The Kingdom of Heaven Does Not Forcibly Advance

The Kingdom of Heaven Does Not Forcibly Advance

(Matt 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.[1]

.  .  . the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing and forceful men lay hold of it.[2]

.  .  . the kingdom of heaven is forcibly entered and violent men seize it.[3]

All my Christian life I have found the idea that Jesus somehow endorses violent human effort (even if metaphorical or spiritual) for His cause as very odd. It contradicts the rest of His teaching, the life He lived, the example He set, and the rest of the New Testament.[4] Typical translations of Matt. 11:12 fit like a gorilla in a tuxedo. You don’t have to be a scholar to know: “something just ain’t right!” The fact that there’s some divergence among translators provides us with its own warning: difficulty ahead. It’s always a mistake to be dogmatic, or to make much of a little, on a point based on an obscure and difficult passage.

I am personally aware of ministries and networks who have structured themselves around Matt. 11:12 as translated above as their commissioning verse. I’ve heard this verse used as a proof-text to dubiously justify a number of things such as:

  • national militarism and imperialism in the name of Christ (“just war”)
  • relational aggressiveness and insensitivity
  • stereotypical gender roles regarding “masculinity”
  • militant spiritual warfare
  • an antidote to passivity

Recent discoveries of papyri and developments in scholarship have provided a more contextually valid understanding of this difficult verse. Before we get there, we have to get the elephant out of the living room that will block our view: anti-scholarship prejudice.

Anti-scholarship Bias

There persists to this day, a one hundred-year-old bias against anything scholarly or theological in churches whose roots are remotely Pentecostal/Charismatic (P/C). The bias against scholarship can be mild or severe, overt or subtle, and based on experiences with some people, not without good reason! Exposure to overbearing folks with withered hearts and big brains would dampen anyone’s enthusiasm for scholarship. However, just because you got a wormy apple doesn’t mean you should swear off apples forever and denounce all apples as wormy. You just have to find a good one.

In many P/C churches being a scholar or theologian is associated with being spiritually dead or worse, a liberal! Some of this bias is rooted in a faulty understanding and application of 2 Corinthians 3:6.[5] Some of the bias is rooted in insecurity. We can be intimated by someone else’s knowledge when it surpasses our own. It makes us feel inadequate rather than complete together.

I have spent my entire Christian life in P/C churches. I have heard scholars and theologians mocked, scorned, derided, and laughed at from pulpits all across the country. “We don’t need education, we need the anointing,” is the P/C battle cry. “Just give us the simple gospel,” is the clamor from the pew. And then there are the well-worn pulpit preacherisms of: “bibliolatory,[6]” theological “cemeteries” (seminaries), and “exit-Jesus” (exegesis). In recent days I have heard arguments put forth that we need to move away from so much emphasis on the Scriptures and toward “present truth revelation” or the “other ways” in which God speaks to us.

I have always thought it disingenuous for individuals who teach and preach to mock and downplay scholarship, while at the same time availing themselves of the work of scholars they have in their library to prepare the messages in which they will denounce education and scholarship! The problem is, we prefer our scholars like our prophets: dead. We can admire them from a distance and not have to deal with the implications of what a living one might have to say.

Contrary to the protestations of the insecure, the disciplined study and application of Scripture is honorable,[7] and scholarship contributes positively to personal spiritual health and the eternal destiny of the Church.

Granted, scholarship does not define the River of Life. The River of Life is wide and deep with lots of room for anyone to swim freely in. However, the River does have boundaries. Theology and scholarship define the safe boundary banks and the quality of the water. Good theology makes sure the river of Life does not get overrun with spiritual algae and other harmful doctrinal microbes and parasites.  Good theology is like maintaining train tracks. Without track maintenance, and individuals skilled in recognizing weaknesses in the tracks, the best train in the world, full of the most loving and sincere people in the world, will inevitably end up in the ditch in a pile of human carnage.

It’s also true that the gospel is so simple that a 4-year-old can know Jesus. I also readily admit that you do not have to be a scholar to love and serve people and introduce them to Jesus. But that’s not the same as accurately understanding Scripture and presuming to teach others from it. In Charismatic America, anyone with an 8th grade education, the Bible under his/her arms, and the “anointing” is considered to be automatically equipped to preach. This is precisely the reason that Charismatic churches across the country today are relational and doctrinal train wrecks of neo-Gnosticism.

