Jesus had been teaching his followers about the great importance of them adopting the right and appropriate priorities in life. I hope that you too have listened to him as he made it very clear that the pursuit of worldly wealth and comfort is not the most important thing in life.
Jesus told his disciples that there was another wealth which it was far more important for them to to secure; he urged them to make sure that they had a treasure in heaven and that they were rich towards God.
If his followers were to heed this advice properly then they would have to take steps to ensure that they were spiritually prepared for God’s call and that they remained spiritually vigilant at all times. And what was true for them then is true for us today.
The life of a disciple is to be a whole-hearted and committed life; there is no place in a disciple’s life for laziness and inattention or for spiritual carelessness.
Now, having spoken about the rigour and commitment that he demanded of those who would be his followers, Jesus continued by speaking about his own mission and his commitment to fulfilling it. He had come into the world with a mission to accomplish and he was determined to carry out what the Father had entrusted to him. In doing this, Jesus was anything but half-hearted. He faced the rigorous and exacting demands of his mission with zeal and enthusiasm. As he put it elsewhere:
Jn.4:34 "My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work."
As we think about Jesus’ passionate determination to fulfil his ministry we should be led to agree with the first Bishop of Liverpool, J.C.Ryle, who wrote:
"A zealous Saviour ought to have zealous disciples."
The Zeal of the Saviour
In two striking and parallel statements Jesus described what his mission would entail and highlighted just how committed he was to carrying it out. We are left in no doubt as to his priorities – he longed to do his Father’s will and thus glorify his name. Let’s look for a moment at these two statements.
v.49 "I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled!"
Now what did Jesus mean when he said this? The second half of his statement is clear enough – he wanted no further delay but instead was keen and eager to see the purpose for his coming into the world being fully activated. But what exactly was this purpose that he referred to in the first half of his statement? What did he mean by "casting fire of the earth"?
Various suggestions have been made because ‘fire’ is used to refer to a number of different things in the Bible. For example, in the Book of Jeremiah it is used to refer to the Word of God. Jeremiah did not find being a prophet an easy vocation but when he tried to refrain from the prophetic ministry to which he had been called the word God’s word burned within him:
Jer 20:9 "If I say, "I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name," there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot."
Early in the Christian era John the Baptist prophesied that the one coming after him would baptise not with water but with the Holy Spirit and with fire. The Holy Spirit is later associated with those tongues of fire that rested on the believers when he filled them at Pentecost.
And yet neither of these associations really fit here. So how else is "fire" used in Scripture? Well, the answer is that it is used in contexts where the meaning is that of judgment, destruction, purification and/or testing.
Jesus knew that he had come into the world in order to save his people from their sins. The way by which he would do that would not be an easy one: sin had to be judged because it was an offence to a holy God, Satan the accuser of the brothers would also have to be confronted and defeated in a battle of epic proportions that would demand the very life blood of the Saviour. But if he failed to deal satisfactorily with the problem of his people’s sin we would be lost forever. The stakes were high and the outcome bitterly contested.
The second statement points to the personal pain and suffering (both physical and spiritual) into which Jesus would be plunged as his ministry on earth reached its climax:
v.50 "I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished!"
Jesus marched resolutely into this great battle with his eyes wide open. He was not caught out by a set of unfavourable circumstances but knew exactly what lay ahead for him. And yet he faced all this without wavering, he didn’t try to avoid what was coming but expressed a keen desire to get on with the work: "Bring it on" was his cry.
How zealous he was to get on with the work of securing our salvation and thus glorifying his Father. And he has never since changed! He remains zealous to save his people from their sins – what encouragement that should bring us when as Christians we struggle from time to time. What encouragement this should bring us too when we commend the Saviour to others – he is ready willing and able to save them as well. Ours is no indifferent Saviour offering a take-it-or-leave-it salvation – he is passionate and warm-hearted!
What about Peace on Earth?
At this point Jesus anticipates an objection – why all this talk about the fires of judgment and griefs and pains of suffering? Surely what the people wanted, what the people needed, was peace!
v.51 "Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division."
And of course they had good reason to think that Jesus’ coming was bound up with peace! After all, hadn’t the angels who had heralded his birth sung from a rather different hymn-sheet when they sang:
Lk.2:14 ""Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!"
So what on earth does it all mean? Why does Jesus now declare that that he has come to bring the very opposite of peace ie. division?
Well, there are a number of things for us to say and to understand.
Of course there are plenty of passages that confirm us in the belief that the coming of the Messiah would involve peace – after all he is even called the Prince of Peace in Isaiah:
Is.9:6 "For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace."
What Jesus is doing by his paradoxical saying is emphasising that to say the Messiah brings peace is not to tell the whole story, not by a long way. The sharpness of the language is designed to startle his hearers and to make them open to further instruction.
