|Preacher||Rev. Maurice Roberts, Inverness|
|Sermon Title||God's Kingdom Taken by Violence|
|Text||Matthew ch.11 v.12 |
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"And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force" (Matthew 11, 12).
No man can turn himself into a Christian - that is perfectly true. It doesn't reside within the power of the human will to choose Christ. It is of the grace of God that we become Christians. You are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus, says the New Testament. So we don't make ourselves Christians; it is the work of God.
We must be careful that we don't push that truth too far. Some people go too far like this. They say that salvation is not of works and therefore there is no point in my doing anything until God begins to do something in me. Or again, there's another way of putting it. Some people have some knowledge of Bible truth and they say that if you are one of God's elect then you will be saved anyway, whatever you do. And if you are not one of the elect then it's a waste of time trying to do anything, because you won't be saved anyway. You understand now, that that is to push something too far. The Bible does not say that we can do nothing before our conversion. Oh, it does say that we can't make ourselves Christians but the Bible doesn't go further than that to say that there is no point in doing anything before we become Christians. And so Christ, in these words that are in my text, is correcting a false idea and putting it right.
Let me read these words again now. "...the kingdom of heaven," he says, "suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force" (Matthew 11, 12). In order to help to understand these words I need first of all to explain to you what our Lord means by speaking here of the Kingdom of Heaven. This word or term 'Kingdom of Heaven' has different senses and different meanings in the New Testament. Sometimes the Kingdom of Heaven means the New Testament Christian church. Let me explain how.
In the Old Testament, it was the Kingdom of Israel but since Christ is come, that same message is now taken to all the world. The church is no longer confined to the Jews as it was in the Old Testament. So the church is universal and it is referred to sometimes as the Kingdom of Heaven or the Kingdom of God. I'm sure you remember how Jesus Christ said to Simon Peter, "Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church" (Matthew 16, 18). "And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 16, 19). Now what our Lord meant by that was, I give to you - as an elder or minister, and to all other elders, and to all other ministers - the power to admit members into the membership of the church, or to exclude members from the membership of the church, as may be from time-to-time appropriate. So that is one meaning of this Kingdom of Heaven. It can mean the New Testament church. But that's not the meaning here especially.
Another sense in which this phrase 'Kingdom of Heaven' is sometimes used in the Bible is in reference to heaven, where God Lives. Heaven is a Kingdom; God is a King. He is visible and can be seen in glory in heaven. So we talk about the 'Kingdom of Heaven', meaning the place where God lives: His glorious Kingdom above. The Lord Jesus Christ in His famous prayer called 'the Lord's Prayer' teaches us to pray for this when He says, "Thy kingdom come" (Matthew 6, 9). What it means is, to hasten the day when God's glorious Kingdom will be in this world and all sin and sinners shall be at an end. So there is that sense also but that is not quite the sense here either.
When our Lord here speaks about the Kingdom of Heaven He means salvation. He means coming into salvation: coming to know God as our own Saviour. So He refers to salvation in that way.
You understand that all these three phrases and senses and meanings are carefully and closely connected. When a person enters salvation what they should do when they are saved is, they should then apply to the office bearers of the church - like Simon Peter - that they would turn the key and open the door into the membership of the church. When they have lived a faithful Christian life and are gone out of this world by death then Jesus Christ turns the key into the Kingdom of Glory and so they enter there too. You see there is a connection one with the other - the Kingdom of Heaven. You could say then that I'm not talking about an entirely different meaning for this phrase but different shades of meaning. It's rather like having a diamond. If you hold it up to the light and move it about you get different shades and different colours. If you turn the diamond round you get different beautiful facets. That is what this expression 'Kingdom of God' or 'Kingdom of Heaven' is like here.
Let us bring that information to this text. My text says this in verse twelve, "...until now the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force" (Matthew 11, 12). What can our Lord mean? Well He means that people before the coming of John the Baptist were pretty well asleep in the country. People weren't very interested in seeking salvation; they were more than half asleep. They were just going about their ordinary routine, busy as people are today. They weren't very interested in church life, or in God, or in the Bible, or in how to be saved, or in anything else. They were at their ease in their sin.
But then God raised up this great man whose name was John the Baptist. He was a tremendous preacher. A preacher the like of whom the world had never yet seen. He preached with such power, and such fervour, and so spiritually that hundreds and indeed thousands of people came out from the cities and towns to listen to him. They confessed their sins to God and they entered salvation. So when He speaks about the Kingdom of God suffering violence, He means that through the preaching of this great man thousands of people were pressing to get in to the Kingdom of Salvation. They were pressing to come to know God. That, therefore, is the meaning of this expression here.
