Kingdom Myth 6. The kingdom of God is “within you” as an individual, privatized reality.
Many years ago I went on a trip with an old ex-pastor and an acquaintance who happened to be a professional debater with a reputation of being devious. My acquaintance also happened to have attended Bible school (something I chose not to do).
All three of us were having lunch together and the old ex-pastor asked us, “In Luke 17:21, Jesus said that the kingdom of God is ‘within you’ in the King James Version. Do you think He meant ‘within you’ or ‘among you’?”
I answered, “I don’t think He meant ‘within you’ because Jesus was speaking to the Pharisees. And that would mean that Jesus was saying the kingdom was dwelling in the Pharisees, which cannot be the case.”
My acquaintance responded and said he disagreed. He boasted that he had written a paper for his Bible class on that passage, and the professor gave him an A on it.
Attempting to impress the old ex-pastor, my acquaintance tried to convince me of his viewpoint. Here’s how he proceeded.
He asked me, “Do you know the Greek word used in that passage?”
I answered, “I do not.”
He said, “The word is entos. Did you know that Luke 17:21 is not the only time the New Testament uses it, and it doesn’t mean ‘among’?”
He then concluded, “It means ‘within you.’”
The old ex-pastor was impressed. And my acquaintance sported a smirk on his face as if he’d won some battle.
But then I asked him, “You do realize that in order to properly understand a Greek word, one must also interpret it by the context in which it’s used. So tell me, since the Pharisees were hostile to Jesus Christ and His kingdom, how could Jesus say the kingdom of God resided within them, since a person cannot even see the kingdom unless they are born from above?”
He responded, “I don’t know.”
I then asked him to send me a copy of his A-graded paper when he got home (which he never did).
I don’t interpret Luke 17:21 to mean the kingdom of God is “within” or “among” you. A better interpretation of that text is that the kingdom of God is “in the midst of” you. And that’s precisely what entos humōn means—“in the midst of you.”
Most first-rate New Testament scholars interpret the text this way.* A few interpret it to mean “within your reach” or “within your grasp,” which gives the same basic meaning. Jesus Christ was standing in the midst of the Pharisees, so the kingdom was available to them, within their reach.
But “within you” simply doesn’t fit the context nor the rest of the New Testament.
Jesus was in effect saying to the Pharisees, “You no longer have to wait for the kingdom of God to come. The kingdom is standing right here in your midst! I’m within your reach! I am the incarnation of God’s kingdom.”
Luke 17:21 is one of many texts that show us that the kingdom of God is embodied in Christ. Wherever Jesus is acting in the capacity of His lordship, there too is the kingdom.
Consequently, the kingdom of God is not an internal, private thing. It’s a public, social reality that shapes our entire lives, both inside and out. It is the manifestation of God’s ruling presence. The Christ who lives inside you wishes to be manifested with the other citizens of His kingdom.
George Eldon Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993). Ladd wrote, “While Mark 10:15 makes it clear that the Kingdom is to be received in the inner person, it is unlikely that Jesus would have said to the Pharisees, ‘the Kingdom of God is within you.’ The translation ‘in your midst,’ in Jesus’ person, best fits the total context of his teaching” (65). “In the midst of you” is also the translation used in the ESV, NASB, NIV, RSV, BSB, BLB, The Net Bible, and The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992), vol. 4, 59.
According to A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (BDAG), 3rd ed., 2000, the semantic range of entos includes, “in,” “within,” “in the midst,” and “among” (340-341).
The Pharisees were expecting the kingdom to come with apocalyptic signs; they were using natural perception. But Jesus was saying, enigmatically, that the kingdom was already in their midst. They just didn’t discern it. Jesus was the kingdom embodied (Luke 17:20-21). Because the Pharisees weren’t born from above, they couldn’t “see” the kingdom, even though it was standing in their midst (John 3:3). In short, Jesus was pointing to the presence of the kingdom in this text, not its inwardness. The New Testament refers to people entering the kingdom, not the kingdom entering people.
Scot McKnight is dead-on when he wrote, “Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, ‘The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst.’ Here the temptation is to reduce kingdom to an inner reality, and this focuses ‘in you’ as an inner, spiritual reality. The expression more properly means ‘in your midst’ (as in, I Jesus am here in your midst), but the reduction is often found.” Scot McKnight, “A Robust Kingdom,” Jesus Creed Blog, February 23, 2015.
Other scholars who believe Luke 7:21 should be translated “in the midst of you” are Craig Keener, Ben Witherington, Darrell Bock, Robert H. Stein, J.C. Ryle, Kenneth Wuest, and Marvin Vincent. Following C.H. Dodd, N.T. Wright supports the translation “within your grasp,” which carries the same idea. Tom Wright, Luke for Everyone (London: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 207. Luke Timothy Johnson, Joel B. Green, and Leon Morris support the translation, “among you,” which is the same concept as “in your midst,” though not as precise.