Bible Gems #90
Question: How do you explain / interpret Matt: 11:12? Quote: "The kingdom of heaven suffereth violence and the violent take it by force"?
This verse can actually be translated in two different ways, depending on how the verb bia¿zetai (“suffereth violence,” KJV) is translated. The verb can be understood in a passive sense, as the King James and most translations treat it. On the other hand, bia¿zetai can also be translated in a reflexive sense, as in the NIV, meaning: “has been forcefully advancing.” In that case, the verse means that nothing can stop the Kingdom of God, not even arresting John the Baptist, and that “forceful men” (i.e., “men of courage and determination” like John the Baptist) will be those who enter the Kingdom.1
It’s my belief that the KJV has this one right. The question is what does it mean?
If we had been standing within earshot when Jesus actually spoke these words, we would probably have understood right away what He intended, simply by His tone of voice. Without that luxury, however, we need to compare this passage with a similar statement by Jesus in Luke’s Gospel then compare both with the overall teaching of Scripture.
Luke 16:16 “The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John. Since that time, the good news of the kingdom of God is being preached, and everyone is forcing his way into it. (NIV)
Here, all the translations agree. And this teaching gives a whole new twist on what Jesus was saying. In both Matthew and Luke John the Baptist is portrayed by Jesus as occupying a pivotal point in God’s plan of salvation. Before John’s arrival on the scene God’s message to the world was encapsulated in the Law and the Prophets. Since John, the message is now focused on the kingdom of God, and everyone is forcing his way into it (i.e., everyone is clamoring to get in because it finally looks attainable!)
Jesus’ statement in the Gospel of Luke is more general than its counterpart in Matthew. But the principle message is the same: Ever since John the Baptist started proclaiming his message about the coming messiah and the kingdom of God, people started coming by the hundreds and thousands to discover how to get into heaven. A revival was taking place!
Our English phrase in Matthew “has suffered violence” does not accurately convey what Jesus really meant, because in Jesus’ language the phrase was used as a figure of speech. When we describe in English a person who is anxiously awaiting some important bit of news we might say, “he is climbing the walls.” We don’t mean that to be understood literally, of course. When Jesus says, “the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force,” he is using a figure of speech meaning, “people are so excited about the good news they are running to John and Jesus to find out how to get in to the kingdom of God.
1. (“bia¿zw biazo, bee-ad´-zo; to force, i.e. (reflexively) to crowd oneself (into), or (passively) to be seized: — press, suffer violence.”—Strong’s Greek Dictionary Of The New Testament.) Both the ESV and HCSB have this reading as a possible translation in the margin.