What did Jesus say?

The ESV [2001] translates Luke 17:21 in the following way:

nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.

[a] Or within you, or within your grasp

The NIV [NT: 1973] translates the verse like this:

nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is within[a] you.

[a] Or among

The phrase in bold can be legitimately translated both ways (hence the footnotes in both versions indicating the main reading present in the other); and there is also the possibility that the phrase in bold could also be translated as something like ‘the kingdom of God is within your reach’ (see footnote in the ESV). So many possibilities! Is it possible to know which way the phrase should be translated?

When reading the Bible, it is important to check the context to help us understand what’s recorded. Here, Jesus is primarily talking to the Pharisees (v20), and it can’t be said that the kingdom of God was ‘within’ them:

Mat. 23:27-28
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. 28 So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.

Luke 11:39
… you Pharisees cleanse the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness.

John 5:38
… you [Jewish leaders] do not have his word abiding in you, for you do not believe the one whom he has sent.

John 8:37
I know that you are Abraham’s descendants; yet you [Jewish leaders] seek to kill Me, because My word has no place in you.

This indicates that Jesus probably said, ‘the kingdom of God is among you’.1 In fact, this is the way that most modern translations of the Bible take the passage,2 including, significantly, all subsequent NIVs:

NIrV [1994]
… God’s kingdom is among you.

TNIV [2005]
… the kingdom of God is in your midst.

NIV 2011
… the kingdom of God is in your midst.

What did Jesus mean?

Having, hopefully, cleared up what Jesus said, we can now ask, ‘What did Jesus mean?’ How was the kingdom of God among them?

The Gospel of Luke has a few passages similar to 17:21’s ‘the kingdom of God is in the midst of you’ which, taken together, help us understand what Jesus meant. The first is in Luke 10, where Jesus sends out seventy-two of his followers:

{2} … he said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. {3} Go your way; behold, I am sending you out as lambs in the midst of wolves. {4} Carry no moneybag, no knapsack, no sandals, and greet no one on the road. {5} Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace be to this house!’ {6} And if a son of peace is there, your peace will rest upon him. But if not, it will return to you. {7} And remain in the same house, eating and drinking what they provide, for the laborer deserves his wages. Do not go from house to house. {8} Whenever you enter a town and they receive you, eat what is set before you. {9} Heal the sick in it and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ {10} But whenever you enter a town and they do not receive you, go into its streets and say, {11} ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet we wipe off against you. Nevertheless know this, that the kingdom of God has come near.’ {12} I tell you, it will be more bearable on that day for Sodom than for that town. [Luke 10:2-12]

The mission of the seventy-two involved miraculously healing the sick. After they had healed, they were to say, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you’ (v9), and they could even say that in their own presence the kingdom of God had come near to the people they were in contact with (v11). The presence of Jesus’ disciples — most noticeably in the healings they performed — in some way brought the kingdom of God near to other people.

Another helpful passage is in Luke 11. Here Jesus has healed someone and he says:

if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. [Luke 11:20]

Again, someone (Jesus) heals someone else by the power of God. This healing, in some way, brought the kingdom of God to the people around Jesus.

A third passage, in Luke 16, also continues this thread. Here Jesus says:

The Law and the Prophets were until John; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is preached, and everyone forces his way into it. [Luke 16:16]

People were proclaiming message about God’s kingdom and, because of the message, people were pressing into the kingdom. In some way, the kingdom of God was present.

These passages help us to see a theme in Luke’s Gospel. The kingdom of God was ‘near’, ‘upon’ and even ‘among’ the people of Jesus’ day because of the preaching, healing, and ministry of Jesus and his followers.3 The problem for the Pharisees in Luke 17:20f. (and for the people in Luke 10:10-12 & 11:15f.) is that they had blinded themselves to seeing this: they were looking for signs that would tell them when the kingdom was to come, but they couldn’t see that, to some degree, the kingdom was already among them in the ministry of Jesus, the Messiah.

It is best, therefore, to take verse 21 as teaching that the initial manifestation of the kingdom has come with Jesus’ ministry. The Pharisees do not need to look for the kingdom’s coming in the sky, because it is already here in him! If they would just consider all the evidence all around them that portrays the presence of God’s delivering power, they would not be wondering where to look. As Luke has said in various ways, the time of fulfilment is present in Jesus (4:16-30; 7:22-28; 9:1-6; 10:18; 11:20; 16:16).

Darrell L. Bock & Gary M. Burge, The NIV Application Commentary: Luke (Zondervan, 2009), p. 479

A lesson for us

Although Christians are still waiting for Jesus to return from Heaven to set up God’s kingdom on the earth (Luke 17:22ff.; Acts 1:6-7,11; Phil. 3:20-21; 1 Cor. 15:23-26), they are also described as already having been ‘delivered [by God] from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son’ (Col. 1:13) — in some way Christians are already in the kingdom of God. We’ve seen from Luke’s Gospel that the kingdom involves bringing relief to people who are in difficulty and sharing the good news about the kingdom. The kingdom also includes values like righteousness, joy and peace (Rom. 14:17). Because we are currently citizens of heaven (Phil. 3:20), we should live by the standards of the kingdom now. As much as they can before Jesus returns, Christians, through the way they live, should be demonstrating the kingdom ‘in the midst’ (Luke 17:21) of the people around them, bringing relief from affliction and sharing the good news about the kingdom.

For Luke, the kingdom isn’t present on the earth after Jesus, the king, leaves (17:22); it will return when he returns (v22-24). We long to see the day of the Son of Man (Luke 17:22) but, while we wait, we are like ambassadors of the king and his kingdom.

…[Jesus] proceeded to tell a parable, because…they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately. He said therefore, “A nobleman went into a far country to receive for himself a kingdom and then return. Calling ten of his servants, he gave them ten minas, and said to them, ‘Engage in business until I come.’ [Luke 19:11-13]


1. It’s also been pointed out that, in the original Greek, the ‘you’ of ‘within/among you’ is plural; and thus, ‘I think we can say that with a plural pronoun “in the midst of” is the more likely meaning’ (Carl Conrad, ‘Luke 17: 20-21‘, email on B-Greek mailing list [17/09/09]. Also see Iver Larsen, ‘Luke 17: 20-21‘, email on B-Greek mailing list [16/09/09]).

2. See NASB [1995]; CEV [1995]; NIrV [1996]; ESV [2001]; ISV [2008]; HCSB [2004]; TNIV [2005]; NET [2005]; NLT [2007]; CEB [2010]; NIV 2011. Also see The Message paraphrase [NT: 1993]. (Contrast God’s Word [1995] and WEB [2000].)

3. We can also go outside Luke’s Gospel to places like Mat. 3:2, where John the Baptist says, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”. John was ‘preparing the way of the Lord’ (Mat. 3:3): the kingdom of heaven was ‘at hand’ (i.e. near) in the coming presence of Jesus.

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