Thursday, May 27, 2010

Luke 17:20-37 Commentary

The Coming of the Kingdom of God
20 Once, having been asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, "The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, 21 nor will people say, 'Here it is,' or 'There it is,' because the kingdom of God is in your midst." [b]
22 Then he said to his disciples, "The time is coming when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, but you will not see it. 23 People will tell you, 'There he is!' or 'Here he is!' Do not go running off after them. 24 For the Son of Man in his day [c] will be like the lightning, which flashes and lights up the sky from one end to the other. 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 also will it be in the days of the Son of Man. 27 People were eating, drinking, marrying and being given in marriage up to the day Noah entered the ark. Then the flood came and destroyed them all.

28 "It was the same in the days of Lot. People were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building. 29 But the day Lot left Sodom, fire and sulfur rained down from heaven and destroyed them all.

30 "It will be just like this on the day the Son of Man is revealed. 31 On that day no one who is on the housetop, with possessions inside, should go down to get them. Likewise, no one in the field should go back for anything. 32 Remember Lot's wife! 33 Whoever tries to keep their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life will preserve it. 34 I tell you, on that night two people will be in one bed; one will be taken and the other left. 35-36 Two women will be grinding grain together; one will be taken and the other left."

37 "Where, Lord?" they asked.
He replied, "Where there is a dead body, there the vultures will gather."

Dig Deeper
A couple of years ago, the two term limits of the forty-third President of the United States, George W. Bush, came to an end. In the time leading up to that inevitability, new candidates rose up and campaigned for the office, making their case for why they should be the next President. There were many contenders but eventually it came down to two primary candidates, John McCain and Barack Obama. After nearly a year of contentious and nasty campaigning, the election day came and went and Barack Obama was declared to be the forty-fourth President of the Untied States. A few months after the traditional November Presidential elections, the United States typically holds an inauguration for the new President. At that time, the old President relinquishes his power and presidency to the new President. That all sounds very basic and obvious but there is a very real truth imbedded into that whole process. You cannot have two presidents of the United States at the same time. Once a new one has come the whole must go. That is, of course, a very peaceful process in the Untied States, but it’s not that way everywhere in the world. The sad reality is that in many places, an old president is only replaced by the new one after a bloody and violent war that was aimed at taking down the structure of the old president’s regime. In fact, occasionally a new and powerful leader will raise up in some country and offer a deal. If the old president will go peacefully then there will be no problem but if he continues to cling to his power and status then he will be destroyed and taken out.

The coming of God’s kingdom was a long-awaited event within Judaism. It was the time when God would finally establish his reign and rule on the earth and exalt Israel above all the other nations. When this kingdom would come they believed that God would do away with those who had persecuted his people and kept the kingdom from coming. Inherent to the coming of the new kingdom was the fact that the old ones must go. You cannot have two kingdoms that would rule over the earth. This much was clear and somewhat obvious. What the people of Jesus’ day missed, however, was the fact that he was sending the clear message that the real enemy was sin, not Rome, and in fact, that the kingdom that was most standing in the way of God’s kingdom, and setting herself up the most in opposition to the Messiah was Israel herself, as was most obviously represented by the Temple in Jerusalem. Yet that was the old kingdom and the old Temple. Luke has made it very clear for us that Jesus was the new Temple. So, the simple truth was going to apply. When the New Temple came, that meant that the old one had to go.

The question on the lips of the Pharisees concerning the coming of the kingdom demonstrates a major misunderstanding on their part as to what the kingdom was. They thought that it was something that could be specifically watched for and marked by careful, scientific-style observation. What were the signs? In what order would they come? When would God take out the pagans and set up his rule on earth? The common expectation was that the kingdom’s coming would be part of the Day of the Lord, the great day of judgment on the pagan nations, and that specific cosmic signs would foretell it’s coming. But Jesus’ answer was a curve ball. The coming of the kingdom was not solely a cataclysmic, end-of-days-type event. Nor would it be marked with that type of coming. His point for the Pharisees was that the kingdom was being made available in the present. What is translated “in your midst,” is probably better understood as “in your grasp” or within your reach.” They were waiting for the wrong kind of kingdom in the wrong sort of way, all the while the hope of the kingdom was right there in front of them embodied by Jesus. As the last story showed, when the healed Samaritan returned and did at the feet of Jesus what one would normally do at the Temple, Jesus was the new Temple. He was the embodiment of the kingdom of God and he was unleashing God’s future reign of the age to come in the present lives and family communities of those who would reach out and grasp it. They didn’t need to look for the coming of the kingdom in the sky because it was already breaking into the present age. They had all the signs they needed.

Jesus then turned his attention towards his disciples, although the Pharisees were no doubt still within earshot. The time of the great crisis was coming. With the coming of the new, the old would have to be clearly done away with. When that process started, the disciples would long to see one of the days of the Son of man, but they would not see it immediately. The kingdom would come but they would have to wait, like a newly elected President waiting for his final inauguration, for the final vindication of the Son of Man.

