From the days of John the Baptist until the now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. (Matthew 11:12)
Here is another difficult verse in Matthew 11, mainly because we think of the word "violence" with completely negative connotations. Here is another version of the verse, not from a different translation but from a different gospel narrative, Luke's: "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." (Luke 16:16)
1. Jesus has already considered John the Baptist the greatest of the prophets. Why? Something has changed. Until John, all prophecy was law-based. Everything was immersed in the keeping or violation of the covenant of law. From John until now (even our day) all prophecy (preaching) is gospel-based, good news based.
2. Upon hearing the good news, those who believe spiritually storm the kingdom of heaven. It's so easy to get in! The law-based prophecy implied that it was difficult, but since John the Baptist, the gospel-based preaching has confirmed that it is the easiest thing of all. This truly is good news!
3. To cease all ideas of antinomianism (lawlessness), due to the ease of entering the kingdom of heaven, Jesus follows up these statements in both Matthew and Luke. Here's Luke's first: "But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one dot of the Law to become void."
4. This apparent contradiction is an important verse. The prophecy up until John is not contradicted. It is not nullified. It's just that something important has changed. The law still stands but now entering the kingdom of heaven is not through the law but through the gospel--through faith in Christ. Through belief in Jesus Christ. But the law is not abrogated. No, to the contrary, the law still stands firm, and this is an important aspect of the gospel. The law may not be the way through which one gets to heaven, but the law is a benchmark from which we can determine if one has grasped Christ through faith.
5. This is the difference between belief and unbelief. A believer is keeping the law (imperfectly) out of gratitude for salvation. This may or may not be conscious gratitude, but through faith the believer indeed becomes a more gentle and loving individual (remember that keeping the law is the same as loving God and your neighbor), more conforming to the image of Christ than he or she ever was. This is evidence of true conversion. This is assurance.
6. Here is Matthew's version of the verse, whch gives us more clues as to what Jesus is saying: "For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John, and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come." The first part of this verse confirms all that has been said above, but there is this addition: "He is Elijah who is to come."
7. If we go to Malachi 4:5, the prophet writes, "Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes." Jesus is saying that this prophecy has been fulfilled and that John is the one like Elijah who precedes the Lord's coming. Jesus, of course, is the Lord.
8. After that verse in Malachi, we get this verse: "And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction." This means that from John the Baptist until now, the gospel will be preached, believers will have their hearts turned to their father, and they will enter the kingdom of heaven (be written in the book of life) before the final destruction comes.
9. Jesus previously said in Matthew (verses 10:34-39) that he had come not to bring peace but a sword and that he would divide families from each other. Is this a contradiction with the last verses of Malachi? No. Whereas the believers' hearts will be turned by the gospel toward their father in heaven, the believers' hearts will also be turned away from worldly individuals who do not believe the gospel, even after they have heard the good news.
10. The gospel is a wonderful, and yet violent, thing! It turns the wicked against the justified in a violent way. It turns the world against the gospel itself. Finally, it yanks the justified into the kingdom violently, because God's grace is irresistible. Repent and believe the gospel! Overtake the kingdom violently. The Lord wishes that you will, and he will rejoice at such action.