This morning, I want to begin the lesson by asking a question. I’m going to show you two pictures, and I’d like for you to choose the picture that you think best describes people who are entering the kingdom of God.
This first picture is a shot taken on Normandy Beach during the D-Day invasion.
The second picture is a photo taken of a family taking a stroll along a walking trail.
So, which of these two pictures do you think best describes people who are entering the kingdom of God? Hold onto that thought.
When I was in college, we were required in our English literature class to read John Bunyan’s book Pilgrim’s Progress. For those of you who never had an English teacher force you to read it, let me explain that it is the story of a pilgrim named Christian who is traveling toward the Celestial City which represents heaven.
Early in the book, Christian is led up to the doors of a huge palace. Outside the palace, there’s a man who is ready to write down the names of everyone who enters. But a lot of people are standing around outside, because they’re afraid of the armed men who block the entrance to the palace. Then Christian sees a man with a “very brave countenance” come near. He says to the man outside the door, “Write down my name, sir!” And then armed with a sword and a helmet, the brave man fought his way into the palace of glory.
Allow me to read you an excerpt: “[The man] fell to cutting and hacking most fiercely. So after he had received and given many wounds to those that attempted to keep him out, he cut his way through them all, and pressed forward into the palace, at which there was a pleasant voice heard from those that were within…saying, Come in, come in; Eternal glory thou shalt win.”
So, do you think this is an accurate portrayal of the Christian life, or was John Bunyan just being overly dramatic? Is it the case that we must fight our way into the Celestial City, or is it possible that we can stroll casually into heaven?
There are a lot of people who evidently believe that the road to heaven is an easy path to travel. And, in fact, most folks believe that it really doesn’t take all that much to get into heaven. As long as you’re a fairly good, honest and decent person, that’s all that matters. A poll taken several years ago indicated that 75% of people in America believe that they will go to heaven when they die. 75%!
But even among those of us who are Christians, we rarely think of Christianity as much of a struggle. Let’s face it — Christianity is a fairly easy way of living for most of us. Granted, we have to roll out of bed early on Sunday mornings (at least most Sundays). And we may spend some time every week in prayer and Bible study. We may even get involved in something like the Food Pantry once a month that takes a few hours of our time. But I don’t think any of us see Christianity as being a difficult thing.
But in exchange for what we’re willing to give to God, we expect the full benefits package. We want forgiveness, peace of mind, joy, fulfillment, and of course, most importantly, a home in heaven when we die. And there might be some countries in the world where we would have to give up a lot to get those things. But fortunately, we live here in America and things are easy.
And if your reaction to that is to say, “We don’t actually believe that!”, I would disagree. And sometimes, we even make the mistake of talking like that. Have you ever had a friend who wasn’t a Christian, but he was a good moral person, and so you said to him something along the lines of, “You really ought to think about becoming a Christian. You already live a good life, you wouldn’t have to give up much at all.”
“You wouldn’t have to give up much at all.” How dare we take that approach to Christianity! The scriptures make it clear that Christianity involves a struggle for our faith. In Luke 13:24, Jesus said, “Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able.”
That word that Jesus used here, “strive” comes from the Greek word agonizomai. That’s the word from which we get our English word “agony”. It means to struggle. Different translations translate this word “work hard”, “make every effort”, “keep on struggling”, “exert every effort”. “Strive to enter through the narrow gate.” We don’t just walk through the narrow gate; we have to strive to get through it. We have to struggle to get through it. That word suggests that there is a great deal of effort required on our part.
In Ephesians 6:12, Paul describes the Christian life this way: “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” The picture Paul paints for us is a picture of struggling, a picture of constant battle.
The Hebrew writer often alluded to the fact that we need to put a great deal of effort into our Christian lives. The word “diligent” is frequently used in that letter. “Let us therefore be diligent to enter that rest….” (Hebrews 4:11, NKJV).
And in Acts 14:22, we read about Paul and Barnabas “strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” The New Century Ver¬sion translates the last part of that verse, “We must suffer many things to enter the kingdom of God.”
