The Kingdom of Heaven Suffers Violence? And the Violent Take it by Force?

One of the most misunderstood concepts in Christianity is the concept of “The Kingdom of Heaven,” particularly as it is discussed by Jesus in the gospel accounts.  The great biblical scholar N.T. Wright just wrote an excellent book, How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels that deals with this misunderstood concept in great detail.  For our purposes, we must just understand that the “Kingdom of God/Heaven” was how Jesus referred to his movement here on earth, and “Eternal Life” or “Olam Habbah,” was something different.

Matthew 11 contains one of the most confusing verses in the Bible.  It is often translated as, “And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force (Matt 11:12).” 

It turns out that the key to understanding this teaching of Jesus is actually an ancient rabbinic Midrash of Micah 2:13 discovered by the incomparable David Flusser.  Micah 2:12-13 reads: “I will gather all of you, Jacob; I will collect the remnant of Israel.  I will put them all together like sheep in a fold, like a flock inside its pen.  It will be noisy and crowded with people  The breach-maker (poretz) goes through the gate before them.  Then they break out.  Passing through the gate, they leave by it.  Their king passes before them, their Lord at their head.” 

These verses are full of rich imagery.  The shepherd comes to let his sheep out in the morning after they have been penned up all night.  The next morning he makes a breach in the wall by tossing a few of the stones to the side and then steps through the gate.  The sheep can’t wait to get out and literally burst through the opening, making the opening much larger in the process.  They burst out into open spaces rushing after the shepherd.  Remember the Psalmist in Psalm 119 says, “I will walk in a wide place, for your precepts guide my way.”

In Micah 2:13 the “breach-maker” and the king are the same person, but in the rabbinic interpretation discovered by Professor Flusser they are two different people.  The “breach-maker” is interpreted as being Elijah, and “their king” as the Messiah, the Branch of the Son of David.

Jesus seems to be not only hinting at Micah 2:13, but also at a well-known rabbinic interpretation of it  The Kingdom of Heaven is breaking forth (not “suffering violence“) and every person in it is breaking forth (literally, ‘those who are breaking out break out in it, or by means of it,’ not the violent take it by force.’)

In Matthew 11:12, as in the ancient rabbinic midrash, Elijah, or John the Baptist (Matt. 11:12) is the breach-maker.  He makes the breach in the rock fence and goes through first.  He has opened the way.  He is the Elijah of Malachi 3:1 and 4:5-6, who goes before the Lord to prepare his way.  As in the midrash, Jesus, the King, follows John.  Jesus is the Lord who leads the sheep through the gate, it is a powerful image.

Jesus is once again teaching his disciples, his “Talmidim,” about the kingdom of heaven.  In fact, the Kingdom of Heaven is the concept Jesus talks about the most in the synoptic gospels, and sadly, it is one of the misunderstood concepts in church today.  In this example Jesus teaches his disciples that the Kingdom of Heaven started when Jesus began calling disciples during John’s active ministry.  Since then, it has been “breaking out.”  The Kingdom is not futuristic!  It is something that has been in existence since the time of John the Baptizer.

One interesting note, during passover Jews often leave an open seat for Elijah at the passover table (awaiting his return).  If you follow the gospel accounts, there is compelling evidence that John the Baptist (Elijah figure in this story) was actually born during passover.

In Matthew 11:12 we see that Elijah (John the Baptist) had opened the gate, and God was leading a noisy multitude out into a wide place of freedom!

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