Are you ready for Jesus’ return? That’s the question Luke would have you ask yourself in Luke 17:20-37. The Pharisees asked when the kingdom would come, and the disciples ask, “Where?”, but Jesus would have you prepare by asking a different question: Are you ready?
The Kingdom of God
The Pharisees ask when the kingdom will come. But the kingdom is in their midst already, as the king stands before them, and as those who have bowed the knee to the king surround them. Jesus corrects their flawed assumptions about the kingdom, explaining that it is not a physical kingdom that can be observed. He will explain the same thing to Pontius Pilate in John 18. The kingdom of God is a spiritual, heavenly kingdom. It is manifest when men submit to it. It is more about reign than realm, at least until the king returns in glory.
The Return of the King
The disciples, the subjects of the kingdom will have a different question. They will not so much be concerned to know when the kingdom will be inaugurated, as they already stand within the kingdom. Rather, they will want to know when the kingdom will come in its fullness, when it will be consummated, when the king will return. Jesus is preparing them for the trials to come in the delay between the beginning of the new age and the end of the old. He is sending them out as lambs in the midst of wolves, and they can expect many days of longing for Christ’s return.
While nobody will point to the kingdom, saying “here it is” or “it’s over there.” They will point in just this way toward its consummation. And Jesus tells his disciples not to fall for it. He explains that the nature of his coming in glory will be sudden and unmistakable. Like lightning that lights up the sky, every eye will see Him. So we needn’t worry about missing it. Rather, we need to concern ourselves with being ready for it.
Don’t Look Back
His coming is likened to two events in world history: the flood and the destruction of Sodom. In both instances, there was a herald of righteousness (2 Pet. 2:4-10) calling people to repentance. But in both instances, life went on as usual. There were no dark clouds gathering on the horizon. The only warning sign of judgment is the cause of the judgment. When we look around us and see sin and death and darkness, let us be assured that a day of wrath is coming. Let us be heralds of righteousness and let us get our own house in order in preparation for the coming judgment. Jesus only gives one warning here about his return. He charges us not to look back, as Lot’s wife did. If we are more concerned with our stuff, more concerned with the things of this world, we will miss the boat like the men of Noah’s generation.
Developing Spiritual Reflexes
When I was getting my pilate’s license, one of the things I had to learn to do was to get out of a spin. If you go too slow, or try to climb too fast, your plane can dip and start to spin. That’s really scary, dangerous and deadly. So, they make you learn to get out of that situation. While each plane has its on peculiarities, the basic means of escape is to turn into the spin and actually nose the plane down, which is counter-intuitive. But the trick is to make it intuitive. You practice it. You do it until it’s automatic. You don’t want to find yourself in a spin, and then try to dig for the manual. You don’t even want to find yourself in a spin and try to remember some mnemonic device. You want your body to respond automatically … like a reflex. And that takes training, and that takes practice. In self-defense training, one of the things they will try to get you to do is to suppress your natural reflex to flinch, and replace it with an aggressive, offensive move.
When Jesus returns, we will have a reflex. The question is, will it be natural, fleshly, worldly reflexes, the reflex of the natural man, the old man, reflexes of the sinful nature … Or, will we have developed kingdom reflexes, spiritual and heavenly reflexes that turn quickly away from the things of this world, be they money or family even, and bold single-mindedly toward our redeemer?
So, how do we develop spiritual reflexes that will overpower our natural ones?
First, we need to recognize what it is that might turn us back. We will turn to what we love. So … what do you love? Is it money? Luke has spent plenty of time stressing Jesus’ teaching that we must renounce all that we have if we are to have any hope at all. Is it family? Jesus has also taught that if we love our families more than him, then we are not worthy of him. We are veritable idol factories, and whatever idols remain in our hearts, those are the sirens that will turn our heads back toward death and destruction. So the first step is to destroy the idols of our hearts.
Then we need to set God in their place. Our passage is bracketed by the cleansed leper who gave praise and thanks to God and the widow who’s persistant prayer brought her relief. Contextually, then, we need to recognize that prayer must be at the heart of our plan to reprogram our reflexes. Prayer forces us to reflect on grace. It humbles us and focuses our gratitude and our petitions. I causes us to turn our hearts away from this world and toward things of the kingdom. Prayer is the path to seeking first the kingdom and its righteousness.
Many passages could be brought in to give us direction here. But one of the best is probably Philippians 4.
Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; 6 do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. 8 Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 9 What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you. (Phil 4:5–9 ESV)
Let your love be structured by what is lovely, because in the end, you’ll turn toward what you love.