Episode 108 - The Coming of the Kingdom - Opening Up the Gospels

Welcome to episode 108 of Opening Up the Gospels. In the last couple of episodes we began to look at Jesus’ final journey from Galilee to Jerusalem for the Passover in 29AD. In episode 107, we saw how Jesus cleansed 10 lepers, and the only one who returned with gratitude and praise for God was a Samaritan. This is yet another instance where the Jews demonstrate hard hearts and Gentiles respond to God as the Jew should have. In today’s episode, we’re going to look at the next scene Luke records for us as Jesus is journeying southward for the last time. This passage in Luke 17 is one of the most misunderstood in this period of Jesus’ ministry, and so I hope today’s episode can bring some clarity as to what Jesus is actually saying. Let’s jump right in and read from Luke 17 starting at verse 20: “Being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, he answered them, “The kingdom of God is not coming in ways that can be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.”” (Luke 17:20–21 ESV) So at some point on His journey southward, a group of Pharisees ask Jesus a very specific question – “when is the kingdom of God going to come?” I’ve mentioned this many times throughout this series already, but the Pharisees and in fact all of the Jews had a very clear understanding of what “the kingdom of God” was from the Old Testament. Notice their question is not “what is the kingdom of God?” as if they thought that Jesus had somehow reworked or redefined it through His two years of ministry up to this point. This is a question of “when”. Jesus had been claiming to be the Messiah, that final, long-expected king from David’s line who would set up a kingdom and sit on a throne in Jerusalem and rule over Israel forever, per the promises in 2 Samuel 7. Jesus has never denied that claim in the last two years of ministry and in fact, has forcefully affirmed that claim through miracles, signs, and words. But Jesus doesn’t answer the question of “when” the kingdom comes to these Pharisees. He does correct them, but His correction is not “what” the kingdom is or “when” it comes. He responds by saying “the kingdom is not coming in ways that can be observed”. Other translations say “the kingdom is not coming with signs to be observed”. What does he mean? He means that kingdom that they are waiting for is not going to be established in the way they are thinking. At the time, the Pharisees were sympathetic to another movement in Israel, the Zealots. They were the ones who believed that it was through their strength and God’s power in partnership that the promises would be established. This is what led to the many insurrections and revolts of the time. We talked about the Maccabean revolt back in Episode 35. Now Matthew’s Gospel makes this point a little bit clearer than Luke’s. Jesus is saying that the Pharisees won’t be able to point out to a group of people gathering in the desert (like what happened with Judas Maccabee) or look in the inner rooms of a house and find a group of people plotting a takeover. Jesus is saying the same thing He said to Nicodemus back in John 3, that the kingdom of God is not going to come by the strength of man, so they don’t need to be looking for it like the insurrections and expecting Jesus to gather a bunch of followers in the desert to march up and take back Jerusalem from the Romans. We looked at the scene from Nicodemus back in Episode 50 and talked again about the subject of the strength of man and God’s promises back in episode 84, so go watch those for more if you’re interested. Now if God’s promises are not going to come about by human strength, insurrections, revolts, or some sort of partnership with man, how are they going to come about? Jesus says “for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.” Other translations say “the kingdom of God is within you” or “the kingdom of God is among you”. Now, Jesus is not redefining the essence or nature of what the kingdom of God is in this passage as if it is somehow now a spiritual reality in the heart. We have to ask the question though – if He really was doing that and was somehow relating the gift of the Spirit with some spiritualized idea of the kingdom, would He honestly be telling wicked, God-hating Pharisees that they have a spiritual kingdom within them, because that’s who He’s talking to here? That of course does not make sense whatsoever – not only because it’s the Pharisees he’s addressing, but also because of what He says in the next part of the passage. Now the Greek word here is “estin”, which is also translated “come” in other passages like Matthew 21:25, John 1:46, John 7:27-29, and 1 Corinthians 11:8. When “the kingdom” is taken in its futuristic context just as all the Jews would have expected it to be, this phrase would be translated “the kingdom of God comes into your midst”. This is so much clearer of a translation in my opinion, because Jesus nor the Pharisees would have questioned the futurity of the kingdom. The entire contention was surrounding how that futurity would unfold. The Pharisees saw it coming progressively by the strength of man out of the wilderness or inner rooms, and as we’re about to see in the next part of the passage, Jesus says that it is going to come by God’s hand alone suddenly from the heavens. So let’s keep reading in Luke: “And he said to the disciples, “The days are coming when you will desire to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it. And they will say to you, ‘Look, there!’ or ‘Look, here!’ Do not go out or follow them. For as the lightning flashes and lights up the sky from one side to the other, so will the Son of Man be in his day. But first he must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation.” (Luke 17:22–25 ESV) Notice that Jesus now turns to His disciples and is no longer addressing the Pharisees. He’s going to reiterate to them how the kingdom is going to be established. He says that the kingdom will be established by God suddenly and in a way that is not secretive or progressive, in the same way that lightning flashes from one end of the sky to the other. Think about that – when lightning flashes in a thunderstorm at night, it lights up everything suddenly. It’s not something you can miss. So this suddenness and all-consuming nature is what Jesus is emphasizing about how His kingdom will come. It’s right at the end of verse 25 that Jesus gets back to the question the Pharisees had… “when?” He doesn’t give an exact timing, but He does say that before His kingdom is established by God from the heavens in power and glory, He must first suffer many things and be rejected by the Jews. Let’s get back to Luke 17: “Just as it was in the days of Noah, so will it be in the days of the Son of Man. They were eating and drinking and marrying and being given in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all. Likewise, just as it was in the days of Lot—they were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building, but on the day when Lot went out from Sodom, fire and sulfur rained from heaven and destroyed them all— so will it be on the day when the Son of Man is revealed. On that day, let the one who is on the housetop, with his goods in the house, not come down to take them away, and likewise let the one who is in the field not turn back. Remember Lot’s wife.” (Luke 17:26–32 ESV) In this part of Jesus’ words to His disciples, there are several Old Testament stories He brings up, all to emphasize the suddenness and apocalyptic nature of the coming kingdom. On the day of the Lord, when God opens the heavens and Jesus returns, His kingdom of righteousness will be established and He will crush all of His enemies just like the judgment of the flood in Noah’s day, and like the judgment of fire and brimstone in Lot’s day for Sodom and Gomorrah. The unrighteous were doing normal things, completely unaware of the coming cataclysmic judgment, and God’s activity came suddenly and destroyed them all. According to Jesus, this is how the kingdom of God will come. Suddenly. And it won’t just be obvious to a few Pharisees looking out in the desert or in the inner rooms, it will be obvious like flashing lightning to everyone. Does that make sense? Let’s read the last part of this passage: “Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will keep it. I tell you, in that night there will be two in one bed. One will be taken and the other left. There will be two women grinding together. One will be taken and the other left.” And they said to him, “Where, Lord?” He said to them, “Where the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.”” (Luke 17:33–37 ESV) These verses have been misunderstood and taken out of their context by some to support a belief called the pre-tribulation rapture. That theological system holds to the idea that God will suddenly snatch believers away to heaven in an instant in some secret second coming of Jesus, in the same way that lightning flashes across the sky. Verse 34 and 35 are sometimes used to support that thought, by saying that in the midst of normal life, the one believer will suddenly be taken away if two are in bed or grinding at the mill together. But based on what we just read in the previous section, the ones in the midst of normal life were not taken away in a rapture, they were “taken away” in judgment to their deaths. Do you see that? To be “taken” here is definitely not a good thing. This is even clearer when we see the disciples ask the question, “where, Lord?” They are saying “where will these ones be taken to?” And Jesus responds with a gruesome image – “where the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.” In other words, the ones who are “taken” are taken to their deaths in the calamity and suddenness of judgment on the day of the Lord when the kingdom is established. So just as man’s strength or piety had no part in God bringing about judgment and establishing His promises in Noah and Lot’s day, so the strength or piety of man will play no part in the establishment of God’s kingdom of righteousness and justice either now or on the last day. I hope it’s clear to you now that Jesus was not spiritualizing the kingdom or making it some kind of internal heart reality. He is actually indicting non-apocalyptic or realized eschatology. He’s saying that there is no progressive nature to the coming of the kingdom – it’s not “now and not yet”. The day Jesus sits on David’s throne in Jerusalem will not be brought about progressively by man, but suddenly by God alone. In the next episode we will look at Luke 18 and the parable of the persistent widow. That parable is so important to be read in context to what we just looked at in today’s episode, so be sure to come back for the next episode.