Advancing forcefully or suffering violence? (Matthew 11:12)

Does Matthew 11:12 say God’s kingdom is forcefully advancing, or that it’s subjected to violence?

Open Matthew 11:12.

Matthew 11:12 is a puzzle for translators. The NIV from 1984 reads like this:

  • From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it.

But the same verse from the 2011 NIV reads:

  • From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been subjected to violence, and violent people have been raiding it.

So which one is right? “Forcefully advancing” would be a good thing. “Subjected to violence” sounds bad. What did Jesus mean?

Here are three questions to help us decide:

  1. How were the words in this sentence used? Were they usually positive or negative in the Greek language that Matthew used? To answer that question, we can use a lexicon, a dictionary of Greek from the New Testament period.
  2. What is the context saying? How does this sentence contribute to the message of the paragraph, the pericope, and the book? To answer that question, we must read the surrounding text.
  3. How do others understand this verse? To answer that question, we’ll check some commentaries.

Okay, let’s do those three things.

Step 1: The meaning of the word

The crucial words are those translated forceful in NIV(1984), but violent in NIV(2011). The sentence contains the verb (biazomai) and the noun (biastēs) of the same root word.

Here’s how three lexicons handle the verb:

  • BDAG: Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (University of Chicago Press, 2000), page 175:

In Greek literature, biazomai is most often used in the unfavorable sense of attack or forcible constraint.

  • Louw/Nida: Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains (New York: United Bible Societies, 1996), page 228:

biazomai: to experience a violent attack—‘to be attacked with violence, to suffer violent attacks.’

  • EDNT: Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (Eerdmans, 1990), volume 1 page 216:

biazomai: use force on; use power; behave violently

This word clearly has bad connotations. That means we would need a very good reason to take it differently in this context.

Step 2: The meaning in context

Matthew overtly introduced Jesus’ topic: he’s speaking “about John” (11:7). He told us that John is being held in Herod’s prison (11:2). John is disillusioned about the one he believed was the Messiah, but he can no longer be sure that Jesus will release him from his chains and set right what’s wrong in Israel. If anyone in this context expected the kingdom to be forcibly advancing, it’s John. But Jesus won’t have a bar of it.

John’s ministry came to a sudden end with he was arrested by Herod’s forces. That’s only a matter of months ago, but ever since that time — from the days of John the Baptist — the kingdom has suffered violence as violent men (namely Herod’s forces) raided it, i.e. captured the kingdom prophet. We explained that Jesus was deliberately vague in critiquing Herod, but the immediate context is crystal clear.

Does that reading fit the wider message of Matthew’s Gospel as well? In the previous chapter, Jesus warned the twelve to expect violent people to treat his kingdom servants violently. They are “sheep among wolves” (10:16). They should expect to be arrested, flogged, and dragged before Jewish and gentile rulers (10:17-18). They will be betrayed and killed by their own community (10:21), suffering abuse like their master (10:25). Following him means accepting crucifixion (10:38). That is Matthew’s message: his Gospel is taking us towards the moment when the king himself will suffer violence at the hands of violent men.

The same message dominates the canonical context of the entire Bible. As God’s representative kingdom, Israel has suffered violence at the hands of violent people such as Nebuchadnezzar.  If you read the Bible as the narrative of the kingdom, Jesus’ statement gives insight on the whole story.

Step 3: How others understand it

Most recent commentaries acknowledge the difficulties in translating this verse. Most take at least the three steps we’ve taken here: lexicons, context, and comparison.

And most of them lean towards the same conclusion. Check the examples quoted below.

Conclusions

We’re mishearing Jesus if we think he wants us to be forceful in the way we grasp hold of God’s kingdom.

We’re mishearing Jesus if we think God’s reign is advancing forcefully so we should be able to subdue violent people.

We’re mishearing Jesus if we expect the kingdom of God to give us all the authority in the world so we’ll have no trouble from violent people.

We’re hearing Jesus correctly if we understand that the kingdom of God comes by means of the cross. Like its king, the kingdom suffers violence at the hands of violent people.

Do you see how the kingdom perspective gives clarity even to difficult texts?

 

What others are saying

Barclay Moon Newman, A Handbook on the Gospel of Matthew, UBS Handbook Series (New York: United Bible Societies, 1992), 328:

Translators can never be really sure of the best way to render this sentence. … Here are some possible renderings for translators to consider: “There have been attacks made against God’s rule (or, the establishment of God’s rule), and violent men have tried to seize it by force”; “violent men (and other forces) have used force to try to seize control of God’s rule”; “there have been men who have tried by violent force to establish God’s rule.”

Grant R. Osborne, Matthew, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010), 422:

As Stenger says, βιασταί comes from a family of words meaning “violent” and with “attack” (ἁρπάζω) must mean “violent people attack it”; so the two clauses must be synonymous. Therefore Jesus’ statement here goes back to ch. 10 and refers to the persecution that characterizes the age of mission. John the Baptist is a prime example, imprisoned and soon to be killed at the hands of Herod Antipas. “From the days of John the Baptist until the present” thus refers to the arrest of John and the opposition Jesus and his disciples have already experienced.

Michael J. Wilkins, Matthew, NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004), 416–417:

In the light of the negative circumstances of John the Baptist and the rising opposition to his own ministry, Jesus points to the ongoing opposition that the kingdom of heaven has encountered since the days of John the Baptist. The first clause probably indicates opposition from the religious establishment generally, while the second clause probably points to the forces of specific evil people, such as Herod Antipas, who has even now imprisoned John. The saying foreshadows the gathering opposition to Jesus, which will come to a climax in his arrest, trial, and execution by the Jewish high priest, Caiaphas, and the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate.

David L. Turner, Matthew, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 295:

The case for taking βιάζεται positively as an intransitive middle has not been made; there are no clear examples of it in ancient literature (W. Moore 1975, 1989; Schrenk, TDNT 1:609–14; J. Shepherd 2004). It is best to understand this difficult passage … as teaching the difficult truth that John in prison is learning: the kingdom will not immediately judge God’s enemies but will itself be oppressed by them for a time until God vindicates himself and his people (6:9–10; 10:40–42; 16:21–27; 25:31–40).

R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans., 2007), 429–430:

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 soon do so both for Jesus himself (16:21 etc.) and for his disciples (10:17–23, 28, 34–39). …

That is the probable meaning of Matthew’s version of the saying, taking the repeated language of violence (biazomai, biastēs) and of plunder (harpazō) in their normal negative sense. There is nothing in Matthew (as against Luke 16:16) to suggest any other meaning for these strongly pejorative terms (see p. 419, nn. 6, 7), and the concentration of negative language demands such an interpretation. … This is, in Matthew, a declaration that the kingdom of heaven has been and remains subject to violent opposition.

Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 1–13, vol. 33A, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1998), 307:

Given the obvious greatness of the kingdom, the present verse is bound to come as a shock. For all its greatness, the kingdom suffers violence and violent men plunder it. The kingdom involves suffering. In the same way, Matthew continues, so must the Son of Man suffer.

[previous: When the king is dishonoured]

[next: Coping with social pressure]

Author: Allen Browne

Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Discipleship Trainer • Riverview Church

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