The Forceful Men in Matthew 11:12
ajpo; de; tw'n hJmerw'n jIwavnnou tou' baptistou' e{w" a[rti hJ basileiva tw'n oujranw'n biavzetai, kai; biastai; aJrpavzousin aujthvn. [(Matthew 11:12, UBS Greek Text)

And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force (Matthew 11:12, King James Version).

And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and violent men take it by force  (Matthew 11:12, New American Standard Version).

From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it (Matthew 11:12, New International Version).

The New International Version translation of the Bible broke with traditional translations of this passage by introducing a positive notion of "forceful advancement" of the kingdom and "forceful men laying hold of it." Virtually all commentators on the passage acknowledge the difficulty of the passage, while advancing various understandings of the saying. This paper will address this saying, its context, and the reasoning underneath the various translations and understandings that have been provided concerning this passage.

Literary Context
This passage containing the saying, Matthew 11:2-19, at first glance seems to be about John the Baptist. But the thrust of the passage (11:16-19) is directed at Jesus's hearers and their attitudes towards John and himself. The entire NIV text is included below.

Mt 11:2 When John heard in prison what Christ was doing, he sent his disciples [3] to ask him, "Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?"

[4] Jesus replied, "Go back and report to John what you hear and see: [5] The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. [6] Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me."

[7] As John's disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: "What did you go out into the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind? [8] If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings' palaces. [9] Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. [10] This is the one about whom it is written:

" `I will send my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way before you.'

[11] I tell you the truth: Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. [12] From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it. [13] For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John. [14] And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come. [15] He who has ears, let him hear.

[16] "To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to others:

[17] " `We played the flute for you,
and you did not dance;
we sang a dirge,
and you did not mourn.'

[18] For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, `He has a demon.' [19] The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, `Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and "sinners." ' But wisdom is proved right by her actions."

Jesus uses repeated rhetorical questions to make various points about John. Thus, the context of the saying in 11:12 is Jesus' discussion of the simplistic and fickle winds of public opinion concerning the both of them.

Historical-Cultural Background

John the Baptist
John the Baptist was a relatively well-known figure in Israel, and not just in his own time. He attracted the attention of the masses, but also the special attention of the religious leaders and the king. He retained loyal disciples even after the baptism of Jesus and during his own imprisonment. Twenty years after his life ended he had disciples in far-off Ephesus (Acts 19:1-4). Josephus considered him not only worthy of mention, but testified that John had a "great influence over the people"  that could have given impetus to a rebellion (Antiquities, XVIII, v, 2).

It follows that Matthew's initial readers were likely to have some familiarity with John in addition to what might have been known via Christian tradition. Thus, it was quite important for Matthew to speak to the issue of how Jesus related to John the Baptist.

Though not specifically named, Herod is an important figure in this passage because he was the one who had imprisoned John. This King Herod is known to history as Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great. Herod the Great was ruthless in the slaughter of the innocents (Mt 2) as well as in the execution of one of his own wives and two of his own sons in a paranoid act of attempting to secure his rule.

But the son Herod Antipas shows no signs of such violence. Antipas appears to be politically and militarily mediocre if not weak, and more sensually oriented. Indeed, he divorced the daughter of King Aretas to marry his own niece, who had been the wife of his brother. Aretas subsequently defeated him in battle. Matthew tells us that Herod wanted to kill John but didn't because he was afraid of the people (Mt 14:5)-- something that never would have stopped his father. He made a foolish oath to his step-daughter that could have cost him half of his kingdom (Mk 6:23). During his rule, there was a political party of "Herodians" who were opposed to Jesus and apparently dedicated to the advancement of Herodian rule. Apparently, there were political operatives who desired to advance the cause of Herod in the nation that generally despised him for his immorality and lineage. Herod himself was dethroned through intrigue when Caligula became emperor and Herod Agrippa was made king in his place. Antipas died in exile in Gaul.

