Luke 12:49-59, The Fire that Jesus Sets Ablaze

[August 18, 2013] I have been away for four Sundays, leaving only one posting about the Order of Ecumenical Franciscans during that time. Over the course of the last three Sundays I was traveling with family in Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro, Malta and Sicily as an American tourist. Let us get into the Gospel according to Luke and bring us up to date.

Review (Luke 10:1—12:48)

In the design of Luke’s gospel, most of Jesus’ teaching takes place on His final journey to Jerusalem. This journey began with His appointing seventy-two “others” and sending (apostellō) them ahead of Him to prepare His way. They return with happy results, a prelude to the later apostolate of Paul, Barnabas and others (chapter 10:1-24).

This is followed by Jesus teaching us that He is the Neighbor who saves us (the Parable of the Good Samaritan), by Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet to listen to His word as an example for us, and by Jesus teaching His disciples (us) about prayer: all foundational lessons for the Christian life(10:25—11:13).

Then Jesus is opposed by the Pharisees, and Jesus responds as only He could. What the Pharisees put their finger on was actually the Kingdom of God coming upon them, conquering the realm of Satan. However, what ground Jesus has cleared nationally will be taken back by Satan because of the Pharisees’ opposition. What they refuse to hear, the gentiles will hear, and this will testify against them (11:14-35). Jesus pronounces woes on these Pharisees and their legal experts for their hypocrisy (11:36-54). This school of Pharisees and the nascent Zealots with whom they were allied persecuted the church in the Acts of the Apostle and hounded the apostles and their work throughout the Mediterranean.

After this, Jesus teaches His disciples and the crowds to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and their brand of hypocrisy, and warns them about the persecution they will suffer (12:1-12). Then He warns them against greed and material insecurity, assuring them of the Father’s providence, and tells them to “sell your possessions and give alms” (12:13-34). (We should not ignore the fact that Jesus—or Luke in collating His teachings—singles out this issue to teach His disciples, out of all the things that He could taught them.) He then tells them to live in such a way now that they are always ready for the coming judgment, “for the Son of Man is coming at an hour that you do not expect” (12:35-48).

I Have Come to Cast Fire upon the Earth” (12:49)

It was at this point that Jesus exclaimed, “I have come to cast fire upon the earth; and how I wish it were already kindled!” What is the fire to which He refers? Fire is a source of light and warmth, but it also purifies, burns and destroys; and fire spreads.

In Acts 2:3 “tongues as of fire” sat on each of the disciples on Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came upon them. In this case the fire may represent the Spirit’s light that ignites light in others (this is spiritual); it probably also represents the Spirit’s purifying judgment in the soul (and on the world). Jesus mentions the Father giving the Holy Spirit in Luke 11:13 and that the Holy Spirit will give us the words to speak when we are brought to trial in 12:12. He also warns against blaspheming against Holy Spirit in 12:10.

We are reminded of the words of John the Baptist in Luke 3:16-17, that the One Who is coming, “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” Here the fire is either apposite to the Holy Spirit or, more probably, paired with Her. The Coming One will baptize you all with the fire of judgment, for when He gathers the wheat into His barn “He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” Malachi asks, “Who can endure the day of His coming? And who can stand when He appears? For He is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap” (Malachi 3:2-3). Jesus had just been speaking of the coming judgment in 11:35-48.

 Fire can also refer to persecution, bringing us back to Luke 12:1-12. Peter tells us, “Do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you; but to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing, so that also at the revelation of His glory you may rejoice with exultation” (1 Peter 4:12-13). This is not separate from God’s judgment, for Peter goes on to say, “If anyone suffers as a Christian, he is not to be ashamed, but is to glorify God in this name. For it is time for judgment to begin with the household of God; and if it begins with us first, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the Gospel of God? ‘And if it is with difficulty that the righteous is saved, what will become of the godless man and the sinner? Therefore, those also who suffer according to the will of God shall entrust their souls to a faithful Creator in doing what is right” (1 Peter 4:16-19). In other words, persecution is the fire of God’s judgment, not to punish us but to try us to see what we are made of. “You have been distressed by various trials so that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ … obtaining as the outcome of your faith the salvation of your souls” (1 Peter 1:6-7, 9).

