The kingdom was established through Christ's atoning death, resurrection, and session. According to Matthew 11:11 and Luke 7:28, John the Baptist was not part of this kingdom, although he heralded its arrival.
Yet, for the 3½ years of the public ministry of Jesus, from A. D. 26-30, when the kingdom was truly established, Matthew tells us that men began to press their way into the kingdom ahead of schedule. While the Jewish establishment had no interest in the Messiah, Richard Watson described the disenfranchised, who eagerly pressed their way into the kingdom "as far as it was then revealed."
There were other Old Testament characters who seemed to realize a relationship with God that was ahead of their day. However, that number was always small. Jesus said that only a few were finding access (Matt 7:14). But by the day of Pentecost, the few had become many and ultimately the population of the kingdom of Christ will so expand that it cannot be counted (Rev 7:9).
Yet, while the kingdom of Christ is growing, the requirements for entrance have not changed. The way into the kingdom is still so narrow that the baggage of the old life must remain outside. Literally, Jesus said in Luke 13:24, "Agonize to enter through the narrow door." In Matthew 11:12 when Jesus said that forceful men were seizing or taking the kingdom by force, he used a strong word which is related to our word for "rape." This Greek verb is only used twice in the New Testament. Because this is descriptive of the kingdom of heaven, and because of the parallel passage in Luke 16:16, I interpret this more difficult passage in Matthew as a positive action. Therefore, the violence which Jesus described is: aggressive agonizing, desperate determination, earnestness, fervency, intensity, perseverance, persistency, zeal. "A share in the heavenly kingdom is sought for with most ardent zeal and intense exertion" [Amplified Bible].
Just as childbirth is a violent experience, so entry into the kingdom through the new birth is an intense experience. In fact, in Matthew 24:8, Jesus spoke of the establishment of his kingdom and the destruction of the old system, as the Romans were about to rush into Jerusalem and take the city by storm. Clarke described it as "the beginning of birth pains."
John Wesley wrote, "No man is able to work [the faith that produces regeneration] in himself. It is a work of omnipotence. It requires no less power thus to quicken a dead soul, than to raise a body that lies in the grave. It is a new creation; and none can create a soul anew, but He who at first created the heavens and the earth."
Yet the sinner is never instructed to passively wait for his miracle. Wesley admonished all who were seeking the grace of God to attend to all the means of grace. Thomas Coke explained that "the sluggish and negligent triflers in religion may never hope for admission into the kingdom of God." While we cannot save ourselves, the resolution necessary to seek God is described by Christ as forceful or violent. John Fletcher wrote,
They who are weary of the Egyptian yoke of outward and inward sin, who cannot resist without the love of Jesus, the life of God, at last become violent. They forcibly turn from the world, by force they attack the devil, bringing themselves by force before God, and drag out, by strong confession, the evils that lurk within. Against these they fight, by detesting and denying them. Their strength is in crying mightily to the Lord, and expecting continually that fire which God will rain from heaven upon them. All this must be done by force and with great conflicts; for it is against nature, which hath the utmost reluctance to it.
The words of the text allude to the taking a fortified town by storming it, and this is of all military expeditions the most dangerous. The enemy is covered and hid, and those who scale the walls have nothing but their arms and courage. But can the wrestling soul overcome, can he take this kingdom? Ah! No, not by his own strength, but his Joshua will take it for him. God only requires that we should entreat him to do this, the prayer of repentance, the prayer of faith, storm Mount Zion, the city of God. He that is violent shall receive the kingdom of God, — justification and sanctification; but remember the violent take it by force. He shall have many a hard struggle with God's enemies, and it may be, many with the Lord himself, before he declares him conqueror.
Yet Augustine said that "no man ever failed in his attempt who was willing to take it by force." In practical terms, however, this determination cannot be measured in the volume of the petition, but in the sincerity of the repentance. The narrow way of true repentance is an agonizing experience, described by James as grief, mourning, and sorrow (4:9). Yet it produces a change of character (2 Cor 7:10-11). The essence of evangelical repentance is to so take personal responsibility for ones sin as to turn from that sin. This makes possible the gift of faith, which also must be exercised for salvation. Adam Clarke wrote, "If a man be not absolutely determined to give up his sins and evil companions, and have his soul saved at all hazards, and at every expense, he will surely perish everlastingly. This requires violent earnestness."
Those who are now justified must continue to live through this same faith. The early Methodists used to ask those who were applying for ordination, "Are you going on to perfection? Do you expect to be made perfect in this life? Are you groaning after it?" Paradoxically, Hebrews 4:11 admonishes us to zealously seek this rest. Notice how this verb is also used in Eph 4:3, 2 Tim 2:15, and 2 Peter 3:14. Romans 14:19 and Hebrews 12:14 tell us to "pursue" the holy life, not simply name it and claim it. Colossians 1:29; 4:12 express how earnestly Paul and Epaphras worked to see the Colossians perfected in love.
