Tag Archives: kingdom of God

The Focus of the Kingdom of God

One day my friend Dan and I were helping a neighbor load a moving truck for the neighbor’s move to another state. Dan’s wife and two small children came along to visit Dan while he was helping load things onto the truck. At one point Dan’s 3-year-old son started crying, and his mom went to comfort him. She asked him what was wrong. He answered, “I don’t want daddy to move away.” Dan wasn’t moving – he was only helping a neighbor move. But Dan’s son had the wrong idea about the whole scene!

According to Acts 1:1-8, shortly after Jesus’ resurrection, his disciples had the wrong idea about what Jesus was doing with his kingdom. As a result, they had the wrong idea about what they should be doing as well. Jesus has just died for the sins of the world, so that people could participate in God’s kingdom and enjoy relationship with the King. On the third day, Jesus rose from the dead and began to appear to the disciples. Note that according to Acts 1:3, Jesus continued to teach about the kingdom of God to his disciples. Even after his resurrection Jesus proclaimed the same kingdom he had announced at the beginning of his ministry and had demonstrated through his miraculous works.

Jesus and the apostles, Trinity Church, New York City

Jesus and the apostles, Trinity Church, New York City

Still, the disciples are confused at this point. In verse 6 they ask, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” There are two primary things they are confused about. First, they are confused about the timing of the kingdom. They think that it should come immediately. Jesus diverts their focus from timing to mission. They shouldn’t worry about the “times or seasons,” since that is God’s responsibility. Their response is to be empowered by the Spirit to be Jesus’ witnesses, pointing other people to God’s kingdom and its King. Waiting for God’s kingdom should never lead to passivity. The hope of the coming kingdom should motivate followers of Christ for service and ministry.

The second point of confusion is about the scope of God’s kingdom. The disciples envisioned a kingdom that was restored to Israel. But God’s kingdom is for both Israel and the other nations. Jesus told his disciples to be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. God’s kingdom is open to anyone who has faith in Jesus and his sacrificial death for the forgiveness of our sins.

Even today the promise of Jesus’ kingdom coming sometimes creates idle speculation about dates and timing rather than motivation for action. We should avoid the pull towards passivity and instead be active witnesses and servants of God’s kingdom to people from all backgrounds and cultures.

(See also previous posts in this series on the kingdom of God).

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Entering the Kingdom of God

Loch Vale, Rocky Mountain National Park

Loch Vale, Rocky Mountain National Park

Hiking in the mountains is one of my favorite things to do. I love the fresh air, the great views, and the challenges of the hikes. I’m not enough of a thrill-seeker to want to hike Mount Everest though, and besides, I wouldn’t have the free time for it. When people hike to the top of very tall mountains, they can’t just show up one day and hike to the top the next. Their bodies need multiple weeks to adjust to the high altitude first. If they were dropped at the base camp and immediately started hiking, their bodies wouldn’t be able to cope and they would break down and put their lives at risk. A majestic mountain range is an amazing environment, but only for those who are prepared to enjoy it.

The kingdom of God is good news (gospel) for our world, but we shouldn’t assume that we can enjoy God’s kingdom in our default human condition. There was a religious teacher named Nicodemus who made that assumption, but Jesus quickly set him straight. In John 3:3-8, Jesus identifies what is necessary for entering the kingdom of God. And in John 3:14-17, Jesus promises that he himself would make it possible for Nicodemus and others to enter the kingdom of God.

The exchange between Jesus and Nicodemus picks up steam quickly. Not one for small talk, Jesus immediately challenges Nicodemus with truth about the kingdom of God. Jesus states that no one can see (verse 3) or enter (verse 5) the kingdom of God without being born again by God’s Spirit. Kings judge their enemies, and apart from a new birth Nicodemus was an enemy of God. All humans have sinned and rebelled against God and his kingly reign. Apart from a dramatic transformation, we would be judged by God as enemies of his kingdom. But we can enter God’s kingdom if we experience a new birth by God’s Spirit and receive forgiveness for our sins. The Holy Spirit, who is the giver of life throughout the Scriptures, creates this new birth and new life within us.

