Luke 17:20-37

All the Jews of that time, readers of the Bible as they were and believers in biblical prophecy as they were, expected at some point what the prophets called “The Day of the Lord.” Like their ancestors, they tended to indulge the illusion that the direct and catastrophic intervention by God in the affairs of the world would prove good news for them: God would punish their enemies and vindicate his people by restoring them to their rightful greatness among the nations. What Amos and other OT prophets had had to do was disabuse their countrymen of that fatal illusion.

Woe to you who desire the day of the Lord!
Why would you have the day of the Lord?
It is darkness, and not light,
As if a man fled from a lion, and a bear met him,
or went into the house and leaned his hand against the wall and a serpent bit him.
Is not the day of the Lord darkness, and not light,
and gloom with no brightness in it? [Amos 5:18-20]

It is something like that we hear from Jesus in the text we are about to read. It is a passage concerned with the coming judgment and the importance of being prepared. In ancient Israel the prophets urged the people, “Prepare to meet your God,” precisely because they were not prepared. They took their status for granted. The Lord faced the same unwarranted confidence in his contemporaries and the Pharisees particularly.

Most of you are aware that there are among interpreters of the Bible roughly — and I mean roughly — three views of how the world is going to come to its end. All three are defined by how they understand those many prophesies in the Bible that seem to suggest that at some point in the future there will be a time of great triumph for the kingdom of God in history, that is during the life of this world and before it is destroyed to be remade again as heaven. Call it the golden age of the kingdom of God. For some the golden age will come before the second coming of Jesus Christ and will be, if we can put it this way, the mother of all revivals. For others the golden age will come after the second coming and will be ushered in by the physical appearance of the Lord Christ in the world for the second time. For others there is no golden age and the prophecies that seem to speak of one should be understood rather to refer to heaven or, perhaps, only by hyperbole to speak of the spread of the gospel through the world as we have witnessed it over these last two thousand years. In that view we are now living in the golden age, such as it is.

The golden age of the gospel and the kingdom of God is not the subject of the Lord’s remarks we are about to read, but I need to mention these different schools of interpretation, these different eschatologies, because, as a result of these broader views and larger concepts, and because people bring to the Lord’s teaching here an already existing understanding of how future events will unfold, they interpret the verses we are about to read quite differently.

I am going to treat the Lord’s remarks as having to do with the Second Coming and the end of history, but a number of good men and competent scholars of the post-millennial school of interpretation, an interpretation that has undergone a revival in our generation, that is, those who hold that the golden age comes before the Second Coming of Jesus Christ — that is the Second Coming is post or after the golden age — take this text, as they take the text with many similarities to it in Matthew 24, as referring to the events leading up to the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in A.D. 70. To over-simplify, the reason they favor and must favor such an interpretation of Luke 17 and Matthew 24 is that neither text seems to suggest that there will be a great world-wide revival before the Second Coming. So it is to their advantage to understand that the Lord was not talking about the Second Coming here but was talking about an event that now lies behind us almost 2,000 years. They may be right, but I don’t think they are. There are reasons why most of Christendom has not thought the Lord was talking about A.D. 70 here but indeed about his Second Coming at the end of the world.

Three of the principal reasons are these: 1) statements we find here in Luke 17 are found elsewhere in NT in passages that are unmistakably about the Second Coming; 2) the scope and intensity of his description of the coming of the kingdom fit better, much better I would say, with the Second Coming than with the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70; and 3) in my opinion and that of others, the destruction of Jerusalem simply does not loom as large in the NT’s scheme of redemptive history as these interpreters believe. So let us read about the Second Coming of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Text Comment

v.21     You may remember that the KJV reads here: “the kingdom of God is within in you,” a translation that virtually no one supports nowadays, but which did a lot of mischief in its day!

