“AND FROM THE DAYS OF JOHN THE BAPTIST UNTIL NOW….”

The best verse to compare Matthew 11:12 to is verse 13 (the next verse!). We read both verses: “[12] And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force. [13] For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John.” Prior to John the Baptist’s ministry (which began in Matthew chapter 3), the only revelation the nation Israel had from God was the Law and the Prophets. We call these writings the “Old Testament” (Genesis through Malachi). Moses and all the other prophets had predicted for centuries about a coming King and kingdom for Israel.

Beginning with John the Baptist, though, there was a major development in God’s program for the nation Israel. Matthew 3:1-2 comments: “[1] In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judaea, [2] And saying, Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Now, Israel’s Messiah was in her midst. Jesus Christ had been born, He was to be water baptized of John, and (like John) He would soon preach the Gospel of the Kingdom Himself. The kingdom was not merely centuries away, but was now “at hand.” It was within Israel’s grasp, very close, as close as it had ever been.

With the kingdom now within reach, God would cleanse Israel of her sins and make her His people. He would restore to her the Promised Land first deeded to her patriarch Abraham. He would give back her Davidic kingdom that she had lost centuries earlier due to her sin. But, prior to that kingdom, there would be divine wrath to purge out the unbelievers. Only believers would enter that Millennium, that earthly kingdom of God.

Matthew chapter 3 continues: “[3] For this is he that was spoken of by the prophet Esaias, saying, The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. [4] And the same John had his raiment of camel’s hair, and a leathern girdle about his loins; and his meat was locusts and wild honey. [5] Then went out to him Jerusalem, and all Judaea, and all the region round about Jordan, [6] And were baptized of him in Jordan, confessing their sins.

“[7] But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees come to his baptism, he said unto them, O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come? [8] Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance: [9] And think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham. [10] And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. [11] I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance: but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire: [12] Whose fan is in his hand, and he will throughly purge his floor, and gather his wheat into the garner; but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”

Unbelievers, especially Israel’s religious leaders (Pharisees and Sadducees), were happy with the way things were in the nation. They were in power, enjoying prestige, self-righteousness, and wealth. For JEHOVAH God to send a prophet (John the Baptist) to announce His Son’s (Jesus Christ’s) arrival in the nation, it convicted them and made them antagonistic. They were not about to give up their religious or governmental privileges. That kingdom of righteousness would wipe them away, and they would not stand for it. They would fight against God as much as they could!

“…THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN SUFFERETH VIOLENCE….”

“The kingdom of heaven” here in Matthew 11:12 is the same as the “kingdom of heaven” that we read John the Baptist preaching in Matthew 3:1-2: “[1] In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judaea, [2] And saying, Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

However, by the time of Matthew chapter 11, a year has (or two years have) passed. Jesus Christ has preached, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17). He has been teaching and preaching “the gospel of the kingdom,” and healing all manner of disease and sickness among the people of Israel (Matthew 9:35). By the time of Matthew chapter 11, John the Baptist’s ministry has ended. He is in prison, awaiting execution. Matthew 11:2-3: “[2] Now when John had heard in the prison the works of Christ, he sent two of his disciples, [3] And said unto him, Art thou he that should come, or do we look for another?” Actually, John was imprisoned back in Matthew 4:12, several months (to perhaps two years) earlier.

When Jesus said in Matthew 11:12 “the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence,” He was pointing out the immense persecution resulting from the Gospel of the Kingdom being preached. Satan was putting up quite a fight to keep Israel in spiritual blindness. King Herod had arrested John the Baptist and would soon behead him. In the coming months, the opposition against Jesus Himself would increase. In Matthew chapter 12, we read about the Israeli religious leaders’ first conspiracy to take Jesus’ life (see verse 14). Now comes the pinnacle of Israel’s resistance to Jesus’ earthly ministry.

“AND THE VIOLENT TAKE IT BY FORCE.”

This is where most difficulty with Matthew 11:12 arises. What does it mean, “and the violent take it by force?” We want to take special care to make it clear here.

One modern English version says: “And from the days of John the Baptist until the present time, the kingdom of heaven has endured violent assault, and violent men seize it by force [as a precious prize—a share in the heavenly kingdom is sought with most ardent zeal and intense exertion].” The bracketed commentary represents a popular view of the latter part of the verse. Those taking the kingdom of heaven “by force” are assumed to be believers trying enter the kingdom of heaven. But, if we compare Scripture with Scripture, that is not the case.

It would be awfully strange for God’s Word to refer to believers as “violent” and them “by force” taking the kingdom of God. If that were true, we would expect the Bible to say, “And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent ENTER it by force.” These people are not entering the kingdom of heaven; they are taking it (as in stealing)! Furthermore, we already saw that the “violence” in Matthew 11:12 was caused by unbelievers. Those forcefully taking the kingdom of heaven would—as per common sense—mean unbelievers as well!

