The kingdom of heaven suffereth violence and the violent take it by force. Matthew 11.12.
Extracts from a sermon by Richard Sibbes (1577-1635)
The kingdom of heaven suffereth violence and the violent take it by force. Matthew 11.12.
How does the ‘kingdom of heaven,’ the gospel and means of grace, ‘suffer violence’?
1. Because when these good things were revealed by John Baptist, and then by Christ, and after by the disciples and apostles, many thronged into the church, which is the gate of ‘the kingdom of heaven.’ They all pressed to be of the church, to hear the word of God. They hung, as it were, upon the word of Christ. They pressed so, that ‘they trod one upon another,’ Luke 12.1; and it is said they all came out to hear John Baptist: ‘Jerusalem, and all Judea, and all the region round about Jordan,’ Matt. 3.5. So that in regard of the multitude there was violence.
2. Then in regard of their affections, their zeal for the good of the gospel was eager and earnest. To be citizens of a kingdom, to partake of the means of salvation, to come to grace and so to glory, made them wondrous violent.
3. In regard likewise of the persons, ‘the kingdom of heaven suffered violence,’ the persons being such as might be judged to have no right to it. Alas! for poor wretched sinful men and women, that had been notorious sinners, to come to receive a kingdom, to become kings, this was strange! What had sinners to do with grace? This doctrine was not heard of in the law, that there should be hope for such wretched persons as these. If such might be admitted, surely there must needs be great violence.
Then again, they were poor and mean people. “The poor receive the gospelÂ’, Luke 7. 22. Beggars become kings!
4. Again, they were Gentiles, ‘aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenant of promise,’ Eph. 2.12, heathen people. ‘The Jews were the children of the kingdom,’ Mat. 8.12, the Gentiles were foreigners and strangers. Now for these to come in, and ‘the children of the kingdom’ to be shut out, it must needs suppose violence. Where there is no apparent right, there is force. Now what right had the Gentiles, that were little better than dogs? Could they have anything to do with the kingdom? Yes, says Christ, they take it by violence; and the Jews, and the proud scribes and Pharisees that seem to be the apparent ‘children of the kingdom,’ shall at length be shut out. “They that were first,’ in outward prerogatives, ‘shall be last; and they that were last,’ the Gentiles, sinners, mean people who magnify the grace of God in Christ, ‘shall be first,’ Mat. 20.16. In these respects the kingdom of
heaven is said to suffer violence.’ People will go to heaven, whatever come of it; when these good things are discovered they will have no nay. Hence, we may learn this doctrine,
That it is the disposition of those that are the true members of the church of God to be eager and violent.
Those that intend to enter into the kingdom, they must throng
and strive to enter; and when they are in, they must keep the fort, and keep it with violence.
There is indeed a violence of iniquity and injustice; and so the people of God, of all others, ought not to be a violent people. ‘Do violence to no man,’ saith the Baptist to the soldiers, Luke 3.14. Violence rather debars from the kingdom of heaven than is any qualification for it. But this is another kind of violence which our Saviour here speaks of, necessary for all that desire to enter into the kingdom of heaven; and that for these reasons.
I. First, Between us and the blessed state we aim at there is much opposition; and therefore there must be violence. The state of the church here, the state of grace and the enjoyment of the means of grace, it is a state of opposition. Good persons and good things are opposed in the world. Christ rules in this world, ‘in the midst of his enemies.’ He must have enemies therefore to rule in the midst of;
He must be opposed; and where there is opposition between us and the good things that we must of necessity have, we must break through the opposition, which cannot be done without violence.
Now the means and graces of salvation are opposed every way, within us and without us.
