VIOLENCE AND THE KINGDOM
“From the days of John the Baptist until now, the Kingdom of Heaven is taken by storm, and the violent take it by force. For up to John all the prophets and the Law spoke with the voice of prophecy; and, if you are wiping to accept the fact, this is Elijah who was destined to come. He who has ears to hear let him hear.”
In Matt. 11:12 there is a very difficult saying, “The kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and men of violence take it by force.” Luke has this saying in another form (Lk.16:16): “Since then the good news of the Kingdom of God is preached, and every one enters it violently.” It is clear that at some time Jesus said something in which violence and the kingdom were connected, something which was a dark and a difficult saying, which no one at the time fully understood. Certainly Luke and Matthew understood it in different ways.
Luke says that every man storms his way into the Kingdom; he means, as Denney said, that the “Kingdom of heaven is not for the well-meaning but for the desperate,” that no one drifts into the Kingdom, that the Kingdom only opens its doors to those who are prepared to make as great an effort to get into it as men do when they storm a city.
Matthew says that from the time of John until now the Kingdom of heaven suffers violence and the violent take it by force. The very form of that expression seems to look back over a considerable time. It indeed sounds much more like a comment of Matthew than a saying of Jesus. It sounds as if Matthew was saying: “From the days of John, who was thrown into prison, right down to our own times the Kingdom of heaven has suffered violence and persecution at the hands of violent men.”
It is likely that we will get the full meaning of this difficult saying by putting together the recollection of Luke and Matthew. What Jesus may well have said is: “Always my Kingdom will suffer violence; always savage men will try to break it up, and snatch it away and destroy it; and therefore only the man who is desperately in earnest, only the man in whom the violence of devotion matches and defeats the violence of persecution will in the end enter into it.” It may well be that this saying of Jesus was originally at one and the same time a warning of violence to come and a challenge to produce a devotion which would be even stronger than the violence.
It seems strange to find in Matt. 11:13 that the Law is said to speak with the voice of prophecy; but it was the Law itself which confidently declared that the voice of prophecy would not die. “The Lord your God will raise up for you a Prophet like me from among you, from your brethren.” “I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brethren; and I will put my words in his mouth” (Deut.18:15,18). It was because he broke the Law, as they saw it, that the orthodox Jews hated Jesus; but, if they had only had eyes to see it, both the Law and the prophets pointed to him.
Once again Jesus tells the people that John is the herald and the forerunner whom they have awaited so long–if they are willing to accept the fact. There is all the tragedy of the human situation in that last phrase. The old proverb has it that you can take a horse to the water, but you cannot make him drink. God can send his messenger but men can refuse to recognize him, and God can send his truth but men can refuse to see it. God’s revelation is powerless without man’s response. That is why Jesus ends with the appeal that he who has ears should use them to hear.
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