The original question posed by the Pharisees was, "When is the Kingdom of God coming?" (verse 20). The long section from the end of verse 20 to verse 37 is Jesus' answer, first to the Pharisees (verses 20-21) and then to His disciples (verses 22-37). His reply to the Pharisees is rather curt: "You won't be able to discern the coming of the Kingdom because you haven't recognized that I am its chief representative, though I have been among you."
In His longer explanation to His disciples, Jesus goes into quite a bit more detail about the timing and conditions of establishing His Kingdom. First, He says, do not be deceived when people tell you Christ has come (verses 22-23). We will know very well when He returns; it will be like a flash of lightning that everyone will see (verse 24). However, before this can happen, Jesus must be tortured and crucified as man's Redeemer (verse 25). From our vantage point, which the disciples did not have, we know that this condition has already been met at Golgotha or Calvary.
Then He gives details about the conditions in the world when He returns. It will be as it was in the days of Noah and Lot (verses 26-30). He highlights two major signs of the end here:
1. He will come suddenly when people do not expect Him to return. Most people will be going about their normal activities, unaware of the times.
2. When He returns, society will be degenerate and wicked just as it was before the Flood came and before God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah (see Genesis 6:5-7; 18:20; 19:1-11).
Luke 17:31-33 shows that, for His disciples, His coming will result in a test of faith. They will have to be willing to leave everything behind—their homes, their possessions, even their loved ones—in order to obey the call of God. Lot's wife turned back in longing for what she had left behind, and God's judgment fell swiftly upon her. We may have to be willing even to give up our lives for salvation, because in trying to save our physical lives, we would have to renounce our beliefs.
Verses 34-36 illustrate three scenes of judgment. These show that Christ will judge us individually, and despite how close we may be to another—a spouse, a neighbor, a co-worker—our obedience and good works will not deliver anyone else (see Ezekiel 14:12-20). We will have to prove ourselves to the righteous Judge of all (Acts 17:31; Romans 14:10).
Finally, the disciples ask Jesus where these things will take place (Luke 17:37). His reply is better translated in the Revised English Bible: "Where the carcass is, there will the vultures gather." This seems somewhat enigmatic, but if we take what He says literally, He implies that He will return at a place of great carnage. This would parallel the scenarios prophesied in Zechariah 14:1-5 and Revelation 19:11-21 (see especially verses 17-18, 21b).
All through this section Jesus is describing real circumstances, real people, and real places. He speaks of a literal Kingdom to be established at His return "with power and great glory" (Matthew 24:30).
Since the context of Luke 17:21 is Christ's second coming, and Jesus is speaking in great detail about the time, place, and conditions of His return, we must see His Kingdom as a literal government—just as real as any government of man. We cannot divorce "the Kingdom of God is among you" from this larger topic. Doing so distorts the true meaning of a literal, soon-coming Kingdom ruled by Jesus Christ that will grow to fill the whole earth after His return.
Richard T. Ritenbaugh
Is the Kingdom of God Within You?
In addition to a wake of vultures being a symbol of God's judgment of shame, a gathering of vultures also indicates a diseased spiritual condition. In Revelation 18:2, Babylon the Great is described as being “a dwelling place of demons, a prison for every foul spirit, and a cage for every unclean and hated bird.”
Vultures are undoubtedly at the top of the list of unclean and hated birds! End-time Babylon is the focal point of demonic spirits, which are likened to unclean birds. Both of them prey on the sick and the injured, and they gather where death is.
Even so, our greatest threat is not the Tribulation at the end! As bad as it will be, far worse is being spiritually unprepared when Christ returns and being judged as unworthy to enter the Kingdom. This is what the Parable of the Ten Virgins and the Parable of the Wedding Feast describe. This is the substance of the warnings about Christ's return being like a thief in the night—coming when He is completely unexpected. This is why He warns us against neglecting so great a salvation and against being led astray by the cares of the world, the deceitfulness of riches, and the pleasures of life. Jesus warns us to keep us on the path of life, so that we do not fall to the birds of prey that stalk the spiritually dying.
We are given the charge to come out of Babylon, so we do not share in her sins or in her judgment (Revelation 18:4). If we have a discerning heart, we should have a good idea of what will attract the vultures, as it will be giving off the smell of spiritual death. God gives us that discerning heart, so we can make good choices.
Do we really believe the scriptures about the swiftness of Christ's return? It is easy to look at world events and compare them to our understanding of prophecy; we know that things are bad and getting worse—but the end still seems to be just over the horizon. Because it is not here yet, it is easy to conclude, even subconsciously, that there is no need to become serious just yet.
