by Al Maxey

Issue #300 ------- May 7, 2007
He who overcomes by force,
hath overcome but half his foe.

John Milton {1608-1674}
Paradise Lost

Taking the Kingdom by Force
A Reflective Analysis of Matthew 11:12

Have you ever been under fire? I'm not necessarily referring to being literally shot at by an enemy, although I can attest to the fact that this is not a pleasant experience (having been in a good many "fire fights" while a gunner for a helicopter attack squadron in the Mekong Delta of South Vietnam). No, I'm talking about experiencing persecution for your faith; being assaulted, whether verbally or physically, for your convictions. It can be unsettling. I can personally attest to this as well. Among even the strongest of our Lord's devoted disciples there may be moments of weakness and uncertainty; times when we are quite vulnerable, and when our hearts are troubled. Such a moment, in my view, occurred in the life of one of the giants of faith -- John the Baptist -- as he sat in a prison cell.

"Now when John, who was in prison, heard of the works of Christ, he sent his disciples to ask Him, 'Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?'" [Matt. 11:2-3]. What a shocking question from the one who earlier had boldly, and with unwavering confidence, declared, "Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!" [John 1:29] and "I have seen, and have borne witness that this is the Son of God" [John 1:34]. "Again the next day John was standing with two of his disciples, and he looked upon Jesus as He walked, and said, 'Behold, the Lamb of God!'" [John 1:35-36]. And yet, even a man like John, of whom Jesus said, "Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptist" [Matt. 11:11], struggled at times with his faith. We all do, don't we? "Lord, are you really the one? Or, should we put our hope and trust elsewhere?" John was struggling with himself ... and within himself. There were doubts and questions eating at him. He wanted answers. Jesus provided them. "Go and report to John what you hear and see: the blind receive sight and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed is he who keeps from stumbling over Me" [Matt. 11:4-6]. Jesus didn't rebuke John; He didn't go into a long theological defense. He simply said: Judge Me on the evidence of My ministry! Similarly, when Nathanael wondered if anything good could possibly come out of Nazareth, Philip wisely placed the same challenge before him: "Come and see" [John 1:46]. I have no doubt that John the Baptist's doubts were very short-lived, as were those of Nathanael. The evidence before them was simply too overwhelming. This was indeed the Expected One ... the Son of God ... the Lamb who would atone for the sins of the world.

As the disciples of this great forerunner of the Messiah "were going away, Jesus began to speak to the multitudes about John" [Matt. 11:7]. He had nothing but the highest of praise for this man of faith, and He also challenged the crowds to strive for similar excellence of faith in their own lives. "He who has ears to hear, let him hear" [vs. 15]. Within the midst of this discourse about John the Baptist, Jesus made a statement that has puzzled biblical scholars for centuries. There is literally no end to the heated debate that has arisen over the countless attempts to interpret this passage. Some have even suggested the verse should be removed; that it is so out of character with the rest of the passage that it must have been added by some mischievous scribe at a later date. The disputed verse is Matthew 11:12. "And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and violent men take it by force" [NASB]. What did Jesus mean by this? Is He actually suggesting that "violent men" have somehow, at some point in time, in some manner or other, been able to force their way into the kingdom of heaven? Is such still happening? Was/is our almighty God, along with His myriads upon myriads of angelic forces, powerless to repel this assault upon His kingdom by these violent men? That certainly seems to be the intent, at least in the minds of some befuddled biblical interpreters. And just who are these "violent men" of whom our Lord speaks? Clearly, this has proven to be an extremely troubling passage for many disciples of Christ down through the centuries; one that the Expositor's Bible Commentary characterizes as "enigmatic;" one that "has called forth a host of interpretations" [vol. 8, p. 265], being "notoriously difficult to interpret" [ibid, p. 989]. It is a rather brief verse that has nevertheless "created much diversity of opinion, which it would take long to recount" [Dr. W. Robertson Nicoll, The Expositor's Greek Testament, vol. 1, p. 173].