It is significant that Jesus chides Nicodemus for not understanding these truths (John 3:10). Jesus expected Nicodemus to know about the need for a spiritual rebirth already. Jesus was not claiming to be an innovator in this teaching. He probably had in mind the Old Testament passages that spoke about the need for circumcised hearts (Deuteronomy 30:6), hearts that were forgiven and genuinely responsive to God’s commands (Jeremiah 31:31-34), and hearts that were cleansed and enlivened by the Spirit (Ezekiel 36:24-28). Nicodemus and his contemporaries thought that they could enter God’s kingdom in their current condition, without any dramatic change of heart. But Jesus knew the evidence from the Old Testament that suggested otherwise.

Jesus tells Nicodemus that this new birth and forgiveness will be made possible by his sacrificial work on the cross. As usual, Jesus uses the royal designation “Son of Man” to refer to himself, in verse 14. But in a shocking statement, Jesus hints that this royal Son of Man will be lifted up (on a cross) as a sacrifice for the people of the world, all of whom are enemies of God’s kingdom. Through Jesus’ sacrifice, however, those who believe in him will not be judged as enemies but given eternal life in the kingdom of God.

Mountaineers cannot enjoy or even survive a climb to Everest unless their bodies are ready for the hike. People cannot enjoy or even survive the coming of God’s kingdom apart from the new birth we experience when we trust in the Son of Man and receive his sacrifice for our sins. When we read this passage we encounter the stunning reality that we can experience eternal life in the kingdom of God because the King has died for our sins.

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The Kingdom of God Defined

In the previous two blog posts (here and here) we have talked about the kingdom of God without examining a detailed definition of the kingdom. What does God’s reign look like? If Jesus came to proclaim and demonstrate the kingdom of God, why does so much of our world still look so broken and disordered? We can find answers to these questions in the Gospels, and in a famous prayer in the Gospels in particular.

In Matthew 6:7-13 Jesus told his disciples to pray that God’s kingdom would come. Jesus instructed his disciples to pray this because only God can establish his kingdom on the earth. The fact that we still need to pray for God’s kingdom also suggests that even though Jesus inaugurated the kingdom of God when he began his ministry, the kingdom has not yet arrived in full. What will the full arrival of the kingdom look like? The next line gives us an important clue: “your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” The kingdom’s final arrival will consist of God’s perfect will being carried out on earth as completely as it is in heaven. Everything in the universe will be restored to its proper order and harmony. Human life will revolve around God’s glory, and believers will experience the peace, love, and righteousness that characterizes God’s reign.

The topic of the kingdom of God was central to Jesus’ ministry. Many of his parables describe what the kingdom of God is like. Other statements in the Gospels show that Jesus’ early ministry could be summed up as “proclaiming and demonstrating the kingdom of God” (see Matthew 4:23, Matthew 9:35; Luke 4:43). Every miracle, every healing, and every casting out of demons gave the crowds a glimpse or sneak preview of the kingdom of God. These miracles and wonders displayed what it was like for God to have authority over the natural and supernatural world. They gave a vivid preview of the kingdom of God, of God restoring order to the seen and unseen world. Jesus’ earthly ministry in the first century A.D. represented the “already” of the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is already present through the works of Jesus, and the kingdom continues to be witnessed through the power of the Spirit working among his people (as in Luke 9:2).

Church of St. Paul outside the walls

There is still a “not yet” aspect to the kingdom of God. God will one day send Jesus back to exercise his perfect authority over all of creation, so that God’s will is done on earth, as it is in heaven (see Acts 3:19-21). At that time, Jesus will banish all sin, evil, and suffering, and his eternal kingdom will be consummated. Hebrews 9:27-28 and other passages explain that Jesus came to our world a first time to die as a sacrifice for our sins. But he will come a second time to judge his enemies, bring salvation for his people, and rule over the world.

From our study in this series so far, here is a working definition of the kingdom of God:The kingdom of God is the complete and abundant reign of God on the earth, through Jesus, in fulfillment of Old Testament promises. This reign will be characterized by eternal life, justice, righteousness, love, and peace.