They are opposed from within us; and that is the worst opposition. For Satan has a party within us that holds correspondence with him, our own traitorous flesh. In all the degrees of salvation there is violence. Hence, in effectual calling, when we are called out of the kingdom of Satan, he is not willing to let us go; he will keep us there still; and when we come to have our sins forgiven in justification, there is opposition; proud flesh and blood will not yield to the righteousness of the gospel; it will not rest in Christ; it will seek somewhat in itself. In sanctification there is opposition between ‘the flesh and the Spirit.’ Every good work we do it is obtained out of the fire, as it were, it is obtained by violence. In every good action, whether it be to get grace, or to give thanks to God, how many carnal reasonings are there! If a man intends to give to others, the flesh suggests, he may want himself. If he intends to reform abuses in others, he is ready to think, others will have somewhat to say to him; and he will be offensive to such and such men. And then the affection of earthly things chains us to the things below, and self-love prompts a man to sleep in a whole skin. We love our wealth, and peace, and favour with men. So that a man cannot come to the state of grace without breaking through these;
and hereupon comes the necessity of violence, from the opposition from within us. We must offer violence to ourselves, to our own reason, to our own wills and affections. ‘You have not yet resisted unto blood,’ saith the apostle, Heb. 12.4. We do not resist by killing
others, but we ourselves resist to death, when, rather than miss heaven and happiness, and rather than not stand for the truth, we will suffer death.
Again, There is opposition from the world: on the right hand, by the snares and delights of the world, to quench the delight in the good things of the Spirit; and on the left hand, by fears, and terrors, and scandals, to scare us from doing what we ought to do.
And then there is opposition from Satan, in every good action. He besets us in prayer with distracted thoughts; and in every duty, for he knows they tend to the ruin of him and of his kingdom. There is no good action but it is opposed from within us and without us. The means of salvation, and the attending on them, they are not without slander and disgrace in the world. God will have this violence therefore, because there is opposition to the means, to the attendance on them, to grace, to every good action, to everything that is spiritually good.
Nay, sometimes God Himself seems like an enemy; in spiritual desertions He seems to forsake and leave us; and not only to forsake us, but to be an enemy, ‘to write bitter things against us,’ Job 13.26;
and that is a heavy temptation.
II. God will have this violence and striving, as a distinguishing mark to shew who are false professors and who are not: who will go to the price of Christianity, and who will not. If men will go to heaven they must be violent, they must be at the cost and charges, sometimes to venture life itself, and whatsoever is dear and precious in the world. A man must be so violent, that he must go through all, even death itself, though it be a bloody death, to Christ. This discards all lukewarm, carnal professors, who shake off this violence. Even in the church, it is almost equally difficult to be a sound Christian; for God requires this violence even in the most peaceable times. At present, truth and religion are countenanced by the laws of the land, yet the power of it is by many much opposed.
Therefore he now that in spite of reproach, in spite of slander will bear the scorns cast upon the gospel, that will ‘go with Christ without the gate, bearing his reproach,’ Heb. 13.13, such a man may be said to be thus violent. It is an easy thing to have so much Christianity as will stand with our ease or pleasure, but to have so much as will bring us to heaven, I say, it is equally hard in all times of the church, it requires violence to carry us through these lesser oppositions.
III. God will have us get these things with violence, that we may set a greater price on them when we have them. When we have things that are obtained by violence, Oh we value them much! Heaven is heaven then. Things that are hardly obtained and hardly kept are highly prized.
IV. The excellency of the thing compels violence. It is fit that excellent things should have suitable affections. Now, it being a kingdom, and the kingdom of heaven, what affection is suitable but a violent, strong affection?
V. Together with the excellency, the necessity requires it; for the kingdom of heaven it is a place of refuge as well as a kingdom to enrich us. There were cities of refuge among the Jews. When a man was followed by the avenger of blood, he would run as fast as he could to the city of refuge, and there he was safe. So when a guilty conscience pursues us, when there is a noise of fear in the heart, when God’s judgments awaken us and hell is open, when a man sees his state and is convinced what a one he is and what he deserves, of necessity he will fly to the city of refuge; and where is that but in the ‘kingdom of heaven,’ in the church? Happy is he that can but get in at the gate of this kingdom, there is no doubt of his going in further. But there must be a striving ‘to enter in at the gate,’ Luke 13.24. And then there he shall be hid in his sanctuary; as the pursued doves get into their nests, and the conies hide in the rock; when they get that over their heads then they are safe. So a Christian, when he is pursued with a conscience and with the temptations of Satan, he flies to his sanctuary. Do you wonder that a guilty man should flee to his sanctuary, and the pursued creatures to their hold and refuge? In this respect ‘the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence.’
