Faithlife Sermons

Luke 17.20-37

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Already (v. 20-21)

20 Being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come...
Okay, let’s pause for a second, because that question of “when the kingdom of God would come” is a very loaded question.
The Bible, as most of you know, is not one book, but several books—written by many different authors, over a period of centuries, destined to different readers at different times and in different cultures. But all of these books, put together, tell one distinct story. From beginning to end, every book in the Bible is about one thing: the kingdom of God.
In the book of Genesis, we see that God creates the world, and establishes his kingdom in a specific place (Eden), for a specific people (Adam and Eve), under a specific rule (his own). Man rebels against God, and thrusts creation into chaos through his sin; but God’s kingdom does not end for all that.
God later promises to renew his kingdom through the descendence of a man named Abraham. He makes a covenant with Abraham, that through his family all the nations of the earth would be blessed.
Then, centuries later, God then reaffirms his covenant with Abraham’s family—the people of Israel. So we see the same thing; God establishes his kingdom in a specific place (Jerusalem), for a specific people (the descendants of Abraham), under a specific rule (his own, through the mediation of Moses and then the kings of Israel, most especially King David).
But at every step, the kingdom that is promised through the covenant is stymied by the people of the kingdom. God’s people constantly rebel against him; God sends them prophets to warn them; they come back to God and repent; God delivers them; then they fall back into rebellion, and the whole cycle repeats. It all comes to a head when the kingdom is divided in two, and the people are scattered, exiled in foreign lands. They eventually come back to Jerusalem, but they live under foreign occupation.
And the prophets God had always sent so far fall silent.
That’s where we find the people at the beginning of the New Testament. The prophets had given promises that God would reestablish and consummate his kingdom on earth, but so far they’ve seen none of it. Not until now.
All of that is background to the question the Pharisees ask Jesus in v. 20. They know that God has promised the coming of the kingdom, and they know that Jesus has said a lot about the kingdom—so they’re asking him to give them details. If the kingdom is going to come, and God is going to establish his rule on earth, when and where and how and will that happen? Will it happen through military might? Would it come in Jerusalem or (most especially) for the people of Israel in particular?
Jesus’s answer, as always, must have been profoundly frustrating for them.
20 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, 21 nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.”
Okay, let’s pause for a second, because Luke doesn’t go into a lot of detail here about what this question means.
, he answered them, “The kingdom of God is not coming in ways that can be observed, 21 nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.”
So there are two things here that would have been profoundly disheartening for the Pharisees. The first is the idea that the kingdom of God would not come in with a bang, in a way that everyone could see and none could deny.
It’s hard to know exactly what Jesus means when he talks about ways that can be observed (this is the only place in the whole Bible where this phrase is used). He may be talking about spectacular, supernatural signs in the heavens (there was a precedent for believing celestial changes would precede great movements of God). He could be saying that the kingdom would not come through a highly visible movement, like the kind of political or military uprising the Pharisees were probably expecting.
In either case, the Pharisees would have expected that when the kingdom of God finally came, when the prophecies were finally fulfilled, it would be accompanied by very clear and unmistakable outward signs.
And Jesus says that’s not how the kingdom of God works. It doesn’t come in ways that can be observed. No one will be pointing at the sky and saying, “Look! The kingdom is coming!”
So if the kingdom isn’t going to come in spectacular fashion, how would it come?
And that’s where Jesus gives the Pharisees their second bit of bad news: the kingdom is already here.
This isn’t the first time Jesus has said something like this, but it is the first time he has put it so bluntly. He doesn’t say, “The kingdom of God is near,” as he said on several occasions. He doesn’t talk about the kingdom by way of invitation, encouraging people that they have a future in the kingdom of God.
This time, he says it plainly, with no subtlety at all: the kingdom of God isn’t coming; it is already in the midst of you.
How can he say that? Because he is the King of the kingdom. The kingdom of God is his kingdom.