But we don’t hear a lot of talk in the church today about the “necessity” of suffer¬ing as it involves entering the kingdom of God. We don’t think much about Christianity being a struggle. We don’t even seem to do a whole lot of wrestling with the spiritual forces of evil. But we should.
This morning I want us to look in some detail at a verse that relates to this topic in Matthew 11:12. But before we get to that verse, I want to go back a few verses and begin reading in verse 7.
I. Matthew 11
This whole chapter deals with the identity of Jesus. John the Baptist had been in prison for about a year, and he was approaching the end of his life. And he sent some of his disciples to ask Jesus the question, “Are you really the Messiah or should we look for someone else?” (Matthew 11:3). And it may seem rather strange that John would ask that question. His whole purpose in life was to prepare the way for the Messiah.
At the baptism of Jesus, John had heard God declare from heaven that Jesus was his Son and he had seen the Holy Spirit descend upon him like a dove. He spent his entire ministry pointing Jews to Jesus. In fact, some of Jesus’ own apostles had been directed to him by John. So, you have to believe that John knew who Jesus was. More than anybody else, John understood that he was the long-awaited Messiah, the Christ.
But perhaps a year in prison had caused John to doubt a bit. “Jesus, if you are who I think you are, it’s time for you to do something.” Or maybe John sent his disciples to Jesus with this question for their benefit, not his. Maybe he wanted them to see for themselves that Jesus was the Messiah. And Jesus answered their question by pointing them to the evi¬dence. He said, “Tell John what you see; tell him about the lame walking and the sick being healed. Tell him about the lepers being cleansed and the dead being raised. And tell him that the gospel is being preached to the poor.” (Matthew 11:4-5).
And then, after John’s disciples went back to him, Jesus turned to the crowd and talked with them about John the Baptist. He said, “This is he of whom it is written, ‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you.’ Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” (Matthew 11:7-11).
Jesus said, “Among those born of women (and that includes just about everybody I know), no one is greater than John the Baptist.” Think about what a tremendous statement that is. How would you like to hear Jesus say, “Among those born of women, nobody is greater than Joey Watson! Nobody is greater than Lana Rogers!” That would get our attention! But that’s exactly what Jesus said about John the Baptist.
But that’s not all he said. He also said, “Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” Which is also a pretty amazing statement. To think that even though John was greater than anyone born of a woman, any Christian is even greater. Because a Christian is not just born of a woman; he is also born of the Spirit. While John the Baptist spent his life preaching that the kingdom of God was at hand, those of us who are Christians have the privilege of being a part of that kingdom.
But it’s the next statement that Jesus made that I really want us to focus on this morning. Verse 12:
“From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.” (Matthew 11:12)
This is a difficult verse to understand, especially the last phrase. The first part’s not too difficult. “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence.” That makes sense, and we know that it’s true. Even in the 21st century, we know that the kingdom of heaven is suffering violence.
But, it’s that last phrase that’s a bit puzzling – “the violent take it by force.” One of the first things I like to do when I come across a difficult verse is to see how different translators have translated it. So, here’s what I found:
The New Living Translation – “the Kingdom of Heaven has been forcefully advancing, and violent people are attacking it.”
The NET Bible – “the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and forceful people lay hold of it.”
God’s Word translation– “the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful people have been seizing it.”
The second thing I do whenever I find a difficult verse in one of the gospels is to see if there are any parallel passages in any of the other gospels that may word it a little differently.
I think a parallel passage is found in Luke 16:16, where Jesus said, “The Law and the Prophets were until John; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is preached, and everyone forces his way into it.” The violent take it by force!
But what does it mean that we take the kingdom by force, that we force our way into the kingdom?
Penn Clark had this to say about this text: “As we read the Four Gospels, we can see that the people of Jesus’ day did not passively sit back to see if He would heal them. They pressed in for it. They touched the hem of His garments; they cried out with loud voices until He stopped, they even tore the roof off where He was to get healing. Sometimes they didn’t even take His initial “no” for an answer. That’s aggressive! That’s taking it by force. That’s what we need to do.”