Messianic Expectations in the First Century
Messianic expectations are critical to the popular and official evaluation of Jesus. Various Messianic expectations abounded in the first century. Several different themes came together from various prophecies. The first of these was the idea of a Davidic ruler who would usher in the day of the Lord (e.g. Isaiah 9:6ff, 11:1ff). Another expression of this hope was the Servant of the Lord (e.g. Isaiah 49:3-6). F. F. Bruce summarizes: "No single form of Messianic expectation was cherished by Jesus' contemporaries, but the hope of a military Messiah predominated. The promises of a prince from the house of David who would break the oppressor's yoke from his people's neck seemed to many to be designed for a time such as theirs, whether the yoke was imposed by a Herodian ruler or by a Roman governor (F. F. Bruce, New Testament History, Doubleday-Galilee, New York, NY, 1980. p. 133)."

Equally relevant to this passage are John the Baptist's own expectations of the work of the Messiah. He had proclaimed the Messiah's ministry to be one of fulfillment and judgment (e.g. Mt 3:10-12). The question at the heart of this whole pericope, "Are you the One?" arises out of a perceived discrepancy between John's proclamation and the present ministry of Jesus.

Word Studies
There are three crucial Greek words that are used in Matthew 11:12: biazo, biastes, and harpazo.

The verb "biazo" is used only here and in Luke 16:16. Here it is used intransitively (that is, without an object). Concerning this term in this passage, BAGD says "the meaning is … not clear." It then lists the following possibilities:

1) transitive passive- A- in a bad sense be violently treated, be oppressed, the kingdom suffers violence through a- hinderances raised against it
b- through the efforts of unauthorized persons to compel its coming
c- occupy by force
B- In a good sense "is sought with burning zeal"
2) intransitive (middle)- makes its way with triumphant force
The NIDNNT offers the following: "biazo is quite rare in the active. But in the middle it expresses the idea of forcible action both in deed and word. Transitive it means to violate, rape; intransitive to use force, enforce one’s will; and passive to suffer violence."

The TDNT isn’t definitive on the meaning of the term here but leans towards the last of six possibilities that it offers:

a. First possibility is intransitive middle "rule of God breaks in with power." But this does not go well with the second part of the verse which seems to be interpreting the first half.
b. To translate "the kingdom of heaven compels" (middle) is no help in this regard.
c. The passive raises other difficulties if taken in a good sense, i.e. that people are pressing into the kingdom, since Mt. 11:1-24 seems to suggest the very opposite.
d. Nor does the rendering "the kingdom is forcibly advanced by God" solve the problem of the second half.
e. Another possibility is that the reference is to unprincipled enthusiasts trying to establish the kingdom on their own, but this seems to have no relevance to the general context.
f. A final possibility is that Jesus is referring to contentious opponents who attack or hamper the kingdom and snatch it away from others (cf. 13:19). This has the merit of agreement with the fact that John himself is under constraint and that both he and Jesus have met with widespread opposition (cf. 11:2, 16, 20).
The noun "biastes" is only used in the New Testament in this passage. BAGD defines the noun as "a violent, impetuous man."

The NIDNNT offers: "… means a violent man, and carries a derogatory sense."

TDNT offers the following: "11:12 refers most naturally to those who violently assault the divine rule and snatch it away from others."

The verb "harpazo" is used in a variety of New Testament passages, with connotations revolving around its general meanings of "snatch" or "seize." (Ref Mt 12:29, 13:19, Jn 6:15, 10:12, 10:28-9, Acts 8:39, 23:10, 2 Cor 12:2, 12:4, 1 Th 4:17, Ju 1:23, Rev 12:5.)

Regarding harpazo in Matthew 11:12, BAGD says "the meaning is difficult to determine. When used with biazo probably means something like seize or claim for oneself. Another possibility is plunder."