Praying the prayer of Matthew 6:9-11 can shape and fuel our desire to see God’s kingdom come. Let’s use this prayer as a way to express to God our longing to see his kingdom come.

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An Eternal Kingdom: Promised and Unveiled

Temple of Artemis remains, Ephesus

Temple of Artemis remains, Ephesus

When I was in Ephesus, Turkey, our tour group saw the remains of the Temple of Artemis, one of the famous Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The site had one tall pillar and another shorter one. The pillars were not unearthed in this shape – they had been stacked with sections from pieces of sculpted stone that had been scattered around the site. Nothing besides these two reconstructed pillars were left from what was once one of the marvels of the ancient world. This was a stark visual reminder that even the most impressive structures do not stand the test of time. Only God’s kingdom will endure.

Daniel 7:9-14 describes this vision of an eternal kingdom. In this passage, which comes in the form of a heavenly vision, the prophet Daniel sees a judgment scene taking place, with the Ancient of Days (God) taking his seat as the judge. God judges a number of beasts, which are symbolic for powerful earthly kingdoms that have raised themselves up against God’s kingdom. One by one, these kingdoms, which seemed so permanent and dominant at the time, have their power removed from them by the One who has final and complete authority.

The scene shifts in verse 13. The Ancient of Days still presides over the proceedings, but instead of beasts, “one like a son of man” approaches God’s throne. In other words, Daniel sees someone who looks like one of us. When the son of man comes before the Ancient of Days, he is given “dominion and glory and a kingdom.” The passage says that all people and nations will recognize his authority, and his reign will be permanent. This is the one kingdom that will stand the test of time!

We learn several things about God’s kingdom from this passage. First, God’s kingdom has been opposed throughout the history of the world. But no kingdom ever prevails against God’s kingdom. Additionally, although God in some sense has always and will always rule over this world, he has designated a special representative, the son of man, to implement this kingdom directly on the earth.

In Mark 1:14-15 Jesus describes this kingdom as “good news” or “gospel” (these are the same word in the Greek language). This emphasizes again the idea that God’s good and perfect reign is cause for hope and celebration. When Jesus says that “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand (or near),” he means that according to God’s timetable the promised kingdom of God is ready to be unveiled. The kingdom was drawing near with the arrival of the King – the Son of Man – Jesus. In fact, in all four Gospels, “Son of Man” is Jesus’ preferred title for himself. Jesus understood that his ultimate calling was to rule over the world as God’s Anointed One.

Jesus makes it clear that the arrival of the kingdom rests in God’s hands alone. Jesus doesn’t tell his listeners to build the kingdom. Instead, he simply announces the coming of the kingdom. What did Jesus tell the people to do in response? He told them to “repent and believe in the gospel” (the good news he had just spoken about). God is bringing his kingdom to the world, but people cannot enter in their current state of resistance to God. They must humbly repent and believe.

The proclamation of the arrival of God’s long-awaited kingdom was and is good news for a world that needs God’s leadership and authority. In response, we must get on board with God’s kingdom agenda by repenting from our sin and our own agendas. We must humbly believe in God, his kingdom, and his king – Jesus.

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The LORD Reigns – Reflections on the Kingdom of God

Biblical Theology is an approach to the Scriptures that observes the development of important themes from Old Testament to New Testament. One central theme to Biblical Theology is the topic of the kingdom of God. This post will begin a series of reflections on the promise and realization of God’s reign on this earth.

This past summer I served on a jury for a trial that lasted four days. During that time I had the chance to observe the way the judge ran the trial and kept the courtroom in order. He was a knowledgeable judge who made sure that the trial was conducted according to the law. He was also a considerate judge who was sensitive to the practical needs of the jury and other participants. Most important, he was a fair judge who made decisions based on justice rather than favoritism. It was fun to watch a skilled judge provide effective leadership over the courtroom and the trial.

On the grandest scale possible, God judges and reigns perfectly over the world he created. A number of Psalms in the Bible celebrate God’s reign over Israel and over all the nations of the world.  Psalm 96 depicts a celebration of God’s reign and reveals the character traits and actions associated with God’s reign.

