A Preacher’s Dilemma
For example, Matthew 11:12 in the New American Standard Version reads:
“From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence and violent men take it by force.”
Many other translations have a similar rendering (KJV, New Revised Standard Version, etc) but the NIV offers a different slant.
“From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it.”
So is the point that the kingdom of God is under attack, or is it that it is strongly advancing? And in the second half of the verse, are the people mentioned enemies of the kingdom or its valiant troops? I’ve heard messages advocating both. Twenty or thirty years ago I only heard messages on this text which warned of opposition to the Gospel and the Church and the need for courageous faithfulness. Now messages tend to be about the call for boldness and great exploits of faith - for wimps to repent of their wimpishness and stand up for the gospel.
It leaves me wondering if preachers are aware of the exegetical issues within such passages but also raises the question as to what motivates their interpretative choices. Does the new emphasis reflect the more robust and confident mood in many churches rather than the original meaning of the text? Does it arise partly because it appears that such churches are led increasingly by Alpha male types? Was the early approach to this verse a product of a long-established ‘siege mentality’ in the church? Were the pastor-teachers who dominated church leadership in the previous century unable to rise above a plodding faithfulness?
The best treatment of this particular verse I have found is from Don Carson in his commentary on Matthew. He concludes that the first half of the verse is positive - the kingdom is forcefully advancing - but the second half of the verse is negative - there is much opposition to its progress.
One piece of evidence that is particularly persuasive for me is that the word for ‘violent’ or ‘forceful’ used in the second half of the verse (biastai) though rare, always has negative connotations of violence and rapacity, and that the verb translated ‘take it’ or ‘lay hold of’ (harpazo) nearly always has sense of evil attached to it.
While I would not necessarily expect everyone to be in agreement with me on this particular point (or even with Don Carson!) it is important we realise that there is an issue here, grapple with it and so preach out of conviction rather than convenience or a desire to be relevant that results in a dilution of the text.