When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”
Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.”
As John’s disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces. Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written:
‘I will send my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way before you.’
“Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it.”
(Verse 12, the last sentence in the above quote, is a difficult sentence to translate and interpret and understand. The different versions of the Bible give it different meanings. I believe the New International Version of 1984 gives the best translation.)
John the Baptist was in prison on the order of King Herod. He needed help understanding what Jesus was doing. John had started his ministry saying that the Kingdom of Heaven was near (Matt 3:2) and someone greater than him was going to bring it. He described it this way in Matthew 3:10-11: “The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” John believed Jesus was the Messiah who would bring judgment and renewal to Israel then lead the nation to military and political victory over Rome and establish peace and prosperity for the Jewish people. He must have expected Jesus to take over and make everything right. But when John called out Herod for his adultery the king locked him up. He must have thought, “What’s going on? Why isn’t Jesus swinging that ax? Where’s the repentance? Where’s the fire? Where’s the power?” He sent a couple of his followers to ask Jesus, “Are you really the Messiah or will it be someone else?”
Jesus made sure everyone knew John was not a failure. He was the messenger sent by God to prepare for the arrival of the Messiah and the Kingdom.
And Jesus answered John’s question. He told John’s disciples to tell him what they saw Jesus doing (v5): “The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.” Then in verse 6 he basically says, “John, don’t fall away, don’t give up on me because I’m not doing this exactly the way you thought I would.”
Then, in verse 12, Jesus assured everyone that the Kingdom had arrived and was advancing. It was a powerful force healing and freeing people in need.
You see what Jesus was not doing. He was not condemning and executing judgment. He challenged people about their sin but he offered mercy and forgiveness and he eventually took the judgment himself on the cross. Jesus was not leading a political and military revolution. He was never very interested in what governments and armies were doing. In fact he said that nations will keep fighting until he comes back – so don’t be too concerned about that. Jesus was not creating material abundance for anyone. He did teach that God will take care of our needs but he was never interested in financial security and prosperity. He taught that there will be poor people all the time who need to be cared for and rich people will always have a hard time getting into the Kingdom – so there are more important things than money. Jesus was not providing emotional bliss in the midst of struggle or boredom. He promised joy to his followers but he never offered any experiences strictly for the purpose of making people feel better, even for his cousin (John the Baptist) who was in prison facing execution.
The Kingdom Jesus brought was not about judgment and national victory and material prosperity and dopamine reward, and it never will be. Ever. Anywhere. It was about people being restored to life, receiving abundant life. Jesus was powerfully advancing the Kingdom by pouring out the grace and truth that filled him (John 1:14).
Then he said, “Forceful men lay hold of it.” Persons who are passionate will grab hold of the Kingdom. The people had been waiting and watching for years. Now that the Kingdom had come it was time to stop waiting. It was time to force themselves out of that pattern. God was on the move. The Kingdom was advancing. It was time to break loose and grab hold with intentional, radical faith.
That’s the action necessary for us to go with Christ – grab hold of the Kingdom of God. That’s what Paul was talking about when he wrote Philippians 3:12-14: “I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me… [O]ne thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” Stop holding back. Stop messing around with other things. Force yourself out of your spiritual lethargy and grab hold of the powerful Kingdom of God.
You need to understand something of the force of this Kingdom. It is intense. It’s an invasion against everything our self-centered nature holds precious. It’s an attack on our selfishness and idolatry. It’s an assault on our failure to love God and our unwillingness to trust him completely. It’s a raid against how we waste our lives on petty projects and irrelevant activities. When you grab hold of God’s Kingdom, be ready for his love to be so passionate that he will not be satisfied until he burns away everything that keeps your heart from being meshed with his and you become whole and holy.
Annie Dillard wrote this: “On the whole, I do not find Christians…sufficiently sensible of the conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake some day and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.” (Teaching a Stone to Talk, 1982)
He is drawing us out. He’s drawing us out to new life, abundant life, holy life. He’s calling us out to new mission, God’s purposes, the Spirit’s work. He’s drawing us out to grab hold of the Kingdom and join him in his way of life. It’s intense.
There’s something else to understand. When you grab hold of Christ’s Kingdom, you will not be in control of it. The closest analogy to this that I’ve experienced was on the back of a bull. He was a mix breed, black with white face. I was a college ministerial student. I was about 22 and weighed 130 pounds. He was about 2 and weighed 1500 pounds. I had a good hold on that bull rope but I did not have control of that bull. He could buck as high as he wanted. He could jump and twist any direction he wanted. I had no say whatsoever. All I could do was hold on. And I did. For 7 seconds. Then I wasn’t holding on anymore.
Laying hold of the Kingdom is something like that. God will not be trying to get rid of you but you will not be in control. If you grab hold of Christ’s Kingdom, you will go where God takes you. You will change priorities and attitudes. You will accomplish his will and work. You will make a difference and be a blessing. You will be filled with love and peace and joy and wisdom and purpose and direction. Don’t take hold of the Kingdom thinking you’ll be running things. You can’t handle that; you can’t hold on to that. It’s his Kingdom. Just grab hold and go with it.
Jesus says that your one necessity is the Kingdom of God (Matthew 6:33). Stop waiting. Stop messing around. Don’t worry that it’s not what you want or thought it would be. Just grab hold and don’t let go.
How do you do that? I think it starts with praying differently. Instead of “God, please give me what I want” pray, “Lord, your Kingdom come and your will be done.”