We have here a discourse of Christ’s concerning the kingdom of God, that is, the kingdom of the Messiah, which was now shortly to be set up, and of which there was great expectation.
I. Here is the demand of the Pharisees concerning it, which occasioned this discourse. They asked when the kingdom of God should come, forming a notion of it as a temporal kingdom, which should advance the Jewish nation above the nations of the earth. They were impatient to hear some tidings of its approach; they understood, perhaps, that Christ had taught his disciples to pray for the coming of it, and they had long preached that it was at hand. “Now,” say the Pharisees, “when will that glorious view open? When shall we see this long-looked-for kingdom?”
II. Christ’s reply to this demand, directed to the Pharisees first, and afterwards to his own disciples, who knew better how to understand it (Luke 17:22); what he said to both, he saith to us.
1. That the kingdom of the Messiah was to be a spiritual kingdom, and not temporal and external. They asked when it would come. “You know not what you ask,” saith Christ; “it may come, and you not be aware of it.” For it has not an external show, as other kingdoms have, the advancements and revolutions of which are taken notice of by the nations of the earth, and fill the newspapers; so they expected this kingdom of God would do. “No,” saith Christ, (1.) “It will have a silent entrance, without pomp, without noise; it cometh not with observation,” meta paratereseos—with outward show. They desired to have their curiosity satisfied concerning the time of it, to which Christ does not give them any answer, but will have their mistakes rectified concerning the nature of it: “It is not for you to know the times of this kingdom, these are secret things, which belong not to you; but the great intentions of this kingdom, these are things revealed.” When Messiah the Prince comes to set up his kingdom, they shall not say, Lo here, or Lo there, as when a prince goes in progress to visit his territories it is in every body’s mouth, he is here, or he is there; for where the king is there is the court. Christ will not come with all this talk; it will not be set up in this or that particular place; nor will the court of that kingdom be here or there; nor will it be here or there as it respects the country men are of, or the place they dwell in, as if that would place them nearer to, or further from, that kingdom. Those who confine Christianity and the church to this place or that party, cry, Lo here, or Lo there, than which nothing is more contrary to the designs of catholic Christianity; so do they who make prosperity and external pomp a mark of the true church. (2.) “It has a spiritual influence: The kingdom of God is within you.” It is not of this world, John 18:36. Its glory does not strike men’s fancies, but affects their spirits, and its power is over their souls and consciences; from them it receives homage, and not from their bodies only. The kingdom of God will not change men’s outward condition, but their hearts and lives. Then it comes when it makes those humble, and serious, and heavenly, that were proud, and vain, and carnal,—when it weans those from the world that were wedded to the world; and therefore look for the kingdom of God in the revolutions of the heart, not of the civil government. The kingdom of God is among you; so some read it. “You enquire when it will come, and are not aware that it is already begun to be set up in the midst of you. The gospel is preached, it is confirmed by miracles, it is embraced by multitudes, so that it is in your nation, though not in your hearts.” Note, It is the folly of many curious enquirers concerning the times to come that they look for that before them which is already among them.
2. That the setting up of this kingdom was a work that would meet with a great deal of opposition and interruption, Luke 17:22. The disciples thought they should carry all before them, and expected a constant series of success in their work; but Christ tells them it would be otherwise: “The days will come, before you have finished your testimony and done your work, when you shall desire to see one of the days of the Son of man” (one such a day as we now have), “of the prosperity and progress of the gospel, and shall not see it. At first, indeed, you will have wonderful success” (so they had, when thousands were added to the church in a day); “but do not think it will be always so; no, you will be persecuted and scattered, silenced and imprisoned, so that you will not have opportunities of preaching the gospel without fear, as you now have; people will grow cool to it, when they have enjoyed it awhile, so that you will not see such harvests of souls gathered in to Christ afterwards as at first, nor such multitudes flocking to him as doves to their windows.” This looks forward to his disciples in after-ages; they must expect much disappointment; the gospel will not be always preached with equal liberty and success. Ministers and churches will sometimes be under outward restraints. Teachers will be removed into corners, and solemn assemblies scattered. Then they will wish to see such days of opportunity as they have formerly enjoyed, sabbath days, sacrament days, preaching days, praying days; these are days of the Son of man, in which we hear from him, and converse with him. The time may come when we may in vain wish for such days. God teaches us to know the worth of such mercies by the want of them. It concerns us, while they are continued, to improve them, and in the years of plenty to lay up in store for the years of famine. Sometimes they will be under inward restraints, will not have such tokens of the presence of the Son of man with them as they have had. The Spirit is withdrawn from them; they see not their signs; the angel comes not down to stir the waters; there is a great stupidity among the children of men, and a great lukewarmness among the children of God; then they shall wish to see such victorious triumphant days of the Son of man as they have sometimes seen, when he has ridden forth with his bow and his crown, conquering and to conquer, but they will not see them. Note, We must not think that Christ’s church and cause are lost because not always alike visible and prevailing.
