In my daily Bible reading today, I read through Luke 17. While I have been reading through the Gospels, the kingdom of God has been the theme that has caught my eye. I have meditated and written on the kingdom of God a few times recently in my latest trip through the Gospels in chronological order.
Today, I read the following:
“When he was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, he answered them, ‘The kingdom of God is not coming with something observable; no one will say, ‘See here!’ or ‘There!’ For you see, the kingdom of God is in your midst.’”Luke 17:20-22 CSB
The Pharisees asked Jesus about the Kingdom of God. This was their orientation. They looked back on David the king and all the kings of Israel and on a future Messiah who would reestablish the throne of the Davidic Kingdom. They were predisposed to think this way for tens of generations.
The response Jesus gave them wasn’t what they expected or what they hoped for. If Jesus was the Messiah, as some people were claiming, he would certainly reestablish the ancient kingdom in short order. Or so they thought.
What did he mean that the kingdom wasn’t coming with something observable?! What good would a kingdom be that could not be seen? What kind of a kingdom would that be?
At the same time, if they could get past their assumptions driven by their long-awaited expectations and listen to what Jesus was saying, they would focus on the statement: “For you see, the kingdom of God is in your midst!” Present tense!
In many of the parables Jesus spoke about the kingdom, he paints a picture of the kingdom as something like leaven that makes bread rise or a small seed like a mustard seed that grows up into a large bush that can hold many birds.
These parables suggest that the kingdom of God does not come with pomp and circumstance in impressive form. It is more like salt and light, things that we take completely for granted, which we either can’t live without or which enhance or flavor and preserve and sustain us in ways that we might not even appreciate.
“The kingdom of God,” Jesus said, “is in our midst”, but we are apt to miss it if we do not appreciate what he means. Kingdoms have a king, of course, and Jesus is that king, but he is not a king now in the common sense of the word. He has not (yet) established an earthly kingdom, but a “heavenly one”.
Just as God created all that is seen from what is unseen, Jesus has established the kingdom, for now, through what is unseen. He invites us into His kingdom. It’s a gift offered to us. (Eph. 2:8)
The kingdom is nothing we can earn. (Eph. 2:9) We can’t be born into it; we don’t receive it as a privileged offer; we aren’t selected to receive the offer. (John 1:12) The kingdom is offered freely to all who respond by faith and enter into it.
The kingdom of God is experienced through relationship with God, the Father, through the mediation of Jesus, the Son, and the in-dwelling of the Holy Spirit. We live out the kingdom of God in community with other believers and our interactions in the world. If we are true ambassadors of God’s kingdom, people will be attracted to our salt and light – or repelled by it as they who rejected Jesus were repelled.
The kingdom of God is demonstrated on earth now through lives of people who have given themselves over to its king, through the lives of people who follow Jesus, who have taken up their crosses, who have given up their lives, and who have devoted themselves to becoming like their Lord and savior. Where two or more gather to pray in Christ’s name, he is there.
This is the good news of the gospel that Jesus proclaimed to the poor, the freedom he proclaimed to the prisoners, the recovery of sight to the blind and the freedom to the oppressed. The kingdom of God is here and now openly available to all who would submit to Jesus Christ as Lord and King. But, Jesus also spoke of the future.
As Jesus often did with his closest disciples, he shared with them more intimate details that were not shared with the crowds at large:
“Then he told the disciples, ‘The days are coming when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, but you won’t see it. They will say to you, ‘See there!’ or ‘See here!’ Don’t follow or run after them. For as the lightning flashes from horizon to horizon and lights up the sky, so the Son of Man will be in his day. But first it is necessary that he suffer many things and be rejected by this generation.”Luke 17:22-25
As believers, we can take solace and guidance from these words. The disciples were not prepared for what was to come – the ugly public condemnation, humiliation, and dominance of Roman authority over the Messiah, the king of God’s kingdom. They were not prepared for his suffering and death at the insistence of many of God’s own people.
The darkness of the world threatened to snuff out the light of God’s kingdom in them, and the darkness of today’s world does the same in us. Jesus warned them, and the warning stands for us, that the world would treat them (and us) the same way it treated him.