To appreciate why people were pressing in to the Kingdom of God I have to explain to you that there are these three different conditions or 'states' in which men and women can be - and boys and girls too for that matter.
The first state is the 'state of sin'. That's the state in which we all are born: a state of sin. We always have to say that, always. In all our sermons we have to remind ourselves we are born in a state of sin and misery.
Then there is a second state, which we call the 'state of grace'. That's the same as this salvation, or this Kingdom of God.
The third state is what we call the 'state of glory'. When people who realise they are in a 'state of sin' come to understand the danger that they are in - which many of them don't, but when they do - they immediately begin to be urgent and insistent and concerned about their own salvation and they begin to do something about it.
I'm afraid that the general impression that most people have about heaven is that everybody is going to go there. Isn't that true? If you talk to the man in the street about heaven he assumes that everybody is going to go there. Oh yes, it's a very nice subject to talk about heaven. Yes, of course, we all hope in the end that we are going to be in heaven. What they don't know is that before anyone can come to heaven they have to pass from a 'state of sin' into a 'state of grace'. They have to go through a barrier if you like; they have to go through a door. This is the door that Christ refers to when He says, "I am the door: by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved..." (John 10, 9). That's why I interpret this phrase here as being salvation. Jesus said, " I am the door". He means the door into eternal life. "By me if anyone enter in, he shall he saved, and go in and out, and find pasture (food for his soul)." "I am the door".
This is why it was, therefore, that when these men and women and young people in the days of John the Baptist came out of the cities and towns to listen to this outstanding preacher - John the Baptist - they were awakened. When they realised their danger - that they were not going to heaven but to somewhere else and that they were not ready to enter into God's presence - then they were stirred up to become violent to get through into God's presence: to get through the door of salvation, through Christ, to get through from the 'state of sin' to the 'state of grace' in this world. They were concerned to get through the door of salvation: the door of eternal life. That then is a picture of how our Lord describes what is going on in society. How different those times were from our times.
My friends, can you imagine it? People everywhere rushing to hear the preacher. People everywhere crying out to find the way to God. This is what is happening under John the Baptist. I don't know whether it's proper to call this a religious revival but I don't suppose the phrase is inappropriate. They were craving salvation and that's what always happens when people begin to be earnest about their own spiritual condition. When they see their plight then they strive to get in to the Kingdom of God.
I hope you all remember that wonderful description of this in John Bunyan's book The Pilgrims' Progress. Do you remember how Christian at the beginning of that great and wonderful book, had been reading the Bible and he discovered by reading the Bible he was in great danger. The city he was living in was the City of Destruction. He realised that at any time at all fire and brimstone might come down from heaven upon them and consume them all. He went off his food; he couldn't eat - he lost his appetite. He couldn't sleep. He was afraid. He sweated and he trembled. He thought to himself, "What can I do? Where can I go to escape from this terrible danger which is so imminent over my soul and over my life?" The family thought he had gone mad - do you remember? People always do when you begin to be serious about God and about heaven and about Christ. Your worldly friends immediately imagine you have gone mad. They did that to the apostle Paul, "Much learning doth make thee mad" (Acts 26, 24).
John Bunyan's Pilgrim's experience is that which all Christians more or less, have. You recall as he began to be more and more serious for salvation that in his great book John Bunyan says, 'The Pilgrim left his city and he went on the long journey which was to lead to the Celestial City above.'
So that is what our Lord is talking about. He says when the people came to hear John the Baptist, when they were aroused by a sense of their need and realised their predicament, their danger - that they were under the wrath of God and liable to His curse and to eternal judgement. When they understood that, then they tried to press in to the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of God suffered violence. People were squeezing to get inside it.
Some of you may remember that some years ago there was in Glasgow a football match on a Saturday. I remember because I took people to church the next day. More people came the next day than usual. One of them, who was in my car, had been at a football match as I remember. The reason why he was coming to church for once in a lifetime was that he saw something at the football match which alarmed him. Some of the barricades were broken down by the force of the crowd swaying backwards and forwards. Suddenly there was a surge of people and youngsters. Others fell down and they were trodden to their death under the feet of this surge of hundreds of people moving backwards and forwards. When people saw the danger then they looked for and ran to the exit, trampling on one another. A number of people died. I remember that, far away in the nineteen seventies I think it was. You may not have been alive then but you may have read about it. It's not a unique case. It happened in Belgium. That's exactly what we are talking about. When people are in a sense of danger they press to get out. They press to get away. That's what people do when they understand their danger and their condition before God. So Jesus Christ says that, when John the Baptist preached the Word of God the Kingdom of God suffered violence.