So, what are we to make of this statement by our Lord? After all, it seems so contradictory to other assertions of Jesus, such as: "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me" [John 14:6]. Was Jesus wrong when He made this remark to Thomas? May "violent men" bully their way to the Father apart from His Son; forcing their way in by sheer brute strength? Again, this certainly seems to be the meaning, based upon the rendering of these two passages in many of our translations. For example, the NEB says, "violent men are seizing it" [Matt.] and "everyone forces his way in" [Luke]. Bro. Hugo McCord, in his NT translation, wrote, "violent men forcefully lay hold of it" [Matt.] and "everyone forces his way into it" [Luke]. The RSV states: "men of violence take it by force" [Matt.] and "everyone enters it violently" [Luke]. This is just a sampling, but it clearly leaves the impression that "undesirables" have found a rather effective methodology for breaching the walls of the heavenly kingdom. "If you won't open the door to us, when we demand entrance, then we'll huff and we'll puff and we'll blow it down!" It worked for the big, bad wolf ... why not for "men of violence"?

Although the interpretive challenge before us seems rather daunting -- some might even say insurmountable -- it is my conviction there is a reasonable, exegetically rational, approach to these two puzzling passages that will result in an interpretation consistent with the remainder of biblical teaching. The key to understanding these two statements by our Lord lies in the proper handling of a single Greek word. Is this word negative or positive in intent? Does its verbal form appear in the middle voice or passive voice? How we answer these questions will determine our interpretation. It is my belief that these two questions have been incorrectly answered by far too many translators and interpreters in times past, which error has resulted in the current confusion. Thankfully, the vast majority of NT scholars today have perceived this failing, and through their revised translations and commentaries the true meaning of these statements by Christ is being revealed.

The Greek word in question here is biastai (the plural form of biastes), which a good many versions translate: "violent men." This is the word that appears in Matt. 11:12 -- "violent men take it by force." The verb form of this word, which appears in both Matt. 11:12 and Luke 16:16, is biazo. "The kingdom of heaven suffers violence" [Matt. 11:12]. "Every man entereth violently into it" [Luke 16:16, ASV]. In both of these passages where the verb form appears, the form of the verb used is biazetai, which is present indicative, 3rd person singular. The verb speaks of that which is actually happening, and which action is continuous in nature. The interpretive challenge facing us, however, is that this particular form, with regard to voice, may be either a middle or a passive. Only a very careful study of the context, both immediate and remote, can determine which of the two is intended by the author. Therein lies our problem. Just which did Jesus intend? The passive voice suggests the subject of the clause is the recipient of the action of the verb, whereas the middle voice suggest the subject itself performs the action of the verb. Thus, in the above referenced renderings from Matthew and Luke (in the NASB and ASV), we see the passive used in the former, whereas the middle is used in the latter. The kingdom of heaven "suffers violence" (passive), but men "enter violently" into it (middle). This is purely a judgment call on the part of the translators and commentators. It is my conviction that in the Luke passage the verb has been correctly identified by most as a middle, however I believe it has been misidentified by many in the Matthew passage as a passive. In my view, it should be translated in the middle voice.

Most will agree that the middle voice makes the most sense in Luke 16:16. In other words, people are not being violently forced into the kingdom (although we find examples in history of attempts to do just that -- the Crusades, for instance), but rather they themselves are forcing their way in. The middle makes sense here, and almost nobody translates it as a passive in the Luke text. The problem, however, in the minds of many people, arises when the middle voice is used in translation of the clause in Matthew. This would make the kingdom of heaven the facilitator of the violence specified, rather than the recipient of it. That is simply unacceptable to the sensibilities of many disciples of Christ (although, again, that understanding has been used in history by militant groups to further the cause of Christ at the point of a sword or spear -- i.e., the Crusades, etc.). This dilemma is easily overcome, however, when one realizes that this Greek term may be used either positively or negatively. Unfortunately, most translations and commentators in the past have assumed the negative connotation of the term, and have rendered it thusly. I believe this is an error, and has led to the current confusion over these two passages.

