Our Lord said, “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force” (Matt 11:12). This is one of the hardest passages in all of Scripture to understand, not principally because translating “violent” (βιαστής) is all-but impossible, but because of the theological reality that it points to. I think the reality is this: God’s kingdom is freely given to the weakest, yet it must be taken by the strongest. Abel, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and David all sinned while they went into God’s kingdom. They took it by force. They cut corners in order to get in. They were not regal inheritors who received the crown because it was their due. No, they crawled from the depths of sinful humanity like a rat from the hot underbelly of a heap of rubbish, to the top where the sun shines. They were undeserving, selfish, and sinful. They took what was not theirs. Esau, not Jacob, deserved the inheritance of their father. But Jacob, not Esau, took it by force.
This is why Jesus’s words are so hard to understand. The Kingdom of God is freely given to the weakest, but only the strongest have it because they take it by force. These seemingly contradictory states of affairs are reconciled, at least in part, when we understand that Jacob, for example, was simultaneously the weakest and the strongest. He dwelled in tents, like a woman. He was hairless, like a young boy. He was discipled by his mother, while Esau was a man of his father. Jacob was weak.
On the other hand, Jacob saw that the gift of his holy father was to be treasured above all. Further, he knew that it would never come to him because he didn’t deserve it. Not only was he the weaker brother, he was the second born. Legally, he should not be blessed. But, he knew that he must be. He knew that the undeserved blessing was to be counted above all things. Esau, on the other hand, despised his birthright thinking it had no value. Therefore, it was Jacob’s spiritual perception that made him—though physically weak—infinitely stronger than his brother. Jacob perceived the value of spiritual things.
The apprehension of beauty is not true if the beautiful thing can be beheld without a desire for it. One does not behold the beauty of the stars if there is no longing within to go and see them. The sunset is not seen if one does not feel a loss in turning one’s back on it. Mozart is not properly understood if he can be heard while mowing the lawn. A proper perception of the good, the true, and the beautiful demands that one stop what one is doing, and behold. The astronomer who spends his whole life longing to see what is in the middle of a star properly understands stars. The man who feels the weight of the sun keeping him on his bench until it leaves his view, rightly beholds the sunset. The girl who sits and weeps while her grandmother plays the Requiem Mass has seen the heart of Mozart. When a man sees something beautiful, and truly understands its beauty, he cannot do anything but desire it. This is why, says Jonathan Edwards, “almost all men, and those that seem to be very miserable, love life: because they cannot bear to lose the sight of such a beautiful and lovely world”
Jacob, then, properly beheld the blessing of Isaac, while Esau clearly did not. This is evidenced by Jacob’s willingness to cheat to get it. The blessing was so all captivating that he was willing even to cheat God to get it. This is what Jesus means when he says the violent take the Kingdom of God by force. The children of God must be willing to admit that their sin killed God to get His blessing. Indeed, there is no one in heaven who does not understand that it was his hands that nailed Christ—his love—to the cross. It was his own violence that opened the door to the kingdom of God. Everyone who denies the need for Christ’s death says, obviously, it would make no difference to them if Christ did not die. Indeed, it would make no difference to them if Christ was never born. But the child of the Kingdom of God says that he would rather never have been born if Christ did not come and die for him. Christ must die for me, or I perish. I will have it no other way. There is no other option. I will do anything, dare I say, even kill God, to get Him.
This is the apprehension of true beauty. No one beholds beauty without sensing some pain knowing that it is not fully beheld. The astronomer grieves over the fact that he will never get to see a black hole from the inside. Ask any astronomer in the universe worth his salt, and I guarantee that he would give up everything, even the clothes on his back, to just glimpse for one second at what goes on in the very middle of a black hole. Everything he owns, for one second of beauty. This is why so many men abandon their families in order to fulfill their calling. Within us all is a sinful desire to step over anything or anyone to get what we most deeply desire. The desire to see this mysterious and beautiful reality consumes the true astronomer. So, he wakes early and stays up late reading and watching the heavens, enjoying what he does but simultaneously longing for more.
