Alfred Place Baptist Church

17:20-21 What the Kingdom of God is and How it Comes

Luke 17:20&21 “Once, having been asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, ‘The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, nor will people say, “Here it is,” or “There it is,” because the kingdom of God is within you.’”

Certain people are obsessed with the end-times and the coming of the kingdom of God. During the last two hundred years there have been some ministers in the gospel church who have held the view that Christ would be returning soon, in other words, during their lifetimes, and they taught it earnestly. The suggestion coming from them was almost that you couldn’t be a real zealous Christian if you weren’t convinced that it wasn’t going to be long before Christ was going to come, and that you told people of this. The 19th century and the first half of the 20th was a time when meetings and conferences and organizations and magazines and books about the second coming all promoting this view were common. Young couples would walk out into the sunset after such meetings and see the sky red and glorious. They would hold one another’s hands and feel very close to one another and also to the God they loved. They would whisper to one another, “It won’t be long now before Jesus comes back,” but they were both wrong. A century and a half has gone by and the world has not ended. Christians who believed this for a century or two have all been mistaken.

Others looked at the first world war, and the rise of fascism and atheistic communism and the second world war and the atom bomb and all through that period they were referring to these horrific events as supporting this same theory; “All this means that it won’t be long now before the world ends,” and they were all wrong. The Jews returned to Israel and set up their state there and that encouraged great speculation that the second coming was immanent, but it wasn’t. Every sermon and article about the immediate return of Christ has been wrong. There was once an old farmer in this town and he had a sign fitted on the back windscreen of his car announcing Christ’s coming as very soon. I once heard him say that the Lord had told him that Jesus would return before he died. Pure fanaticism. That deluded man has been long dead.

It was to be last Friday, 21st October 2011, that the now discredited American preacher and broadcaster, Harold Camping, announced to his shrinking band of followers that this was the date for the end of the world. He had said that it would be on May 21 this year, but nothing happened. I sat in a subway train in New York at the end of that month seeing the lurid advertisements on the walls of the compartment announcing the end of the world on May 21. They had not yet been taken down. People entered our carriage and looked at them and smiled pityingly at one another. Then Camping tried to get out of his folly by declaring that Christ had in fact come but he had come spiritually, in order “to put all of the unsaved throughout the world into judgment,” whatever that windy phrase means, but Kamping went on to announce that physically Christ would return in five more months. The world would end on Friday last, that is 153 days later (according to the number of fishes that Peter caught in his net recorded in John 21). Last Friday, then, was to be the end of the world, but Kamping got it wrong again, and his followers who had given up their jobs, and not got married, and not had children, and not paid their mortgages because the world was ending on Friday, have all been hurt and confused. That is the cost of fanaticism for the people sucked into the intense beliefs of sincere muddled men. Kamping is a confused old man though he believes correctly that the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ will some time mark the end of the world. Kamping does study the Bible, but he has gone beyond Scripture by announcing this date, because that is a day which even the angels of God do not know.

We read in our text that certain Pharisees came to Jesus and asked him when the kingdom of God would come (v.20). They were Jews who had an expectation that the kingdom would be part of the coming Day of the Lord. There were those among them who believed that there would probably be cosmic signs – stars and comets and showers of meteors, the moon turned to darkness and the sun to blood. There would be strange weather, thunder and lightning, snow in the summer, extraordinary sunsets. There would also be earthquakes. All of this would be a precursor of the end of the world and the coming of the Day of the Lord. Then God would send the Messiah; he would appear and sit on David’s throne The land would be delivered from Roman occupation. Perhaps the Messiah would be a figure coming from heaven with great power. They could plead different parts of the Old Testament to support different views. Others had a more moral and spiritual understanding of the future, but every Pharisee was looking to God to make everything come right in the world. Hence their question to Jesus, as to when would the kingdom of God come.

I suppose everyone here believes that one day this world is going to end. Even Bertrand Russell believed that finally it would all end with the earth as a huge barren rock moving relentlessly through silent space, and all the heroism, achievements and culture of men and women a heap of sterile ruins for ever. For him that would be the end of the world. In the Bible the world ends in singing, in the delight of harmonious joy from ten thousand times ten thousand voices, and thousands of thousands, praising God and exalting in the worthiness of the Lamb, the world saved, a new heavens and a new earth replete with righteousness.

Let’s look at how the Lord Jesus answers this question. You see that he answers it first by two negatives, clearing away a lot of the rubble that muddles out understanding of the coming of the kingdom of God, and then one great positive.

