Presented at Trinity Fellowship on 08/27/1995
Luke 17:20 Now, having been questioned by the Pharisees as to when the kingdom of God was coming, he answered them and said, “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed, 21 nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For behold, the kingdom of God is in your midst.” 22 And he said to the disciples, “The days shall come when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it. 23 And they will say to you, ‘Look there! Look here!’ Do not go away and do not run after them. 24 For just as the lightning, when it flashes out of one part of the sky, shines to the other part of the sky, so will the Son of Man be in his day. 25 But first he must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation. 26 And just as it happened in the days of Noah, so shall it be in the days of the Son of Man. 27 They were eating and drinking, they were marrying and being given in marriage until the day that Noah entered into the ark and the flood came and destroyed them all. 28 It was the same as happened in the days of Lot. They were eating, they were drinking, they were buying, they were selling, they were planting, they were building; 29 but on the day that Lot went out from Sodom it rained fire and brimstone from heaven and destroyed them all. 30 It will be just the same on the day that the Son of Man is revealed. 31 On that day, let not the one who is on the housetop and whose goods are in the house go down to take them away, and likewise let not the one who is in the field turn back. 32 Remember Lot’s wife! 33 Whoever seeks to keep his life shall lose it, and whoever loses his life shall preserve it. 34 I tell you, on that night there will be two men in one bed; one will be taken and the other left. 35 There will be two women grinding at the same place; one will be taken and the other left. 36 Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left.” 37 And answering, they said to him, “Where, Lord?” And he said to them, “Where the body is, there also will the vultures be gathered.”
The Pharisees in this passage ask Jesus a question: When is the kingdom coming? It is a question we are still interested in today. And the only answer we are ever going to get to it is still the one Jesus gave long ago. When is the kingdom coming? Any time. At a moment when you think not. Therefore, be ready for it always. What can we learn about the kingdom from Jesus’ way of answering the question on this occasion?
Scripture leaves us in a kind of creative tension with regard to the coming of the kingdom of God. We are supposed to watch and wait for it, to look for it, to live in expectancy, but we are not supposed to speculate about the day or the hour, but rather be about the king’s business as we wait. I remember when I was a little boy we had a sermon on watching and waiting for Jesus to come back. I’m afraid I took it rather literally. I went home and got out my telescope and spent the whole afternoon gazing up into the heavens! When you are pointing a telescope up into an endless blue sky, you don’t see very much that is interesting or edifying. At that point, I don’t think I had the tension quite right. And neither did the Pharisees—or the disciples, yet, for that matter. When is the kingdom coming? Well, it’s not coming with signs to be observed. You can’t say, “Look! It’s over there!” In fact, it is already in your midst.
What did Jesus mean by this? Was he contradicting what he had said in 12:54-56? You see the clouds coming out of the west and you expect rain; you feel the south wind blowing and you expect a hot day. Well, if you can read the signs of nature, shouldn’t you also be able to read the signs of the times? First we are supposed to read the signs, and then there aren’t any! But the contradiction is only apparent. The word “signs” does not actually appear in the original Greek text of verse 20. It literally says that the kingdom is not coming “with observations.” In other words, the Pharisees were looking for the wrong kind of sign. They wanted to see some indication that a Jewish empire to replace the hated Roman occupation was coming. No matter how hard they might look, they weren’t going to see anything because they were looking for the wrong kind of thing. Neither their political speculations nor our dispensational charts are going to help us. Because the whole time the real Sign was standing right in front of them, and they missed it. “For behold, the kingdom of God is [already] in your midst.”
What does that mean, “in your midst”? The phrase has been translated two different ways to reflect the two possible meanings it can have. Is the kingdom “within” you, or is it “in your midst”? “Within you” appeals to those for whom religion is a private, inner affair of the heart, a matter of one’s own interior landscape. This meaning has the virtue of contrasting with the Pharisees’ crass, outward, political concept of the kingdom. But this is almost certainly not what Jesus meant, precisely because he was talking to the Pharisees. They were the people who had rejected him as Messiah. They were probably the least poor in spirit of all the groups in the land. Their hearts had no room for grace, because they were full of self righteousness. To say that the kingdom of God was “within” them is to render the kingdom all but meaningless.
What Jesus meant then was that the kingdom was in their midst. In other words, the kingdom was already present in the person of the King, Jesus himself, who was literally standing in the middle of the group. The kingdom can be an inner reality in one sense. It is within us to the extent that Jesus reigns as King in our hearts and indwells us through his personal agent and representative, the Holy Spirit. But it is not the essence of the kingdom to be inward or subjective; it is the essence of the kingdom to be Christocentric. Christ is to reign over our private inner lives and over our outward public selves, over our subjective feelings and all that is outward and objective. If you want the kingdom to come, let King Jesus reign. The kingdom is that realm over which the King’s authority holds sway. It may start in the hearts of believers, but its very nature is that it must reach out from there to conquer the whole world. Francis Schaeffer captured the idea well in his phrase, “The Lordship of Christ over the total culture.” The kingdom was in their midst in the person of the King, but in that larger sense it had not—and still has not—“come.” That is why we end up talking about a “Second Coming.” Why is that second coming needed, if Christ has conquered Satan’s kingdom on the Cross?
Well, when was the United States born? When did the rule of King George III come to an end in the colonies? Was it when we signed the Declaration of Independence? Or was it when Cornwallis was defeated? Or was it when we ratified the Constitution? When does a new person become president? Is it when he wins the election? Or is it when the electoral college meets to make it official? Or is it on Inauguration Day? There is a certain truth in all those answers, and it is no different with the coming of this kingdom. The Old Testament prophets published the Declaration of Independence; Cornwallis was defeated on the Cross; but the day we await when the Son returns will be the ratification of the Constitution. The prophets were the networks projecting a winner; the Cross was the actual defeat of the opponent; the Resurrection was the meeting of the electoral college; and the Second Coming will be Inauguration Day.
So that is what we are looking for; that is the place we occupy in history. In other words, Satan is still in the White House (Beware: this is an analogy, not a political allegory! I’m saying nothing about that building’s current occupant one way or another.), but he is a lame-duck president whose days are numbered. The transition has already begun, but opposition to the reign of the new administration still continues. But the rule of King Jesus is now inevitable. The main difference is that the date of the Inauguration has not been published. That is where we are.
Jesus now turns to the disciples and tells them that the day is coming when they will long for the Son of Man but not (yet) see him. That is the period we are in. We cry out, “How long, oh Lord?” Why? Because we love Jesus above all things and want to see him face to face. But also because as a lame duck, Satan knows his time is limited and wants to do all the damage he possibly can before his term finally expires. Indeed, as that unknown date nears, his activity increases in intensity, so that there will be wars and rumors of wars, pestilence and famines in diverse places, persecution, affliction, tribulation—all the troubles that so many prophetic passages warn of. They will just naturally escalate as the time draws near.
O.K., how are we supposed to respond to this situation? Jesus says that our response should be patience. “And they will say to you, ‘Look there! Look here!’ Do not go away and do not run after them.” In other words, we are not to get antsy and run off after tangents and on false trails in our desire for relief. Why not? Because when it does come, we will know it. That indeed is the point of the next section.
Jesus now continues his explanation by giving two analogies, two comparisons to help us understand the coming of the kingdom. The first is that the coming of the Son of Man will be like lightning that shines from one end of the sky to the other (vs. 24). Two things about this comparison are pertinent. First, such lightning is unmistakable. This is not a flicker in the distance. It is one of those dramatic bolts that lights up the whole sky and transforms night to day for a split second. It brings you up short and rivets you to the spot. You know exactly what has happened. You are not saying to yourself, “I wonder if there’s a thunder storm about?” Do you understand? If you are asking yourself whether this might be the Second Coming, the answer is no, it is not. If they tell you he is in the wilderness, do not even go to see. When it happens, you will know. In that moment every prophecy, every loose end of interpretation, will fall into place in your head for the first time, and it will all make sense, and you will say, “Of course! Why didn’t I see it before?” But you will not see it before. You will not figure out the day or the hour—probably not even the generation—no matter how hard you try, no matter how elaborate and painstakingly constructed your chart. Nevertheless, do not worry. When it comes, it will be like lightning that shines from the East unto the West, unmistakable. You will know.
