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The Kingdom of God

Series: Luke

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Feb 20, 2011

Luke 17:20-21

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The Lord's Day Morning

February 20, 2011

“The Kingdom of God”

Luke 17:20-21

The Reverend Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III

If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to Luke, Luke chapter 17. Just two verses this morning. We want to look especially at this idea of the kingdom of God and make sure we understand that Jesus means by it. The kingdom of God is an idea that even today is hotly debated amongst Christians. You will find Bible believing Christians of various sorts, for instance, who think of the kingdom of God as something that is almost a wholly future entity. It's either something that's going to happen in heaven or is identified with heaven or it's something that is part of the millennium, whether you conceive that millennium as happening before or after the return of Christ, but the kingdom of God is almost entirely future.

But for the last couple of hundred years there have been those within the bounds of Western Christianity that have seen the kingdom of God as something that is almost an entirely present thing as well. Some have taken what we might call a rightwing version of that and identified the kingdom of God with the reclamation of Judeo-Christian moral norms within the nation and society. Or, others have gone with a leftwing direction of that and have called Christians to take up the job of building the kingdom and redeeming the culture by pressing claims of social justice on the culture. And so Christians are all over the map when they begin to talk about the kingdom of God.

What does Jesus mean by the kingdom of God? That really ought to matter to us. It's a major theme in the gospels. Matthew and Luke especially will draw attention to it. Matthew will often call it the “kingdom of heaven.” That would have been a typical Jewish circumlocution to not use the name of God unnecessarily so refer to something that was the kingdom of God by the language of “kingdom of heaven.” But you also find that language in the book of Daniel and of course in the gospel of Luke that phrase, “the kingdom of God,” occurs almost half a hundred times. So it's a major theme and we want to look at what Jesus meant by it. Today, in particular, I want you to see what Jesus says what the kingdom of God is and when it is because He's responding to a question from Pharisees as to when the kingdom of God will come.

Well, before we read God's Word, let's look to Him in prayer and ask Him to bless our reading hearing that Word.

Lord, this is Your Word and we need it just like we need food and water because man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. But we also need the help of Your Holy Spirit to open our eyes — to open our eyes to our own sins that may have blinded us to the truth, the beautiful truth, the glorious truth, the loving and gracious truth of Your Word, but also to open our eyes to Your teaching and our wills to long to do it as opposed to marching to the beat of the world's drum. So we ask that You would do that as the Word is read today, that You would cause us to understand it and to believe it and to be given a new heart to embrace it in our lives. Do this we ask, in Jesus’ name. Amen.

This is the Word of God. Hear it:

“Being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, He answered them, ‘The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.’”

Amen, and thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant Word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.

Wherever God is truly recognized and honored as King, there you find His kingdom. Wherever God and whenever God, you find Him recognized and honored as King, there is His kingdom. That is certainly one of the things we learn by deduction from this passage and others about the kingdom of God in the gospel of Luke. The kingdom, in other words, was not what the Pharisees were expecting, but they weren't the only ones. In Jesus’ day, there were all sorts of competing expectations about the kingdom of God, just like there’re competing interpretations today. Among Jesus’ own circle of core disciples, among the Twelve, there was one man who was a zealot we are told. Now the zealots in Israel believed that the kingdom of God was going to take political shape, especially when the Romans, the godless, pagan, infidel Romans, were going to be kicked out of Israel and the Davidic throne, the rightful Jewish throne was going to be reestablished and godliness was going to flourish in the land. And the zealots not only wanted that to happen, they were willing to kill for that to happen. They believed in political revolution and in fomenting rebellion against Rome.

Now the Pharisees, too, wanted the Romans out and they wanted God's Law in and they wanted a faithful son of Abraham on the throne of Israel. They wanted the children of Israel to turn from their sins and from their compromises with the world and follow the Law of God. And in that repentance they wanted to see the Lord come in power and reestablish His reign. And Jesus here is responding to precisely that kind of expectation and dream and hope desire. They associated the kingdom of God with the Lord's coming to clean up the mess in Israel, to get the pagans out, to get the Romans out, and to reestablish Moses’ Law and righteousness in the land. And Jesus, in speaking to them about the kingdom here, is correcting their misunderstandings about what the kingdom of God is going to look like.

Now the Sadducees didn't even believe in the kingdom of God. They thought that the zealots and the Pharisees were lost in la-la-land hoping for a dream. Of course the Sadducees, they wanted to utilize the current power of the Romans and have influence and wealth because of their association with the Roman occupiers. But Jesus, when He addresses the Pharisees, He doesn't tell them that the kingdom of God is a dream, that they were wrong to hope for the kingdom of God. What He says is that their understanding of what it is and when it is is mistaken.

