Surely there has been some sort of mistake. We have just heard and seen Jesus using words of comfort, of encouragement, and declarations of how great he is. But here we have him talking about division in Luke chapter 12. Was Jesus having a bad day, was he stressed, was he depressed, run down? Moody? or was this this completely out of character for Jesus?
When I first read this passage, I thought that I am in a loving and supportive family including my in-laws where I hope that Jesus is in the centre. Why would he want to split us up. Jesus is supposed to help our families. Jesus is supposed to be the glue that keeps families together. You may be familiar with the phrase “The family that prays together, stays together.” Admittedly there are plenty of people who do not get on with their in-laws. I think we are grateful when we only have one father-in-law and one mother-in-law. Does anyone know the punishment for bigamy? Two Mothers-in-law! A pharmacist tells a customer, ‘In order to buy arsenic you need a legal prescription. A picture of your mother-in-law just isn’t enough.’
The passage that we have just read is one of the “hard sayings” of Jesus. It must have shocked some of his hearers, and it is shocking to us when we discover it in Scripture. But it is in the Bible and we have to deal with it.
Why did Jesus say it and what does this passage mean for us today?
1) First of all, it literally means what it means.
If Jesus is about peace and love, why does he say in verse 49 – “I have come to bring fire on the earth and how I wish it were already kindled”. Surely Jesus isn’t advocating arson or forest fires that we have witnessed across Europe during some of the hottest temperatures on record. No: Jesus is talking about the Judgement – the consuming fire of God burning off all of the chaff. In Luke 3 9 and 17 Jesus says “The axe is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire”, and “His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn” respectively.
Then in verse 50 he says that he has a baptism to undergo. But Jesus was baptised earlier by John in the Jordan just before his ministry got underway. We can read that in Luke chapter 3. In the Nicene Creed we acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins, but why would Jesus go through baptism again considering that he has never sinned? The answer is later on in that verse. He is not talking about a baptism of water but about his own death. “How distressed I am until it is completed”. You may recall on the night he was betrayed he went to the garden of Gethsemane and he was sweating and asking his father to take this cup from him. Jesus knew what was coming, he knew not only about the torture he was going to have to endure and the painful death on the cross for us, but he said to his father “yet not my will but yours”. Jesus took our place. He took on our punishment. He stood in our place in the fire of judgement. At the cross Jesus also cried out “My God, why have you forsaken me”. Here he felt separated from the father. Jesus will be judge in the later days and it is him who will be justice as in Revelation 20:11 “I saw in heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and makes war”. Jesus saw the bigger picture.
Jesus’ message was really divisive. Jesus inspired passionate responses on two sides: devotion and acceptance on one side and rejection on the other. Some followed him and died for him, whilst others wanted him dead. A lot of people hated his message for various reasons. The Romans hated it because Christ-followers refused to worship the Roman gods and Caesar. Many Jewish people hated it because they thought it was blasphemous that Jesus could claim to be the Son of God. Both groups tried their hardest to snuff out the early church, and sometimes resorted to arresting and killing Christians. Indeed, I’m sure many families were torn apart as some remained pagans loyal to Rome while others became Christians. It was a natural consequence of the radical message Jesus brought, and Jesus knew that. This would have had more of an impact then than it does today, because families would be closer to one another geographically then we are today. Jesus warned his followers that those who chose to go with Him could have very serious consequences that they should be aware of before they make the choice.
If you study the flow of the narrative of the Gospels, you will notice that the closer Jesus is to crucifixion, the more “serious” his preaching becomes. Jesus knew that people misunderstood Him. They considered Him to be a miracle worker, a healer, even Messiah (meaning, a person who’ll become a king like David, smash the idolaters and conquer the world for the Jews). Even his disciples misunderstood Him. He saw that and tried to correct their thinking. Hence such “unpleasant” verses and the frequent mention of how disciples did not understand what he said and how he told many people to be silent about him being the Messiah, about him curing people, etc.
