Luke 17:21: The Kingdom in Our Midst

November 10, 2014

Over the next few months Sioux Falls Seminary is venturing into a discussion of the Kingdom of God.  It’s a rich, but difficult, biblical theme!  If we want to get a better understanding of the Kingdom of God, one of the best ways to start is by clarifying a rather confusing saying of Jesus: “the Kingdom of God is among you.”  We come across it in Luke’s gospel.

Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the Kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, “The Kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the Kingdom of God is among you” (Luke 17:20-21, NRSV).

What was Jesus saying?  Certainly wrong is the individualistic interpretation.  Jesus does not say that the Kingdom of God is “in each one of you individually.”  In the Greek, we find a plural prepositional phrase, entos humin, best translated “among you” or “in your midst.”  In my native Texan language, it would read, “The Kingdom of God is in the presence of ya’ll.”  But what is Jesus talking about?

Reading the passage in its literary context, we discover that Jesus had already performed plenty of visible signs for everyone, including the religious leaders, to observe.  He had cast out demons, healed the sick, and raised the dead – all strong evidence that God’s reign was at hand.  Still, with doubt in their voices, the Pharisees ask “when the Kingdom of God would come” (v.20).

If we sympathize with the Pharisees for a second, it is easy to see why they weren’t putting two and two together.  “Kingdom” to most Jews in the first century suggested a restoration of political power.  The Messiah would likely raise up an army to trounce the foreign powers, restore Israel’s independence, and bestow economic prosperity.  Much like politicos today watch for breaking news or obsess over movement in the Dow Jones, the Pharisees were looking for signs of the times.

Jesus was giving them nothing.  The kingdom he heralded did not seem to be ushering in that civic reality.  And his response to the Pharisees in Luke 17:20 is icy: the kingdom does not come with careful observation (paratērēseōs).  That is, there is no use looking for notable political signs of a glorious political future through the usual political channels.  Rather, “The Kingdom of God is among you” (v.21).  It is right here, Jesus says, among the crowd of healed lepers, deaf, and demoniacs.

Again, we can understand why the Pharisees balked.  They expected to see signs and wonders manifested in more traditional areas, not among the poor and lowly.  As Halvor Moxnes explains, “Jesus and his disciples . . . bypass the traditional urban and legal central power of temple and Torah by proclaiming the immediacy of the Kingdom of God.”  The Pharisees could never accept such an insulting paradigm.  That is why they keep asking about the “real” kingdom, the victory of Israel and the religious establishment.  Unfortunately for the Pharisees, the kingdom had already arrived, and not in Jerusalem.  It was showing up on the edge of the wilderness.

Jesus tells the Pharisees something of what they want to know.  The big, evident arrival of the kingdom will come soon enough (17:22-37).  The revelation of the Son of Man will happen in a totally public way.  Everyone will see the King coming into His kingdom, just as everyone can see lightning from east to west (v.24).  Because that day will be so evident, Jesus seems to be saying, a program of careful political discernment is a mistake.  Instead, attend to the important thing: the Kingdom of God entos humin, among you in the here and now!

The kingdom had arrived, albeit subtly.  Luke’s gospel underscores the idea that the Kingdom of God was cropping up in unlikely and unnoticeable ways.  For example, the reign of God is small but powerful, like a mustard seed or a bit of leavening (13:18-22).  The kingdom belongs to children and those as lowly as children (18:15-17).  Perhaps most shockingly, the kingdom is being manifested to the gentiles as they are invited into Israel’s life (e.g., 13:29; 14:23).  Notice how just before the teaching on the Kingdom of God being entos humin, Jesus welcomes a Samaritan leper (17:11-19).  What a bizarre group of subjects.

And what a bizarre King.  The Jewish leaders of the day hoped for a glorious Messiah.  Instead Jesus tells them of one “who must endure much suffering and be rejected by this generation” (17:25).  That is to say, Jesus himself is the ultimate scandal.  He is at the center of the unlikely kingdom because he is the unlikely King of that kingdom.  Therefore in Jesus one finds the deepest meaning of the proclamation that “the Kingdom of God is among you.”  He is among you.  He is the epicenter of the new government.  Only by accepting that scandal will the Pharisees – or anyone – come to grips with the kingdom before them.

Whether in the first century or today, the kingdom is full of surprises. With Jesus at its helm, the Kingdom of God operates with a different economy, a different understanding of authority, a different approach to work, a different set of goals.  We seek to understand these things, because at Sioux Falls Seminary we are focused on developing kingdom-minded servants for their missional calling to participate in the gospel.  What joyful surprises await those who discover the Kingdom of God among them!

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