Herein it is compared to some great, rich city, that has some great treasure and riches in it; and it must be besieged and beleaguered a long time, and those that can enter into it they are made for ever. Or it is like the entrance or gate of a city where there is striving and thronging, and where there are enemies, so that if men strive not they are cut down, and mangled, and killed. So it is in the state of this kingdom. When a man’s eyes are opened, he sees the devil and the hell behind him, and either he must enter or be damned; and being entered, it makes him rich and advances him for ever. So he is strongly moved to offer violence on both sides. If he look behind him there is the kingdom of Satan, darkness and misery and damnation; for as Pharaoh pursued the Israelites when they were
gone out of his kingdom, so the devil pursues a man when he is
broken out of his dominion: and then before him there is the kingdom of happiness and glory. The fear of that which follows them, and the hope of that which is set before them, both make them strive to enter into the gate of that city.
What should this teach us?
First, let it be a test to know and judge of our state, whether we be entered into this gate of heaven or no. Our lives are very short, very uncertain; let us consider if we be in the way to heaven. What striving, what struggling, what violence have we ever offered?
Second, to search a little deeper, do but compare your attitude toward these good things of heaven with your attitude towards the world. If there be hope of preferment, the doors of great men are sure to suffer violence with favourites. These places suffer violence. But what violence does the poor gospel endure? Alas! it is slighted;
and men will regard that when they can spare time.
Third, we see here that there is a blessed violence that may stand with judgment.
We see then the disposition of true professors, they are violent in respect of heavenly things. Those therefore that are not earnest in the cause of religion, when the state of things requires it, they have no religion in them, they are not in the state of grace. We must be earnest, first of all, against our own sins. Violence must begin there, to subdue all to the Spirit of Christ, to suffer nothing else to rule there; and after that, violence to maintain the cause of Christ. ‘To contend earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saints,’ Jude 3;
to contend with both hands; not to suffer it to be wrested from us or to be betrayed; and if it be opposed, to vindicate it. We must be violent both to propagate the truth of God, and, in case of opposition, to vindicate it. ‘He that is not with me,’ saith Christ, ‘is against me,’ Mat. 12.30. If a man be not with Christ, he is against Him. It may seem a strange speech, but Christ cannot abide lukewarm neuters. He cannot endure cold persons. His stomach cannot stand them. ‘He will cast them up,’ as he saith Rev. 3.15-16, ‘I would thou wert hot or cold.’ A man had better be nothing in religion than be lukewarm. The reason is, if a man will have good by any religion, he must be in earnest in it: If Baal be God, stand for him, if you would have good by him: if the Lord be God, stand for Him, 1 Kings 18.21. Be earnest in His cause. If popery be good, then stand for that, if you hope for good by it; and if our religion be good, then stand for that, if you hope for good by it. There is no good received by religion if we be not earnest for it. Religion is not a matter to be dallied in.
Therefore they are bitter, sour, profane, scoffing atheists, that trifle with religion, as if it were no great matter what it be. They will be earnest in all things else; earnest to scrape riches, to satisfy their base lusts. But for religion, it is no matter what it be; it is a thing not worthy the seeking after.
Hence we see that religion takes not away the earnestness of the affections. It directs them to better things; it changes them in regard of the object. Take Paul for an instance. He was as earnest when he was a Christian as before. He was never more eager after the shedding of the blood of Christians, and breathing out slaughter against them, as he was afterwards in breathing after the salvation of God’s people and a desire to enlarge the gospel. Zaccheus was never so covetous of the world before, as he was covetous of heaven when he became a Christian. This is the excellency of religion. It ennobles our nature. That which is natural it makes heavenly and spiritual; that a man shall be as earnest for God and good things as ever he was before after the things of this life.
