(c) 2003, Douglas Jacoby
Scriptural Study: BIASTAI ("forceful men")

For years we have heard of the need for "forceful men" and women in positions of spiritual leadership. Certainly now more than ever our fellowship of churches needs men and women of conviction and drive to step up and lead. Yet does the Bible teach that one of the primary qualifications for a leader is to be "forceful"? Where does scripture instruct us to be "forceful" -- which often approximates to "determined to get our way" (even if we assume our way is in line with God's way)?

In Matthew 11, Jesus upholds a gentle style of leadership: "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light" (11:28-30). And yet the NIV translators have managed to make a passage sixteen verses earlier teach the very opposite. I believe the NIV mistranslation has unfortunately led to wrong theology. People have been hurt because of the wrong use of this Matthew 11:12.

Many brothers and sisters through the years have asked me about Matthew 11:12, through e-mails and in person, and I would now like to respond. Let's begin by taking a look at the text in three English translations, as well as the original.

NIV New International Version (1973, NT)
NAS New American Standard (1977)
NLT New Living Translation (1996)
GNT Greek New Testament (Friberg NT United Bible Society 3/4)
LXT Septuaginta LXX Rahlfs' (Gk. translation of OT, 2nd cent. BC)


Matthew 11:12
Matthew 11:12 has the reading 'forceful men' only in the NIV. I have checked another 15 English versions, as well as another 15 languages, yet no one apart from the NIV translation team seems to have come up with their interpretation of the passage.

From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it. NIV

And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and violent men take it by force. NAS

And from the time John the Baptist began preaching and baptizing until now, the Kingdom of Heaven has been forcefully advancing, and violent people attack it. NLT

Apo de ton hemeron Ioannou tou baptistou heos arti he basileia ton ouranon biadzetai kai biastai harpadzousin auten. GNT

The NAS, which may technically be the most accurate English version, follows the Greek closely, rendering biadzetai as "suffers violence," and biastai as "violent men." Why the contrast to the NIV, which has toned down the sense and feel of Jesus' words in the original? In fact, this bia-/biaz-/bias word group is nearly always used in connection with violent force, not force in any positive sense. Even the recent NLT, which falls into the dynamic equivalence translation category, translates biastai as "violent people," even though it incorporates the NIV rendering in the first half of the verse.

What is the context of the passage? John the Baptist is sitting in prison. Jesus had warned his followers in the previous chapter that as they went out with the Gospel, they would certainly be opposed and even oppressed. Jesus is here commenting that many people have the wrong idea about the kingdom of God. As a result, they do violence to it -- mistreating God's messengers (like John the Baptist), taking up arms (like the Zealots) in order to advance it (their agenda), or even trying to force others to be their leaders (John 6:15). One is hard pressed to find anything here about leadership style.

Nowhere in scripture are men commended for being forceful. This is not to deny that leaders should be dynamic and determined. But Matthew 11:12 really has nothing to do with leadership at all! In our desperate search for verses to back up our theology, have we not plucked a passage -- and a mistranslated one, at that -- out of its context and forced it to say something it never meant in the first place? We have overlooked spirituality in favor of personality.

What are the consequences of a wrong understanding of Matthew 11? Passages where people are forceful will tend to be read in an overly positive light.

For example, Moses forcefully expresses his anger towards the people of God after he comes down from Horeb (Exodus 20). He violently smashes the tablets and forces the people to drink the water into which the tablets have been pulverized. This action, though extreme, is neither commended nor condemned in the Exodus record. Yet in Numbers 20 we see that Moses, in unbridled anger, uttered harsh words, and struck the rock instead of speaking to it as God had requested. Moses dishonored God. Even though he achieved his short-term objective -- water flowed from the rock -- he had disobeyed God. As a result, he was not permitted to enter the Promised Land. One consequence of Matthew 11:12 misunderstood is that people may well lose their temper and yet feel justified at their angry actions. Another is that, like Moses, those who don't control their tempers forfeit the grace and blessings that could be theirs.

