The Return of the King

(Luke 17.20-37)

Jason Procopio

As you know, in the last few chapters Jesus has been making his way toward Jerusalem, and on the way has been teaching his disciples about the life of the kingdom of God—about how to view salvation and money and relationships and healing.

In today’s text, he’s going to tackle this subject of the kingdom of God head on, following a question from a group of Pharisees.

The question they ask him is a very loaded question. 

The Bible, as most of you know, is not one book, but several books—written by many different authors, over a period of centuries, destined to different readers at different times and in different cultures. But all of these books, put together, tell one distinct story. From beginning to end, every book in the Bible is about one thing: the kingdom of God. 

At several different steps in the Bible, we see the same thing: God establishes his kingdom in a specific place (Eden, then the wilderness outside Egypt, then Jerusalem), for a specific people (Adam and Eve; then Abraham; then the people of Israel), under a specific rule (his own).

God promises to permanently establish his kingdom on earth—global rule, in other words—but at every step, that kingdom is stymied by the people of the kingdom.

God’s people constantly rebel against him; God sends them prophets to warn them; they come back to God and repent; God delivers them; then they fall back into rebellion, and the whole cycle repeats. It all comes to a head when the kingdom is divided in two, and the people are scattered, exiled in foreign lands. They eventually come back to Jerusalem, but they live under foreign occupation.

And the prophets God had always sent so far...fall silent.

That’s where we find the people at the beginning of the New Testament. The prophets had given promises that God would reestablish and consummate his kingdom on earth, but so far they’ve seen none of it. Not until now.

All of that is background to the question the Pharisees ask Jesus in v. 20. 

The Kingdom: “Already & Not Yet”(v. 20-25)

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.” 

There are two things here that would have been profoundly disheartening for the Pharisees. The first is the idea that the kingdom of God would not come in with a bang, in a way that everyone could see and none could deny. 

It’s hard to know exactly what Jesus means when he talks about ways that can be observed (this is the only place in the whole Bible where this phrase is used). He may be talking about spectacular, supernatural signs in the heavens (there was a precedent for believing celestial changes would precede great movements of God). He could be talking about a highly visible movement, like the kind of political or military uprising the Pharisees were probably expecting.

In either case, the Pharisees would have expected that when the kingdom of God finally came, when the prophecies were finally fulfilled, it would be accompanied by very clear and unmistakable outward signs.

And Jesus says that’s not how the coming of the kingdom of God works. It doesn’t come in ways that can be observed. No one will be pointing at the sky and saying, “Look! The kingdom is coming!”

So if the kingdom wasn’t going to come in spectacular fashion, how would it come?

And that’s where Jesus gives the Pharisees their second bit of bad news: the kingdom is already here. 

This isn’t the first time Jesus has said something like this, but it is the first time he has put it so bluntly. He doesn’t say, “The kingdom of God is near,” as he said on several occasions.

This time, he says it plainly, with no subtlety at all: the kingdom of God isn’t coming; it is already in the midst of you.

How can he say that?

Because he is the King. The kingdom of God is his kingdom.

The King was born as a baby; grew up the son of a humble carpenter in Nazareth; and was now an itinerant teacher and healer making his way toward Jerusalem. The kingdom did not come accompanied with spectacular signs that everyone could see; when it came, it slipped in quietly through the back door.

The kingdom has already come, in the person of Christ. He is the inauguration the people had been waiting for. He is the beginning of the new covenant of God with his people. And his reign is already clear in those who are following Jesus.

The kingdom has come to a specific place (here, in 1st-century Israel), to a specific people (his followers), under a specific rule (Jesus’s).

Now, at this point (v. 22) there is a light transition. Luke just tells us that Jesus “said to his disciples…” This may well have been later on, perhaps even on another day. But Luke intentionally puts these two sections together, because he wants Theophilus (the man he’s writing to, cf. 1.1-4) and anyone else who reads his gospel to see something. 

Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Luke wants us to see that the kingdom is already here, like a sapling that has been planted in the ground. It’s not being planned, it’s not being prepared; it has come, and it’s visible to anyone who has eyes to see it.

But at the same time, the kingdom is not yet what it will be. There are certain things that will happen before the kingdom is consummated and enters the state it will hold for the rest of eternity. The kingdom grows—it comes progressively. It is already here, but it is not yet finished.

So that fact of course brings with it a lot of questions: How would the kingdom be consummated? When would that be? Where would it happen?

Jesus begins answering these unspoken questions to his disciples, by speaking about what he calls “the days of the Son of Man” (“Son of Man” was Jesus’s favorite title for himself). In other words, because Jesus is the King, the consummation of the kingdom would be his day.

V. 22:

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. 

What he’s saying wasn’t new at the time, and still bears repeating today. There are always people who claim to be able to predict when the end of the world as we know it will take place. They look at the stars, or they interpret ancient inscriptions, or they read in tea leaves… There will always be people who think they know when the end will come.

And all of us naturally will want to know when that will be. It’s that classic dilemma of, if you could know how and when you were going to die, would you want to? Many of us would say no, but if it was written on a piece of paper in front of us, we would have a hard time not looking.

But, Jesus warns, no matter how much we may want that knowledge, no matter how much we may think we know when it will happen, we won’t be able to predict it. And if anyone says they can, that person is a charlatan who should not be followed.

Jesus does not tell us when this will happen. But he does tell us how it will happen.

He says that unlike the initial coming of the kingdom, which happened (as he said) in ways that could not be observed, the consummation of the kingdom will happen suddenly, as when lightning flashes and lights up the sky: so sudden and unexpected, no one would ever be able to predict it; and at the same time, so brilliant and all-encompassing, no one will miss it.

Then he tells us what will happen—and he slips it in so coolly, at the end of the sentence, that we might miss it if we go too quickly. 

He says (v. 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. 

Notice that he doesn’t say, “So will the judgment be,” or “So will the end of the earth be,” or “So will the kingdom be.” 

He says, “So will the Son of Man be.” On this earth-shattering day that no one can predict, and yet no one can miss, the most spectacular thing of all will be Jesus himself.

The disciples may not have understood this completely at this point, but they would later. They would soon see Jesus die on the cross. They would see him buried. Three days after his death, they would see him resurrected from the dead. They would walk with him and talk with him. 

A few weeks after that, they would find themselves together with him, and as Luke tells us in the first chapter of the book of Acts (Acts 1.9-11): they were looking on, [Jesus] was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10 And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, 11 and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” 

I’m speculating here, but my guess is that this is the point at which the disciples would have remembered what Jesus says here in Luke 17, and gone, “Ohhhhhh, that’s what he was talking about!”

Just as Jesus ascended into heaven, he will RETURN. And his return will not be like the first time he came, when he slipped in as a baby and no one noticed. When he returns, he will return as the lightning [which] flashes and lights up the sky from one side to the other. 

But before he returns, something must happen. V. 25:

25 But first he must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation. 

Now we know what he’s talking about here: he’s talking about his death.

Before Jesus returns, he has to die. His generation, his own people, would reject him, accuse him, and kill him. He would die and he would be raised and he would ascend into heaven. That would have to happen first. 

Let me ask you a hypothetical question: if that’s the way his generation rejected him, how do you think future generations will act toward him? Didn’t Jesus himself say, “If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (John 15.20)? 

He did, and they will. But it’s very interesting: when Jesus describes the rejection of future generations in v. 26-30, the main thing which characterizes that rejection is not violence…but indifference.

Rejecting the Kingdom (v. 26-30)

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. 

Do you see it? Jesus says that when he returns, this is what the world will be like.

V. 27: People are eating and drinking and marrying and being given in marriage. V. 28: People are eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building.

In other words, at the time of Christ’s return, people are going about their lives, as if Jesus and his gospel and his reign and rule and kingdom were of absolutely no concern to them.

