Jesus teaches about the kingdom of God throughout the Gospels using parables and other teachings. His message about the kingdom was that God’s reign was being implemented in Jesus’ ministry and that this kingdom would advance until Jesus brought it to completion one day when he returned. Perhaps the most difficult verse to interpret about the kingdom of heaven/God in the Gospels is Matthew 11:12. Note three different translations of the verse:
ESV: “From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and violent men take it by force.”
NIV (1984): “From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it.”
NLT: “And from the time John the Baptist began preaching until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and violent people attack it.”
As seen from the translations, the passage is typically understood in one of three ways, depending on the connotation of the Greek verb βιάζω and its cognate noun βιαστής in the two halves of the verse. Specifically, the words can carry the negative sense of violence or the positive sense of decisive action or momentum. This (along with an ambiguity related to the grammatical voice of the first verb) leads to three likely combinations:
1. A negative followed by negative sense (ESV, NET, NIV 2012, NKJV, NRSV, with commentators Hagner, Blomberg, Davies and Allison, Turner, Gundry, France, Osborne, Wilkins, and Bruner). The idea is that violent people are working against God’s kingdom purposes, and God’s servants will encounter suffering as a result. One strength for this position is found in the immediate context, in which John the Baptist has just been imprisoned by opponents of God’s kingdom (see also Matt 17:10-13). Furthermore, Jesus had previously taught the disciples to expect suffering when they serve him (Matt 10). This view also interprets βιαστής (“a violent person”) with its typical negative meaning.
2. A positive followed by positive sense (NIV 1984, commentators Keener and Ridderbos, and theologians Ladd, Schreiner, and even the 2nd century church father Irenaeus). Jesus’ meaning to his audience would be to get on board the kingdom train while they can – the kingdom requires a wholehearted, urgent response. This view aligns well with the parables of the hidden treasure and pearl of great price (Matt 13:45-46), since those parables encourage decisive action in response to hearing about the kingdom. In addition, this second position fits well into a salvation-historical perspective, in which the era of the old covenant is giving way to the kingdom’s arrival and advance through Jesus. This salvation-historical mindset surfaces in the immediate context, with a delineation between the era of promise (the Law and the Prophets – Matt 11:13), and the era of kingdom fulfillment (“from the days of John the Baptist until now” – Matt 11:12). Moreover, in nearby passages the kingdom’s arrival is linked to healings and exorcisms (Matt 10:7-8), miracles (Matt 11:4-6), and the plundering of Satan (Matt 12:27-29), which are actions consistent with the forceful advance of God’s kingdom.
3. A positive followed by negative sense (NLT, commentators Carson and Nolland). This interpretation would discern a play on words – God’s kingdom is advancing against the powers of darkness, even though people with different agendas are trying to claim the kingdom by their own methods and for their own purposes. I prefer this interpretation, since it incorporates the strengths of the first two views (persecution in the midst of kingdom progress) and does so in a rhetorically effective way, though with a play on words that has no good English equivalent (“the kingdom of heaven is invading, and invaders are trying to seize it” creates a similar effect, but βιάζω does not translate as “invade”). The overall picture of contending kingdoms in this verse resembles the Old Testament backdrop for the kingdom of God (see especially Daniel 7, which portrays God’s kingdom rising up in the midst of earthly kingdoms that are hostile to it).
A final complicating factor arises with the similar wording of Luke 16:16: “The kingdom of God is being preached, and everyone is pressing (or being pressed – also from βιάζω) into it.” Could this be the same teaching expressed in a different way? If so, then it could be inferred that the first part of Matt 11:12 carries a positive sense (corresponding to “the kingdom of God is being preached” in Luke 16:16). The second half of Luke 16:16 could convey either a positive or negative connotation (though most commentators detect a positive meaning in that context). But the first half of Luke 16:16 and, arguably, the first half of Matthew 11:12, depict the powerful inbreaking of God’s kingdom into our world, through the ministry of Jesus.
The bottom line: kingdoms are accompanied by agendas for the world. When Jesus arrived on the scene, he brought God’s kingdom agenda with him. Opponents of God’s kingdom reacted with their own plans and seemed to succeed, especially when they crucified Jesus. But when Jesus was raised from the dead, it was confirmation that God always has the final word. Indeed, God’s kingdom will be the only kingdom left standing one day, and its presence will be enjoyed by citizens of his kingdom everywhere.