            The sense of the first two verses is that the kingdom of God is nothing like what the Pharisees were expecting. It was already among them in the person and work of Jesus, who exercised rule over disease, over the weather, and over the hearts of men. But the Pharisees couldn’t recognize it because they were hard of heart and lacking faith.

v.22     Notice now an important detail: the audience has shifted. The Pharisees may have been listening in, but the Lord was now directing his words to his disciples. It appears the Lord was telling them that they will have to wait for the final coming of the Lord’s kingdom; it will not proceed directly from triumph to triumph.

v.24     Some will say that the kingdom has come, but the coming of the  Lord’s kingdom will not be some secret. When it comes everyone will know it. But other things must happen before it comes.

v.25     The one thing the Jews were utterly unprepared for was for the coming of the Lord’s kingdom to require the suffering and death of the Messiah. It was taught and predicted by the Old Testament prophets in such grand passages as Isaiah 53, but it had been virtually wiped from the collective memory of the church. This was not part of their eschatology, their view of the future.

v.27     Until the coming of the kingdom of God life will continue in its ordinary round. So it was in the days of Noah. People imagined that the world would continue as it always had, so they took no notice of Noah and what he was doing to save himself and his family. And then it was too late.

v.30     Another illustration of the same power of the routine of life to dull human hearts to the sudden coming of divine judgment, this from the story of Lot and the destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. The people of those cities took no notice of the righteous man who lived among them or of the fact that he ran from the city on the morning of that last fateful day.

            As you know, neither Noah nor Lot was a paragon of virtue, but both men realized that judgment must come and took measures to save themselves. The Christian message is not for those who think they deserve better than their neighbors, but for those who in the midst of a virtual universal complacency, realize the desperate nature of their situation and seek answer to the question that matters above all others: “What must I do to be saved?” [T.W. Manson in Morris, 278]

v.32     When the judgment comes men will be so clueless that they will want to protect their possessions or finish their day’s work. They will be prisoners of their own complacency. Do not be like them, the Lord is telling his disciples. Lot’s wife is a cautionary tale. She came as close as could be to being rescued, but, at the last minute, she lingered, unwilling to leave behind the world she knew even at the very moment it was being destroyed.

v.33     The context requires us to read the Lord as saying “whoever seeks to preserve his life now, seeking what this world has to offer, will lose their lives then, when Christ comes again; but whoever loses his life now, by surrendering it to Christ, will keep it then, when the catastrophe comes.

v.35     That day will bring a separation between people, in the context obviously a separation between people on account of their respective views of the Lord Jesus. [Morris, 279] Though there has been an argument about this, it seems most natural to take “taken” as meaning taken by the Lord out of the community that is going to be judged and destroyed as Noah and Lot were taken out of the world before the flood and Sodom before its destruction. [Bock, ii, 1437] Paul says a similar thing in 1 Thess. 4:17 about the saints at the Second Coming: they will be taken up.

v.37     You will notice that there is no verse 36; verse 35 is followed by v. 37. The KJV had another verse that repeated the thought of the previous two and is found in a parallel text in Matthew 24:40. In most of the best and earliest manuscripts of the Gospel of Luke, v. 36, a third illustration of the same point, is missing.

            The point of the concluding proverb is simply that you’ll know it when it happens. As the presence of vultures infallibly indicates where the corpse is, so there will be no need to search for the coming of the Son of Man. It will be like the lightning, as he said in v. 24. You won’t be able to help knowing that the day has arrived.

Ordinarily when the Lord spoke to his disciples, their lives, as they were living them or as they would later live them, were the horizon of his remarks. But, from time to time he lifted his gaze and theirs to distant events, to the consummation, and to the end of the world. To events, indeed, that would come to pass long after they had died. Christianity, first and foremost, is an account of human history, from its beginning to its end.

The Jews, and all of the Lord’s disciples at this time were Jews, had an eschatology, a view of the last events that were to befall the world. The Messiah would come — all but the Sadducees were clear about that — there would be a resurrection of the just and the unjust, and the history of the world would issue finally into the life of heaven and hell. That much they had gathered from the prophets of old. Brought up on these beliefs, when they came to the conviction that Jesus was indeed the long-promised Messiah, and when they heard him proclaim the arrival of the kingdom of God, it was natural for them to assume that the consummation of history was upon them, that the end of all things was near. How exciting that must have been for them. How eagerly they awaited the unfolding of events. How hard it was for them to fathom what the Lord Jesus meant when he talked about his suffering and his rejection by the Jews.

Of course, many Jews refused to believe the evidence of their eyes and would not accept that Jesus was the Messiah. They had another idea of who and what the Messiah would be and Jesus did not meet their expectations. But for the disciples they had long since realized that Jesus was the Messiah and that in him the kingdom of God was coming into the world.