Now, it has been this way ever since Christ came—left to their own devices, people have always been more concerned with their own worldly pursuits than with the kingdom of God. 

But this should strike us particularly hard today, because if ever a time and place fit what Jesus says here, it is the West in the 21st-century. 

People are so consumed by themselves, by their own lives, by the mundane details of life—by eating and drinking and marrying and buying and selling—that they can only spare the gospel a cursory glance at best. 

People are so comfortable and well-fed and entertained that when the gospel finally comes to them, they don’t feel like they need it.

And Christians are not immune to this indifference. We spend untold hours on Facebook or Instagram or YouTube or playing video games, and have a hard time finding twenty minutes to read our Bibles and to pray. We are so preoccupied with work and family and leisure that our thoughts rarely rise above that level.

I grew up in a very different church context than this one, and grew up hearing of the different signs that would precede Jesus’s return. The idea was, when you see those signs, you know Jesus is coming soon. 

Jesus takes that idea so much further—because the sign of his imminent return is the absolutely ordinary, mundane indifference to the gospel that we have always seen (even before modern technology took that indifference and shot it full of steroids). He wants us to be aware of his return as an ever-imminent reality: we don’t need to wait for “signs” preceding his return—the signs have always been there.

He tells us these things so that we, and every Christian that came before us, might be unsettled.

Unsettled at the idea that with such a massive reality existing just beyond our field of vision, with his return an ever-present possibility, we could let ourselves get so distracted.

And we know he wants us to be unsettled, because he likens his return here to biblical catastrophes—like in the days of Noah, when the flood came and destroyed them all; like in day Lot went out from Sodom and Gomorrah, and fire and sulfur destroyed the cities.

The reality is that all unbelievers—and many believers—are entirely consumed by the ordinary things of life and will be caught completely unprepared for his return. Jesus knows that, and he wants us to be ready. 

Do you see how this is different from the way most Christians think about salvation, the way most Christians think about Christ’s return? 

We think of it in terms of “I’ve got it or I don’t.” I have faith in Christ, so I’m good. When he comes back, I’ll live forever with him. 

That’s not false: the only thing required to be saved and enjoy eternal life in the presence of Christ is faith in him. God gives us faith, and saves us—and that salvation is assured. That’s one thing we don’t have to worry about.

But Jesus wants us to remember that getting us to heaven us is not his only goal, or even his MAIN goal. His main goal is to glorify God on earth and in heaven, through the lives of his people, lived for him (cf. Ephesians 3.10). 

He wants us to be ready for heaven when he returns, yes—but he wants us to LIVE ready, for the glory of God, while we wait.

So the question we need to ask ourselves is, What does “living ready” look like? 

Awaiting the Kingdom (v. 31-33)

He tells us—v. 31:

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. 

It’s one of the Bible’s most famous stories, and one of its most mysterious; we find it in Genesis 19. God finds the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah so full of sin that he decides to destroy them. On Abraham’s request, God rescues Abraham’s nephew Lot and his family from the destruction, only telling them, “Whatever you do, don’t look back. Just get out.” 

As they are leaving the city, fire and sulfur rain down from the sky to destroy the city, and Lot’s wife, despite God’s warning, wants to take one last look back on the city which used to be her home—and immediately, she’s turned into a pillar of salt (Genesis 19.26).

Jesus mentions this slightly mysterious episode to show us how foolish it is to look back with regret on a life that was corrupt and doomed. 

It’s weird, but we do this a lot, right? People become Christians, and God radically changes their lives… But there are moments when we still want to keep on thinking the way we always did.

It’s the parents who are so obsessed with their children that Jesus and his kingdom seem pretty unimportant in comparison. 

It’s the husband who so badly wants to make his wife happy that he can think of little else.

It’s the professional who is so good at her job that she simply has no time to think about the gospel or its call on her life.

