I love the verses in the Bible which clearly state the mission of Jesus. Many of them come from Jesus’ own lips and begin, ‘I came…’
‘For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’ (Mark 10:5)
‘I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.’ (Mark 2:17)
‘For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.’ (Luke 19:10)
‘I have come into the world as light, so that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness.’ (John 12:46)
These are all precious verses. However, the beginning of this section has one we perhaps don’t think about enough. ‘I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!’ (Luke 12:49) This is not the easiest verse in the Bible to understand.
1. Fire and water
The image of fire in the Bible usually speaks of the judgment of God. For example: ‘Israel has forgotten their Maker and built palaces; Judah has fortified many towns. But I will send fire on their cities that will consume their fortresses…’ (Hosea 8:14) There is the fire of Hell and the fire of Sodom and Gomorrah. I think Jesus is speaking of divine judgment here. However, it’s possible that there’s a wider meaning, as fire also represents the Holy Spirit in the New Testament. For example, in Luke 3:16 John the Baptist says: ‘… He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire…’
Sometimes Christians can have such a one-sided view of Jesus as a kind of harmless, benign figure, and that we can take him or leave him and it is no big deal. This is wrong. Yes, Jesus has come to save lost sinners, and to bring light into this dark world, and to die in our place to ransom us. But that, sadly, is not the whole picture.
Many people will reject Jesus’ offer of salvation, and refuse to believe in him. So, Jesus’ coming separates people into two camps, the believing and the unbelieving. For those who reject his rightful rule in their lives, Jesus coming will bring the fire of judgment. This point is made clearly in John chapter 3, while Jesus teaches Nicodemus. Verses 16 and 17 speak of the purpose of Jesus’ mission to earth as to display the love of God and to save the world from perishing: ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.’ However, the next verse (verse 18) outlines the of rejecting King Jesus: ‘Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.’ Those who reject Jesus are condemned and face fiery judgment.
In verse 49, Jesus speaks about wishing that this fire was already kindled. When will this happen? I believe Jesus is speaking about the cross, where the wrath of God will fall upon Jesus himself. He then moves from the image of fire to that of water baptism. Of course, this is not literal baptism, as Jesus had already been baptised by John the Baptist. The word ‘baptism’ here speaks of water judgment, where Jesus will be flooded with the wrath of God, as he dies upon the cross. It’s like the water judgment of the flood in the days of Noah, and it is like the water judgement as the Egyptian armies are swept away in the Red Sea.
The plan of God to save a lost world involves Jesus himself bearing the sin of others. He had come to earth in order to be baptised in judgment on the cross. The shadow of the cross looms large in Jesus’ mind here, and he will not be diverted from the task. Before judging the world with fire, Jesus must face the fire himself, because he is so loving and merciful, and wants to give the people of the world an opportunity to come to him and have their sins forgiven.
In the ESV, verse 50 reads: ‘I have a baptism to be baptised with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished!’ This gives us a sense of the horror Jesus experienced, not just in his death itself, but in anticipating his death, knowing that on the cross he would. ‘God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.’ (1 Corinthians 5:21 ) We ought to be so impressed at the way in which Jesus embraced this mission, out of his great love for us.
I was reading about forest fires a few days ago: fire can be used to fight forest fires, albeit with a certain amount of risk. A controlled burn of a strip of forest will create a barrier to an oncoming forest fire as it will use up all the available fuel. In a sense, Jesus’ death is like this controlled burn, where the awful fuel of our sin has already been burnt up on Jesus’ body, and so this strip is a safe place to be. Fire will not pass where fire has already been. So, if you believe in Jesus, and seek refuge from the fire in him, you are safe. However, if you reject Jesus, the fire of judgment will certainly come upon you.
2. Jesus, the divider
At first reading, verse 51 sounds shocking and contradictory: ‘Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division.’ Isn’t Jesus called the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6)? We remember the angels proclaiming Jesus’ birth to the shepherds and saying: ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests.’ (Luke 2:14) And of course, we have the wonderful verse in Romans 5:1 about finding the greatest kind of peace, peace with God, when we come to trust in Jesus ourselves: ‘Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ…’
What, then, is Jesus speaking about? Jesus is stressing to all Christians that when we come to follow him, many people will respond to us with hostility. Jesus divides people. For example, when someone from a Jewish or Muslim, or Hindu background starts to follow Jesus, it is common for their families to totally reject them- ‘we never want to see you again’.
