Matt. 11:12 has puzzled many Bible interpreters. What does it mean in its textual context?
The organization is as follows: I offer my translation, many other translations, commentaries, and my own opinion.
You are encouraged to see translations at biblegateway.com.
This post is adapted from my larger translation and commentary on Matthew’s Gospel, which is part of my larger translation and commentary on the NT.
My (Tentative) Translation
The key verse is v. 12.
11 I tell you the truth: among those born of women has not risen one who is greater than John the Baptist. But the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he is. 12 From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of God suffers violence, and violent people plunder it. 13 For all the prophets and the law prophesied unto John.
The context is about John who suffered violence. He was put in prison for criticizing Herod Antipas who was committing adultery. And Jesus was about to suffer violence during his arrest and on the cross.
Let’s look at three classes of translations and paraphrases.
The first class of translations says the verb is passive, so the kingdom suffers violence:
The kingdom of heaven has been suffering violence, and the violent have been seizing it by force. (CSB)
The kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent are taking it by force. (NASBRE)
Violent people have been trying to take over the kingdom of heaven by force. (CEV)
The kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. (ESV)
The kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force. (KJV)
The kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and forceful people lay hold of it. (NET)
The kingdom of heaven has been subjected to violence, and violent people have been raiding it. (NIV)
The kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force. (NKJV)
The kingdom of heaven is treated with violence, and the violent grasp hold of it. (TLV)
Heaven’s kingdom suffers violence and violent people plunder it (Olmstead)
The second class of translations say the verb is in the middle voice, so the kingdom advances forcefully:
The kingdom of heaven has forcefully advanced, and the strong take it by force. (MEV)
The kingdom of heaven has been going forward in strength, and people have been trying to take it by force. (NCV)
The Kingdom of Heaven has been forcefully advancing, and violent people are attacking it. (NLT)
The third class heavily reinterprets the verb. Let’s call them the outliers:
The kingdom of Heaven has been taken by storm and eager men are forcing their way into it. (Philips)
Ardent multitudes have been crowding toward the Kingdom of Heaven (TLB)
People have tried to force themselves into God’s kingdom. (Message)
To wrap things up, the majority of translations say the verb is passive, so the kingdom suffers violence.
Now let’s look at what five commentaries say. Osborne lays out, correctly (I believe) the four options.
First, he reviews the positive or negative meaning of the two clauses. (1) Totally positive because the kingdom advances forcibly through God and forceful disciples seize it. (2) Totally negative because the kingdom suffers violence by persecution and violent leaders plunder it. (3) Negative / Positive because the kingdom suffers violence, but forceful people lay hold of it. (4) Positive / negative because the kingdom is forcefully advancing, but violent people plunder it.
Then he says that the saying is most probably totally negative (2). The violent people attack it. The “saying goes back to ch[apter] 10 and refers to the persecution that characterizes the age of mission” (pp. 421-22).
At the time of Jesus’s ministry that history is still very short; by the time Matthew is writing, it has extended another generation or two. That history, long or short, is not one of unmixed triumph for God’s purpose, but paradoxically has been marked throughout by “violence.” John himself has already suffered the “violence” of imprisonment, soon to be followed by execution. Jesus and his followers have already been received with a hostility which, if it has not yet resulted in physical violence, will do so both for Jesus himself (16:21, etc.) and for his disciples (10:17-23, 28, 34-39) Cf. 17:11-13 for continuity between John and Jesus in the experience of violent opposition (p. 429)
So France says that the kingdom’s preachers and emissaries have suffered and will suffer violence, which, by extension, the kingdom suffers violence. So he interprets the verse totally negatively.
Jesus freely borrowed images from his society and applied them in shocking ways, and thus may speak favorably here of spiritual warriors who were storming their way into God’s kingdom (10:34-35). One second-century Jewish tradition praises those who passionately pursue the law by saying that God counts it as if they had ascended to heaven and taken the law forcibly, which tradition regards as greater than having taken it peaceably … There were the people actively following Jesus, not simply waiting for the kingdom to come their way (p. 340)
So Keener give a positive interpretation to the verse. Spiritual warriors storm the kingdom of God and climb up to heaven to bring it down, so to speak (6:10).
After a long survey of the Greek phrases and grammar, Carson says that the kingdom has been advancing forcibly (cf. Luke 16:16), “but it has not swept aside all opposition, as John expected” (p. 267).
Then he writes:
Simultaneous with the kingdom’s advance have been the attacks of violent men on it. That is the very point John could not grasp. Now Jesus expressly affirms it. The statement is general because it does not refer to just one kind of opposition. It includes Herod’s imprisonment of John … the attacks by Jewish leaders now intensifying (9:34; 12:22-24), the materialism that craved a political Messiah and prosperity he would bring but not his righteousness (11:20-24). Already Jesus has warned his disciples of persecution and suffering (10:16-42); the opposition was rising and would get worse” (pp. 267-68).
In other words, the verb is in the middle voice. The kingdom is indeed advancing forcefully, but it has not eliminated violent opposition, and John could not understand why it had not, as he languished in prison. Indeed, the violent opposition was getting stronger and would culminate first with John’s execution and then with Jesus’s death. So he sees the positive / negative interpretation.
If the verb is passive (“suffers violence”), the kingdom experiences violent attacks. If the verb is in the middle voice, then the kingdom uses violence or force to gain an objective. “The kingdom of heaven advances forcefully.” Based on the context, Olmstead concludes that the verb is passive, so the kingdom suffers violence, and violent men plunder it.
[The verse can be] rendered something like “from the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and violent people attack it.”
This translation fits well with the narrative flow of Matthew. Despite the many blessings of the arriving kingdom, from the early days of John’s ministry to the present moment in Jesus’ life, God’s reign has nevertheless received increasing opposition. John has been arrested by Herod. The Jewish teachers are increasingly opposing Jesus, and people are growing more and more discontent with Jesus’ refusal to promote revolution.
I share Keener’s involvement in the Renewal Movements, so I really like his totally positive interpretation. Spiritual warriors storm their way into God’s kingdom. I don’t like the way the kingdom is said to suffer violence. I question whether the kingdom can suffer violence in any meaningful sense, though my translation reflects it. We must be more specific. Who or what suffers violence?
The context favors what Carson says: a positive / negative approach. The context goes back to Matt. 10, the previous chapter, where Jesus warns the disciples of persecution and flogging and even death. Yet the kingdom of God advances forcefully, but violent men plunder it by seizing its best assets: human representatives of the kingdom. (The verb harpazō, pronounced hahr-pah-zoh, is normally translated as “seize” or “snatch”). Violent men seize kingdom citizens by persecuting and imprisoning and killing them, but the kingdom keeps rolling on and advancing. The kingdom ensures that another of its citizen rises up and takes over, when the others had been stymied and killed. So the kingdom itself does not really suffer violence, but the people in it do, sadly.
How does this post help me grow in my knowledge of God?
You will suffer persecution, when you preach the gospel powerfully and effectively and in the wrong regions, where resistance is strong. In first-century Israel, the region could be oppositional. Matt. 10 indeed says that if persecution comes, flee to another area. There is nothing wrong with fleeing–there is everything right with it. The larger point is that opponents of the kingdom will plunder its most valuable resources–its active people who proclaim it, like John the Baptist.
So the more serious you get with God, the more you may experience some level of persecution from your friends and family. In their own small way, my family sometimes (not always) sneered at me for my salvation back in the 1970s. They couldn’t understand my involvement at church so often. But I kept pressing on and moving with the kingdom. I don’t believe the kingdom suffered, but sometimes I did.
“Everyone Is Pressed into” the Kingdom (Luke 16:16)
Blomberg, Craig L. Matthew: The New American Commentary. Vol. 22 (Broadman, 1992).
Carson, D. A. Matthew: The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Rev. Ed. by Tremper Longman III and David E. Garland. Vol. 9. (Zondervan, 2010).
France, R. T. The Gospel of Matthew: New International Commentary on the New Testament. (Eerdmans 2007).
Garland, David E. Reading Matthew: A Literary and Theological Commentary (Smyth and Helways, 2001).
Keener, Craig. A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew. (Eerdmans 1999).
Olmstead, Wesley G. Matthew 1-14: A Handbook on the Greek Text. (Baylor UP, 2019).
Osborne, Grant R. Matthew: Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. (Zondervan, 2010).