We know Jesus hasn’t come back yet, so we imagine we still have time; and because we feel that we still have time, we keep on indulging in the things which characterized our lives before we met him. For all our talk of change, there is an awful lot we allow to remain the same.

But Jesus wants more for his followers. He wants us to live as if his return had already taken place. He wants us to remember that there are bigger things at play here than those things which preoccupy us most of the time. There is more to this life than (as he said before) eating and drinking and marrying, buying and selling, planting and building. There is more to this life than those things which preoccupy everyone else in the world.

This seems like a tall order, I know; it seems strange that God would put us on this earth and then ask us to live lives that go so against the way everyone else on this earth lives theirs. But he commands us to do this—to lose our life—so that we might find it.

For the Christian, there is a constant tension between our lives now, and our lives in eternity. God calls us to “lose our lives” now in order for us to see that our real lives aren’t here—in the details of day-to-day things, whether they are good or bad. Our real lives are with him. Our real lives are in heaven. Our real lives are in eternity, enjoying the glory of God and his renewed creation, without end. 

And we’ll never really see that the things which consume us today aren’t really where life is until we look away from those things—until we lose them.

Imagine you’re walking somewhere, and spot a flower. You like flowers, so you stop to look. You admire the petals and the colors and the shape and smell of it. It’s not perfect (there are dark marks here and there), but it’s nice enough, and you enjoy it. But then you remember where you are. You lift your eyes, and you stand up, and see the Alps spread out below you. And the little flower, no matter how pleasing it may be in the moment, loses all of its importance in comparison.

That’s what he’s going for. He wants us to look away from the tiny, insignificant flower, which will be gone in a short time, and to lift our eyes and look at the Alps. 

When we “lose our lives,” we find them! We look away from the unimportant things that take up so much of our time, and we look up and see the splendor of his glory, and the beauty of the new heavens and the new earth, and suddenly the number of followers on our Instagram feed loses all significance.

He wants us to see this, because that moment—the moment when the world will see him return in all of his glory—will happen when we’re not expecting it. And if we are not ready, we won’t miss it…but we won’t be part of it either.

Ready for the Kingdom (v. 34-37)

V. 34-37.

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.” 

Now this is going to be difficult, but we have to see that in this final picture of the moment of his return, Jesus is emphasizing the negative. Because for all of the amazing things the Bible tells us are awaiting those who are in Christ, this moment is the moment when those who are not in Christ will realize that they won’t be receiving any of it.

Two people in bed—one taken, and the other left. Two people working together—one taken, and the other left. 

Left to what? The Bible says that after Christ’s return comes the judgment—everyone is judged according to their works. 

Now, let’s be clear: all of us, naturally, would fail that test. We are all sinners; we have all rebelled against God; we have all rejected him. Left to our own devices, we are all doomed at the judgment.

But Christ came. He lived a perfect life and died a horrendous death, and gave that life and death to his children. So those who are in Christ are judged according to Christ’s perfect life, given to them; their sin dies on the cross with him, so cannot be held against them at the judgment. After being taken up, they will be judged according to Christ’s perfect life, and renewed and given eternal life with him on the new heavens and the new earth. That’s what we are counting on—that’s where all of our faith and hope lies. On the day that Christ’s returns, we can fall back on Christ’s perfect life for us and know that we are declared righteous before God.

Those who are not in Christ have nothing to fall back on, except their sin. 

Let me say that again. Those who are not in Christ have nothing to fall back on, except their sin. No amount of good works could ever make up for our sin against God; no good deeds can ever make things right enough, because even our good deeds are tainted with sin—as Paul said in Romans 14.23, whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.

There simply is nothing else. Outside of Christ, we have absolutely no hope. All that is left is our sin.

Now the question is, how do we know if we are in Christ? If we will be among those who are taken, or among those who are left? Faith is, at least individually, a very subjective thing. It’s something God does in us—it’s not like we get a membership card we can show to people and say, “You see? I have faith.” Being a member of a church is no guarantee; coming to church every Sunday is no guarantee; even doing a lot of good deeds is no guarantee. So how do we know? 

