Bible kevinroosecomThe three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Matthew 11:12-15

12 From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence,[a] and the violent take it by force. 13 For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John, 14 and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. 15 He who has ears to hear,[e] let him hear.

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The context of Jesus’s words here are in response to John the Baptist’s followers asking on his behalf if He is truly the Messiah, the One he foretold.

John could not ask in person; Herod had placed him in prison.

The more detailed parallel account of Matthew 11:2-14 is in Luke 7:18-23 and Luke 7:24-30 which I wrote about in 2013. Those posts explain more about the background to John’s question and his imprisonment.

Both Luke’s and Matthew’s Gospels include Jesus saying that John the Baptist was the greatest human being that ever lived. At least the Lectionary editors incorporated Matthew 11:11 into the Gospel reading for the Third Sunday of Advent in Year A (emphases mine):

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.

We now understand John the Baptist’s greatness in the words of our Lord. But what of the second sentence?

Matthew Henry says that some scholars have interpreted it in three ways. The ‘least in the kingdom of heaven’ can refer to the saint made fully perfect in wisdom once with Christ or that He was referring to Himself, being regarded as second to John by his followers. However, Henry says there is a third meaning which refers to the Apostles:

it is rather to be understood of the apostles and ministers of the New Testament, the evangelical prophets and the comparison between them and John is not with respect to their personal sanctity, but to their office[;] John preached Christ coming, but they preached Christ not only come, but crucified and glorified. John came to the dawning of the gospel-day, and therein excelled the foregoing prophets, but he was taken off before the noon of that day, before the rending of the veil, before Christ’s death and resurrection, and the pouring out of the Spirit so that the least of the apostles and evangelists, having greater discoveries made to them, and being employed in a greater embassy, is greater than John. John did no miracles[;] the apostles wrought many.

The next verse (12) appears disconcerting, perhaps disturbing, as Jesus says that from the beginning of John’s ministry the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, with the violent taking it by force.

The meaning here is twofold. On the one hand, John was languishing in prison for having spoken spiritual and moral truths to Herod, thereby angering him and his family. At the same time, the Jewish hierarchy was following our Lord, actively opposing Him. On the other hand, John the Baptist brought many people — Jew and Gentile — to repentance in preparation for the Messiah’s coming. The only ones who did not follow his instruction for baptism and turning away from sin were the Jewish religious rulers, who believed they were perfect already.

Both Henry and John MacArthur say the violence of John the Baptist’s ministry in a personal sense meant that his followers began an intense spiritual struggle against sin and desire for God’s holy kingdom. Henry tells us:

Note, They who would enter into the kingdom of heaven must strive to enter that kingdom suffers a holy violence self must be denied, the bent and bias, the frame and temper, of the mind must be altered[;] there are hard sufferings to be undergone, a force to be put upon the corrupt nature we must run, and wrestle, and fight, and be in an agony, and all little enough to win such a prize, and to get over such opposition from without and from within. The violent take it by force. They who will have an interest in the great salvation are carried out towards it with a strong desire, will have it upon any terms, and not think them hard, nor quit their hold without a blessing, Genesis 32:26. They who will make their calling and election sure must give diligence. The kingdom of heaven was never intended to indulge the ease of triflers, but to be the rest of them that labour. It is a blessed sight[.] Oh that we could see a greater number, not with an angry contention thrusting others out of the kingdom of heaven, but with a holy contention thrusting themselves into it!

MacArthur looks at the ministry of John the Baptist, then Jesus’s, saying:

In other words, he’s going to go with a great effect and turn many hearts to God. So if you take it reflexively then the kingdom is moving ahead vigorously. And our Lord was continuing, then, to mark out the greatness of John. Through him the kingdom was vigorously moving ahead. He was God’s tool to purify the people. He was God’s tool to get them ready. And when Christ came the kingdom could be seen, the sick were healed, the lepers were cleansed, the dead were raised, the sinners were forgiven and the kingdom was moving. Yes, many refused but look the end of the verse would read this way: Violent men are taking possession of it. There were the vigorous, violent, forceful who dared to step out, who dared to break with tradition, who dared at all costs to separate themselves from the system, who came and took possession of the reign of God, who enthroned Jesus Christ as Lord.

And that, by the way, beloved, is the meaning of a parallel statement in Luke 16:16, where it says: “The law and the prophets were until John, since that time the Kingdom of God is preached and every man presses into it.” And because of that parallel passage, I think, we’re safer to say that this is a reflexive use of biazō. That it is saying – that the Kingdom is moving ahead under the power of this marvelous man John, and vigorous, aggressive, forceful people are taking that kingdom.

You say, “Well, does that express the proper perspective on salvation?” Yes. In Matthew chapter 7 it says that if you’re going to enter into the narrow gate, you’re going to have to realize that it’s hard to enter, that there must be a striving. Listen to what it says. “Because the gate is narrow and the way is hard which leads unto life and few there be that … what?… find it.” No, you don’t just easily take Jesus Christ, you don’t just easily enter the kingdom, there is a striving. Jesus said if you’re going to come unto Me then you must deny yourself, take up your…what? … your cross and follow Me.

Striving does not mean via must-do works but by spiritual yearning through the discipline of prayer, turning away from sin and keeping Holy Scripture alive in the heart and mind. It is a struggle. It is much easier to take a sinful approach to life, conducting ourselves in a self-satisfying, impulsive, temperamental way that makes us feel better but hurts others as well as our Lord.

Jesus then compared John the Baptist to the prophet Elijah (verses 13, 14). Henry explains:

First, Christ speaks of it as a great truth, that John the Baptist is the Elias of the New Testament not Elias in propria persona–in his own person, as the carnal Jews expected he denied that (John 1:21), but one that should come in the spirit and power of Elias (Luke 1:17), like him in temper and conversation, that should press repentance with terrors, and especially as it is in the prophecy, that should turn the hearts of the fathers to the children. Secondly, He speaks of it as a truth, which would not be easily apprehended by those whose expectations fastened upon the temporal kingdom of the Messiah, and introductions to it agreeable. Christ suspects the welcome of it, if ye will receive it. Not but that it was true, whether they would receive it or not, but he upbraids them with their prejudices, that they were backward to receive the greatest truths that were opposed to their sentiments, though never so favourable to their interests. Or, “If you will receive him, or if you will receive the ministry of John as that of the promised Elias, he will be an Elias to you, to turn you and prepare you for the Lord,” Note, Gospel truths are as they are received, a savour of life or death. Christ is a Saviour, and John an Elias, to those who will receive the truth concerning them.

Finally, Jesus wanted His listeners to pay attention to what He said and keep it in the forefront of their minds (verse 15). His message was not to go in one ear and out the other. Henry analyses it as follows:

“Let all people take notice of this, if John be the Elias prophesied of, then certainly here is a great revolution on foot, the Messiah’s kingdom is at the door, and the world will shortly be surprised into a happy change. These are things which require your serious consideration, and therefore you are all concerned to hearken to what I say.” Note, The things of God are of great and common concern: every one that has ears to hear any thing, is concerned to hear this. It intimates, that God requires no more from us but the right use and improvement of the faculties he has already given us. He requires those to hear that have ears, those to use their reason that have reason. Therefore people are ignorant, not because they want power, but because they want will therefore they do not hear, because, like the deaf adder, they stop their ears.

May those who waver in their faith reread the Gospels, noting their historical significance — yesterday, today and always.

Next time: Matthew 11:16-19

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