TDNT offers the following three possibilities:

a. that the kingdom is taken away and closed.
b. that violent people culpably snatch it.
c. that people take it forcibly in a good sense.
It continues: "The first has some support in the wording and context. The third is likely because of the irruption (that is, pouring out-- JE) of the kingdom with the Baptist and the need for resoluteness to enter it. The second is intrinsically improbable."

Grammar Studies
The parsing of each of the critical words from 11:12 is shown below:

Word parsing
  • Verb
  • Present Indicative 
  • Middle or Passive
  • 3rd person singular 
  • biastes
  • Noun
  • Feminine 
  • Nominative 
  • Plural
  • harpazo
  • Verb
  • Present Indicative
  • Active
  • 3rd person plural
  • Since the terms biazo, biastes and harpazo all have a significantly wide possibility of meaning in this passage, questions of grammar and context help us understand which meanings are most likely.

    Biazo ought to be taken in the middle, intransitive sense-- that the kingdom makes its way with triumphal force. There is no direct object, which demands the intransitive sense. In addition, the present tense demands something like a continuous, present type of action-- something that is going on right now.

    Biastes can only be taken as "violent, impetuous men" in this passage. Yet, exactly who these might be referring to is not immediately clear. More discussion about this will follow.

    Because harpazo is used with biazo, it should be taken to mean "seize or claim for oneself" per BAGD.

    Solution of Major Interpretive Problems
    NAS/NIV Translation Comments
    The NAS translation of these words are: "the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and violent men take it by force." The NIV translation is "the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it. Thus, the NAS (and most other translations) sees "biazo" as transitive passive, the NIV takes it as intransitive middle. The NAS sees "biastes" as a negative term, the NIV a positive term. The NAS sees "harpazo" as forcible snatching, where the NIV sees it as a sense of possession.

    These differences in translations illustrate the problems in this passage. Each option chooses to solve one problem in the text over the others.

    Exegetical Implications of Word-Meaning Choices
    The NAS choice to take biazo as passive voice requires that 1) the kingdom be suffering violence, 2) an identification of who those executing the violence must be, and 3) how such violence could be construed as "taking it by force."  While John suffered imprisonment, it doesn't seem like the kingdom has really "suffered violence." The whole point of Jesus' remarks in 11:4-6 is that the kingdom has been advancing just fine with John in prison; it has not been thwarted. If Herod or perhaps the religious leaders were the ones perpetrating this "violence," it must be answered exactly what that violence would have been-- biazo is a present-tense verb demanding a present, continuous type of action-- and how these perpetrators (whomever they might have been) were "taking" the kingdom for themselves. Simply imprisoning John doesn't quite add up to the violence this term suggests, neither does any harassment from the religious leaders. The NAS translation attempts to be faithful to the words but leaves us with a passage that doesn't seem to fit the historical and literary context.

    The NIV choice to take biazo as middle voice implies that the kingdom is moving forward with force. This is probably the right way to view biazo here. But then the NIV takes this middle voice verb and says that those "biastes" in the second phrase are the ones advancing the kingdom: this second choice contradicts the first one, as it would require a passive voice of the verb biazo. In addition, this choice also forces biastes to refer to something besides violent, impetuous persons-- which is the only known usage of the term. Also, translating harpazo as "lay hold of" doesn't capture the strength or the present tense action of the verb.

    Figurative Usage of Biastes?
    Because of the difficulties associated with a literal translation of these terms, we must now consider figurative uses of each of these terms, and how to harmonize this passage with its context.

    There is no difficulty with biazo being taken literally-- the middle voice usage fits the context adequately. The kingdom has been advancing, regardless of opposing forces.

    However, it is possible that biastes is used figuratively. If Jesus is referring to good men with a "bad" term, this amounts to a play on words. But before we can figure out who these good men might be, we need to consider the verb that describes these men.

    If harpazo is referring to the approved actions of good men, then a good action for harpazo is required. The "bad" meanings of the term (such as taking the kingdom from others) would not apply. That would leave us with the "good" meaning of the term-- seizing the kingdom for oneself. Now who might be seizing the kingdom for themselves, but those who have responded favorably to Jesus' message?

