For decades I’ve struggled to understand what Jesus meant in Matthew 11:12 and Luke 16:16, where He said ‘the kingdom of heaven suffers violence,’ and I finally learned what it means. If you’ve also wondered what Jesus really meant in these verses, this article is for you.
So, what did Jesus mean when He said, “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and violent men take it by force?” After detailed study, I believe a more accurate translation could say, ‘From the days of John the Baptist until now men are forcefully pressing-into the kingdom of heaven, and eager men pursue it, grab hold of it, and forcefully claim it.’
For years I thought the verse “The kingdom of heaven suffers violence and violent men take it by force” meant something negative. Like me, have you pondered how the Devil could possibly use violent men to abuse the kingdom of God? Now I know that’s the exact opposite of what Jesus really meant, as I’ll prove below.
The kingdom of God suffers violence: John the Baptist
Matthew places our subject verse “the kingdom of heaven suffers violence” between some fantastic verses about John the Baptist.
Truly I say to you, among those born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptist! Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and violent men take it by force. For all the prophets and the Law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to accept it, John himself is Elijah who was to come. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.Matthew 11:11-15
John was the greatest man who ever lived – Until God’s kingdom came to earth
Jesus praised John the Baptist, saying John was the greatest man that ever lived in the 4000 years since Adam. Think about it…John the Baptist was greater than Noah, Abraham, Moses, Joshua, and all the prophets!
And yet, beginning with the proclamation of God’s kingdom coming onto the earth, Jesus said every person in the Kingdom of heaven–even the weakest and most humble of them–are greater than John and all the ancient patriarchs. How can this be?
The kingdom of God is a new humanity
Members of God’s kingdom are greater because they’re no longer ‘mere men;’ they are reborn–they’re a new creation. Members of God’s kingdom are begotten-again of God’s Spirit. They are ‘born again’ as a new kind of human. They literally become a child of Almighty God. Here are 3 verses attesting to this fact:
for you have been begotten again, not of seed which is perishable but imperishable, that is, through the living and enduring word of God.1 Peter 1:23
Jesus answered and said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, except anyone be begotten from above, he is not able to see the kingdom of God.”John 3:3
For since there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not fleshly, and are you not walking like mere men?1 Corinthians 3:3
Luke’s version of our main subject verse agrees.
The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John; since that time the gospel of the kingdom of God is preached, and everyone is forcing his way into it.Luke 16:16
John’s ministry marked a turning point in the evolution of God’s plan for mankind. Until John and Jesus began proclaiming that God’s kingdom had arrived on the earth, the law and the prophets were the highest form of God’s revelation to man. But then, John and Jesus proclaimed that God’s kingdom had come, eclipsing the law and the prophets as the highest manifestation of God’s revelation to mankind.
With reference to the kingdom of God, what is John the Baptist’s significance? John’s role was to announce the coming King, Israel’s Messiah, the royal Son of David, and to smooth the way for this King’s arrival. His primary message was,
Repent for the kingdom of God is at hand.Matthew 3:2
The kingdom of God suffers violence: Elijah
Jesus said John the Baptist fulfilled Malachi’s prophecy that Elijah the prophet would come before the Day of the Lord.
Behold, I am going to send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the LORD. He will restore the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers, so that I will not come and smite the land with a curse.Malachi 4:5-6
Jesus came in history, but He is also coming again in our future. In the same way, many believe there will be a double fulfillment of Malachi’s prophecy. That is, John fulfilled the prophecy 2000 years ago, but Elijah will also come again in the end time as one of the Two Witnesses in Revelation chapter 11.
And so now, in the 21st century, when Jewish and Messianic Christian families celebrate the annual Passover dinner, they always set a place at the table for Elijah in anticipation of his promised return.
The proclamation of God’s kingdom signaled the turning point in God’s plan for mankind
Why is the proclamation of the kingdom of God the turning point in mankind’s history? How is the world different before and after this event?
For about 4000 years, from Adam until Jesus, not even one person lived a sinless life. All had sinned and therefore all were under the power of the lord of this world system, the Devil.
the whole world lies in the power of the evil one.1 John 5:19
But then, Jesus lived a sinless life as defined by God through the Hebrew Bible, also know as ‘the law and the prophets.’ Even before His death on the cross, as a sinless man He claimed the right to exercise dominion over creation, according to God’s blessing to our first ancestors in Genesis chapter one:
God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and every creature that crawls upon the earth.”Genesis 1:28
Jesus displaced the Devil as Lord of mankind
Therefore, when John and Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God, they proclaimed (to both men and angels) that Jesus displaced the Devil as the lord of this world. Jesus restored mankind’s original authority over creation. God finally had a man who could begin the restoration of God’s intent for creation–that all creatures would live in obedience and fellowship with their Creator.
The good news of the kingdom of God
The good news of the kingdom of God is that, through Jesus, the Devil’s authority has been overpowered. Jesus authenticated His kingdom message by binding the Devil and plundering the Devil’s kingdom during His earthly ministry. He healed people, walked on water, raised the dead, cast-out demons…
If I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. Or how can anyone enter the strong man’s house and carry off his property, unless he first binds the strong man? And then he will plunder his house.Matthew 12:28-29
What is the kingdom of God?
So, through faith in Jesus we can now enter the kingdom of God, but what is this kingdom?
Answering the question “What is the kingdom of God” would become a whole book in itself. So for now, here’s a brief summary definition.
Definition of the kingdom of God
Today, the kingdom of God includes all people reconciled to God through faith in Jesus’ substitutionary sacrifice; people who honor His authority in their daily lives. It also includes spirits (angels, etc.) who are not in rebellion against God.
