Q&R: Matthew 11:12 – “The violent take it by force” with Brad Jersak
Since changing my old perspectives about an angry, vengeful, wrathful God, and a Jesus that retaliates, and on my desire to bear arms to defend myself, could you illuminate for me a better understanding of Matthew 11:12, which I regard as an over-used familiar scripture about “spiritual warfare” and violence?
Good question. Those Christians who love to pray and identify themselves as “intercessors” or “prayer warriors” often gravitate to the biblical language of “spiritual warfare.” Paul uses “battle” and “weapons our warfare” in passages such as Ephesians 6 and 2 Corinthians 10 to make the point that the Christian’s battle is not fought with material weapons against any human enemy. Rather, we’re countering the spiritual darkness of hatred and enmity, sin and shame, in ourselves with others through much more effective means: faith, love, truth, and the good news or “gospel of peace.” So he’s using the metaphors subversively in the service of the nonviolent kingdom of peace, where
- He will judge between the nations
- and will settle disputes for many peoples.
- They will beat their swords into plowshares
- and their spears into pruning hooks.
- Nation will not take up sword against nation,
- nor will they train for war anymore.
- (Isaiah 2:4)
Now here is the Matthew passage in context:
- 7 As John’s disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind? 8 If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces. 9 Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is the one about whom it is written:
- ‘I will send my messenger ahead of you,
- who will prepare your way before you.’
- 11 Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. 12 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 [often cited as “take it by force.” 13 For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John. 14 And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come.15 Whoever has ears, let them hear.”
Typically, the “spiritual warfare” crowd applies this to their practice of aggressive prayer, where through their bold prayers and unwavering faith, they “press in for the victory” or “pull down heaven” to “overcome the enemy” and so on. They are those who will advance God’s kingdom “by force” of their prayers (and not only prayers!).
These phrases become in-house cliches specific to a certain type of charismatic culture. Unfortunately, the aggressive spirit and frequent presumption about God’s will also lead to common practices of trying to “pray in” God’s political candidate and policies and to “pray against” people who hold opposing views and agendas. Some [actually MANY] can’t help but extend the violence in their prayer into the world of people, literally “praying curses” against the human enemy de jour. Further, some of their favorite teachers and ‘prophets’ are calling them to arm themselves for an actual battle against human opponents “with God on our side.” Adventures in missing the point!
After decades of listening to the use and misuse of these metaphors, I find it all too tempting to become cynical and contemptuous of these brothers and sisters in Christ. I believe many of them practice prayer this way in good faith. But for those willing to hear, they’re also due for a major course correction, beginning with the Matthew 11 passage..
Very simply, what did Jesus mean? First, that violent men were trying to co-opt the kingdom of God by violent power. He’s specifically noting Herod’s persecution and arrest (then martyrdom) of John the Baptist. In that way, the people who are preaching the kingdom of God are suffering violence at the hands of people who use violent force against them. So it’s not that the kingdom is “forcefully advancing.” Men such as Herod are attacking it.
A secondary application in Gospel context are those who want to “take” (a strong word, as in grab or steal) the kingdom by violent means rather than by the Jesus Way of the Cross. An example would be the Zealots, a Jewish movement in Jesus’ day who wanted to overcome the Roman occupation through assassinations and insurgency. They thought that revolt was the answer when, in fact, Jesus saw their violence as counter to the kingdom and foresaw how that would only bring down Rome’s wrath on their heads.
So in a sense, those “prayer warriors” who, by infusing “force” into their spiritual practice, have also allowed worldly violence and ambition into their hearts, are indeed fulfilling the passage in practice … but in the negative way that Christ is addressing. The kingdom does “suffer violence” from these modern zealots. Better that they (and we) would understand that King Jesus reigns by self-giving love who has overcome his enemies through forgiveness and reconciliation–by making them his friends.