The kingdom has come in the person of Christ. He is the inauguration the people had been waiting for. He is the beginning of the new covenant of God with his people. And his reign is already clear in those who are following Jesus.
The kingdom has come to a specific place (here, in 1st-century Israel), to a specific people (his followers), under a specific rule (Jesus’s).

Not Yet (v. 22-37)

Now, at this point (v. 22) there is a light transition. Luke just tells us that Jesus said to his disciples. This may well have been later on, perhaps even on another day. But Luke intentionally puts these two sections together, because he wants Theophilus (the man he’s writing to, cf. 1.1-4) and anyone else who reads his gospel to see something.
Luke is intentional in the way he structures this part of the chapter, because he gives us two contrasting ideas about the kingdom.
Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Luke wants us to see that the kingdom is already here, like a sapling that has been planted in the ground. It’s there. It’s not being planned, it’s not being prepared; it has come, and it’s visible to anyone who has eyes to see it.
But at the same time, the kingdom is not yet what it will be. There are certain things that will happen before the kingdom is consummated and enters the state it will hold for the rest of eternity. The kingdom grows—it comes progressively. It is already here, but it is not yet finished.
So Jesus begins to speak to his disciples about “the days of the Son of Man”.
As he goes along it will become clear what those “days” are: the time of the final judgment of all humanity, and the consummation of the kingdom.
And he wants them to know what that day’s coming will be like. V. 22:
The “NOW” of the kingdom.
Kingdom = the person and work of Christ.
Their idea: the kingdom of God would come politically, in—and most especially, for—a particular place.
The “NOT YET” of the kingdom:
22 And he said to the 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. 23 And they will say to you, ‘Look, there!’ or ‘Look, here!’ Do not go out or follow them. 24 For as the lightning flashes and lights up the sky from one side to the other, so will the Son of Man be in his day.
What he’s saying wasn’t new at the time, and still bears repeating today. There are always people who claim to be able to predict when the end of the world as we know it will take place. They look at the stars, or they interpret ancient inscriptions, or they read in tea leaves… There will always be people who think they know when the end will come.
There will be some who say t
And all of us naturally will want to know when that will be. It’s that classic dilemma of, if you could know how and when you were going to die, would you want to? Many of us would say no, but if it was written on a piece of paper in front of us, we would have a hard time not looking.
But, Jesus warns, no matter how much we may want that knowledge, no matter how much we may think we know when it will happen, we won’t be able to predict it. And if anyone says they can, that person is a charlatan who should not be followed.
Jesus does not tell us when this will happen. But he does tell us how it will happen, and what will happen.
He says that unlike the initial coming of the kingdom, which happened (as he said) in ways that could not be observed, the consummation of the kingdom will happen suddenly, as when lightning flashes and lights up the sky.
When I was a kid we lived in the desert area of Washington state, in the northwest United States. One of the things I remember best about living there is the spectacular display of the heat lightning storms we’d get in the summer time. From our living room, we could look out the windows and see the foothills stretching below for miles. And in the hottest part of the year, usually just after dusk, heat lightning would light up the sky.
We would sit there with the lights off, and all would be dark and silent for twenty or thirty seconds at a time, and then suddenly—all at once—the whole sky would light up, from one end of the horizon to the other. Then it would just as suddenly disappear.
That’s what it will be like, Jesus says—so sudden and unexpected, no one would ever be able to predict it; and at the same time, so brilliant and all-encompassing, no one will miss it.
And then he tells us what will happen—and
Then he tells us what will happen—and he slips it in so coolly, at the end of the sentence, that we might miss it if we go too quickly.
Let’s deal with the what first—he so coolly slips in what will happen that we might miss it if we go too quickly.
He says (v. 24): For as the lightning flashes and lights up the sky from one side to the other, so will the Son of Man be in his day.
Notice that he doesn’t say, “So will the judgment be,” or “So will the end of the earth be,” or “So will the kingdom be.”