2) Second, it always helps to read related items in the Bible
This passage correlates with many others in the Bible. One example can be found in Luke 14:26 when Jesus said “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple”. When Matthew records these words of Jesus he spares us nothing. In fact, Jesus’ words sound violent, “I didn’t come to send peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34). A sword! And then Jesus explains what he meant by all this, “He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me isn’t worthy of me. He who doesn’t take his cross and follow after me, isn’t worthy of me. He who seeks his life will lose it; and he who loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:37-39). Therefore this saying of Jesus is not a one off when it comes to putting him first and the consequences that may be. Jesus does not want our attention on a Sunday morning, he does not just want our finances and our prayers. He wants our thoughts, our actions, our life, our all 24/ 7 everyday of our lives.
3) How to apply it to your own life?
This verse tells us that following after Christ can get in the way of our relationships that we have. Following Jesus must take precedence. For some of us, we may be married to non-Christians, or we may have non-Christian parents or children. This can be challenge in many ways. We may become disheartened, compromise our beliefs to please them. How do we live amongst non-Christians. We must pick our moments in which to chat about our faith, to pray for them and if they want to pray with them. It is about demonstrating God’s faithfulness through us and allowing them to see Jesus through us.
At present I am reading a book by Lee Strobel called the Case for Christ. Lee was a devout atheist and his wife came home one day and announced that she had become a Christian. He was devastated and annoyed classing her as becoming brainwashed. But then he noticed how different she was and he used his skills he learned at Harvard University when studying Law and Journalism and became convinced that Jesus was real and about the Christian Faith. He is now a pastor at a church in America.
“Open Doors USA recently reported a remarkable conversion story of a former Muslim man in Iran named Taher. He would beat his family and even threatened to kill them because of their faith in Jesus. After Taher’s family fled abroad, time passed and in his growing despair he cried out: “I will believe in the God who reveals Himself to me.” According to his story (here), the living God answered his prayers through a dream. It isn’t clear how much of the Bible Taher was exposed to, but he heard the gospel through the witness of his family and saw the reality of their faith in the face of persecution”.
Francis Bernardone was born at the end of the 12th century, his father was a wealthy cloth merchant and had high hopes for his son. Francis became a knight, and had a fabulous future in front of him. His father was proud of his son. The problem was that Francis kept going to church and praying, asking God what he wanted him to do. Over time, he became convinced that God didn’t want him to be a dashing knight, but rather to be a follower of Christ, a genuine disciple. Francis heard the scriptures say, “Sell all that you have and give it to the poor” and so he literally sold everything that he had and gave it to the poor. He even changed clothes with a beggar, and spent time begging in the streets of Rome. His father was so angry at Francis’ behaviour he had Francis thrown in jail. Francis of Assisi (as he became known) said, “No longer is Pietro Bernardone my father for, from now on, my father is in heaven.”
We might admire Francis for his heroic and noble stand and his persistence to follow Jesus despite the cost. But the pain is real and lasting. He experienced first-hand the division that following Jesus can cause. He knew what God was calling him to do and he did it. He knew that him being obedient to God would affect the relationship he had with his father. Following Jesus sets father against son, mother against daughter and etc. How far are we willing to go for Jesus?
We often sing at Christmas time about ‘the little Lord Jesus’ and how “lovey dovey” he is, throughout the year we often sing beautiful saviour. This he may be, but compliant and mouse-like is not one of Jesus’ traits. When it comes to the gospel he calls a spade, a spade. He did not worry about political correctness and was blunt about the cost of following him. Yes God loves each one of us immensely, not wanting anyone to perish, so much that he gave his one and only son to die in our place for all of our sins, for the things that have upset God.
To finish I would like to ask some challenging questions for you to think about and bring to God. Do we ignore the dangers of sin? Why do we keep on sinning if we know the consequences of sin and the cost that Jesus paid for us on the cross? Do we water down the significance of the cross? What or who is number one in your life? Are you willing to risk your family’s approval in order to gain eternal life and follow Jesus? To what extent are you prepared to stand up for what you believe, even though it means separation from others, or have we just blended in with those who clearly don’t have any time for Jesus or the church or with a society that lives and conducts business as if there was no God?