However, this conclusion is filled with assumptions. One is that our understanding of end-time events is correct! A second assumption is that, even if we do have correct understanding, we will never lose it through deception. A third is that our faith will remain constant until the end. A fourth is that, when we do decide to get serious, that we will have ample time to build character, take on the image of God, and complete our sanctification. A fifth is that our Creator will go along with our agenda of pushing Him off until the last minute.
These are a lot of assumptions! If we are misjudging these things, we may hear those terrible words, “I never knew you; depart from Me” (Matthew 7:23)!
If we are delaying the time to start seeking God, the vultures may be eyeing us as ones who may not spiritually survive what lies ahead. Perhaps all of us have seen this happen to people we care about. If we are spiritually sick or injured, there is no time like the present to seek our Healer and Protector to beat off the hated birds!
In the Parable of the Ten Virgins, the foolish ones thought they had more time. They were probably aware that their reserves of oil were not as full as they could be, but they may have assumed that they could always attend to that later. They did not count on falling asleep. They did not count on life happening, that something would prohibit them from taking care of preparations they had put off.
A lesson we can draw is that, if we are not putting everything we have into our calling right now, how much time is left does not matter. If that is the case, we may find ourselves, like the foolish virgins, suddenly awake and realizing we cannot get ready in time. What we claimed we wanted will have slipped through our grasp, one day at a time.
Judgment is coming on the world, but it is on the house of God right now (I Peter 4:17). A gathering of eagles—a wake of vultures—is a symbol of God's judgment on those who stubbornly resist coming into alignment with Him. Vultures will literally gather for those who rebel against God in the final battle (Revelation 19:17-21), and they are metaphorically already circling those who cannot tear themselves away from Babylon—those who are on such good terms with the world that they are giving off the scent of spiritual death.
The multitude of warnings and prophecies means that it is a possibility for us, because it is a certainty for some. Yet, with all that God makes available, there is no good reason for that judgment to fall on us.
David C. Grabbe
Where the Eagles Are Gathered
The disciples' question, “Where, Lord?” appears to be about where all of this would be taking place—including His return, which would initiate the judgment—rather than about where His followers would be taken. In Matthew's account, their original question was about the signs of Christ's coming and the end of the age (see Matthew 24:3, 28), so what appears to have been on their minds were the specifics of His return rather than the location of those “taken.”
As is His pattern, He does not answer their question directly. Instead, His answer applies on multiple levels. Looking at Matthew's and Luke's accounts together, the disciples ask about when and where, since we humans want a specific date and location so we can gauge how these things will affect us personally. God, however, gives principles.
In Scripture, a wake (gathering) of vultures is an indicator of God's judgment for rebellion. In the blessings and curses given to Israel, God warns them, “Your carcasses shall be food for all the birds of the air and the beasts of the earth, and no one shall frighten them away” (Deuteronomy 28:26). It is a judgment of great shame, one that has been fulfilled in type in the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem (Psalm 79:1-3).
Under this curse, the Israelites would have no dignity in their deaths; they would have no one to bury them. It symbolizes the height of defeat, disgrace, and personal insignificance, when no defenders are left to keep the scavengers from tearing a human body apart just as they would a dead animal. When God cleans His creation in this way, a person becomes nothing more than a meal for one of the most despised creatures.
But Israelites are not the only ones to receive this shameful judgment. The same fate is prophesied for those fighting against Christ at His return:
Then I saw an angel standing in the sun; and he cried with a loud voice, saying to all the birds that fly in the midst of heaven, “Come and gather together for the supper of the great God, that you may eat the flesh of kings, the flesh of captains, the flesh of mighty men, the flesh of horses and of those who sit on them, and the flesh of all people, free and slave, both small and great.” And I saw the beast, the kings of the earth, and their armies, gathered together to make war against Him who sat on the horse and against His army. . . . And the rest were killed with the sword which proceeded from the mouth of Him who sat on the horse. And all the birds were filled with their flesh. (Revelation 19:17-19, 21; see also the prophecy against Gog in Ezekiel 39:17-20)
The followers of the Beast and False Prophet will be killed, and God will specifically call the carrion birds for this gruesome feast. Any alleged return of the Messiah that does not involve this judgment on God's enemies is a lie. These are grisly descriptions but necessary reminders of His view of sin, disobedience, and rebellion against Him. Christ will return at a time when the opposition to Him will have reached a peak and to a place where human governments will have assembled against Him. Moreover, there will be a gathering of scavengers as a sign of God's judgment of shame.
David C. Grabbe
Where the Eagles Are Gathered
Other Forerunner Commentary entries containing Luke 17:37: