Today’s reading comes from Luke 17:20-37 (ESV):
The Coming of the Kingdom
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.”
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. 25 But first he must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation. 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. 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. 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.”
Jesus looks like he’s contradicting himself.
“The kingdom of God is not coming in ways that can be observed,” he says (v. 20). Yet, “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 glory” (v. 24). In my Bible, the editors have grouped the whole section from v. 20 to v. 37 under the heading “The Coming of the Kingdom,” suggesting, intuitively, that the coming of the kingdom of God and the coming of the Son of Man are the same event. If that’s right, Jesus is somehow saying that it will be both unobservable and as obvious as a flash of lightning.
That doesn’t make sense, and I first tried to make it make sense by separating the coming of the kingdom of God and the coming of the Son of Man as entirely different events. “Aha!” I said to my Bible, “You’ve placed the section headings in the wrong place!” Yet after reviewing what the rest of Luke says about the kingdom of God, I’ve come to believe that my first instinct was only partly correct. I now think the coming of the Son of Man is one stage of the coming of the kingdom of God. It’s an advanced stage, but still a part. Already, the kingdom of God has come in its first stage. This is why Jesus says, “the kingdom of God is in the midst of you” (v. 20).
Jesus himself likens the kingdom’s arrival to a multi-stage event earlier in Luke. He compares it to a mustard seed and to leaven: the mustard seed starts small but grows, and, likewise, the leaven, when mixed with flour, transforms from useless powder to nourishing bread (Lk 13:18-20).
What we see here is what some have called the “already, not yet” aspect of the kingdom of God, or, more technically, “inaugurated eschatology.” It means the kingdom is already here, but it has not yet become what it will be. The coming of this first stage is a big deal. Indeed, Jesus says at the start of his ministry, “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns as well; for I was sent for this purpose” (Lk 4:43). Jesus has his followers preach it: “he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal” (Lk 8:2; cf. Lk 9:60; Lk 10:9, 11).
So Jesus isn’t contradicting himself. Still, we might wonder if the first stage is really worth all the hullaballoo. I think it is. As I see it, three things happen in the first stage: experiences of awe, the creation of hope, and the teaching of a future-oriented way of living. All of these, of course, come from Jesus. First, through Jesus’s miraculous healings, people are “seized with amazement” and “filled with awe” (Lk 5:26). They cry “God has visited his people!” and they are “astonished at the majesty of God” (Lk 7:16; 9:43). Second, Jesus creates hope: he and his followers explain that healing is only the first taste of what will come. In the future, the poor will be uplifted, the captives will be set free, the blind will gain sight, and the oppressed will be liberated (Lk 4:18-19). Third, Jesus teaches people to live in a future-oriented way. In the Sermon on the Mount, as I’ve reflected on elsewhere, this way of living calls for turning the other cheek and giving to those who beg, despite rational objections to such a way of living (Lk 6:27-36). It’s a topsy-turvy ethic in which losing your life saves your life and those who are least are those who are great (Lk 9:24, 9:48).
Elsewhere Jesus makes it clear that the kingdom will also exist in the future. It is a place where people will “recline at table” with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, along with people from all over the world (Lk 13:28-30). Jesus tells people to pray that the kingdom of God will come (Lk 11:2; 12:31).
In the bizarre remainder of today’s passage, Jesus discusses the coming of the future stage of the kingdom of God. He likens its coming to a time when fire and sulfur rained from heaven, and he implies that some people will be “taken” and others will be “left” (vv. 34-35). While I am confused by the violence and enigma surrounding the coming of the kingdom, as this passage expresses, I find it helpful to remember that the kingdom in its fullness can’t be fundamentally bad. On the contrary, it must be the continuation of what we’ve already seen in the first stage. That means greater reasons for awe, the fulfillment of hopes of freedom, and the universal adoption of an ethic of self-sacrificial love.
On the day, I will shout, with more gusto that did the witnesses to Jesus in ancient Palestine, “We have seen amazing things today,” as I gape in awe at the majesty of God. I have done it in small measure already; I will do it again in greater glory. For those of us who believe we’ve experienced something of the majesty of God, we must remember that these tastes point to the coming kingdom, which must be good, and let that fuel our life’s work. Let us pray for the kingdom to come. And let us seek it, living out Jesus’ future-oriented ethic for the revelation of God’s love for others.
Peter Hickman ’16 is an Applied Math concentrator in Leverett House. He is editor-in-chief emeritus of the Ichthus. He turned in his senior thesis shortly before he wrote this.