April 6 (2): Luke 17:21-24

The Eschatological Discourse (sometimes called the “Olivet Discourse” from Mark 13:3 par) refers to a block of teaching by Jesus on future events as recorded in the Synoptic Gospels. The Gospel setting presents this as a single discourse, spoken by Jesus during his last week in Jerusalem (Mark 13, Matthew 24, Luke 21:5-36); however, it seems likely that different sayings and discourses of Jesus have been gathered together in the tradition, due to the common subject matter. On the other hand, one might argue that the days before his upcoming death would be an appropriate time for Jesus to address such matters. At the very least, the prophecy regarding the destruction of the temple (Mark 13:1-2; Matthew 24:1-2) seems to fit in the current Gospel position.

Perhaps no portion of the Gospels is more controversial, or bristles with more (serious) interpretative difficulties, than these chapters. For now, I wish to look at a section of Jesus’ eschatological teaching in Luke, which the author presents as taking place prior to Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem (Luke 17:20-27), though there are also parallels to portions of it in Matthew’s “Olivet” discourse (24:17, 23, 27, 28, 36-41). I will discuss the famous saying in verse 21, and then briefly touch upon an interesting phrase found in vv. 23-24ff.

Luke 17:21

In response to a question from the Pharisees asking when the kingdom of God would come (v. 20), Jesus responds first: ou)k e&rxetai h( basilei/a tou= qeou= meta\ parathrh/sew$, ou)de\ e)rou=sin: i)dou\ w!de h& e)kei=, “the kingdom of God does not come with close watching [lit. watching alongside], and they shall not say ‘See here!’ or ‘[See] there!'” (v. 20b, 21a). The same language (“See here, see there”) also occurs at v. 23 (with similar sayings in Mark 13:21; Matthew 24:23). In Matthew and Mark the reference is specifically to people saying “Here/there is the Messiah!”, whereas in Luke both references are unspecified: the first refers to the kingdom of God, the second presumably is to the Son of Man (or the “day” of the Son of Man [see below]). In all instances, we are dealing with people claiming that the Messiah (or the Kingdom of God / Son of Man) is to be found in a specific location or with a specific person. Regarding those who make such claims, Jesus warns “do not go from (where you are) and do not pursue (after them)” (Luke 17:23). The phrasing Jesus uses in v. 20b is interesting: does it mean “the kingdom does not come as the result of close watching” or “the kingdom does not come so as to be perceived through close watching”? The latter sense is probably to be preferred, as the point seems to be that the kingdom cannot be perceived visibly (by means of the senses); however, I think the verb also indicates the effort of watching closely which does not help one see (much less bring about) the kingdom of God (cf. John 3:3).

What of the concluding phrase (v. 21b)? — ga\r h( basilei/a tou= qeou= e)nto\$ u(mw=n e)stin, “for the kingdom of God is e)nto\$ you (pl.)” The main difficulty is how to understand e)nto/$, an adverb (used as a preposition) related to e)n (“in”), which would normally be translated “within, inside”. Where this word occurs elsewhere in the New Testament (Matthew 23:26) or in the Greek translation of Psalm 39:4; 103:1; 109:22; Isa 16:11, it is used rather concretely—the OT passages all refer to the heart or organs within/inside a person. It can also be used in a more general sense (spatially or temporally), “within the limits of” or “within reach of”. However, in nearly every instance a singular object is involved.

There are several possible interpretations:

  1. Mystical-spiritual: This involves a literal translation, i.e., the kingdom of God is within the heart/soul of believers, on the spiritual (or psychological) level. This certainly would make a suitable contrast to a visible/sensual coming of the kingdom. However, it is difficult to find many other passages in the Synoptic Gospels (Luke, in particular), where Jesus refers to the kingdom of God in this manner; but it may still be consonant with Jesus’ teaching (see references in John [3:3, 5; 18:36], and note the variant reading in the Lord’s Prayer [Luke 11:2] which connects the coming of the kingdom with the coming of the Spirit). A number of early translators (Old Latin, Vulgate, Peshitta) seem to have understood the verse this way, as did Church Fathers such as Origen and Gregory of Nyssa (but no doubt influenced by their own orthodox ‘gnostic’ approach). The real difficulty with this interpretation is grammatical—the plural personal object (u(mw=n).
  2. Communal-collective: In light of the plural pronoun, one might better understand e)nto/$ as “among, within the limits/confines of”. Normally, this would be expressed more simply with the preposition e)n, which, when  the object involves a group of people, often means “among”; thus, the use of e)nto/$ to express this would be a bit strange. But if “among” is the correct sense, there are still several possibilities, one of which is that the kingdom refers to believers in the midst of the people at large.
  3. Hidden kingdom: The meaning could still be “among” or “in the midst of”, but with an emphasis on the invisible presence of the Kingdom—i.e., that God is working (in the person of Jesus, or by the Holy Spirit) in the midst of the people, but without it being readily apparent to the senses.
  4. Kingdom “at hand”: This interpretation understands e)nto/$ as “within reach, close”. This would fit the early Gospel message that the kingdom of God “has come near” (h&ggiken) (Mark 1:15 par., and esp. Luke 21:31). Or, perhaps it should be understood in a temporal sense: the kingdom of God will soon/suddenly appear.