When used negatively, this Greek term does indeed signify "violence; malicious aggression." When used positively, however, it signifies "one who is forceful in eager pursuit; to press earnestly forward" [The Analytical Greek Lexicon, p. 69]. I am thoroughly convinced that in both the Matthew and Luke passages this term is not only in the middle voice, but it is also being used with a positive connotation. W. E. Vine, in his classic work "An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words," agrees, saying that the positive "meaning is abundantly confirmed by the similar use in the papyri." R. C. H. Lenski, in his commentary on the passage in Matthew, agrees, saying, "the idea of violence is too strong an idea in the present connection" [p. 437]. Dr. Charles Ellicott concurs: "There is no thought of hostile purpose in the words" [Ellicott's Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 6, p. 66]. Dr. Craig S. Keener correctly notes: "the text does not read like censure" [A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, p. 340], which most certainly seems to imply that Jesus views His statements as depicting positive qualities and actions.

If I am correct in my assertion that the verb should be understood in the middle voice, and if I am correct that this term is being used in its positive sense, then how might these two verses be translated? I would suggest the following for Matthew 11:12 -- "The kingdom of heaven earnestly and forcefully presses forward, and it is entered into by earnest, eager pursuers of it." Luke 16:16 could be rendered in the following manner: "The gospel of the kingdom of God is being proclaimed, and everyone is eagerly, intently and purposefully pursuing entrance into it." By removing the negative connotation of "violence," and adopting the positive connotation of "pressing forward eagerly and earnestly," and by employing the middle voice in both of these verses, we have rendered the two statements of Christ Jesus not only meaningful, but consistent with the immediate context and the remainder of the teaching of Scripture. This, incidentally, is how many of the more modern translations are rendering the passage. "From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it" [Matt. 11:12, NIV]. "John introduced the Good News that the Kingdom of God would come soon. And now eager multitudes are pressing in" [Luke 16:16, Living Bible]. "The kingdom of God is being declared as good news, and every sort of person is pressing forward toward it" [Luke 16:16, New World Translation].

The kingdom of our God advances powerfully, and no force can successfully thwart that forward progress throughout the world as long as our Lord wills it so. The gospel is being proclaimed, and it will not be stopped. Similarly, those determined to be a part of this marvelous eternal kingdom of God will advance toward it, and enter into it, with a forceful determination that will surmount any obstacle. They too will not be stopped. "The kingdom has come with a holy power and magnificent energy that has been pushing back the frontiers of darkness. The kingdom is making great strides; now is the time for courageous souls, forceful people, to take hold of it. This is no challenge for the timorous or fainthearted" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 8, p. 266]. I believe Luke alludes once again to this need for a determined spirit in the face of opposition in Acts 14:21-22 where he says that Paul and Barnabas, "after they had preached the gospel to the city of Derbe and had made many disciples, returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying, 'We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.'" Because of the obstacles that lie ahead, it will take earnest, eager, forceful, determined men and women of great faith to face such opposition and to lay hold of the prize. Paul wrote, "I press on in order that I may lay hold of (seize) that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus. ... One thing I do -- forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus" [Philp. 3:12-14]. Paul sought to seize (lay hold of) the prize, just as the men of purpose in Matthew 11:12 were seizing (laying hold of) the kingdom of God.

The Greek term employed by both Matthew and Luke "simply expresses the enthusiastic drive of those determined to enter the kingdom. These were people whose values were in order and who were energetically seeking the kingdom" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 8, p. 990]. Jesus urges us to "Strive to enter by the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able" [Luke 13:24]. Half-hearted attempts will fail; nominal devotion and effort will not secure the prize. Victory requires a total commitment of faith. Lukewarm won't cut it; we must be headed for home full speed ahead. "The words describe the eager rush of the crowds of Galilee and Judea, first to the preaching of the Baptist, and then to that of Jesus. It was, as it were, a city attacked on all sides by those who were eager to take possession of it. These are men of eager, impetuous zeal, who grasp the kingdom of heaven -- i.e., its peace, pardon and blessedness -- with as much eagerness as men would snatch and carry off as their own the spoil of a conquered city" [Dr. Charles Ellicott, vol. 6, p. 66].

