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What does Matthew 11:12 mean?

In Matthew’s gospel the words “Kingdom of Heaven” mean the same as Kingdom of God. When we think about a kingdom we often have in mind a geographical location such as a nation or a state. But kingdoms are more than that, they are also dominions in which the rules of the ruler are obeyed. When we read that “the Kingdom of Heaven is forcefully advancing” Matthew is saying that God’s Kingdom or dominion is coming on earth. So this passage doesn’t speak about a rebellion in Heaven. Then what does the verse mean? In Matthew’s gospel we read:

I tell you the truth: Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet he 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 has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it. For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John. Matthew 11:11-13 (NIV)

Scholars are divided over how to translate the Greek word for “forcefully advancing” (biazetai in the Greek). It can mean:

  1. “to come with violence”, “to force”, “to crowd into”
  2. “to suffer violence” “to be treated forcefully”.

On the first reading we understand that as God’s kingdom breaks into this world it is breaking into the domain of Satan and sin (see Ephesians 2:2). On the second reading we see that the kingdom of heaven suffers as evil powers fight against it. In both readings the Kingdom of Heaven is described as coming with conflict. However the way we interpret “forcefully advancing” goes on to influence our understanding of the “forceful men” who “lay hold” of the Kingdom. There are two options for what type of person they are:

  1. They could be people who wish to do the Kingdom of Heaven harm (such as King Herod who has just imprisoned John the Baptist (see Matthew 11:2 and 14:3). On this understanding Jesus is saying that God’s Kingdom is coming in power and forcing its way into the world but there are many who will oppose and fight against it.
  2. They could be people who are determined to squeeze or force their way into the Kingdom of Heaven, because they want to take hold of it for themselves.

In the context of what has happened to John the Baptist Jesus is saying that the kingdom of God suffers violence, and violent men seize it. It is also true that the Kingdom of Heaven is forcing its way into the world and forceful men want to crowd into it for themselves. This second reading implies that the decision to enter the Kingdom of Heaven requires some kind of vigorous and forceful action. When we read Jesus' similar statement recorded in Luke’s gospel it appears that this is what is in mind:

“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.” Luke 16:16 (NIV)

In other words Jesus is saying that to come into the Kingdom of Heaven requires deliberate, purposeful and determined action. There is no contradiction between the two statements as recorded in Luke and Matthew – they simply explore Jesus’ teaching from a different angle. When we take both verses from Matthew and Luke together we understand that the Kingdom of Heaven does advance into this world with conflict.

There are forces of evil which oppose God’s word and His work and we see violent men working against God and His church in this world. But God’s Kingdom is also coming with power and many people are being freed from the power of Satan as they take hold of the good news of Jesus Christ.