Safe Passage: Luke 17.20-37; 1 Thess 5.2-11

Tough week in the news, don’t you think?

Political instability, an invasion in Turkey and Syria, unrest in Hong Kong. The financial markets don’t like this much, either.

Who’s going to fix this? Who will make all wrongs right? What’s going to happen in the end? How will we find safe passage through turmoil? And, with increasing bias in the media, how do we even find out what’s true?

These are paralyzing questions for those who don’t believe the gospel, because politics seem like the last, best option to those without Christ. They’re pressing questions for those of us who do believe in the perfect life, death and resurrection of Jesus, because we’re always tempted to forget Jesus and join in the hysterics.

Luke 17.20-37 is puzzling to read and hard to teach. Jesus is traveling to the cross and identifying true followers as He goes. And, in chapters 17-18 in particular, He’s preparing these true followers for the time between His two comings. Among the other characteristics they’ll demonstrate, these true followers will press toward the fulness of the Kingdom of God.

The Kingdom has come in Jesus (:20-21). When is the Kingdom coming? Jesus’ opponents wanted to know. In other words, When will we finally see God’s reign and rule? When will all wrongs be made right?

Jesus answers in two parts. First, He tells them that His Kingdom does (present tense) not come with a lot of fanfare. In fact, you could miss it. (Kinda like the nine former-lepers missed Jesus in the passage just before this one, 19.11-19). Second, ” … the Kingdom of God is in the midst of you” (:21). In other words, I’m right here! You’re looking at the very presence of the Kingdom, because the Kingdom of God is always present with the King.

This “NOWness” of the Kingdom is a big deal! And, at different places in His gospel, Luke describes just what takes place, because Jesus is on the scene: the power of Satan is broken (10.18); evil is dealt a fatal blow (11.20); the New Covenant is cut (22.19); the Spirit (soon) will come (24.49). And, throughout, forgiveness of sins is offered, based on Jesus’ gospel cross-work.

All this is true, because Jesus is on the scene. But, for the unbelieving Pharisees, Jesus is curt and cryptic. After this, though, He turns to His disciples in the remainder of the passage. And, for those who believe, He gives more …

The fulness of the Kingdom will come in Jesus (:22-37). Not everything in God’s plan of redemption was accomplished at Christ’s first coming. There’s also a NOT YET part of the Kingdom. These works of God, tied up in Jesus’ second coming, include the complete removal of sin, Jesus’ obvious reign and rule, the restoration of all things, and resurrection from the dead for everybody. And, they include the execution of God’s justice, judgment, and the separation of the righteous and the unrighteous.

In other words, all wrongs will be made right. But, what of Jesus’ followers? In contrast to Luke’s strong emphasis on the “NOWness” of Jesus’ reign and rule that we read about in his gospel, the remainder of this passage provides color and detail about what will happen when Jesus returns. Four questions structure the passage:

  1. When will the fulness of the Kingdom come? (:22-25) Jesus’ basic answer is that He can return at any point after He goes to the cross. (Christ’s return in their own lifetime has been the hope of every generation of believers ever since.) In the meantime, believers (that’s us!) shouldn’t get confused. We’re not to get worked up over blood moons and cryptic readings from ancient Jewish calendars. We’re not to follow rumors from those who think they’ve found Jesus in remote places (See Matt 24.23a … 26). When Jesus comes, His return will be as obvious as lighting: For as the lighting flashes and lights up the sky from one side to the other, so will the Son of Man be in his day (:24).
  2. How will the Kingdom come in fulness (:26-30). Jesus’ answer is that the Kingdom will come in fulness suddenly, when people are thinking about other things. He then gives two historical examples of how this will be. The first involved Noah (Gen 9). People were having a great time while Noah built his ark, in obedience to God. And, when God’s judgment came, God provided safe passage on the ark through His own judgment. The second example is Lot and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 19). Once again, people were doing their thing, until God judged these cities, and provided safe passage for Lot. (His wife chose not to follow and became part of the landscape). In the same way, Jesus’ return will catch the upright off guard.
  3. What should you do when the fulness of the Kingdom comes? (:31-36). Jesus answer: don’t prepare … It’s too late for that. Don’t try to rescue your stuff. Don’t try to find some solution apart from Jesus. As Darrell Bock says in his commentary, “If one is not already prepared for the day, there will be no time to prepare. There will be time only to flee.” Two will be in one bed. Two will be milling grain. In both case, one will be taken and the other left. The real answer to Jesus’ question, of course, is each of us should EMBRACE JESUS NOW! Jesus has been saying this all along. In 9.24 He has said, For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself? And then in our passage, Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will keep it (:33). The first half of verse 33 describes material things. We’ll lose them, if we try to hang onto them. The second half describes spiritual salvation. If we turn from our sin and trust Jesus, we will be saved.
  4. What will result with the coming of the Kingdom in fulness (:37)? The disciples want to know where this will take place. Jesus seems to believe they’ve asked the wrong question. It’s not that you can leave and avoid God’s judgment. It’s that God’s judgment will be obvious when He comes, like lightning, like a cloud of vultures.

True followers of Jesus cling to Jesus by faith and will find safe passage into the fulness of the Kingdom at His coming. 

In case you’re wondering, this is probably not the first passage I’d share with someone who doesn’t already know Jesus. My conviction is that people seldom do what we tell them to do, and scaring people only produces short-term change. Rather, I want people to see my deep concern for them and (even more!) my love for Jesus—as well as my excited anticipation of His coming.

That’s been the attitude of followers of Jesus since the days of the early church. Glance through the related passage of 1 Thessalonians 5.2-11 and you’ll see that those who trust Jesus 1) aren’t destined for wrath, but have safe passage (5.9), 2) should “encourage one another” with expectation of Jesus’ return, and 3) should look for Jesus (:3), like a woman in labor expects to meet a person at the end of her ordeal.

At Jesus’ coming, wrongs will be made right, injustices will be wiped away, and we’ll be with Jesus.

Now, how does that make you feel?

Here’s a few questions to discuss with others:

  1. This is a difficult passage, for lots of reasons. What about this is new to you? What is unclear? How does reading about God’s judgment make you feel?
  2. How is God’s just, righteous character revealed in this passage?
  3. How does knowing that Jesus will right all wrongs help you when you read or watch scary news from our troubled world?
  4. What should you do to prepare for Jesus?
  5. What wonderful, grand and beautiful aspects of the NOT YET coming of God’s Kingdom are you looking forward to?
  6. How should you, together with others, increasingly pray for our world?

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