In response to a question from Pharisees, Jesus teaches about the Kingdom of God. His first coming was the inauguration and his second coming would bring it to fulfilment.
In response to a question from Pharisees, Jesus teaches about the Kingdom of God. His first coming was the inauguration and his second coming would bring it to fulfilment.
Hello, and welcome to Series 10 and Episode 2 in which 'Jesus teaches on The Coming of the Kingdom of God.’; Our text today is in Luke 17: 20 - 37.
Introduction and Recap
In our last episode we were also in Luke 17, in an earlier part of that chapter, and we were looking at a remarkable miracle that took place when ten lepers were healed. Before that episode, the previous event was the raising of Lazarus from the dead, which is recorded in John 11. So, as we come to this particular event, and this conversation that takes place between Jesus, some Pharisees and his disciples, the context is ‘remarkable miracles’. Those miracles provide something of the background. In particular, it's worth mentioning, the miracle of the raising of Lazarus from the dead. This took place near Jerusalem, in a small village, called Bethany, just a few kilometres outside Jerusalem, as we described, a couple of episodes ago. The event would have become incredibly well-known very quickly. It was considered to be a miracle that can only be performed by the Messiah, in the popular thinking of many Jews, and so raised tremendous expectations.
People knew that Jesus would be heading into the city of Jerusalem, that was his intention; he'd been there before, but maybe something more dramatic was going to happen. In the popular mood, one can imagine some people wondering about whether Jesus was going to perform some remarkable further miracle in the city of Jerusalem, to bring in the Kingdom of God, and particularly, to get rid of the foreign Roman rulers, their army, and their administration, and bring in the divine rule from the Temple in Jerusalem. That was the expectation that some Jews had. There's a sense that some people would have a high expectation of Jesus doing something dramatic and different - something more like a political king, when he gets to Jerusalem. We know from the stories of Galilee days, that when Jesus fed the 5000 many of the Galilean followers really wanted to install him as a king (John 6: 15), so that he could overthrow their local ruler Herod Antipas, then go to Jerusalem and overthrow the Roman governor. This idea was around in popular imagination. It wasn't encouraged by Jesus, but it provokes a particular question from the Pharisees about the nature of the Kingdom of God, which is a very important theme for us.
It's a great opportunity, in this episode, to study this concept a little more closely. You'll notice that the theme of the Kingdom of God, is a primary theme of the Gospels, right from the very beginning, when Jesus proclaims that the Kingdom of God has arrived, or has been launched, or inaugurated, "The kingdom of God is at hand" and he calls people to repent and to believe the Good News, which, in a sense, means to believe in him as the Messiah. Here's something of the wider context and we have a remarkable bit of teaching here, which we'll find really useful in our understanding of God's bigger purposes. It'll help us to position our own lives appropriately, to understand how our lives fit into God's big plan across the centuries. He began to work in a powerful way in Jesus' life but there are still some things unfulfilled concerning the Kingdom of God, and how do we live in between those two realities? These are some of the things that we can think more about as we approach this passage.
The other miracle, of course, that has taken place recently is the healing of the ten lepers. That was, in itself, quite a remarkable miracle, because people would be spreading the news of this healing very fast around the communities, because it had such a huge impact on the lives of those lepers who came from being socially excluded, to becoming normal members of society again. These are some of the contextual things in the background.
The Pharisees' Question
Let's look more closely at our text today. I'm going to read the first two verses and comment on those before I come to the main section. Luke 17: 20 - 21.
‘Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, "The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is’, or ‘There it is’, because the kingdom of God is in your midst."’Luke 17:20-21, NIV
As we read on in the passage, we'll find that Jesus gives a deeper explanation of his answer to his disciples, from verse 22 onwards. We need to keep that in mind but I want to pause for a moment, because Jesus first of all is talking to the Pharisees. These are opponents, people who've already decided against him, as we've discussed on numerous occasions, in previous episodes. They are religious opponents and they're asking Jesus a probing question about the Kingdom of God, basically saying, ‘What's happening in your ministry, and how does that connect to God's Kingdom?’
Different Opinions about the Coming of God's Kingdom
Let's go into their mindset, and their way of thinking for a moment, to try and understand what this question signifies. Apart from being a bit of a trick question, a provocative question, which their questions always were, there is some serious theology and ideas that lie behind what they were saying. Amongst the Jews there were a variety of opinions at that time about how God's Kingdom would come into the world. They anticipated from the Old Testament, for good reason, God to move in power, sometime in the future, and to establish his rule in the world in a more tangible sense. But the Jews didn't agree as to how exactly this was going to happen. I want to just give you three popular ideas; there were others. Here are three.
Firstly, some believed that God would come just by personal intervention, irrespective of any people, or humanity or the Jews. He would just come into this world and establish his presence in the city of Jerusalem, and overturn all evil in some mysterious way; God would take over the world. The centre of the world, from the Jewish point of view, was the city of Jerusalem. That's where God's presence had existed from the time that Solomon dedicated his temple, at least officially. So, some expected just a direct intervention of God.
But the majority of people believed in this enigmatic figure which we call the Messiah - the Son of God, the Son of Man, the Servant of the Lord. There were various titles from the Old Testament that were drawn together and the concept of Messiah means ‘the anointed one’. Many believe this to be a divine person who would represent God, represent Yahweh - the God of Israel, and would be the agent to bring in his Kingdom. This is something the Pharisees were thinking about, because they knew that Jesus claimed to be that Messiah. What sort of a Kingdom was he bringing in? Is he doing anything about the Kingdom of God? Why are the Romans still in place? Why is King Herod still ruling in Galilee? Why are the Jews in disarray and suffering at the hands of foreign rulers? Why are the tax collectors still allowed to do all the things they're allowed to do? Why is there injustice in the world? Why are people still suffering? If the Messiah comes – where's the Kingdom? That, in a sense, is the force of the question.
The third view was that the Jews would precipitate, or help to bring about God's Kingdom, by rising up in rebellion against the political rulers in Israel, against the Romans. They would overthrow the Romans and then God would come on the back of that, and establish his Kingdom. That was an idea that some people held which led to various movements like the Zealots, who wanted to take up arms against the Romans.
Jesus and the Kingdom of God
Most Jews were more comfortable with the second view that the Messiah would come and bring in the Kingdom of God. The force of the Pharisees' question is to say to Jesus, ‘If you're the Messiah, where's your Kingdom? We can't see it. Jesus' answer is very specific to their question. He said, “The Kingdom of God is not something that can be observed; it's not an external reality. It's actually an internal reality. It's through Jesus' presence in their midst that the Kingdom of God is coming. He says, ‘The Kingdom of God is in your midst.’ In other words, it's here already, so don't look for some other great sign. In a sense he's saying to them, "You're looking in the wrong place. You're not noticing what's actually happening, and you're looking for something different; you're looking for a sign from heaven, when there are signs going on on the earth." He's had conversations like this with the Pharisees on other occasions. What does that mean that ‘the Kingdom of God is in your midst’? The Messiah is there: his discipleship community is there; salvation is coming to people; healing is coming in enormous amounts to people; evil spirits are being driven from people's lives; oppression is going from them; and Jesus is basically saying, can't you see the Kingdom? It's right there in front of your eyes, but you're defining it in the wrong way.
First and Second Coming of the Kingdom
Let's move on, because he then instructs his disciples. This looks more like a private conversation in the next passage, where he gives a lot more detail. We'll see from his answer to the disciples, he's going to indicate to them that the Kingdom comes in two different ways, and at two different times. That's the key to understanding the Kingdom of God. Let's read this passage, verses 22 - 37.
‘Then he said to his disciples, "The time is coming when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, but you'll not see it. People will tell you, ‘There he is!’ or ‘Here he is!’ Do not go running off after them. For the Son of Man in his day will be like the lightning, which flashes and lights up the sky from one end to the other. But first he must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation. Just as it was in the days of Noah, so it will also be in the days of the Son of Man. People were eating, drinking, marrying and being given in marriage up to the day that Noah entered the ark. Then the flood came and destroyed them all. It was the same in the days of Lot. People were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building. But the day Lot left Sodom, fire and sulphur rained down from heaven and destroyed them all. It will be just like this on the day the Son of Man is revealed. On that day no one who is on the housetop, with possessions inside, should go down and get them. Likewise, no one in the field should go back for anything. Remember Lot's wife! Whoever tries to keep their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life will preserve it. I tell you, on that night, two people will be in one bed; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding grain together; one will be taken and the other left.” “Where, Lord?” they asked. He replied, “Where there's a dead body, there the vultures will gather."’Luke 17:22-37, NIV
This is now the most explicit teaching that Jesus has given so far about the Second Coming and there'll be more teaching that comes later on when Jesus is in Jerusalem and instructing his disciples, as recorded in Luke 21, and Mark 13, and Matthew 24. We'll study that later on. This is really helping the disciples to understand the context of the two comings. He clearly states that they're going to be the days of the Son of Man that the disciples will not experience themselves. This is a reference to a future event; a future, powerful event of the Kingdom of God, that would be beyond their human experience. He's warning people not to get excited about various prophets who rise up and say they're the Messiah in the future. Verse 24 makes it clear,
“For the Son of Man in his day, will be like lightning which flashes and lights up the sky from one end to the other. But first he must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation.”Luke 17:24-25, NIV
So, here we have the beginnings of Jesus' teaching, more clearly and specifically about the Second Coming when he returns; the Son of Man being a title to Jesus. When the Son of Man returns in the future, a long time after his death and resurrection, in an event not to be experienced by the disciples in their earthly lives, he will be like lightning which flashes up and lights up the sky. This is an event of power, of powerful intervention in this world, of Jesus is returning in power and glory.
