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Difficult Bible Passages: Luke 17:21

Jul 6, 2019

In this series we have examined a number of passages which are not actually difficult as such, but are simply far too often misused and abused. That has long been the case with this text, especially by cultists, those involved in Eastern thought, liberal theologians, and those pushing various New Age theologies.

The text in context (verses 20-21) is this, as found in the KJV: “And when he was demanded of the Pharisees, when the kingdom of God should come, he answered them and said, The kingdom of God cometh not with observation: Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.”

Because of a less than ideal rendering of the Greek, the KJV has allowed this passage to be twisted by many. Those especially who want to push fully unbiblical ideas such as that God indwells all of us – if not everything – as in pantheism and the like, are keen to use this rendering of the text.

They claim that we are all already divine, and thus we have no need of a saviour and the like. So this fits in nicely with most Eastern religions and the New Age Movement, as well as with liberal theology. But that clearly is NOT what biblical Christianity consistently teaches.

The short answer to this misunderstanding or misuse of this passage is simply to see how most newer translations present this phrase. Here again is the King James Version:

KJV – the kingdom of God is within you

Here is how various newer – and in this case more accurate – translations render it:

ESV – the kingdom of God is in the midst of you
NIV – the kingdom of God is in your midst
HCSB – the kingdom of God is among you
NASB – the kingdom of God is in your midst

And the short explanation of why this is the preferred rendering is this: Jesus is not saying that the kingdom resides in all people. What he is saying is that with his arrival to planet earth, the coming of the kingdom is now being made manifest. It is exactly because Jesus is in their midst that the kingdom is in their midst as well.

Where King Jesus is, there the kingdom is. As John Nolland puts it, the kingdom of God is “present in the person and ministry of Jesus”. Yes, it was only partially made manifest in his first coming, and it will not be until his second coming that the kingdom is fully realised on earth as it is in heaven.

But the kingdom was inaugurated at the first advent. We caught glimpses of what it was all about as we beheld the life and work of Christ. This is what theologians refer to as the “already and not yet”. Already the kingdom is here, but it is not yet fully and perfectly realised and finalised.

I deal with this important biblical truth in greater detail here: billmuehlenberg.com/2010/05/07/v-e-day-and-the-end-of-the-world/

See also here for more on this: billmuehlenberg.com/2008/01/28/living-between-the-ages/

If you pull out any decent commentary on Luke you will get much more of the same. Most will point out that while the plural noun entos can sometimes mean “inside” or “within”, as translated in a place like Matthew 23:26, it is clear that this is not the best rendering here.

Let me quote from several of these authorities. As I. Howard Marshall comments, “nowhere else is the kingdom regarded as something internal.” He continues, “Jesus speaks of men entering the kingdom, not of the kingdom entering men.”

N. T. Wright says much the same: “The phrase he uses in verse 21 is sometimes translated ‘within you’, and people have often thought it meant that the kingdom is purely spiritual, a private, interior relationship with God. But Jesus never uses ‘God’s kingdom’ in that sense. It always refers to things that happen in the public world, not to private experience.”

Robert Stein puts it this way:

The first interpretation (“within you”) was much in favour in theological liberalism, which saw God’s kingdom as God’s rule in the human heart. But nowhere else in the Scriptures is God’s kingdom portrayed as an inner condition of the human heart or life. Furthermore, the saying is addressed to the Pharisees, who were most unlikely candidates for Jesus’s saying that God rules within their hearts. . . . Since Jesus the “king” was present, God’s reign had already begun. Thus the text should be translated “in your midst” or “in the midst of you”.

Darrell Bock brings in verse 20 as well, and comments as follows:

Luke 17:21 is one of the key verses in the New Testament about the kingdom. . . . It is best … to take verse 21 as teaching that the initial manifestation of the kingdom has come with Jesus’ ministry. The Pharisees do not need to look for the kingdom’s coming in the sky, because it is already here in him! If they would just consider all the evidence all around them that portrays the presence of God’s delivering power, they would not be wondering where to look. As Luke has said in various ways, the time of fulfilment is present in Jesus (4:16-30; 7:22-28; 9:1-6; 10:18; 11:20; 16:16).

One final quote, this one from Joel Green, who also brings the two verses together:

The question posed by the Pharisees is wrongheaded on two counts. First, it assumes that God’s reign is exclusively a future entity. This sort of kingdom expectation is consistent with what we know of the eschatological understanding of the Pharisees in the first century, but it departs from the repeated teaching of Jesus in the Lukan narrative. There the emphasis has fallen on the kingdom of God already breaking into the world. Second, though more subtle, is the suggestion in Jesus’ reply that the Pharisees are hoping to recognize the coming of God’s dominion through scientific observation and assessment. Sign-watching has already been denounced in Luke, not when manifestations of the present work of God have not led to appropriate responses of repentance (cf. 11:16, 29-32). This is not because the arrival of the kingdom is devoid of evidence, but because this evidence is not self-interpreting and is often either misinterpreted or altogether overlooked.

