[October 11, 2009] In this week’s portion (Luke 17:20-37) Jesus continues giving instruction to His disciples, not only to the ones immediately surrounding Him but certainly to us in the church today if we believe that our Lord continues to be in our midst through the Holy Spirit. This round of teachings began in chapter 14 about the profligate invitation of the Gospel. It continued in chapter 15 about the Gospel for the lost, in chapter 16 about the motivations of those who were offended and in chapter 17:1-19 about not offending or being offended by one another and the praise to God that would come from these unlikely ones who have been found.
Like in the other rounds, Jesus now concludes on a note that concerns God’s kingdom and judgment, and our preparation for His coming and our accountability (17:20—18:8). This round ends with 18:1-8 which expands on 17:37 (God “will carry out their avenging quickly”), but we will need to save that for later.
Our interpretation of these verses is shaped by our understanding of the time in which we live. The Son of Man is the title given to the Messiah in Daniel 7:13 as the One who will bring about the Kingdom of God. God rules over all, but He does so in the midst of much opposition. The “Kingdom” refers to God overcoming all opposition and resistance. The Jews today look forward to the coming of the Messiah who will establish God’s Kingdom. Christians believe as they do, but with one difference. We believe that the Messiah has already come and that He is Jesus of Nazareth.
We believe that the Messiah comes twice, once to live in faithfulness to God, to die for our salvation, to rise from the dead, and to rule in the heavens until He comes again. In the meanwhile, the Word of His salvation goes into the whole world to gather His elect from every nation. Then He will come again as Judge and Savior to establish His kingdom. He will not come like the first time but in an incomprehensible way. The Bible says He will come in the clouds of heaven and that He will be revealed to the whole human race at once. But first He will come in a hidden way for those who have been waiting for Him, who will appear with Him when He comes in glory. They are the eagles (sometimes translated “vultures”) in verse 37.
Let us consider these verses now.
The Kingdom of God Is in the Midst of You (Luke 17:20-25)
All during Jesus’ final journey to Jerusalem, the Pharisees are never far away. Their opposition is the foil against which Jesus’ teachings are reflected. Here they want to know when the Kingdom of God is coming. They want to “see” something. Before, they asked for some sort of sign; now they just want to know when it will come.
Jesus gives a surprising answer. It does not come with observation; that is, people will not be able to say, “Look, here it is!” or, “There it is!” You are looking for something dramatic, something spectacular. Because of that, you are overlooking what is right in front of you. The Kingdom is standing right here. Where Jesus is, that is where the Kingdom is. He is the “Son of Man” who establishes God’s Kingdom.
Some translations say, “The Kingdom of God is within you,” and some say, “The Kingdom of God is in the midst of you.” The word Luke uses is entos, which means both “within [you]” and “among [you] or in [your] midst.” Which it is depends on the context. Bible translators are divided about how to translate this verse—does Jesus mean that the Kingdom of God is not an exterior visible reality but something unseen and interior, or does He mean that you are overlooking it because, like the nose on your face, it is right in front of you? Either is possible, but I prefer the second meaning because the Pharisees (as the foil) are looking for something other than Jesus (they at least want Him to give them a “sign”), and because the following verse directs our attention to when the Son of Man will no longer be in their midst.
Jesus in His own person is the Kingdom of God. By liberating people He brings about God’s Jubilee (4:18-19, 21), a metaphor for the Kingdom. Those who come to Him come under the rule and discipline of the Kingdom; and through the Word of the Gospel He plants the seed of the Kingdom. But in Him the Kingdom is also hidden. The Son of God is incarnate as a human being, sharing our nature and condition. To the “eye of flesh” He is indistinguishable from any other human being. His status as Son of Man is also hidden, for rather than outwardly defeating His enemies, He will—apparently—be defeated by them on the cross. The Kingdom of God is in your very midst, but He is hidden under a veil. Unless you have an “eye of spirit” you cannot see it.
The Kingdom of God is in the midst of you, Jesus says. To the disciples these words mean, in effect, “These are the days of the Son of Man.” But pay attention, because they will not last. “The days will come when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it,” because He will be gone. For the Son of Man “must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation” (verse 25). We live in the time of His rejection, the time of patience (James 5:7-8; 2 Thessalonians 3:5; Romans 8:25; Revelation 1:9; 3:10).
Do not be distracted by those who say, “Behold, there!” or “Behold, here!” Other people than Jesus may claim to be the Messiah. Do not follow them. Also, do not pay any mind to those who would distract you with predictions of Jesus’ second coming. Do not run after them either. If you think that you know when Jesus is coming, then you have given up the “patience” to which we are called. You must be ready for His immediate coming, not His coming on a particular date on the calendar or when a particular event happens. Jesus never tells us to wait for a particular event to occur first. His coming will take us by surprise.
“For just as the lightning flashing from one end of heaven shines to the other end of heaven, so will the Son of Man be in His day.” “His day” refers to the event of Christ’s returns. It will happen at once and it will happen universally. There will be no warning. Instead we must be constantly vigilant.
