A sermon on Matthew 11:12 by Fr. Justin Clemente, delivered to the People of New Creation Church (Anglican) on October 3, 2022. Part of our ongoing “The Hard Sayings of Jesus” series.
The Kingdom Advances Under Persecution
In China these days, a new government law has resulted in a renewed and intensified persecution upon Christians. Voice of Martyrs reports this:
Crosses are removed from church buildings; churches are closed and demolished; house churches are raided; pastors are handcuffed mid-service; and Christians are interrogated, arrested and imprisoned. These are just a few examples of the ongoing oppression faced by our persecuted Christian family members in China as they work to advance God’s kingdom under the Chinese Communist Party.[i]
Notice the irony: although the government may work to violently stamp out Christianity, the kingdom of God advances.
This may help us to understand the juxtaposition of Matthew 11:12. When I read this verse, my first reaction is to…read it again! It’s been called “one of the riddles” of the Gospels. [ii] What is Jesus saying?!
Understanding the Saying (v.12)
“From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.”
The question of how to understand this verse hinges on whether or not Jesus is commending the actions of those he has in mind, or not. Now, there are issues of translation that are beyond the scope of the sermon today, but I’ll summarize them by saying that I don’t think the way this verse has been translated has always been helpful. For instance, the 1984 version of the NIV reads this way: “From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it.” See? That sounds more positive.
The ESV’s translation is sound, but I think we can do even better. Commentator Jeffrey Gibbs suggests this translation: “But from the days of John the Baptist until now, the reign of heaven is being violently attacked, and violent men are trying to snatch it away.” (Concordia Commentary: Matthew 11:2-20:34 by Jeffrey Gibbs, pg. 567) I think that’s right. I do not think that Jesus is commending an attitude that would forcefully grab hold of God’s Kingdom. Rather he is saying that even as the kingdom of God comes into this world, it will be violently opposed.
Now, in support of that, just look at the context! This is why we read all fifteen verses this morning. John has proclaimed that the Holy One, God himself, is coming to Israel. And what’s he doing? He’s on the bench in prison for speaking out against Herod. He’ll die there soon. Jesus’s ministry advances, but so does the opposition, and eventually the powers that be will crucify him. And even John himself is struggling to figure out how everything figures together in Jesus. Jesus has promised freedom for prisoners, and yet John is in a literal prison. John sends his disciples to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” Jesus responds by saying, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”
This is what it looks for the kingdom of God to come near. The signs Jesus mentions are Gospel-signs, pointers to who he is and what he will do in his Cross and Resurrection. In the words of N.T. Wright, Jesus is the unexpected soloist, playing a different tune than John had imagined. John, it seems, had expected immediate judgment, and indeed there is a judgment to come, but “instead we get Jesus. The Jesus…as a baby with a price on his head. A Jesus who comes and stands humbly before John, asking for baptism, sharing the penitential mood of the rest of [God’s people]. A Jesus who seems to be identifying himself, not with a God who sweeps [away] all before him in judgment, but with the people who are themselves facing that judgment and needing to repent.”[iii]
So, this Hard Saying points to an ongoing dynamic in our present age: God’s Kingdom has come in Jesus and will come in its fullness when he comes again, but it will constantly be opposed – even violently, and by opponents who look much bigger and more powerful that the Kingdom of God itself. There will be times when it looks good and buried, but that’s never actually the case.
Applying the Saying
The Unconquerable Weakness of Christ’s Kingdom in This World
Close at hand is the Holy Spirit’s word in 1 Corinthians 1-2. There St. Paul says, “And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” (2 Corinthians 2:1-2)
Outwardly, the Kingdom of God, gathered around Jesus, our crucified Lord, looks incredibly weak! But Paul is laser-beam in his focus on Jesus’ death because is that is where the power is found! In the love of God, poured out on the Cross – the remedy for needy sinners! And this is what assures us that our ministry in him will never be fruitless.
