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The Life of Jesus - Series 8: Episode 16

Jesus brings division, not peace

| Martin Charlesworth
Luke 12:49-59

Jesus concludes the teaching in this chapter by making it clear people will be divided by belief in Him, or not. It will not be an easy life for Christians.

Jesus concludes the teaching in this chapter by making it clear people will be divided by belief in Him, or not. It will not be an easy life for Christians.


Hello and welcome to Series 8 Episode 16. ‘Jesus brings division not peace’ - that's the theme of the passage we're going to study today and the teaching that Jesus gives. For some time now we've been in Luke 12, and this is the final episode in that long and incredibly important chapter. We're going to be studying Luke 12: 49 - 59. You may want to have that text ready in front of you.

Introduction and Recap

Luke 12 gives us an amazing study about discipleship. This is the central theme of this section - it's woven into the narrative, but Luke clearly understands that Jesus was giving very important foundational teaching about discipleship to his own followers, his disciples - his Apostles - in order to prepare them for a complicated and difficult future. The context, of course, as we've stated in quite a number of episodes leading up to this one, is that Luke is showing us the journey that Jesus takes from Galilee to Jerusalem. In Series 7 we saw the turning point - Jesus leaving Galilee and deciding to head south, not returning to Galilee again. This was going to be the decisive and final phase of his ministry, in which he would evangelise and speak in the central Samarian area, where the Samaritans lived, and in the southern area of Judea, the heartland of Judaism, and the place of the capital city Jerusalem. That was his general plan and Luke tells us about many different things that happen on the journey. He doesn't give us a precise itinerary of where Jesus goes, but we get the impression he's passing through various Samaritan districts, and he's coming in and out of different parts of Judea. He sent disciples out on a mission around the whole area, in teams two by two, 36 teams travelling round. That is quite a high capacity for covering territory and telling people that Jesus is in the area and that his Kingdom is advancing. That's the broad context and as I've highlighted in some earlier episodes.

The other thing that Luke helps us to understand is the extent to which the opposition to Jesus is actually rising at this time. We've known for a long time in the story that the Pharisees and Teachers of the Law and the other religious leaders, the priests in Jerusalem, as represented by the ruling council, the Sanhedrin, have turned against Jesus and they've done that in a very decisive way. They've renounced him; they've accused him of being a false messiah, operating under the power of demonic forces. That was made clear in Matthew 12: 22 - 24 and in other passages. We've studied that and mentioned it on quite a number of occasions, but the reason I keep bringing it up is because it is the framework for the context. Hostility is rising and the risk to Jesus is that the big crowds, that are very fascinated by him as he's travelling through and around, will be just as influenced by the religious establishment as they will by his teaching. That's because the leaders are mixing in with the crowds; they have a natural civic religious authority; they're respected in the community; and they are absolutely clear in completely opposing Jesus.

There's a real choice for people to make. It's that sense of choice that is the backdrop to chapter 12, in which, in a variety of different contexts, Jesus discusses the claims of discipleship. What we've noticed in this chapter is that discipleship is a very challenging option. Certainly at the time, people had to make a big decision to break away from traditional Judaism and to deal with the pressure of all the opposition from the religious leaders and the potential exclusion and persecution that would come. It's a challenge for people in every generation, for you and for me in the different parts of the world that we live in. It's not an easy ride to be a Christian, and particularly to be an active Christian following Christ - what we call a disciple. The interesting thing about Jesus is that he doesn't water down the implications of faith. He never suggests to people that he's going to solve all their problems or give them an easy life, or make things simple, or suit them in all their personal difficulties and focus on their personal identity and happiness and development. There's none of that in the material we're dealing with in Luke 12 and indeed in other places, where similar themes are discussed, for example, in the Sermon on the Mount.

This is not the kind of pathway that Christianity offers. It offers a rugged pathway, the challenging pathway, but we need to say on the positive side, one full of immense meaning, immense sense of satisfaction that we're doing something really worthwhile, that we're in harmony with God, that we're in peace with God, that our sins are forgiven, that we've got hope for eternity. There are so many positives about being a Christian but one of the positives we can't claim is that we're going to have an easy life. That is not ever promised. Life in its fullness yes, but that's not an easy life; a burden and a yoke that's easy to follow, yes. That's true, compared with the rules and regulations of religion and the burden of your own sin. Jesus is quite clear in this chapter and elsewhere, that there are tough choices to make and big responsibilities to take on. We know that it's a path filled with joy - that's certainly my story, having been an active follower of Christ for over 40 years. That is my story through thick and thin, up-and-down, all the different seasons of life - perplexity, difficulties, suffering, uncertainty. We all face these things in different ways. This is human life and being a Christian doesn't insulate us from any of those things. Sometimes the choices we make actually bring direct challenges too. That's really what Jesus is talking about. This is the context.

A Division Between Humanity

The final section points out, as our heading suggests, that there's going to be a major division through humanity, concerning whether we follow Christ or not. This in fact ultimately becomes the main division between humanity, not between different races, not between different genders, different ages, different levels of wealth, all those other divisions that we think so much about in all our societies. There's an even more fundamental division, the division between the one person who says I follow Christ wholeheartedly, and the other one who's sitting on the fence, or is apathetic, or hostile, all those people on the other side. It's a division. The one who follows Christ is distinct from all those other people and those who've never really understood anything about Christ in the first place.

Jesus brings all these threads to conclusion in our final passage which has two halves. We're going to study this passage in those two halves. We're going to start with Luke 12: 49 - 53

49“I've come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! 50But I have a baptism to undergo, and what constraint I am under until it is completed! 51Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. 52From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. 53They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

Luke 12:49-53, NIV
Fire and Baptism

That's a very provocative passage isn't it? - challenging, stark, almost painful to read. He's come to bring fire on earth. He's come to experience a baptism. He's come to bring division. Goodness me, what can this mean? Let's have a think about this and focus on some of the details in order to clarify our understanding.The ‘fire’ that Jesus speaks of is the fire of judgement and fire is often a metaphor for God's judgement. He says that it is coming on the earth, and particularly on the nation of Israel imminently in ‘this generation’, as he's been teaching in the early passages which is worth just referring to again. He's saying Israel is reaching a crisis point; you need to decide: are you going to believe in the Messiah or not? Judgement will come on them in that generation. But more generally mankind faces the fire of God's judgement at some unstated time in the future.

More imminently, in verse 50, ‘I have a baptism to undergo.’ What is that baptism? That baptism is his suffering and his death on the cross. We can be confident that this is the right interpretation because Jesus speaks in similar terms elsewhere. We're just going to refer to this briefly now, by looking at Mark 10: 35 - 40 where something similar is stated in a different context. I want to read you this passage, Mark 10:35

35Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. “Teacher,” they said, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask.” 36“What do you want me to do for you?” he asked. 37They replied, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.” 38“You don't know what you are asking,” said Jesus. “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?” 39“We can,” they answered. Jesus said to them, “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, 40but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.”

Mark 10:35-40, NIV

Here's another context in which he speaks metaphorically about this baptism, but notice the context here is that the previous few verses, Mark 10: 32 - 34, is Jesus' prediction of his suffering, death and resurrection. In fact it's his third prediction. There are a number of predictions; we've already studied those predictions, or many of them. The prediction of his death linked to using the metaphor of baptism suggests to us very strongly that what Jesus is talking about here is a baptism of suffering and he realises that the two Apostles are asking for high status in the Kingdom of God in the future, really don't know what they're talking about. They've got to face a life of suffering themselves which they haven't really understood at that point. Disciples will be participating in Christ's suffering but he must undergo it first, in an ultimate and fundamental sense.

A Decision to Make

Returning to our text then, Luke 12:51,

‘Do you think that I've come to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division.

Luke 12:51, NIV

Again we have this theme - you can't sit on the fence; there's no such thing as neutrality. You can't be undecided. Jesus has already made this point when he said in Luke 11: 23

‘Whoever is not with me is against me and whoever does not gather with me scatters.’

Luke 11:23, NIV

This is a verse about neutrality. If you're not with me actively, you don't really need to do anything to be against me. Just being passive, and apathetic, and observing, and uninterested is being against me. There's a division coming and Israel, in particular - the immediate context - must decide whether to have faith in the Messiah or not. That decision, and that responsibility for that decision, extends beyond Israel in the immediate context to future humanity. As we hear the Gospel, as you and I are hearing the Gospel now - some of you may be hearing it for the first time, many of you are already experienced in understanding the gospel message - as we hear it, our very response creates a division. We either respond positively and take hold of this faith, or we don't. It's a division. It's a division that will happen within humanity.