YOU DON’T DISCOVER THE KINGDOM BY OBSERVABLE PHENOMENA.

This is his first response, “The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation” (v.20). By the way, do you notice the authority he displays in answering their question, so calmly and confidently. How do some of your heroes answer big questions? You don’t want my Saviour and Lord yet, well, how do your media and sports stars respond when people ask questions? Before you mock our convictions about the one coming at the end of the world to raise the dead how deep are your heroes’ thoughts? How does Hollywood speak? I’ll tell you how they respond; it’s with psycho babble. The film star tries to furrow her brow and she says, “Do you know what I’ve learned in the past twenty years?” Wait for it . . . “Life should be taken a day at a time . . . I’m traveling on a journey of self-discovery . . . I’m learning to love myself . . . I’m trying to avoid negative energy.” That’s the sort of response you hear. The film star Richard Gere when he feels that he’s being probed says, “Now you’re projecting” which means absolutely nothing except “Back off!” Or when they are asked something some of these pretentious people may even refer to themselves in the third person; “It was only then that I discovered the real Johnny Depp.” Please!

Our Lord is meeting some sincere Pharisees. They’ve not come to him to trick him. They are perplexed and they want help – like so many of you coming here. How do we know what and where the kingdom of God is? It’s a mysterious and awesome phrase. God has a kingdom. What is it? Here were religious leaders who had been enormously impressed by the Lord Jesus Christ as a man. What teaching! How profound, what mighty power he exercised and what extraordinary claims he made. Could he be the Messiah? So were these the end times? But if he is, and they are, then it doesn’t make sense because where are the accompanying signs? No earthquakes; no new stars in the heaven during his ministry. He didn’t appear to be calling his followers to arms, and they are not organizing a militia who are preparing to drive the Roman legions into the Med. Where are the accompanying signs? If he were the Messiah then where is his kingdom? Jesus didn’t seem to have a kingdom.

Jesus was aware of this dilemma and he is helping them. He answers at length in one of these compressed summaries in Luke’s gospel of what Christ said at that time. When he spoke they didn’t interrupt because he taught them with that humble authority and that lucidity with which he always spoke – even though what he said was profound and sometimes mysterious. We of course are reading it in the year of our Lord 2011, in other words, after his resurrection, and after Pentecost, and after 2,000 years of the history of the church. These Pharisees with their questions didn’t possess those massive advantages. They had no idea that the Jesus whom they were questioning would be reigning over millions of people all over the world in 2000 years’ time. For them he was a new phenomenon, some extraordinary wandering rabbi who had appeared out of a nothing place, Nazareth, with mighty power and a transparent life. If he were the Messiah, then where was his kingdom? But he couldn’t be a crook. Anyone less like a crook they’d never met.

Jesus asked them to understand this, that the kingdom of God doesn’t come by your ticking off the boxes of certain unusual signs and symbols, giving him a 9 out of 10 rating and then you agreed, “Definitely the kingdom of God has come!” You understand that we are talking about the kingdom of God in its present form – not as it will be at the end of the world, but as it was during Jesus’ lifetime and as it is today. The kingdom of God is not a tangible public spectacle. You cannot run a controlled experiment in a lab and conclude, “Ah, here is the kingdom of God.” You cannot feed data into a computer and the print out will say, “This is the kingdom of God.” You can do that with many things but not with true religion. You can approach the Welsh border in your car returning from England and you know that there will be a sign on the verge announcing that you are leaving England. “This is Wales.” Then you are in the Principality. They could put up five signs each bigger than the one before, “5 Miles to Wales . . . 4 miles to Wales . . . 3 Miles . . .” building up your sense of anticipation as you carefully observe the signs. “Almost there now . . .” Then you are actually in this place. They don’t do that, thankfully. I am saying that there can be no signs that announce that you are now entering the kingdom of God, and seeing and touching and smelling the kingdom of God. No voice sounds from heaven, booming all over the town, “The kingdom of God is here!” There are no spectacular signs in the night sky, new stars, special conglomerations of galaxies; the sun does not stand still. We do not observe stuff like that as some infallible markers that this is the kingdom of God. During Jesus’ time, and also today during our time, you don’t get such observable signs. Don’t expect there to be such marks of the presence of the kingdom of God. You are looking in the wrong place for the wrong evidence. You are looking for the spectacular and the unusual, and because you don’t see this you’re disappointed. The kingdom of God is not preternatural interruptions of daily life and history that announce to the world, “God is here.” We don’t need such sights to see the kingdom of God.

