Taking the Kingdom By Force

Matthew 11:12


Audio Version

Polycarp of Smyrna was one of the very earliest Church Fathers. He was a bishop of Smyrna, which is in Asia Minor, now called Turkey. He was a disciple of the Apostle John. So he was only one generation younger than the apostles. Polycarp lived into his 80’s. However, at the very end of his life, he was taken by the Romans. They asked him not only to bow down to the emperor, but also to renounce Jesus. Polycarp said that he had served His Lord for 86 years, and His Lord had never done him any harm. Why would he renounce his Lord now? So, at the age of 86, he was martyred for his faith.

Violence against the kingdom of God has been part of human history since the very beginning. As Saint Augustine of Hippo wrote, in his book the City of God, all of humanity is divided into two kingdoms: the kingdom of God and the kingdom of man. This conflict started with Satan tempting Eve. The conflict was given verbal form when the Lord said that He would put enmity (or strife) between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent. Cain, the seed of the serpent, killed Abel, the seed of the woman. The conflict continued in Egypt when the kingdom of man started killing the little boys of the kingdom of God. Then, when the Israelites went to the land that was promised to them, they had to fight with the people of the land. The wickedness of the people of the land had risen to such a height that the Lord judged them by having the kingdom of God fight against the kingdom of man, and wipe out the inhabitants of the land.

The problem, of course, is that even within the people of Israel, there were always members of the kingdom of man. That is why the people of Israel persecuted all the prophets who came to tell them that they were misbehaving. So, even within the so-called people of God, there have been members of the kingdom of man. The relationship of the kingdom of man and the kingdom of God has always been an adversarial relationship. They are adversaries. But that relationship came to head, a climax, when Jesus Christ was born. When Christ was born, John the Baptist was also alive, a few months older than Jesus. John was a forerunner. We have seen that in the last couple of weeks. He was one who came before Jesus in order to pave the way for Jesus. But that way is not an easy way, as we will see from this verse.

This verse is probably the most difficult verse in all of Matthew to understand. There are several ways it could be translated. One is the NIV, which reads, “From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it.” This translation implies that it is the kingdom of God that is exercising force. However, other translations say it this way: “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.” This translation means that kingdom of heaven has been suffering violence, rather than forcefully advancing. I believe that the second translation is more accurate. In other words, people have been attacking the kingdom of heaven ever since John the Baptist started his ministry. The reasons why I believe this are several: firstly, Jesus is talking about John the Baptist, who is currently in prison, having been persecuted for speaking the truth. Jesus knows that John is just about to pay the final price for his devotion to God. Secondly, Jesus hasn’t really been talking about the kingdom of God expanding. He has been talking about how great the kingdom of God is. But not really about how the kingdom is expanding. Thirdly, the last part of the verse makes much better sense as explaining the first half of the verse. And the last part of the verse is plainly saying that the violent are trying to take the kingdom of God by force. So, Jesus is saying here that the battle between the two kingdoms has escalated since John began his ministry.

Of course, Jesus does not mean that the OT battle is meaningless. But the battle has escalated since John the Baptist started his ministry. The reason, of course, is that Satan did not want Jesus to enter into the kingdom. That’s why Satan tempted Jesus three times. Satan knew that if he could only get Jesus to disobey God just once, then Jesus would not have been able to bring the kingdom in its fullness, because that kingdom was to be a kingdom of righteousness, perfect righteousness.

So what does this phrase mean, “violent men take it by force?” It refers to the fact that the kingdom of men is always trying to reduce the number of people that belong to the kingdom of God. Any way they can do that, they will. Satan has many ways of luring people, but there are two broad categories that encompass all of his ways. The first category is that of temptation. This is the soft way. If he can get people to sin, and keep them buried in sin, then that is more people for his kingdom. The other way is persecution. This is the hard way. If he can scare people enough, then they will not want to be part of a kingdom where the going is so rough. People often want to have a comfortable life. In fact, they will often make that an idol in their lives. They want comfort so much that they are willing to sacrifice anything and everything else to get it. This is a major problem today in a culture that is comfort-crazed. We are too comfortable. Was John the Baptist praised for being comfortable? No, he lived very simply in order to have his message be clear, and so that his message would not be compromised. We need to be wary of making an idol out of comfort. There is nothing inherently wrong with comfort. However, we must never let comfort get in the way of sharing the truth. And by comfort, I am including both physical and emotional comfort. After all, it is much more comfortable simply to stay at home, never bothering anyone else, and never letting anyone else bother us. Live and let live, we like to say. The difficulty with thinking that way is that we will fail to be prophetic voices in our culture today. We will fail to speak out against injustice and oppression. Furthermore, and more seriously, we will fail to share the Gospel with people. I think comfort often gets in our way. We need to pray to the Lord that He would remove this idol from our lives, so that we would be willing to take risks in order to love people and share the words of life.

So, we need both to resist temptation, and stand firm in the time of persecution. Persecution is coming, you know. There are many groups of people out there who would like nothing better than to beat up on Christians. Certainly this is true in government. However, it is rapidly becoming true in the private sector as well. Even here in North Dakota, there are people who cannot stand “those religious people.” The would just as soon shut up those religious people so that there could be no more evangelism. Persecution is coming. Will we stand fast, holding to our confession? People have now been martyred for the Christian faith even in America. Think of Columbine High School. If someone were to come up to you with a gun and ask if you were a Christian, and he told you that if you are a Christian, he will kill you, what would you say? I have often asked myself this question. What I always have to do is to pray to the Lord that the Lord would keep me steadfast, and that He would strengthen me to seal my testimony with my own blood. You never know when something might come to that, as unlikely as it looks sitting here in a country that still has religious freedom. Those freedoms are eroding as surely as North Dakota wind erodes the land.

Furthermore, we need to be in prayer for the persecuted church. How often do we remember those Christians around the world who are being persecuted? And do we pray that the persecution would end? That is not necessarily what they need, even though that is usually the first thing that comes to our minds. A Chinese Christian once told fellow Christians in the US to stop praying that the persecution would cease, and instead pray that the persecuted Christians would stand fast, and hold on to their confession. Persecution is one of the best things that can happen to a church, because it purifies the church. Hypocrites will not stand up in the time of persecution. They will fall away, leaving those who truly are Christians. In fact, church discipline is hardly even needed in churches that are being persecuted. They love each other with an undying love, and help each other as much as they possibly can. As the early church father Tertullian put it, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” This is the main reason why God allows persecution of the church. Some estimates say that China will be 40% Christian in under 20 years, if the present rate is any indication. The Gospel is exploding over there, precisely because of the persecution that is happening. The same thing is happening in the Middle East. So, although violent men seek to take the kingdom by force, we know that the very gates of hell itself wil not prevail against the church.

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