"Let all the trees of the forest sing for joy."

“Let all the trees of the forest sing for joy.”

The psalmist poetically summons all of creation to sing God’s praises (verses 1 and 9). This includes even the seas and its creatures, the fields and its plants, and the trees of the forests (verses 11-12). This is appropriate, since God made all of creation in the first place. There is something so fitting about God’s creation reflecting praise back to its creator.

God’s glorious reign is to be proclaimed among the nations, so that all people can see his greatness and reject the worthless gods or idols that they have made for themselves (verse 5). God is the only one worthy to be praised, since he alone is the ruler of the world, and he alone has the power to act for the good of his creation.

The psalmist associates God’s reign with his salvation, holiness, judgments, righteousness, and faithfulness. These are all attributes that describe God’s character and the way that he exercises his rule. These descriptors confirm that God is the type of king this world needs. He created the world and its people, and he knows what is best for us.

A kingdom that is governed by a wise, powerful, and good king is a kingdom to be celebrated. Sadly, we experience the consequences of living under flawed rulers in our world today, whether selfish and corrupt political leaders, greedy and reckless business leaders, or flawed and untrustworthy religious leaders. Even on a personal level, when we rule our own lives without God’s guidance, we make a mess of things.

In contrast, God’s kingdom brings deep joy, because he will rule perfectly and in such a way that this world can flourish under his reign. “Sing to the LORD a new song; sing to the LORD, all the earth!”

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Romans 1:26-27 – The Kingdom of God Revealed and Rejected

The Apostle Paul

Biblical restrictions against same-gender sexual activity may seem incredibly counter-cultural. Certainly, this charge is leveled against other biblical teachings as well. Many people find the prohibition against premarital sex to be unrealistic, and contributing money regularly to a church strikes people as foolish, and the idea that Christ is the only way to God can appear to some as intolerant. Biblical teachings reflect the values of God’s kingdom and show us what life should look like under God’s reign. But God’s kingdom has always been in tension with the kingdoms of this world. Romans 1:18-32 paints a picture of what it looks like to resist God’s reign.

(See previous posts on this topic here, here, here, and here).

 

Literary Context of Romans 1:18-32

After the apostle Paul greets his readers, introduces himself, and articulates his gospel message (Romans 1:1-17), he devotes several chapters (Rom 1:18-3:21) to demonstrating that all humanity, both Jews and Gentiles, are sinful and therefore deserving of God’s judgment (“that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God” – Romans 3:19). Paul introduces this section of his letter with the pronouncement of God’s wrath against “all ungodliness and unrighteousness” (πᾱσα ἀσέβεια καὶ ἀδικία). These are words that shape our understanding of what follows – sinful rejection of God and sinful behaviors. “Unrighteousness” (ἀδικία) stands in contrast to the “righteousness” (δικαιοσύνη) revealed in the gospel (1:16-17).

Romans 1:19-23 speaks of Gentiles’ rejection of God’s general revelation and their descent into idolatry. The focus is not on each individual Gentile’s experience with idolatry, but with idolatry as characteristic of a Gentile world that denies the knowledge of God.

Romans 1:24-25 is a transitional verse that introduces God’s “handing over” of idolaters into immorality. The immorality is described as “the desires of their hearts resulting in impurity (ἀκαρθασία) and the dishonoring of their bodies among/in themselves.” “Dishonoring (ἀτιμάζω) of their bodies” is not defined here but anticipates the description of “dishonorable” (ἀτιμία) same-sex practices in the verses that follow. The prepositional phrase at the end of Romans 1:24 (ἐν αὐτοῖς) could be interpreted as “among themselves” (as a culture-wide phenomenon) or “in themselves” (with a possible parallel in 1 Corinthians 6:18).

Romans 1:26-32 describes the “dishonorable passions,” with 1:26-27 focusing on male-male and female-female sexual activities.