Afghanistan: If a Christian’s new faith is discovered, their family, clan or tribe has to save its ‘honour’ by disowning the believer, or even killing them. This is widely considered to be a just reaction. Alternatively, since leaving Islam is considered a sign of insanity, a Christian who has converted from Islam may be forcibly sectioned in a psychiatric hospital.
Vietnam: A man called Poh: ‘A few months ago, I went back to my old village to visit my parents and siblings, but my family and the villagers still hate me – they forbade me from going near them. My parents still despise me and have renounced me as their child.’
Jesus’ words 2000 years ago are just as relevant today as they were back then. Jesus still divides families all over the world. In many countries, if you become a Christian then you will no longer be able to go home. Listen to Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 4:12-13: ‘When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; 13 when we are slandered, we answer kindly. We have become the scum of the earth, the garbage of the world—right up to this moment.’
In Scotland, we face less overt hostility; however, let’s not be naïve, Jesus divides people in Scotland too. In our politically correct world, where we accept and embrace and validate almost all kinds of beliefs and behaviours and preferences, and where so many reject that there is such a thing as ‘right and wrong’, do you think some will be offended by our belief that Jesus is the way, the truth and life, and that we desperately need his forgiveness? Of course, it is offensive. It is far easier for people to believe the basically pretty good people, than to accept the truth about ourselves, which is that we cannot even keep to our own standards, far less God’s!
The more we stand up for Jesus, the more division we shall experience. ‘In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted…’ (2 Timothy 3:12)
Kent Hughes: ‘Jesus did not come to tell people that all paths lead to God. He did not come to tell people that what you believe does not matter. Jesus did not believe that all people are good… or that you can do whatever you want as long as you don’t hurt anyone else. His ethics are radical. He demands careful obedience and costly loyalty. And not everyone is willing to pay the price or to accept those who do’.
3. Rightly assessing the weather but wrongly assessing Jesus
Many of us like to watch the weather forecast so that we can prepare for the day ahead. Will we hang out the washing? Do I need sun cream? Do the plants need watering? The Jews were pretty good at interpreting the signs in the sky so they could predict the weather. Let’s give them 10/10 for their weather forecasting. Clouds coming from the west were going to pick up moisture from the sea and bring rain. Winds from the desert south would bring heat. These were the kind of signs they discussed and interpreted and then they would prepare accordingly. Now is going to be a time of heat and so we need to water the crops urgently. Let’s get ready for that. We sometimes say ‘red sky at night, shepherd’s delight’ and I guess they had similar ditties in their day.
However, when it came to understanding the spiritual signs around them and preparing accordingly, Jesus gives them 0/10. The signs are clear for those who have eyes to see them. Jesus is performing miracle after miracle. Prophecies are being fulfilled. The lame walk and the blind see and even the dead are raised. Are these not clear signs that the Kingdom of God is present in their midst? Should they not look at these signs and interpret them aright and confess that yes, Jesus is the Messiah?
If only they understood these spiritual signs as well as the they understood the weather! Then they would have prepared themselves by turning away from wrongdoing, and placing their trust in Jesus. What time is it? It is now the day of salvation. It is time to flee from judgment into the loving arms of Jesus.
Do you understand the times spiritually? You might be good at understanding economics. You might buy a house in an area where prices will rise and make a lot of money. You might understand stocks and shares. You might be good at seeing business opportunities and prepare for them. But do you understand the sign of the empty tomb and what it means? And what a sign the empty tomb is! ‘For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.’ (Acts 17:31)
4. Make your peace with God
Most of the Jews were streetwise enough to know that it was best to sort out a problem with someone before the matter got taken to court. Then, the only winners are the lawyers. They understand temporal affairs such as lawsuits. They take action so that matters don’t get out of hand. They make their peace with their neighbour before it is too late. If only the people had that same measure of insight when it came to spiritual matters, which of course are much more important and have eternal significance. The people need to make their peace with God while there is opportunity and before it is too late. Don’t delay. Don’t put it off. You might die any day; none of us is guaranteed tomorrow.
Why is this an urgent matter? It is urgent because if you don’t accept Jesus as Saviour and King now, you will have to face him as your Judge, and that doesn’t bear thinking about. You will have to pay the full price for all your rebellion and selfishness. How can we be prepared for eternity? Only by coming into a relationship of trust and humble submission to Jesus. Settle things with Jesus now, while you journey through this life, because Jesus is coming to judge the world.
‘The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, that is, the message concerning faith that we proclaim: If you declare with your mouth, Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.’ (Romans 10:8-10)