Read Part 1.
“The Kingdom in Your Midst” (Luke 17:21)
Considerable effort has been applied to these words, and an array of interpretations put forth. Perhaps most common is the view that Jesus is claiming that the Kingdom is inside of people; that is, of those who will open their hearts to accept it. In this outlook the Kingdom is an internal spiritual thing; hence, the phrases “does not come with observation” and “within you” would mean that the Kingdom is internal not external.
Such an interpretation is favored by some whose theology already requires a spiritual kingdom. However, Jesus’ words about the kingdom not coming with “outward observation” were not intended to imply that there would be nothing to see. All the Gospel writers record that He performed many signs and miracles, which were outward testimonies of “kingdom realities.” But the question of the Pharisees about when the Kingdom would come had within it the misunderstanding that it would only come abruptly with apocalyptic force. Jesus has arrived with the fanfare provided by John the Baptist, and He has preached a Kingdom to come. Yet He is Messiah! He is the coming One. To look for signs beyond what He was doing proved that the attention was in the wrong place.
It would be better to translate entos hymon as “in your midst” (e.g., NASB, NET, CSB, cf. ESV), or “among you,”1 rather than “within you” (NKJV). This would throw light back on Christ and would provide two more plausible options. Marshall, for example, believes that “Jesus is speaking of the presence of the kingdom of God among men, possibly as something within their grasp if they will only take hold of it.”2 He notes the possibility that the kingdom is present only when Jesus Himself is present.3 This is a good interpretation, and is favored by some, but it is more preferable I think to view the Kingdom as being present in the Person and mission of Jesus.4 The King is right in front of them. The people had asked Jesus for a sign already and He had reprimanded them (Lk. 11:29). The Pharisees believed they would be first in line for the Kingdom. But they are looking right through the One who personified it.5 Hence, Jesus warned them ““nor will they say, ‘See here!’ or ‘See there!” (Lk. 17:21), as if there was someone or something apart from Him that would enlighten them.
Marshall’s point about the presence of the Kingdom coinciding with Jesus’ presence, in our opinion, ought to be retained. This text is especially helpful when coming to grips with the two ideas of the Kingdom as presented in the Gospels. That Jesus is the Christ and was therefore the King “among” the Jews in the first century is hard to deny.6 But He was rejected, as predicted by the Prophets, and He will return “a second time” (Heb. 9:28) as the King of kings (1 Tim. 6:13-15; Rev. 19:19-20). The view that the Kingdom is present only when the King is present is also consonant with the OT and will help us when we encounter the NT church.
Jesus then, is the “kingdom in your midst” whom the Pharisees ought to believe in order to gain entrance to the coming Kingdom of God. Jesus had been preaching an imminent yet future Kingdom, and the Pharisees held to a future Kingdom, but they could never get in the Kingdom while they steadfastly ignored the one who would be its King.
As Luke 17 Jesus clarifies His meaning with the disciples in this important passage:
Then He said to the disciples, “The days will come 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 here!’ or ‘Look there!’ Do not go after them or follow them. For as the lightning that flashes out of one part under heaven shines to the other part under heaven, so also the Son of Man will be in His day.7 But first He must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation.” (Luke 17:22-25)
Although Jesus does not mention the Kingdom in this passage, He does focus attention on Himself and His future coming, which confirms the link between the Kingdom and Jesus as the King. What is noteworthy is that He inserts a teaching about His rejection at the hands of “this generation,” which will necessitate His coming again. Therefore, the Pharisaic expectation contained truth insofar as it taught apocalyptic sights and sounds, but since it failed to include the detail about the Suffering Servant (Isa. 53) and the dying Messiah (Dan. 9:26) their understanding was completely skewed. The reality was no Jesus, no Kingdom. The presence of Jesus, even if He was to undergo suffering, introduced the Danielic “Son of Man” and hence His kingly rights.