I think he’s right. In Matthew 11, there seems to be two different groups of people who are being discussed by Jesus. First of all, there were forceful men who seized hold of the kingdom of God. And secondly, there were others who rejected Jesus even though they had seen plenty of evidence.
And I think that sums up the main two reactions that Jesus received while he was here on this earth. On the one hand, you had men like the Pharisees and their followers. They rejected Jesus because he didn’t fit their mold. He associat¬ed with sinners and didn’t follow their traditions. He was a threat to their positions of power. And so, they wouldn’t draw near to the kingdom of God even though John had been telling them it was near. They rejected the gospel message even though they saw the overwhelming evidence that the kingdom was right there in front of them.
But, on the other hand, there was a group of outcasts known as “sinners” who were pressing hard to enter the kingdom of God. They were desperate men and women whose desperateness came from the fact that they recognized their sinfulness, and they understand their inability to change that fact. So, when they heard the good news of the kingdom, they were ready to accept it. These forceful men were in essence storming the walls of heaven in an effort to get in. And Jesus said that they were the only ones who would get in!
I think what Jesus is doing here is drawing a comparison between the self-satisfied religious person on the one hand and the desperate sinner on the other hand. The Pharisees was willing to stroll toward heaven satisfied that their self-righteousness was all that was required to gain entrance. But Jesus made it clear that people like that will never get to heaven.
But there were others who because of their sin and helplessness were charging ahead toward salvation. These were desperate and forceful men and women who were willing to do whatever it took, willing to make whatever sacrifices were necessary to enter into the kingdom of God. They were fighting their way into the kingdom.
So what does all of this mean for us? It has been said that our favorite hypocrisy is to make a choice and then to refuse to pay for it. We have a word for that in this country — it’s called credit! Thanks to credit, I can go to the store and pick out something I want, and then not have to pay for it now. In fact, some stores go so far as to say, “Come in and buy our furniture and make no payments until January 2019!” But how many people do you suppose have gotten themselves into severe financial difficulty because they made a choice that they were not really willing to pay for?
But that truth applies to far more than just financial matters; it applies to all of life. And it certainly is hypocritical for us to choose something and then be unwilling to pay the price for it. We may choose, for example, to have a slim physique, but are we willing to pay the price for it? We haven’t really accomplished anything if we say, “I make the choice to lose weight,” but then we’re not willing to pay the price of diet and exercise. If that’s the case, you really haven’t made the choice at all.
Rudyard Kipling once said that if anyone did not get from life what they really wanted, it was because either he didn’t really want it or because he began to quibble about the price. Now, that may be a bit of an overstatement, but I do think there’s a great deal of truth there. We must be willing to pay the price for what we want.
The price for the Christian life is high, and Jesus said that we need to count that cost as a part of our decision to follow him. In Matthew 10, Jesus warned his apostles not to think that following him was going to be easy. He wanted them to see the cost of being his disciples, so he said:
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 10:34-39).
While Jesus came to bring peace, that peace that passes all understanding has a high price. To be his disci¬ple, we must be willing to pick up our sword and fight our way into heaven. We must be willing to face broken earthly relation¬ships in order to have a relationship with God. We must be will¬ing to give up anything that stands in our way. Nobody is going to stroll into the Celestial City with his hands in his pockets. That palace is reserved for forceful men and women who in their desperation will do whatever it takes.
In his book Applause of Heaven, Max Lucado tells about taking his two daughters to an amusement park. They went into one of these plastic ball pits to play. It’s a huge three-foot-deep pit the size of a backyard pool. But instead of being filled with water, it was loaded with balls — thousands and thousands of plastic balls.
And so, Max watched as his two daughters went into this ball pit to play. The older daughter did just fine. But the younger one, who was only three years old at the time, had a few difficulties. As soon as she stepped into the pit, she filled her arms with balls.