In the immediate context of this verse in Matthew 11, our Lord was speaking about John the Baptist: a man of great purpose and resolve. "As John's disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: 'What did you go out into the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind?'" [vs. 7]. If so, then they would be disappointed. John was a man of tremendous determination. He was pushing back the darkness with great force. He was not a preacher/prophet who tickled ears or tried to be politically correct. He told it like it was. The kingdom of heaven was moving forward with power; it had come to conquer. Those who would be a part of this march forward into the darkness around them must be men and women of strong character and forceful resolve, not "reeds swayed by the wind." Yes, John, as he languished in a prison cell, had a moment of doubt, yet he knew how to resolve those questions -- he appealed to Jesus. Jesus calmed the winds of doubt, and John remained loyal and devoted unto death! Jesus knew that John might be shaken, but he would never be swayed; he would buckle and bow before no other. It is such courage of conviction, and strength of resolve, that is required of those who would enter the kingdom of our God. Walking in the light with our Lord is not for the faint of heart. "From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it" [Matt. 11:12, NIV]. May we each, like John, strive to be such people of purpose, for of such is the kingdom of God.

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Readers' Reflections

From a New Reader in Canada:

Hello Al, My husband recently discovered your web site and has been devouring all your information. Please add us to your mailing list for Reflections, and may God bless your efforts to search the Scriptures and expose the Truth.

From an Evangelist in the Philippines:

Brother Al, Thanks for your study on Phoebe. I have only skimmed it so far; no time yet to do so more carefully, but I intend to reread it for that more careful study I think it deserves. I have long (and helplessly) railed against many of the establishment Church of Christ doctrinal positions -- one of which is the traditional view of the position of women. What I have written and put out has either been totally ignored or scorned by the modern day Pharisees. So, I am doubly appreciative of your article "Our Sister Phoebe." What you said (wrote) needed to be said (written). Thank you!

From a Reader in California:

Bro. Al, Concerning the comment by the minister from California in your last issue: "I feel your Reflections to be the very best weekly publication that I have ever known about in the course of my many, many years" ... I respond: Amen! Amen! Amen! Stay humble, brother, and may God bless you in your endeavors to make crazy people sane! I used to live in and among such irrational people (the legalistic patternists like Buster Dobbs). We have sometimes told of happenings from our past in group fellowships, and people just sit there with their mouths open! They have never been exposed to such idiocy before ... and thank God for that!

From a Minister in Mississippi:

Bro. Al, Just read your take on Phoebe, and concur heartily! Along with J. D. Bales, I think much of the problem stems from the fact that we're too enamored by titles and official fiefdoms. Some folks are so afraid of making Phoebe an "official leader" of some kind that they won't even allow her service to the Lord. If elders, deacons and preachers would boot themselves out of "office," and simply start serving in their appropriate capacities and fulfilling their responsibilities, everyone would be better off. As for Buster Dobbs, all I can say is that the type of thoughts expressed in his editorial is one reason that I stopped reading Firm Foundation years ago. If understanding God's will is as complicated as he makes it, then we need us a good Pope and a College of Cardinals!! I appreciate your thoughts, Al.

From a Pastor in California:

Dear Brother Al, That was another outstanding article! I'm with you all the way on this one! Does it really make any sense that God would give gifts, talents and abilities to women, as He has, and then prohibit their use in the church? I don't think so! If we limit women's work in the church to changing diapers and teaching kindergarteners, we strip the church of 59% (or more) of its human resources. In my humble opinion, this is a control issue, not a doctrinal issue, and those who want male only service in the church will likely fight to the death to preserve it. Good work, Bro. Al.

From a Reader in New Mexico:

Bro. Al, I thoroughly enjoyed your latest Reflections on Phoebe. In fact, it was excellent. Easy to read and understand. Please keep those wonderfully written and explained Reflections coming, and may God bless you and your family in your work.