He says, “So will the Son of Man be”—that is, him. Jesus is the “Son of Man” he’s referring to.
And the thing producing this massive, earth-shattering event that no one can predict, and yet no one can miss, is not an event at all—it’s him.
The disciples may not have understood this completely at this point, but they would later. They would soon see Jesus die on the cross. They would see him buried. (And they would surely remember Jesus saying to them that before the “day” of the Son of Man comes, he would first have to suffer and be rejected by his generation.)
Three days after his death, they would see him resurrected from the dead. They would walk with him and talk with him.
A few weeks after that, they would find themselves together with him, and as Luke tells us in the first chapter of the book of Acts (-11):
And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10 And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, 11 and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
Anon, 2016. The Holy Bible: English Standard Version, Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.
I’m speculating here, but my guess is that this is the point at which the disciples would have remembered what Jesus says here in , and gone, “Ohhhhhh, that’s what he was talking about!”
Just as Jesus ascended into heaven, he will RETURN. And his return will not be like the first time he came, when he slipped in as a baby and no one noticed. When he returns, he will return as the lightning [which] flashes and lights up the sky from one side to the other.
But Jesus is very specific. When he returns, it will be completely unpredictable. We have absolutely no way of knowing when it will happen. But it will be unmistakable. No matter how fast lightning covers the sky, no one present can miss it. When Jesus returns, it will happen unexpectedly, and there is not a soul on earth who will not be aware of his return.
And when he returns, it will be completely unpredictable. We have absolutely no way of knowing when it will happen. But
But before he returns, something must happen.
Resurrection > Ascension > RETURN.
Rumors of his return: pointless. You won’t be able to miss it.
25 But first he must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation.
25 But first he must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation.
Now obviously here, he is talking about his death (which, at this point in the story, hasn’t happened yet). But I don’t think that’s all he’s talking about, because of what follows. He will not only suffer; he will be rejected. He will be rejected by his contemporaries (this generation), and he will continue to be rejected by the generations that follow. It is, in fact, that rejection which will characterize the world at the end.
Indifferent Rejection
26 Just as it was in the days of Noah, so will it be in the days of the Son of Man. 27 They were eating and drinking and marrying and being given in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all. 28 Likewise, just as it was in the days of Lot—they were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building, 29 but on the day when Lot went out from Sodom, fire and sulfur rained from heaven and destroyed them all— 30 so will it be on the day when the Son of Man is revealed.
Now these verses are fascinating, because while we do see the continued rejection of the Son of Man here, we see it in a very specific way.
When Jesus says that he must suffer many things and be rejected, we naturally expect those two things to be synonymous: that his rejection comes to him by means of suffering. And that’s certainly what we see at the cross: Jesus’s generation rejects him, and beats him, and nails him to a cross, where he dies a horrendously painful death. So we would expect that, if future generations are to reject Christ, that rejection will come about in a similar way: through violence against, for example, the message of Jesus’s gospel.
And that does happen—it always has. But, Jesus says, violence is not necessarily the main way in which the rejection of Christ manifests itself.
The main thing we see in these verses is not violence, but indifference.
V. 27: People are eating and drinking and marrying and being given in marriage. V. 28: People are eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building.
In other words, people are going about their lives, as if Jesus and his gospel and his reign and rule and kingdom were of absolutely no concern to them.
Does this sound familiar?
Does this not perfectly describe life in the West in the 21st-century? It’s always been this way, but it seems to have reached its historical peak in our context (at least so far).
We are so consumed by ourselves, by our own lives, by the mundane details of life—by eating and drinking and playing and Facebook and Instagram and Netflix and Starbucks—that when we finally have a moment of silence we’re so exhausted that we can only spare the gospel a cursory glance at best.
People are so comfortable and well-fed and entertained that when the gospel finally comes to them, they don’t feel like they need it.