Now, to be sure, v. 22 and its intimation of delay in the coming of the kingdom did not register with them at this point any more than v. 25, another forecast of the Lord’s passion. At this point they had no concept as Jews or, as Christians for that matter, that after the kingdom of God had come in the life, ministry, death, resurrection and ascension of the Lord Jesus, the Spirit of God would be sent down at Pentecost to equip the fledgling church to take the good news of salvation in Christ to the four corners of the world. They certainly were not expecting that this great work of world salvation would occupy already now two thousand years since the Lord returned to heaven. They had no concept — nor do I think one can read the prophets of the OT and think that they might have been expected to develop the concept — of two comings of the Messiah, one to make atonement and the other to bring in the consummation of all things.

Nor, for the same reason, could they have imagined that the Messiah’s first coming would be separated from his second coming by thousands of years. Only, later, when matters had become clearer to them, do we find New Testament writers, such as the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews at the end of his chapter 9 or Peter in the third chapter of his second letter, teaching about the future in much the same way that Jesus did here in Luke 17. The second coming of the Lord is an important part of the gospel message in the New Testament — someone has made a count and the second coming is mentioned some 300 times in the NT, that is once for every thirteen verses — but it was a part of the message that the Lord’s disciples did not understand at all until after he had risen from the dead and ascended to heaven. Events made clear what had not been clear before: Jesus was to come twice and the final consummation, the breaking in of divine judgment upon the entire world, the end of history, the vindication of God’s Word and God’s people, and the final disclosure of the destiny of every human life would not occur until that second coming.

Now there is a sense, one sense, in which we find ourselves in a similar position to that of the Pharisees. They wanted to know Jesus’ opinion about the coming of the kingdom. There were all manner of opinions current in the Judaism of their day as to when and how and with what effect the kingdom of God would come. People were looking for signs that the kingdom was drawing near. Religious teachers proposed speculative scenarios about when and how the kingdom would come in the same way that there have been such speculations among Christians about the second coming ever since. Generations of believers have thought that the Lord would come again during their lifetime and, so far, they have all been mistaken. They have read the prophets to teach that this empire or that, this natural catastrophe or that, this great leader or that was the very sign of the coming of the kingdom prophesied by Isaiah or Ezekiel and, so far, they have all been mistaken.

In regard to all such matters, the disciples would have been mistaken as well, a point proved again and again in the later chapters of the Gospel of Luke. They were intensely interested in the coming of the kingdom. We will find them frequently asking him about the future in the later chapters of Luke. But they were confused and would remain confused because they interpreted everything he said about the future according to a paradigm of interpretation that was fundamentally mistaken. They did not know that he was leaving the world to return to heaven; they did not anticipate ages to intervene before he returned; and they did not appreciate at this point that the Gentiles were going to loom as large as they would in and among the people of God. And, frankly, in many respects we know as little as they do; we have often been as mistaken in our own way as they were; and we often miss the forest because we are fascinated with the trees, just as they were. We too find it far too easy to concentrate on the wrong question.

You may have noticed that the question the Lord was asked was “when would the kingdom of God come?” As was often his practice, he didn’t answer that question at all. He took the question as evidence of a fundamental failure to grasp the true meaning of the kingdom of God. And his reply indicated that there was another issue far more important that should have been the focus of their inquiry. He did the same thing a number of times, if you remember, when a question unwittingly revealed a failure to grasp the nettle of the real issue of life.

Remember when he was asked whether there would be few who would be saved?  He didn’t answer that question either. Instead he spoke of the necessity of striving to enter through the narrow door because many fail to do that and are lost as a result. Abstract, theoretical concerns can prevent a person from facing the practical issue; they can be a means of evasion rather than a genuine and sincere seeking after knowledge. Here, in the same way, he does not tell the Pharisees or his disciples what they want to know. He tells them what they need to know; viz. that whenever the kingdom of God comes in its finality, you must be ready, you must have lost your life already, so that you can keep it when everyone around you is losing his or hers. The question that matters is not when the kingdom of God would come, we’ve been bandying that question about for two thousand years to absolutely no benefit whatsoever, the issue is that the kingdom of God is coming and the question is what is going to happen when it comes.

The problem with speculations, scenarios, and with concentration on such issues of interpretation as still bedevil the Christian church after all of these two thousand years of failure to get it right is today precisely what it was in the Lord’s day and, long before him, in the days of the prophets. We still want to know when no matter that the Lord was concerned to remind us that the kingdom of God was coming. In the final analysis, who cares when? What matters is that all of this will someday occur; what then for you and for me?