Notice how He does that. In verse 20 He says, “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’” The Pharisees associated the coming of the kingdom with signs and they expected it to take an outward form. That is, when God's rule finally comes, when the day of the Lord finally comes, there is going to be a political upheaval, there is going to be a kicking out of the unbelievers, and there is going to be an establishment of the true godliness of Israel again, God's king is going to reign on the throne, there is going to be an outward manifestation of that, and there are going to be signs that it's going to come. And Jesus’ response is, “No, no it's not going to be that way and you’re not going to be able to observe it. The kingdom that God is bringing isn't going to be able to be observed that way because that's not the kind of kingdom that it's going to be.” And you’ll notice elsewhere in the gospels that He will poke at the Pharisees about how they’re always looking for signs. He’ll say things to them like, “You folks are good weather forecasters but you can't really read the signs of the times,” because they valued themselves as readers of the signs of the times. And He said, “Actually, you’re not a very good reader of the signs of the times.” But part of that is because they misunderstood the nature of the kingdom.

You remember the conversation that Jesus has with Pilate when Pilate is interrogating Him? And one of the things that Pilate wants to ask Jesus is what - Are you a King? Now the reason Pilate wants to know that is he wants to know whether Jesus is a traitor, if He's treasonous against Caesar because if Jesus is claiming to be a king in opposition to Caesar, then maybe He does deserve the death penalty. And you remember Jesus’ response in the gospel of John? “My kingdom is not of this world. I'm not a king like Caesar. My kingdom isn't a kingdom like Caesar's.” So Jesus says, “Your understanding of when the kingdom comes has to be tied to a proper understanding of what the kingdom is and God's kingdom is not dependent upon any particular expression of governmental or political or earthly rule.” And He goes on to say, look at the end of verse 21 — “The kingdom of God is in the midst of you.” Now some of your translations say, “The kingdom of God is in you,” and some of them say other things and I don't want to get into that discussion. It's a very significant discussion that's been going on for a long time because they think the big picture of what Jesus is saying here is very clear.

One thing that Jesus is saying is, “You know, you’re looking for signs as to when the kingdom is coming. Here's a sign for you — the King is here! I'm here! I'm right in the middle of you! I'm right among you! I'm right here! How's that for a sign?” Another reason why He needles them for missing signs because obviously the presence of the King is a fairly big tipoff that there's a kingdom. And He's saying, “I'm right here! The king is in your midst! How's that for a sign?” But clearly, His kingdom is not like the outward governmental kingdom that they have in their minds because He's a suffering King. He's a King that's going to die on a cross and His followers are going to endure not just years, but centuries of persecution. The kind of rule that God is going to establish in this kingdom is clearly different from the kind of rule that the Pharisees are expecting. They’re expecting a display of earthly power that expresses itself governmentally and politically, and Jesus is saying, “My kingdom is not dependent upon that and that's not My kingdom. My kingdom, the kingdom of God, is in the midst of you.”

Now this is very, very significant and important for us to understand. I've been reading for the last month Bernard Lewis’ book, What Went Wrong? It's subtitled, The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East. It is a fascinating book. One of the things that he does in that book is talk about the different conception of kingdom in Christianity and in Islam. In Christianity, from the beginning, there has been a distinction between the church and the state and the kingdom of God thereby is not dependent upon nor must it express itself in some particular relation to the state. So in the first three centuries of Christianity, it was persecuted by the state. Did that hinder the expansion of the kingdom of God, the establishment of Christianity, or the spread of the Gospel? No, it did not. After the first three centuries, Christianity was, for a period of time, the established religion of the Roman Empire. Was that necessary for Christianity to grow and thrive? No, it was not. Christianity, the kingdom of God that was established by the Lord Jesus Christ, was not dependent upon the approbation of or the support of the state, nor did it manifest itself in a particular geopolitical form.

Not so with Islam. Islam has no church/state distinction. The vehicle of the kingdom of God in Islam is the state. And the book is about the fact that since the 1700's, Islam has been in geopolitical decline and that within Islam they have been asking what went wrong. And the roots of the current conflict between the Western powers and the Islamic world have to do with the fact that many in Islam have said what went wrong is, “We haven't been faithful to Sharia and to Allah and if we’ll get back to the old ways and impose Sharia, God will bless us and we’ll be victorious in the world again.”

But the reason I raise that is simply this — Lewis accurately recognizes that Jesus did not tie God's kingdom to a particular expression of governmental power. It's neither dependent upon it, nor can any expression of governmental power ultimately hinder that kingdom. God brings His kingdom and Christians and the Gospel and the kingdom of God go forth sometimes in countries where they’re persecuted, sometimes in countries where they’re tolerated, sometimes in societies that are on the rise, sometimes in societies that are on decline. We have, over the last two millennia, been in every outward circumstance conceivable and the kingdom of God has gone forth. Let me just give you three examples.