Let me stop and say something about this violence. Oh my dear friends, this violence is a picture of how people feel internally in their hearts and minds when they really come to understand the danger that they are in.
I had a teacher at school who was trying to teach us Biology and I don't remember much of what he taught us but I do remember a story he told which was true of him when he had been a boy. This was his story. He said as a boy he had gone to a farm and he was looking about where the animals were. He came to a high wall - about five feet high. It was a small enclosure and he didn't know if anything was inside. It was very dark. Being a boy and daring he climbed up the wall and jumped into the dark, confined area. He was looking around - investigating and exploring as boys do. Out of the corner of his eye he caught sight of a glint in the eye of a large male pig that was making his way toward him - obviously with the intent of doing him harm.
This is the point. The teacher as a boy said this, "I don't know how I did it," he said, "but suddenly I leapt right up on to the top of the wall - in a moment. I had done it before I realised what I was doing." He explained to us something which I am told is true. He said that it is perfectly understandable because there is something in our body called 'adrenalin' and in an emergency the 'adrenalin' pumps right the way through the body. Your muscles have a special power to do unusual things. He said he jumped the whole height of this wall, five feet to get to the top of it, out of danger. It saved his life perhaps.
Well my friends, that's the way human beings are when they come to be enlightened, to see that it is no light thing to be under the judgement of God: without Christ, without salvation, without a covering over our guilt and our shame and our sin. What sinners do when they see that, is they get, as it were, a shot of adrenalin and they rush to do something about their condition. The very last thing they do is to sit down and say 'Ah well, if I'm ordained to eternal life you know it's going to happen, and if not, well, I can't do anything about it.' No, they don't say anything like that. They don't sit down philosophically and say "Well our minister has told us you can't be saved by works so no point in trying to do any works, is there?" No, you don't think like that. When you realise your predicament you start to do something. You may not necessarily always do the right thing or the best thing but people start to do something.
When monks live in monasteries and places like that - where they have not really had the Bible but just superstitious ideas - what monks do to try to get rid of their sins is all kinds of wrong things. Denying themselves sleep and food and lying on cold stone floors. Lashing themselves with whips in order to try to lash the sin out of themselves, as it were. All of these things are worthless; they don't do any good to anyone. But when people realise their predicament they begin to get violent, serious, earnest and alarmed.
Let me give you another story. I remember a lady who was a mother and she said something amazing. She said one day, when she had a little child in a pram (a high pram, not a modern 'buggy'), she was pushing the pram along with the child inside. She said as she was going along the pavement a horse had broken loose from the cart that it had been pulling on the road and the horse came galloping fast toward her. She was afraid that this horse might kick the pram with her child in it. She said, "I don't know how I did it but I somehow lifted the pram right over the wall - quite a high wall, baby and all, to safety. That is explained by 'adrenalin'. God has put this wonderful thing within the body that when you're in a crisis and an emergency the 'adrenalin' flows and you do something that you could never normally do. That's the kind of illustration we need. Christ said when people see their need and their sin, then they do something; they are violent to find a way of escape. They are desperate to find a way out of it.
So this violence then is a kind of desperation. They suddenly realise that there are all sorts of things in the world that they never dreamed of before.
What do people think of in this life? Let's make a short list. They think of football and then they think a bit about politics. They think a little bit about their job and their family. Then more football and more of the things we've mentioned. That's just about all people think about. However, when they start to come to church or to read the Bible they suddenly learn that there are a whole lot of things they never imagined there were. There is God looking down upon us. There is my sin that He sees. There are angels round about us all the time. There are devils tempting us. There's a Judgement Day ahead of us. There's a heaven and a hell. All these things people never dream about. That's why, my dear friends, it's no waste of time to go into the open air and to try to say just a little. It may seem a waste of time in some ways because people are passing by - but you never know. You see they are not hearing this from anybody else. Who is telling the people in this community or other communities about these other subjects? When people realise there are all kinds of things that they never dreamed about - God and angels, devils, Judgement Day and all these things - it changes the way they think.