The general and unmistakable burden of the Lord’s remarks, you can’t miss it as you read them through, is that the coming of the kingdom “will mean irrevocable disaster for a heedless and unprepared generation.” [Caird, 197] What is more, one cannot wait to prepare for the coming of the kingdom because its coming will not be visible to anyone ahead of time. Clever biblical scholars will not be able to read the signs and tell us that we have five years, or six months, or even ten days. Time will pass, generations come and go, life will go on as always before, vast numbers of people will live in complete indifference to divine judgment. Husbands and wives will be lying side by side in their beds asleep, farmers will be in their fields when the kingdom of God comes, which, of course, they would not be if they knew it was coming. No one would go to bed if he or she knew that before a new day dawned the world would have come to its end. No one would go to work if he knew that the world as we know it would end before his shift.

The kingdom of God will come, as it came before, and when it comes this time it will not come on cat’s feet, but will overwhelm an unsuspecting world suddenly and catastrophically. People will have no idea that it is coming and then at once everyone will know it has come. But for so many it will then be too late.

Just as, in the time of Noah and Lot, a period of tranquility, in which men were engrossed in daily pursuits –many of them evil and offensive to God — and totally indifferent to the danger that threatened them, ended in a day of cataclysm from which those alone escaped who had taken resolute action and who had heeded the warning that had been given; so the days of the Son of Man will end in a day which will break in upon man’s ordinary occupations and preoccupations so that of the closest of companions one will be caught and the other survive.” [Caird, 197-198] A husband and wife lying abed, one taken, the other left. No time to prepare then; no possibility of realigning one’s life and one’s commitments. No time for becoming a follower of Christ then. It is the suddenness, the catastrophic nature of the event upon which the Lord Jesus lays his terrible emphasis here. No opportunity to go back into one’s house for his coat, to return to the field to finish that last row or to pick up something left behind. All is over. All is forever fixed. There can be no more going on with life when life itself has been brought to a shuddering halt. Everything that men thought so important will immediately become useless.

Last Sunday was Super Bowl Sunday. More than a hundred million Americans watched the game on television. How many of them, do you suppose, at any time throughout that day, before, during, or after the game, felt even the slightest shudder pass through them at the thought of all these people, going on with life with not a thought of the impending catastrophe that awaits those who have not lost their lives to Jesus Christ. Jesus never spoke truer words than when he spoke of the days before the coming of the Son of Man, how people will be eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building with nary a thought about all of this coming to a shattering end.

They used to say that the “Cinderella” of the Apostles’ Creed — the dogma or tenet that was most overlooked — was “I believe in the Holy Spirit.” Nowadays, I suspect, the “Cinderella” of the Apostles’ Creed is “he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.” Some of that is the result of two thousand years of waiting and the inevitable loss of concentration on an event that seems never to come; some of it is the consequence of far too much foolish speculation among Christians, speculation that has served basically to diminish our interest in looking for the Second Coming or to fuel our suspicion that the Second Coming will never occur; some of it is the timidity of Christians who fear being laughed at for proclaiming the return of Christ; but it is mostly worldliness, as the Lord made clear here. We are beguiled by this world and the things of this world. We want them to continue. It is far easier for a Christian man in the Sudan, suffering terrible want of the necessities of life and fearing for the life of his children, I say it is far easier for such a man to believe in the Second Coming and the Judgment of the wicked than it is for comfortable American Christians to do so.

But, no matter whether the Lord comes sooner or later, death fixes the position of every human being before and in anticipation of the catastrophic appearance of the Lord at the end of history. As the Lord himself taught, at the resurrection his followers would be vindicated and rewarded, and those who did not follow him will be cast into hell. In that respect there will be no difference between those who are alive when he comes and those who died long ago. The Second Coming may still be a long way off, but it reaches backward into time whenever a person dies. Death is the Second Coming in miniature.

Lou Turner, whose funeral was in this sanctuary last Wednesday, went to bed that night several weeks ago fully expecting to wake in the morning as she always had before. She had no expectation whatsoever that a fire would break out at Life Manor where she was living, produce lethal amounts of smoke, and that her life was to end or, at least, he conscious life that very night. So it is for everyone. You must lose your life while you can; if you wish to keep it when you must! What we know to be human life in this world will not last forever and when that life comes to an end, as it must, all will be settled. Everything that mattered so much to us before will count for nothing then. Or, in Robert Lewis Stevenson’s memorable image: there will be no “doctoring of a toothache on the Judgment Day.”

Now that you have been warned, you will be wise if you act accordingly.