Seeing the Kingdom in the King
Passage: Luke 17:20–37
Seeing the Kingdom in the King
For centuries, the church has encountered various teachers who have claimed to know when the Lord Jesus would return. Thomas Muntzer, for example, a German preacher in the 16th century, said Christ’s return and reign would begin in 1525. Emmanuel Swedenborg claimed that the Last Judgment occurred in 1757 and that he alone had witnessed it. William Miller, founder of the Millerites, boldly claimed that 1844 was the year of the second coming. Not to be outdone, Charles Russell, founder of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, said that 1874 was the year the kingdom would come in its fullness. And as recently as the 1980s, Edgar Whisenant confidently asserted that 1988 was the year – then 1989 – then 1993 – then 1994. These are sadly just a few examples of something that has plagued the church for centuries – false claims of the second coming.
These claims are problematic for a number of reasons, but the most serious is how they undermine the sufficiency of Scripture. As Christians, we believe that God has given us all we need for life and godliness in his Word. But every false prediction of the second coming undermines that confidence. Every false prediction is built on an implied critique of Scripture and of Christ. “If only God had given us more detailed information, then we would be better prepared for the end. If only Christ had prepared us ahead of time, then we wouldn’t have to live with such fearful uncertainty.” Do you see the problem? These false predictions are not merely silly – they’re also an assault on Scripture and upon Christ himself.
And therein lies the value of our passage this morning, friends. Here in Luke 17, we are reminded that God’s Word is sufficient, even for understanding the end. Here in Luke 17, we see how Christ does prepare his church, how he has clearly given us all we need for perseverance. As you heard in our reading, this passage deals with the consummation of God’s kingdom, which will occur with the return of the King, the Lord Jesus. In fact, the Pharisees demonstrate that speculation about the end goes back to the beginning. They ask Jesus to pinpoint the time when the kingdom would come.
But Jesus, in response, does not resort to speculation. Instead, Jesus gives his disciples clear teaching that prepares them to endure to the end, whenever that may be. That’s really the key point of this text, friends. There are any number of fascinating points of discussion in this passage, but the primary point is not speculative. It’s pastoral. As the King over God’s kingdom, Jesus prepares his disciples to endure to the end, so that they will not fall prey to fear and speculation.
And that, brothers and sisters, gives us our direction for this morning. There is a lot we could say about this text, but I’d like us to focus on four truths about the kingdom and the return of the King. Remember that in Scripture the return of Christ and the consummation of the kingdom go hand in hand. To talk about the establishment of God’s kingdom is to talk about the return of the King, the Lord Jesus. To that end, I’d like to highlight for us four truths about the kingdom of God that prepare us for perseverance.
The Kingdom is Present in Jesus
First, from vv20-21, we see that the Kingdom is Present in Jesus. The Pharisees return to the picture, and again, they come with a question. V20, they ask Jesus when the kingdom of God would come. Now, Jesus has been proclaiming the kingdom since chapter 4, but the Pharisees don’t see it. They expect the kingdom to come in an apocalyptic way that brings history to an end, perhaps with great military or political upheaval. But that expectation does not match Jesus’ ministry, does it? Just consider the scene immediately prior to this one. Who received Jesus’ attention? Not the religious elite, but lepers – outcasts. Or consider Jesus’ followers. They’re not lawyers and scribes. They’re fishermen primarily, even a tax collector. Or consider Jesus’ platform, to use a modern-day word. He doesn’t hold court in a well-furnished synagogue. He doesn’t even have a place to rest his head. He’s an itinerant preacher. Everything about Jesus’ ministry fails to meet the Pharisees’ expectation. So, when they ask Jesus this question in v20, they’re not merely curious. There is a note of accusation here – “When will the kingdom come, Jesus, because it sure hasn’t come with you.”
Jesus responds with a two-fold answer. He begins by pointing out that the Pharisees are asking the wrong question. Notice v20 – “Being 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, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’” Now, Jesus is not saying that the kingdom comes in secret. Rather, his point is that the kingdom is not coming in the ways the Pharisees expect. It’s not coming with apocalyptic signs of political and military power. The signs of the kingdom will not grab the world’s headlines. The Pharisees are asking the wrong question.
Then comes the correction. If the kingdom is not coming in such ways, then how is it coming? Jesus tells us. Notice the end of v21 – “for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.” In other words, Jesus says, “Don’t look for signs in the heavens. Look at what is happening right in front of you. Look at my ministry.” You see, the Pharisees’ preoccupation with signs causes them to miss the One standing in front of them. Looking for the kingdom, they miss the King. They miss Jesus.