A popular view of interpreting Matthew 11:12 is to appeal to Luke 16:16. While I definitely agree third-thirds of each verse is similar, their latter phrases are different and should not be used interchangeably.

  • Matthew 11:12: “And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force.”
  • Luke 16:16: “The law and the prophets were until John: since that time the kingdom of God is preached, and every man presseth into it.”

Are “the violent take it by force” (Matthew 11:12) and “every man presseth into it” (Luke 16:16) synonymous? Again, some say yes (go back to that modern version we quoted at the beginning of the section). However, let me remind you again of our earlier comments. The “violence” in Matthew 11:12 referred to unbelievers opposing God’s people. Those forcefully taking the kingdom would be unbelievers as well!

The people in Matthew 11:12 are not “entering” or “pressing into” the kingdom of heaven; they are taking it by force” (as in stealing)! Luke 16:16—“pressing into it”—speaks of something else entirely. Matthew 11:12 talks about lost people taking the kingdom of heaven while Luke 16:16 talks about believers entering the kingdom of heaven. We should not confuse the issues by conflating the verses. They are speaking of separate activities. There are those entering the kingdom of heaven by faith (Luke 16:16), but there are others trying to take that kingdom away from those believers (Matthew 11:12). Remember, during Christ’s earthly ministry, there is a campaign of intimidation, oppression, and other persecution. Israel’s Little Flock is suffering for following Jesus Christ. People are being intimidated into leaving Jesus, or not joining Him at all. John is imprisoned and will lose his life. Jesus Himself will be put to death in another year or so. This leads us to the violent taking the kingdom of heaven by force.

Several months after Matthew chapter 11, and less than a week before His death, the Lord Jesus issued a parable in Matthew chapter 21: “[33] Hear another parable: There was a certain householder, which planted a vineyard, and hedged it round about, and digged a winepress in it, and built a tower, and let it out to husbandmen, and went into a far country: [34] And when the time of the fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the husbandmen, that they might receive the fruits of it. [35] And the husbandmen took his servants, and beat one, and killed another, and stoned another. [36] Again, he sent other servants more than the first: and they did unto them likewise. [37] But last of all he sent unto them his son, saying, They will reverence my son. [38] But when the husbandmen saw the son, they said among themselves, This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and let us seize on his inheritance. [39] And they caught him, and cast him out of the vineyard, and slew him. [40] When the lord therefore of the vineyard cometh, what will he do unto those husbandmen?

“[41] They say unto him, He will miserably destroy those wicked men, and will let out his vineyard unto other husbandmen, which shall render him the fruits in their seasons. [42] Jesus saith unto them, Did ye never read in the scriptures, The stone which the builders rejected, the same is become the head of the corner: this is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes? [43] Therefore say I unto you, The kingdom of God shall be taken from you, and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof. [44] And whosoever shall fall on this stone shall be broken: but on whomsoever it shall fall, it will grind him to powder. [45] And when the chief priests and Pharisees had heard his parables, they perceived that he spake of them. [46] But when they sought to lay hands on him, they feared the multitude, because they took him for a prophet.”

Jesus actually told a parable to the Israeli religious leaders who would shortly put Him to death. Father God had sent prophets to speak to Israel’s religious leaders throughout the centuries, but they killed those prophets. Finally, God sent His Son Jesus Christ, to Israel, but Israel’s religious leaders killed Him too. Jesus Christ, in explaining that parable, said that He would come back and destroy those who would take His life. That is His Second Coming, when He returns to set up His kingdom on the Earth. Having come “full circle,” we see this as “the kingdom of heaven” that John the Baptist preached. Now, let us back up a bit to tie up some “loose ends.”

Pay special attention to Matthew 21:38: “But when the husbandmen saw the son, they said among themselves, This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and let us seize on his inheritance.These religious leaders of Israel wanted to kill Jesus Christ in order to take His kingdom from Him (and retain their own power over Israel). They plotted, not only to take the lives of His servants (the prophets), but also to take His life! This is the “the violent take it by force” of Matthew 11:12. These people treated God’s Son in a most violent manner. The King’s murder was the culmination of “the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence.” By nailing the Lord Jesus to Calvary’s cross, they thought that His death would be the end of Him. Dead and gone, He could be no King of Israel. They could continue reigning over Israel with their worthless religion. (Of course, we all know the Lord Jesus did not stay dead! He resurrected, and is coming again one day to bring in Israel’s literal, physical, visible, earthly, Davidic kingdom!)

Also see:
» Can you explain Matthew 11:11?
» What is the difference between the “kingdom of heaven” and the “kingdom of God?”
» Was John the Baptist really Elijah?

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