From a Reader in Oklahoma:

Brother Al, Perhaps this is late and off subject, but my lady friend just showed me the latest Spiritual Sword -- 29 pages condemning instrumental music. And yet, if one collected all of the NT passages on music, would it even fill one page?! So just who is doing the rest of all this talking?! Not God, I suspect.

From a Reader in Texas:

My Dear Brother in Christ, It was a really nice surprise to see that you are again studying the gender issue and using Phoebe for this study. I want to commend you for your insights on Phoebe, as I know you approached this just as you approach all studies you take on. I've learned much from your studies over the years, and I continue to look forward to every study you take on, as I always find them to be honest, thorough, informative studies that look at multiple sides of an issue. Bro. Al, I continue to recommend your Reflections to my friends, as well as having a link to them on my web site. I pray that God will continue to bless your online ministry, as well as the ministry you have there in Alamogordo. Grace to you and peace!

From an Elder in Missouri:

Brother Al, We just returned from our daughter's house where we celebrated our grandson's 6th birthday. I find it ironic that just before we left we were discussing Phoebe (among other topics, such as legalism, worship, etc.) -- then we get home and open your most recent Reflections and there we find the very same topic. I don't believe in coincidence or happenstance! This was the Spirit working! Al, I think you have put together the various ideas and biblical teachings regarding this great servant of God and the One Body in exactly the right way. I have never spent the time to put all the passages together, along with the history, as you have this week, but my thoughts and teaching on the subject of Phoebe have moved in the same direction as yours. I too believe we have bogged down forward progress by getting lost in "titles" and "offices," just as you mentioned. It is really a shame that the KJV used the word "office" for elders in Paul's first epistle to Timothy. To serve as a bishop/elder is a good work, not an office. And yet there are many "board member elders" who have been "elected to office," as though it were some kind of political position. Al, I am thankful for the timeliness of your article on Phoebe, and for the fact that you were able to put the concepts down in a much more orderly fashion than I was able to do with our Bibles open before us as we sat around the table after supper the other evening. You've made my points in a way that brings clarity and understanding. I know there will be some out there who will attack your view as being supportive of women preachers and the like, but they are simply not reading what you write with honesty, nor are they examining the Scriptures for themselves with open minds. Thank you for your work!

From a Reader in Texas:

Brother Al, Your article on Phoebe was great. Finally, I have found a trusted brother in the church who has dared to say, "We are functionaries, not dignitaries." I, like you, have long believed the "titles" in the Scriptures are descriptive of function, and have nothing to do with rank. Those who seek an "office" or a "title" or who desire "rank" in the church, should be taught further before they are ever selected to be special servants of the Lord. The accounts of "lording it over" the saints are rampant in the brotherhood, and this is a disgrace. The church should be 100% servants. May God continue to bless your work, Al. By the way, I had a most unprofitable email exchange with Buster Dobbs some time back; it was a complete waste of time. At the time, I had never heard of him, but was later shocked when I learned that he was actually the editor of the publication Firm Foundation.

From a Reader in Alabama:

Dear Brother Al, I read with interest your recent article in which you refuted the theology of Buster Dobbs regarding the "silence" of the Scriptures and instrumental music. Coincidentally, I had recently read Bro. Dobbs' article "What Does Silence Teach?" [Gospel Advocate, December, 1990], because it had been provided to my daughter by her Bible teacher at the Christian school she attends. That article contained almost identical wording to the recent Firm Foundation editorial that you critiqued. At the root of his hermeneutic is a misapplying of Eph. 5:18-19 and Col. 3:16-17 to a "worship service." Contextually, both passages are obviously concerned with disciples living their lives as Christians and their relationships with one another. So, why is it that the traditionalists and legalists have continued to refer to these verses as a command from God regarding a "worship service" [a phrase never even found in the Bible]? In my opinion, most of our arguments in the Stone-Campbell Movement have dealt with what may or may not happen within this one hour on Sunday morning. Using these passages to formulate a command for what may or may not occur within that hour amounts to ripping those verses from their context simply to try and justify a preconceived idea. Bro. Al, thank you for being a source of light for thinking Christians!! I applaud all you are doing to encourage us to think and study for ourselves. I appreciate your writing, and look forward to many more Reflections.

