by Alex Knepper
This morning, in prayerful reflection, I began to contemplate how much I love Jesus’s saying that ‘the kingdom of heaven is within you’ (Luke 17:21). But then I remembered: wait a second; I know most translations do not translate this verse using the words ‘within you’, and prefer something more like ‘around you.’ And then I thought — well, I guess I should compare various translations and try to discern a meaning —
And then I thought: Hey, wait a second, dumb-dumb! You’re taking Greek this semester! You have Bible software for this! And so off I went.
“The kingdom of heaven is within you.” So: the word for ‘within’ is ἐντὸς, which in fact does literally mean ‘inside’ or ‘within.’ It seems that the rationale for translating it other than ‘within’ or ‘inside’ comes down to 1. The use of the genitive (possessive) second-person plural, i.e., ‘you [people/all]’, ὑμῶν, combined with 2. The fact that Jesus was addressing the Pharisees. In other words: he telling the Pharisees that they were in possession of the kingdom of heaven.
Most translators since the KJV seem to have figured that Jesus could not possibly be saying that the Pharisees, his bête noire, were in possession of the kingdom of heaven. I have found that much, if not most, material rejecting ‘within you’ as the translation justifies the alternative word choice (‘in your midst’ ‘among you’) on these grounds. Surely, they say, what he meant was that he, as God’s son, has brought the kingdom of heaven into their midst without their seeing it, right in front of them, with their own two eyes.
This is compelling and clever. Nonetheless I must dissent from the prevailing view. I think the KJV is actually correct, and I do not think it is a particularly close call.
This is a theological rationale, not a literary one. The NRSV, preferred by my own church the ELCA, contains a footnote indicating that ‘within you’ is a legitimate translation, but the text still opts for ‘among you.’
‘Among’ is better than ‘in your midst’, but I still must go with ‘within’ — for precisely the reason that he was speaking to the Pharisees! These externals-obsessed pious men were the perfect foils to Jesus’s message, and the most desperately in need of it. Jesus is all about the interior: it is why he says the real sin of adultery is not to have sex with someone who is not your spouse, but has already reached its fullness when you lust for someone other than your spouse; it is why he says to not trumpet your good deeds in the marketplace but instead go to your room and close the door and talk to God in secret.
The kingdom of heaven is, in fact, inside the Pharisees, however much they had come to obscure it from themselves through their misguided obsession with externals. Of all those who needed to hear that God is within them — right here, right now — and not found intrinsically in their rituals and recitations — and that their very souls are dwelling-places of the Lord — and that the entirety of the vastness and greatness of the Spirit of God dwells inside of them — surely the Pharisees were most of all in need. The Lord loves souls, not behaviors. To find the kingdom of heaven, which is in each of us — yes, even the Pharisees — don’t dutifully follow 1,000 exterior rules: know thyself — look within.