Prophecy #5 – Signs That Can Be Observed

Once Jesus was asked by a Pharisee when the kingdom of God was coming. He answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.” Then he said to the disciples, “The days are coming when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it. They will say to you, ‘Look there!’ or ‘Look here!’ Do not go, do not set off in pursuit. For as the lightning flashes and lights up the sky from one side to the other, so will the Son of Man be in his day. But first he must endure much suffering and be rejected by this generation . . . (Luke 17.20-37)In this week’s passage, Jesus is once again presenting two options to Jerusalem: nonviolent, enemy love, or nonexistence. These really are the same options that we are faced with today, but that discussion is for another time.

With brilliant clarity, Jesus lays out a contingent prophecy of Jerusalem’s destruction and a statement about the transforming alternative to that destruction, saying that Jerusalem’s destruction need not happen.

Jesus provides the alternative in verses 20-21:

Once Jesus was asked by a Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming. He answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.”

Remember, for Jesus, the kingdom is a radical new way of orienting and doing life that is rooted in and based on a radical new picture of God and His character of loving one’s enemies. This kingdom would result in the political and social liberation of the Jewish people from the Roman Empire. The kingdom would not only accomplish this, but would also liberate the entire world from “the rulers, the authorities, the cosmic powers of this present darkness, the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” and the systemic way of death they have us enslaved with. (Ephesians 6.12, though the inclusion of this larger liberation was not in the thinking of the Jewish people in Jesus’ day.) The proclamation of this “kingdom” is the gospel! It is the centerpiece of Jesus’ entire ministry. It is also the common thread that runs through the entire story, from Anna’s words in Luke 2.38, “At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for THE REDEMPTION OF JERUSALEM“, to the words of the disciples on the road to Emmaus found in Luke 24.21, “But we had hoped that he was the one to REDEEM ISRAEL.”

Pervading each step of the way is the notion of the kingdom of God:

Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of THE KINGDOM OF GOD. (Luke 8.1);

And he sent them out to proclaim THE KINGDOM OF GOD and to heal. (Luke 9.2);

Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘THE KINGDOM OF GOD has come near to you.’ (Luke 10.8-9).

When the Pharisee questions Jesus, he is actually challenging Jesus as a “prophet” to present his “revolutionary vision.” What he is actually asking Jesus to do is explain what its look like when Jesus envisions the people being liberated from Rome by Yahweh. Jesus, in his customary fashion, transforms the question into a contingent prophecy with two potential outcomes: embrace nonviolent love of your enemy and be liberated or remain entrenched in the world of an eye for an eye and retribution looking for a militaristic Messiah and be destroyed.

Jesus’ words, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you”, contain both their most cherished dreams (the favor of God on Israel) and their worst nightmares (the favor of God also on their enemies, the Romans). Loving one’s enemy and nonviolent mutual liberation of Jerusalem and Rome from the real Enemy was a path that would require Jerusalem to forgive Rome, to love Rome, and to endeavor not only to save itself from Rome, but to save Rome from its allegiance to “the Powers” and encourage Roman to follow the nonviolent, enemy loving Messiah. The potential for all of this was among them and the choice was within them.

A window into Jesus’ words, “Look, here it is!” or “There it is!” is given to us by Josephus. Josephus writes incidents that occurred around the mid-first century (50 A.D.) when revolutionary prophets would lead large groups of people into the desert under the pretense that, once there, God would show them signs of approaching freedom. During these incidents, the Roman procurator, Felix, regarding this as the first stage of revolt, would send cavalry and heavy infantry to cut the mob into pieces (see Josephus, The Jewish War, Williamson and Smallwood, p. 147). The most infamous of these revolutionary prophets who promised “signs to be observed” was a militaristic messiah referred to as “the Egyptian” and who is mentioned in Acts 21. 38: “Then you are not the Egyptian who recently stirred up a revolt and led the four thousand assassins out into the wilderness?”

Josephus describes the event as follows:

“Arriving in the country, this man, a fraud who posed as a seer, collected about 30,000 dupes, led them round from the desert to the Mount of Olives and from there was ready to force an entry into Jerusalem, overwhelm the Roman garrison, and seize supreme power with his fellow-raiders as bodyguard.” (Josephus, The Jewish War, Williamson and Smallwood, p. 147)

In a parallel account of this event, Josephus includes the “sign” that this “Egyptian” had claimed would be shown to the people in the course of their liberating Jerusalem. It would be a sign like Joshua’s sign at the Battle of Jericho. At the “Egyptian’s” command, the walls of Jerusalem would fall down so that his followers could enter and seize the city. However, before any such a sign could be attempted, the Roman cavalry and infantry slayed and captured hundreds and put the rest to flight, including the militaristic messiah, the Egyptian. (Josephus, Antiquities, 170-172)

These were not lunatic leaders, but hopeful militarist messiahs, action prophets who contemporary scholars see as attempting to lead movements of Jewish peasants in active engagements of human effort that would be accompanied by divine acts of empowerment and deliverance. The lie went something like, “Success is dependent on combining human effort with divine power.” If they wanted divine deliverance, they must first present the violent human effort for Yahweh to bless. God would meet their efforts if they acted. The rhetoric of these militaristic messiahs was steeped in the symbols of the Exodus and the Conquest of Canaan. (Much like Augustine’s arguments for marginalizing Jesus’ teachings on nonviolence also centered on the story details of the Exodus and Conquest of Canaan of the Old Testament. For more on this, see part 7 of the series, The Active Nonviolence of Jesus, within the eSight posts of 2012.) Today, this is called Sign Propaganda and is similar to when a politician uses symbols of the American Revolution to inspire a following. The militaristic messiahs of the mid-first century in Jerusalem used this same technique by employing symbols of the Exodus and of the Conquest of Canaan.

