One of the seemingly most ambiguous of Jesus’ statements is 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.’ This New International Version rendition could imply that we should be aggressive in the way we advance the interests of the Kingdom of God. Today’s English Version, on the other hand, translates it as; ‘From the time John preached his message until this very day the Kingdom of heaven has suffered violent attacks, and violent men try to seize it.’ This seems to imply that the Kingdom of God is currently under attack by violent men. So which is it? Do forceful men forcefully advance the Kingdom or do violent men attack the Kingdom?
Both understandings of Matthew 11:12 fail on a number of counts. Firstly, ‘from the days of John the Baptist till now…’ was, in the original historic context, just a matter of months. The ‘now’ is not our day, or the past 2,000 years for that matter, it is the ‘now’ of Jesus’ day. How then can a Bible translation read, as in The Message, ‘For a long time now people have tried to force themselves into God’s kingdom’? Secondly, the context of the verse concerns John the Baptist and his Elijah-like ministry. The point is that John went ahead of Jesus as an ‘Elijah’. The subject matter concerns the ministry of John the Baptist, not the forceful nature of the Kingdom of God or its antagonists. Thirdly, we can adequately translate the Greek language used without resorting to extensive interpretation. The New King James version translates the Greek word beadzo as ‘suffers violence’, but the word more literally means ‘to crowd into or out of’. A Tokyo subway train at rush hour presents a good visual aid to the meaning of this word.
A literal and Hebraic translation of Matthew 11:12 would read ‘… the kingdom of heaven is breaking forth and those who are breaking out, break out in it.’ To understand what Jesus meant by this strange statement we need knowledge of the rabbinic commentary on Micah 2:12-13. This Old Testament passage reads, “I will surely gather all of you, O Jacob; I will surely bring together the remnant of Israel. I will bring them together like sheep in a pen, like a flock in its pasture; the place will throng with people. One who breaks open the way will go up before them; they will break through the gate and go out. Their king will pass through before them, the LORD at their head.” The rabbinic Midrash (interpretation of texts) explains that the Lord God is like a shepherd who builds an enclosure for his sheep. He then enters the enclosure for the night and his assistant closes the entrance with rocks and other loose material. In the morning, the assistant comes and breaks open the entrance. The shepherd leads his sheep out of the confines of the pen into the freedom of the pasture. The sheep ‘break out’ behind him, pushing, and straining to get out. The assistant, known prophetically as the breach-maker, is Elijah, and the shepherd is Jehovah God. Jesus is indicating that he is the divine shepherd and John the Baptist was the breach-maker, the one who prepared the way for him to lead his people out of the sheep pen of this sinful world into the green pastures of the Kingdom of God. John 10:2-4 helps us understand the truth to which Jesus was alluding; ‘The man who goes in through the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him; the sheep hear his voice as he calls his own sheep by name, and he leads them out. When he has brought them out, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him, because they know his voice’. (TEV)
Jesus’ intended meaning is to inform his followers concerning who he is as well as the role played by John the Baptist. This is the intended meaning of the text and it is certainly not a mandate for Christians to extend the Kingdom of God by aggressive or violent means.
This is one of the clearest examples of how some knowledge of Jesus’ Jewish roots can help us to correctly interpret his sayings. If you would like me to deal with any particular seemingly ambiguous Gospel statement then please comment on the blog or send me an email.