Such anger and forcefulness can spill over into the pulpit, preachers angrily denouncing their congregations. Another obvious arena is the home. How many "forceful" leaders have wounded their wives and children through outbursts of anger. I have known far too many husbands in the church whose wives, sons, and daughters have become the targets of their temper. We know that love is not easily angered or provoked. Wrath is something we had generally best leave to the Lord. Unrighteous anger always has consequences. Forceful anger is nearly always hurtful, if not destructive.

Righteous anger
Yes, it is true that Ephesians 4:26, quoting Psalm 4:4, instructs us, "In your anger do not sin." Not all anger is sinful, and it is possible to have righteous anger. In John 2, where Jesus in fiery zeal cleansed the temple, his passion was not for his own agenda, but for the Father's agenda. Too often angry leaders claim to be representing the cause of God, whereas in fact they are irritated and inconvenienced, their personal agendas being affected. It is also true that some leaders in the Bible are charged to "encourage and rebuke with all authority" (Titus 2:15). Authority is not a synonym for anger. Otherwise the verse could be read, "encourage and rebuke with all anger." This is clearly not what Paul is saying how could anyone 'encourage' with all anger'?

Another well known passage is Matthew 23, where Jesus delivers a face-to-face challenge to the Pharisees for their hypocrisy and its insidious influence on others. He called them "sons of hell" (v.15) -- and he was in a position to know that this was the case. Strong words, but not too strong considering the situation. But when a brother or sister is annoying, or has failed to help us reach our objectives, such words are not only inappropriate and inaccurate, but completely contrary to the spirit of Christ. The Lord is gentle, and he urges us to be the same (Ephesians 4:2).

So how can we distinguish appropriate anger? Paul was forceful in the majors of protecting doctrines that preserve freedom, in warning against wolves in the flock, and in dealing with laziness on the island of Crete, yet he showed grace and flexibility in the minors. Let the example of the great apostle, who was as close to the heart of Jesus as anyone, be our guide. (Better, let Jesus be our guide!) Lack of conviction and passion is no virtue in a leader -- and yet anger is a vice.

In the decision-making arena, "forceful" leaders do not value input, tending to view themselves as experts and others as subordinates whose opinions are not particularly valuable. They may consider themselves to be "called by God." After all, why take input when you can claim, "The Lord has 'put something on my heart." To challenge such a leader -- would this not be to call into question God's judgment?

In Jesus' lifestyle, words, and way of dealing with people, he demonstrated unmistakably that we are to be gentle, respectful, and kind. "Forceful" leadership is anything but that. Too my shame I admit that too often I have justified heavy-handedness in my life, and in others', by thinking of Matthew 11. But I was wrong to apply the passage in this way, and I was wrong in my interpretation. Holding up our leaders' arms does not mean condoning unrighteous anger, pushiness, or disrespect.

Consider now a number of other passages containing the bia- root. The list is not exhaustive, but it captures the range of meanings and nuances of the Greek, and is well worth looking at.

In Luke 16:16 we find that biadzetai has neutral force. The crowds are eager to get into the kingdom. Yes, the verse does speak of determination --no, it has nothing to do with the personality of a man or woman of God.

The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John. Since that time, the good news of the kingdom of God is being preached, and everyone is forcing his way into it. NIV

The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John; since then the gospel of the kingdom of God is preached, and everyone is forcing his way into it. NAS

Until John the Baptist began to preach, the laws of Moses and the messages of the prophets were your guides. But now the Good News of the Kingdom of God is preached, and eager multitudes are forcing their way in. NLT

O nomos kai hoi prophetai mechri Ioannou apo tote he basileia tou theou euangelidzetai kai pas eis auten biadzetai. GNT

In Acts 2:2 a "violent" wind fills the house at Pentecost. (Humorously, it might be asked, do we really want our lives to be described by words such as "violent" and "rushing"?!) Let's restrict ourselves from here on to the NAS and the Greek New Testament, leaving aside the NIV and NLT.

And suddenly there came from heaven a noise like a violent, rushing wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. NAS

Kai egeneto aphno ek tou ouranou hechos hosper pheromenes pnoes biaias kai eplerosen holon ton oikon hou esan kathemenoi. GNT

In Acts 5:26, the force in question is one which could have led to Paul's death at the hands of an angry mob.