Consider now the success of this violence.
The violent take it by force.’
‘They take it.’ The good things of God are compared to a fort, or to a well-fenced and well-armed city, strengthened with bulwarks and munition, that is a long time besieged, and at length is taken, by force.
The violent, and only the violent, and all the violent, do at length
certainly obtain what they strive for, the kingdom of heaven.
1. Because it is promised to the violent. ‘Knock, and it shall be opened unto you,’ Mat. 7.7. ‘Be zealous, and repent’ (that is the means to cure all former transgressions, ‘repent’), ‘and be zealous, and do the former works,’ and ‘To him that overcometh,’ Rev. 3.19,21 (that is, he that is earnest, that will never leave off till he hath overcome), ‘to him will I grant to sit with me on the throne; and to him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life,’ Rev. 2.7.
All the promises are to him that overcomes, to him that is zealous and earnest.
2. Then again, The Spirit whereby a man is earnest is a victorious Spirit. As Christians have the word and promise to build on, that leads them on, and encourages them, so they are led by a mighty Spirit, that has the force of wind and fire, that beats down all before it, that breaks through all oppositions and difficulties. Being led with a divine Spirit, what earthly thing can oppose that which is divine? It brings under and subdues all. Therefore ‘the violent take it,’ the Spirit of God seizing upon and possessing the heart, and carrying it with strength after these things.
3. And then only the violent take it, because God has set it at this price. ‘He that heareth and doth,’ ‘he that perseveres to the end,’ ‘he that sells all for the pearl,’ for the treasure in the field; there must be nothing retained; all must be parted with; we must be at any cost and charge and peril, and all little enough. It is offered to us upon these terms, of parting with all, of enduring anything, of breaking through all difficulties. Only such, and all such, shall obtain it by force.
4. And again, Only the violent, because only they can prize it when they have it. They only can prize grace and heaven. They know how they came by it. It cost them their pleasures and profits, it cost them labour, and danger, and loss of favour with men; and this pains, and cost, and loss, it endears the state of grace and glory to them; for God will never bring any man to heaven till he have raised his affections to that pitch, to value grace and glory above all things in the world. Therefore only those shall take it by violence; for only those shew that they set a right price on the best things. They weigh them ‘in the balance of the sanctuary,’ Dan. 5.27. They value things as God would have them valued.
Some will object but is not the kingdom of heaven and grace free? Therefore what needs violence to a thing that is free, and freely offered? I answer. Because it is free, therefore it is violently taken. For, alas! if it were offered to us upon condition of our exact performing of the law, it might damp the spirits of men, as indeed usually such, if they be not better informed, they end their days in despair. But being freely offered, ‘the publicans and harlots,’ saith Christ, ‘go into the kingdom of God before the proud Pharisees,’ Mat. 21.31. Because it is free, it is free to sinners that feel the burden of their sins. ‘Come unto me, all ye that are weary and heavy
laden,’ Mat. 11.28. ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after righteousness: they shall be satisfied,’ Mat. 5.3-6. Thereupon he that hath a guilty conscience, he makes haste, and offers violence, when he hears of free pardon. What makes the condition of the devils so desperate? There is no hope of free pardon to them. The proud Pharisees thought the kingdom of heaven belonged only to them; and therefore they despised Christ, and despised the gospel, because it was propounded to sinners, and to such mean persons that they thought were viler than themselves. But now when the meaner sort of people, and others that were abased with crosses in the world, saw what a kind of gospel it was, what great matters were offered, and that it was offered freely, they justified wisdom, Mat. 11.19, and the counsel of God which others despised, and pressed for it with violence, Luke 7.29,30.
It is little comfort to hear of the excellency and necessity of these heavenly things, if there were not hope of them, therefore when He says, ‘the violent take it by force,’ it is to encourage us. The violent, eager, strong endeavours of a Christian in the ways of God, in the means of salvation, they are successful endeavours.
