No one can be neutral toward Jesus. You’re either for Him or against Him. In this sermon, R.C. Sproul continues his exposition of Luke’s gospel by examining Christ’s surprising declaration that He came into the world to bring division.
This morning, we will be reading Luke 12:49–59:
“I came to send fire upon the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! But I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how distressed I am till it is accomplished! Do you suppose that I came to give peace on earth? I tell you, not at all, but rather division. For from now on five in one house will be divided: three against two, and two against three. Father will be divided 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 her mother-in-law.”
Then He also said to the multitudes, “Whenever you see a cloud rising out of the west, immediately you say, ‘A shower is coming’; and so it is. And when you see the south wind blow, you say, ‘There will be hot weather’; and there is. Hypocrites! You can discern the face of the sky and of the earth, but how is it that you do not discern this time?
“Yes, and why, even of yourselves, do you not judge what is right? When you go with your adversary to the magistrate, make every effort along the way to settle with him, lest he drag you to the judge, the judge deliver you to the officer, and the officer throw you into prison. I tell you, you shall not depart from there till you have paid the very last mite.”
Perhaps we are breathing a sigh of relief that we have finally come to the end of chapter twelve because this chapter has an extraordinary number of passages that we call, “hard sayings.” Of all the hard sayings we have heard from Jesus in this chapter, I think none are more difficult than the one you have just heard a few moments ago.
I remind you that this is not the imagination of Luke from antiquity, but the inspired record of the actual words and teaching of Christ Himself. Remember, He said that He spoke nothing of His own authority, but only on that which the Father had given Him. So, the words that you have just heard, as distasteful as they may be to your ears, come to you from God Himself. I urge you to receive them with the fullness of His authority. Let us pray.
Father, every time we come to the text of holy Scripture, we plead for your assistance, because the things revealed therein are too high and too wonderful for us to discern correctly without your aid. In this hour, we ask that You would condescend to our weakness and the frailty of our understanding, the resistance of our wills, the stiffness of our necks, the callouses on our hearts; break through all of these and give us ears to hear what your Son says to His people. For we ask it in His name. Amen.
He Came to Send Fire
The text begins with a statement that Jesus made concerning the reason for His incarnation. Indeed, His explanation for the incarnation is not just difficult, but shocking to hear.
On more than one occasion, Jesus gave other reasons for His coming to this world. He said, “I came that you might have life and have it more abundantly.” He said, “I came not to be served, but to serve, and to give My life as a ransom for many.” During his trial before Pontius Pilate, He said, “I came to bear witness to the truth, and all who are of the truth hear My word.” On this occasion, however, He gave another reason for His coming, one that indeed is astonishing for us to hear.
Jesus said, “I came to send fire on the earth.” If you were out in the parking lot on your way into church this morning, and somebody asked, “Why do you think Jesus came to this world?” what do you think you would have said? I doubt any of you would have answered the question by saying, “I think Jesus came to this world in order to bring fire on the earth.” That is the last thing we normally think of regarding the reason for Christ’s appearance, but that is what He said in this text. I did not write this. I did not make this up out of whole cloth. These are the words of Jesus. He said, “I came to send fire on the earth.” But wait, there’s more.
Jesus not only announced that He would send fire on the earth, but He communicated His own internal, visceral feelings about that task. You would expect Him to say after the comma: “I’m sorry to tell you that. I hate the thought of it. I do it reluctantly. God forbid that it should actually come to pass.” But He never said anything like that. Rather, He said, “How I wish it were already kindled!” Jesus was baring His soul, saying something about His deepest longing when He said, “I wish that fire were already kindled.” What are we to make of His statement?
Jesus’ Wish Concerning Judgment
Historically, the best scholarly interpreters have interpreted this text in different ways. One way, perhaps the most common way, is to understand Jesus as plainly saying: “I wish the Father would send the fire of judgment that He has been holding back upon this earth, and I wish He would do it quickly. I can’t wait for that judgment to take place.” If Jesus expressed joy at anticipating a fierce divine judgment upon this earth, we would tend to shrink in horror at such a thought.
I doubt there are many things more despicable to our thinking in twenty-first century America than the idea that God would consume the earth with wrath and judgment. I think back to the attack on 9/11, the day after, on 9/12, two prominent preachers announced that they believed what happened the day before was an expression of the judgment of God. The public outcry was so great against them that they apologized for their remarks. Out of nowhere, it seemed like every bumper sticker said, “God bless America.” When I saw that, I thought, “Isn’t it interesting that Americans still believe it is possible for God to bless a country, but won’t stomach the idea that He could judge a nation and bring it to ruin?” If you are asking God to bless the country, you must admit it is possible that He might not and that your desire is in vain.
The Bible contains many doctrines that are controversial and difficult, but I doubt any are more difficult to deal with than the doctrine of hell. It is interesting to me that almost everything we know about hell in the New Testament comes to us from Jesus, not the Apostles. It is not that the Apostles denied hell or overlooked it, but the vast majority of texts we have in Scripture about hell come from Jesus.
I have often speculated on why the burden is on the back of Jesus with respect to this doctrine. I am guessing that God knew we would not accept the doctrine of hell from anybody less than Jesus; certainly not from the preacher, and probably not from the Apostles. Even from the lips of Christ, people kick and scream against the idea, so odious is it.
Rejoicing in Judgment
I remember being in seminary in a seminar with my mentor, and one of the students asked him this question: “If I go to heaven and find that my mother is not there but is instead in hell, how can I possibly be happy in heaven?”
