Matthew 11:12 is a perplexing verse for many a reader and interpreter. There, Jesus says
From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.
First of all, there is even a discussion over how to translate the Greek into English. The majority of translations (as far as I’m aware) reflect the wording here (which I’ve copied from the ESV) but another possibility that has been argued is the Kingdom of heaven manifests itself violently/forcefully/powerfully and violent/forceful/[keen and daring] men take hold of it. The difference lies primarily in the verb “suffered” (passive voice) or “manifested” (active/reflexive voice). This alternative translation indicates the powerful bringing-forth of the Gospel by John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth. The preaching of John, one should remember, was veritable fire and brimstone – you brood of vipers! Our Lord, although sometimes gentler in tone, certainly did not back away from such forceful language either.
We, too, must pursue the Kingdom and its promises with zest, zeal, or “force.” This courage is itself a gift from God, as the default situation of the human soul is one of sloth, apathy, and death. Given the context of this verse (looking especially at verses 16-19) it seems that we are indeed being called to definitive and active faith in opposition to “this generation” of people moved neither by joy nor by sadness.
But if we stick with the primary translation, as most Bibles do, then the idea of the kingdom of heaven suffering violence can take on several meanings:
- The opposition of the Jews against the Gospel at that was increasingly forceful; John the Baptist had already been imprisoned and would soon be beheaded.
- The opposition to Jesus, specifically, was growing, and he would eventually be crucified.
In these cases, the contrasting teaching would be that “the meek shall inherit” – the Gospel is a gift of peace, and only those who acknowledge their weakness and poverty can enter the Kingdom.
Taking a different outlook, the violence could be a positive thing, describing the eagerness and zeal with which people charge into the fellowship of the Church, repenting and turning to Christ with their whole hearts, seizing the promises of the Gospel with powerful joy. This view, as promoted by St. John Chrysostom, seems to wrap back to the “alternative translation” perspective, indicating that the lessons we can draw from that is probably the most important for us to realize.
After all, it is plain historical fact that Christ, his Gospel, and his Church were (and have been) persecuted “violently.” Knowing this doesn’t really add much to the picture. But a call to active faith, grabbing hold of Christ’s promises with both arms like a warrior wrestling his foe, now that is a sermon.