One of the most debated passages regarding the kingdom of God is Luke 17:20-21. Is this verse teaching that the kingdom of God is a spiritual entity that resides in the hearts of men?
The New International Version translates this passage in a way that indicates that the kingdom is an inner reality:
Once, having been asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is within you.” (emphasis mine)
But the New American Standard Bible translates it differently:
Now having been questioned by the Pharisees as to when the kingdom of God was coming, He answered them and said, “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or, ‘There it is!’ For behold, the kingdom of God is in your midst.” (emphasis mine)
We will look at two issues here. First, what does Jesus mean when He says that the kingdom of God is not coming with signs and observation? And second, is Jesus saying that the kingdom of God is a spiritual kingdom that resides in the hearts of men, or is He declaring a nearness and a presence of the kingdom in His person?
I’ll address the second issue first.
As I survey various Bible translations they seem to split down the middle on this issue. You can read several that declare that entos humon should be translated “within you” while an equal number confidently claim that “in your midst” is the best translation. It does appear that most of the modern versions opt for the “in your midst” understanding (NASB, HCSB, ESV). Walter Elwell, when discussing twentieth century discoveries and translations, stated: “Another example is that in koine Greek, the expression entos humon (literally, ‘inside of you’) often meant ‘within reach.’ Thus, Jesus’ statement in Luke 17:21 could mean, ‘the kingdom is within reach’” (Walter A. Elwell and Philip Wesley Comfort, Tyndale Bible Dictionary, 2001, p. 207).
In situations like this where there is a translation issue I think it best to see if the context can shed light on which understanding is correct. There are two contextual reasons why I prefer the “in your midst” view and not “within you.”
First, the immediate audience to whom Jesus was speaking was the Pharisees (“He answered them and said”). It is highly unlikely that Jesus would say the kingdom of God was in their hearts. Just read the woes to the Pharisees of Matthew 23 and you will see that the Pharisees had wicked hearts, not hearts in which the kingdom resided. Some have claimed that Jesus was speaking in a generic fashion and making a general statement that the kingdom is an inner spiritual reality. But verse 20 makes it clear that the Pharisees were the recipients of His words.
Second, in kingdom passages that follow, both Luke 19:11-27 and 21:31 indicate that the kingdom is not a present spiritual kingdom in the heart but a kingdom that will come in the future. Jesus offers the parable of the minas to counter the idea that the kingdom would be established immediately (Luke 19:11). With Luke 21:31 Jesus indicates that the kingdom would only be near with the events of the coming Tribulation Period. If Jesus was preaching a spiritual kingdom of the heart why does He make it so clear after 17:21 that the kingdom was a future entity?
Are there signs for the kingdom?
Concerning the second issue, why does Jesus say not to look for signs of the kingdom in Luke 17:20? I believe the reason is because the kingdom was present in Jesus’ person as He stood before them. Perhaps what Jesus is saying is, “Don’t look for signs of the kingdom because, the kingdom is right in front of you with My presence and works.” It is interesting that when Jesus is discussing future events in Luke 21 He tells His apostles that cosmic signs and other future events are signs of the kingdom’s nearness (“So you also, when you see these things happening, recognize that the kingdom of God is near”—Luke 21:31). Note the difference between Luke 17:21 and Luke 21:31:
Luke 17:20-21—Jesus says not to look for signs concerning the kingdom.
Luke 21:31—Jesus says to look for signs concerning the kingdom.
The best way to harmonize these two passages is to understand that Jesus’ bodily presence carries with it a presence of the kingdom, but when He is gone from the earth, the kingdom is not present. At the time of Luke 17:20-21 Jesus was bodily present, thus there was no need to look for signs of the kingdom. The kingdom was present in His person. But when He is bodily absent from earth one can looks for signs of His return and the coming of the kingdom of God (Luke 21:31).
I know that there is a lot of debate over Luke 17:20-21 and I respect opinions contrary to mine. But I am convinced by the context that “in your midst” is a better translation than “within you.”