I don’t think that the “kingdom of God” is half as complicated or mysterious as people sometimes make it out to be. In the Synoptic Gospels, it has in view a future moment in time when Israel’s God will intervene in the history of his people to put things right—to punish sin, to defeat enemies, to restore faithfulness—and to establish a new government.
The idea is everywhere in the Old Testament prophets, but a simple example is the proclamation of good news to the ruins of Jerusalem that “Your God reigns”—or as the Targum puts it, “The kingdom of your God has been revealed.” YHWH is about to act decisively in the eyes of the nations to liberate his people from captivity, bring them back to the land, and restore the fortunes of the city (Is. 52:7-12).
For Jesus the coming of the kingdom of God will coincide, in similar realistic fashion, with the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple within a generation, the revelation of his glory and authority to the tribes of the land, and the vindication of his followers and deliverance from their enemies.
But what about the notorious response to the Pharisees that there is something to behold already, for the kingdom of God “is within or among or in the midst of (entos) you” (Lk. 17:21)?
The Pharisees ask Jesus, “When is the kingdom of God coming?” Jesus answers them, “The kingdom of God is not coming with observation, nor will they say, ‘Behold here or there.’”
The phrase “with observation” (meta paratērēseōs) is usually understood to mean something like “in ways that can be observed,” in keeping with the next clause: the kingdom of God will not be observable, people will not be able to point to it.
This is probably correct, but a couple of statements in Josephus may suggest a different reading. Describing Solomon’s temple Josephus says that people who entered the temple were “distinguished by purity and observance (paratērēsei) of the laws” (Jos. Ant. 8:96); and he speaks of the Passover sacrifices being performed according to the law and “according to the ancient observance (paratērēsin) of ancestral custom” (Jos. Ant. 10:72).
Paul’s criticism of the Galatians who “desire to be under the Law”—who desire to adopt the sort of Pharisaic righteousness that he himself now counted as so much garbage (cf. Phil. 3:3-11)—is that they “observe (paratēreisthe) days and months and seasons and years” (Gal. 4:10, 21).
I suppose Jesus may have been saying to the Pharisees that the kingdom of God would not come by observance of ancestral custom. The preposition meta would have to be a “marker of attendant circumstances of someth. that takes place” (BDAG). Does this work? I’m not sure.
In any case, Jesus seems here to accept the assumption of the Pharisees that the coming of the kingdom of God was a future event. He goes on to say to the disciples that on the future day of the Son of Man people would say, “Behold here, behold there!” (Lk. 17:23). Indeed, Bultmann argued that the estin in verse 21 has a future force: “the kingdom of God will be in the midst of you”; but this seems an oddly intimate way of speaking about the catastrophic events associated with the parousia.
The passage about the Son of Man, however, is also an exhortation to the disciples not to be led astray or distracted, not to turn back (“Remember Lot’s wife”!), not to seek to save their lives, and as Luke has constructed the narrative, we then have teaching and stories about the behaviour of different types of people, assessed in the light of God’s future, culminating in a parable about a nobleman who goes away to receive a kingdom and the drama of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem (Lk. 18:1-19:40).
God will “give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night”, when the Son of Man comes. Not the righteous Pharisee but the penitent tax collector in their midst will be justified. Only those who receive the kingdom like a child will enter it. The rich will have difficulty entering the kingdom of God, but the followers of Jesus who have left everything will receive the life of the age to come. A blind beggar “sees” that Jesus goes to Jerusalem as the Son of David. The tax collector Zacchaeus is saved and declared a “son of Abraham”.
These people are all present, but their significance is eschatological.
I suggest, therefore, that when Jesus says to the Pharisees that the kingdom of God is already visible (“behold”), he has in mind not only himself but the group of disciples in their midst, including tax collectors and sundry sinners, who have left their homes and livelihoods, who will face unjust opposition, because they believe that Jesus is the Son of David who comes in the name of the Lord, who will receive a kingdom and return to vindicate them.
The kingdom of God will be given to people who, like the wretched Lazarus, are right on the Pharisees’ doorstep—overlooked, neglected, despised, ill-treated (Lk. 16:19-31). These are the people to whom the owner will give the vineyard after he has thrown out and destroyed the wicked tenants (Lk. 20:9-18). They represent the future for Israel.
Two other sayings may reflect the same line of thought: the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than John the Baptist; and the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before the chief priests and elders of the people (Matt. 11:11; 21:31). If Jesus means by this that the kingdom is already present, for certain people to go into, it is in the sense that there now is found in Israel a community of the least, of the unworthy, which by its very existence points to the coming upending of Jewish society.
Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom of God is focused more or less exclusively on the judgment and renewal of Israel as a covenant people within a generation, through the mission of his followers and the unexpected faithfulness of diverse groups of “poor” Israelites.
When this extraordinary development is proclaimed among the nations, the reach of the foreseen kingdom event is extended to include judgment on the idolatrous and unjust empire and the confession of Jesus as Lord by the nations.
These are the massive “not yet” moments of the kingdom hope in the New Testament. But the eschatological movement initiated by Jesus is in every respect a work of the Spirit of prophecy, and much of what happens in the present may be interpreted as an anticipation of these different eschatological climaxes.
So what is happening right before the eyes of the censorious Pharisees may look inconsequential and contemptible, but it is through the perseverance and childlike faith of the disciples, the importunity of the widows, the penitence of the tax collectors, the prophetic vision of the blind, the enthusiasm of the crowds, that their God was renewing his people—bringing down the mighty from their thrones and exalting the humble and meek (Lk. 1:52).