The Suffering and Advancing Church: A Look at Matthew 11:12

Friday, September 25th, 2009

NASB: “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and violent men take it by force.”

NIV: “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it.”

Is the Kingdom of heaven suffering violence under the hands of those who wish to destroy it, or is it forcefully advancing, extending the claims of Christ’s Lordship into a lost world?

The word translated by NASB as “suffers violence” and by NIV as “has been forcefully advancing” is the word BIAZOMAI – it can be equally translated as passive voice, i.e. what is being done to the church or middle voice, what the church is doing.   There is no way to decide, thus two translations come down differently.

Is the church of Jesus Christ gloriously advancing into the world, or are we defensively just holding on until Jesus returns against the onslaught of the world, the flesh and the devil.  Are we “suffering violence” or are we “forcefully advancing”?  Or, perhaps, is the duplicity actually the whole point, that the church is experiencing both at the same time.

A similar tension is found in Matthew 16:17-19 at Caesarea Phillipi –  in Jesus’ response to Peter’s famous declaration:  You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.  Jesus calls Peter blessed and in verse 18 says, “I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” – We have spent so much time as a church analyzing the first part of the phrase “you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church” – often neglect the latter part – which is quite fascinating.  Jesus says to Peter about the church, “the gates of Hades will not overcome it” – it can equally be translated “the gates of Hades will not prove stronger than it” – and there are again.  Is the expression “gates of Hades” a metaphor for the powers of Hell which are attacking the church and the church prevails even against the onslaught of the hell itself.  Or, is it the Church of Jesus Christ which is forcefully advancing against the gates of hell, and the gates of Hell cannot withstand the onslaught of the church as it forcefully advances Christ’s claims into the world.

Suffering violence or forcefully advancing?

Advancing powers of Hell not overcoming the church  or  Powerful advance of the church which prevails against the very gates of Hell itself?

Once again Jesus leaves it somewhat ambiguous.

It happens again in the 24th chapter of Matthew’s gospel. Jesus is questioned by his disciples about the end of time.  They ask him “what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”  Jesus begins in verse 4 with a long litany of terrible things that will happen to the church.  The church in Matthew 24:4:13 is a picture of a church “suffering violence” – The onslaught of the enemy is vividly portrayed and graphically described.  There will be wars and rumors of wars, nation rising up against nation, kingdom against kingdom.  There will be famines and earthquakes in various places.  Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me.  Many will turn away from the faith,  and will betray and hate each other, and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people.  There will be an increase in wickedness and the love of most will grow cold.  This is the picture of a church “suffering violence” against the onslaught of the enemy, it is a church which is holding on against the advancing powers of Hades – verse 13 seems to be the concluding comment by Jesus which confirms this defensive posture when he says, “he who stands firm to the end will be saved” – it sounds like we’re just going to hold on.

Then Jesus utters what is the most remarkable verse in the whole passage, especially if it is read in the context of this litany of the world’s advances against the church – persecutions, people being put to death, others turning away from the faith and so forth… suddenly, like a light bursting forth into a dark room Jesus says, “And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.”

Jesus, in effect is saying, that even while the world and all the host of Satanic darkness is making their most forceful advance against the church – even while it seems as if the church is on the defensive.. even though to the un-spiritual eye the church can, at best, just hold on and wait out the storm of ever increasing darkness – even then, at that moment, like leaven working in the loaf, like seed silently growing under the surface of the soil, like a woman in darkness searching for a lost coin, or an impoverished man plowing in the hard, unyielding soil only to discover his greatest treasure – so we see that God’s triumphant, victorious advance into the world happens right when things seem to be at their worst.  At the moment the host of darkness makes its most powerful assault…. At the moment the kingdom seems to be suffering the worst violence the world has to offer. It is then that the Lord makes His move, overturning his foes and demonstrating the prevailing power of the gospel.  This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations!

Perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised.  After all, isn’t this what God did at Calvary?  As the beautiful Easter hymn declares, “The powers of death have done their worst, but Christ their legions hath dispersed”.  As Jesus hung upon the cross of Calvary, the powers of death had done their worst.  Darkness, it seemed, had prevailed.  The Son of God, God’s gracious gift to the world had been cruelly nailed to a rugged cross.  Who would believe that at that very moment when it seemed as if darkness had triumphed – at that very moment when the powers of hell had so surely secured their victory – at that very hour of darkness – a great light was bursting forth onto the world.  In the very act of our greatest rejection of God, it turns out, in fact, to be God’s greatest embrace of us.  Nailing Jesus to the cross was our great “No” to God -shaking our closed fist in the very face of God.   It is our way of saying “God, we don’t want you in our lives or in our world” – Yet, our great “NO” and closed fist in the face of God, becomes in the mystery of the cross, His great “Yes” to us and His open hand extended to you and to me.  Our greatest act of rejecting God, becomes at that very moment simultaneously His greatest embrace of us.  In the cross, our greatest act of alienation, becomes His great act of reconciliation.  As the Scripture says of that hour, “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, not counting against us our trespasses, but nailing them to the cross.”   Man’s worst hour, nailing God to a cross; becomes God’s greatest hour, nailing our sins there.  The ugliest, darkest, most revolting symbol of humanity – a cross used for crucifying men – symbol of hate and torture,- becomes the greatest symbol of love and light.  You see, this is the way God is. Death itself is swallowed up in His victory, how much more so all the other lesser trials of life.  The last seven words the world ever spoke to Jesus were spoken in a mockery of smug triumphalism – those last seven words the world ever spoke to Jesus:  He Saved Others, He Cannot Save Himself.  But never forget that it is God who has the last word – and three days later, it was He who announced the first seven words of resurrection morning:  HE IS NOT HERE, HE IS RISEN!  God will not be outflanked. He didn’t just work up to that at Calvary, this is the way God is.