3. That Christ and his kingdom are not to be looked for in this or that particular place, but his appearance will be general in all places at once (Luke 17:23, 24): “They will say to you, See here, or, See there; here is one that will deliver the Jews out of the hands of the oppressing Romans, or there is one that will deliver the Christians out of the hands of the oppressing Jews; here is the Messiah, and there is his prophet; here in this mountain, or there at Jerusalem, you will find the true church. Go not after them, nor follow them; do not heed such suggestions. The kingdom of God was not designed to be the glory of one people only, but to give light to the Gentiles; for as the lightning that lightens out of one part under heaven, and shines all on a sudden irresistibly to the other part under heaven, so shall also the Son of man be in his day.” (1.) “The judgments that are to destroy the Jewish nation, to lay them waste, and to deliver the Christians from them, shall fly like lightning through the land, shall lay all waste from one end of it to another; and those that are marked for this destruction can no more avoid it, nor oppose it, than they can a flash of lightning.” (2.) “The gospel that is to set up Christ’s kingdom in the world shall fly like lightning through the nations. The kingdom of the Messiah is not to be a local thing, but is to be dispersed far and wide over the face of the whole earth; it shall shine from Jerusalem to all parts about, and that in a moment. The kingdoms of the earth shall be leavened by the gospel ere they are aware of it.” The trophies of Christ’s victories shall be erected on the ruins of the devil’s kingdom, even in those countries that could never be subdued to the Roman yoke. The design of the setting up of Christ’s kingdom was not to make one nation great, but to make all nations good—some, at least, of all nations; and this point shall be gained, though the nations rage, and the kings of the earth set themselves with all their might against it.
4. That the Messiah must suffer before he must reign (Luke 17:25): “First must he suffer many things, many hard things, and be rejected of this generation; and, if he be thus treated, his disciples must expect no other than to suffer and be rejected too for his sake.” They thought of having the kingdom of the Messiah set up in external splendour: “No,” saith Christ, “we must go by the cross to the crown. The Son of man must suffer many things. Pain, and shame, and death, are those many things. He must be rejected by this generation of unbelieving Jews, before he be embraced by another generation of believing Gentiles, that his gospel may have the honour of triumphing over the greatest opposition from those who ought to have given it the greatest assistance; and thus the excellency of the power will appear to be of God, and not of man; for, though Israel be not gathered, yet he will be glorious to the ends of the earth.”