    Jesus' converts are known as "sinners and tax collectors" in 11:19, even as he is known as their "friend."  This is the very cause of the criticism that Jesus receives, just as John was criticized for his asceticism. Perhaps Jesus refers to his converts as biastes, "violent men" in 11:12 as an ironic or sarcastic way of showing the success of  his mission to the "sinners" who need to repent (ref. Mt 9:13). Indeed, the kingdom would be  "forcefully advancing" in order to reach these "sinners" on the periphery of religious life in Israel. And by their eagerness to receive the gospel, they "snatch up" the kingdom not unlike a merchant who sees an incredible bargain.

    This idea of "seizing" of the kingdom, as in this usage of harpazo, is supported in the parables of Mt 13:44-46 and 21:28-32.

    Analytical Outline
    It is useful to summarize this pericope with an outline.

    Jesus and John the Baptist
    I. The Baptist's Question (11:2-3)
    II. The Legitimacy of Jesus' Ministry (11:4-6)
    III. The Greatness of John (11:7-15)
    A. John was strong in character (11:7-8)
    B. Both a prophet and a subject of prophecy in preceding the Messiah (11:9-10)
    C. Jesus builds on and exceeds what John started (11:11-15)
    IV. The Fickleness of this Generation (11:16-19)
    This outline helps put 11:12 in perspective and proper context. John's question arises from a perceived discrepancy between his view of the ministry of the Messiah (e.g. Mt 3:10-12) and what Jesus has been doing-- healing the sick and preaching the good news to the poor (as well as the tax-collectors and sinners, 11:19). Verse 12 has to do with this advance of the kingdom contrary to expectations. The gospel of the kingdom is reaching more and more people, even as Jesus' mission is moving towards its completion.

    Interpretive Summary
    We have considered a significant body of scholarly opinion concerning this passage. Even if the scholars cannot agree about the meaning of this passage, they all agree that it is difficult and requires some sort of a creative solution. Yet, the solution ought to be true to the context and relatively straightforward.

    McGarvey and Pendleton are 19th century commentators, and their interpretation makes one wonder if they were aware of the middle voice intransitive usage of biazo. Attached to the passive use of biazo (in spite of contextual difficulties with it), they put great weight on the idea that the kingdom "came" in Acts 2 with Peter's proclamation of the gospel (Mt 16:18, Acts 2:38). They liken the kingdom to a budding flower that must mature in its own time; thus they view any attempt to speed this day before its time as examples of "bringing violence upon the kingdom." They paint a picture of the kingdom like a city whose walls are besieged by those forcing an entrance, citing Jn 6:15, Mt 20:21, Lk 19:11, 19:36-38, 22:24-30 and Acts 1:6 as examples of such behavior. With this understanding of the kingdom, they view 11:12 as a condemnation of these gun-jumpers.

    There are several problems with their interpretation, besides the passive use of biazo. While Acts 2 is important in the history of the kingdom, their approach seems to fail to recognize the "present" aspects of the kingdom in the gospels-- see Mt 12:28, 19:14, 19:24.21:31, 23:13. The idea of a besieged city waiting for the right time to open its doors is creative, but it doesn't fit the context. The whole point of Jesus' comments about John is that Jesus is presently at work fulfilling his ministry and proclaiming the gospel, not fending off those who would hasten the day of Pentecost.

    Lastly, Jesus clearly says that these "forceful men" are actually seizing the kingdom-- something that McGarvey and Pendleton's would-be "violent men" have only attempted.

    Carson recognizes the difficulty of the passage and appeals for taking biazo with its usual middle voice usage, then taking biastes and harpazo with their usual negative meanings. He thus finds a positive meaning in the first phrase and a negative meaning in the second phrase. In addressing the apparent discontinuity from the first phrase to the second under this scheme, he refers to a grammatical device known as an atanclasis-- a figure of speech where the same word is repeated in a different or even contradictory sense. Thus he allows "biazo" in a positive sense in the first phrase, and its cognate "biastes" with "harpazo" in a negative sense in the second phrase.