In terms of the discourse Jesus gave, the kingdom is advanced through the same method it is entered. The Christian community is altogether too passive about the expansion of Christ's kingdom. In order to see souls saved, Zion must travail in the pain of hard labor (Isa 66:8; Micah 4:10). The kingdom advances through persecution, self-denial, and total commitment. Jesus said that his disciples must deny themselves daily and take up his cross (Matt 16:24; Luke 9:23). The cross was an instrument of violence. Those who assume his cross are motivated by zeal for his cause. Yet Adam Clarke wrote
The doctrine and teacher most prized and followed by worldly men, and by the gay, giddy, and garish multitude, are not from God; they savor of the flesh, lay on no restraints, prescribe no cross-bearing, and leave every one in full possession of his heart's lusts and easily besetting sins. And by this, false doctrine and false teachers are easily discerned.
The cause of righteousness has always been advanced by those who "took it by storm." By faith they conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised. They shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword. Jacob wrestled all night with God and declared, "I will not let you go unless you bless me" (Gen 32:26). Jabez cried out for God's blessing and enlargement (2 Chron 4:9-10). Jesus told of an unprepared host who shamelessly persisted in knocking because his need was great and his resources meager (Luke 11:8). The battle is won by those who persistently press their case. Paul admonished us not to grow weary for we will reap a harvest if we do not give up (Gal 6:9).
The kingdom has been advanced across the centuries through an unnamed army of forceful men and women, described in Hebrews 11:35-38, who put the cause first and paid whatever price was required of them. They sang,
Such an army of meek cannot be stopped. They will inherit the earth. The pastor of the largest church in the world said Matthew 11:12 was the key to the growth of his church. They did not pray that God would bless their program. Instead, they sought to discern where God is moving, where his kingdom is advancing, and lay hold of God by prayer to do the very thing he had purposed to do. Thus, they became laborers together with God. As they prayed for the advancement of God's agenda, God used them to implement his agenda.
How can we aggressively advance the kingdom? There is nothing which requires more effort than intercessory prayer, which includes fasting, carrying a burden, wrestling, and spiritual warfare. Praying is the hardest thing you can do. Martin Luther said, "Prayer is indeed a continuous violent action of the spirit as it is lifted up to God. This action is comparable to that of a ship going against the stream." Samuel Chadwick wrote, "Intensity is a law of prayer. Wrestling prayer prevails. The fervent, effectual prayer of the righteous is a great force."
Yet we cannot win spiritual battles by fighting with carnal weapons (2 Cor 10:4). This essentially is what terrorists attempt to do. Historically, you cannot find one instance of Arminians adopting this tactic, though others have. The church only has and only needs one weapon — the sword of God's Word. This kingdom advances through preaching the good news (Luke 16:16)
Isaac Watts wrote, "Sure I must fight if I would reign, Increase my courage, Lord." Yet physical activity is not synonymous with spiritual fervency. Many prayer warriors have prevailed so silently through the night that those sleeping nearby knew nothing of the struggle. We do not earn God's blessing by lifting our hands, waving our arms, pacing or lying prostrate. Romans 8:26 teaches that this earnestness cannot be reduced to mere noise. Fervency cannot be mustered through physical exertion. The answer is not to hold a pep-rally on Sunday morning for the lukewarm. Wesley Duewel explained that fervency is an outworking of Spirit's ministry within us. Fervency is a sanctified determination. John Fletcher wrote, "A humble, holy, sacred violence must be used in prayer — with Jesus, that he would open in our hearts the power of faith, apply the efficacy of his blood, and bestow upon us the spirit of prayer; or in other words the prayer of faith, — with the Father, that he would look through the pillar of fire, and discomfit all our enemies, — with the Holy Ghost, that he would take up his abode with us."
Are you groaning after anything? There is very little seeking after God. In all too many instances, the Church is not only lukewarm, but at ease (Amos 6:1), if not AWOL. We have been convinced that God has predestined us to defeat, both in our personal lives and corporately. But the real reason we are defeated is because we are not committed and not aggressive. Some people need to get enough zeal to repent for their lack of it and then maintain enough zeal so that they do not continually need to repent for their laziness (Rom 12:11). Jesus was consumed with zeal for the house of God (John 2:17). Writing 250 years ago, John Wesley commented that Muslims and pagans would probably have received the gospel "long ago, had they conversed only with real Christians." Thomas Coke and Joseph Benson both expressed a similar opinion. Wesley wrote in a letter, "Give me one hundred preachers who fear nothing but sin and desire nothing but God, and I care not a straw whether they be clergy or laymen, such alone will shake the gates of hell and set up the kingdom of heaven upon earth."
For the first three hundred years of the Christian church, we grew at a rate of 40% per decade. By the end of the first century there were over 7,000 Christians — the rest had been martyred. By the end of the second century there were over 200,000 Christians. By the end of the third century, there were over 6 million — 10% of the world population. Then Christianity was legalized in AD 313 because it was too big to handle. Right now 43% of the American population claim to be born again. Never have so many had so little influence.
Jesus taught in Matthew 11:12 that we cannot wear the crown without bearing the cross. May God awaken the Church, the sleeping giant, and may we not rest nor give God any rest until he establishes Jerusalem (Isa 62:6-7).
John Fletcher wrote, "The grand device of Satan is to prevent us from seeing the necessity of this holy violence, or from putting it in execution." Joseph Sutcliffe wrote, "He who besieges the throne of grace by faith and prayer, is sure to prevail." Let us pray for revival and the advancement of God's kingdom and take it by storm.