Do you know how many times a person or a movement has tried to proclaim Christianity as dead? More than can counted. In modern times, it was fashionable to say that Christianity was on its last legs and about to die out. Oops. That didn’t happen.
Dan Marotta, a priest in our Diocese, is preparing to release his first book. It’s a book on the Lord’s Prayer called Liturgy in the Wilderness. In the first chapter of the book, he writes this, “We might say that Christ dying on the cross was the most masterful act of subversive combat: Satan attacks God to put him to death. God fluidly uses that attack to overthrow both Satan and death in a single move.”[iv] In short, Christ destroyed Satan’s kingdom and established his own, upon which the gates of hell will never prevail.
The church through the centuries, and we here, can look back and say with Paul, “The foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” (1 Cor. 1:25)
The Lowly Means of the Glorious God
As Anglicans, how do we define the church? We do actually have a definition! The 39 Articles say this: “The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in the which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly ministered.” That’s the heart of the Church: Word & Sacrament. Preaching, the Lord’s Supper, and Baptism. Incredibly lowly and ordinary means with amazing promises given in them. We don’t have to wonder if what we’re doing here today matters or will have an impact. With Jesus’ blessing, it does and it will. As the prophet Zechariah once said, “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of hosts.” (Zechariah 4:6) These are the ways of God in the midst of the world – even or especially when the world is hostile to the work of God.
Untold Blessings of the Gospel! (v. 11)
As we close, I want to draw your attention back to verse 11. Don’t miss this: attached to this Hard Saying is an incredible promise. John the Baptist is like the fulcrum in history: he’s the last prophet, but he’s also the forerunner to Jesus. He stands with one foot in the Old Covenant and the other in the New. And here’s the amazing promise: Jesus says that you and I are great than John. In fact, the newest babe in Christ has a greater status than John. Why? Because of Jesus.
I’ll give you a taste of what we’ll be doing in Foundational Catechism this October. To Be a Christian, our catechism, asks the question:
110. What is given by God’s grace?
The forgiveness of my sins, redemption from sin’s power, healing of sin’s effects, and growth in holiness, to my final transformation into the likeness of Christ.
Kudos to Matt Burger here – in this lesson he organized no less than eleven blessings that are ours in Christ. Listen:
- Justification/Righteousness (Ephesians 1:7; Romans 3:23-25; Romans 8:1; Titus 3:4-8)
- Sanctification/Holiness (1 Corinthians 6:11; 1 Thessalonians 5:23; Hebrew 10:14)
- Delivered from the dominion of Sin (Romans 6:1-14; Romans 8:1-2; Colossians 2:13-14)
- And the accusation of the Devil (Colossians 1:13-14; Colossians 2:15; Romans 8:33-39; Hebrews 2:14-15; Revelation 12:10-12)
- Adoption (Ephesians 1:5; Romans 8:12-17,23,29)
- Resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:35-49; Romans 6:8-11; Romans 8:9-11,23)
- Eternal Life (1 Corinthians 15:50-58; Titus 3:4-8; Romans 6:8-11; Romans 8:9-11)
- New Heaven and New Earth (Isaiah 65:17-25; Romans 8:19-22; Revelation 21:1-8)
- Union With Christ (Ephesians 1:10; Colossian 2:6-12; Romans 6:3-5; Romans 8:9-11)
- Perseverance (Romans 8:28-39)
- Holy Spirt (John 16:7-11; Ephesians 1:13)
- Untold Spiritual Blessings (Ephesians 1:3)
So here is the promise attached to this Hard Saying: though men my try, no one can take away the blessings we enjoy in Jesus. All authority in heaven and on earth is his, even in the moments when it doesn’t look it. Amen.
[i] Private email from VOM.
[ii] Matthew by Ulrich Luz, 2:140
[iii] Matthew for Everyone by N.T. Wright, pg. 21.
[iv] Liturgy in the Wilderness by D.J. Marotta, pg. 34.