He labours for that he knows he shall have; his violence is not in vain. He that is violent in good things hath a promise. He that wrestleth with God shall overcome, and he that overcometh shall have a crown. Here is a promise to build on. Therefore here is encouragement to be earnest and violent, ‘he shall overcome,’ he shall enter the castle at the last, if he continue striving, and give not over. The sluggard wisheth and gets nothing.’ The reason is, because he is a sluggard; because he will not strive; but the striver gets the fort, and hath all in it, and is a man made for ever.
‘The sluggard thinks himself wiser than many men that can give a reason,’ Prov. 26.16. The sluggish discreet Christian, I warrant, he has reasons for what he does! It is not good to be too earnest! It will incur the disfavour of man! I shall be this or that despised for my pains! But a wise man sees the excellency of the things, and he knows that his course and his conscience will justify him at the last, and therefore he goes on, whatever comes of it.
God is not so weary of these precious things, these precious jewels of grace and glory, as to force them upon us. Is ‘the kingdom of heaven’ such a slight thing, that it should be obtruded to us whether we will or no? Shall we think to have it when our hearts tell us we esteem other things better? No. There are none ever come to heaven but their hearts are brought to such an admiration of grace and glory, that they undervalue all things to it. Therefore there is no hope for any to obtain it, but he that takes it by violence. He esteemed the very afflictions of God’s people better than the treasures and pleasures of sin for a season, nay, than the pleasures of a court, Heb. 11.25. When men shall esteem the base things of the world above all the treasures of heaven, above the state of Christianity, they have no hope of coming there. They may pretend God is merciful, and Christ died, but whosoever He brings to
salvation, He works such a sense of misery in them, and such an apprehension of grace, and of the means of grace, that there is an undervaluing of all other things. God will not bring them to heaven that shall not glorify Him when they come there; and how shall they glorify Him here or there when they value the world and these base things that they must leave behind them more than the things of heaven? This is the reason that few are saved, because they content themselves with easy, dull, and drowsy performances. When they had rather lose the advantage of that which will bring everlasting good to their souls, than lose the petty commodities of this world, and yet think themselves good Christians, what a delusion is this! It is the violent only that are successful, ‘they take it by force.’
The last point is the date from whence this kingdom of heaven suffereth violence.
‘From the days of John Baptist until now.’
Was there no kingdom of heaven that suffered violence before John Baptist’s time? Did the kingdom of God begin then? Was Christ a king, and was heaven opened only then? I answer, No. But now the things of God were more gloriously discovered. Therefore, John 1.51, ‘henceforth you shall see heaven opened.’ The kingdom of heaven was opened now by the preaching of the gospel more gloriously than before. Therefore the state of the gospel is called the ‘kingdom of heaven,’ partly in regard of the times before, and partly in regard of the times after.
The law was full of servile bondage to ceremonies. It was a heavy dark state. They were laden with a multitude of ceremonies, which were but cold things to the spirit of a man that desires peace. Though they were ceremonies of God’s appointing, yet they were but outward empty things in comparison: ‘weak and beggarly elements,’ as the apostle saith, Gal. 4.9. They were costly and painful and cold things, that had not the efficacy of spirit in them.
And secondly. Then it was entailed to the Jews only. Now, since Christ’s time, it is enlarged; and being more large and free, this blessed state is called ‘a kingdom.’ John Baptist now preaches Christ clearly, and a better state than the church had yet enjoyed, when people saw an end of the ceremonies, and the beginning of the glorious liberty in Christ, this made them violently set on them.
Again, John Baptist made way for Christ, levelling the souls of men by his powerful preaching and his holy life. He taught them in what need they stood of Christ. He was the messenger sent before Christ for that end. He was as the morning star to the sun. He was powerful in his preaching, and holy in his life. He told every man his own. He told the Pharisees that they were a ‘generation of vipers.’ He shewed men their state by nature, and told them of a better state, that ‘the kingdom of heaven was at hand,’ Mat. 3.2. And although he wrought no miracles, yet he himself was a miracle. To teach such holy doctrine, and to live an austere holy life in those evil days, it was no less than a miracle. Therefore this violence to the
kingdom of heaven, it hath the date from John Baptist’s time; from his preaching, not from his birth. He being so excellent a preacher, no wonder there should be violence.
