Does the Kingdom of God suffer violence?

A particularly puzzling passage from the Gospels can be found in Matthew 11:

Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John, and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. He who has ears to hear, let him hear. Matthew 11:11-15 (ESV)

What do we make of this saying of Jesus? The student of history will recognize that this specific saying has been used by cultures past as a pretext for the literal violent expansion of the Kingdom of God, including the use of warfare. Was this what Jesus intended? In comparison to other sayings of Jesus, it seems to be a stretch to make that connection, but then what do we do with the text? What is the violence spoken of here?

Professor David Flusser made an interesting connection between this passage in Matthew and of a Jewish interpretation, or midrash, of a passage in Micah 2:12-13. This specific verse of Micah reads:

I will surely assemble all of you, O Jacob; I will gather the remnant of Israel; I will set them together like sheep in a fold, like a flock in its pasture, a noisy multitude of men.He who opens the breach goes up before them; they break through and pass the gate, going out by it. Their king passes on before them, the Lord at their head. Micah 2:12-13 (ESV)

What Professor Flusser found is that this midrash distinguishes the “breach-maker” and the “King” – the “breach-maker” being Elijah, and the “King” being the Messiah. 1Understanding the Difficult Words of Jesus, p. 85 The picture being painted in Micah is of a shepherd penning his sheep for the evening, by fashioning a makeshift rock wall. The next morning, he releases the sheep from their pen by tossing some of the rocks aside and leading the sheep out. The sheep, eager to escape their enclosure, violently push and shove their way out and further rupturing the rock wall that had been holding them in.

This specific Jewish/rabbinic interpretation of Micah fits in perfectly with what Jesus is saying in Matthew 11. John is fulfilling the the breach-maker role of Elijah, preparing the way for the sheep to be free to follow their shepherd. The sheep, eager to follow their King, violently rush out to meet him. This violence is the violence of the Kingdom of God breaking forth into the world!

This passage from Matthew is an excellent example of how putting the text of the New Testament back into its Jewish/Hebraic context and root is vital to its proper exegesis and application.

References   [ + ]

1. Understanding the Difficult Words of Jesus, p. 85

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