And Christians are not immune to this indifference. We spend untold hours on YouTube or playing video games, and have a hard time finding twenty minutes to read our Bibles and to pray. We are so preoccupied with the ordinary things of life that our thoughts rarely rise above their level.
And Jesus says, that’s how it will be when he returns.
It was not their sin, as great as it was, that damned them to destruction—it was their indifference. They were so preoccupied with normal life that they rarely had a thought above the mundane.
He’s not telling us this so that we can start looking around and thinking, “Oh now we see the signs, so his return must be getting close!” Like I said, people have always been preoccupied with the minutae of their own lives, even before modern technology took that tendency and shot it full of steroids.
Jesus tells us this so that we might be unsettled. Unsettled at the idea that with such a massive reality existing just beyond our field of vision, with his return an ever-present possibility, we could let ourselves get so distracted.
And we know he wants us to be unsettled, because he likens his return here to biblical catastrophes—like in the days of Noah, when the flood came and destroyed them all; like in day Lot went out from Sodom and Gomorrah, and fire and sulfur destroyed the cities.
The reality is that all unbelievers—and many believers—are entirely consumed by the ordinary things of life and will be caught completely unprepared for his return. Jesus knows that, and he wants us to be ready.
Do you see how this is different from the way most Christians think about salvation, the way most Christians think about Christ’s return?
We think of it in terms of “I’ve got it or I don’t.” I have faith in Christ, so I’m good. When he comes back, I’ll live forever with him.
That’s not false: the only thing required to be saved and enjoy eternal life in the presence of Christ is faith in him. God gives us faith, and saves us—and that salvation is assured. That’s one thing we don’t have to worry about.
But we need to remember that saving us is not Christ’s only goal, or even his MAIN goal. Merely getting us to heaven is not the only thing he’s trying to do. His main goal is to glorify God on earth and in heaven, by any and all means necessary.
He wants us to be ready for heaven when he returns, yes—but he also wants us to LIVE ready, for the glory of God, while we wait for his return.
So the question we need to ask ourselves is, What does “living ready” look like?
Living Ready
Hughes, R.K., 1998. Luke: that you may know the truth, Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.
He tells us—v. 31:
It will be the same way at the end.
How well does this describe our world today?
31 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. 32 Remember Lot’s wife. 33 Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will keep it.
It’s one of the Bible’s most famous stories, and one of its most mysterious; we find it in . God finds the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah so full of sin that he decides to destroy them. On Abraham’s request, God rescues Abraham’s nephew Lot and his family from the destruction, only telling them, “Whatever you do, don’t look back. Just get out.”
As they are leaving the city, fire and sulfur rain down from the sky to destroy the city, and Lot’s wife, despite God’s warning, wants to take one last look back on the city which used to be her home—and immediately, she’s turned into a pillar of salt ().
It’s mysterious because it seems an awfully steep price to pay for just looking back. But that’s another issue. The point Jesus is making here is how foolish it is to look back with regret on a life that was corrupt and doomed.
It’s weird, but we do this a lot, right? People become Christians, and God radically changes their lives… But there are moments when we still want to hang on to some of the old things. There are habits we nurtured before, which we know were harmful for us, but which were comfortable. There are ways of thinking and ways of reacting that were wrong, but at least in the moment feel so good.
It’s the smoker who has quit smoking because he came down with cancer…and still misses the cigarettes that were killing him.
It’s the man who has cut out pornography from his life, but still misses the stimulation of the thing that was killing his marriage. (And that can be true for both husbands and wives.)
It’s the mother who is so obsessed with her children so much that Jesus and his kingdom seem pretty unimportant in comparison.
That’s what he’s talking about here. We know Jesus hasn’t come back yet, so we imagine we still have time; and because we feel that we still have time, we keep on indulging in the things which characterized our lives before.
