“The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed,” Jesus says, “nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you” (Luke 17.20b-21).
This, our Lord says in response to a question from the Pharisees about “when the kingdom of God would come” (v. 20a). It is a question which betrays the Pharisees’ utter faithlessness. Face to face with the One who embodies the kingdom of God, they nevertheless ask, “When will the kingdom come?”
Implied in Jesus’ answer is the Pharisees’ insistence on some kind of observable “sign.” But in answering as he does, Jesus effectively tells them, “If you cannot see the kingdom right before your eyes, no sign will convince you. You will run after every charlatan and pretender who comes along saying, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ All the while the kingdom you seek is staring you right in the face.”
Jesus is the kingdom of God, the very embodiment of God’s new order. The Pharisees’ failure to see what is literally within their grasp is only further proof of this. In the kingdom of God, privilege counts for nothing. Those, like the Pharisees, who think they have it all figured out will be the ones who miss out. As Jesus embodies the kingdom of God, the new order of the world to come, the Pharisees embody the absolute worst of the old order, the world that is passing away. They are the representatives of “this generation,” the corrupt religious establishment which would reject Jesus and send him to the cross.
Jesus compares his inquisitors to the people of Noah’s day who were “eating and drinking and marrying and being given in marriage” (v. 27), blissfully unaware of their impending doom. So, too, are the Pharisees like like the people of Lot’s day, “eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building, but on the day Lot went out from Sodom, fire and sulfur rained down from heaven and destroyed them all” (vv. 28-29).
By invoking these images of past judgment, Jesus is warning the guardians of the status quo that his day is coming and they will be held accountable for their actions. They will reject him. They will kill him. They will pretend business as usual. But the Son of Man will have the last word.
But there is also a word of caution to Jesus’ disciples. They must remain alert, lest they suffer the same fate as the Pharisees. If they become too concerned with saving their own lives, they will be swept away, also, in the coming judgment. “Remember Lot’s wife,” Jesus says (v. 32). She looked back upon Sodom and became a pillar of salt. So it will be with any who try to preserve any part of the old order. It is passing away in judgment. The way of faith is the way of flight. Flee from this passing world and look forward — LOOK UP! — to the glorious new world of the kingdom of God which, even now, “is in the midst of you.”