Well, think about everything we’ve seen today. What has changed for those who have been given faith in Christ is nothing external—both of these people Jesus talks about are sleeping, both are working. There are a certain number of things which everyone simply has to do. 

But they are not going about those activities the same way.

One of them is not merely preoccupied with eating and drinking and marrying and buying and selling, and one of them is. 

One of them sees no further than the details of her own life, while the other works and sleeps in the knowledge that Christ is coming soon. 

One of them is attached to their life here on earth—these are the people who would see Jesus returning and, as he says in v. 31, run downstairs to get their stuff as quickly as possible. 

The other one has “lost her life,” and found it. When she thinks about what is most important to her, her mind does not go to these ordinary things. Her mind goes to Christ, and his glory, and his renown. 

Faith brings about not only—or even primarily—a change in behavior. The greatest test of one’s faith is not to ask yourself, “What do I do?” or “What do I believe?” but rather, “What do I love? What is most important to me now? What do I desire above all other things?”

Can you see why the idea of “doing good works to get into heaven” doesn’t make sense in the Christian faith? How by definition, a “non-practicing Christian” is a contradiction in terms? If being a Christian has made no difference in your life—not just in the things you do, but in the things that you love and desire and consider supremely important—then you have not lost your life to find it, and you are not a Christian at all.

And in that moment—in the moment of Christ’s return—the difference between true faith and imagined faith will be made blisteringly clear. There will a sudden change, an absence of presence which will be as surprising as Jesus’s return itself.

So the disciples want to know more (obviously); they want to know where this will happen—for example, will it be in Jerusalem, or somewhere else? And Jesus gives them a rather mysterious response in v. 37:

37 And they said to him, “Where, Lord?” He said to them, “Where the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.” 

In other words, this ingathering of believers and this judgment of unbelievers will not be located to any specific geographical area; wherever there is spiritual death, there the judgment will arrive.

Three Responses

That’s a lot to take in, so let’s try to summarize why Jesus is saying these things—how he intends for his people to respond.

Firstly, Jesus tells us these things so that we might expect his return. He is speaking to his disciples here, and he is warning them of his impending return. JESUS WILL COME BACK TO EARTH, in a literal blaze of glory, and he will do so when we least expect it.

Why does he tell us this? Because he knows how easy it is for us to become consumed by the grind of our daily lives—it’s the most natural thing in the world. And if we remain consumed with our daily lives, we can completely forget the reality that this is not our story we’re living, but his. Every selfish ambition, every desire for vain glory, is misplaced, because the central focus of the history of the universe is Jesus Christ—his kingdom, his glory.

Secondly, in light of that reality, Jesus intends for us to not live our lives preoccupied with the ordinary run of our ordinary lives—with eating and drinking and marrying and buying and selling, planting and building. Everyone worries about those things. We are called to live ready, in anticipation of his return: to see his return as so sure and so imminent that that future moment colors every experience, influences every decision, reforms every desire of our lives.

Thirdly, Jesus tells us these things so that we might realize the dreadful seriousness of what he’s saying. He tells us that one will be taken, and the other left, so that we might fully realize that some people will not be taken to be with him, and I don’t want to be one of those left behind. He tells us these things so that if we don’t know him, we might want to know him; and so that if we do know him, we might be horrified at the idea that the same indifference to his kingdom that dooms unbelievers is still something I have to fight against—that we might look for those areas of our lives in which we still care more about ourselves than about his kingdom, and weed those things out, and put them to death.

The kingdom of God has come, brothers and sisters. And because of our King’s life, death and resurrection, we are finally able to live as his children, and not just as his subjects. The good news of the gospel is the knowledge that all that is wrong in the world will be set right, and has begun to be set right, in the person and work of Christ. And if we keep our King and his return firmly in our sights, we won’t be afraid to proclaim this good news to an indifferent world. We will not be afraid to lose our lives (because we know that in losing our lives, we’ll find them).