God faces that which is worst in us and in this world and transforms it into a testimony of His grace.  The Apostle Paul calls himself the Worst of Sinners, but by God’s grace He, of all people, becomes the Greatest of God’s Apostles.   Paul’s greatest act of defiance and rebellion was when he set out down the road to Damascus to vent the venom of his hatred against the Church of Jesus Christ.  Yet, it was on that road, that road which would gone down in infamy as the road of death and destruction for God’s people, but instead became the place where God met him and said I will show you how  much you must suffer for my sake, as you forcefully advance the gospel.  You see, this is the way God is.

It was when Patrick finally escaped from years of Irish slavery and finally made it back to his home in England that God spoke to him and said, Patrick I’m sending you back to Ireland, back to where you were enslaved  – but this time, not as a slave, but as my Apostle.  This land which you have cursed will be land that you will love for the sake of the gospel…. If time permitted, I would love to take you on a trip down through the chapters of this great story called the Church of Jesus Christ!

My brothers and sisters, I want you to know that God is in the midst of what seems like an ever encroaching spiritual darkness, secular humanism, post-modern cynicism,  all of which shrouds our lives and like a deep fog seems to encroach upon us and seep into every open crack.   At times when the church is suffering violence… and it seems as if the church can no longer prevail against the onslaught of evil..  You should be aware that even as we speak this morning, God is moving in the world today in ways which are absolutely unprecedented in the history of Christianity.

Prior to the morning of June 6, 1944 – the famous D-Day – It appeared that Hitler would be triumphant  – He seemed invincible as he swept through Europe, drinking champagne in Paris as German bombs continued to rain upon London, but underneath the early morning fog of June 6th something else was underway – while Hitler was off celebrating his birthday, the Allies were quietly launching the decisive attack.

Likewise, underneath the fog of this world, many are unaware of God’s work in the world.  This gospel of the kingdom is being preached and sent forth to all nations in a way unprecedented in the history of the church.

In China, in 1949 there were only 1.5 million Christians in China.  Despite remarkable persecution – which continues to the present day – darkness has set its face against Chinese Christianity… but, once again, the blood of the martyrs has become the seed of the church.  Today, there are well over 35 million Chinese Christians.  I was teaching in China the summer of 1993.  I had the privilege not only to lead several new Chinese to Christ and to baptize one in the Yangtzee river, but to meet many Christians who are determined to give their lives to extend the message of Christ into China – and to do it, even in the midst of growing darkness and government hostility.  The powers of hell hath done their worst, but Christ their legions still doth disperse.

In India, beginning in 1973 the Indian government refused to grant any new visas to Western missionaries.  The number of foreign workers dropped from over 12,000 down to less than 200 today.  But for every missionary that was forced to leave India, God has raised up not one, but two Indians who have given themselves to full time Christian expansion to bring the gospel to the unreached peoples of India.  For ten years I have gone to India regularly to teach in a college which is dedicated to training young men to take the gospel and plant churches in unreached people groups of India.  I was just there last month, and how thrilled I was to hear the latest report.  The men trained at this school have now planted 103 churches in villages and cities of N. India – all 103 cities/towns and villages – all of which have never had a church in the history of the world.  God is moving.

Hebrews 11, the chapter of faith,  continues – If I only had time to tell you about Matthew Vargheese, and I.D. Suna and Lamuel Pattanick and Kuriokos and so many other Indian church planters that I know who have faced the worst darkness that Hinduism and the darkness of the world can throw their way, and they have planted the flag of the church in Indian soil.   Men of whom the world is nor worthy.  Praise be to God for His unspeakable gifts, most of which, like Jesus Himself on that dark night in Bethlehem 2000 years ago, only silently emerge in the world.

In Africa on this day as well as every day this week 16,000 people will come to Christ every single day.  That is how quickly the church of Jesus Christ is growing in Africa.  South American, for centuries so solidly Catholic, has experienced in this century a growth of evangelism from 69 million to over a half a billion evangelicals.

Time does not permit to tell you of the remarkable things God is doing in the former Soviet Union – Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan – unbelievable, in E. Europe.  I know of one university that had a department of Atheism that is now the Department of Christian Studies.  I could go on and on.  But the point is – the church is forcefully advancing, even while many fall away, lose the faith, and their love grows cold.  The question becomes where are we in this great move of God in the world.  Are we going to participate in this great advance which is silently slipping across the world beneath the fog of so much else that catches the world’s attention.  Are you as a church going to continue to fulfill your God given mandate.  I trust as you prepare for your missions conference that the soil of your hearts will be prepared and you will be not spectators, but participants in what God is doing.

Is the kingdom forcefully advancing or suffering violence?  It is experiencing both, one to purge and to cleanse, one to equip and send forth.  May you be a part God’s great forceful advance into the world. 

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