The Violent Take It by Force


“From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and violent men take it by force”

Matthew 11:12

If Jesus is Lord at all, then He must be Lord of all. This means every sphere of our lives, every part of our world, and every moment of our days are to be governed by the sovereign reign and rule of the Lord Jesus Christ. Our response to His Lordship ought to be marked by indelible joy and gladness. Our supreme happiness should be found in beholding our God, studying His Word, pursuing holiness, and following where He leads.

Being a Christian, then, requires hard work, and nothing less than a violent and tenacious pursuit of Christ. As Jesus explains to us: “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and violent men take it by force” (Matt. 11:12).

A Difficult Text

Admittedly, this particular text is notoriously difficult to understand. There are two basic interpretations that people employ. On the one side, we have those who say the violence spoken of here is a praiseworthy tenacity that will not be denied without grasping Christ. On the other side, we have many scholars and pastors who advocate that the violence described here is both negative and sinful. It can appear, at first glance, that almost all commentaries seem to disagree on this text.

In its context, the reader could seemingly interpret this text either way because both positions could be read as a rebuke to the people. If Jesus is saying here that heaven can only be entered by those who muster all the holy tenacity they can, then He is rebuking the people for their slothful ease and lazy unbelief. If this verse is speaking about people doing violence to God’s Kingdom because they hate Him and His Word, then this is a clear warning and rebuke to the people about the sin of unbelief.

Personally, I lean toward the view that Jesus is telling us we need to not only believe in Him and His gospel, but we need to pursue Him with all the energy and power we can muster through the Holy Spirit. As Paul says, “For this I toil, struggling with all His energy that He powerfully works within me” (Colossians 1:29, ESV). We need spiritual tenacity. We need spiritual violence.

Consider how if we read Matthew 11:12 in the negative sense, that the kingdom of heaven is suffering because of man’s violent assaults, this would imply man is powerful enough to thwart and even destroy the plans of God. It would suggest that, somehow, man can attack the abode of God in heaven. Neither of these options seem likely when one considers the sovereignty of God.

But the main reason I hold the opposite position is because when this statement is recorded in Luke’s parallel Gospel account, we read: “The Law and the Prophets were until John; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is preached, and everyone forces his way into it” (Luke 16:16). Here we receive a much better sense that sinners were hearing the good news of the gospel and, in their gladness, were rushing to enter the kingdom.

In fact, according to the footnotes of the Legacy Standard Bible, our text from Matthew 11:12 may also be translated, “And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven is forcibly entered, and violent men seize it for themselves.”

Is This Violence a Means of Salvation?

Of course, Jesus does not mean to suggest that we must somehow sneak our way past God to make it to heaven or lay siege to heaven like warmongers. Jesus is the only way to heaven, and no one is sneaking or breaking their way in (John 14:6). Nor does He mean that we must somehow work extra hard to make it to heaven. Paul is quite clear on this when he explains that “a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Jesus Christ” (Gal. 2:16). Faith itself also cannot be a work on behalf of man, since faith does not originate from within man. Rather, faith is a gift of God’s grace (Eph. 2:8-9; Rom. 10:17). But the one who has been granted faith to believe in Jesus, by the grace of God, will find their desires shift and change so that they actively desire Jesus above all else.

Puritan author and preacher Thomas Watson, in his book Heaven Taken by Storm, agrees and writes: Though heaven be given us freely, yet we must contend for it, ‘whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might’ (Eccles. 9:10). Our work is great, our time short, our Master urgent. We have need therefore to summon together all the powers of our souls and strive as in a matter of life and death, that we may arrive at the kingdom above. We must not only put forth diligence, but violence.”

What Is Meant by Violence?

What sort of violence must the Christian put into practice? This verse does not reference physical violence. This verse references reading and studying Scripture, yes, but also much more. This verse is about actually living by every Word that proceeds forth from the mouth of God (Matt. 4:4). This verse is about putting your hand to the plow and not looking back. It is about spiritual tenacity. It is about being disciplined in obedience to all that Jesus commanded. It is about having the sort of attitude that says “I will take up my cross and follow Jesus, whom I love with all my heart, soul, and mind.” Ultimately, it is about having a sort of one-track mind that says “I will set my eyes upon Jesus, and nothing will make me gaze anywhere other than Him.”

The spiritual violence required is only borne from the heart that cries out: “As the deer pants for the water brooks, so my soul pants for You, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God” (Ps. 42:1-2). We must desire God more than we desire anything else. We cannot permit anything to stand in our way as an obstacle in our pursuit of Christ. If sin crouches at our door, we must slaughter it. If anything else vies for the ultimate affections of our heart, we must flee from it and proclaim, “Jesus alone is my Shepherd and King.” If tyrants arise and compete for lordship over our lives, we must put them down through strict adherence to Christ as our only sovereign Lord. If our hearts threaten to deceive us, we must make certain we apply the Bible to our lives to offer true worship to the living God.

Only in this violent pursuit of the Lord can the Christian say of God, “You have put gladness in my heart, more than when their grain and new wine abound” (Ps. 4:7). When we experience this reality, we will discover that the joy of the Lord gives us the strength needed to violently desire and pursue Jesus above all else (Neh. 8:10). This is what assures us of our salvation and future glory in the kingdom of heaven.

For further reading
Heaven Taken by Storm by Thomas Watson
Desiring God by John Piper
Holiness: Its Nature, Hindrances, Difficulties, and Roots by J.C. Ryle
The Christian Warrior: Wrestling with Sin, Satan, the World, and the Flesh by Isaac Ambrose
Jacob Tanner

Jacob Tanner

Jacob Tanner serves as the pastor of Christ Keystone Church located in Middleburg, PA. He lives with his wife, Kayla, and they are parents to two sons, Josiah and Owen. Jacob earned his M.Div from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in 2023 and has also authored several books.

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