Why Scholarship?

Without advances in scholarship, a good bit of our understanding and presentation of Scripture are little more than “educated guesses.”  It would seem to me that if we expect people to conform their lives and behaviors to what we present from the Word, it would behoove us to do all we can to be as accurate as we can be.[8] I shudder when someone comes to the pulpit and the only resource they have used as an authority in their preparation is Strong’s Concordance, a work that is over 100 years old! That’s like going to a doctor who practices phrenology, Mesmerism, and bloodletting to treat disease! It’s a tad “dated.”

Moulton and Milligan’s eight volume, Vocabulary of the Greek New Testament, is an excellent resource. I have a copy myself (as I do Strong’s Concordance).  They spent 15 years compiling it.[9] However, as good as it is, it does not have entries for 17% of the words in the New Testament! Of the words they did include 800 had no documentary evidence to support their definitions. The work was actually out of date before it was published![10] Thousands of papyri fragments have been discovered since their noble effort with thousands more coming to light each year.[11] All these new discoveries shed light on the Scriptures, and Matthew 11:12 is one such beneficiary.

Matthew 11:12

The little Greek word that causes so much trouble and gives the connotation of violence is bia. Recent discoveries and developments in papyrology have confirmed beyond all doubt, that the word was used at the time for “illegal forcible acquisition.”  It was a technical legal term referring to the act of hindering an owner or lawful possessor from the enjoyment of his or her property.  The use of actual physical force is not required.[12] It is a term denoting infringement of rights, not necessarily physical violence.

So here is a better rendering:

From the time of John the Baptizer until now, heaven’s realm is being used or even robbed by people who have no legal right to it. This stops those who do have a legal right to it from enjoying their own property.[13]

Well, now! That makes sense!

Think of it contextually. In the passage Jesus is talking to the multitudes and referring to the resistance He and John have been experiencing from the religious establishment of Judaism. John’s ministry marked the end of the old order and the beginning of the new. Things were changing. In the context of Matthew 11 Jesus boldly declares the dawning of the kingdom age.[14] He talks about not being offended by his ministry. The members of the religious establishment were protecting their own interests among the people by resisting and demeaning John and now, Himself.[15]

Elsewhere Jesus specifically speaks of the Torah lawyers as “taking away the key of knowledge and hindering those who would enter the kingdom of heaven from entering, as well as failing to enter themselves.[16]” Jesus is announcing that the abusive hegemony over the people of God by the apostate religious establishment is over. Yet, beginning with John, His opponents are still trying to hinder the covenant people from what is rightly theirs.

Following the synthesis principle[17] this makes much more sense. This verse has nothing to do with believers “forcefully” taking the kingdom.  The passage is referring to the negative behavior of those who would resist Jesus. It is not an encouragement to the followers of Christ to “be more aggressive!”


The next time you hear someone mocking scholars, perhaps you could gently rebuke him or her. Without scholarship we deify ignorance. Jesus in His Person and in the proclamation of His Word are worth better than that. Neither anointed ignorance nor sterile orthodoxy is the tenth fruit of the Spirit.

We all don’t have to be scholars to prosper and be effective in Christ’s kingdom. But safety says, if we’re not one ourselves, it would be wise to know someone who is and to yield to him or her, in proportion to the significance of the issues at stake. If you are going to preach and teach, and expect people to conform their lives to your words, and perhaps affect their eternal destiny, you really must do better than:

“I really feel in my heart that God wants me to share this.”

Scholars have their portion in the kingdom. We are complete . . . together.

[1] King James Version

[2] New International Version

[3] The New Greek English Interlinear, United Bible Society, 4th Edition with the New Revised Standard version.

[4] Based on these translations, was not Simon Peter just obeying the Lord by being a violent man trying to take the kingdom by force when he lopped off the ear of Malchus (John 18:10)? Of course not. Jesus told him to put the sword away. These translations, and their typical applications just don’t hold water.

[5] The letter kills but the Spirit gives life. It is assumed that if someone is educated or a scholar that they are automatically “of” the letter that brings death and the knowledge that puffs up. This is, of course, nonsense. Paul was a highly educated man of his time whose talents, skills, and education were redeemed and reconstituted according to Christ in resurrection for kingdom service. His gospel came by revelation seed, but that seed was planted in a highly educated man. Revelation caused all the “pieces” to come together for Paul, in Paul, and through Paul.