5. That the setting up of the kingdom of the Messiah would introduce the destruction of the Jewish nation, whom it would find in a deep sleep of security, and drowned in sensuality, as the old world was in the days of Noah, and Sodom in the days of Lot, Luke 17:26 Observe,
(1.) How it had been with sinners formerly, and in what posture the judgments of God, of which they had been fairly warned, did at length find them. Look as far back as the old world, when all flesh had corrupted their way, and the earth was filled with violence. Come a little lower, and think how it was with the men of Sodom, who were wicked, and sinners before the Lord exceedingly. Now observe concerning both these, [1.] That they had fair warning given them of the ruin that was coming upon them for their sins. Noah was a preacher of righteousness to the old world; so was Lot to the Sodomites. They gave them timely notice of what would be in the end of their wicked ways, and that it was not far off. [2.] That they did not regard the warning given them, and gave no credit, no heed to it. They were very secure, went on in their business as unconcerned as you could imagine; they did eat, they drank, indulged themselves in their pleasures, and took no care of any thing else, but to make provision for the flesh, counted upon the perpetuity of their present flourishing state, and therefore married wives, and were given in marriage, that their families might be built up. They were all very merry; so were the men of Sodom, and yet very busy too: they bought, they sold, they planted, they builded. These were lawful things, but the fault was that they minded these inordinately, and their hearts were entirely set upon them, as that they had no heart at all to prepare against the threatened judgments. When they should have been, as the men of Nineveh, fasting and praying, repenting and reforming, upon warning given them of an approaching judgment, they were going on securely, eating flesh, and drinking wine, when God called to weeping and to mourning, Isa. 22:12, 13. [3.] That they continued in their security and sensuality, till the threatened judgment came. Until the day that Noah entered into the ark, and Lot went out of Sodom, nothing said or done to them served to alarm or awaken them. Note, Though the stupidity of sinners in a sinful way is as strange as it is without excuse, yet we are not to think it strange, for it is not without example. It is the old way that wicked men have trodden, that have gone slumbering to hell, as if their damnation slumbered while they did. [4.] That God took care for the preservation of those that were his, who believed and feared, and took the warning themselves which they gave to others. Noah entered into the ark, and there he was safe; Lot went out of Sodom, and so went out of harm’s way. If some run on heedless and headlong into destruction, that shall be no prejudice to the salvation of those that believe. [5.] That they were surprised with the ruin which they would not fear, and were swallowed up in it, to their unspeakable horror and amazement. The flood came, and destroyed all the sinners of the old world; fire and brimstone came, and destroyed all the sinners of Sodom. God has many arrows in his quiver, and uses which he will in making war upon his rebellious subjects, for he can make which he will effectual. But that which is especially intended here is to show what a dreadful surprise destruction will be to those who are secure and sensual.
(2.) How it will be with sinners still (Luke 17:30): Thus shall it be in the day when the Son of man is revealed. When Christ comes to destroy the Jewish nation, by the Roman armies, the generality of that nation will be found under such a reigning security and stupidity as this. They have warning given by Christ now, and will have it repeated to them by the apostles after him, as they had by Noah and Lot; but it will be all in vain. They will continue secure, will go on in their neglect and opposition of Christ and his gospel, till all the Christians are withdrawn from among them and gone to the place of refuge. God will provide for them on the other side Jordan, and then a deluge of judgments shall flow in upon them, which will destroy all the unbelieving Jews. One would have thought that this discourse of our Saviour’s, which was public, and not long after published to the world, should have awakened them; but it did not, for the hearts of that people were hardened, to their destruction. In like manner, when Jesus Christ shall come to judge the world, at the end of time, sinners will be found in the same secure and careless posture, altogether regardless of the judgment approaching, which will therefore come upon them as a snare; and in like manner the sinners of every age go on securely in their evil ways, and remember not their latter end, nor the account that they must give. Woe to them that are thus at ease in Zion.
