10. The Faithful Remnant (Luke 17:11–37)
Luke 17:11 describes a change of scenery. The previous scene saw Jesus defend Himself against the Pharisees over the issue of befriending the unrighteous. He also inculcated this defense in His disciples, and urged them to remain faithful despite the powerful influence of Pharisaical scorn. All of this, from Luke 15:1 to 17:10, related directly to Jesus’ lawsuit against unbelieving Israel: there would indeed be a division between the faithful remnant and the rebellious leaders, and the gathering process would develop into an intense war against the saints. The section that follows contains mainly a defense of the remnant over against the rebellious: a confirmation of the remnant, descriptions of the nature of the remnant, an assurance of perseverance and blessing to come, a note on the nature of election as God’s work alone, and a living example of all of this in the healing of blind Bartimaeus.
Praise and Perseverance
The Remnant Leper (Luke 17:11–19)
The scene opens with a healing episode that acts as a parable in itself. As Jesus passed through a certain village, ten lepers stood far off (according to the law, Lev. 13:46) and cried to Him for mercy. He said nothing explicitly about them being healed, but commanded them to go show themselves to the priest (also according to the law, Lev. 13:2). They did not question His method, but followed His command to the letter. As they went, they were cleansed of their leprosy. One of the ten immediately turned back to Jesus and began to praise God and to give thanks to Jesus. It so happened that this lone thankful man was a Samaritan. Jesus’ response is interesting:
Then Jesus answered, “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” And he said to him, “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well” (Luke 17:17–19).
The most important idea illustrated here is that of the faithful remnant. Only the tiny minority actually returned to give glory to God. The rest received their blessing and went off to do who knows what with it. Sure, they adhered to the outward command of Jesus, but just as the Pharisees and lawyers obeyed the jots and tittles but neglected the weightier matters of the law—justice and love, etc.—so had these neglected to attend to the most important duty of faithfulness and thanks to their true Master, the true High Priest. In the end, only the remnant proved to be the faithful elect. Many had been called, but only this remnant was chosen.
This episode also repeats some themes covered earlier: first, that of the elect coming from among those whom the Pharisees (and most Jews) would have considered unsalvable: the sinners, tax collectors, Samaritans. The leaders ignored the love of God and thus could never have seen the true beloved remnant of the faithful. Second, note the emphasis on faith. The cleansed Samaritan was commended for his faith (v. 19). This is the mark of the true elect, no matter what social class they would come from. Third, his faith drove Him into the expression of faithfulness. Jesus had just earlier emphasized this with the disciples (16:10–13; 17:1–10). Now this healing provided a real-life example.
Invisible Kingdom, Visible Coming (Luke 17:20–37)
The next section starts with a brief exchange with the Pharisees, and follows with a private explanation to the disciples. The Pharisees demand that Jesus speak plainly about the kingdom:
Being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, he answered them, “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you” (Luke 17:20–21).
The question shows that the Pharisees had understood Jesus to be preaching about something imminent for them. Jesus’ interactions with them up to this point all indicated a great change, a great division, a coming judgment. He had even rebuked the people explicitly earlier for not discerning the times (12:54–59), He preached parables about the kingdom (13:18–21), and He had warned them all about being locked out of the kingdom while others had entered (13:28–29). He, in fact, had just rebuked a group of Pharisees for not discerning the nature of the kingdom which had been preached since John the Baptist (16:16–17). So they were certainly on the right subject.
Just like so much of what they did in relation to Jesus, however, they proved that they missed the point of His teaching. The kingdom of God had been preached since John, not because it was yet to come, but because He was here now. There was a great momentous event on the near horizon, true, but this was not the coming of the kingdom. Jesus made it clear much earlier in this journey that with Him, the kingdom had in fact arrived: “But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Luke 11:20). Now He reminds the Pharisees of this reality again: “the kingdom of God is in the midst of you” (17:21). But He does not correct their misunderstanding of the thing they could watch out for, they could observe, and which would come upon them outwardly in the near future—the destruction of Jerusalem. For this warning, He turns again privately to His disciples (17:22ff). Why? Because the Pharisees were too blind to see Him; they would remain in their blindness and fall under judgment. Jesus’ withholding of information from them goes right back to the whole idea of speaking in parables: the non-elect were not allowed to understand, and not allowed to receive the clear witness of the truth (Luke 8:9–10, 18). They were appointed to destruction (Jude 4).