Second, lightning is not only unmistakable, it is sudden. It is immediate, not gradual. Do you know the Peanuts cartoon where Snoopy is on top of the doghouse working on his novel? He has written, “Suddenly, a shot rang out.” And Lucy says, “That is a cliché. I think you should change it.” So Snoopy scratches his head for a moment and then writes, “Gradually, a shot rang out.” Well, it is just as ridiculous to say, “Gradually, a bolt of lightning lit up the sky.” The coming of the Kingdom will not be the culmination of a long, slow process of improvement as the Post-Millenialists expect. That does not mean we should not work for improvements and pray for the peace of the city where we are placed. But we should not expect those efforts to bring in the kingdom. Its coming will be supernatural, not the culmination of natural processes. All the Scriptural imagery which describes that Day agrees with this image. It will hit us like a bolt of lightning.
The second comparison is that the coming of the kingdom will be like the days of Noah (and Lot). When I was growing up, my preachers liked to portray the description of those days as a reference to the wickedness of those generations. Well, both of those generations were indeed exceptionally wicked—but that is not the point being made here. None of the things they were doing—marrying and giving in marriage, eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building—are inherently sinful. The point is that life was going on very normally; they were practicing and experiencing business as usual. And then suddenly and without warning those very normal lives were interrupted; suddenly they were over. Life is just going along, you are unconcerned with spiritual things, and then, boom! The flood comes or the brimstone falls and it’s all over. Wham! The books are closed, and the spiritual commitments you have made are sealed for eternity. No one will tell you, “This is your last opportunity to repent. You have one week to put your house in order.” You wouldn’t believe them if they did, but they won’t. I do not know the day or the hour. I do not know that this is your last chance to bow before Jesus as Lord. But it could be! For the day of the Lord will come like lightning, it will come like a fire or a flood, it will come without warning, but it will come. Will you be ready?
Some people will not be ready. The central figure of the last part of this passage is Lot’s wife. She is the perfect example of one who was not ready. How so? She left Sodom along with Lot—but she looked back. Her feet were walking away from Sodom, but her heart was not, and her eyes betrayed that fact. She therefore shows that those whose primary attachment is to this world and the things of this world are in trouble. Remember Lot’s wife!
Maybe this is why Jesus said, “If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). Maybe it’s why he said, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (14:26). Maybe it’s why he said, “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (12:34). Why did he say these things, culminating in the exhortation to remember Lot’s wife? If your chief desire is for this world, you will be allowed to have it. Mrs. Lot was a professing believer in Jahweh, but when the test came she showed that her heart was in Sodom.
When the kingdom comes, there is going to be a parting of the ways—so we had better be in the right way now! This parting of the ways is illustrated by the pairs of men and women who are caught when the kingdom breaks into their daily lives. One was taken and the other was left. Those who are “taken” are the ones who are rescued, taken out of the flood or the conflagration like Noah or like Lot. Those who are “left,” like Lot’s wife and Noah’s neighbors, are left to judgment and destruction. It is a graphic illustration of the fact that the commitments we make now will be sealed for eternity then. The very purpose of time is that it is the arena in which those choices for eternity are to be made. The passage ends with a strong warning to those who have not made themselves ready for the kingdom by submitting to the King and recognizing his right to reign now. We end with the vultures gathering over their bodies, in an image that simultaneously reminds us that the coming of the kingdom will be unmistakable—everybody knows what buzzards are after when we see them circling—and gives us a sobering and chilling picture of the fate of those who are “left.” The Pharisees ask their question hoping for an encouraging affirmation of their political cause. But they are left with the foreboding feeling that they have just been pictured as buzzard bait. The kingdom was among them, it was in their midst, but they had already rejected it. Well, the King is not physically present in our midst this morning. But blessed are they who have not seen, and yet have believed.
The storm clouds are gathering. We have gotten used to them. But someday, when we least expect it, in the midst of business as usual, lightning will strike. It will strike you, unless you find shelter. And the only shelter that will avail on that day is the Cross of Christ. Won’t you give your life to him today? Give up your rebellion, your claim to be sovereign over your own life, acknowledge him as your true and rightful King, and receive his pardon. And then you will become a citizen of the kingdom, and then you can join us in waiting expectantly for it to come.
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams