Jesus’ statement that the kingdom of God suffers violence is found in the context of His commendation of John the Baptist: “And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force” (Matthew 11:12, NKJV).
Other translations put it like this: “The kingdom of heaven has been subjected to violence, and violent people have been raiding it” (NIV).
“Violent people have been trying to take over the kingdom of heaven by force” (CEV).
“The kingdom of the heavens is taken by violence, and [the] violent seize on it” (Darby).
This is indeed a puzzling verse at first. How can God’s kingdom suffer, and what do violent people have to do with it?
A basic rule of hermeneutics is that context is king. As already mentioned, Jesus is speaking to the crowds about John the Baptist’s ministry. Immediately before His statement that the kingdom of God suffers violence, Jesus honors John as the greatest prophet (Matthew 11:11). Immediately following His statement (verses 13–14), Jesus signifies that John was the capstone of the Old Testament revelation and the one who fulfilled the prophecy of Malachi 4:5. Jesus then speaks the familiar words “whoever has ears, let them hear” (verse 15)—words that suggest He has been speaking figuratively.
Another rule of hermeneutics is to compare Scripture with Scripture. One thing that had characterized John the Baptist’s ministry was the large number of people who came to hear him: “And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River” (Mark 1:4–5). This crowd was as loyal as it was diverse. Those who responded to John’s message of the coming Messiah included people who some thought would never repent, including tax collectors and prostitutes and Roman soldiers (Matthew 21:31–32; Luke 3:14). This crowd believed John to be a true prophet of God, and they were adamant about it (Matthew 14:5; Mark 11:32).
The pressing multitudes that had followed John continued to follow Jesus’ ministry (Luke 5:15; 12:1). This is the key to understanding Jesus’ statement that the kingdom of God suffers violence. Pointing to the huge crowds that followed John and that were now following Him, Jesus likens them to an invading army surrounding a city to capture it.
“From the days of John the Baptist until now,” there has been an extraordinary rush of people pressing in from all sides, eager for a blessing. The “kingdom of heaven suffers violence,” figuratively speaking, in that people were so thronging to hear the gospel that they resembled an army trying to besiege a city. And the “violent take it by force”; the people entering the kingdom were not violent literally, but their eagerness to see the coming of the Messiah was so overwhelming that it was as if they were attacking a city and beating down the doors to enter.
Jesus’ statement that “the kingdom of heaven suffers violence” is a graphic picture of the enthusiasm and excitement generated by John the Baptist’s and Jesus’ teaching. People were hungry for the truth and would not be kept away. For centuries, God’s prophets had predicted the Messiah’s coming, and now that the Messiah was here, nothing could hold back the flood of people pressing into the kingdom. We see some of this fervor in Luke 5:18–19, when some men literally tore through a roof to get to Jesus, and in John 6:15, when a crowd “intended to come and make him king by force.”
We should take note of the response of the believing people in Jesus’ day and share their passion. The gift of eternal life is beyond compare. Knowing Christ has come should create earnestness in us and a striving to be closer to Him. There is no place for apathy or ambivalence in the follower of Jesus Christ.