For one thing they are the kinds of thing many men can duplicate. There are television programmes of British and American entertainers, and these conjurers and illusionists appear to do such extraordinary things. I have no idea how they do their tricks. They seem to be able to levitate, and to walk on water, and made huge objects disappear. But then the Egyptian magicians could do great tricks that impressed Pharaoh. More than that, these are the easiest things for Satan to counterfeit. We are told in II Thessalonians chapter two that the coming of the lawless one will be “displayed in all kinds of counterfeit miracles, signs and wonders” (2 Thess. 2:9). So you don’t spot the kingdom of God by observable phenomena.

YOU DON’T DISCOVER THE KINGDOM BY THE CLAIMS MEN MAKE.

There will be men in every age who will trumpet, “Here is the kingdom of God . . . there is the kingdom of God . . .” There is a man in this town who has said to me in many conversations I’ve had with him – and forty years ago I baptized him – that it won’t be long before it’s the end of the world. “Don’t you believe it?” he asks, and I stay mum, not knowing where to start to sort him out. He has a piercing look of intensity, and he tells me that it can’t be much longer before Christ comes again. He is sure of it. Maybe that’s one reason he doesn’t have a job, and he lives on social security. Is it worth working and saving and building your life if the world is going to exist for only a few more months? This bachelor I consider to be a holy fool. He doesn’t go to any church. He has no obligations to other people about his lifestyle and opinions, and no responsibilities to his brothers and sisters in the faith. He does what he pleases. His zeal for the immanence of the second coming has not helped him to become a wise, mature and practical Christian or even any kind of Christian. He is simply a religious crank saying, “Soon the kingdom of God will appear” a man with a theory about the end of the world. Who is going to say, “The end of the world is going to be in a few months because that man believes it.”

Don’t believe any of them with this message, “Here or there is the kingdom of God,” even if they have 100,000 members in their church. Don’t believe them – even if they claim the authority of the pope himself for what they say. Don’t believe them – if their faces shine and they speak with deep earnestness and total conviction. Don’t believe them – if they drive a Rolls Royce and live in a mansion and have written 20 books on the end times. Do not believe them if they have marching armies, nuclear bombs, prancing horses, hundreds of beautiful women and handsome men. The Lord Christ tells us that “The kingdom of God does not come when people say. ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’” (v.21). In other words, the appearance of the kingdom of God is not so insignificant a reality that we are dependent on the cries of men, “Here it is.” If there were an elephant in this room at the moment we wouldn’t be dependent upon somebody telling us, “Look, here’s an elephant!” We would see and known it. The kingdom of God is such a reality that Christians see it! Do not be bought! Do not be intimidated! Do not be frightened! Do not be brainwashed! Remember what Jesus taught. Use your minds. Think. Be sensible. Don’t let your emotions drive you into folly. Maybe you’ve had no one to love you. Your parents died or disappeared from your life, and then you met some people who appeared to love you and they told you that the kingdom of God was coming soon, and that they were preparing for it, and you let yourself be drawn in. Now you are singing ‘Hare Krishna’ with all your hair shaved off wearing saffron robes, hitting bongo drums and traveling around the country in an old white van, a company of holy fools. Jesus says here, “Watch yourselves!” (v.3). He has told us that the kingdom of God does not come with any spectacular cosmic signs There is no religious elite somewhere in the world claiming that they know that the kingdom of God has appeared in such a place or in such an organization. There are no people with this knowledge living in caves half way up the Himalayas or on a remote South Sea island. You don’t discover the kingdom through the claims such men make of understanding the heavens and human history. Then Jesus replies positively to their question.

THE KINGDOM OF GOD IS WITHIN YOU.

The Lord Jesus says you won’t know that the kingdom of God has come by observing the heavens or phenomena on earth. It will not be discovered through the work of spooky religious people who cry, “There it is!” So when will the kingdom of God come? The Lord Christ says simply that it is here already; “The kingdom of God is within you” (v.21). That is how both the Authorized Version and the New International Version translates the phrase. It is a perfectly responsible translation and many like it. Others translate it, “the kingdom of God is in your midst” and that is helpful and true too. Others translate it as “the kingdom of God is in your grasp,” and few can object to that translation. Jesus is embracing all of that. He is saying very clearly that God’s kingdom is not a geographical area, like Vatican City or Mecca or Jerusalem or Alfred Place or the Christian Union, as though if I should take a trip to some gathering in any of those places I would be crossing a geographical border and walking into the kingdom of God. Jesus is saying that the kingdom of God is not a public place; it is not a public spectacle that people can point to – a victory over the Roman legions, or a spectacular meteor shower and northern lights – with people ‘Oohing’ and ‘Aahing’ and saying, “Look! There it is! The kingdom of God,” as though it were right outside me, something from which I, a Christian, am detached, which I simply spectate or I pay it a visit. Christ is bringing the kingdom home to us all. Jesus is saying that it is here; it is within us; it’s in our midst, it’s in our grasp.