Let me put it to you in this illustration. In the Old Testament there is a very famous case like this. There was a famine in the land and the people were dying of hunger. The animals were mainly already dead. Food was almost impossible to buy. When the city was in this condition, news was taken into the city that there was a great camp full of food just a few yards outside the city wall. Their enemies who had had the camp had gone away and left all their food behind. When the people heard this you can imagine what they did. They rose up from their houses, from their beds and they converged upon the gate. There was a man sat by the king in the gate to keep order and he put his hand out, "Stop, stop! Not so much hurry," he said, "take your time. Queue up here." Nobody listened to him. The poor man was crushed to death in the gate trying to stop the rush. You see, you can understand it because here was life, here was food, here was salvation if you like. That's the way people are when they come to understand about the great truth concerning their own soul.
Have you understood this for yourselves, sitting here in this calm? Have you ever really realised your condition in the sight of God? Have you ever taken stock of what would happen to you tonight let us say, if the Almighty were to summon you into His presence without any further warning? Have you calculated as to where you will spend your eternity? Are you able to say with confidence 'I know that all is well, that I am sheltering under the blood of Christ'? Or are you in doubt about that? You know and God knows and perhaps nobody else does, but the question is a good question - well worth facing up to. Not in order that you might be terrified, disconcerted, or upset but for a far better reason - that you might concentrate on the need to be up and doing. You say, 'What can I do if it's not of works? If it's all of God, all of election, what can I do?' Well that's my point, to bring you to that.
The first thing a man does when he is confronted with these serious issues is this - he begins to seek after God. It's one thing to go to church and it's altogether a different thing to begin to seek after God. A man may be seeking after God for some time without really knowing how to go about it, but he is seeking nonetheless: he is being led on by God. When a person is seeking after God certain things are invariably true about them. What are these?
Well the first one is that his prayers begin to take on a new seriousness and a new reality. He maybe doesn't tell anybody else; he maybe doesn't tell his own wife, or she doesn't tell her own husband and her children don't know. They don't see the serious look in the mother's eye. They don't notice the tear that streams down her cheek; she brushes it away. But God sees it! You remember when the apostle Paul was in the house of Ananias - when he had seen the vision of Christ and was not yet able to see anything with his physical sight - do you remember what God said to Ananias? "Go and speak to this man, Saul of Tarsus, for, behold, he prayeth" (Acts 9, 11). What an amazing thing to say. The apostle Paul was a Jew. He had been praying all his life but God hadn't listened to any of those prayers. See the difference now? 'Behold, he is really praying now!' He is praying with violence. He is calling upon God; he is crying out for help. "Lord, help me!" See the seriousness? That's what men always do when they are violent for salvation: they cry out to God for help.
And what else do they do? Well they read the Bible with new eyes. They see the great need there is of being taught things of God. Some of you know Pastor Achille Blaize - that dear, beloved, black man from London who preaches so very wonderfully well. He tells us how he began to seek after God. He had been training to be a Roman Catholic priest if I remember correctly. He had never read any of the Bible; the Bible was a closed book to him. God began to work in his life. He began to see his need of salvation. He became violent in this way that Christ means - deadly in earnest to find out how his soul could be saved and his sins forgiven. He tells us he started to read the Bible. He began in Matthew chapter one, verse one. When he saw the long list of Old Testament names he said you would need to be an expert to understand all these names. He very nearly gave up on the spot but when he got to the end of the chapter, he discovered he could understand it. "Ah," he said, "this makes sense." He read on and read on until he came to about chapter six - very close to where we are tonight - and he came across these words: "No man can serve two masters: for either he will love the one and hate the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other" (Matthew 6, 24). "Ah," he said, "as a black man, I can understand the meaning of that." He said, "I come from a slave background and I understand what is meant by a 'master' and a 'slave'. Perfectly true, you can only have one master," he said, "you can't have two." Little by little, he was groping his way towards the light. He was seeking the door of salvation. He was being violent to get into this Kingdom of Grace and the Kingdom of God - and he got in. Many, many people in the world have heard his testimony and seen the grace and power of God manifested in that dear and faithful man's heart.
The same is true with every one - but now you see there is a danger. Even as I am speaking, I am sure that this is a temptation which some of you beloved friends who are not yet Christians are saying to yourselves. You are saying, "I'm only young. There's time enough yet. I'll come to Christ when I get a little bit older - when I have had more time to think about it." My dear friend, God hasn't given anyone the liberty to pick and choose the day when he'll come to salvation. The Bible tells us, "Now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation (2nd Corinthians 6, 2). Right here and now - today! You see if you say no to God today, He may say no to you tomorrow. If you refuse Him now when He gives you the overtures of love and mercy, He may say no to you when you think you may be in need of Him.