From a Professor in South Carolina:

Bro. Maxey, I first became aware of your writings when I found Reflections #209 in which you examined Goebel Music's well-known book "Behold the Pattern." Brother Music actually held a meeting at the congregation we used to attend while living in Texas. The elders even provided a copy of the book to each family in the congregation. Fortunately, we have grown beyond that, and now find the book, as well as our former attitudes, more divisive than anything else. I rejoice over your dialogue with "Pastor" David Martin of the Solid Rock Baptist Church in Bartlett, TN -- The Maxey-Martin Dialogue and Reflections #146. I had previously read his challenge to Church of Christ preachers several times, and always hoped that one day someone would "call him" on this! Thank you, thank you for doing so!! If only your response could gain wider coverage throughout our brotherhood and theirs. Additionally, our elders here have just blessed me with the formation of a new Sunday morning Bible class, and I have chosen the Minor Prophets as my first topic. Your materials on this -- The Minor Prophets -- are very valuable and a real blessing! Thanks for those efforts also. Al, if I have your permission to intrude into your busy schedule now and then, I'd like to stay in touch.

From a Minister in California:

Bro. Al, Thank you so much for that inspirational discussion of our dear sister in Christ, Phoebe. Something that I find somewhat amusing is that people have been debating the actual role and duties of our sister Phoebe, while our dear sister most likely just did whatever the Lord placed in front of her to do! She didn't get all worked up about what people might think, she just helped people in need, and her service to God's people has been memorialized in His Word. What an honor! I look forward to meeting this spiritual giant(ess) in Heaven! I believe that I can learn much from Phoebe. I will strive to do what the Master wants me to do without getting all concerned about what someone else might think about it. While we latter-day observers may try to complicate what she did, it was obviously very simple to her: be of service to the Lord and His people wherever needed and whenever possible. End of discussion! Thank you for your hard work, brother!

From a Reader in California:

My Dear Brother in Christ, What a joy it is to read your Reflections each week! I just finished reading again your article "Holding Harps of God." I was feeling kinda down, and reading it picked me up! Please keep up the good work, Al. We love you!


Special Update --- A good many of you have written over the past few weeks (some have even telephoned me) inquiring as to the current status of certain situations mentioned in the past. Let me take some time to give you all just a brief update. Many of you were curious as to what became of Daniel Coe, who moved here to Alamogordo, New Mexico from Arkansas to "set things right" in our little part of the great southwest. He started the Otero Church of Christ on December 10, 2006 and had about 3 people present. They met in a little room off a self-storage facility. This week he left town suddenly and moved to Kansas. He had built his little band to about 7 or 8 people, then had a falling out with them over the "Bingo" issue, and fled the state. He had only been here five months. As the wise old Indian chief once said about one of his blustering braves, "He heap big thunder; no rain!" A number of you have wondered if Buster Dobbs ever responded to my review of his editorial in Firm Foundation [Reflections #298], or to the questions that I posed to him therein. I sent him a copy of my critique prior to its release, and I personally invited him to respond to my review. Yesterday afternoon he sent me the following brief email: "Hello Bro. Maxey, Watch for my response in the Firm Foundation. I will try to be as kind and considerate as you are. I do not regard you as an enemy. Regards, H. A. 'Buster' Dobbs." So, be watching for that upcoming issue. For those who would like to subscribe to the Firm Foundation magazine Click Here. In Reflections #297 I challenged the legalists who read my articles (and there are many who do, although they might be somewhat reluctant to admit it in certain circles) to provide me with even ONE passage of Scripture where there was even a HINT of divine disapproval of instrumental accompaniment to worshipful singing. You guessed it -- I'm still waiting for that one verse. Two individuals did send me the Amos 6:5 passage, but that is such an absurd attempt at producing a proof text that few will even suggest it anymore with a straight face. I refuted that argument at the conclusion of the readers' section in Reflections #298. --- Al Maxey

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