Now, it’s hard enough to walk through a waist-deep pile of balls with your arms spread to keep your balance, but it’s impossible to do so with your arms full. So this little girl, Andrea, took a step and fell. She tried to get up, but she couldn’t do it and she started to cry. Max walked over to the edge of the pit and he said, “Andrea, let go of the balls and you can walk.”
But she screamed, “No,” as she kept getting deeper and deeper. Trying to be patient and calm, Max said, “Andrea, if you let the balls go, you’ll be able to walk.” But she said, “No!” again, took two steps and fell.
Parents weren’t allowed to get into the ball pit, so Max asked his older daughter, Jenna, to come over and help her sister get back on her feet. But Jenna wasn’t strong enough, and Andrea wasn’t helping any because she was still holding the same balls she had grabbed when she first stepped into the pit.
Jenna said, “Daddy, I can’t get her up.” So Max said, with a great deal more irritation in his voice, “Andrea, let go of the balls so you can get up!” The cry from beneath the balls was muffled but clear. “Nooo!”
Max thought to himself, “She’s got what she wants and she’s going to hold on to it if it kills her.” The next step was to tell Jenna to take the balls away from her sister. So they engaged in hand-to-hand combat for a while until finally the attendant told Max he could climb in to get them both out.
Later, he reflected, “What is it that makes children immobilize themselves by clutching toys so tightly?” Then he thought, “Whatever it is, they learned it from their parents.”
You see, that child’s determination to hold onto those balls is nothing compared to the grip we put on the things this world has to offer. And if you think Jenna’s job of trying to take those balls away from Andrea was tough, try prying our fingers away from our earthly treasures. The way we clutch our possessions and our pleasures, you would think we couldn’t live without them.
Our resistance to our heavenly Father is just as childish as Andrea’s. God, for our own good, tries to loosen our grip from something that would cause us to fall. But we refuse to let go. Because we want what we have in this world right now. And until we have a greater desire for what God has to offer, we’ll never let go/
Jesus said in the Beatitudes: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” (Matthew 5:6). He’s talking about wanting something so badly that we’ve just got to have it. So let me ask you: What is it that you hunger and thirst for? What is it that that you want so much that you’re willing to do whatever it takes to get it?
I think the message of Matthew 11 has direct application both to those of us who are Christians and to those who have not yet made that decision. First, to those of us who are Christians, Jesus’ words demand that we think about our concept of discipleship. Do we really believe that our own righteousness, our goodness, has secured us a place in the kingdom of God? Has our satisfaction with our level of spiritual development caused us to stop learning and growing and maturing in the faith? Have we simplified religion in our lives to the point where it really makes no demands upon us other than simply getting up early enough on Sunday morning to make it to worship?
If that’s the case, then the words of Jesus cry out to you. He wants you to know that simply having your name on the church roll isn’t going to secure your place in heaven. We can’t just sit back, relax and take it easy. Rather, we as Christians must continue to struggle toward heaven. We must be diligent to enter that place of rest. We must strive to enter the narrow gate. We must constantly struggle with whatever forces within or without us try to keep us out of heaven. We must fight our way into the Celes¬tial City of God. Because the violent will take it by force.
To those of you who may not yet be Christians, these words of Jesus challenge you as well. They challenge you to give yourself to the Christ who died for you. That doesn’t mean simply a new way of believing; it also means a new way of living. As we extend the invitation this morning, please understand what Jesus is inviting you to. He’s inviting you become a child of God. Inviting you to possess inner peace and joy. Inviting you to have your sins forgiven and your guilt removed. Inviting you to heaven. But the pathway there is narrow and at times is difficult to walk. It involves self-sacrifice and self-denial. And it’s a struggle!
Nobody will stroll into heaven with their hands in their pockets. Those who get there will fight their way there. The way of salvation is for forceful and desperate men and women who are willing to do whatever it takes to possess the kingdom of God.