Have you come across this in the book of Proverbs? Listen. You'll find it in the very beginning of the book of Proverbs. God is talking about people who like to put off the day of coming to salvation. God describes them and He says this: "I have called, and ye refused" (Proverbs 1, 24). "Then shall they call upon me, but I will not answer" (Proverbs 1, 28). Isn't that terrible? Oh my friends, this is deadly earnest. The thing to do is to be pressing violently to get into the Kingdom of God now! What a prayer this was; did you ever hear a prayer like this? A great man, as he later became, but before he was a great man, he prayed this prayer to God. He knew he should become a Christian, but he didn't want to become a Christian just now. His mother pleaded for him and prayed for him. This is what he prayed. His name was Augustine. He said to God, 'Lord, make me holy, but not yet.' Many people don't actually say that, but that's what they mean. 'Make me holy, but not yet.'
My good friends, this violence is absolutely necessary if you are to get to heaven. Nobody gets to heaven by dawdling. Nobody gets to heaven by accident. Nobody gets salvation by simply dropping off to sleep and not seeking it with all his heart. It is a terrible thing to be a sinner and a more terrible thing still, to die a sinner. There is a remedy. There is a way of escape, and that is 'The Door', and 'The Door' is Christ - and there is no other door. You will never find God by going to the doors of philosophy, or psychology, or sociology, or other religions of any kind. There is but one door - Jesus Christ - our blessed, holy, living Saviour who gave Himself upon the cross to take away our sins by His blood and by His death. "I am the door", He says, "by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture" (John 10, 9).
I have three questions and then I close with an account of how God made a person suddenly, very serious. First, the questions.
My friend, are you violent enough to cry out to God in secret that He would give you His Holy Spirit? Are you violent enough for that? Are you earnest enough and sincere enough and concerned enough about your own soul to pray that God would give you His Holy Spirit? That is one question that I want you to face.
Another is this: are you serious enough to bring your soul to concentrate on the promises of God written in His Word? "...faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God" (Romans 10, 17). Nobody is saved except by believing the promises of God. Isn't that what Jesus is doing at the end of this famous chapter? Listen! "Come unto me all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls" (Matthew 11, 28-29). It is promise, full of promise. It is all gracious promise. You can't save yourself but you can cry out to God that He would make that promise true and real in your experience. Well I say, are you violent enough, serious enough, earnest enough about your own soul to plead with God to do such a blessing as that for you?
The third question is this: Are you serious enough to realise how greatly God has already favoured you, whether you be saved or not? Favoured you by causing you to live in a land where Gospel knowledge is known, to give you the Bible in a language you can read. There are multitudes on earth that have no Bible and never heard the name of Jesus Christ and yet He has put you here. The very goodness of God should bring you to repentance. Have you faced this very fact?
I've done with questions. I shall question you no more but I shall give you finally as I close, an account of how God - very surprisingly, very remarkably - made one person violent, suddenly and unexpectedly: violent for eternal life. Some years ago a good swimmer, on a summer's evening, decided that he would go on his own to the swimming baths to practise his diving. He was, as I say, a good swimmer. It was a nice warm evening. Nobody was around. He had the whole swimming pool to himself and he was going to dive in. He climbed up to the high diving board. He was a very good diver. He walked along to the end of the plank - and apparently you do this - you test the plank by going up and down. You begin to jump up in order to curve and go down into the water. He put out his hands preparing to dive but the sun was shining behind him and he cast a big shadow right across into the back wall of the swimming pool in the form of a cross. He put his hands down. It reminded him of something. It reminded him of Christ and His death upon the cross! He forgot for a moment all about the swimming. "Christ" he said, "died for men and women like me. I never thought of that before." He became calm and climbed down from the board instead of diving in. He climbed down and sat on the edge of the pool, dangling his feet in the water. Except, when he put his feet in the water there wasn't any water. He put his hand in; there was no water there. Someone had drained the swimming pool. He began to sweat. If he had dived from the top he would have broken his neck. He would have been in eternity now. Then he realised the goodness of God saving his life, yes, and Christ on the cross saving his soul. He became violent to find Christ for himself and he did.
My beloved friends, isn't that the happiest story you could ever imagine: God saving us, blessing us, preparing us for glory? I want your name - every one of your names - to be written down in that blessed Book, the Lamb's book of life, in which are written the names of all those who belong in the Kingdom of Heaven.
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