At the end of the Old Testament, the Israelites were left anticipating the coming of the Messiah and the establishment of the kingdom of God on earth. The Israelites believed the establishment of this kingdom would result in political independence for themselves: the Messiah would remove the yoke of Rome from the Israelites. Jesus’ statement, “The kingdom of God does not come with observation” (Luke 17:20, NKJV) was in answer to a Pharisee’s question about when the kingdom would come (verse 20). Jesus’ reply was shocking to His audience because it went against centuries of anticipation of a kingdom that is observable!
The New Testament begins with John the Baptist announcing that the kingdom of God is at hand (Matthew 2:2). Jesus, the King, begins His ministry also announcing that the kingdom of God is at hand (Matthew 4:17). Jesus performs signs and miracles proving His statement and revealing who He is (Matthew 8:14–17; 9:1–8). Even with Jesus presenting the proof and fulfilling prophecies regarding the Messiah, He is rejected by Israel (Matthew 21:42; Luke 9:22; Mark 8:31; cf. Matthew 12:22–29). This rejection of Jesus leads to His death, resurrection, and ascension. Again, God’s people were left anticipating the coming of Christ as King (Revelation 19:11–19). One day, He will establish His kingdom on earth (Revelation 20:1–7).
In Luke 17:20, when Jesus says that “the kingdom of God does not come with observation” (NKJV), He is stating that the kingdom will not be preceded by observable signs. The kingdom of God would not be inaugurated with spectacle or splendor. Contrary to popular opinion, there would be no great and magnificent leader who staked out a geographical claim and routed the Romans; rather, the kingdom would come silently and unseen, much as leaven works in a batch of dough (see Matthew 13:33). In fact, Jesus says, the kingdom had already begun, right under the Pharisees’ noses: “You won’t be able to say, ‘Here it is!’ or ‘It’s over there!’ For the Kingdom of God is already among you” (Luke 17:21, NLT). God was already ruling in the hearts of believers, and the King Himself was standing among them, although the Pharisees were oblivious to the fact.
The first coming of Jesus was accompanied by signs, miracles, and wonders, but He never sought the public eye. His second coming will be different. Jesus was rejected during His first coming but will reign at His second. The establishment of the kingdom has been postponed and will be fulfilled at a later date (Luke 19:11–27; Revelation 19:11—20:6). Jesus described the nature of His return as sudden and obvious: “For the Son of Man in his day will be like the lightning, which flashes and lights up the sky from one end to the other” (Luke 17:24).
The Jewish leaders of Jesus’ day were correct in their belief that, when Jesus establishes the kingdom of God on earth, it will be physical and triumphant. Jesus will rule from Jerusalem on the throne of David (Psalm 110:1–2; 2 Samuel 7:16). However, they disregarded prophecies such as Isaiah 53 regarding Jesus’ rejection and suffering.
The Pharisees looked for the Messiah to be a conquering king who marches into Jerusalem with grandeur and a great show of might. What they got was not much to observe: a nondescript man “lowly and riding on a donkey” into Jerusalem (Zechariah 9:9; cf. Matthew 21:1–11). The kingdom had come, but not with observation.