Judgment: Understanding Luke 17:20-37

by Jeffrey W. Hamilton

Teachers in various denominations connect many strange ideas with the second coming of Christ. Often these ideas are the result of applying verses to topics the original author never had in mind. Luke 17 deals with a coming judgment, but to understand what Jesus is saying, we must decide what judgment to which Jesus is referring.

The context of our passage starts in Luke 17:20-21. The Pharisees asked Jesus when the kingdom would be established. The Pharisees were looking for an earthly king who would lead the Jews in a rebellion against Rome and reestablish Israel as a major power on the world scene. I’m sure they imagined their king riding into Jerusalem with great pomp and pageantry. However, they severely misunderstood what the kingdom of God was all about. It was not a physical kingdom, but a spiritual one. Jesus said the kingdom would come relatively quietly. It would not arrive as an occupying army, but it would arise within the hearts of individuals.

While discussing these matters, Jesus then takes the opportunity to discuss other future events with his disciples. Jesus warned his followers that troublesome times would come, where they would long to have Jesus back once again in their midst (see Matthew 24:9-10 for a similar statement). This desire for Christ would make them vulnerable to charlatans posing as the Christ. Jesus warns them that if someone claims Jesus is with them, do not believe them. This is the same warning Jesus gave his disciples when discussing the fall of Jerusalem (Matthew 24:4-5, 11). Whenever God has brought judgment on a nation, there have always risen false teachers to tell the people that nothing is wrong. Things are not as bad as they seem. There is no need to change what they are doing because God accepts them just as they are. When these false prophets distract people, the populace missed the warning signs of impending judgment and put themselves into danger.

When Jesus does come in judgment, it will not be done quietly in some corner of a room. It will be as noticeable as lightning which flashes from one end of the sky to the other. Jesus uses terms to describe this judgment which is similar to other judgments by God upon a city or a nation. The phrase “that day” or “the day” is used to refer to the destruction of Egypt (Isaiah 11:11). It means that God has firmly established a day for Egypt’s annihilation. Similarly, “the day of the Lord” was used concerning the destruction of Babylon (Isaiah 13:9, Joel 2:1). God has appointed the day of destruction. The day of vindication belonged to God.

Read Ezekiel 21:28-32 concerning the destruction of Ammon where the polished sword of judgment flashes like lightning in the hands of the Maker. Notice here, too, is a warning to the people not to listen to false prophets. Lightning and thunder are often used to describe the coming of God in judgment (Psalm 18:4-17, take note of verses 13-14; Psalm 144:3-7). In the discussion of the overthrow of Greece, Israel will be arrows falling like lightning to bring Greece down (Zechariah 9:13-14). Jesus also used the lightning metaphor in Matthew 24:27 when discussing the downfall of Jerusalem.

However, back in Luke 17:25, Jesus states that the Jews must reject him first before this judgment will take place. This leads us to understand that this judgment will be relative to the time Jesus lived. The death of Jesus was a significant event prior to the fall of Jerusalem or the fall of Rome. While still a significant event, it is less important as a time marker for events in our lifetime or to mark the second coming of Christ.

Jesus illustrates the fact that people would not pay attention to the warnings before the judgment with two past events: the Flood in the days of Noah and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in the days of Lot. The Flooding of the world was not an impulsive action by God. It took Noah 120 years to build the ark. The New Testament tells us Noah was a preacher of righteousness, so it is reasonable to assume that Noah warned the world for at least 120 years. Yet the people continued to live their lives as if nothing was going to change, right up to the point when Noah entered the ark. Despite years of warning, the people did not believe God would really destroy the world. Similarly, Lot spent the early morning hours before the destruction of Sodom trying to convince his daughters and sons-in-law to flee the coming wrath of God. The angels had to drag Lot out of the city to send him, his wife, and his two unmarried daughters to safety. Lot warned the people of Sodom, but they continued as if nothing was going to change, right up to the time fire came down from heaven. Jesus said that this judgment would be no different.

In fact, the illustration Jesus used is the same one he used to discuss circumstances prior to the final judgment in Matthew 24:37-39. Peter said that people will scoff at the idea of the world ending (II Peter 3:4-6). People see that today is not much different from two weeks ago. They expect that two weeks from now, things will continue much the same. Why should they change their lives? Why should they commit themselves to God? We can think about those things later, but later never comes. Preachers and God’s word warn them, but they will not heed the warnings.

During the days of Ezekiel, God complained about the lackadaisical attitude of people (Ezekiel 13:9-11). There are always warnings that God’s judgment is about to come. Even in our own society, we see the increasing violence in those people who have denounced religion. Rather than heeding the warnings and turning back to God, we find an unending stream of reasons to continue with what we are doing at an even greater pace. Just like a dam about to burst, the sins of these people will bring calamities upon themselves (Isaiah 30:13-16). When it becomes too late, they will try to escape, but there will be no escape. The problem of people not heeding the warnings is a problem before every judgment. It happened before the flood, it happened before the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, it happened before Babylon destroyed Judah (Jeremiah 8:11-15), it happened before Jerusalem fell to the Romans, it happened before Rome fell (Revelation 16:9-11), and it will happen before the final judgment.

At the end of Luke 17:30, Jesus said that when the judgment came the Son of God would be revealed. This is another phrase connected with the judgments of God. Our Lord will be revealed when He comes again to bring the final judgment (II Thessalonians 1:7). All the nations will tremble and acknowledge that Jesus is God on that day. However, to a lesser extent, Jesus was also revealed when His predictions of the destruction of Jerusalem came about as he had prophesied (Luke 21:26-27, Matthew 24:30, Mark 13:26).

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