All of these interpretations have merit, but I think that (3) probably comes closest to what Luke (and Jesus himself) originally intended.

There are several other parallel versions of this saying, which may (or may not) be derived from Luke 17:21:

    • (Coptic) Gospel of Thomas §3: Jesus said, “If those who lead you say, ‘See, the Kingdom is in the sky,’ then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you, ‘It is in the sea,’ then the fish will precede you. Rather, the Kingdom is inside of you, and it is outside of you. When you come to know yourselves, then you will become known, and you will realize that it is you who are the sons of the living Father. But if you will not know yourselves, you dwell in poverty and it is you who are that poverty.” (translation Thomas O. Lambdin)
    • Gospel of Thomas §113 (Coptic): His disciples said to Him, “When will the Kingdom come?” <Jesus said,> “It will not come by waiting for it. It will not be a matter of saying ‘Here it is’ or ‘There it is.’ Rather, the Kingdom of the Father is spread out upon the earth, and men do not see it.” (Lambdin)
    • Gospel of Thomas (Greek):  Jesus said, “If those who attract you say, ‘See, the Kingdom is in the sky,’ then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you, ‘It is under the earth,’ then the fish of the sea will precede you. Rather, the Kingdom of God is inside of you, and it is outside of you. [Those who] become acquainted with [themselves] will find it; [and when you] become acquainted with yourselves, [you will understand that] it is you who are the sons of the living Father. But if you will not know yourselves, you dwell in poverty and it is you who are that poverty.” (Oxyrhynchus Papyrus 654.9-16, translation Grenfell-Hunt)

Luke 17:22-24

Verses 22-37 constitute another block of eschatological teaching, which may have originally been said in a different context from vv. 20-21 (these two portions were likely joined early on as a result of “catchword-bonding”). At first glance, this seems to present a more conventional “futurist” eschatology (as opposed to the “realized eschatology” of vv. 20-21). But here there are also some difficulties; I will mention just two:

  1. Jesus says to his disciples, e)leu/sontai h(me/rai o%te e)piqumh/sete mi/an tw=n h(merw=n tou= ui(ou= tou= a)nqrw/pou i)dei=n kai\ ou)k o&yesqe, “days will come when you will desire to see one of the days of the Son of Man and you will not look-with-eyes (upon it) [i.e. see it]”. What exactly are these “days of the Son of Man”? And what does it mean to refer to “one” (mi/a) of these days? The plural “days” (repeated in v. 26) is a bit peculiar—does it have any concrete significance, or is merely used as grammatical parallel (in context) to “the days of Noah” (v. 26) and “the days of Lot” (v. 28)? I wonder if the plural does indicate a general temporal period (similar to the “days” of Noah), which is in some sense contrasted with the “day” (singular) of the Son of Man in verse 24—the singular “day”, then, would not be a period of time as much as a specific representation of the Son of Man himself (in his appearing), much like the phrase “day of the Lord”. If so, then “one of the days” might indicate the possibility of deception (emphasized in v. 23)—in other words, a warning is implied: beware of seeking a specific temporal manifestation of the kingdom. The Son of Man in his day (e)n th=| h(me/ra| au)tou=, omitted in some MSS: Ë75 B D it) will appear suddenly and completely (like a lightning flash that fills the sky, v. 24).
  2. However, this image of the sudden, spectacular appearance of the Son of Man is itself difficult. The parallel saying in Matthew 24:27 prefaces the apocalyptic imagery of the Son of Man appearing in the cloud(s) with power and glory. Luke includes something of this, but in a quite modified form, later in 21:25-28; he also includes the parable of the fig tree (vv. 29-32), again in a very different form. Luke concludes this later eschatological discourse (v. 31) with a reprise of the early Gospel proclamation: ginw/skete o%ti e)ggu/$ e)stin h( basilei/a tou= qeou= (“know that the kingdom of God is close”). How does this relate to 17:21?—can the Kingdom of God be both “close” (e)ggu/$) and “within you” (e)nto\$ u(mw=n) already?

For more on these verses, see the discussion in the series on the “Son of Man Sayings of Jesus”.

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