“The Coming of Christ and His Kingdom”
CXXXII. Expositions of the Gospel According to Luke
March 22, 2015
At least since the publication of Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth in 1970,1 the modern church, especially the modern Bible-believing church, has been rife with eschatological speculation. The 2000’s saw the publication of the Left Behind series of twelve volumes, many of which were best-sellers.2 Several of these have been made into movies. The appetite for this theme has seemed to be all but insatiable for over fifty years.
We have before us a major passage in which Jesus discusses his return, or, following the terminology of verse 30, His apocalypse, His revealing (see also Lk 21; Mt 24-25; Mk 13).
We are able to discern three phases to the unveiling of the kingdom of God. The first phase was its presence during Jesus’ earthly ministry (vv 20, 21). He, the King, embodied the kingdom and was the lone sign of its presence. Hence, His answer to the Pharisees as to “when the kingdom of God might come,” is “The kingdom of God is in the midst of you” (v. 21). The kingdom in this phase, and the next, is not accompanied by public spectacle, by armies and royal pomp. It is hidden, subtle, spiritual.
The second phase is that brought about by His rejection. This phase is implied by the gap in time between the death and return of Christ. It too will be a time in which the kingdom is invisible. It will have no overt, obvious manifestation, but will be evident wherever Christ is proclaimed, received, present, and embodied through Christian living and community. (vv 22, 25).
The third phase, inaugurated by the return of Christ, is that time at which the invisible kingdom becomes visible, unmistakable, and universal. It will contrast sharply with the two preceding phases (vv 26-37).
Beyond these sometimes confusing details, the emphasis of this passage is two-fold: the certainty of judgment and the importance of being prepared. We shall follow these themes through the three phases of the kingdom’s development as described by Jesus.
The Pharisees needed to understand that God’s kingdom, in its present form, is not like any earthly kingdom. It is not a political kingdom exercising worldly power, as they were anticipating. As J.C. Ryle says, it is “utterly unlike the kingdoms of this world.”3 There would be no earthly marks to signify its arrival.
20Being 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, 21 nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.” (Lk 17:20, 21)
One will not be able to point to it and say, “Look, here it is!” or “There it is!” There will be no “signs to be observed.”4 Jesus says instead that “the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.” This means not “within you,” as in, “in your hearts.” Earlier translations were mistaken at this point (see KJV; NIV). He is not making a point about the internal spirituality of the kingdom. Rather, his meaning is, “the kingdom of God is among (entos) you,” that is, present in the person of Jesus. What the Pharisees were really asking was, “When will the Messiah come who will usher in the kingdom of God?” Jesus’ answer is, He is here. Indeed, “They were at that very moment looking at the King himself,” as Gooding points out.5 The kingdom was present in the person of the King. They were eager for the Messiah to come and establish His kingdom. Yet they failed to see that Jesus was that Messiah into whose kingdom He had been inviting them to come.
Jesus’ lesson is one that must repeatedly be taught. The return of Christ is about Christ. It is not about times and places, about when and where, about signs and speculation. Jesus, in an important sense, is the kingdom of God. He is its King. He embodies it. He rules it. This is the most important thing to know about it, and the most important response is to receive Him. Receive the King and enter His kingdom. “Kingdom” means “reign.” Submit to His rule. Receive Him as Lord and come under what Gurnall calls His “sweet government.”6 Amidst all the eschatological speculation, don’t miss the focus.
Jesus now directs His remarks to His disciples.
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. (Lk 17:22)
“The days are coming,” Jesus says, which were not the current days, but future days, a future era, a different phase in the coming of the kingdom. During this time they will “desire” to see the “days of the Son of Man,” an ambiguous expression, but indicating that Christ will not be present. Morris interprets it as meaning “the times of the Messiah,” indicating that “men will long for the Messianic kingdom.”7 They will long for it because it will not be visible. Jesus is speaking now of the time between His ascension and return. Then His disciples will long for the full establishment of Christ’s kingdom. Ryle explains verse 22 “as describing the whole state of the believing church, during the interval between the first and second advents of Christ.”8 During this period, the church age, the kingdom will be present, yet not in its final form. The “desire” of His disciples will be for the completion or consummation of the kingdom. They “will hunger for the final resolution.”9
Because they will be rejected, persecuted, even martyred during this era, their longing for the return of Christ “could lead them into wishfully thinking he had come when he had not,” Gooding explains.10 So Jesus warns us: the time between advents will be signless. However, this contrasts sharply with the return itself.
And they will say to you, ‘Look, there!’ or ‘Look, here!’ Do not go out or follow them. (Lk 17:23)
The coming of the Messiah will not be hidden or obscure or located in some remote place. Anyone claiming that the Messiah is to be found in some far-off location, He having returned to some elite group, is not to be believed.
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. (Lk 17:24)
When the “Son of Man,” the Messiah, returns to establish His eternal kingdom, it will be as unmistakable as lightning which lights up the whole sky (cf Mt 24:27). It will be a visible, public, universal event. Charles Wesley got it right in his magnificent hymn,
Lo! He comes with clouds descending,
once for favored sinners slain;
thousand thousand saints attending,
swell the triumph of his train.
Alleluia! Alleluia! God appears on earth to reign.11
Don’t then be deceived by the claims of false Messiahs in the period between the ascension of Christ and His return. When it comes, it will be impossible not to see it. His return will be a global event. However,
But first he must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation. (Lk 17:25)
We see now the timeframe clearly. The Messiah first must be rejected, suffer and (by implication) die at the hands of the present generation, depart this world and remain apart for a time. This time will be signless. The kingdom will be invisible. The return will be highly visible, but what precedes His return will provide no warning of that return.
This certainly is not the majority view among the most vocal of “end times” speculators. They want to read the daily newspaper and find events fulfilling prophetic prophesies. The whole endeavor is misguided because the return of Christ is a signless event. Our era, the church age, is an age in which the kingdom is largely hidden and in which there are no signs of Christ’s return. So we read in Matthew’s gospel, after describing multiple signs of Jerusalem’s destruction (esp. Mt 24:4-28) of “that day,” the day of Jesus’ return,
But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only. (24:36)
Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. (24:42)
Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect. (24:44)
While we don’t know when, we do know that the day of Christ’s return will be judgment day (Mt 25:14-30). The sheep and the goats will be separated. Some will be invited, “Come, you who are blessed by My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Mt 25:34). Others will be told, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Mt 25:41). Our era, the church age, is one in which we must all be ready for Christ’s return all the time. He will come as “a thief in the night” (Mt 24:42-44 cf. 1 Thess 5:1-4; 2 Pet 3:10). There will be no warning. There will be no signs. His return will be sudden, unexpected, and unanticipated. Let us then prepare. Let us be “wise and faithful servants” who, though we don’t know when the Master will return, yet whom He finds doing His business (Mt 24:45-51). Let us be like the five wise virgins who were ready for the arrival of the bridegroom (Mt 25:1-13 cf. vv 14-30). Now is the time to get right with God. Now is the time to repent and look to Christ and the cross for forgiveness of sin and reconciliation. Now, because we do not know the day or the hour.
What will the arrival of the final phase of God’s kingdom look like, when Christ returns and humanity is judged? Jesus draws parallels between the time of His return and the circumstances at the time of Noah and the time of Lot.
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. (Lk 17:26, 27)
What He describes is not their sinful activity of which Scripture makes much and Jesus might have said much, but the normal activities of life, proper in their own right (see Gen 6:5, 6, 13). In Noah’s time they continued eating and drinking and marrying right up “until the day when Noah entered the ark.” Then came the flood and destruction. They ignored Noah, a “preacher of righteousness.” (2 Pet 2:5). Circumstances were similar in the days of Lot:
Likewise, just as it was in the days of Lot—they were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building, (Lk 17:28)
The regular routines of eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building went on right to the end. They ignored the warnings and witness of “righteous Lot” whose soul was tormented by the evils that he saw (2 Pet 2:7). They were oblivious to the dangers.
but on the day when Lot went out from Sodom, fire and sulfur rained from heaven and destroyed them all— (Lk 17:29)
Then the day came. Lot left Sodom, and fire and sulfur destroyed the city. They might have been spared, but they were preoccupied with the ordinary affairs of life. This is how it will be when Christ returns.
So will it be on the day when the Son of Man is revealed. (Lk 17:30)
Jesus is emphasizing not the wickedness of the generation to which he returns, but its distractedness. The problem He highlights through the examples of Noah and Lot is not the evils of that day but the preoccupations. People will be so consumed by the mundane business of life that they will fail to heed the warnings of God to prepare for the judgments to come. They will be too busy. They will be unprepared. It will be too late.