This is what the Pharisees fail to understand. If you want to see God’s kingdom, then look for God’s King. And everything about Jesus reveals him to be the King. He was born in David’s line in David’s city. He teaches God’s Word with unrivaled authority. He has the power over disease, sickness, and even death. And most staggering of all, he does what only God can do. He commands the creation. He reveals the thoughts and intentions of the heart. He forgives sins. It’s true that Jesus’ ministry has not come with apocalyptic power. He is not a great political or military figure. He’s much more than that. Everything about his ministry reveals him to be God’s King. So, if the Pharisees want to see God’s kingdom, then they must respond to Jesus.
Friends, what we should take away from this truth is that the best way to prepare for the end is to focus on Jesus Christ. We don’t need elaborate systems of predictions; we need to remain keyed in on the gospel. We don’t need to worry ourselves with signs; we need to devote ourselves to the gospel. That’s where the kingdom of God is found – not in mighty displays of heavenly power, but in the humble good news that the Son of God laid down his life for his church. Friends, if you prioritize that message, then you can be assured that you will see God’s kingdom. If you focus on the Lord Jesus, then you can rest in the fact that his gospel will keep you to the very last day. The kingdom is present in Jesus, so we ought to devote our lives not to signs and speculation, but to knowing and serving the King.
At the same time, Jesus also wants his disciples to understand that there is a future element to his kingdom. He shifts to focus on the disciples in v22, and his aim is to better equip them for what will come. This is an important theological point, friends. The kingdom of God is present in Jesus, as we just saw, but it is also true that the kingdom is yet to come in its fullness. Think about the Lord’s Prayer in chapter 11, where Jesus taught the disciples to pray, “Your kingdom come.” There is some sense in which the kingdom is yet to be fully consummated.
In fact, this the best way to think about the kingdom of God. The kingdom is both already present and not yet fully consummated. Already but not yet. The kingdom has been inaugurated with Jesus’ first coming, but the kingdom will be consummated with Jesus’ second coming. And that distinction marks the rest of the passage. Beginning in v22, Jesus teaches his disciples how to live between the already and the not yet of the kingdom, between the inauguration and the consummation. This is where our second truth comes in, from vv22-24. Here we see that the Kingdom Will Come with Unmistakable Power.
The Kingdom Will Come with Unmistakable Power
Jesus predicts that the day is coming when he will depart the earth, and the disciples will long for his return. Notice v22 – “And he said to his 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.’” Now, the main interpretive question here has to do with the phrase ‘the days of the Son of Man.’ To what is Jesus referring? Some scholars hold that Jesus is referring to his present ministry, so that the point is the disciples will one day long to witness again the earthly ministry of Christ. But that view fails to make sense of the context, which is decidedly future throughout this section. Vv25 & 30 clearly refer to what is to come, so it is best to take this phrase as referring to the return of Christ. The time is coming when Christ will depart, and the disciples will long for his return.
But as they wait for the Lord, the disciples must remain vigilant. Notice v23 – “And they will say to you, ‘Look, there!’ or ‘Look, here!’ Do not go out or follow them.” So, Jesus warns his disciples against the very thing we mentioned at the outset – false claims of his return. There will be many, Jesus says, who claim that the kingdom has come in secret, that the Lord has returned and only they have the insight to identify the signs. Jesus is very clear – this will happen, and his disciples must remain vigilant. Don’t be taken in by such schemes.
Jesus then tells his disciples why such claims are false. It is because his return will be unmistakably powerful. Notice the imagery of v24 – “For as the lightning flashes and lights up the sky from one side to other, so will the Son of Man be in his day.” Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever been near a lightning strike. It is a sudden display of power. It comes without warning. But do you know what else is true of a lightning strike? It is unmistakable. No one who is near a lightning bolt ever has to wonder, “Was that lightning? Did a bolt of electricity just thunder from the heavens? I think I missed it.” No one ever says that because a lightning strike is unmistakably power.
And that is how it will be when the Lord Jesus returns. There will be no secret return, where some are aware, and some are not. There will be no need for special guides to show us the signs. It will be like lightning crashing into the ground at your feet. You won’t have to wonder because it will be unmistakably glorious.
You see, this is why the church has always confessed that the Lord Jesus will return visibly, bodily, and gloriously. I’m often disheartened that Christians get so focused on the details and timing of the last days, and they miss the glory. Christ will come visibly, so that all will see. Christ will come bodily, so that he reigns as the incarnate Son of God. And Christ will come gloriously, so that his kingdom is fully established.
