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If you ask a student of the Gospels where Jesus gives his eschatological discourse, he or she will answer, "The Olivet discourse." During the last week of Jesus' ministry, both Matthew 24—25 and Mark 13 indicate that Jesus spoke of events that would signal the return of "the Son of Man" with power. Of course, this phrase refers to Jesus' return. Interestingly, what Matthew and Mark set in one location, Luke sets in two. Luke 17:20-37 is the first discourse on the end; 21:5-38 is the second discourse, the one that matches most of the Matthew and Mark texts.
Jesus has two goals in relating this material. First, he wants it to be unmistakably clear that the kingdom program is inextricably tied to him (vv. 20-21). Second, he wants to encourage his disciples (v. 22) that although times will be tough and they will long for the day of the Son of Man, it will eventually come suddenly and bring harsh judgment for those who resist him. The implication is that disciples should be prepared, dig in and hang in there.
The first portion of the discourse is a response to the Pharisees. They want to know when the kingdom of God is coming (on the kingdom, see discussion of 9:57-62). Jesus explains that the kingdom does not come "with signs to be observed, nor will people say, `Here it is,' or `There it is,' because the kingdom of God is in your midst." My rendering here sticks close to the Greek, for reasons I will make clear.
The reply has caused no lack of discussion, because it suggests the immediacy of the kingdom's presence. The question is very practical: When will God manifest his rule and consummate his plan? Though Judaism did not have a unified picture of the expected Messiah's coming, in most conceptions it was a powerful and glorious arrival (Frerichs, Green and Neusner 1987; Charlesworth 1992). A famous example of Jewish expectation is Psalms of Solomon 17—18, where a powerful Messiah rules in Israel and rescues it from the nations. According to Jewish teaching, the arrival of Messiah would be clear and obvious to all. The question's implication may well be that whatever Jesus' ministry is, it does not reflect the anticipated glory. So his ministry cannot reflect the kingdom's presence.
But Jesus challenges the premise. The kingdom does not come "with observation." This phrase's meaning is disputed (Marshall 1978:654; Fitzmyer 1985:1160; Nolland 1993:852). Does it mean through legal observation, so Jesus denies that faithfulness to the law is required before he returns? Does it mean the kingdom comes mysteriously? Or—most likely—is it an allusion to the apocalyptic signs that are supposed to accompany the kingdom's coming? Jesus argues that the kingdom's coming does not require apocalyptic observation, since that was the normal expectation. The initial phase of the kingdom does not come that way.
Why? Because "the kingdom of God is in your midst." This phrase is one of the most discussed in Luke's Gospel. It is one of the few statements of Jesus that puts the kingdom in the present. In fact, so unprecedented is this statement that some argue the idea is really futuristic. The idea is, The kingdom is as good as present, since I am here. You need not miss it when it comes (Nolland 1993:853-54; Mattill 1979:198-201).
But a futuristic meaning is unlikely here. The verb that normally takes a futuristic present is erchomai, not eimi, which is the verb in verse 21. Thus Luke's shift of verbs in this context is significant, as is his shift of tenses. Moreover, the verb is placed in an emphatic position in the Greek text. More important, the remark about signs in verses 20-21 is specifically denied if a future sense exists, for Jesus appears to go on and enumerate the signs! It is better to interpret this phrase as referring to the initial coming now with a consummation to come later. Then Jesus' reply is, "You do not need to look for the kingdom in signs, because its King (and so its presence) is right before you. But its display in comprehensive power will come visibly to all one day. You will not need to hunt to find it then."
When Jesus says it is "in your midst," he does not mean in one's heart (but so NIV: the kingdom of God is within you). Jesus is speaking to Pharisees who have rejected him. They do not have the kingdom in their heart. And nowhere else in the New Testament is the kingdom described as an internal entity. He must mean something else here.
Two senses are possible. Jesus could mean "in your grasp or power." The kingdom's presence is related to one's ability to repent (Beasley-Murray 1986:102-3). The view depends on substantiating the presence of an idiom claimed also to be found in various Greek papyri, but that reading of the papyri is challenged (Riesenfeld 1949:11-12; Wikgren 1950:27-28). Also against this view is that it appears to be a nonanswer. To say the kingdom is within your grasp is not to say where it is or how you can get it—at least not very explicitly. In contrast to such vagueness, the second possible sense is that the kingdom is "in your midst"—that is, "in your presence." It is present in Jesus, so he and it stand before you. You do not have to look for it, because it is right before your face! This answer is very much like 7:22-23 and 11:20. It also fits the time perspective of 7:28 and 16:16, as well as the explicit declarations of current fulfillment in 4:16-23.
Now some in challenging this reading argue that Jesus is saying he is present but the kingdom is not. But that approach makes no sense here. Why would Jesus mention his personal presence in distinction from the kingdom's and then use an expression that mentions the kingdom? The whole point is to discuss the kingdom, not just him. The Pharisees know Jesus is present, and they know he claims to bring the time of fulfillment, so they are asking where the kingdom is. Jesus' reply is that the kingdom program comes with him, even in the present.