So the kingdom of God is not some inner, private esoteric matter. It is NOT in every person. It came to earth in the person of Jesus Christ. Where Jesus is, there is the kingdom. Indeed, there can be no kingdom without the King. And the only way we can individually appropriate the kingdom is by receiving Jesus Christ through faith and repentance.

In that sense the kingdom is still in our midst today. Christ has inaugurated it, and his people are now presenting it to others. Whether they receive it or not is another matter. And one day Christ will come again to finally and fully consummate the kingdom.

But only those who are truly his will be a part of that glorious consummation.

[1174 words]

5 Responses to Difficult Bible Passages: Luke 17:21

  • I have trouble with the “already and not yet” theory, as do some notable theologians such as the late Dr Charles Ryrie of Dallas Theological Seminary. I think it comes under the category of what is termed “progressive dispensationalism”.

    You have made the point–correctly I believe–that where King Jesus is, there is the kingdom”. Where I have difficulty with “already and not yet” is that Israel in the time of Jesus were expecting a coming kingdom because it was mentioned in the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures. When John the Baptist began his ministry his message was, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” This is the same message Jesus preached.

    In Matthew chapter ten Jesus instructed the disciples: “Do not go in the way of the Gentiles, and do not enter any city of the Samaritans; but rather go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel”. In other words, the message of the kingdom at that time was to Israel alone. Jesus was offering the kingdom to Israel alone, and the kingdom he referred to and which was spoken of in the Old Testament had not yet come (although Jesus was there). In the so-called Lord’s prayer Jesus taught the disciples to pray: “Thy kingdom come”–still future. There was a condition to the immediate coming of the kingdom and that was that Israel was to repent.

    By the time the events of Matthew chapter twelve came the Jews (Jewish leadership, which represented Israel) had rejected Jesus and His offer of the kingdom was postponed. They rejected Him as King. His ministry turned to His disciples to prepare them for the church which began on the day of Pentecost.

    In Acts chapter one Jesus presented Himself to the disciples and spoke of things concerning the kingdom of God. The disciples asked Him (Act 1:10) “Lord, is it at this time you are restoring the kingdom to Israel?” To which He replied, ‘it is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority.”

    Old Testament Scripture pictures Jesus ruling in His kingdom sitting on the throne of David. I’m sure you can see, Bill, one good reason why I have difficulty with “already and not yet”. Jesus does not sit on David’s throne today, He sits at the right hand of the Father on the Father’s throne awaiting the time when the Father gives Him the kingdom at the time of the Second Advent.

  • Thanks Graeme. But the widely accepted concept of the “already and not yet” is a basic theological position that has mainstream acceptance from all sort of conservative and evangelical biblical scholars and theologians. It has little to do with “progressive dispensationalism”. Moreover, the classic dispensationalism that you run with here is not directly connected with the matter. But the concept here is an important one, and I have already elaborated on it in detail in the two links offered in my article.

    The main groups unhappy with the concept include those pushing an over-realised eschatology, as the Corinthians were, and which Paul had to rebuke, and modern health and wealth gospellers for example. The view simply and correctly says that the reason we are not perfectly sinless now, or getting perfect healing in this life, or are still dying, etc., is because we are living between the ages. The new age has broken in but the old age remains. The final consummation awaits the Parousia. But again, I explain all that in my other articles, as well as in this one: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2013/02/24/triumphalism-and-christian-realism/

    But this is not something worth arguing about here, since the main point of my article was to refute faulty notions of the text in question, especially by theological liberals and those into eastern thought. And for what it is worth, I was once a hard-core dispensationalist, but have since moved on. For those who still like it, fine. But again, it is a bit off-topic here. Those who want to learn more are advised to carefully read the three articles I have now linked to on this.

  • 1 Corinthians 6:19, 20 (NIV)

    19. Do you not know that your BODIES ARE TEMPLES of the HOLY SPIRIT WHO IS IN YOU, whom you have received from God? You are not your own;
    20. You were bought at a price (the precious Blood of the Lord Jesus Christ) Therefore honour God with you bodies.

    The kingdom of God is within us (the born again Christian) as well as in the midst of us.

  • The first thing both John the Baptist and our Lord preached is recorded as “the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand”. Because about two thousand years have passed since these statements were made, the meaning of ‘at hand’ is likely to be ‘within reach’ rather than chronological. I approach Luke 17:21 with that in mind.

  • I agree that KJV version “the kingdom of God is within you” (singular) doesn’t make sense, whereas “do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit who is in you, you are not your own” (singular) does make sense to me.

    The KJV version could be comprehensible if it meant the kingdom of God is within the capability of all of you to attain if you obey and believe and pray that God’s kingdom will come to earth. Thanks to Bill for drawing this anomaly to our attention.

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