The kingdom of heaven and the men of violence

From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven is done violence against, and violent men seize it. For all the prophets and the Law prophesied until John; and if you are willing to accept, he is Elijah, the one about to come.

While we’re on the subject of the kingdom of God, what are we to make of Jesus’ enigmatic saying about violent men taking the kingdom by force (Matt. 11:12)? The only way to make sense of it, I would suggest, is to read carefully Jesus’ reaction to the visit from the disciples of John the Baptist recounted in Matthew 11:2-19. Such an approach will reinforce my argument that the coming of the kingdom of God is understood in the Gospels as an imminent political event that will transform the historical condition of Israel. Preachers take note.

11:2-6 At this time John is in prison, having been arrested by Herod for protesting against the fact that the king had taken his brother’s wife, Herodias. He sends his disciples to Jesus, who tells them to go and tell John what they have seen. Then he adds, “And blessed is the one who is not offended (skandalisthē) by me” (Matt. 11:6). In the Gospels the Pharisees are often “offended” or scandalized by Jesus’ words and actions, but also people may “fall away” (skandalizetai) “when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word” (Matt. 13:21).

11:7-10 John’s disciples leave and Jesus speaks to the crowd about John. When they went out into the wilderness to be baptized, they did not go looking for a reed shaken by the wind or a man in soft clothing—in other words, a king such as Herod. Daniel Kirk has made note of the argument put forward by Matthew Bates that the “reed” was a symbol of Herod’s leadership. I commented on this:

There is an interesting account of God’s punishment of Ptolemy in 3 Maccabees 2:21-22 that may add weight to Bates’ thesis: “Just then God… scourged him, who had become exceedingly puffed up with pride and presumption, and shook him this way and that like a reed in the wind (hōs kalamon hupo anemou) so that he lay helpless on the floor, quite unable to speak and paralyzed in his limbs, bound up, as it were, by a just judgment.” Perhaps Jesus’ language hints at a future judgment on Herod or the Herodian dynasty.

Whether this is the case or not, Jesus is clearly drawing a contrast between two different types of “kingdom”—that exercised by Herod and that proclaimed by the prophet John. Jesus concludes by identifying John with the “messenger” who Malachi says will prepare the way for YHWH to come to judge his people (Mal. 3:1). In other words, John is a prophet of divine judgment against Herod’s régime.

11:11 Jesus commends John as the greatest of the prophets, but the “one who is least (mikroteros) in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he”. Jesus has just told his disciples: “whoever gives one of these little ones (hena tōn mikrōn) even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward” (10:42). The “least in the kingdom of heaven” is typically someone who is vulnerable, who is persecuted for preaching the kingdom of God (cf. Matt. 25:34-40).

11:12-15 Now we come to the statement about the kingdom of heaven suffering violence (biazetai) from men of violence (biastai). The context established so far strongly suggests that this is a reference to Herod and others who commit acts of violence against those who proclaim the coming kingdom of God as divine judgment on Israel’s current corrupt leadership. In 1 Enoch 103:14; 104:3 biazomai is used for the violence done against righteous Jews by the wicked. The verb translated “seize” is often used to denote robbery, and it may convey the idea here that Herod has wrongly appropriated rule for himself, taking it away from God. Jesus again mentions Malachi’s prophecy that Elijah would be sent in advance of the day when YHWH would “strike the land with a decree of utter destruction” (Mal. 4:5-6).

11:16-19 These verses do not add much to the reading developed so far. The reference to “this generation” reminds that we are dealing with a particular moment in the story of Israel. Jesus also alludes to the contempt to which he has been subjected as the “Son of Man”, which evokes the broader narrative of the Son of Man who, along with his disciples, must be rejected, suffer and die (Matt. 16:13-28).

In Luke the saying is contextualized rather differently (Lk. 16:16). The emphasis on the preaching of the good news of the kingdom perhaps strengthens the argument that it is Jesus’ disciples as messengers of the coming kingdom who, practically speaking, suffer violence. Interestingly, it is followed by a statements about the continuing validity of the Law and the illegality of marrying a woman divorced from her husband (16:17-18). Is Jesus thinking of John’s criticism of Herod’s behaviour? We might then wonder whether the rich man “clothed in purple and fine linen”, who does not listen to “Moses and the Prophets”, is not in some sense Herod. This would add weight to the view that this is a parable about who is a true descendant of Abraham.

Andrew — why the time period? Since JB till now?  Only to restrict the issue — why would violence such as is evident in the reign of Herod the Great not also apply?

Presumably because this is about John the Baptist, who was the first to announce that God was about to act to judge and redeem his people. From that moment on, Jesus is saying, the preaching of the gospel of the kingdom has been met with violence from those who have felt threatened by it.

I was always raised to think of Stephen as the first martyr, and his death as kicking off the beginning of Christian persecution. But I imagine that Matthew, if asked, would consider John the Baptist the first martyr of the gospel of the kingdom, Jesus next, and then the rest.