[6] Bibliolatry: The worship of the Scriptures rather than the Person of Christ. This flimsy red herring of an accusation is frequently raised against anyone who is serious about the Scriptures. God’s Word and His Spirit are not in competition, though you would never know it in some churches.

[7] I have been in environments where this point has been argued . . . against!

[8]We all should know that no one except God has perfect understanding. Doctrinal accuracy may be in a spectrum. There is room for divergent opinion on non-core apostolic doctrine within the kingdom family.

[9] 1914-1929.

[10] Nyland, Ann, Papyri, Women, and Word Meaning in the New Testament. Priscilla Papers, Volume 17, Number 4. 2003.

[11] In the last 20 years, 4,000 papyri have been discovered in Ephesus alone! Nyland, 2003.

[12] Ibid. Nyland 2003.

[13] Ibid, Nyland, 2003.

[14] Matthew 11:4-5.

[15] “A reed shaken in the wind” . . . Jesus was likely referring to derisive commentary in the community, whose source was the religious establishment. He is throwing the “community gossip” back out to them. John is more than what they have been told by the religious establishment.

[16] Luke 11:52. Contextually this is confirmed as Luke 11 follows chronologically upon John 10 where the Jews have just threatened to stone Him for claiming God as His Father, by inference, claiming equality with God. John 10:29-42. These are the people He is referring to in Matthew 11:12.

[17] Interpreting Scripture by Scripture.


  1. This is very insightful. I am glad to find a good interpretation of this verse.
    Thank you.

  2. Enjoyed the article. Actually learned something new. Keep it coming.

  3. Thank you! I always felt that’s how the verse should be interpreted (even without knowing the Greek) and was always confused when preachers used it otherwise. Am happy to see an interpretation that is both intelligent and God-loving. 🙂

  4. This verse in Matthew 11 now makes sense. Thank you.

  5. Could you say a little more about who the “Torah lawyers” might have been? I am wondering if you think that this would have been a few of leaders or more than a few? Also, I am wondering if you think that any of these were likely acquaintances of Paul and if you think he might have had them (along with others) in mind when he described Israel as being blinded by God?

    “Jerusalem, Jerusalem

    Lift up your gates and sing!

    Hosanna in the highest,

    Hosanna to your king…”

    Jerusalem’s hope is not the hope of Athens or Rome, New York or London, Singapore or Bejing. Jerusalem’s hope is not stored in parliments or banks, military headquarters or acadamies of science. Jerusalem’s hope is stored in the hearts of Jewish girls and boys from long ago and from this day and tomorrow. And she fears, she shakes and trembles, to lift up her gates, lest she let those girls and boys down. Yet their hope builds in her and burns in her and stirs her passions like the fire of stars swirling within her. And her gates move and her thoughts hear melodies like thunder far away. Seven thunders send their echos near her and she reaches out with her soul to hear their sound, if it might be that she hears any song that is a song of her beloved that she might sing to him. She hears the echos but cannot quite hear the notes. She strains toward the east and toward the north, toward the west and toward the south. Almost she hears. Almost her lips move. Almost her gates begin to rise.

  6. I just discovered this today. I appreciate it. I was taught it meant the violence of faith in the kingdom realm, but I don’t see faith as violent, but a belief in a Person Who changes things.

  7. Steve, it is refreshing to get insight into this verse. Wow, that’s one of those I just didn’t know what to do with before. About your comments on scholarship, thanks. I confess I’m one who finds the “experts” hard to take sometimes. I suppose it’s because I perceive a lot of knowledge that “puffeth up” without as much love that “builds up.” Even your sharing of the recent discoveries in the translations and the incompleteness of the translations demonstrates to me that we can’t put scholarship on a pedestal. I think it was Wigglesworth who said that some read the Bible through the Greek; others through the Hebrew; but I’ll read it by the Holy Spirit. I can’t but agree that we need sound doctrine; I just want to see men and women who have their theological heads on straight, but who also understand that the Holy Spirit is controlled by their minds, but rather vice versa. Does that make sense? It’s good for me to hear and consider the things you’ve said though.

  8. … excuse me, “that the Holy Spirit is NOT controlled by their minds.”

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