Jesus’ teaching about the Kingdom of God remains the most complex element of his message. Today, two thousand years after he made his proclamation that “the time stands fulfilled; the Kingdom of God stands near” (Mark 1:15), we struggle to comprehend all of its mystery. We are not surprised then to read in the Gospel accounts that Jesus’ contemporaries, both his followers and his opponents, repeatedly questioned him about the Kingdom of God, but consistently failed to grasp its meaning prior to the resurrection.
In Luke 17:20ff we read that the Pharisees explicitly asked Jesus “when does the Kingdom of God come?” Jesus’ responded this way: “The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation1 (meta paratērēseōs), nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is within you2.” The variations in the different editions and revisions of the New International Version point out the struggle we have today to understand Jesus’ response. The phrase translated “with your careful observation(meta paratērēseōs)” is the focus for this brief note.
Two possible senses are proposed for this phrase. The more generally accepted understanding of Jesus’ meaning is that he denied the Pharisees’ conclusion that the Kingdom of God could not be present through Jesus because it was not accompanied with cosmic, eschatological signs. They should not wait “to observe” some heavenly wonder that God performs to mark its inauguration. A second and less commonly supported sense is that Jesus was criticizing the Pharisees’ belief that keeping the whole law with strict observation would motivate God to restore his Kingdom in Israel. So “observe” in this interpretation means to “observe the law.” While other proposals have been made, these continue to be the most commonly accepted meanings for Jesus’ response. What then does this word paratērēsis mean and what was Jesus saying about the coming of the Kingdom of God?
This noun only occurs in Luke 17:20 in the New Testament. The cognate verb paratēreō, however, occurs six times (Mark 3:2; Luke 6:7; 14:1; 20:20; Acts 9:24; Galatians 4:10). The parallel texts in Mark 3:2 and Luke 6:7 describe how the scribes and Pharisees “watched [Jesus] closely”(Luke used the middle form paretērounto), seeking evidence for accusation. A similar scenario occurs in Luke 14:1 as presumably the Pharisees “were carefully watching (ēsan paratēroumenoi) him.” Sabbath healing once more is the issue. Luke used this verb a third time in his Gospel in 20:20, introducing the episode in which the Pharisees questioned Jesus about paying taxes to Caesar with the participle “keeping a close watch on him (paratērēsantes),” with a view to laying charges against him before the authorities. Luke also employed this verb once in Acts. After Saul’s conversion in Damascus, some Jews conspired to kill him and “day and night they kept close watch (paretērounto) on the city gates” (9:24). The verb is used in the Gospel narratives and Acts with a consistent meaning – to watch closely, either for the purpose of gathering evidence or seizing. Such watching has as its outcome negative consequences for the person targeted, often with malicious motive.
When Paul criticized some of the Galatian believers for adopting Jewish practices, he says that they “are observing (paratēreisthe) special days and months and seasons and years” (4:10). This is the only context in the New Testament where the verb has the sense “to keep laws or observe customs.”
A review of the use of the cognate verb demonstrates that in the Gospel narratives, primarily Luke-Acts, the verb signifies “watch closely, with malicious intent”. This in turn would lead us to assume that the noun paratērēsis in Luke 17:20 would carry a similar meaning, i.e. describing the action of close or careful watching, perhaps also with some bad intent, unless something in that context pointed us in a different direction. Paul’s usage in Galatians 4:10, however, reveals that in Judaism (perhaps within Pharisaic circles given Paul’s Jewish background) the verb and the cognate noun can also describe the activity of obeying, i.e. observing, the Jewish laws and customs.
We discover the same diversity of meaning in the late first century A.D. Jewish writer Josephus. For example in the Jewish Wars I.570 Josephus describes a group of prominent women in Herod the Great’s court who acted improperly but their awareness “that they were watched (paratērēsis) only bound them closer.” Herod knew what they were doing and had them under observation, gathering evidence upon which to base future action. This sense of the term parallels the meaning the cognate verb conveyed in the Gospel narratives. In the Jewish Antiquities VIII.96 Josephus described the construction of Solomon’s temple. One of its sacred precincts was for “all the people who were distinguished by purity and their observation (paratērēsei) of the laws.” Josephus’ use of the noun with this sense parallels Paul’s use of the cognate verb in Galatians 4:10.
The evidence from Philo indicates that the verb’s meaning is more extensive. For example, in De Specialibus Legibus I.92 he refers to the countless heavenly phenomena that “have been observed (paratērēsantes) and recorded by wise men who by study of the heavenly bodies have marked the signs of calm weather and stormy winds,…” Philo used it similarly in De Specialibus Legibus IV. 155 where he refers to the steersman of a ship who holds the course “by observing (paratērēsas) the courses of the stars and following their ordered movements….”He used it in the general sense “it must be noticed (paratērēteon)” in De Specialibus Legibus I.239. Another sense occurs in De Specialibus Legibus III.81, namely to watch over in a protective sense. When Philo wants his reader to “observe” something Moses wrote, he used paratērei (Legum Allegoria I.107). A similar sense occurs in Legum Allegoria II.50, III.61, III.147; De Sacrificcis Abelis et Caini 98; Quod Deus Immutabilis Sit 109; De Sobrietate 22; De Confusione Linguarum 75; Quis Rerum Divinarum Heres 67. Philo used the verb primarily to describe the careful interpretation of the sacred text by means of detailed observation and study. He does not seem to employ it as Luke did with the idea of careful watching with malicious intent.
We should also note that the preposition translated “with” (Luke 17:20) and introducing the phrase under investigation, can describe moods, emotions or state of mind that accompanies an action or define some “other accompanying phenomenon.”3 The Gospel author may be describing a mood, emotion or state of mind exhibited by the questioners, or describing some phenomena that accompanies the “coming of the Kingdom.” It normally does not signify the means or instrument by which something happens, i.e. that the Kingdom of God comes “by means of careful observance.”
So what can we conclude from this brief review of the data that Jesus meant by meta paratērēseōs in his response to the Pharisees’ question? I would suggest that Luke-Acts’ use of the cognate verb (“to watch closely with malicious intent”) must frame our attempt to discern the meaning of this noun in 17:20. Only if this meaning does not make sense in the context should we seek some other significance. Using this principle as a guide, I would propose that Jesus was saying to the Pharisees, “the Kingdom of God does not come when those who observe do so with malicious intent.” The Pharisees will not be able to “see” the Kingdom because their hearts are not open to it. Rather, when they see the things Jesus says and does, they claim he is demon-possessed (cf. Luke 11). So they “see but do not see” because their motives are malicious. If they were watching with the eyes of faith, they would know that “the Kingdom of God is among you.” It is the manner of their watching that blinds them to its presence. As Jesus tells his disciples in Luke 17:6 a mustard seed amount of faith is sufficient for the powerful rule of God to be activated, but the Pharisees lack even that level of response to Jesus and so the Kingdom action of God in Jesus remains invisible to them.
Some measure of faith is required to “see” or discern God and his activity within our world. Even for believers in Jesus, just as was the case with the apostles, we often overlook or fail to perceive how God is acting because we are not expecting Him. Living with “a consciousness of God” requires an intentional expectation that God is with us, constantly at work within us and around us. We pray “God’s will be done on earth,” but have little expectancy that this will actually happen and more often then not find ourselves surprised by his gracious interventions.
- when did you last discern God at work?
- what prevents you from discerning God’s work in this world?
- how should we be praying so that we intentionally expect God’s powerful rule to break out in our presence?
- 1The 1973 first edition of the New International Version translated “The Kingdom of God does not come visibly.” The change in the 1978 edition adds some ambiguity to the interpretation. The Today’s New International Version published in 2001 added a further change, reading “The coming of the Kingdom of God is not something that can be observed.” This wording removes potential ambiguity.
- 2This last phrase similarly has undergone change in the various editions and revisions of the New International Version. Both the 1973 and 1978 editions read “within you” with a footnote indicating that “among you” is defensible alternative. The Today’s New International Version reverses this reading “in your midst” in the text, but noting in footnote “is within you.”
- 3F.W.Danker, ed., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000, third edition), 637.