Old Testament Illustrations
He indicates also that it's going to be an unexpected event for the population of the world. it's going to come at a time when they're not expecting it. He uses two examples; the days of Noah, and the days of Lot. This is a reference to two major Old Testament events that you're probably familiar with.
The reference to Noah, of course, is to the great flood, described in Genesis 6 and 7 and that part of the book of Genesis. Noah is given a particular instruction to build this ark, this large boat, to take his family and selected pairs of animals on board, because there's going to be a universal flood. Nobody has any inclination of this future event whatsoever, apart from Noah and his family. They must have thought he was an absurd, deranged person to build a huge boat in the middle of dry land, that could never, ever be used in any foreseeable circumstances. These were unforeseen circumstances. Suddenly, a remarkable and enormous flood took place and just engulfed everybody and they perished; they died. It was an act of judgement, and Noah and his family escaped and rebuilt humanity through their family, after the flood came to an end. The story of Noah is used here by Jesus to illustrate the suddenness, and the unexpectedness, and the fact people are just going on living ordinary lives and suddenly, Jesus is going to return again. Suddenly, the Son of Man is going to appear in power, like lightning in the sky. Everybody can see, everybody knows, something's happening, something public, not something private is going to happen - something powerful.
The ‘days of Lot’ is a reference to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, as recorded also in the book of Genesis (chapter 19). These very sinful cities with multiple sins attached to their name, were singled out for an act of divine judgement, as assigned to the surrounding communities. Lot and his family lived in the city as believers in Yahweh, and miraculously, angels warned Lot and he left the city just before judgement came in the form of burning sulphur, according to the account in Genesis. He escaped but his wife looked back. She escaped, but rather reluctantly, she didn't want to go. As a prophetic sign of judgement, she was turned into a pillar of salt. Her escape wasn't fulfilled because she was in two minds. Here we have another example of the main thing Jesus is illustrating, which is ‘suddenness’.
Salvation and Judgement
In the future something sudden and powerful is going to happen, in which Jesus is going to return to the world. In general, people are not going to be expecting it, apart from the believers. This instruction is for all believers. It's for you and me today, because this is relevant for us. As we go on, we notice that, towards the end of this passage, that the Second Coming, as we may call it, the coming of the Kingdom in power, will divide humanity. Some who are living will experience final salvation at that point, they believe in Jesus, he is the Messiah and they'll be saved in that situation. Others will enter into judgement, because it will lead to a time of judgement. Verse 34,
"I tell you, on that night two people will be in one bed; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding grain together; one will be taken and the other left."Luke 17:34-35, NIV
As people are carrying on their normal lives, sleeping in a bed, getting on with their agricultural pursuits, grinding corn, whatever it might be, there'll be a division. Some people will experience salvation, some people will be heading towards judgement. That's the seriousness of this future event that Jesus is beginning to explain to his disciples, which we now call the second coming. It will be an obvious fact. It will be as obvious as the fact that when vultures gather in the sky, there is a dead animal on the ground. A carcass on the ground will draw the vultures in the sky. If you live in a country where you see the vultures like that, you'll know exactly what I mean, if they are circling and gathering, it's because there is something on the ground, something certain. The Second Coming will be as obvious as the fact that the gathering of vultures indicates a carcass on the ground.
This is quite sobering teaching, I'm sure you'll agree. I'm going to spend a few minutes thinking about it a little more widely, and making some reflections. The first thing I want to say is that it's unambiguously clear from this passage that the coming of the Kingdom of God should be seen as two different events, two phases, part one and part two. I've mentioned this before in earlier episodes, as it's come up as a relevant point concerning some of the other stories and teaching, we've had but here it's crystal clear. This is a very precise explanation. He says to the Pharisees, “You know the kingdom of God is already in your midst. It's here, it's among you. Things are happening already.”