    According to this understanding, Jesus praises the forceful advance of the kingdom, but then he condemns the "violent" men who seize the kingdom. The problem with this view is that it is not clear whom those violent men might be or exactly how they might be "seizing the kingdom."

    Most commentators view the first portion of the saying as positive, that the kingdom is "forcefully advancing" in a positive sense. The arguments for understanding the first phrase in a negative sense, that the kingdom is "suffering violence," generally make their case by ignoring the middle voice of biazo and focusing on the negative terms in the second phrase of the saying reflecting back to the first phrase. This seems unnatural, and appears to commit the fallacy of assuming what it seeks to prove. Up to this point in time in the ministry of Jesus, there really hasn’t been much "violence" directed towards the kingdom at this stage. To offer John’s imprisonment (and even conspiracies against Jesus by the Jewish leaders and Herodians) as evidence of "violence towards the kingdom" is a stretch. But either way, there is no apparent connection between this "violence" and the context, which discusses the nature and advance of the kingdom since the time of John.

    The real controversy in this passage comes from the second phrase of the saying. Those who would have these "violent men" be opponents of the kingdom are without evidence concerning how Herod or the religious leaders (the only possible opponents of the kingdom in the context) are "taking over the kingdom." Herod's motive in arresting John was to silence a critic of his immorality (and perhaps a nagging wife), not to stop a movement. The religious leaders eventually sought to stop the movement, but Jesus' remarks refer to someone snatching the kingdom now. Furthermore, they were not able to "seize" the movement. It made its progress despite their opposition. It is not appropriate to attribute a meaning to Jesus' words that gives the opponents more credit than they actually merited.

    The first part of the saying is in all likelihood a positive statement about the advancement of the kingdom. This is primarily due to the intransitive middle voice usage of biazo. Though not unanimous, there is strong and compelling scholarly support for this position, and it simply fits the context quite naturally. Since the days of John, the kingdom is steadily advancing, despite appearances or popular expectations.

    Different understandings of the second part of the saying exist. The arguments for taking the second part of the saying as a positive or a negative statement have been presented. The context supports the idea that the term "biastes" is used figuratively, and that both "biastes" and "harpazo" are used in a positive sense. Thus, the advance of the kingdom is directly related to those who are snatching it for themselves-- those who are hearing and believing the message. This position has less difficulties than the other possibilities that have been discussed.

    There are a number of important practical applications that can be made from this pericope.

    Jesus and John both advanced the kingdom, yet were subject to criticisms arising from superficial public expectations and perceptions. Setting the record straight, Jesus says the kingdom "forcefully advances" by more and more people hearing the message and seizing the gospel invitation for themselves. Yet the advance of the kingdom is not about "forceful" proclamations, overthrows of sinful religious or civic leaders, or being on the "right side" of fickle popular opinion. It follows that this passage should never be used to encourage Christians to be "forceful" to advance the kingdom, as though unbelievers can be "forced" into faith.

    In addition, we might observe that Jesus as the Messiah was expected to rule in such a way as to expel the Romans and supersede the existing religious authorities in Israel. In contrast to the expectation, Jesus focused his attention on the needy and receptive masses rather than spend time confronting or overthrowing the unreceptive authorities.

    Finally, we cannot help but observe the eagerness of response to the gospel by the irreligious or religiously disaffected. This is a well-known phenomenon in Scripture and perhaps the greatest irony of Christian outreach. Christians are often intimidated by outreach to the irreligious, but in many cases the irreligious recognize the value of the gospel far more than the religious and are eager to seize its blessings for themselves.

    Copyright 1999, 2001 Ó John Engler. All rights reserved.


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