The professor looked at the student and said, “Young man, when you get to heaven, you’ll be so purified from sin and so sanctified by the Holy Spirit that you’ll be much more concerned about the glory of God than you will be about the well-being of your mother. You will see that your mother is in hell and rejoice to know it.” When he said that, there was an audible gasp from the students in the class. One student laughed. When he said that, I started laughing. He said, “What’s so funny, Mister Sproul?” I responded, “Nothing is funny; I just can’t believe that you said what you just said.”
I thought a lot about it afterward. I realized that I am a sinner. All my friends are sinners. Everybody that I love is a sinner. I have so much more in common with sinners than with God in His perfection and holiness. My concerns always favor the side of those like me. But the professor was saying that, at some point, we will be so in love with the glory of God that when we see the vindication of His righteousness, His holiness, and the punishment of wickedness, we will be able to rejoice in it.
Remember that Jesus was without sin. His meat and His drink were to do the will of the Father, though He was a man of sorrows, a man of profound compassion. Certainly, there was no more compassionate human being in history than Jesus.
When Jesus looked at Jerusalem and knew what fate would soon befall it, He wept over the city and said, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often I would have gathered you to Myself like a hen gathers her chicks, but you wouldn’t.” Yet it is the same man of compassion who said, “I wish the fire were already kindled.” That is one possible interpretation.
Jesus’ Baptism of Fire
A second interpretation is that Jesus knew the judgment of God was coming, and He simply wanted to get it over with. In His next statement, Jesus said: “I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how distressed I am until it is accomplished!”
Is it not ironic that just a few verses earlier, Jesus told His disciples: “Be anxious for nothing. Do not worry about tomorrow, what you should eat, what you should drink, what you should put on”? He gave a sermonette against anxiety, yet in this text He revealed a profound state of distress, a profound concern for Himself regarding what was soon waiting for Him.
“I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how distressed I am till it is accomplished!” What does that mean? He was already baptized. He had been baptized in the Jordan River by John the Baptist, or more properly, John the Presbyterian. You see, John baptized Him with water. This baptism was not a baptism of water; it was a baptism of fire, the fire of divine judgment. Why, then, did Jesus use the term baptizō, “to baptize?”
Jesus was getting at the reality that the fire of the Father’s wrath would not merely touch Him and harm Him a little bit or singe His hair, but rather He would be immersed in it. He would be inundated by it and swallowed up by it because all of God’s wrath poured out on every one of His people for their sin was rather coming on Him.
Jesus was looking towards the cross, the most vicious expression of divine wrath that we find anywhere in Scripture. God was not playing with His son at Calvary. This was real judgment. This was real fire. This was the fullness of hell itself that came upon Him. At this point, Jesus was saying: “I can’t wait to get it over with. I can’t wait to cry from the cross, ‘It is finished! It is done! No more!’”
Division, Not Peace
Jesus continued: “Do you suppose that I came to give peace on earth?” We might say: “Yes, Jesus, we call you the Prince of Peace. We think about peace every Christmas Eve—peace on earth. Isn’t that why you came?” Jesus said: “No. If you suppose that, it is an improper supposition. I tell you, not at all. Peace is not My purpose, but rather, division.” We might think: “Division? Lord, it’s a bad thing to divide people. We thought You came to reconcile everybody and bring healing everywhere. You’re telling us You came to bring division?” What was Jesus talking about?
When the New Testament talks about the appearance of Christ, it uses the Greek word, krisis. We get the English word crisis from it, but the translation of the word krisis is not “crisis” but “judgment” or “division.” He was saying, “All human history will be divided by Me.”
Jesus went on to explain: “From now on five in one house will be divided: three against two, and two against three. Mother against daughter, daughter against mother, father against son, son against father. This isn’t over the abolition of slavery; we’re not going to have a civil war. Rather, over Me you will be divided. The world will be divided.” The most dividing question in the history of the world is, “What do you do with Jesus?”
No Neutrality with Jesus
I remember the first week I became a Christian, I came home assuming a joyous response would be forthcoming. I said to my mother: “Mom, guess what? I became a Christian this week.” She said, “You’ve always been a Christian,” as if being a Christian meant being an American. I said, “What I mean is that I’ve come to know Christ as my Savior.”
My mother had no clue what I was talking about. By the grace of God, she came to know, but in the meantime, my sister, cousins, uncles, and aunts did everything but disown me because I committed my life to Christ. That act cost me more friends than anything else in my life. I was shocked at how intense the hostility and animosity was toward Christ. You see it in the world every day and you even see it in the church every day.
We do everything we can to mollify the situation, to water down the divisive character of Christ, but Christ made it clear: there is no neutrality. You are either for Him or you are against Him. Whether you are for or against Christ is the most critical standpoint you will have for eternity. If you are not for him, you are against Him. If you stay against Him, you will be against Him and He against you forever.
Do Not Wait
Jesus said: “You can predict the weather. You don’t need to turn on the television and have a meteorologist. You see that if a cloud comes out of the west, you know it’s coming from the Mediterranean Sea, and you know that when it comes from the sea, it’s going to rain. You feel a warm breeze coming out of the south, out of the Negev, you know it’s a Sirocco that’s coming and it’s going to scorch the earth. But you can’t discern what time it is. You don’t know how critical it is for human history that I am here.”
Jesus continued: “You make judgments all the time. What do you do when you go with your adversary to the magistrate? Along the way, do you have a little conversation, a friendly chat with him? No, you try to settle the dispute before you get to the judge and the judge decides against you, hands you over to the officer, and the officer throws you into prison where you will not come out until you pay the very last penny.”
What was Jesus talking about? Do not wait until the last judgment to come to Him. If you do, it will be too late, and the Judge of all the earth will hand you over to judgment. You will not get out until you pay the last cent, which means you will never get out, because we are all debtors who cannot pay our debts. This is a hard saying. Christ divides between those who embrace and put their trust in Him, and those who ignore Him or reject Him.
This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.