That's a reference to the first coming of Jesus. Let's pause on that for a moment. As I said earlier, he pronounced ‘the kingdom of God is at hand’ at the very beginning and he said, when he cast out demons,
"If I, by the finger of God cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you."Luke 11:21, NIV
In many ways, Jesus proclaims that the Kingdom has come through his arrival and his ministry. The incarnation, the ministry of Jesus, and then his death and resurrection, bring in God's Kingdom.
Then the agent of that Kingdom becomes the Church, which to this day is the agent of that Kingdom. This is a Kingdom where individuals voluntarily agree and decide they want to become the subjects of the king, they want to believe in this Messiah, they want to join his discipleship community, which we call the Church. They do believe that he has saved them from their sins, they do believe that in eternity, and after they die, they'll be raised again from the dead to be in the new heaven and the new earth. That discipleship community is the Kingdom as we see it today. Sometimes, when you're in church, you sense that powerful presence of God, as if to say, “My Kingdom is here”. That's all part of the first coming of Jesus. We're still living in the good of the first coming. That Kingdom is still growing, as more and more people choose to follow him, and those numbers keep increasing from century to century, and even in our lifetimes from decade to decade, as the Church continues to grow. That's the first coming.
The Second Coming is something fundamentally different. It's the presence of Jesus in a way where all humanity will know, simultaneously, that he has returned to the earth, in a position of power and authority, to bring in a change in human society, irrevocably. There will be the physical resurrection of believers, which the later part of the New Testament teaches very clearly will take place at that time; 1 Corinthians 15 being a primary text for that, there'll be the resurrection of believers. There'll be the judgement of unbelievers. There'll be a day of judgement, as spoken of in Revelation 20, for example, and then he'll bring in a new heaven and a new earth, and all evil will be removed from human society. That's the Second Coming. It's a very dramatic doctrine and it appears frequently in the New Testament.
What Jesus is beginning to teach here is developed in a variety of different places. Let me just give you, and read for you, one example, which I think will help you to understand this doctrine. Here's an example from Paul's writings, in 1 Thessalonians 4: 13. This just captures the flavour of the sort of things the Early Church Apostles spoke about concerning the Second Coming. Paul had been asked some questions about the second coming, how it relates to death and life and so on, and this is what it says.
‘Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord's word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not proceed those who have fallen asleep.’1 Thessalonians 4:13-15, NIV
And the next verse is the key, from our point of view.
‘For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with a trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first.’1 Thessalonians 4:16, NIV
Paul unambiguously speaks about a future event when Jesus has come again in authority. He identifies that as a moment of physical resurrection for those believers who have previously died.
Another reflection I want to make, as we draw this episode to a conclusion, is that Jesus' teaching here, in Luke 17, about one being taken and one being left, is not a reference to any secret rapture which some Christian churches and denominations have taught. In other words, that Jesus comes and plucks out of the world secretly, without anyone realising it, all the believers and the world carries on but all the believers have been removed; there are no Christians left in the world, and then he'll come again in glory at a later time. In other words, separating that taking away, with the public coming - a secret rapture and a public Second Coming. That's the doctrine that is taught by some churches. There is no biblical basis for that doctrine of the secret rapture. This description here, 'one person taken one left', is simply the division of humanity at the point of the Second Coming. 1 Corinthians tells us that when Christ comes, we'll meet him in the air. It'll be a kind of physical representation of those who are still living, being saved, and being redeemed and resurrected by their appearance with Christ as he comes to the earth. Now that's closely connected with this particular statement here. I don't want us to consider that this speaks about something secret that's happening that isn't part of a public event. This is part of a public event which is the Second Coming of Jesus.
There's a lot more to say on this topic through Jesus' teaching later on, where he gives more detail, but it reminds us of the fact that you and I live between the two comings of Jesus. The first coming in humility, in humanity, in salvation, in love and grace, was to save all those in this world who are willing to accept his Messiahship and believe the Gospel. The Second Coming, at some unknown future time, that only God the Father knows at this point, will be for judgement, and to bring in the full power of his Kingdom so that we who are saved can experience a completely renewed earth and heaven, in which we can live permanently with great joy and wonder, thanking Jesus that he truly is the king.