And this should be a wonderful source of encouragement to us, brothers and sisters. We don’t have to be afraid. I know that some believers experience fear when they think about the second coming. I’ve known some Christians who worry that the return will happen, and they will miss it. And the Lord Jesus would say to that Christian, “You don’t have to fear, my dear disciple. I’ve told you already what will occur, and you can trust me.”
That’s a great sense of encouragement, friends. It eliminates our fear, and it also reminds us that our future is certain. That’s another thing about a lightning strike – you can’t stop it. Once the energy is stored up and the conditions are right, there’s nothing you can do to stop it from striking. So it will be with the return of our Lord. The Evil One and the forces of this age will conspire against Christ and make war on his church, and yet, they can’t stop him. As sure as lightning flashes from heaven to earth, so also will the Lord Jesus return to gather his church. Don’t fear. That’s what vv22-24 are saying to the Christian. Don’t fear. Stand firm. The Lord is coming again with unmistakable power.
The Kingdom Will Not Come Apart from the Cross
This leads us into the third kingdom truth, which completes the second. From v25, Jesus reminds his disciples that the Kingdom Will Not Come Apart from the Cross. In order for the kingdom to come in its fullness, the King must die. Notice the clarity of v25 – “But first he must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation.” Just like we saw last week, the cross is always present in Jesus’ mind. And so, I want you to note how Jesus puts the cross at the center of redemptive history. The Pharisees want a sign, but there is no greater sign than the Son of God slain for sinners and resurrected to new life. The kingdom of God will come, and the knowledge of the glory of God will cover the earth as the water covers the sea, but it will only come through Calvary. The glory of God will strike like lightning, but nowhere will that glory be as clearly revealed as when Jesus hangs on the tree, shedding his blood for the salvation of his people. This is the central point of all redemptive history – the sacrificial, atoning death of Jesus Christ.
And on the one hand, this is sobering, isn’t it? V25 reminds us that Jesus will be rejected by his people, the nation of Israel. The chief priests and religious leaders will falsely accuse him, and the crowd of Israelites will cry for his death. It is sobering to realize that David’s Son – the long-promised Messiah – will be rejected by his own people.
And yet, there is a strong encouragement here. Notice the language Jesus uses in v25. He must suffer many things. Do you see that? That is the language of divine necessity. Behind the rejection Jesus receives in Jerusalem stands the Sovereign God of history. The cross, brothers and sister, is God’s plan. That’s what Jesus is saying here. The cross is God’s plan. The suffering is God’s will. The shame and mockery and agony – everything that will happen has been determined by the Triune God.
And that means Jesus does not go to Jerusalem as some helpless victim. He is not driven by fatalism or resignation. No, friends, Jesus goes to Jerusalem in triumph. Jesus faces the suffering of the cross with the confidence of victory. He knows what is coming. The kingdom cannot be consummated apart from the cross. And therefore, Jesus goes, knowing that his Father’s will is being done.
Brothers and Sisters, if the cross could not derail God’s kingdom, then nothing in this world can derail God’s purpose for his church. Far too much of our thinking about the end times is rooted in fear or uncertainty. Yes, the days are evil and will get worse, but the church has nothing to fear. Regardless of what comes our way, we have this blessed assurance – Christ has already achieved victory through his suffering at the cross. And therefore, God’s purpose will come to pass. God’s kingdom will come in its fullness.
“But what about when life is full of suffering,” someone will ask. If the victory has been won, then why do we still endure suffering in the here and now? How do you explain that, pastor? That’s a great question, the right question in fact. And I would say in response, “Look to the cross.” If the cross is the center of redemptive history, then the cross must also be the center of our discipleship. The way we approach this life is from the perspective of the cross. Let me explain what I mean.
The cross is primarily the great redemptive act of God, where he saves his people through the sacrifice of his Son. But at the same time, the cross is also the great interpretive act of God, wherein he teaches his people how to understand life in this fallen world. Think about it, friends. The cross teaches us that in God’s kingdom, suffering precedes glory. Christ will come in power, but only after he suffers on the cross. In God’s kingdom, suffering precedes glory.
And the same is true for us, brothers and sisters. These light and momentary afflictions are preparing for us an eternal weight of glory. Suffering precedes glory. How do we know that? Because of the cross. When the trials of life come, when it appears that Satan’s kingdom is overruling God’s kingdom, we look to the cross, where our salvation was accomplished and where Christ displayed for us the path to glory.
So, take heart, brothers and sisters. Christ endured the cross, and therefore the kingdom will come. Let us, then, take up the cross and follow our Lord on that same road to glory.