But Jesus wants more for his followers. He wants us to live as if his return had already taken place. He wants us to remember that there are bigger things at play here than those things which preoccupy us most of the time. There is more to this life than (as he said before) eating and drinking and marrying and being given in marriage, buying and selling, planting and building. There is more to this life than those things which preoccupy everyone else in the world.
Jesus doesn’t want us to think continue to indulge in those things which are killing us, the sin which little by little is killing us,
he wants us to live as if his coming had already taken place. (cf. Paul: Let him who is married live as if he were not.)
Jesus doesn’t just want us to occasionally think about the day he’ll come back and right all wrongs; he wants that day to be the focal point of our entire lives, the goal
This seems like a tall order, I know; it seems strange that God would put us on this earth and then ask us to live lives that go so against the way everyone else on this earth lives theirs. But he commands us to do this—to lose our life—so that, Jesus says, we might find it.
For the Christian, there is a constant tension between our lives now, and our lives in eternity. God calls us to “lose our lives” now in order for us to see that our real lives aren’t here—in the minutiae of day-to-day events. Our real lives are with him. Our real lives are in heaven. Our real lives are in eternity, enjoying the glory of God and his renewed creation, without end.
And we’ll never really see that the things that consume us today aren’t really where life is until we look away from those things—until we lose them.
Imagine you’re walking somewhere, and spot a flower that’s particularly beautiful. So you stop to look. You admire the petals and the colors and the shape and smell of it. It’s not perfect (there are dark marks here and there), but it’s nice, and you enjoy it. But then you remember where you are. You lift your eyes, and you stand up, and see the Alps spread out below you. And suddenly the flower doesn’t seem quite so important.
Reflecting on that training period, he said something very significant. He writes,
“My first forays onto El Capitan were…with my dad, nineteen years ago, when I was still in high school. I found the exposure nauseating. I would glance down for a spot to place my foot and my focus would shift. Straight below, giant trees that looked like miniature broccoli sprouts would begin to spin, and my concentration would slip.
“After all this time, I finally realize that these years of training, rehearsing, memorizing—they’re as much, or maybe more, about building belief as they are about getting stronger.”
(Belief that it’s possible: that the footholds would hold: that his body was capable of such a momentous feat.)
That’s what he’s going for. He wants us to look at the Alps, not the little flower, no matter how appealing that might feel. When we “lose our lives,” we find them! We look away from the unimportant things that take up so much of our time, and we look up and see the splendor of his glory, and the beauty of the new heavens and the new earth, and suddenly the number of likes on my Instagram post loses all significance.
He wants us to see this, because that moment—the moment when the world will see him return in all of his glory—will happen when we’re not expecting it.
He gives us one more striking image in v. 34-37.

One Taken and the Other Left (v. 34-37)

34 I tell you, in that night there will be two in one bed. One will be taken and the other left. 35 There will be two women grinding together. One will be taken and the other left.” 37 And they said to him, “Where, Lord?” He said to them, “Where the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.”
Now we need to get something out of the way before we can really get at what he’s saying. There is a bit of weirdness here that many people find hard to digest.
When Jesus says “One will be taken,” what he means is that he will gather all of his children, everyone who has faith in him, everyone who has ever had faith in him, to himself. Those living will be taken to and renewed, just as the earth will be renewed. That is, their bodies will be purified of every negative effect of sin: no more sickness, no more death, no more weakness, no more pain—our bodies will become just as Jesus’s body is now, after his resurrection. The dead will be raised again, and this same renewal will happen to them: any signs of decomposition will be removed, they will be alive, and their bodies will be renewed as well.
No matter how weird that sounds, it shouldn’t surprise us—if we can accept that God created the world out of nothing, God renewing the bodies of his elect should be just as easy to swallow.
But we have to see that that’s not the emphasis of this particular passage. He is not giving his disciples encouragement for the day of his return (though he will do that elsewhere); in these verses, he is giving them a sobering warning about what will happen to everyone else.
The judgment will not be in any one particular place, but wherever there is spiritual death.
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