Fire of Judgement

Then we come back to the concept of fire - verse 49 which I've mentioned already. This is a refining fire of judgement and the metaphor of fire is often used for judgement. Let's give an example: in the famous verses of John the Baptist's message to the Jewish people, on the river side of Jordan, when he was baptising people, he famously said in Luke 3:16

‘John answered them all, I baptise you with water but one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie, he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit.’

Luke 3:16,

People often stop there. You may even know that passage as complete at that point, but it ends

‘He'll baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire’.

Luke 3:16

He continues in verse 17, not so often quoted but we studied this when we were dealing with John's baptism,

‘His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather up the wheat into his barn, but he will burn the chaff with unquenchable fire.”

Luke 3:17, NIV

The Holy Spirit comes on humanity, on those who believe but fire comes ultimately on those who choose not to believe when the opportunity is presented to them. This fire can be a reference to national judgement on Israel, which is a key theme, as I've said on many occasions. We have to look at the immediate context. It can also be a reference to the eternal fire. This danger of judgement for Israel, if they miss the opportunity of believing in the Messiah, is such a major theme of the Gospels that we need to just keep pausing on it,and it comes to conclusion and culmination later on in the Gospels, particularly in Luke's gospel. I'm going to give you an insight into the significance of this, and connect this idea of fire into more specific things that Jesus says later on by referring you to Luke 21: 20 - 24. We're going to study this passage much more fully when we get to this part of Luke's Gospel. This is Jesus teaching about the end times as recorded in Luke 21, with parallel passages in Mark 13, Matthew 24 with additional material in Matthew 25. There's a very explicit prediction about the imminent future of the nation of Israel within Jesus' words. Just hear these words:  Luke 21: 20 - 24,

20“When you see Jerusalem being surrounded by armies, you know that its desolation is near. 21Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, let those in the city get out, let those in the country not enter the city. 22For this is the time of punishment in fulfillment of all that has been written. 23How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! There'll be great distress in the land and wrath against this people. 24They will fall by the sword and will be taken as prisoners to all nations. Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.’

Luke 21:20-24, NIV

A direct and clear prophecy from Jesus, concerning the nation of Israel and the ‘fire of judgement’ that was imminent if they rejected the Messiah, which they did as a nation.

The fire can refer to eternal judgement. You'll remember in Matthew 13, the parable of the wheat and the weeds; Matthew 13: 40 that when the weeds are plucked up, that's the day of judgement and they're burned in a fire.

Observe the Signs

Let's look at the second half of our passage, Luke 12: 54 - 59;

54He said to the crowd: “When you see a cloud rising in the west, immediately you say, ‘It's going to rain,’ and it does. 55And when you see the south wind blows, ‘It's going to be hot,’ and it is. 56You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky. How is it that you don't know how to interpret this present time? 57“Why don't you judge for yourselves what is right? 58As you are going with your adversary to the magistrate, try hard to be reconciled on the way, or your adversary may drag you off to the judge, and the judge turn you over to the officer, and the officer throw you into prison. 59I tell you, you'll not get out until you have paid the last penny.”

Luke 12:54-59, NIV

In the first half of this section, Jesus uses the analogy of weather forecasting, which in those days was done by observation, of what people saw in the atmosphere around them. Nowadays, we have technology - spectacular technology - to support us and give us vastly more information so we can make accurate predictions. It's interesting that Israel is a country where some basic things often work in terms of weather prediction. Israel has a large desert area to the south, the Negev Desert, the Sinai Desert and the much larger Arabian Desert. To the south, there is a massive amount of desert, whereas to the west is the Mediterranean immediately, sea. It's an obvious point that if a cloud comes from the west off the sea, it's likely to bring rain. That's always the case with nations that are close to the sea, that they're likely to experience rainfall once clouds come in the sky off the sea. Israel experienced south winds frequently coming up from those desert areas to the south, and they are likely to bring dry and hot conditions. In a very simple sense Jesus' explanation makes a lot of sense and anyone who's been to Israel will understand the relative regularity of those features of the weather even today. Jesus' point is that the weather is relatively easy to predict in a climate such as Israel's. It's followed, weather forecasting follows a pattern based on signs, things you see: wind, cloud. It should be that they need to be able to use those same skills of observation, to interpret the context of their day, by seeing what Jesus does, who he is, what he teaches, how it connects with the Old Testament prophetic Scriptures, and come to a clear understanding that he is the Messiah. Jesus says it's not that complicated, if only you've got eyes to see. You can interpret the weather, why can't you interpret the Old Testament Scriptures and the actions in Jesus' own life?

