Luke 17:20–37 (ESV): The Coming of the Kingdom
Luke ends this chapter not with another parable, or an event from Jesus’ life, but with Jesus teaching about the coming of the Kingdom—that is, His return. But there are multiple meanings of “the coming of the Kingdom” (or maybe I should say multiple “timelines”), and Jesus addresses both.
I should note that I’ve been in the habit of capitalizing the word “He” when talking about Jesus with respect to HIm as God, while not capitalizing “he” when talking about Jesus the man when he was here on Earth, and passages like this re-emphasize to me that this was too artificial of a distinction. I should have just gotten in the habit of always capitalizing “He” with respect to Jesus, regardless of the context, and made life simpler for myself, but as with most people, the implications of the Trinity, and Jesus’ divinity vs. His humanity, confused me such that I ended up over-thinking it. But for consistency I’m still following that trend, with apologies for any confusion and/or offense.
First, in verses 20–21 (ESV), the Pharisees ask Jesus when the Kingdom is going to come, and he tells them that, “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.”
He then addresses his disciples, in a longer passage, and starts telling them about his return, and what they should expect.
- The first thing he tells them is to temper their expectations: there will be times, he says, when his followers will desire to see “one of the days of the Son of Man” (verse 22 (ESV)), but won’t see it. They should be especially careful when this happens because there will be people claiming that He has come, but his disciples are not to follow such people.
- “But why shouldn’t we follow such people,” we might think—what if they’re right, and the Kingdom really is here? Verse 24 (ESV) tells us that the Son of Man, in his day, will be like lightning flashing and lighting up the sky from end to end—in other words, it will be obvious. We won’t have to be convinced when Jesus returns, or have it explained to us, or have someone interpret the signs. It will be clear and obvious that He has returned.
- But first, before He returns, Jesus has to finish his initial job (if I can put it that way): he has to suffer and be rejected by his people (verse 25 (ESV)).
- So how sudden will His return be? He gives a couple of examples from Old Testament history as illustrations, and then talks more generally about what we should expect:
- It will be like the days of Noah. While Noah was building the ark, everyone around him was carrying on with their normal lives: eating, and drinking, and getting married… everything was normal. Until the day Noah entered the ark and the flood came. In other words, as far as anyone was concerned, everything was fine—until it wasn’t.
- Similarly, it will be like the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Again, in the days leading up to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, everyone was “eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building” (verse 28 (ESV)), and everything was normal—until it wasn’t, and fire came down to destroy them all.
- Jesus says it will be the same when He returns: it will be sudden. Everything will be normal—until it isn’t. So when He comes, we should be prepared to simply go with Him, not “looking back” like Lot’s wife did. (See Genesis 18–19:29 (ESV), especially 19:24–26 (ESV).) Jesus then says in verse 33 (ESV): “Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will keep it.”
- And finally, Jesus calls out the fact that when He returns not everyone will be joining him. Only His followers will go with him; even to the point of dividing married couples, whereby one spouse goes with Jesus and the other doesn’t (verse 34 (ESV)).
Finally, he ends the passage with something that I don’t know how to interpret:
And they said to him, “Where, Lord?” He said to them, “Where the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.” (verse 37 (ESV))
What can be confusing about the “Kingdom of God” is that there’s a sense in which it’s a future event—when Jesus will return, and usher in the new Heaven and the new Earth—but there’s also a sense in which it’s already here, as Christians strive to make the current world a better place and shine God’s Light in it.
When Jesus addresses the Pharisees, he’s addressing the Kingdom of God in the second sense: if the Pharisees are looking for the Kingdom, it’s already here! Jesus was among them, spreading the Gospel to His believers, and they/we (when we’re doing it right) are further spreading it to new believers, and helping the poor, and striving for justice, and overall trying to make the world look like God would like it to look, as opposed to the sinful place it is.
But then, when Jesus talks to his disciples, he switches to talking about the first sense of the Kingdom of God: someday He’s going to return, and all things will be made new again.
Though maybe Jesus doesn’t switch from the second sense of His Kingdom to the first sense all at once; in verse 22 (ESV) when he talks about his disciples longing to see one of the days of the Son of Man, we could probably read this in both senses of the Kingdom of God: yes, we’ll be anticipating His return, but there will be times when we’ll also look at this world and wish it could be better—wish that we Christians could be doing a better job making this world better.
But when Jesus talks about “His day,” starting in verse 24 (ESV), it seems to me that he’s completely switched to talking about His return. And as mentioned above, we should always resist the temptation to follow after someone who’s claiming that Jesus has already returned. (Especially when we’re especially susceptible to such temptations: Notice that Jesus talks about the fact that his disciples are going to desire to see this day, and then he talks about resisting the temptation to follow people blindly.) Again, as mentioned above, when Jesus returns it will be obvious to everyone (Christian and otherwise); if anyone is ever trying to convince you that He has returned, the fact that they’re having to convince you is evidence, in and of itself, that it’s not true.
It might seem odd that I’m sticking to my bifurcation of saying that Jesus is talking to his disciples about the coming of the Kingdom of God in the future sense when verse 25 (ESV) is right there in the middle, and he’s talking about his current mission of being crucified and taking on the sins of the world. However, I see that as Step 1 in the overall plan: Jesus’ crucifixion was what ushered in the Kingdom of God in the sense of it already being here, but it was also the beginning of His return. The two events—Jesus being crucified (and rising from the dead) and Jesus returning—can’t be separated.
When Jesus says that we shouldn’t look back, and that, “Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will keep it,” I don’t think he’s being literal here. I don’t think he’s saying that when He returns we’ll all have to run after him so that we don’t miss our chance, and that if we look back we might be too late. I think what He’s telling us is that we shouldn’t be too attached to this world. When He returns, we should be eager and happy to go with Him with all our hearts, rather than being divided, and thinking to ourselves, “Yeah, I’m happy to go with Jesus, but I’m also really going to miss X,” where “X” is… well, anything, really! Is that going to happen? Probably, for most of us. A lot of us get very embedded in this world, and there will be things that we enjoy a little too much, that we’ll feel like we’re having to “give up” to be with Him. It’s natural. But, at the same time, we should remember that just because something is “natural,” doesn’t mean it’s good. We’re sinful by nature!
I say this because I don’t think Jesus is giving us this warning as something that we should be ready for when that day comes, I think he’s telling us that this is something we should always be on guard about. Anytime there’s anything in my life that I value more highly than God, it means that my priorities are out of order and need to be fixed. It’s especially important to be on our guard against such things because it will not typically be that explicit! I’m not going to think of myself valuing something more highly than God; if I think about things explicitly, I’ll tell myself that of course I value God more highly than anything else. But, metaphorically speaking, like Lot’s wife, if Jesus were to return right now and take me with Him, would I be looking back over my shoulder? Would there be a part of me that would be saying, “I’m happy to be going with Him, except that I’m really going to miss X…”?
Finally, as mentioned, I don’t know how to interpret Jesus’ words when he talks about the vultures gathering over the corpse. The same phrase was used in Matthew 24, and I didn’t know how to interpret it in that passage either…