This shews the reason why the gospel in later times was embraced so greedily when Luther began to preach. Alas, people had been in a worse condition than Jewish in respect of ceremonies. Now when the times grew better, it is no wonder the world embraced the gospel with violence, as in Luther’s time, when there was a freedom proclaimed from those beggarly rudiments and traditions. Antichrist had hampered the consciences of men with an intolerable mass of foolish, groundless ceremonies, making them equal with the word of God, as we see in the Council of Trent, and this vexed the consciences of people like scorpions, as it is Rev. 9.9. They oppressed the people with a multitude of weights and burdens, which when people could not assent unto, it stung their consciences. No wonder then if people thronged after Luther when he opened the doctrine of free justification by faith, that the consciences of men were not to be hampered with these things. He taught that God’s people were only to have a few ceremonies for present order;
but for the rest, to trouble men’s consciences, and to make them of equal value with the word of God, he shewed it was an abominable doctrine, and wrote against it learnedly and sweetly. And it is no marvel that the truths he taught were soon and cheerfully embraced by multitudes.
And the reason why now the gospel begins to be so little embraced and esteemed, is because, by reason of the long continuance of it, we are weary of this heavenly manna. As the people in John Baptist’s time, as eager as they were after John’s preaching, yet it was but for a time that they rejoiced in his light. They grew weary of him. We never felt the burden of those Romish ceremonies, and therefore now grow weary of our liberty. Whereas in the beginning of Luther’s time, because they were eased from many beggarly, and tyrannical ceremonies of Rome, therefore with much joy and eagerness they embraced the truth when it came to be preached amongst them.
Therefore we are to praise God for the liberty of the church at this time, that we have the word of God to rule our consciences, and that other matters are not pressed on us but as matters of decency and order. Alas, if we were in bondage to those proud popish wretches, our consciences would be enthralled to a world of snares.
Last of all, ‘From the days of the Baptist,’ and so forward, ‘the kingdom of heaven did suffer violence,’ because from that time forward the Spirit began to be more plentifully given. Christ comes with His Spirit, which is soul of our soul, and the life of our life. The Spirit is like a ‘mighty wind,’ that moves the ship in the water. The ship is becalmed. It cannot move unless there be a wind. So the soul cannot move to that which is good without the Spirit. Now there is more abundance of the Spirit since the coming of Christ. Christ, who is the king of His church, the Lord of heaven and earth, He reserved the abundance of the Spirit till His own coming, especially
till He entered into heaven. Then the Spirit came in abundance. ‘It was poured upon all flesh,’ Joel 2.28. It was but, dropped before, but then it was ‘poured out.’ Then the Gentiles came in, and the apostles received the Spirit in abundance. Therefore no wonder that there was violence offered to the kingdom of heaven.
Here we are instructed that way we should take if we would bring ourselves or others into a disposition fit for heaven, to an earnest disposition towards holy things, not to begin with dead outward actions, but to begin, as becomes the condition of reasonable men, as God deals with man, befitting the nature of man; begin with the understanding. Let us meditate seriously on the truth of Christ’s coming in the flesh, on the purpose of His coming, ‘to dissolve the works of the devil,’ 1 John 3.8, to bring us out of the state of nature to a better condition. Meditate on the excellency of the state of grace, of the eternity and excellency of the state of glory. Let us warm our hearts with these things.
Let us labour, therefore, for a clear manifestation of Christ. There is the treasure of all goodness in Christ, whatsoever is necessary to bring us to heaven. And the more He is discovered and applied, the more we are enriched with grace and comfort. Times of change may come; and if times of opposition and persecution come not, yet temptations will come, and the hour of death will come, when we shall have occasion to use all the strength and comfort we have; and the more dangerous the times are, the more sound and clear knowledge of Christ we should labour for, and that will breed this holy violence, that shall break through all oppositions whatsoever.