Summary: Division: a declaration of how things will be, rather than an imperative of how they should be.
FIRE! BAPTISM! DISCERNING THIS TIME
There is a measure of dissonance as this passage comes crashing through Jesus’ symphony of peace. “Fire!” begins the Greek of Luke 12:49. “Fire I came to cast into the earth, and what will I if it be already kindled?”
Fire speaks to us of God’s judgment, but also of refining, purifying. The fire that is kindled is both: the fire of judgment against our sins (which are being imputed to Jesus), and the fire of cleansing as His righteousness is imputed to us. Then there is the fire of judgment against those who refuse Him, and the fire of persecution against those who follow Him.
“Baptism!” begins the next verse (Luke 12:50). “A baptism I have to be baptized (with), and how restricted am I until it be accomplished!”
The baptism spoken of here reminds us of Jesus’ conversation with James and John (Mark 10:38). There the baptism corresponds with Jesus’ cup of suffering (cf. Luke 22:42). [It may also, therefore, relate to the suffering of Jesus’ followers: James was the first of the Apostles to be martyred (Acts 12:2) – but that is another story.]
One would almost expect the next verse (Luke 12:51) to begin with the word “peace” – but perhaps that is the point. “Think you that peace I came to give in the earth?” begins Jesus. [A question expecting the answer, “No!”]
Yet how does this fit with all the times when Jesus would have surely said ‘Yes’ to this question? How does it fit in with the angels’ theme of ‘Peace on earth, goodwill toward men’ (Luke 2:14)? Is this not a theme of Luke’s Gospel?
To the last question we can answer both ‘yes’, and ‘no’ (as one of my Professors once said). Yes, peace is a theme, but not the only theme. “Peace?” asks Jesus. “No, I say to you, but rather division” (Luke 12:51).
The dissonance continues. Is Jesus not the one who will lead us into the paths of peace (Luke 1:79)? Does He not bid the faithful, “Go in peace” (Luke 8:48)? Did He not send the Seventy with a message of peace (Luke 10:5-6)?
All this is true, of course: but this last quotation allows for the possibility that there may be those who refuse Jesus’ servants, and refuse Jesus’ message of peace (Luke 10:6). The Lord is not legislating that there should be division, but merely declaring that it will be so. Jesus, after all, is the one who ‘is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel; and for a sign which shall be spoken against’ (Luke 2:34).
Jesus illustrates this disharmony by bringing it right home to a family of five divided between believers and unbelievers (Luke 12:52-53). There is probably an allusion here to Micah 7:6, and if so that verse must be read in the context of Micah 7:5-7. Trust not in man, suggests the prophet; even the people of one’s household may turn out to be enemies; but look to the LORD.