The problem with taking seven words from the Bible, especially seven easily remembered and striking words like, “The kingdom of God is within you” is that everyone interprets them in his own way. Can you remember the fine film Chariots of Fire. I notice that it is on television on Thursday night. The actor playing the part of the Olympic gold medalist, Eric Liddel, makes the one religious speech in the film, just a couple of sentences long, the climax of which is his quoting these very words, “The kingdom of God is within you.” That’s it. That was his message in the film. I registered a 9 on the Cringe Factor Scale when I heard those words. He does not explain what he means by them, and that would be one thing the real Eric Liddel was bound to have done. It wasn’t vague religiosity that made him give up the opportunity of running in the 100 yards final of the Olympic Games because it was on a Sunday. He had a real chance of winning a gold medal as the fastest man in the world, but Eric Liddel had convictions about the nature of God, and the importance of worshipping him on the Lord’s Day and that the Son of God had redeemed him by bearing the curse of the broken law. His message to the world was not that every one of the 6,000 million people in the world has the kingdom of God within them. The middle east dictators and the professional atheist writers who strenuously deny the existence of God, let alone that Jesus’ kingdom is within them. “No,” they say. They deny it. The apostle agrees with them. He says, “Don’t you know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God?” (I Cor. 6:9). In the film the script-writer leaves the words about the kingdom of God being in you wrapped in vagueness to drop into the lives of the millions who watched the film (and now the DVD), simply for each person to make of those words just what he wants to make of them. So I must explain to you when the kingdom of God comes to you.

i] When you receive a birth from above.

Another Pharisee named Nicodemus came to Jesus by night. He knew the Lord Jesus was a teacher who had all the authority of God behind his life and teaching because of his mighty works. He had healed every sick person brought to him without one failure. The Lord replied to him “No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again” (Jn.3:3). These Pharisees in our text were, with their physical eyes, seeing Jesus feeding 5,000 men with five loaves and two fishes. All of them had cousins or aunts or friends who had been healed of incurable diseases by Christ. They had listened to him preach sermons like the sermon on the mount and it blew them away. They’d never heard a man preaching like that, saying such extraordinary things. They’d heard that even the winds and waves obeyed him. With their physical ears and eyes they heard and saw those things but they could not see the kingdom of God in all of that with merely physical eyes. It was there in front of them, but they were blind to it. God was reigning over creation and disease and demons and death through Jesus of Nazareth but they couldn’t see his reign. They didn’t realise that here was his kingdom in front of them incarnate in the carpenter’s son.

What Jesus said to Nicodemus the Pharisee he was saying to every Pharisee; “No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” Jesus is talking about the loving personal work of God the Holy Spirit in us, that makes us Christians, that illuminates our understanding and helps us to see what we could not see before that time, that Jesus Christ is the mighty God, and he is the King of kings. Charles Simeon, the great late 18th century preacher, visited Scotland and there he met two blind men who were weavers. He was impressed by their skills at weaving though blind. One was 28 years of age and he had become blind when he was 25. He said to Simeon, “I never saw until I was blind. I had no contentment until I had lost my sight.” He had experienced the new birth and now he saw Jesus Christ to be the Son of God.

God comes into your life and as he is there you now have the right of access to him, of addressing him as your Father, and his Son as your teacher, and Saviour, and the Lamb of God who has taken your sin away. You see it now for yourself because God has worked in your heart; there’s been a mighty new spiritual beginning, a spiritual birth. “I’ve been born again!” So the kingdom of God comes to you by that work of God in your life. It is absolutely essential. No man can even see the kingdom of God unless he is born again; the kingdom of God is within you. Then there is another way you can understand entering the kingdom . . .

ii] When you submit to the reign of King Jesus over you.