It seems that what Jesus had in mind when he referred to the days of the Son of Man comes from Daniel 7. Theologian NT Wright best sums up this thought, saying, “’The days of the son of man’ seems to refer to the days when, as in the prophecy of Daniel (chapter 7), the ‘one like a son of man’ will be vindicated by God after suffering. The sign of this will be the destruction of the oppressor, the power that has opposed God’s people and God’s purpose. In Daniel, this power is the fourth ‘beast’, the greatest of the pagan armies. For Jesus, in one of the most dramatic twists of thinking, the force that has most directly opposed his teaching and his kingdom ministry is official Israel itself, focused on the Temple and its hierarchy, and the Pharisees whose thinking and practice derived from the Temple.” Wright goes on to say that Jesus time and again in Luke “warns of awful destruction coming upon his contemporaries for their failure to heed his message. Now he uses the ‘apocalyptic’ language of some Jewish prophecy to ram the same warnings home home. ‘The days of the son of man’ are the days in which this figure, representing God’s true people, is finally vindicated after his suffering.”

The big question is what form would that vindication take. The answer to that question seems to be the destruction of Jerusalem and the fall of the Temple (Luke will return to make this point even clearer in chapter 21). The people of the Temple had dug their feet in and refused to accept Jesus as Israel’s Messiah and that would seal their fate. They had become the enemy of God’s kingdom movement and God would one day soon vindicate the Son of Man by replacing the old Temple once-and-for-all with the new Temple, the body of the Messiah, which would consist of those who had entered into Christ by the time that the Temple was actually and finally destroyed in 70 AD.

This vindication event would not be an end-of-the-world event. Jesus was not talking about his final return and the time of the resurrection (Acts 1:11. Many Christians tend to read passages like this and assume immediately that we’re talking end-of-the-world here but that would be completely out of context with the larger context of the journey to Jerusalem and the mission to warn Israel of the coming disaster. Despite the fact that a lot of books have been sold in the last generation or two that have sensationalized passages like this (and chapter 21 as well), that just does not appear to be what this passage is about. There will be a time, of course, when Christ does return to restore all things (see, for instance, Matt. 19:28; Acts 3:21; Rev. 21:1-5), to break into the present age , and when judgment will come down disastrously on those who have ignored God’s call to join his kingdom.

This was all going to happen, though, to “this generation,” the people that would reject the Messiah would be the same generation to see him vindicated. The term “this generation” echoes Luke 7:31 as well as the people of the Exodus generation who were stubborn, stiff-necked, rebellious, and turned away from God’s purposes. They would be judged just as life was going on as it always had, just as the people of Noah’s day and the people of Sodom were when disastrous judgment befell them.

When that day came, Jesus’ disciples would need to maintain their focus on the kingdom of God and realize that what seemed like a national calamity at the hands of the mighty Roman army, was, in fact, the vindication of the Son of Man. Misplaced allegiance and looking back at one’s possessions or their life in Jerusalem would end in destruction, just as Lot’s wife looking back brought about her destruction. The tried and true reality of the Christian life, that whoever would lose their life would save it, would be realized during this event in a very real way. Choices needed to be be made and they would need to flee rather than trying to preserve the physical attachments of their lives in the present age. When this judgment came, loyalties would be revealed as one would be taken in judgment while others left. They had better know what was going on and not attach themselves to any sort of nationalistic feelings that would lead them to try to preserve Israel. This was not, in the reality of things, a disaster for God’s people but it was a simple vindication of the true Temple as the old one fell.

Verse 37 could be taken literally, which is pretty self-explanatory in that case. There is another possibility, however. The word “aetos” usually means “eagle,” but can also be translated “vulture.” Due to the reference of dead bodies, many translators have favored the rendering “vulture.” Yet, more likely in my opinion, is that “eagle” was the intended meaning of the phrase. The Roman legions used the eagle as the symbol on their imperial standards, so it is quite possible that Jesus was making a somewhat cryptic reference to Rome. Where would all this take place, the disciples wanted to know. The eagles of Rome would be swarming all over the corpse of the nation of Israel, would be the answer if this option is the correct one.

Just because this prophetic passage was warning of something that, for us, took place nearly two thousand years ago, when Jerusalem and her Temple were destroyed just as Jesus promised, does not mean that we should quickly slide by this passage thinking there is nothing in there for us. This coming judgment and vindication do point to the ultimate coming of Christ for which we all wait. God’s restoring and reconciling kingdom are within our grasp and waiting for us to take on the role of ambassadors. But for those who continue to reject him, a day of judgment is fast approaching.

Devotional Thought
Jesus here called for his disciples to stay focused on the kingdom of God even when circumstances around them got extremely difficult. They would need to have their loyalties to God’s kingdom set firmly above any national loyalties. Do you strive to have that same heart? Are your loyalties to God’s kingdom set firmly above your loyalties to anything else?

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