So it is with the true Child of God, although in a different way. The Christian confesses that Christ is the King of kings and Lord of lords, that he loves Christ to the point of hating his father and brother (Luke 14:26) but he would not for one second will that Christ should not die. Perhaps the harshest words Jesus ever uttered toward a man marched forth from His lips because Peter wanted to stop Him from dying: “And Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, ‘Far be it from you, Lord! This [your death] shall never happen to you.’ But He turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man’” (Matt 16:22-23 // Mark 8:32-33). As the Christian beholds Christ, he loves what he sees but it kills him inside. He knows that his sin caused the death of the love of his life, and he would not have it any other way. In the words of Thomas Manton, English puritan and clerk to the Westminster Assembly, “all our mercies come to us as the fruit of Christ’s death, as wrapped in His bowels, as swimming in His blood, as the fruit of His purchase.”
In this way, the Christian’s soul is pulled in opposite directions without end. He wants to love Christ, and he wants Christ to die. His existence is dialectic. He loves, and he kills. He is humble yet claims the right of kings. He obeys the law of God and breaks it. He is filled with peace and violence. He is, therefore, stretched to become something infinite. He beholds the omnipresence of God and stretches himself over it, wanting it, longing for it, needing it. It is a violent thing to happily confess that your sin killed God:
Behold the man upon a cross,
My sin upon His shoulders;
Ashamed, I hear my mocking voice
Call out among the scoffers.
It was my sin that held Him there
Until it was accomplished
(Stuart Townsend ‘How Deep the Father’s Love’)
The reason this is so hard to understand is because we instinctively see the hypocrisy of it all. One simply cannot love someone and want Him dead. This is not just a contradiction, but a sin. How could it be, then, that the entrance into God’s kingdom is paved with the blood of God? This is an absurdity.
Christianity is a mysterious religion, the most mysterious, in fact. God has willed from eternity past that this is precisely the way it should work—He would create creatures that make war against Him, and the most violent are made to be His heirs. As these little creatures, God says, spring up from the ground and attack me, they will be so overcome with my own beauty that they will lay down their arms and worship me. But, they cannot see my beauty without my paying a price. Indeed, an ultimate price. I will give them myself. I will let them kill me so that they will know I cannot be killed. I will shed tears in my eye so the rage in theirs might pass.
Everything good in an earthly parent is merely a glimmer of who God is to His people. And, every good parent wants a child through blood. No good mother refuses pain in the rearing of a child. This is a contradiction, an impossibility. A mother cannot be a mother without pain. She must accept that, if she wants to be a real mother, she will need to sacrifice her own body and soul for her child. The child wants everything and the mother knew this would be the case. Yet, somehow, indeed inexplicably, it was her joy to bring this thing into life. She had immense pleasure in planning, conceiving, and even birthing—despite the pain—her child. She is even able to look back upon the day in which she shed her blood for her child with joy, even pride. Indeed, it is her glory.
The parenthood of humans is a picture of the parenthood of God which is present from the first pages of Sacred Writ. He knew the pain that would be required of Him, and He gave life anyway. He accepted the suffering that would be required of Him before He created His children. However, there is a key distinction between the two. Unborn children do not decide to be born. But, unborn Christians must choose to kill Christ. This is what I mean: in order to become a Christian, one must genuinely agree to certain propositions that he feels, even knows, to be true. First, he must acknowledge that God created all things, especially himself. Second, he must admit that he made himself God’s enemy through no fault on God’s part. Third, he must admit that he needs God’s help to bridge this ethical gap. Fourth, he must admit that this can only be done by Christ’s death and resurrection. Fifth, and finally, he must admit that he was to blame for Christ’s death. It was his sinful hand that nailed Him to the tree. In this way, he must acknowledge that his sin killed Christ if Christ is to be his. There is only one way into the Kingdom, and that is death.
This is spiritually actualized through the sacrament of the Lord’s supper. One must take, tear, even eviscerate the body of Christ in order to accept its blessing. His true body is masticated by His true children each week. If they refuse to eat Him, they refuse His blessings. This reminds us of our violence in coming into the kingdom. They are dirty lips that receive the cleansing blood of Christ. They are violent hands that tear the healing flesh of God. None saved can bid the King to rise, like Peter did, from his own feet (John 13:8).