The Kingdom Will Come with Sure and Sudden Judgment
Finally, Jesus ends his teaching with a preview of his kingdom authority. From vv26-37, we see that the Kingdom Will Come with Sure and Sudden Judgment. There is a lot in these verses, but the main idea is the judgment of God exercised by Christ at his return. We know judgment is the theme because of the of OT comparisons that Jesus employs. Look at the text. Jesus speaks of the days of Noah, vv26 & 27 and the days of Lot, vv28 & 29. In both instances, the judgment of God came suddenly to those who were unprepared. And the same will be true with Jesus’ return. Listen again to v30 – “so will it be on the day when the Son of Man is revealed.” On the final day, people will be living their lives with little regard for God, going about their business just as in the days of Noah and Lot. And then without warning, the trumpet will blast, Christ will descend, and the judgment of God will suddenly come to the earth. This is the final consummation of God’s kingdom, friends. It begins with the judgment of God.
And the suddenness of this judgment means that the time to prepare is now. Notice the caution Jesus gives in v31 – “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.” You won’t have time to worry about your stuff, Jesus says. Judgment will be sudden, so you should prepare now. Get ready for the return of Christ now.
And this preparation must be whole-hearted. Notice another OT example, v32. “Remember Lot’s wife,” Jesus says. What happened to Lot’s wife? Her attachment to this world caused her to look back, and in looking back, she fell under the judgment of God. In the same way, Jesus says, “Don’t allow the things of this world to entangle your heart. The last day is coming, so with a whole heart, prepare now.”
In fact, Jesus makes this principle very clear in v33. Notice his call – “Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will keep it.” Friends, this is a call to submit to Christ in repentance and faith. That is the only way to escape the judgment of God. You can either hold on to your life now, insisting on your own authority and believing that the world will satisfy you. Or, you can lose your life by bowing the knee to Jesus, confessing him as Lord, and receiving life in him in the end. Those are the stakes facing each person. The time to prepare is now, for the judgment is coming soon.
And make no mistake, friends, this judgment will be final. Notice the picture of lasting separation that Jesus describes vv34-35 – “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.” The return of Christ will be the great dividing line of humanity. It will separate family from one another, and it will divide friends from one another. And that separation is eternal. Please don’t miss the note of finality in vv34-35. The one is taken up with Christ, while the other is destroyed, just like the people in Noah’s day. Judgment is final.
That is striking, isn’t it? It was striking for Jesus’ disciples as well. Notice their question that closes the passage, v37 – “And they said to him, ‘Where, Lord?’ He said to them, ‘Where the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.’” That’s a hard verse to interpret. Why do the disciples ask, “Where?” Probably because they want to know the location of this sudden, final judgment. But Jesus’ answer is difficult. “Where the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.” What’s the point? Likely, it means that God’s judgment will come anywhere that spiritual death is found. Vultures gather to the corpse, and divine judgment comes to those who are dead in their sins. That is likely the best sense of the verse.
But through all these details, friends, I want you to see the emphasis on divine judgment. The kingdom of God will come in power, and when it does, Christ will judge his enemies. He will unleash God’s wrath against those who do not know God and do not obey his gospel. That day is surely coming.
And it is coming suddenly, so only a fool thinks he can wait to prepare. Only a fool thinks, “I’ll hold off till things get closer to the end, and then I’ll prepare to face God.” No, friend, that is precisely what Jesus is warning against in this final section. Judgment is sudden. You won’t be able to read the signs and say, “There it is – I’ll get ready now.” It doesn’t work that way. The time to prepare is now.
And the way you prepare for the end is not by looking for signs or speculating about when the end will come. No, the way you prepare is by repenting of your sin, trusting in Christ to save you, and submitting to him as Lord. If you are not a Christian today, this is Christ’s message to you, straight from his Word – “Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will keep it.” Trust in Christ, friend. The judgment is coming soon. Turn to Christ. That is the only way to prepare for the end and receive the salvation of God.
Brothers and Sisters, we don’t need speculation and predictions about the end times. We have Christ, and Christ is a Good Shepherd. He has not left us to guess about the end. He has not consigned us to fear and worry. He’s told us ahead of time how we ought to live between the already and the not-yet of his kingdom. The kingdom is present now in Jesus, so we focus our lives and our church on the gospel. The kingdom will come in unmistakable power, so we do not fear the end. The kingdom will come because Christ endured the cross, so we take up the cross in confidence. And the kingdom will come with sure and sudden judgment, so we urge the world to be reconciled to God in Christ. If you want to see the Kingdom, look for the King. If you want to live for the kingdom, live for the King.
Praise God that our King reigns on high. And so, we pray as the church has prayed now for two thousand years, “Amen, Come Lord Jesus.” Let’s pray.