John the Baptist marks the turning point in redemptive history from the old covenant era to the new. As we saw in our previous passage he is the last of the Old Testament prophets, a part of the old order who stands on the brink of something new and more glorious, like Moses standing at the top of Pisgah viewing the promised land before his death.
Yet today's passage speaks of John as also the beginning of a new order. "From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence." The coming of John marked the dawn of the kingdom of heaven and everyone senses this change, this shift taking place in history, not merely human history, but in the greater realm that encompasses both the spiritual and the material world together. With John's appearance people realize that something new, something truly great is happening, but that does not mean they understand it or know how to respond to it.
"The kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and violent men take it by force." It's kind of a mysterious saying but I think it's safe to say that whatever Jesus is talking about, he's saying something negative, not positive. I believe he's saying that while men recognize at some level that the kingdom of heaven has come, they seek to lay hold of it by violent impulses for their own violent purposes. For example John 6:14-15 says that after Jesus fed the five thousand, the people began to say, "'This is of a truth the Prophet who is to come into the world.' Jesus therefore perceiving that they were intending to come and take him by force, to make him king, withdrew again to the mountain by himself alone." They had the right idea, that Jesus is a Prophet, but they had their own agenda for him. When they saw Jesus' supernatural powers it only inflamed their lust for rebellion and violence. They wanted the kingdom of heaven to come so they could overthrow the Roman authorities they were chafing under.
"For all the prophets and the Law prophesied until John. And if you care to accept it, he himself is Elijah, who was to come. He who has ears to hear, let him hear." Jesus seems to think that his present hearers are in danger of disbelieving John in view of his current suffering and imprisonment. That's because violent men desire power and triumph; they are not willing to have a kingdom that requires suffering, submission and death. But John the Baptist truly is Elijah about whom Malachi 4:5 prophesied: "Behold, I am going to send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord." Like Elijah, John appeared onto the scene roaming the desert, dressed like a wild man, calling down fire from heaven, and confronting the king with his sins. But like Jesus, John will suffer an early death. As John himself once said, a disciple is not above his teacher, so a mere messenger is not above the king for whom he faithfully prepares the way. If John's imprisonment and death shake people's faith, what will they do when it comes time for Jesus himself to go to the cross?