At times in the gospels Jesus just doesn’t play so nice with others. Some of his statements leave you scratching your head and trying to fit what you just read into your stigma of Jesus, which is usually defined by his statements of love, healing, and grace. Certainly, he is all of those things – he is known as the Prince of Peace, but when he had to play hardball he brought it in a big way. In our Bible reading this week we came across one of those passages – Luke 12:49-53 (cf. Matt. 10:34-36). Read it once before you continue reading.
This passage falls in the midst of a series of Jesus’ teachings both to large crowds and to the disciples as a small group. One of the main themes throughout is the conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees and the teachers of the law. In fact, in chapter 11 they call him the Devil. (Luke 11:15) Later Jesus calls them out for their hypocrisy. (Luke 11:37-53) It’s in this context that Jesus makes this bold declaration.
By way of interpretation, the “fire” that Jesus speaks of in v. 49 is most likely the fire of the final judgment when his Kingdom is brought in its fullness and evil is vanquished. The “baptism” in v. 50 is referring to his atoning work on the cross.
The big idea of this passage is the inevitability of Jesus’ divisiveness. Strangely enough, (sarcasm intended) post-modernists and new-spiritualists don’t often quote passages like this. Jesus brought the truth; he is the truth. Jesus taught absolute morality. When one confronts the person of Jesus, his teachings and his atoning work on the cross a decision must be made. In that sense he is the most divisive person in all of history. In fact our entire calendar is divided around the life of Jesus – BC and AD. (or to be politically correct BCE and CE) As R.C. Sproul says on this passage, “He is not advocating a spirit of dissension and disunity, but predicting the inevitable, because Christ is a person of passion. Christ does not invite neutrality, and our commitment to him has and will cause strife, even within one’s own family.” This is not license to be contentious with everyone you meet and annoying about it, but division is inevitable simply by nature of who Jesus is.
Just ask anyone who has come to know Jesus out of a radical Muslim faith, and you will see a first-hand example of this passage.
Sproul, R. C. (1999). A Walk with God: An Exposition of Luke (pp. 271–272). Great Britain: Christian Focus Publications.