Jesus knew his followers would mourn for him and long for his return. This is a challenge for all true believers in Jesus Christ. We long for him to be with us, to return to earth. To right the wrongs and wipe away the tears.
We are tempted, therefore, to focus our attention on trying to determine when he will return. We are tempted to speculate and fixate on it. Indeed, people have written books and developed theologies about it. We even have a word for it: eschatology.
Many people over the years have claimed to figure it out and predict when he will return, but Jesus warned against us doing that. Jesus said no one will know the day or hour. Christ will return when he returns. His return will be unmistakable, but first came the business of suffering and dying.
Of course, Jesus suffered and died 2000 years ago now. We are tempted to think that times are different, but I believe Jesus was talking both about the present time and the future. His words to the disciples when he was anticipated his own imminent suffering and death provide us guidance still today.
We should be about the Kingdom of God in our daily lives. We should not be overly fixated on when Christ will return. Many of the parables about the Kingdom of God are about being prepared, about doing what we should be doing and being diligent to do it.
All of them assume we will be caught off guard.
Of course, focusing on the end times, speculating on when it might be, especially speculating that it might be very soon, seems to help us – for a time – to be vigilant about Christ’s return. Inevitably, though, the urgency wanes. We can’t be hyper vigilant for years, decades, centuries.
Our focus, rather, should be on faithfulness, taking up our crosses daily, and faithfully being about the Father’s business. We do not know the hour or the day of his return. Therefore, we should simply be faithful and diligent. Jesus knew how it would be:
“Just as it was in the days of Noah, so it will be in the days of the Son of Man: People went on eating, drinking, marrying and being given in marriage until the day Noah boarded the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all. It will be the same as it was in the days of Lot: People went on eating, drinking, buying, selling, planting, building. But on the day Lot left Sodom, fire and sulfur rained from heaven and destroyed them all. It will be like that on the day the Son of Man is revealed. On that day, a man on the housetop, whose belongings are in the house, must not come down to get them. Likewise the man who is in the field must not turn back. Remember Lot’s wife! Whoever tries to make his life secure will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it.”
Luke 17:26-33 CSB
Jesus paints the picture. Much time will pass, so much that people will get on with their lives. They will get weary of waiting. They will do what people have always done. They will be busy and absorbed with daily, weekly, monthly, and lifetime routines.
So much time will go by that people will forget that Christ will return. This is the implicit warning in these words of Jesus.
When Jesus spoke these words face to face with his disciples, they were undoubtedly on the edge of their seats. Followers of Jesus who lived 30, 40, 50, 60 or more years experienced the loss of urgency Jesus warned about. We experience it all the more 2000 years later. It’s hard to remain on the edge of our seats even when we read these words.
The very last line in this passage is, perhaps, the most important statement of all. The statement was made in the context of the sudden appearing of Jesus that we must be prepared to receive him. We must not turn back to our own possessions or try to preserve anything about our life in this world.
How do we that if so much time will go by? How will we do that when we will all be caught off guard?
We do that not by thinking of the end times, but by thinking of today, following Christ today and every day. We should live our whole lives like that. We should live our entire lives not trying to secure our lives in this world, not trying to preserve what we have, but losing it for Christ’s sake.
Jesus said we must take up our crosses daily to follow him. Daily faithfulness and diligence is the way we will be prepared for when he comes – whenever that is.
Shortly after this dialogue with his disciples, Jesus asked,
“[W]hen the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”Luke 18:8 CSB
I am reminded that being ready is a matter of faith, and faith without works is dead. Jesus said we know a tree by its fruit. (Matt. 7:18-20) Jesus will certainly know a tree by its fruit.
Trees bear fruit by simply taking in the nutrients that are available to them, absorbing them slowly and continuously over time, watered by the rain, absorbing light from the sun, day in and day out, growing, flowering, and – in due time – bearing fruit. Trees often need pruning to produce more fruit. A tree doesn’t repel the hand the prunes it. So we grow in Christ daily, monthly, yearly, our entire lives – simply being faithful.