Think of world Christianity. When Jesus died, there were a handful of people on this planet, literally just a few people, a few dozen people, who embraced Jesus as King, Priest, and Prophet, Lord and Savior. Today, almost one in three people on this planet claim Jesus as Lord and King. Now that has happened not because of the support of some governmental power because if you look around the world today, Christians exist in every kind of relationship to the state. It's happened because the kingdom of God is going forth and that kingdom of God is not tied to a particular political or cultural or societal or civic expression.

Another example of this is Africa. Africa is a continent that is waxed by all manner of challenges and problems, but do you know in the year 1900, there were about 8 million Christians in Africa. Today, there are 400 million Christians. Christianity is exploding in Africa to the point that the average Anglican is a twenty-nine year old African woman, not a proper British subject speaking the Queen's English, but a twenty-nine year old woman in Africa. Now there's every political situation under the sun. There are dictators who are oppressing their people, there are a few sprinklings of free republics, and there's everything in between, but the kingdom of God is going forth. People are coming to faith in Christ. People are living under the rule of God, acknowledging Him as their King, and they’re living in such a way to be salt and light in their communities and in their society. The kingdom of God is going forth.

Or think of China. When Western evangelical missionaries left China in the wake of the communist takeover in the 1930's and 40's, it was feared that the struggling Chinese Christian churches would just be swallowed up. And for almost fifty years we all but lost contact in China. And when political oppression eased enough that we could kind of peek under the hood and see what was there, it astounded everybody in the West. Christianity had exploded in China. Nobody quite knows the numbers because it's hard to calculate the house church and it's hard to get an accurate feel, but at least tens of millions of Christians are there. Now externally, communism reigns, so the kingdom of God has not expressed itself in China with a political upheaval and an establishment of Christian rule and law, but the kingdom of God has gone forth.

And Jesus in this passage is saying to the Pharisees, “Your understanding of what the kingdom of God is going to look like is wrong because the kingdom of God exists wherever God is truly recognized and honored as King and that doesn't require that a Roman be off the throne or that a Republican be off the Presidency or that a Democrat be off of the Presidency or any particular political situation because God's kingdom is not tied to and dependent upon that particular expression.” That doesn't mean, by the way, that we as Christians don't care about those things and it doesn't mean that we take our privileges lightly and that we do not advocate for them in this day and time. But it does mean that the kingdom of God is not tied to a particular outward expression, certainly not dependent upon a particular governmental or political reality.

And I think there are two or three things that Jesus wants us to learn from that in this passage. And the first one is simply this — if it is true, and it is, that where God is truly recognized and honored as King there you find the kingdom, it is vitally important for us to be concerned that we live lives that reflect the rule of the King. You know, we can lament what is happening to our country and our culture and we may rightly do so. There's a lot to lament. But we ought to have at least as much concern that we are living according to the rule and the will of the King than we are concerned that our culture as a whole is drifting away from the particular expressions and privileges and blessings that we have experienced over the last two centuries because of the influence of the Bible and because of the influence of Christianity and because of the influence of the Gospel and because of the influence of a Biblical view of government on our particular culture. We ought to deeply care about our own living in accordance with the law of the King and not just lament that in society they are taking the Ten Commandments away. Shouldn't I be just as much or more concerned that I don't live according to God's command than that the society reject it? It's very important for us to be concerned about the rule of God in our own lives and not just look at the culture and lament how the culture has fallen away.

Secondly, notice that even the name “the kingdom” reminds us that what God is doing is not nearly individual. God is working to make a people for Himself. We’re going to sing a song in a few minutes, “I Love Thy Kingdom, Lord,” which is actually about the Church. Now the Church is the people of the kingdom. It is the job of the Church to make God's kingdom visible. In the old covenant, the institutional form of God's kingdom, that which made God's rule in this world visible, was especially the nation-state of Israel, seen in its climax in the Davidic kingdom. I mean, we've been studying in 1 and 2 Samuel for the last couple of years on Sunday nights this glorious story of the rise of the Davidic monarchy and one of the things that the story of 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings is highlighting for us is when the king is on the throne, the kingdom has come. It's an Old Testament picture of the reality of Jesus coming as the King.

But in the new covenant, it is not the nation-state of Israel that makes visible God's rule. It is a transnational, transethnic reality called the Church — men and women, boys and girls, from every tribe, tongue, people and nation, red and yellow, black and white — all gathered into one family, the kingdom people of God, we call it the Church. And that Church, especially in local gatherings, in local congregations of believers, has this job — to be a display of God's glory, to make the kingdom visible so that the world has to reckon with the reality of God's kingdom. But to do that, you understand, we have to be different from the world around us. But the Church is able to do that in any and every circumstance. The Church is not dependent upon a particular political expression in order to display God's glory, in order to make visible God's kingdom.