The peace the Messiah came to bring had a huge spiritual dimension; it was a peace that was declared between heaven and earth, between the God of heaven and the repentant sinner on earth. But this aspect of messianic peace was very largely overlooked by Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries who did very much focus upon "peace on earth". In their thinking the Messiah would secure them peace (military, political and geographical) by overthrowing the armies of Rome and in giving the people their freedom he would assure them of the temporal prosperity they longed for.
Jesus distanced himself from such views and didn’t want his followers to get their focus wrong either.
Does Jesus’ understanding of peace with God resonate with you or are you too busy thinking about peace on earth: peace in the family, peace with neighbours and friends etc.
Jesus by emphasising that his coming has other effects than just securing peace is also telling us that his mission is not about "peace at any cost" either.
And so Jesus continued "not peace but division."
He knew that as he eagerly pursued his mission and as that mission reached its climax in that cluster of events which included his betrayal, his sufferings and his execution on a Roman gibbet the divisions among the people would increase and deepen because of him.
Jesus is good news and where the gospel is believed and received men and women enter into a true spiritual peace with God and the foundations are properly laid for living in peace with others too.
However, where hearers of the gospel message are hardened and impenitent, where they are wedded to their sins instead of bringing peace the message of the gospel becomes the source of division.
Now while the gospel may thus become the cause of division it is not because of a fault with the gospel – the fault lies fairly and squarely with the diseased human race. When we humans reject the gospel we are acting just like the sick child who stubbornly refuses to take the medicine which alone will bring about the needed cure.
Divisions – par for the course
Jesus knew that his sufferings and death (essential if a salvation was to be secured for men and women) would at the same time sharpen the divide between folk as they reacted in very different ways to what he did.
So we should not expect things to be any different in our own day. Instead of resolving tensions between individuals the gospel may even exacerbate them due to the wickedness and perverseness of the human heart which treats something good and wholesome as though it were something awful that must be resisted and opposed at all costs.
Jesus left his followers in no doubt, he prepared them and us for what might happen.
So long as some men repent and believe the good news and others don’t there will always be a certain amount of division.
Jesus highlighted that this division could and would affect even the closest of social units the family.
vv.52-53 "For from now on in one house there will be five 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, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law."
In Jesus’ example he spoke of a household of five (2 parents, a son and his wife, and a daughter) and in this family it seems as though it is the two parents who are at odds with the younger generation. But it is only an example – family tensions do not all follow the same pattern.
The reality of tensions caused when one person embraces the gospel and another rejects it are addressed a number of times in the NT.
Firstly we have some very general instructions:
1Thess.5:13 "Be at peace among yourselves."
Rom.12:18 "If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all."
This second reference seems to suggest that there will be occasions when, try as you may, peace simply will not be the outcome.
Then, secondly, particular sets of individuals are addressed and given instructions that are specific to their status in society.
The Christian father in a family is told not to exacerbate his kids:
Eph.6:4 "Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord."
Col.3:21 "Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged."
Christian wives of unconverted husbands also receive specific instruction about how they should conduct themselves in their marital relationship:
1Pet.3:1 "Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives."
The type of behaviour that would do nothing to help the situation has been eloquently and pithily put in the Book of Proverbs:
Prov.21:9 "It is better to live in a corner of the housetop than in a house shared with a quarrelsome wife."
Prov.27:15 "A continual dripping on a rainy day and a quarrelsome wife are alike;"
Summary and Conclusion
Let’s recap on what we’ve thought about this morning.
Jesus taught that
peace at all costs is NOT what he came to achieve
we must not be surprised when divisions arise
we must do what lies in our power to be peacemakers rather than warmongers
we must honour God first and foremost and where there is a conflict between pleasing God and pleasing man the Christian’s priority must be to please his God:
Acts 5:29 "Peter and the apostles answered, "We must obey God rather than men."
Finally we must recognise that there are limits beyond which we should not go:
There are plenty of folk out there who act as though Christianity’s chief reason for existing (if indeed it must exist at all) is to support peace and harmony in society. Now that may be a good thing in many situations but the church is certainly not to do that if to do so would mean denying the Lord our God. When elements in society (or the majority even) call for the church to catch-up and change her message we must take courage remembering that the faith has been delivered once for all to the saints and it is up to us to contend for this precious and God-given faith.
Are you ready to do so? Is the faith of the gospel important enough to you?
If you’re not then maybe it is because, however nice and pleasant you might be, you are to be found on the wrong side of the gospel divide. In that case you need to repent and call upon the Lord to save you, to call upon the One who so earnestly and eagerly pursued the plan which the Father had drawn up for him, to call upon the One who endured so much and so willingly that he might secure the very salvation that you need.
To Him be the Glory.