Jesus has come to cast fire upon the earth. It has not yet been kindled—it will be kindled by the “baptism” of His death in the next verse—but when it is, it will set the earth ablaze. The fire is the fire of God’s judgment, for the word of the Gospel will try the hearts of humans everywhere and the persecution that it will ignite will try those who believe and obey the Gospel.

I have a Baptism to Undergo” (12:50)

In Mark 10:38-39 Jesus refers to His suffering and death on the cross as a baptism, or perhaps as the completion of His baptism (notice the verb tense). It is connected to the cup of suffering that He must drink (or is drinking). The disciples James and John shall drink this cup and be baptized with this baptism. It does not refer, then, to the atoning aspect of our Lord’s death per se, but if it is connected to the baptism of John, then it does refer to the judgment of God upon us. Jesus’ taking that on was atoning, our taking it on is purifying. Jesus identified with us under the judgment of God and took upon Himself our repentance when He went down into the waters of the Jordan. His loving obedience to the Father when surrendering to the judgment of God on the cross was the culmination of what began in the water. The kind of obedience that He offered to the Father is exemplary of what He demands of His disciples.

Baptism literally refers to dunking in a liquid, as when you dye fabric or wash your hands. The prospect of the cross, the suffering it will entail, is like the deep flood that overwhelms the psalmist in Psalms 66:12; 69:2, 14-15 and 124:4-5, or that Isaiah speaks of in 43:2, or the queen in Song of Solomon 8:7, where it also refers to death. The deep waters plunge our soul into Hades (the realm of the dead). In the last two verses (Isaiah 43 and Song of Solomon 8) and in Psalm 66:12, water is paired with fire.

 “I have a baptism to undergo” (literally, something like, “I have a baptism with which to be baptized”), “and how distressed I am until it is accomplished!” The word for “distressed” here (syn-echomai) means to hold together, squeeze, press or to oppress. Jesus does not look forward to His coming ordeal, but is pressed towards its completion. This probably expresses the feeling that comes into focus in the Garden of Gethsemane when the Lord resolutely chose the Father’s will for our sake. He laid down His soul then, denying it absolutely, as He also asks us to do (Luke 9:24).

If the fire that He casts upon the earth is the judgment of God that will try those who believe, in the form of persecution, then the baptism that Jesus undergoes is also the persecution that tries Him. It is the baptism of fire (the fiery ordeal, 1 Peter 4:12), or the baptism of blood (1 John 5:5-8). In John’s epistle, there are three baptisms: the Spirit, the water and the blood. When we believe we enter the church’s baptism of the Spirit, and then the church baptizes us in water. The baptism in blood is our faithfulness to the end. These three signify our overcoming the world. “For whatever is born of God overcomes the world; and this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. Who is the one who overcomes the world, but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” (1 John 5:4-5). The completion of our Lord’s baptism by His death kindles the fire that sets the world ablaze.

I Did Not Come to Give ‘Peace on Earth’” (12:51-53)

Jesus now speaks directly of the havoc that the Gospel will wreck upon the earth. It will divide, not unite, people. This is the fire aspect of the Gospel. For the Gospel will try the hearts of humans and sort them out, and while some will believe, the Gospel will also provoke others to turn against those who believe (see Galatians 5:11).

Yes, the Gospel does bring peace to those who believe. When Jesus was born a choir of angels exclaimed, “Glory to God in the highest and peace on earth, [God’s] good pleasure among human beings.” Yet when Simeon, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, held the Baby and blessed His parents, he said to Mary, “Behold, this Child is appointed for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and for a sign to be opposed—and a sword will pierce even your own soul—to the end that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed” (Luke 2:14, 34-35).

Indeed, Matthew in the parallel passage to Luke 12:51 uses the word “sword” instead of division. A sword symbolizes that which divides (for example, Hebrews 4:12). It is used in jurisprudence to represent the division between right and wrong, good and bad, just and wicked. “His winnowing fork is in His hand to thoroughly clear the threshing floor, and to gather the wheat into His barn” (Luke 3:17). It thus symbolizes the judgment of the Gospel. “He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment seat” (Battle Hymn).