I was on a panel a few years ago in Birmingham when Jim Bland, who is the Mission to North America director for the PCA was first being installed into his job. And on that panel, Dr. D. James Kennedy, the late Dr. Kennedy of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church and yours truly and Paul Kooistra, our Mission to the World director, and Tim Keller were going to be asked some questions and give some answers. And the very first question was, “Are you optimistic about the kingdom of God in America?” Now I thought I knew exactly what Dr. Kennedy was going to say about that because for many years he had been doing a “Reclaim America for Christ” campaign. And one of his premises, because I'd heard him say it so many times is, “We have to give people confidence that we are going to be able to take back our government, our nation, our society from the barbarian and reestablish Christianity in the land. And if we don't give our people confidence for that, they’ll lose the energy, the motivation, the will to work for that.” And of course he gave a very positive response about how optimistic he was about reclaiming America for Christ.

Well I was sitting there thinking, “Okay, I do not want to get into an argument with this senior, this senior minister in my own denomination who's forgotten more than I’ll ever know and so I'm going to find some evasive way of answering this question.” So I said, “Well, I'm optimistic about the kingdom of God,” and the whole room broke into applause. And at that point I thought, “Oh no, I've done it.” And sure enough, Dr. Kennedy was simmering next to me the whole rest of the time. I can't even remember what the next two guys said, but I do remember that Dr. Kennedy raised his hand after they had answered and he said, “Mr. Moderator, I want another chance at that question because I've been sandbagged!” And he went on to make the case that I just made to you. He said, “If we're not optimistic about our work for reclaiming America for Christ, people will lack the motivation to do it.” My point, and I didn't say it then because I had already offended him enough, my point was simply this — it is important that we as Christian citizens care about the privileges that we enjoy and the things that have been handed down to us at the cost of the blood of our forbearers, but if and when Christian influence in our society abates and disappears, the kingdom of God is not going to abate and disappear. God's kingdom is not tied to the success of expression in our nation-state. Now that's not to say that our churches have to be growing in that time either, but I do know this — if the kingdom of God is not growing here, it will be growing somewhere else. It may be Africa; it may be China. Who knows? In fifty years, the typical Christian may well be a twenty-seven year old Chinese woman. That may be the typical Christian on planet earth, but I know the kingdom of God is going to grow and the gates of hell are not going to prevail against God's people. So whatever happens to our country - and I think we ought to care, and I think we ought to participate — what happens to our country is not determinative of what happens to the kingdom of God.

There's a third thing and I want to go right back to what we read in that nice quote from George Eldon Ladd before the service. It's simply this — “We do not build the kingdom. We do not bring in the kingdom. God builds the kingdom. God brings in the kingdom. God uses us. We have the joy of participating in His building of the kingdom. He uses our witness, both with our lips and out lives, but it is God who brings the kingdom.” And doesn't that point us to the note of the sovereignty of God's grace? You know sometimes the Lord has to build the kingdom in spite of us, not because of us. Sometimes in spite of our weak witness in word and in life He still builds the kingdom. The kingdom is God's work. He's building His kingdom. We don't build the kingdom. And the kingdom that He is building is not of this world. It's in our midst, but it's eternal. What He's building will last forever. So we as Christians, yes, we want to be salt and light in our communities, in our societies, in our lands, in our nations. We want to see Gospel influence in our culture, but whatever the success of our influences and our particular expression, the kingdom of God is not tied to them. He will built His Church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. God's kingdom will cover the earth as the waters cover the sea, one way or another. Jesus is saying to the Pharisees, “That's why you’re looking for the wrong signs because you don't understand what the kingdom is. It begins when by grace, a human being rejects being his or her own king and trusts in the Savior and embraces the only One who is King. And then they become part of a kingdom of priests who make visible the reign of the King, and one day, the kingdoms of this world will become the kingdoms of our Lord and of His Christ, and He shall reign forever and ever.”

Let's pray.

Our Heavenly Father, we thank You for the Lord Jesus and for what He has taught us because His rebukes against the Pharisees are not less a rebuke of us. We want to be people who are about Your kingdom, who love Your rule and reign, who because of grace have trusted in Christ for salvation and so now love living life freely under the rule of our sovereign, saving King. We want to express that in our lives as a congregation and we want to recognize that no matter what's happening in our culture, in our city, our county, our state, or our nation, whether our culture is on the rise or in decline, whether government is more antagonistic or less antagonistic to Christianity, Your kingdom is being built and You’re building it. And it will be built. Help us to live that way. In Jesus' name we pray. Amen.

Now would you take your hymnals in hand and turn with me to 353?

Receive now this blessing from your King. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus, the Christ. Amen.

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