The Days of Noah and Lot (17:26-30)
Verses 26-30 are an expansion of this point. The coming of the Son of Man in His day will be like the coming of the flood in the days of Noah, or when God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah in the days of Lot. Noah was a preacher of righteousness (2 Peter 2:5) but the people ignored him. We live in days such as those. In the days of Noah “they were eating, they were drinking, they were marrying, they were being given in marriage,” and in the days of Lot “they were eating, they were drinking, they were buying, they were selling, they were planting, they were building.” In other words, it was business as usual. They carried on as usual if nothing was going to happen. No one wants to change the things they are used to.
Even today, scientists the world over tell us about the imminent danger we face from our overuse of carbon based fuels, that we face catastrophic changes in our climate and environment if we do not stop their use immediately. But we will not change how we live until we see other people doing the same thing. These experts also tell us, even if we chose to ignore what we know about global warming, we are reaching “peak oil” in any case, and within the next few years oil will become prohibitively expensive because it will become so difficult to extract. Yet we still do not want to change until the government makes us or until enough other people around us change first.
The church has waited long for Christ’s coming, almost two thousand years, and still He has not come. We have gotten used to His not coming, and so we too do not want to react until we think we have to. Therefore even the church will be caught off guard.
Remember Lot’s Wife (17:31-36)
That is the point of verse 31. This is spoken to believers, so we had better hear it. We are told that when Christ comes, we must not go down into the house to get our “goods.” Nor may we in any way look at what we may have to leave behind. We must be ready to let go on a moment’s notice. Or we will be left behind!
Put aside the imagination at this point—how will this happen? what will it be like? Never mind that. It is only another distraction.
Remember the people who were left behind to be destroyed in the days of Noah and Lot. Not only were they carrying on with business as usual. They were also bogged down by these things—by food and drink, by marriage and family, by property and business. These were the same things that caused the people to refuse the dinner invitation in 14:16-20. There Jesus said, “If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, and moreover even his own soul, he cannot be My disciple. Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple” (14:26-27). Naturally the people of this world are bogged down by these concerns and worries, by their attachment to material things and security. But believers can also be tied down by them.
This is what the warning about Lot’s wife is about. She was delivered from Sodom and from the destruction that fell on the town, but she was only half-delivered because she looked behind and became a pillar of salt. Those who have come to Jesus for salvation know the forgiveness of sins, but they may still miss the Kingdom. They may believe but they still have one foot in the world. When the Son of Man comes as the morning star before the dawn (Revelation 2:28), we may prefer to sleep. When He comes, we may look behind thinking about what we will have to leave behind, what we may have to give up.
“Whoever seeks to preserve his soul will lose his soul, and whoever loses his soul will preserve their soul alive.” Your soul is that which you identify with. It is made up of the things you hold on to, that you are attached to. It is the relationships and things and ideas that you hold most precious, that by which you identify yourself. In chapter 16 Jesus spoke of the Pharisees’ attachment to money and prestige. What do we value? Our security? The opinion of others? Our influence?
If we wait until the coming of the Son of Man before we let go of all this, it will be too late. We will hesitate, which is the same as looking back, and we will be left behind. Jesus says that we must be ready now; we must give up our attachment to all these things now. It will be too late if we put it off. This is what it means to live in patience. It means that we live for Christ, for the Kingdom in the present, not in the future or the past. We are not to live as if we are waiting for the coming of Christ in the future but as if we are ready for His coming right now. This is the kind of patience and waiting to which we are called. It is how we are to live.
We are to live in the world practically and realistically as if Christ is not coming, for we do not know the time of His coming and we need to be faithful stewards of all that God has put in our hands. But on the other hand, we must be stewards and not owners. We must be responsible but attached to nothing. Rather than our immediate relationship being to people and things, our immediate relationship must be to Christ. We must live in the sight of God, not in the sight of people. We must live as though God’s own presence is our immediate reality, not the world around us. Then, our lives will be in order. This is what Jesus has been telling us all along in the gospel according to Luke; and it was no different in Matthew.
A disciple is one whose immediate environment is Christ. If we are in Christ in the sight of God, then everything else in our lives gets into order and finds its proper place. Then we live under the Father’s care, and the Father’s interest—which is Christ—becomes ours. We seek first the Kingdom of God and the Father provides everything else we need.
The Dead Body and the Eagles (17:37)
The last verse is obscure. “Where the body is, there also will the vultures be gathered.” What could Jesus mean by this? The body here is a corpse. This refers to the people of the world who are eating, drinking, marrying, being given in marriage, buying, selling, planting and building, but who are spiritually dead (see 2 Corinthians 5:14 in view of Luke 17:25) and who will perish when the Son of Man is revealed. The corpse is the spiritual condition in which they live.
The word vulture in the original language is the same as eagle. See Exodus 19:4; Deuteronomy 32:11; Isaiah 40:31 together with Deuteronomy 28:49; Hosea 8:1. Christ is the eagle, and He will come with His own, those who were ready when He called. With them He will defeat His enemies and establish His Kingdom.
The question of Lot’s wife is this: When Christ comes and reveals Himself to the whole world will we be with Him in glory (1 Thessalonians 1:10) or will we be “disapproved” and cast into the “outer darkness” until our period of probation is over? Are we ready?