So, the coming of the kingdom was invisible to the Pharisees. He stood right before their eyes, and they demanded He tell them when it would come. Now that’s blindness. It’s exactly like Pilate looking Jesus—the Truth Incarnate—in the face as asking, “What is Truth?” (John 18:38). Unbelieving Israel was guilty of as profound unbelief as Rome or any other pagan nation, if not more so.
The disciples, however, receive special instruction as to the nature of the visible coming judgment. Many will be looking for Christ after Christ is gone (thus there would be many false Christs in that interim period, Matt. 24:5; Luke 21:8), and of all people who had a keen interest in His arrival, the disciples would be most anxious, for they would be among the few who knew for sure He was coming back in their lifetimes. So Jesus makes sure to insulate them against false Christs. He does this by teaching them about the true nature of the coming destruction He has been preaching about:
And he said 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. But first he must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation. Just as it was in the days of Noah, so will it be in the days of the Son of Man. They were eating and drinking and marrying and being given in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all. Likewise, just as it was in the days of Lot—they were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building, but on the day when Lot went out from Sodom, fire and sulfur rained from heaven and destroyed them all—so will it be on the day when the Son of Man is revealed. On that day, let the one who is on the housetop, with his goods in the house, not come down to take them away, and likewise let the one who is in the field not turn back. Remember Lot’s wife. Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will keep it. I tell you, in that night there will be two in one bed. One will be taken and the other left. There will be two women grinding together. One will be taken and the other left.” And they said to him, “Where, Lord?” He said to them, “Where the corpse is, there the vultures will gather” (Luke 17:22–37).
We have already discussed part of this passage in relation to the exodus motif with Noah and Lot. These were forewarned men who were prepared for a coming judgment and got out when the time came. The others were all taken by surprise by a massive cataclysmic judgment. Here Jesus sees fit to give His disciples this warning, but not unto the multitudes or the Pharisees. This was a warning to the elect remnant only, for only they would get out.
The lesson is necessary because the pressure to follow after false Christs would be overwhelming. Jesus would later say that these false prophets would be so persuasive that, if it were possible, they would deceive even the elect (Matt. 24:24). The elect remnant, in other words, would need a special focus upon the true Christ, special warning, and here they received it. “Behold, I have told you in advance” (Matt. 24:25). After this, Jesus will immediately proceed to a parable concerning the focused prayers of the elect, as we shall see.
In addition to this lesson which we have already covered earlier, it is important to note Jesus’ prediction, “But first he must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation” (17:25). This verse will have great importance later when we hear Jesus referring again to “this generation.” To those who may be tempted to argue there that “this generation” refers to something other than the generation to whom Jesus was speaking—something more general or more future—the context here in Luke 17:25 makes it clear that Jesus’ “this generation” would be the same generation which rejected Him and caused Him to suffer.
The main lesson here, however, is to the disciples: the day of the Son of Man will not require strained observation or secret knowledge of His whereabouts. Rather, it would be a visible and clear to everyone as lightning streaking all the way across the sky. The key was that the disciples would be prepared for this, but faithless Israel would not; for the remnant already knew the hidden kingdom who had come among them and would thus be prepared for the great revealing in judgment to come. To the Pharisees that kingdom was invisible, and they would still be looking for it when the great judgment came upon them.
Next Section: Persistent Remnant Parables (Luke 18:1–18:17)
(Photo credit: Flickr, by BORIS G, under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license. Photo has been modified.)