At the end of this age, God will institute the Millennial Reign of Jesus over all nations.
For sinners, the initial door into God’s kingdom is repentance. The path from there is discipleship, in cooperation with God’s Holy Spirit. This cooperation continues until we’re complete and mature, with the character and righteousness of Jesus.
The kingdom of heaven suffers violence? This doesn’t make sense.
Forcefully pressing into the kingdom
How can the kingdom of heaven suffer violence? It just doesn’t make sense. One big problem is that it contradicts Jesus’ victory and current position at the right hand of God. For example, this verse says that after His victory on the cross Jesus openly humiliated all of His spiritual enemies.
And having spoiled principalities and powers, he made a shew of them openly, triumphing over them in it.Colossians 2:15
The ‘Gates of Hades’ shall not withstand the Ekklesia’s advance
God’s kingdom is not under violent attack. No! We’re not on the defensive.
On the contrary, the disciples of Messiah Jesus are advancing the kingdom of God against the enemy. Jesus said their gates shall not withstand our advance.
The historical ‘Gates of Hades’
What are these enemy’s gates that shall not withstand our advance?
Caesarea Philippi was the ‘home’ of the pagan god Pan on Mount Hermon. It’s in the far Northern part of Israel, bordering Syria. This is ‘the gates of Hades,’ where pagans offered human sacrifices by throwing them into a huge, deep cave.
Jesus intentionally chose this pagan spiritual stronghold at Caesarea Philippi to ‘poke the Devil in the eye.’ This is where He proclaimed:
I will build my ekklesia (called-out ones) and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against her.Matthew 16:18
What Jesus really meant in Matthew 11:12 | the kingdom of heaven suffers violence
In the beginning of this article I said we should understand Matthew 11:12 as saying:
“men are forcefully pressing-into the kingdom of heaven, and eager men pursue it, grab hold of it, and forcefully claim it.”
Let’s dissect this sentence to learn why this is the correct meaning, and how the common translations are not only misleading, but harmful.
The original Greek word biazatai is translated ‘suffers violence’ in many translations. However, in Luke 16:16 biazatai is ‘forcing his way into’ or ‘pressing into.’ This is the correct meaning instead of ‘suffers violence.’
‘Violent men take it by force’
The root for biazatai “suffer violence” is biazo. In the example below you can see this term is positive in the only two places where the Bible uses this word: Matthew 11:12 and Luke 16:16.
Eager men pursue the kingdom of God
‘Violent men’ is the Greek word biastes, which (as you can see below) means ‘one who is eager in pursuit’ or ‘positive assertiveness… of the believer living in faith.’
So, according to the ‘word studies’ at the bottom of the snapshot below, it’s reasonable to replace “the violent man taking the kingdom of God by force” with “an eager Christian believer who is positively ‘fired up’ to pursue the kingdom of God.”
This is a much-different (and much better) understanding than I had when I looked at it from a negative perspective–i.e., violent men abusing the kingdom.
‘The kingdom of God suffers violence’ means we must seize it!
‘Harpazousin’ the kingdom of God
The final Greek word to shine light on the meaning of Matthew 11:12 is harpazousin, a variant of the root word harpazo.
Bible students will instantly recognize harpazo as the same Greek word the Bible uses for the ‘rapture‘ or catching-away of the saints.
As you can see below, harpazo means to seize or snatch-up using an open, public display of force. In combination with the words we’ve already discussed above, the context of harpazo in Matthew 11:12 and Luke 16:16 means to decisively grab onto, hold, and eagerly claim the kingdom of God.
Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been perfected, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have laid hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize of God’s heavenly calling in Christ Jesus.Philippians 3:12-14
The kingdom of God suffers violence — Conclusions
1. Based on the information presented above, here’s how we should read Matthew 11:12 and Luke 16:16:
From the days of John the Baptist until now men are forcefully pressing-into (biazetai) the kingdom of heaven, and eager men (biastai) pursue it, grab hold of it, and forcefully claim it (harpazousin).
2. “The kingdom of heaven suffers violence” is a bad translation. It presents a negative, defensive perspective, as if the Devil’s forces assail God’s kingdom. The opposite is true.
3. The correct interpretation teaches us that we cannot enter God’s kingdom passively. We must actively eagerly press into it, pursue it, grab onto it, and claim it with both hands.
What Do You Think?
Did this article answer all your questions on this topic? Please leave a comment below and tell me:
- Did the information in this article satisfy you?
- Or, did it leave you wanting more?
Q: Almost all Bible translations present Matthew 11:12 from a negative perspective, as if the kingdom of heaven is being attacked by violent men. How can they all be wrong?
A: You’re correct in saying that almost all translations use the negative perspective of Mt 11:12. Some exceptions are God’s Word Translation and the Jubilee Bible 2000. I explained my rationale for the positive perspective of Mt 11:12 in the article above. Snapshots show the Greek word meanings. A positive interpretation fits much better into the overall context of the Bible as a whole.
Q: How can I press-into the kingdom of heaven, pursue it, grab hold of it, and forcefully claim it?
A: Here’s a short answer:
- Repent of your sins and receive forgiveness through faith in Jesus’ substitutionary sacrifice for your sins. Receive new life from God as a result. (Romans chapters 1-6)
- Walk in discipleship, which means daily obedience to and fellowship with the Holy Spirit. (Romans 8)
- Be proactive to study and meditate on the kingdom of God. Today’s ministers (almost universally) neglect God’s kingdom in their teaching.
- Serve and fellowship with fellow disciples of Jesus.