/ Biblical Studies / The Kingdom of God is “Within” or “Among” You? (Luke 17:20-21)

The Kingdom of God is “Within” or “Among” You? (Luke 17:20-21)

Mike on May 23, 2014 - 4:59 am in Biblical Studies, Gospels
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The question of how best to translate Luke 17:21 is long-standing, going back at least to the 4th or 5thcentury A.D. While other translation issues exist relative to this passage, the primary debate concerns whether or not he basileia tou theou entos humōn estin should be translated as:

the Kingdom of God is within you


the Kingdom of God is among you

There is nothing inherently objectionable about the former translation (“within you”).  Indeed, considering the whole history of Christian theology, this has been the dominant understanding of the Greek text and it certainly does not have to lead to any bad theology.  Jesus might simply have been saying that the Kingdom of God was not so much an external, political reality as it was an interior, spiritual reality that exists independent of government, religious or other power structures.

On the other hand, this understanding/translation certainly has – and continues – to foster poor theology, particularly among New Agers who take it as an indication that there is a divine spark within each of us, just waiting to be recognized and tapped into. Unfortunately, a very similar understanding is also prevalent within the (ostensibly) Christian prosperity movement as well.

Regardless of how this translation might have been abused, though, the most important question remains whether this is the best translation or if the latter translation (‘among you”) is a more accurate representation of Jesus’ intended meaning.  It is my studied opinion that “among you” is the more accurate translation.  Here are several reasons for this opinion.

1.  “Among you” is certainly not a “new” translation and has a long history within orthodox Christianity.  While it was not the dominant view for much of church history, this translation (“the Kingdom of God is among you”) can be traced as far back as Cyril of Alexandria (late 4th-early 5thcentury)[1] and has become the dominant view since sometime in the 17th century.[2]  There are a number of reasons for the shift, but many of them have to do with a developing clarity that the Kingdom of God as Jesus referred to it was closely associated with his own person.

2.  The plural form of “you” (humōn) makes “among” the more likely translation here.  While it makes perfect sense to speak of something being “within” one person, it makes less sense to speak of something being “within” a group of people.  Conversely, while we do not usually say something is “among” one person, it is quite natural to speak of something being “among” a group of people.  While entos typically means “within” in the LXX (Psa 38:4; Isa 16:11) and NT (Mat 23:26[3]), it must be noted that every other canonical instance of entos is followed by a singular entity (“within him”, “within the Temple”, etc).  Rendering entos “within” is grammatically awkward when followed by a plural (e.g. “the suitcase is within boats”).[4]  “Within” would be less awkward if something like hekastos – usually translated as “each” or “every” – were present, as in Acts 2:38 which has hekastos humōn (“each one of you”).  Then the translation would be:  “the kingdom of God is within each one of [you all]”. Without hekastos, though, the grammar of this clause makes more sense if entos is translated “among”.  While this might not be the most common use of the term, it is certainly within its obvious semantic domain and perhaps even makes more sense than the alternative translation when the location in view is not a singular entity.

3.  The fact that Jesus was addressing the Pharisees makes it very unlikely that he said “the Kingdom of God is within you”.  While the Pharisees were not as uniformly opposed to Jesus as popular teaching often makes them out to be, there can be no doubt that the relationship between them and Jesus was often antagonistic.  Within the surrounding context of Luke 17:20-21, interactions with the Pharisees are particularly negative (in Luke 16:14, Luke describes them as “lovers of money” who were “scoffing at him”; in 18:10-14, Jesus used a Pharisee as an example of hypocrisy).  Given this, it seems very unlikely that Jesus was saying to those who opposed him that the Kingdom of God was “within” each of them.  On the other hand, the idea that the Kingdom of God was “among” the Pharisees in the person of Jesus himself, yet they were blind to see it, is quite consistent with Jesus’ criticisms of this religious sect (cf. Mat 23:26).

4.  This translation makes better sense of the nature of the Kingdom of God as revealed throughout the Gospels generally and in Luke particularly. Luke’s use of basileai tou theou (“the Kingdom of God”) is nearly always a reference to an exterior reality; that is, whatever else may be said about the Kingdom, it is external to human beings such that we may enter into it (Luke 7:28; 14:15; 16:16; 22:16-18; et al.), possess it in some manner (6:20; 18:16; et al.) and experience it drawing near to/coming upon us (10:9,11; 11:20; 19:11; 21:31; et al.). Apart from the puzzling instance in 17:20-21, Luke knows nothing of an interior Kingdom of God.  This appears to be true of the other Gospels as well.  Even those passages which speak of “receiving” the Kingdom in a way that might otherwise imply the possibility of its taking up residence inside of them are clarified by statements such as we find in Mark 10:15:  “Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it at all.”  Here, the presence of “will not enter it” make it clear that reception of the Kingdom does internalize it.  Rather, “receiving” the Kingdom is essentially equivalent to “accepting its authority”.  Even though we can “accept” it, the Kingdom remains exterior to subjective human experience.  Similarly, references to the Kingdom of God in the rest of the NT treat it as external to human beings, something to be inherited (1Co 6:9; 4:20; Gal 5:21) or to be worthy of (2Th 1:5).  In short, the Kingdom of God is no-where else an interior, subjective reality and one should therefore be very cautious about reading a unique meaning into Luke 17:20 simply because its exterior nature is not as explicit here.  The basic hermeneutic principle of reading the unclear in light of the clear – and the rare in light of the common – dictates that we understand the Kingdom in Luke 17:20 as an exterior reality.

There are a number of people who see a parallel between Luke 17:20-21 and Rom 14:17:  for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.  As the argument goes, Paul is here defining the Kingdom in interior, spiritual terms much like Jesus did in Luke 17.  To be fair, there is a surface-level association between “observation” in Luke 17:20 and the eating and drinking of Rom 14:17, especially if we take “observation” here to be a reference to religious observances such as might be equated to ritualistic “eating and drinking”.  However, the similarities are circumstantial and tenuous at best.  Grammatically, there is almost no common material between the two passages, apart from basileai tou theou which occurs so frequently in the NT that it can hardly be used as evidence of source-dependence without considerably more grammatical parallels between the two passages.  Arguments by scholars that Paul was either alluding to Luke 17:20 or drawing on some common source material are unconvincing.[5]  Given the very questionable – if not downright unlikely – idea that Rom 14:17 is a parallel to Luke 17:20, Rom 14:17 cannot be used as an interpretive lens for Luke 17:20.  Consequently, the case for the Kingdom of God as an objective, exterior reality rather than a subjective, interior experience is essentially uncontested.



[1] Paul M. Bretscher, “Luke 17:20-21 in Recent Investigations,” CTM 22:12 (1951), 899

[2] Ibid.

[3] Apart from the Luke 17:21 reference, Matthew’s use is the only other NT occurrence of the term.

[4] The lack of a plural form of “you” in English makes this illustration difficult.  In the interest of clarity, it might be helpful to think of it this way:  the kingdom of God is within ya’ll.

[5] For a representative argument of this sort, cf. Richard Sneed, “The Kingdom of God is Within You”, CBQ, 24:4 (1962), 370-372.  Sneed’s argument seems to depend largely on the idea that meta paratereseosmeta in Lk 17:20-21 should be taken as “realized by means of observances” which seems unlikely and does not enjoy widespread scholarly support.  Moreover, Sneed depends on the mention of the Holy Spirit in Rom 14:17 in order to make the point that there is an equivalence of the Reign (of God) with the Spirit, but this requires understanding  en pneumatic hagio as an identification of the sphere of operation for the entirety of 14:17 rather than simply for “joy” i.e. “the kingdom of God is…righteousness+peace+joy, all of which are found in the Holy Spirit” vs. “the Kingdom of God…is righteousness and peace and joy-in-the-Holy-Spirit”. While Sneed’s interpretation is possible, there is certainly nothing in the grammar of the clause that requires it or even makes it more likely.  Moreover, even if we adopted Sneed’s reading of this text, there is no particular reason why this should make the Kingdom of God equivalent to the Spirit in any way.  Sneed is correct to point out that Acts 1:6 does seem to suggest a connection between the kingdom and the arrival of the Spirit (373), but the link is neither so strong nor as obvious as he asserts.  The question Jesus was answering was not “when will the Kingdom come?” but rather “Lord, are you now restoring the kingdom to Israel?”  If anything, the actual question here presupposes the prior arrival of the kingdom and simply wonders whether or not Israel’s unique role vis a vis the Kingdom of God will now resume.  It is also entirely possible that the question in Acts 1:6 was not about the Kingdom of God per se but rather simply about the restoration of Israel’s sovereignty.

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