I have written in this series in a while. But there’s nothing like that one verse that keeps popping up with an interpretation that I don’t believe is faithful to the context that spurs a revival of sorts. It’s the kind of passage that can easily represent our own imposed meanings because there has not been careful study to determine what Jesus actually meant by what he said.
From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence and the violent take it by force (Matt. 11:12)
Common interpretation: The people of God are to be forceful in kingdom pursuits. An extreme interpretation is that we are the ones who make the kingdom happen.
What’s going on: Keep in mind Jesus’ audience and their expectation for the Messiah, the one sent by God who would restore Israel to her glory days that rested in the promises made to David (2 Sam. 7). They had lost their land over to Gentile rulership and their kingship. The idea permeated this ancient audience that that restoration would be a grand political sweep that would knock out the existing regime.
Also keep in mind that the ministry of John the Baptist was an announcer of sorts of the Messiah so that people would believe in Him. Meaning, that people would come to trust that the promises of God are found through Christ. Here the audience are Jews but we know from the breadth of Scripture that this also refers to Gentiles who would be grafted in to the kingdom as equals.
The beginning of the chapter highlights the doubt of who Jesus really is as found in John’s questions “are you really the one”. So Jesus tells his disciples to tell John all the things that have happened (as proof that Jesus is the Messiah). He then addresses the crowds regarding their expectation, tying in the ministry of John the Baptist to the ministry of the Old Testament prophets and the announcement of the kingdom. In a nutshell, everything leading up to Jesus’ ministry has been for the purpose of the announcement of the kingdom. So he tells them that the kingdom has always been advancing but maybe not in ways they realized. In fact, the verse in question highlights the fact that there has been opposition to it.
What it’s really saying: Now, I acknowledge that scholars have wrangled over this passage and whether Jesus is referring to the violent as his disciples or those who would oppose him. Even if it is to the disciples, the force in question is belief in Christ. Jesus is not telling his disciples to take the kingdom by force. In fact, if we jump ahead to the first chapter of Acts, he specifically tells them their job is to not be concerned with the consummation of the kingdom for this is something that God does and has fixed by his own authority. Rather, their concern is to be witnesses.
I believe, contrary to the common interpretation highlighted above, that the evidence shows that the violent men refer to those who reject the Christ, thereby opposing the kingdom. This chapter introduces an uprising in the opposition that Jesus would only increase, leading to the crucifixion. So the referent to the one who take it by force are those who wanted to usurp God’s power and make things happen on their own terms. In his commentary on Matthew, D.A. Carson notes;
The argument up to vs. 11 has established John the Baptist’s greatness, grounded in his ministry of preparing for and pointing to Christ; and it has anticipated the witness of those in the kingdom who are even greater than John because the least of them testifies to Christ yet more clearly. Now, Jesus goes on to say, from the days of the Baptist – i.e., from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry – the kingdom has been forcefully advancing (the point of Luke 16:16). But it has not swept all opposition away, as John anticipated.
Simultaneous with the kingdom’s advance have been the attacks of violent men on it. That is the very point that John could not grasp because it does not refer to just one kind of opposition. It includes Herod’s imprisonment of John, the attacks by Jewish leaders now intensifying, the materialism that craved a political Messiah and the prosperity he would bring but not his righteousness. Already, Jesus has warned his disciples of persecution and suffering; the opposition was rising and would get worse.
Now Carson offers some linguistic proof as well, but I believe this makes sense in the context, especially when you compare this passage to the parallel passage in Luke 16. Jesus is referring to those who wanted to make the kingdom happen and shakedown anything or anyone that opposed it based on what they thought it should look like. But because they were not aligned with God’s actual kingdom agenda, they end up opposing God. After all, this WAS the issue with the religious leaders that Jesus confronted throughout the gospel narratives, men who rejected the very means by which God actually revealed his power and authority.
Why it Matters: Jesus is addressing an age old problem of forcing God’s agenda according to our liking and this was certainly the problem with the Pharisees. There is little more sinister than assuming responsibilities that belong to God alone based on how we think things should be. Unfortunately, I think this applies to Christians who have a list of activities that they must accomplish to make something happen under the presumption that the “violent take it by force”. No, only God does that and we submit to his will, rest in his promises and respond by loving Him and neighbor, making disciples and being a witness to God’s redemptive kingdom agenda. Certainly, that includes a host of activity on our part both individually and corporately but not because we are trying to violently take something. The victory is in Christ and we must point to Him.
 D.A. Carson, “Matthew” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 8 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing, 1984), 267-268