The Gospel does bring peace, without a doubt. The disciples will be right when they shout, “Peace in heaven and glory in the highest” when Jesus enters Jerusalem (Luke 19:38). Paul even tells us, “He Himself is our peace, who made both groups [Jews and gentiles] into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall” (Ephesians 2:14). In the Gospel according to John, Jesus tells His disciples, “Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you,” and “In Me you may have peace” (John 14:27; 16:33). The Gospel brings both inner peace and peace between the siblings whom Christ calls. But it also brings opposition from those who reject the Gospel.

“From now on five members in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, and mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” When a family is divided there is much pain, especially since parents love their children and the children must honor their parents. Yet Jesus tells the crowds, “If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own soul, he cannot be My disciple” (Luke 14:26), not that we are to hate anyone, but we must indeed renounce that kind of love for them that would keep us from Christ.

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus quotes from Micah 7:1-7 (Matthew 10:35-36). No one in Israel is righteous anymore, even your wife and children may turn against you. See Zechariah 13:3 and Luke 21:16.

In Luke, however, in the example that Jesus gives, it seems that a young Jewish couple follows Him and three of their parents oppose them. In the ancient household, the family worshiped together. The patriarch (and often the king) usually decided the religion of the household. In the gentile world (Luke’s world) it was worse, for becoming a Christian meant that one, not only no longer honored the civic gods, but also no longer honored the household deities. People took it as an insult.

In the early church (and still today), Christians sometimes provoked conflict with their neighbors. This is wrong. The apostle Paul tells us that we are to conduct ourselves with wisdom toward outsiders (Colossians 4:5); and “if possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men” (Romans 12:18). Peter also warns us when we give an account of ourselves to speak to people with gentleness and reverence (1 Peter 3:15) and to not get in trouble for wrongdoing (2:12-17; 4:15-16). Instead, “By doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men” (4:15).

Religion divides people. This is true. People judge others as wrong. I am saved; you are not. It is us versus them. Religious boundaries are drawn and we stop listening to each other; we stop trying to understand each other; we stop caring about each other. We lose our sense of fellow humanity. Is this the division that Jesus is encouraging? Is this the division that the Gospel creates? It is a worthwhile and important question to consider and should not be brushed aside too easily.

The division that Jesus speaks about comes from above; we do not create it; the fire of the Gospel does because it sifts human hearts. People who cannot stand that sifting turn against those who allow it. That being said, those who allow that sifting, that purging of their hearts, must seek peace with their neighbors—with all—and not use the Gospel to divide from them. They must love their persecutors and bless them; humble themselves before them, not be belligerent and arrogant and judgmental. We must remember the command of Jesus that the disciple must leave all judgment to God and not judge anyone (Luke 6). The disciple herself is under God’s judgment, the same as everyone else (or perhaps more so).

Why Do You Not Analyze This Present Time?” (12:54-56)

In verse 54 Jesus turns to the crowds. Up to this point, He had been speaking to His disciples (Luke 12:22). Verses 12:54-59 are transitional, but they seem to me to function more to introduce chapter 13, which is an appeal to the crowds to repent in view of the coming judgment. Jesus had just warned His disciples about the coming judgment and about persecution. Now He warns the crowds concerning the same, and as verses 12:50 speak of His coming death, so too does verse 13:33, along the same vein, with a warning in 13:34-35 that is similar to what we find in 12:49-53. In 12:49 a fire will be set ablaze by His death that will create a divide between people—God’s judgment. In 13:34-35 Jerusalem’s rejection of Him will leave their house desolate and they will no longer see Him until they welcome Him at His coming again—also God’s judgment.

So the question in Luke 12:54-56 is whether they will read the signs and predict the coming weather. (The context is quite different than in Matthew 16:1-4.) Farmers, like fishermen, are adept at predicting the weather. But here the Messiah—the kingdom of God!—was in their midst and they did not know it; and if they did, they did not realize what it meant for them and for the nation and world. Business went on as usual when it should not. Around here when we are told to evacuate our home because of the weather, we risk our life if we do not do it. It is the same. In Jesus the kingdom of God has drawn near, it is in our midst. We ought to wake up and repent!

This is what Jesus means when He says, “Why do you not analyze the present time?” When the Gospel comes to us, it is no different than Jesus Himself becoming personally present to us. It ought to jolt us out of our complacency and wake us up. Instead we analyze the words instead of hearing them. We analyze the words that warn us that a hungry Bengal tiger has come up behind us instead of immediately taking whatever action we can. We hear but we do not listen. We turn the words into something to think about instead of realizing the truth to which they refer.

