Luke: The Kingdom of God

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on February 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

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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