The coming of the kingdom of God in the Synoptic Gospels is, in my view, entirely a cataclysmic future public event. This event would not happen very soon, from Jesus’ point of view, but some of his followers would certainly live to witness it. It is closely linked, in Jesus’ apocalyptic story-telling, with the coming of the Son of Man. I am not trying to push any particular theological position here. I am recommending a historical judgment: this language, in this context, under these conditions, could only have pointed to decisive political events within a realistic historical timeframe, in a foreseeable future.
But what about Jesus’ response to the Pharisees in Luke 17:21: “The kingdom of God is not coming in ways that can be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you”? Doesn’t this mean that Jesus thought that the kingdom was both present and future, both now and not yet?
The exegetical difficulties presented by this verse are considerable. Does entos humōn mean “within you” or “in your midst” or perhaps “within your reach”? How does it contrast with meta paratērēseōs (“with observation”) in the preceding verse? Is the verb estin a proper present or a futuristic present like erchetai (“is coming”) in verse 20?
I suggest, however, that the key to understanding what Jesus is saying here lies in the relation between this response to the Pharisees and what, according to Luke’s telling of the story, Jesus then goes on to say to the disciples:
The days are coming when you will desire to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it. And they will say to you, ‘Look, there!’ or ‘Look, here!’ Do not go out or follow them. 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. (Lk. 17:22–24)
A time of tribulation is coming when the disciples will desire to see the time of the Son of Man. But before they will see “one of the days of the Son of Man”, he “must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation”; and divine judgment will come upon this unsuspecting generation, just as catastrophic judgment came upon humanity “in the days of Noah” or on Sodom “in the days of Lot”. Only then will the Son of Man be revealed (Lk. 17:25-30).
It seems to me that whatever Jesus means by his words to the Pharisees in response to their question about the coming of the kingdom of God, it must anticipate in some way this warning to the disciples that the Son of Man will not be vindicated until this period of tribulation has worked itself out.
I wonder, therefore, whether we should not understand the statement as a word of condemnation against the Pharisees. The kingdom of God is not something that the Pharisees will watch with detachment when it comes—as they have been watching (paratēreō) Jesus in the hope of catching him out (Lk. 6:7; 14:1; 20:20). The kingdom of God has to do with them. They will be on the receiving end, so to speak. The Pharisees represent the wrong-headed generation of Jews which will suffer a disaster comparable to the flood or the destruction of Sodom.
This is close to Bultmann’s argument: “when the kingdom comes, no-one will ask and search for it any more, but it will be there on a sudden in the midst of the foolish ones who will still want to calculate its arrival” (R. Bultmann, The History of the Synoptic Tradition, 121-22). Nolland also thinks that the reference is to a “sudden arrival of the kingdom of God”, though he does not make the historical connection. He sees no objection to taking estin futuristically, and treats entos humōn ‘idiomatically as conveying the idea of the kingdom of God being “right there” ’. The interpretation is not without its problems, but it does best justice to Luke’s “evident concern” to link the words to the Pharisees with the words to the disciples (J. Nolland, Luke 9:21-18:34, 853-54).
Having said all this, I do think it’s important to recognize that things that happen in the ministry of Jesus and of his followers constitute important pointers to what is to come. The exorcisms and healings are tangible, life-giving signs of the transformation that is to come; the embrace of lepers and tax collectors and other undesirables is a sign of a reconciliation to come; and so. To that extent, in that particular sense, the “now and not yet” formula remains viable. But the event itself is firmly in the future.