Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think there is any need to get hung up on two of the main verses (Matthew 11:12, Luke 16:16) where Jesus speaks of people somehow using force “to take” the kingdom of heaven. Other passages make it clear that Jesus is not advocating the use of force to “convert” people or demand they believe who He is, even though some people have been known to use these verses as an excuse for a charade of that very thing. God did use force for certain purposes in the Old Testament scenarios, and there is reason to believe He, himself, will use force in some ways later in the timeline; but there is never an example or command to use violence or coercion to “make” people follow Him as a matter of conviction and love. No one can really follow someone they don’t really believe in anyway. This is a key difference between forcing someone to observe a religious ritual and the inability to force anyone to have faith.
Still, the verses do use an odd combination of the words suffer, violence, and force. I investigated the word suffer a couple of weeks ago, coming to the conclusion that it is not always a negative word in the historical Biblical context, even though it tends to be in our English language daily use. It seems we might as well start here with the same realization for the words violence and force. These words speak of an extreme of effort or intensity, but do not always mean bad results, even in the English.
My dictionary ❶ lists the second definition of violence as “intense, often devastatingly explosively powerful force or energy.” Yes, it gives the example of of a hurricane and says devastating, but there is also the meaning that it is something that brings about great change, not always easy, but not necessarily bad. The fourth entry says it might also mean involving “strength of feeling, conduct, or expression…” Considering that violence can be used to overturn a bad situation to a good one, or getting to the heart of a matter that benefits from nitty gritty discussion, it can also be a good thing. A mundane example is the “violence” of a reaction with gasoline in an engine to drive the car.
Everyone in the articles I reviewed (see links below)❷ seems to agree that the Greek word being translated as violence and force in the first part of the Matthew verse and in John is biazo❸. They also seem to mostly agree that it is grammatically a “passive voice” of expression. This use of “passive voice” is brought up a lot in discussing translations, often with the implication that if you don’t understand Greek, you can’t understand the English translations of the Bible. I found the explanation below❹ helpful, as it de-mystified the idea:
|Passive Voice Usage (always transitive)Observe the following sentences in which the subject is acted upon by someone not explicitly named.οὐχὶ δύο στρουθία ἀσσαρίου πωλεῖταιAren’t two sparrows sold for a penny? (Matthew 10:19)ἀφίενταί σου αἱ ἁμαρτίαιYour sins are forgiven (Mark 2:5)
ἕκαστον γὰρ δένδρον ἐκ τοῦ καρποῦ γινώσκεται
For every tree is known by its fruit (Luke 6:44)
Notice that the subject of these verbs would be the object if the verb were active voice. This is the basic meaning of the passive voice.
When translating Greek middle/passive forms of transitive verbs you may need to try both middle and passive translations to see which makes best sense in the context.
There are two other Greek words that get translated to “violent” or “violence” in the New Testament❸, depending on the translation. Hormena literally means “a rush,” while diaseio specifically means “to shake violently.” There are also two that are commonly translated “force.” Bebaios is an adjective denoting “firm” or “secure,” which is a very positive use. Harpazo is the Greek word used in the second part of Matthew 11:12, and means “to snatch away.” The trouble is that the structure of the sentences and the supposed metaphorical use could still be “understood” in various ways depending on what a person makes of the context.
In Matthew chapter 11, Jesus seems to use verse 12 to segue from explaining who John the Baptist is to saying how fickle his audience is. He uses the description of violence to particularly label the time period from John the Baptist until His current point in time. A cursory review of history shows that this was not an unusually violent time period, even against those who follow God, so it is unlikely that He is saying these people or circumstance are more violent than any others.
Jesus is indentifying a pivotal element, the kingdom of heaven, and how people will respond. The way violence and force are used here, it doesn’t seem all that clear if the violence is positive or negative. All of the metaphors after verse 12 are negative, so that could be the vein of the whole presentation. On the other hand, the negative examples don’t come until after He has said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” In fact, right before verse 12, He says those least in the kingdom are greater than John, which is a positive and hopeful statement for those who follow. Some reviewers draw on other scriptures as possible de-coding help, but when a certain Biblical passage is distinctly important to decoding another, we are usually carefully pointed in that direction.
I, personally, don’t put it past Jesus to be making a play on words. Not that He is trying to trick anyone. From what I see, He uses this way of communicating sometimes to get the hearers (or readers) to think, or to speak of a concept that they won’t really understand until later. If it is an idea that is super important, it is repeated in others ways and places to make sure it is understood. So, either the point of these two verses is made clear elsewhere and we are not seeing the connection, or they are a part of the story that is not necessary for everyone to totally comprehend. There are several parables where the details are not completely understood, because we don’t have the same cultural context. That doesn’t interfere with understanding the simple good news of who Jesus Christ is. Recall Nicodemus struggling with the idea of being “born again.”
Speaking of plays on words, recall Nicodemus struggling with the idea of being “born again.” Since this metaphor is used, as well as multiple upon multiple references are made to believing on His name, to gain access to His kingdom, I’m not, again, not too concerned about figuring out exactly what is meant in the Matthew and John verses by “violence.” It is interesting that birth really is a violent event in a person’s life, both for the birther and the birthee. The mother must exert great effort, basically whether she wants to or not, to give birth to the baby. I wonder if that is how it is for God to bring us through the birth process into His kingdom. He obviously has more strength and control than human mothers, but our free will and sinful state have to be dealt with. As for the helpless baby, it gets shoved violently through the birth canal (we can stick to the original and usual process for the metaphor, right?) into a new existence, through no power of it’s own, but it definitely experiences the process. The baby “forces his way into” the world, in the passive sense.
We can at least come away with a confirmation that following Jesus Christ is not a low-key, boring life. Someone who has truly realized what is going on will have a violent reaction of some sort to the message and it’s followers. They must, for they must either reject it in anger or accept it as truth. This doesn’t count those who are just angry about life in general, or possibly reasonably fed up with man-made religion and self-righteous persons. That is different. But when faced with the actual life changing understanding of the magnificent love and sovereignty of God (and who but God really knows when that has occurred for a person), we must either passionately return His love or vehemently oppose Him. That much is clear from the simple message of who Jesus Christ is, and the expositions in the Bible to show how God had this planned all along.
I disagree with the commentators who claim “understanding this verse is crucial.” God does not make our most important choices obscure, like He is playing some game with us to confuse us. The things that do seem difficult to understand are either due to complexities of God that bring awe, but not confusion; or they are because of other people telling us that following God is complicated. Regardless of exactly what these two verses mean, we can choose to forcefully take hold of the truth because God gives us the grace and strength to do so if we will but let Him.
❶ Webster’s New World College Dictionary, 4th Edition
❷ Here are links to a some of the websites I reviewed on these verses:
❸Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words