I struggled for years with a particular passage in the Gospel of Matthew.
“And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force.” Mat 11:12
What does violence have to do with the kingdom of heaven?
Jesus spoke these words after followers of John the Baptist came to him. John, who was in prison, sent a few of his trusted followers to Jesus with an urgent question: "Are you the one we should be looking for? Or must we wait for someone else?"
Jesus answered them, "Go and tell John what you have heard and seen. The blind are now able to see, and the lame can walk. People with leprosy are being healed, and the deaf can hear. The dead are raised to life, and the poor are hearing the good news.
And blessed is he, who shall not be offended in me.” Mat 11:5-6
The word used for offended was skandalizō, meaning scandalized. Its true meaning is to be entrapped or ‘made to stumble.’ Jesus knew that John would understand his reference. It harkens back to Isaiah’s words: “And he shall be for a stone of stumbling and for a rock of offence.” Isa 8:14
It was just after this exchange that Jesus said to the multitudes in Matt 11:12,
“And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force.”
What was Jesus saying?
A little more context is found in Luke 16, where Jesus said: “The law and the prophets were in effect until John came; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is proclaimed, and everyone tries to enter it by force.” Luke 16:16 NRSV
Jesus’ meaning was profound and couldn’t be more vital for us to understand.
He was declaring in the strongest possible terms that the path to life would not be easy. Those who would find it must fight their way in.
Jesus was actually very clear on this point, saying, “Many are called, but few are chosen.” The promises he gave are “to him that overcomes.” “Narrow is the road, and strait is the gate, and few there be that find it.”
Finding the gate takes effort. It’s not enough to simply see the way and then rest where we are without approaching it. Grace is the transforming power that redeems us, but it comes with a cost. Grace is never earned, but its fruit is often won through a lifetime of conflict.
It cannot be gained through good works or religious rites -- the Scribes and Pharisees in Jesus’ day had everything in their favor, yet they lost the kingdom. The disciples, with everything against them, found it.
If Jesus communicated nothing else it was the fact that He expected earnestness from those who would follow Him. Indifference and earnestness cannot coexist -- indifference replaces earnestness.
The truth is that it requires more effort to be saved by grace than by works.
Our strongest human inclinations are to try to merit heaven through our works. We want to rest on past acts of goodness. It is that inclination that we must violently resist.
The violence done to our nature by the act of believing creates the greatest struggle imaginable. No wonder Isaiah described the coming Messiah as a Stumbling Stone. Faith demands us to use all of our will to climb over it – using every ounce of fervency we can muster. A life of faith is a life of self-denial. It is not easy; it is only through God’s grace that it can be accomplished. The faith that prompts and enables this kind of violent earnestness is not a human ability but a celestial gift.
In the words of Henry Melvill….
“If the wrestler must use force when the athletic arm is raised against him, then must we, for we wrestle with principalities and powers.
If the warrior must use force when the army comes against him, then must we use force, for there are squadrons between us and everlasting rest.
If the captive must use force when he would wrench off his chains, then must we use force, for the fetters of an evil nature bind us to the earth.
If the journeyer must use force when there are mountains to be scaled, then must we use force, for a rugged land is before us, and the rocks and the torrents block our path.
Or if the suppliant must use force -- the force of earnest entreaty, unwearied solicitation, burning tears, and passionate cries, when he would gain a favor from a great one of the earth; then must we use force. We must “pray always and not faint;” we must besiege the mercy seat, seeing that all we need must come from God; and earnest supplication is the condition on which God bestows.” (H. Melvill, B. D.)
May God equip us with such violent earnestness!
“For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline.” Timothy 1:7