Luke 17:22-25 demonstrates that “the days of the Son of Man” correspond to the second coming (“as the lighting that flashes” etc. Cf. Matt. 24:26-27, 29-31, 37). So again, we can see that Jesus’ self-understanding of His mission was that it involves two phases. I might call the first phase “the New covenant phase” because, as we are soon to discover, Jesus initiated the New covenant in Luke 22. I think it helpful to think of phase two as “the covenant consummation phase,” meaning that all God’s covenants (the Mosaic covenant aside) will be fulfilled at that time.
The section in Luke 17:26-37 is challenging as it appears to be specific and non-specific at the same time. The examples of the day that Noah entered the Ark (Lk. 17:26-27), and the day that Lot left Sodom (Lk. 17:28-29) indicate that a particular doom in a twenty-four-hour day is involved. This is followed by “Even so will it be in the day when the Son of Man is revealed” (Lk. 17:30). The most natural understanding of this is that Jesus is referring to the day of His return.
If this is correct, then there is no clear mention in these verses of the Tribulation that we find in Matthew 24 and Mark 13. The note of great haste continues in verses 31-33 with the warnings not to turn back to grab anything (Lk. 17:31), and to remember Lot’s wife, who simply looked back (she probably stopped to do so) and was destroyed (Lk. 17:32. Cf. Gen. 19:26). There is little doubt that the actual day of Jesus’ second coming is in view here (v.30). But what is one to do with the verses which follow?
“Whoever seeks to save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it.
I tell you, in that night there will be two men in one bed: the one will be taken and the other will be left. Two women will be grinding together: the one will be taken and the other left.
Two men will be in the field: the one will be taken and the other left.” (Luke 17:33-36)
Verse 33 seems to require longer than a mere day to attain its meaning. It rather looks like it pertains to a period of many days, perhaps years. Luke utilizes this saying (or something similar) in two other places: Luke 9:24 and 14:26, and it appears in a discipleship setting in Matthew 10:39, after Jesus’ rebuke of Peter in Matthew 16:25 (Mk. 8:35), and John 12:25. Clearly, Jesus used this dividing phrase many times. One might say that it is quintessential to His teaching. In Luke 17 the context demands that it is not hyperbolic, so that it may be a veiled reference to the Tribulation (cf. Dan. 12:1). The remaining verses suit a scenario of judgment; but it is not easy to decide whether the ones taken or those left are being judged. In the examples of Noah and Lot it was those who were left who were judged.8 This tilts the odds in favor of the “taken” being saved and the “left” being judged.9
1 James D. G. Dunn, Jesus Remembered, 444.
2 I. Howard Marshall, Commentary on Luke, 655.
3 Ibid, 655-656.
4 Leon Morris, The Gospel According to St. Luke, TNTC, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975, 259.
5 See Alan J. Thompson, The Acts of the Risen Lord Jesus: Luke’s Account of God’s Unfolding Plan, Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2011, 40. Thompson holds that Jesus is reigning now, which for several reasons I deny.
6 It should be recalled that John’s Gospel addresses this issue directly: “Pilate therefore said to Him, “Are You a king then?” Jesus answered, “You say rightly that I am a king. For this cause I was born, and for this cause I have come into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.” – John 18:37. Underlining mine. I shall return to this verse further in the book.
7 When Jesus refers to Himself as “the Son of Man… in His day” (Lk. 17:24) this ought to recall Daniel 7:13-14.
8 Even with Luke 17:33 those who lose their lives are “taken” and those who save their lives are “left.”
9 Bock calls this “the most natural reading.” – Darrell L. Bock, Luke 9:51 – 24:53, BECNT, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996, 1437.
Paul Martin Henebury is a native of Manchester, England and a graduate of London Theological Seminary and Tyndale Theological Seminary (MDiv, PhD). He has been a Church-planter, pastor and a professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics. He was also editor of the Conservative Theological Journal (suggesting its new name, Journal of Dispensational Theology, prior to leaving that post). He is now the President of Telos School of Theology.