Josephus also describes another event where Romans massacred a thousand Jewish women and children who were acting in obedience to another Jewish militaristic messiah “prophet.” This militaristic messiah had declared to the people in Jerusalem that God had commanded them to go up to the Temple to receive the signs of deliverance. (Josephus, The Jewish War, p. 360) Elsewhere, Josephus describes a “Samaritan prophet” who was a contemporary “messiah” of Jesus during the time of Pontius Pilate. This prophet’s “sign” was to lead the people up the sacred Mount Gerizim to find holy vessels left there by Moses. Instead, the armed crowd was attacked and overwhelmed by Pilate’s troops at the foot of the mountain. (Josephus, Antiquities, 85-87)

When Jesus says “the Kingdom is not coming with signs to be observed,” he is emphatically rejecting the specific way in which popular prophets led masses of Jewish people to their deaths at the hands of Roman soldiers. The reference to such leaders becomes more specific when he warns, “They will say to you, ‘Lo there!’ or ‘Lo, here!’ Do not go, do not follow them.” (Luke 17.23) Those who followed these would-be messiahs and used violence, retribution, and retaliation would perish needlessly in horrific slaughters by Rome.

The hope that Jesus gives them is of an enemy-loving, forgiving, nonviolent, and yet noncooperative approach, a nonviolent Kingdom that would change the world through embracing a Roman cross, rather than avoiding it or by picking up of a sword. Neither flight nor fight, Jesus offered a third way, a narrow way, a narrow gate that would lead through death to life. It was counter-intuitive, but it was the way of wisdom. The way that seemed right to them [violent retaliation] would lead to their death instead (Proverbs 14.12; 16.25).

“The Kingdom of God is among you!” can also be translated as “within you.” It can also be translated as by the power of the Spirit, “within your doing.”

“But the justice that comes from faith says, ‘Do not say in your heart, “Who will ascend into heaven?”’ (that is, to bring Christ down) or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? “THE WORD IS NEAR YOU, ON YOUR LIPS AND IN YOUR HEART” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord [rather than Caesar, and call Jesus, according to last week, “blessed.”] and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”(Romans 10.6-9, emphasis added.)

Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today IS NOT TOO HARD FOR YOU, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” NO, THE WORD IS VERY NEAR TO YOU; IT IS IN YOUR MOUTH AND IN YOUR HEART FOR YOU TO OBSERVE. (Deuteronomy 30.11-14, emphasis added.)

Again, Jesus was presenting a way to live, but it was a way that first passed through death, not of one’s enemies, but of oneself at the hands of one’s enemies. It was a path that possessed the hope of a resurrection, believing in one’s heart that God “raised Jesus from the dead.”

Jesus was clear. To follow the illusive and falsely promising way of violence was a trap. To trust in a future hope by using violence in the present was an illusion. Jesus was not offering them the annihilation of their enemies, but the nonviolent transformation of themselves, their enemies, and the entire world. “The Kingdom of God is within your power.” This nonviolent, enemy loving and forgiving kingdom offered to them by Jesus was both a means and the end of all their hopes. Through the power of the Spirit, this path was both within them, within their doing, and also present among them or, as Jesus said in other places, “At hand!” Overthrowing kingdoms of this world through the power of the sword, through the way of violence, is rarely within our power. But to transform and change the world one person at a time by embracing your enemy, nonviolence, forgiveness, and healing love—THAT is always at your disposal. By staying connected with Jesus (John 15), those means are always within our power and waiting simply for our choosing. This centers on showing kindness toward the “ungrateful and the evil.” (Luke 6.35)

HeartGroup Application

1. This week I’d like you to spend some time contemplatively praying through these three verses:

Luke 6.27—”But I say to you that listen, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you.

Luke 6.32—”If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them.

Luke 6.35—”But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.”

2. As you are praying through these passages, I want you to write down any insights that Jesus gives you into ways that you can be a part of healing the world in your daily lives.

3. Share what you discover with your HeartGroup this upcoming week.

As odd as saying it this way sounds, the reason the healing of the world is “within our power”, according to Jesus, is because the power itself is love. It is this love that Jesus wants to not only educate us in, but also empower us for. It is a way of life flowing from God’s love for us AND for our enemies. It is an indiscriminant love, showered like the rain and shining like the sun on all creation. This way of life is “within our power” because we can choose to accept God’s transforming love, not just for ourselves, but for our enemies as well. To view our enemies through the lens of what is in God’s heart for them is transforming. It transforms us! And then, by relating to our enemies, it transforms them too! Before long, we have set in motion a contagious chain of events, dominoes tipping upon dominoes, until a world where love reigns is the only world that remains. Regardless of who they may be or what they may have done to us, we must see that within our loving of them, our forgiving of them, our choosing the way of nonviolent love rather than eye-for-an-eye retribution, lies the hope of our world. Like the Samaritan of old, we will be saved by our enemies, specifically by learning how to forgive and love them. They, and the lessons that are related to them by love, are the means of our salvation.

God’s love for our enemies is the Kingdom within our power and is there for our choosing, waiting for us to affirm it’s divine power, the divine power of agape, and to begin experiencing it. Through our enemies, we meet the heart of God’s love and the possibility of salvation from the way that leads to death.

In the movie of Gandhi’s life from 1982, there is a scene where a Hindu is conscience stricken over his own violent slaying of Muslims. Gandhi offers him a way out of “hell.” Gandhi tells the Hindu to find a Muslim child who has lost their parents due to the violent fighting of the civil wars between Muslims and Hindus and to take that Muslim child into his home, his family, his heart and to raise him, not as a Hindu, but as a Muslim.

I wonder what forgiving your enemy will look like?

We’ll continue next week with prophecy number 6.

I love you guys.

See you next week.