These words of Jesus recorded by Matthew are among the most difficult to understand in the New Testament – at least, as they are usually translated. The uncertainty associated with the verse can be seen in the ESV’s footnote to “the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence” in which it suggests the possible alternative “… has been coming violently” – in other words, the very opposite situation. The NIV likewise footnotes “the kingdom of heaven has been subjected to violence” as possibly “been forcefully advancing.”
Most Bible commentaries are not particularly helpful in deciding between one or the other of these two approaches – either that Christ meant the kingdom of heaven has been treated violently or that it was advancing forcefully. But either possibility still leaves the strange closing words of the verse: “and the violent take it by force.”
An entirely different meaning to this whole verse is possible, however. When we look at the context of Jesus’ words, we see he was speaking about John the Baptist being a forerunner to his own ministry (Matthew 11:7-15). Quoting the book of Malachi, Jesus affirmed: “This is the one about whom it is written: ‘I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you’” (Matthew 11:10; Malachi 3:1).
If Jesus had the words of the minor prophet Malachi in mind when he spoke about John the Baptist, it is possible that he could have had the words of another minor prophet, Micah, in mind also. Micah wrote: “The One who breaks open the way will go up before them; they will break through the gate and go out. Their King will pass through before them, the Lord at their head” (Micah 2:13).
The context to this initially strange-seeming verse is one in which Micah says that God will restore the remnant of Israel and “… will bring them together like sheep in a pen” (Micah 2:12). So what the prophet says regarding “The one who breaks open the way” and their king, “the Lord at their head,” is to be understood in this context. The word that Micah uses for “break open the way” is the Hebrew parats which can mean to break open violently or forcefully. Similarly, the Greek words translated “violence” and “the violent” in Matthew are forms of biasta meaning “forceful.” So in Micah’s word-picture the remnant of Israel are like sheep in a pen; the one entrusted with opening the pen will forcefully “break open” the gate of the pen to allow the sheep to exit; and they will then be led out to pasture by the shepherd who is their king.
The Jewish scholars who studied these verses over the centuries have long interpreted them to represent the Elijah to come who would “break open the way” and the Messiah who would be Israel’s king, respectively. Jesus himself identified John the Baptist as the Elijah to come in this same section of Matthew (Matthew 11:14) and acknowledged the words of all the prophets (not just Malachi) relative to John (Matthew 11:13).
Considering this background, if Jesus’ words in Matthew relative to the onset of the kingdom of heaven since the time of John the Baptist are understood in the light of the image in Micah, they would mean not that “The kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force,” but that the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully opened (like the “sheep pen”) by John the Baptist, and those who are taking hold of the kingdom are those who are forcefully breaking out (like the sheep following their messianic king).
Perhaps the best way to see this connection is simply to read the two sections of scripture in Matthew and Micah, slightly paraphrased, side by side:
“This is the one about whom it is written: ‘I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you… From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully opened, and those who take hold of it do so forcefully” (Matthew 11:10, 12, paraphrased).
“The One who forcefully opens the way will go up before them; they will forcefully go through the gate and go out. Their King will pass through before them, the Lord at their head” (Micah 2:13, paraphrased).
We have no way of knowing for sure if Jesus also had the words of Micah in mind when he quoted Malachi relevant to John the Baptist, but there is no doubt that the two minor prophets were speaking of the same eventual reality of the promised Messiah and the one who would forcefully open the way before him.