Like the sons of Issachar, do we “understand the times” (1 Chronicles 12:32)? Paul tells believers, “It is already the hour for you to awaken from sleep; for now salvation is nearer to us than when we [first] believed” (Romans 13:11; see 1 John 2:18). In Luke 7:22-23 Jesus tells John that Isaiah 61:1-2 has been fulfilled; and in Luke 11:20 He tells the Pharisees to recognize that the kingdom of God has come upon them. In Luke 19:44, He weeps because Jerusalem “did not recognize the time of [its] visitation.” In Acts 17:30-31 Paul tells the Athenians, “Having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent, because he has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man Whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead.” In every case, people are told that the time is NOW. “Behold, now is ‘the acceptable time,’ behold, now is ‘the day of salvation’” (2 Corinthians 6:2, quoting Isaiah 49:8, which he wrote to the believers of Corinth, not the nonbelievers).

Settle with Your Opponent” (12:57-59)

Perhaps with these words Jesus is appealing to His public not to take His believers to court but to settle things with them before they get that far. The parallel passage in Matthew 5 is spoken to His disciples; by contrast these words are spoken to the crowd. In 1 Corinthians 6:1-8 believers are forbidden to take matters between them to a secular court. The context here is different.

It seems natural, however, to read this in view of its context—both that which precedes in 12:54-56 and that which follows in 13:1-9—as a parable. The magistrate is God and our opponent is His judgment (His demand of us, which in this case is the Gospel itself). It is better to settle things before the Day of Judgment, that is, to repent. Otherwise, if we are thrown into hell, we will remain there until we have paid the last cent.

The magistrate is God (1 Peter 4:5), though in Acts 17:31 and John 5:22 God judges humanity through Christ.

I say that our opponent is the Gospel. In John 5:45 it is Moses who accuses Israel because he testifies of Jesus; but in the context of Luke’s gospel, we could say it is the word of God that accuses them (11:7; see ), but this word is being proclaimed by Jesus, and it announcing His presence (the presence of the kingdom of God) and demanding that people repent (see 10:13-16). The settling of things is the counting of the cost of becoming His disciple (14:25-33; see Hebrews 3:7-8).

“The Son of Man will send forth His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all stumbling blocks, and those who commit lawlessness, and will throw them into the furnace of fire” (Matthew 13:41-42). Here Jesus tells us who the “officers” are whose job it is to throw us into prison. The prison would presumably be Gehenna, rather than Hades, or in other words, hell. That the fires of Gehenna are unquenchable (for the nature of God is holy) does not mean that one’s sentence in hell is eternal, however. One may stay until one has paid the last penny, but one might indeed pay it, as Jerusalem has more than once drunk the cup of YHWH’s anger, draining it to the dregs (Isaiah 51:17). “She has received of YHWH’s hand double for all her sins” (40:2).

Or the prison does not refer to Gehenna but, since the words are spoken to Israel, the long duration of the Messiah’s absence, with the corollary absence of a Temple. Perhaps these verses are a parable-commentary on Jesus’ upcoming words of prophecy in 13:34-35: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those sent to her! How often I [YHWH] wanted to gather your children together, just as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not have it! Behold, your house is left to you desolate; and I say to you, you will not see Me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is He Who comes in the Name of the Lord!”

Here Jesus speaks as one of the Old Testament prophets. Israel’s contention is with God. The coming of Jesus means that they have an opportunity to settle matters before they come to court, if they “recognize the time of [their] visitation” (Luke 19:44). If they do not, then their house will be left desolate (“the days will come in which there will not be left one stone upon another which will not be torn down”)—there will be no Temple—and the Messiah will remain away (see Acts 3:21), until they have paid the last cent. This is their prison sentence.

(Notice that Israel is judged, not for not believing in Jesus but rather, for not repenting. Both John the Baptist and Jesus called Israel to repent. Their ministry gave Israel an opportunity to repent. The nascent Zealot movement (which was instigated by the cozy relationship of the Jerusalem aristocracy with the Roman overlords), that so opposed Jesus and the early church, dragged Israel right into court, effectively blocking the nation’s repentance. That movement was led by the school of Pharisees that kept butting heads with Jesus.

Leave a Reply