Luke 16:16: Forcefully into the Kingdom?

Matthew (Mt 11:12) and Luke (Lk 16:16) appear to present us here with two versions of one and the same original saying. We have to try to determine what each of the two versions means in the context in which either Evangelist has placed it; then, if possible, we have to determine what the original saying meant in the context of Jesus' ministry.

Both versions agree on this: the ministry of John the Baptist was an epoch marking the end of one age and the approach of a new. "All the prophets and the law prophesied until John" (Mt 11:13 RSV). John himself belonged rather to the old age than to the new. He is viewed as being the last and greatest of the "goodly fellowship of the prophets"; while he was the herald of the new order he did not actually participate in it. When his public ministry was forcibly ended by his imprisonment, that was the signal for Jesus to embark on his ministry in Galilee, with the proclamation that the kingdom of God had drawn near.

"Since that time," says Jesus in Luke's version of his words, "the good news of the kingdom of God is being preached." That was a statement of fact, which his hearers must have recognized. But in what sense is everyone forcing his way into it, or "enter[ing] it violently" (RSV)?

Luke includes his version in a series of sayings inserted between the story of the dishonest steward and the story of the rich man and Lazarus and linked together by the general theme of law. "Everyone forces his way in," says the NEB; the TEV has the same wording. This might suggest something like a universal gate-crashing, which does not tally too well with some other sayings of Jesus on the relative few who will enter the kingdom, such as "Make every effort to enter through the narrow door; because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to" (Lk 13:24; Mt 7:13-14). But perhaps the meaning is "Everyone who enters must force his way in," which implies the same kind of determined and vigorous action as "Make every effort to enter" or "Strive to enter" (RSV). So far as the Lukan version of the saying goes, this could well be its meaning. It was no doubt this interpretation of it that moved an eighteenth-century hymn-writer to say, in language which probably sounded less strange in his contemporaries' ears than it does in ours:

O may thy mighty word

Inspire each feeble worm

To rush into thy kingdom, Lord,

And take it as by storm!

But Matthew's version now demands our attention. Where Luke says, "The good news of the kingdom of God is being preached," Matthew says, "The kingdom of heaven has suffered violence." But there is an ambiguity in the particular form of the Greek verb in this clause; it may have passive force, meaning "has been treated with violence" or "has been suffering violence," or it may have intransitive force, meaning "has been acting violently" or "has been forcing its way in." It could be said in favor of this last interpretation that in the ministry of Jesus the kingdom of heaven was on the march, taking the field against the forces of evil that held the souls and bodies of men and women in bondage. The mighty works that were an essential part of his ministry were the "powers of the age to come" invading the present age and establishing a beach-head on its territory that was destined to expand until nothing of the old order was left.

If the passive force of the verb be preferred, then Jesus says that from the time of John the Baptist the kingdom of heaven has been violently attacked. This meaning too could fit the setting of the words. Matthew records them among several of Jesus' sayings about John (including the description of him as unsurpassed among those born of women), which he appends to the incident of John's messengers who were sent to question Jesus. It could be said that the imprisonment of John the Baptist (with his ensuing execution) was one instance of a violent attack on the kingdom of heaven by forces opposed to it--whether one thinks of human forces or demonic forces using men as their instruments. Further attacks were to be experienced until they reached their climax in the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus himself. The same meaning could be attached to the following clause: "and men of violence take it by force" or "men of violence seize it." In that case, the two clauses say very much the same thing.

But the "men of violence" need not be those who violently attacked the kingdom which Jesus proclaimed. There were other "men of violence" around at the time--those who came to be known as the party of the Zealots. They were passionately devoted to the bringing in of the kingdom of God, but their methods were clearly contrary to those which Jesus practiced and recommended. The kingdom of God, as they understood it, was a new order in which the Jewish people would live in freedom from Gentile rule, subject to no king but the God of their fathers. This new order could be introduced only by the forcible expulsion of the occupying Roman power from Judea. Many of Jesus' hearers could remember the revolt of one such "man of violence," Judas the Galilean, in A.D. 6. That revolt was crushed by the Romans, but the spirit which inspired it lived on. It could be said that men of this outlook were trying to take the kingdom of God by force, and on the whole it seems most probable that Jesus was referring to them.

Matthew's wording, then, seems to mean that, despite the setback which the cause of God might have seemed to suffer by the imprisonment of John the Baptist, his kingdom has in reality been advancing irresistibly ever since. Men of violence may attempt to speed its progress by armed force, but that is not the way in which its triumph will be assured.

When Luke's account and Matthew's are compared, it appears that Matthew's wording is more relevant to the immediate circumstances of Jesus' ministry, while Luke's wording generalizes the application of the saying, showing how its principle continued to work itself out in the worldwide proclamation and progress of the gospel. The good news was still being made known, and it still called for courage and resolution to enter the kingdom of God.