This passage should not be read as Paul’s musings on the psychology of same-sex attraction and behavior. Paul does not set out to prove that for a given individual the experience of same-sex attraction or the practice of same-sex activity is caused by rejecting God.  Paul’s purpose is more general: to argue that “idolatry leads to social disintegration, particularly in the form of sexual confusion, as God hands people over to the consequences of their sinful desires” (Frank Thielman, Theology of the New Testament, 351).

 

The Text of Romans 1:26-27

“For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural  relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.”

“For this reason” – see verse 25 – the reason is the rejection of God for idolatry.

“God gave them up – repeats the language of verse 24 and is repeated again in verse 28. God releases idolaters to their lusts (ἐπιθυμία), passions (πάθος), and debased minds (ἀδόκιμος νοῡς). The verse does not indicate the cause of immorality but describes the unchecked reign of these immoral desires and activities.

  • “Dishonorable” (ἀτιμία) – “a state of dishonor or disrespect,” (BDAG, 149).
  • “Passion” (πάθος) – “experience of strong desire, passion,” (BDAG, 748). This is used in a negative way in 1 Thessalonians 4:5 and Colossians 3:5 as well.

“For” (γάρ) – explains the way in which the passions are dishonorable.

“The women” – Paul describes the prevalence of sexual activity between females before turning his attention to the males.

  • The inclusion of women in descriptions of same-gender sexual activity invalidates the argument that Paul is denouncing only abusive sexual relationships in which one participant is an adult and the other is not (such as pederasty – sexual activity between an adult male and a younger boy). Schreiner notes that “there is no evidence that older women victimized younger girls, and so this theory does not account for the indictment of female sexual relations” (Thomas Schreiner, New Testament Theology: Magnifying God in Christ, 661).

“Exchanged” is the same word as 1:25 (exchanging the truth of God for a lie) and is related to 1:23 (exchanging the glory of God for images). The pattern reflects exchanging what is true and good for what is false and wrong.

In this case (verse 26), the charge is that people exchange “natural relations” (φυσικὴν χρῆσιν) for “those that are contrary to nature” (τὴν παρὰ φύσιν).

  • φυσικός is “pertaining to being in accordance with the basic order of things in nature,” (BDAG, 1069).
  • χρῆσις is the “state of involvement with a person, relations, function, especially of sexual intercourse,” (BDAG, 1089).
  • φύσις is “the regular or established order of things, nature,” (BDAG, 1070).

In summary, “their women” are said to exchange sexual activities that align with the natural order of things for activities that are against the natural order of things.

For Paul “natural” and “contrary to nature” are categories that are both transparent from observation (male and female differentiation, which is evident to all) and in alignment with God’s creative design from Genesis 1-2. This connection between God’s creative design and observed order is affirmed in Romans 1:20 (God’s attributes are perceived “ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.”) Additional corroborating evidence that male and female distinction is what is “natural” is found with the pairing of “women and men” or “females and males” (θῆλυς and ἄρσην) in this passage (see the LXX version of Genesis 1:27, Matthew 19:4, Mark 10:6, and Galatians 3:28). In summary, Paul uses “natural” and “contrary to nature” to describe actions “in accordance with the intention of the Creator” and actions “contrary to the intention of the Creator” (C. E. B. Cranfield, The Epistle to the Romans, 1:125).

  • Paul likewise appeals to “nature” or φύσις in 1 Corinthians 11:14-15, where observed design from creation (“nature”) is used to condemn the practice of men looking like women or vice versa. (Note that in that passage, the confusion of genders was culturally expressed and pertinent to that particular culture, but the basis for not having confusion in the first place was timeless and grounded in creation-determined differentiation between men and women).
  • Natural and unnatural is not determined inwardly, according to the person’s orientation, but according to God’s design in creation. In other words, a person may protest that certain actions are in fact natural to that person’s inclinations, but the Bible does not accept those as natural if they conflict with God’s revealed will.

Some of the same language from verse 26 is applied to men in verse 27. The men’s “natural use” (φυσικὴν χρῆσιν) is “departed from/abandoned” (ἀφίημι- see BDAG, 156). This time though, the parallel to “contrary to nature” (which is opposite of “natural”) is spelled out more specifically. The men were “consumed with passion for one another, men carrying out shameful acts with men and receiving in/among themselves the penalty which was necessary for their error.”