6. That it ought to be the care of his disciples and followers to distinguish themselves from the unbelieving Jews in that day, and, leaving them, their city and country, to themselves, to flee at the signal given, according to the direction that should be given. Let them retire, as Noah to his ark, and Lot to his Zoar. You would have healed Jerusalem, as of old Babylon, but she is not healed, and therefore forsake her, flee out of the midst of her, and deliver every man his soul, Jer. 51:6, 9. This flight of theirs from Jerusalem must be expeditious, and must not be retarded by any concern about their worldly affairs (Luke 17:31): “He that shall be on the house-top, when the alarm is given, let him not come down, to take his stuff away, both because he cannot spare so much time, and because the carrying away of his effects will but encumber him and retard his flight.” Let him not regard his stuff at such a time, when it will be next to a miracle of mercy if he have his life given him for a prey. It will be better to leave his stuff behind him than to stay to look after it, and perish with them that believe not. It will be their concern to do as Lot and his family were charged to do: Escape for thy life. Save yourselves from this untoward generation. (2.) When they have made their escape, they must not think of returning (Luke 17:32): “Remember Lot’s wife; and take warning by her not only to flee from this Sodom (for so Jerusalem is become, Isa. 1:10), but to persevere in your flight, and do not look back, as she did; be not loth to leave a place marked for destruction, whomsoever or whatsoever you leave behind you, that is ever so dear to you.” Those who have left the Sodom of a natural state, let them go forward, and not so much as look a kind look towards it again. Let them not look back, lest they should be tempted to go back; nay, lest that be construed a going back in heart, or an evidence that the heart was left behind. Lot’s wife was turned into a pillar of salt, that she might remain a lasting monument of God’s displeasure against apostates, who begin in the spirit and end in the flesh. (3.) There would be no other way of saving their lives than by quitting the Jews, and, if they thought to save themselves by a coalition with them, they would find themselves mistaken (Luke 17:33): “Whosoever shall seek to save his life, by declining from his Christianity and complying with the Jews, he shall lose it with them and perish in the common calamity; but whosoever is willing to venture his life with the Christians, upon the same bottom on which they venture, to take his lot with them in life and in death, he shall preserve his life, for he shall make sure of eternal life, and is in a likelier way at that time to save his life than those who embark in a Jewish bottom, or ensure upon their securities.” Note, Those do best themselves that trust God in the way of duty.
7. That all good Christians should certainly escape, but many of them very narrowly, from that destruction, Luke 17:34-36. When God’s judgments are laying all waste, he will take an effectual course to preserve those that are his, by remarkable providences distinguishing between them and others that were nearest to them: two in a bed, one taken and the other left; one snatched out of the burning and taken into a place of safety, while the other is left to perish in the common ruin. Note, Though the sword devours one as well as another, and all things seem to come alike to all, yet sooner or later it shall be made to appear that the Lord knows them that are his and them that are not, and how to take out the precious from the vile. We are sure that the Judge of all the earth will do right; and therefore, when he sends a judgment on purpose to avenge the death of his Son upon those that crucified him, he will take care that none of those who glorified him, and gloried in his cross, shall be taken away by that judgment.
8. That this distinguishing, dividing, discriminating work shall be done in all places, as far as the kingdom of God shall extend, Luke 17:37. Where, Lord? They had enquired concerning the time, and he would not gratify their curiosity with any information concerning that; they therefore tried him with another question: “Where, Lord? Where shall those be safe that are taken? Where shall those perish that are left?” The answer is proverbial, and may be explained so as to answer each side of the question: Wheresoever the body is, thither will the eagles be gathered together. (1.) Wherever the wicked are, who are marked for perdition, they shall be found out by the judgments of God; as wherever a dead carcase is, the birds of prey will smell it out, and make a prey of it. The Jews having made themselves a dead and putrefied carcase, odious to God’s holiness and obnoxious to his justice, wherever any of that unbelieving generation is, the judgments of God shall fasten upon them, as the eagles do upon the prey: Thine hand shall find out all thine enemies (Ps. 21:8), though they set their nests among the stars, Obad. 1:4. The Roman soldiers will hunt the Jews out of all their recesses and fastnesses, and none shall escape. (2.) Wherever the godly are, who are marked for preservation, they shall be found happy in the enjoyment of Christ. As the dissolution of the Jewish church shall be extended to all parts, so shall the constitution of the Christian church. Wherever Christ is, believers will flock to him, and meet in him, as eagles about the prey, without being directed or shown the way, by the instinct of the new nature. Now Christ is where his gospel, and his ordinances, and his church are: For where two or three are gathered in his name there is he in the midst of them, and thither therefore others will be gathered to him. The kingdom of the Messiah is not to have one particular place for its metropolis, such as Jerusalem was to the Jewish church, to which all Jews were to resort; but, wherever the body is, wherever the gospel is preached and ordinances are ministered, thither will pious souls resort, there they will find Christ, and by faith feast upon him. Wherever Christ records his name he will meet his people, and bless them, John 4:21; 1 Tim. 2:8. Many good interpreters understand it of the gathering of the saints together to Christ in the kingdom of glory: “Ask not where the carcase will be, and how they shall find the way to it, for they shall be under infallible direction; to him who is their living, quickening Head, and the centre of their unity, to him shall the gathering of the people be.”
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