Then the captain went along with the officers and proceeded to bring them back without violence (for they were afraid of the people, lest they should be stoned). NAS

"Ou meta bias" GNT (From here on, for economical reasons the Greek verses will be truncated.)

Not all force is violence. But the two ideas are quite close, and if we are not sure whether we have crossed the line, we had better err on the side of caution. Acts 21:35 is similar. One seems to search in vain for any passage commending persons, mobs, or forces of nature for being "forceful."

And when he got to the stairs, it so happened that he was carried by the soldiers because of the violence of the mob. NAS

Dia ten bian tou ochlou GNT

In Acts 27:41, the force had the potential to break into pieces:

But striking a reef where two seas met, they ran the vessel aground, and the prow stuck fast and remained immovable, but the stern began to be broken up by the force of the waves. NAS

Hypo tes bias ton kymaton GNT

Let's consider just three more passages, all from the OT, where in the Septuagint the bia- root does not necessarily carry a gentle, respectful connotation. In Exodus 19:24, the crowd may be tempted to push their way past the perimeter for a closer look at God.

Then the LORD said to him, "Go down and come up again, you and Aaron with you; but do not let the priests and the people break through to come up to the LORD, lest He break forth upon them.' NAS

Kai ho laos me biadzesthosan anabenai pros ton theon. LXX 

In Esther 7:8, Haman appears to Xerxes to be assaulting Esther:

Now when the king returned from the palace garden into the place where they were drinking wine, Haman was falling on the couch where Esther was. Then the king said, "Will he even assault the queen with me in the house?" As the word went out of the king's mouth, they covered Haman's face. NAS

Kai ten gynaika biazdei en thi oikiai mou? LXX

One last passage to consider might be Exodus 1:13, where the Egyptian slave drivers are not exactly treating the Hebrews with gentleness or respect (see Ephesians 4:2). The NIV in fact says the Egyptians "worked them ruthlessly."

And the Egyptians compelled the sons of Israel to labor rigorously. NAS

Kai katedunasteuon oi Aigyptioi tous huious Israel biai LXX

An interesting study in the negative effects of "forcefulness" is Exodus 1:11-6:9. When the people feel oppressed, they do not feel respected, they lose hope, they express their sentiments in extreme terms, their sense of justice is heightened, and they are even unable to accept words of encouragement. Moreover, sometimes the people have been conditioned not to complain. On those rare occasions when they have mustered up the courage to speak up, they have either been "shut down" and "put in the doghouse," or else forced to sacrifice even more. An important study for all those in leadership positions to consider!

No translation is perfect, but Matthew 11:12 in the NIV has been seriously mistranslated. We should have been suspicious that the words "forceful men" never appeared in any other translation. By sticking only with the NIV, we erred. Unfortunately, this has led many 'forceful' persons to consider themselves justified in "forcing" their will on others, though usually "for their own good."

Biastai in the Bible are violent persons, not men of noble character. They are revolutionaries, zealots, and violent men. In the Bible they are rioters, persecutors, terrorists, and slave drivers. These are not the sorts of people you want to serve under, or whom you want to be making decisions that affect the lives of your friends and family.

To conclude, here are some practicals so that we do not misuse scripture:

  • Don't read a passage too quickly. Slow down and take time to ponder what is being said. Beware of basing your understanding of a passage on a reading peculiar to only one translation. For example, if it appears in a looser translation (such as the NIV, NLT, or The Message) but is nowhere to be found in the stricter versions (like the NAS or RSV), take it with a grain of salt.
  • Strive to understand a passage in its biblical context. Ask questions like, "How does this fit in with the flow of the book? How does it connect with material in previous and subsequent chapters? Does my interpretation harmonize with other biblical principles?" Remember, "A proof text out of context is a pretext."
  • Make a habit of reading books to sharpen your Bible study skills. Especially let me recommend Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth and Haddon Robinson, Biblical Preaching.
  • Just because something is preached from the pulpit, do not necessarily accept it. Though preachers are to speak as ones speaking the very words of God (1 Peter 4:11), this does not at all mean they actually are speaking the words of God! That's because inspiration is in the scriptures, not the speaker.

We must do much, much better in carefully studying and applying the Bible. Wrong theology has consequences. After all, we are charged to "correctly handle the word of truth" (2 Timothy 2:15).