Every eye shall now behold him,
robed in dreadful majesty;
those who set at naught and sold him,
pierced, and nailed him to the tree,
deeply wailing, deeply wailing,
shall the true Messiah see.12
Their activities and interests will be idols which distract from the kingdom of God. The day when the Son of Man is “revealed” (apokalyptō), one must not be distracted by any earthly concerns.
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. (Lk 17:31)
What are ordinarily harmless acts, retrieving an item from the house, whether from the housetop or from the field, are not to be indulged. On that day our attention is to be fixed upon Jesus. He is to receive our total devotion, undiluted and uncomplicated by any earthly concerns.
Remember Lot’s wife. (Lk 17:32)
Lot’s wife came close to deliverance. She was on the road to safety with the rest of her family. However, she hesitated. She looked back. She lingered. Her heart was divided. Evidently she longed for the pleasures, comforts, and excitements of Sodom and so was overtaken in its destruction (Gn 19:26). “Though she fled with him,” says Ryle, “she had left her heart behind her.”13 What was true of her is true of so many. “The world is in their hearts, and their hearts are in the world.”14 When judgment is imminent, which it always is, half-measures will not do. Both in Noah’s and Lot’s days, the warnings were general, not specific. They didn’t know the day or the hour. They needed to be always ready. So also at the time of Jesus’ return. There will be those who in order to keep their favorite possessions and comforts will miss the kingdom of God.
Jesus repeats warnings we previously heard in Luke 9:24.
Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will keep it. (Lk 17:33)
The implication is that the people of Noah’s and Lot’s day sought to preserve their own lives. They wanted to live as they wished to live without regard for God’s commands or God’s design. Clinging to their own way of life, they lost their lives in judgment. However, those who surrendered their will, their way, their lives to God, saved or kept their lives. They were spared. On that day the crucial distinction between people will not be bloodlines or physical proximity.
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.” (Lk 17:34, 35)
Two people may be in bed together. One will be taken to be with Jesus, the other left behind. Two women may be grinding grain. One will be taken, the other left behind. The difference will be whether they have prepared for judgment by surrendering their wills to Christ or have continued in their own way. The return of Christ means eternal separation between people. The sheep and the goats will be separated (Mt 25:31-46). “It will matter nothing that people have worked together, and lived together for many years,” Ryle explains.15 Judgment will be individual, personal. N. T. Wright argues that “taken” should be understood in a negative sense, and Henry suggests the same. “Taken” does not mean raptured, as many have assumed. “The people who are ‘taken’ are the ones in danger;” says Wright, “they are being taken away by hostile forces, taken away to their doom.”16
Ev’ry island, sea, and mountain,
heav’n and earth, shall flee away;
all who hate him must, confounded,
hear the trump proclaim the day:
Come to judgment! Come to judgment!
See the day of God appear!17
The disciples want to know where these things will take place. Jesus answers indirectly with a proverbial saying:
“Where the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.” (Lk 17:37)
What does this mean? Morris takes it as “where the spiritually dead are found, there inevitably will be judgment.”18 Similarly, Milne: “those who are left behind at the Lord’s return will be handed over to judgment, just like corpses left to the vultures.”19
Judgment is certain. Jesus Himself declares it. He is on the road to the cross that He might bear that judgment on our behalf. Putting it quite simply: “Jesus …delivers us from the wrath to come” (1 Thess 2:10). Whoever believes in Him will “not perish but have eternal life” (Jn 3:16). Let us then flee to Him. Let us then place our confidence in Him. Let us then lose our lives to Him that we might be saved. And fellow believers, let us ponder the question of the Apostle Peter:
Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, (2 Pet 3:11)
Indeed, what sort of people ought we to be?!
Hal Lindsey, The Late Great Planet Earth (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1970). Remarkably, it was the best selling non-fiction book of the 1970s.
Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, Left Behind (Carol Stream, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, 2008).
Green interprets paratērēsis to mean “scientific observation and assessment”, (629).
Gooding, 290; Morris, 259.
Gurnall, Christian in Complete Armour, I:158.
Morris, 260. Marshall says it is likely to “refer to the period inaugurated by the parousia, and the whole phrase…to a day of the Son of Man’s rule.” (658).
Charles Wesley, “Lo! He Comes with Clouds Descending,” Trinity Hymnal, #318, stanza 1.
Ibid., stanza 2.
Wesley, “Lo! He Comes with Clouds Descending,” stanza 3.
Morris, 262. Green renders the sense as “Just as the person of carrion is indicated by circling vultures, so will his presence at the end be clearly evident” (636).
Milne, 268; this is Henry’s view as well.