The final section speaks of going before a judge; the need for us to take action quickly to resolve issues with our adversaries to avoid judgement. This was quite a big theme of judgement here in this whole passage.

We've reached the end of chapter 12. It's been quite a marathon!. Those of you who've been with us on every single episode and are following them through, will obviously have a sense of the themes of chapter 12, and how these different passages are interconnected by the theme of discipleship, and by the question of the urgency of the need to make a decision to follow Jesus, and by the seriousness of the consequences of not following Jesus wholeheartedly.


My final reflections then, are that we are now at the end of a very long section of teaching on discipleship and faith, that is both very hard-hitting but also very important. It's noticeable in my experience that much of the material here is rarely taught clearly in many churches, and I would suggest that it's very important to do so. A decision about the claims of Jesus simply has to be made. There is no sitting on the fence. Interestingly, the Gospel message in one sense is as obvious as the simple signs in the sky that guide weather forecasting in a country with a climate like Israel's. What you have to do is study the evidence. It's amazing how few people actually study the evidence for Jesus. I'm astonished at the lack of interest in actually finding out the obvious things by those people who are just apathetic. They're just hoping that the Jesus story is not of any consequence for them. But as soon as you get unsettled in your convictions about just sitting on the fence and living your own life and so on, or adopting another religious traditional position, as soon as you get uneasy about that and you start looking into the Gospels, a whole new world comes alive.

That's the world we're exploring, and I'm glad you're here with us on that journey of exploration which I've found so thrilling, and to be honest, so challenging.  I've found even teaching these sections here in Luke 12, very challenging. It's forced me to look again at my own convictions and to deepen some of them, as I come to grips with the extraordinarily powerful claims of Jesus Christ. He really does claim the loyalty of every single person who hears his message. There's no ambiguity about it. There's no excuses about it. There's no half measures. He just calls us with the words, ‘follow me’ as he did with the early disciples.

There will be division; families will be divided. Some of you know exactly what that means. You'll read these words in the first half of our passage about families being divided: father against son, daughter against mother et cetera, and you'll think, that's my experience. Sometimes we have to live with that division, even in the foundational family unit that we're part of. Ultimately the community of discipleship, the Church, the community of faith, those who are born again, those who are redeemed and saved is a more transcendent, bigger, more permanent community even than the community of our clan, tribe, family, nuclear family, extended family, or village community. That's quite a challenge for some of us, who have learnt over the years that family relationships are more important than any other kind of relationships. Jesus Christ challenges that. He is creating a new family, a family of faith, and that family has permanent and unbreakable relationships that go through to eternity. Nothing in our human families ever can match what God gives us in his divine family.

Despite the challenges, despite the cost, the way of Jesus Christ is still fascinating and attractive. As soon as we see the bigger picture, that the challenges of this life are only a small part of the reality, and that the rewards of eternity are there before us, as a permanent blessing that can never be taken away from us. As soon as we see that, then we find it easier to take up the cause of discipleship, to say ‘Yes, I will follow Christ with all of my heart’. I trust that's how you feel. Maybe you're committed disciples and you're listening to this and it's strengthening your faith. Maybe you've been wavering in your convictions. Let these scriptures shape you and strengthen you. Maybe you're an enquirer, looking in. I want to say that following Christ is better than any other way that you can follow, and the rewards truly are eternal and permanent, and he gives meaning to this life in every possible sense.

But, and I say it again for the last time as we study this chapter - he doesn't promise us an easy or a comfortable life. He promises us a life filled with meaning, purpose, conviction, faith and risk - a life well-worth living

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. What challenges and costs have to be faced through becoming a believer? How do you see these in the light of eternity?
  • Discipleship
    1. Have you had to make difficult choices in your life because of your faith?
    2. How should you answer to your friends and family who don’t care about faith and do not make a decision?
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. Why is it rare for this passage to be preached in many churches?
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