You can talk about the kingdom of God and discuss it until the cows come home, but you will never experience the reality of the kingdom of God until you know that it is within you through the new birth. It is within you at that same time when Jesus Christ becomes your very own Lord and King. Let me approach it like this, that our Lord sent his disciples into the world and he told them that they in their turn were to make disciples and that they were to teach them everything he had taught them. Men and women listening to them were to come under the authority of Jesus’ words. His disciples were not to invent new ideas and fancy theories; they were to stick to what he had told them. They did not tell people that Christ would return in the 19th century or the 20th century. He had not told them that and so they did not teach that, and neither should anyone else! For us Jesus can say nothing wrong. We live by the values and morals and the purpose in life that he has given to us, and they are simply wonderful values, loving our enemies, forgiving 70 times 7, loving God and our neighbours, valuing servanthood above every other virtue, believing the Bible, keeping the ten commandments. When we believe and live like that, from our hearts, then we show that Jesus Christ is our Lord and King. The kingdom of God is in us and we are under the rule of the King.

Peter on the day of Pentecost told the people of Jerusalem, “Let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36). Jesus is Lord, and so you should treat him as Lord. You bow to him. You serve your King. You give him your allegiance. You say, “Take my life and let it be consecrated Lord to Thee.” Paul told the Corinthian congregation what the essence of his message was. It is a great compressed truth, in fact it is up on the notice board outside the church today. Did you notice it and read it as you came to church this morning? “We preach not ourselves but Jesus Christ the Lord” (2 Corinthians 4:5). People wanted Paul to speak to them about Paul, about his experience on the road to Damascus and his sufferings and adventures. But Paul would not preach to them about Paul. We preach not ourselves but Jesus Christ as Lord. “Let me tell you about him, about his life, about his teaching, and his mighty works, about why he died on the cross when he could so easily have avoided it. Let me tell you about his resurrection, his power over death, that he reigns at God’s right hand with all authority over heaven and earth. He is the King. Have you bowed to him? Have you submitted to him?” That is a Christian in whom is the kingdom of God, over whom the King reigns, and he is such a good and kind King. He protects us like a good Shepherd protects his sheep. He never runs away and leaves them when he sees a lion coming to devour them. He would lay down his life to save us. When does the kingdom of God come to you? When you make the Lord Jesus Christ your King and serve him all your days.

iii] When you realise that God’s kingdom is heading for a glorious consummation.

Here is a couple and they are talking about their courtship, the first time they held hands, and when he kissed her cheek. That is it. That’s all they talk about, and they are middle-aged. That was mere courtship; in some it’s only infatuation. There is marriage, there is consummation, there is parenthood, and having your home, and seeing your children growing up. Some of you are still at the ‘kiss on the cheek and holding hands’ level. That is the beginning. It is going to get far better than that. So it is with the kingdom of God. The kingdom is within us now if we have been born from above. We are under the reign of King Jesus now, but it is going to get much better. Paul could tell Timothy that he wasn’t concerned about the attacks of evil men, “The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack, and will bring me safely to his heavenly kingdom. To him be glory for ever and ever. Amen!” (2 Tim. 4:18). There is King Jesus’ heavenly kingdom and it lies before us. That is where we are heading. A new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwell. There is a place where God wipes away all tears from our eyes. There is a place where we will meet again all those who’ve loved the Lord and have passed away before us. The kingdom of God is a great reunion of all the saints who from their labours rest with Jesus Christ in the midst. We long for it and pray for it; “Our Father which art in heaven hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come. . .”

Now we see the kingdom partially and incompletely in the lives of God’s people, in the gatherings of the church on Sundays, in Christian activity and mission, in Christian homes for those with learning difficulties, in the work of the Christian Institute – the kingdom of God is here as an object of faith, fulfilled in history now provisionally and incompletely, but it is to be consummated at the end of history in the renewal of the cosmos. Then every knee shall bow, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is the King, to the glory of God the Father. But the present and the future are indissolubly united in Jesus’ preaching. He’ll speak of the present as he does in our text, but then he quickly moves on and speaks of the coming manifestation of the kingdom. The kingdom is now; the kingdom is to come.

So I am saying to all of you who are not yet Christians that that means that you are not yet in the kingdom of God. You are in fact in the kingdom of darkness, and the consummation of that will be as terrible as the consummation of the kingdom of God will be glorious. So you must cry mightily to God that he will translate you from the one kingdom to the other, and to earnestly ask him to do that divine work that you are unable to do alone, until you know that he has answered you.

Come into the kingdom of God today. The gate is wide open; it has been opened by the love of God in giving his Son. There was none other good enough to pay the price of sin. He only could unlock the gate of heaven and let us in. So come on through it. That action is a moving of your will and longings focusing upon Jesus Christ as your Lord as the Holy Spirit takes his word and moves us to trust in him. At that very time all your past sins will be cleansed away, and the King will give you new power to live a life worthy of one who now inhabits his eternal kingdom.

23rd October 2011 GEOFF THOMAS