When a child of God enters the Kingdom of God, he does so by beholding the beauty of God and sinfully desiring it. All of our desires for God are selfish. Let him who was drawn to God out of a pure desire to bless God and not himself, cast the first stone. All others should listen—when you entered the Kingdom of God, you were gorging yourself on the King’s delicacies under His table after stabbing Him in the side. One day, to your horror, you realize what you’ve done. Consumed with a selfish desire for God’s beauty, you were hoarding everything you could see for yourself without even thinking to look up. You were so enthralled with the beauty of it all, you were like a mouse diving into bait at the end of a trap. But then, you look up and realize that there is a rod that could come down in the twinkling of an eye and crush your skull. Horror fills your soul.
But as your eyes adjust the haze to a clear picture you see not a rod but the shepherd’s crook. And it is not above your skull but around your neck, bringing you in. It brought you where you are. It lifted your head to behold the beauty. It even opened your mouth and placed what belongs to the King into your fetid mouth. The Shepherd’s crook of God’s sovereignty brought you from outside where wolves sought to devour your flesh, inside so you might devour His. So, you look and you do not see what you expect. There is no anger, frown, or even disgust upon the face of the King whom you are marauding. There is only joy. Like a mother beholding the son that tore her flesh with tears of joy in her eyes, you see the soft eyes of Christ rejoicing in your deliverance. Once you recognize that you got where you are by violence, your soul drops through the floor back to the beginning of time, no before it, in grief. But this recognition illuminates the face of Christ so that you see His true beauty for the first time, which brings your soul up to kiss Him for eternity. In both directions you are stretched. You realize the depravity of your soul in sin, and the elevation of your spirit in forgiveness. You are at once like light bursting forth from the face of the sun and being pulled into the mysterious abyss of a black hole. Infinitely pulled in two opposite directions. You violently took what was not yours; you tore the flesh of God only to become His body. What you meant for violence, He meant for peace. Your thieving selfishness was used by God to give you more than you ever sought to steal. Jacob wanted sheep, but he inherited the Kingdom of God.
Dear Calvinist, this is your conversion. It is not a story of masterful apprehension. You did not ride on the stallion of sapience to the doorway of the Kingdom. It was not your pure intellect, but your impure thoughts that led to your conversion. You saw what you wanted, and you selfishly took it. You did not walk into the kingdom; you were pulled by the hook hid in the lure of Christ’s beauty. If you can claim credit for this process, you can only claim a violent desire for selfish gain. The creator of all who re-creates all re-created that desire into a proper one. But the desire you brought, though it is now being made pure, was only sinful. Learn from the ablest of Reformers. After changing the world with his penetrating theological precision, he did not look from his death bed upon an impressive life of divine mastery. No, his assessment was that he had done nothing, and God did everything. This is why he was simultaneously a sinner and a saint. He knew that his selfish desires were turned into saintly ones, like the selfish cries of infants which are redirected into praise of God. We are not masters. For we are beggars. This is true.
As I write these lines, I look back on three years of theological education at the best seminary in the world. Only now, with the benefit of hindsight, do I see that it was my selfishness, not my saintliness, that brought me where I am. I will, Lord willing, graduate with a Masters of Divinity in a few weeks. I have learned more in three years than in three decades about God. But as I consider my motivation in pursuing this education, I have begun to realize that I wanted to gain. My efforts were not principally motivated by a desire to serve the church, share the Gospel, or to honor God. Principally, I wanted to know more so that I could benefit. I heard the dazzling siren song of academic excellence—the honor of men, the prestige of intellect, the future hope of influence and recognition—and I moved along a path of theological education to that end. Like Jacob, I was trying to steal sheep from my brother. But God; He used those selfish motivations to teach me about Himself, and to give me more than what I was selfishly seeking. Now I look back and I realize that I was violently plundering the Kingdom of God for myself. Now, however, I am not being punished, but praised, and I am horrified. How could I steal from God and be blessed by Him? Oh, wretched man that I am, I have burning coals upon my head where God put a crown. The weight of this glory is unbearable. Beggar made king, I am. Wretch made saint. Not because I wanted it, but because I wanted less for my own sake. He has given me more for His. Would that every day I live be spent giving Him everything I am. He deserves nothing less. How can I but weep, when I feed from the side which was torn for my sake, with one hand on the bread and the other on the spear?
There is only one Master. For we are beggars. This is true.