  • “Consumed” (ἐκκαίω) is defined as “have a strong desire for, be inflamed” in BDAG, 303.
  • “Passion” (ὄρεξις) describes “a condition of strong desire, longing,” (BDAG, 721).
  • Note that this is a description of misdirected passion rather than excess passion. The emphasis is on the passion that is not according to “nature.” The disordered passion results in committing same-sex acts. From the men’s perspective, the actions were aligned with their passions, but from God’s perspective, the actions were contrary to nature.
  • Contrary to Vines, 105 (Paul “was condemning excess as opposed to moderation”), Paul is criticizing disordered (contrary to nature and God’s will from creation) passions as opposed to ordered (in harmony with nature and God’s will from creation) passions.

The behavior between “one another” is immediately restated as “men in/with/among men” (ἄρσενες ἐν ἄρσεσιν).

These men were “carrying out” (κατεργάζομαι – BDAG, 531) “shameful acts” (ἀσχημοσύνη), which is defined as “behavior that elicits its disgrace” (BDAG, 147).

These men (same grammatical subject) also were “receiving” (ἀπολαμβάνω) “the penalty” (ἀντιμισθία – “requital based upon what one deserves, recompense, exchange,” BDAG, 90), which “was necessary” (ἔδει) for their error (πλάνη) – “wandering from the path of truth; error, delusion, deceit, deception” (BDAG, 822). These men received this penalty “in/among themselves,” which is similar language to Rom 1:24 and could mean either among them broadly or within each sinner (with a nod to the personal nature of sexual sin – 1 Corinthians 6:18). The same-sex acts themselves are the penalty for denying God’s natural revelation (not some penalty on top of the same-sex acts), recalling that the language is parallel to “acts contrary to nature” in Rom 1:26.

Why did Paul highlight these vices (women having sex with women and men having sex with men) in particular? For one, it was shocking to the Jewish mindset, which Paul sought to identify with at that point in the argument. But two, Paul likely sees a connection between rejecting the revealed knowledge of God in nature with the distortion of the natural manner of sexual intercourse. Both involve abandonment of the naturally revealed knowledge of creation and its creator. See Gagnon, 264-268 for further examination of connections between the idolatry and same-sex practices as they are described in this passage.

 

Other considerations

Romans 2:1, where Paul abruptly confronts the Jewish moralist for his/her sin, reveals more of Paul’s agenda for Romans 1-3. His purpose is to show that all people are sinners and accountable to God (see Romans 3:19-20). Even though Romans 2:1 serves as a “gotcha” moment for the Jewish readers, Paul still presents points he sees as valid in Romans 1:18-32 (as seen in the transition from the righteousness found in the gospel – Romans 1:16-17 – to the unrighteousness of humanity introduced in Romans 1:18). This resembles the familiar OT prophetic pattern of denouncing both the nations and the Jewish people for their sins (before promising a future hope through God’s saving work).

There is a close association between this passage and Wisdom of Solomon chapters 13 and 14. They have similar critiques of Gentile idolatry and immorality. Wisdom of Solomon may mention same sex relations in 14:26 (γενεσεως ἐναλλαγη), though this is debated.

Could same-gender sexual activity within a committed marriage fall outside of the negative characterization of same-gender sexual activity within this passage? Paul does not indicate the legitimacy of any exception to the rule. And any such practice, whether inside or outside a marriage, would still seem to involve activity that is in opposition to the “natural function” Paul describes in the passage. As John Stott notes, the Bible does not support the idea that “love is the only absolute, and that whatever seems to be compatible with love is ipso facto good, irrespective of all other considerations” (Issues Facing Christians Today, 350).

This brings us back, full circle, to the kingdom of God. God’s kingdom is abundant life, even “human flourishing,” with the key qualifier that this is life lived under God’s reign, according to his perfect wisdom. As difficult as a biblical teaching may sound, we can trust that God’s perfect wisdom will lead us into paths of life, both now and for eternity.

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God’s Kingdom and Matthew 11:12

Jesus, Patmos

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.

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