The program of God's reclamation of creation starts and stops with Jesus. Signs are not necessary because Jesus is the sign. As the entire discourse shows, the kingdom has an "already-not yet" character (Bock 1994d:193-97, 116-17). Luke 1:67-79, Acts 2:25-36, Romans 1:2-4 with 16:25-27, 1 Corinthians 15:25, Ephesians 1:18-23, Colossians 1:12-14, Hebrews 1:5-13, 1 Peter 2:4-10 and Revelation 1:6-8 share this two-phased kingdom perspective. Efforts to tie the presence-of-the-kingdom language of the New Testament to the ongoing presence of God's universal kingdom fail, since the context of these kingdom texts is an announcement of the arrival of something that previously was missing. In addition, efforts to argue that Jesus rules over a spiritual kingdom now that is distinct from the promised rule of the Old Testament also fail to note the declarations of explicit fulfillment in the contexts in which the statements are made (for example, Lk 4:16-23; 7:22-23; 24:43-49; Acts 13:16-41; Rom 1:1-7; Heb 1:1-2). Finally, attempts to argue that the kingdom is present but rule is not ignore the fact that when Jesus saves he exercises regal, executive authority as the promised Christ (Acts 2:16-41). Since Christ is a regal title, and since authority is a function of person and office, an expression of rule is present, though the full coercive rule of Jesus the King over all the creation will come in the future.
If the Pharisees had read the sign of the present time correctly, the question would not even be asked (12:54-56). Jesus has declared that the process of kingdom growth has started, so they should not assume it is absent, though it has made such a humble start (13:18-20). They need to respond to the King.
At this point Jesus turns to his disciples and elaborates on the ultimate answer to the Pharisees' question, the kingdom's future nature. That our attention turns to the future is clear by the words "days are coming," a phrase that can indicate the approach of decisive judgment (Is 39:6; Jer 7:32; 16:14; Ezek 7:10-12; Amos 4:2; Zech 14:1). The NIV renders this in the idiomatic the time is coming. Ultimately the kingdom's manifestation will include its powerful and coercive establishment on the earth, with total authority over all of humanity. That period could be described as one of the days of the Son of Man. When the Son of Man returns with authority to vindicate the saints and exercise power on their behalf, it will be a grand day of judgment (Dan 7). For a time, disciples will long to see it, but it will not come. That day does not come immediately. People will claim that it has come, but Jesus warns that the disciples should not go to check for his arrival. Those claims are not the real thing. When it comes, it will be sudden and visible like the lightning across the sky.
But first he must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation. Luke uses his frequent dei here ("it is necessary" that these things occur). Before that day of great rule can come, the Son of Man must suffer at the hands of humankind. Jesus' rejection is an intervening reality. That rejection is why he heads for Jerusalem (13:31-35). The description of its necessity is put in decretal terms, since dei speaks of the direction of God's plan. Before glory there is rejection and suffering. The kingdom's decisive arrival will be obvious, but for now rejection dominates. One day the kingdom will wield a gavel, but for now it bears a cross.
Scholars often argue that the church suffered from the "delay of the parousia": Jesus predicted a soon arrival, and when it did not come the church struggled to explain why it did not come. In Lukan studies the major name tied to this view is Hans Conzelmann (1961). He taught that much of Luke is dedicated to concern over the fact that Jesus did not come as quickly as the church had expected (or, in some views, as quickly as he had led them to believe). But in this speech and in the Olivet discourse Jesus is outlining a series of events that precede the return. He makes clear in texts like Mark 13:10, 32 that the exact timing is not known and that other things must happen first, like his suffering and the church's preaching of the gospel. These discourses function to reassure disciples that God has a plan, even if we cannot know the exact timing of all these events. If there is a problem with "delay," it is because the church failed to reflect on the whole of Jesus' teaching.
Jesus compares the day of that arrival to the times of Noah and Lot. The two examples are parallel. Life went on with eating, drinking, marriage, buying and selling—and then judgment came. For one it was the flood, for the other fire and sulfur. But to be outside the family that day was to face instant judgment. The time of the Son of Man will be no different: it will be just like this on the day the Son of Man is revealed.
Last of all, Jesus tackles the conditions of the return. When the judgment comes, he says, it will be swift. There will be no time to gather possessions from your home, whether you are on the roof or in the field. Unlike Lot's wife, do not look back, longing for what you are leaving behind. To seek to protect your life is to lose it. But to lose your life will be to gain it. In other words, if you identify with God, suffering and persecution may result, but God will redeem you. If you fear the rejection of persecution, you will not come to Christ, but neither will you be redeemed by God. Jesus' words here recall 12:1-12. Again the point is, Expect suffering but persevere with patient faith. Redemption comes, and so does God's vindication.
Picturing what the day will be like, Jesus portrays a division within humanity. Two pictures make the same point. Whether two are asleep or two women are grinding at a mill, on that day one will be taken and another left. It is debated whether the one is taken into judgment and the one is left for salvation or the other way around. Given the Noah and Lot metaphors, as well as the picture of the birds gathering over the dead bodies in verse 37, it seems that it is those who are left behind who experience the judgment. Those who flee, like Noah and Lot, are spared.
When the disciples ask, "Where, Lord?" they appear to be asking where this will occur or what will happen to the bodies. Jesus replies that where the bodies are, the eagles (or better vultures) are gathered. Though the term for the birds (aetos) can mean eagles, in this context of judgment it should be rendered vultures, as it is in other such contexts (Lev 11:13; Deut 14:12; Job 39:30; Mt 24:28). Eagles do not seek carrion; vultures do. The image is grim. The Son of Man's return means massive judgment; it will be final and will carry the stench of death. The return will be deadly serious. You should not be on the wrong side when it comes. Be assured that the vindication of the saints will come (18:1-8). The Son of Man's return means humanity's separation into two camps: those who were for him enter into everlasting life, while those who were against him face an everlasting judgment.