49 “I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled! 50 I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished! 51 Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. 52 For from now on in one house there will be five divided, three against two and two against three. 53 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.”
54 He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you say at once, ‘A shower is coming.’ And so it happens. 55 And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat,’ and it happens. 56 You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?
57 “And why do you not judge for yourselves what is right? 58 As you go with your accuser before the magistrate, make an effort to settle with him on the way, lest he drag you to the judge, and the judge hand you over to the officer, and the officer put you in prison. 59 I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the very last penny.” – Luke 12:49-59 ESV
Jesus is on His way to Jerusalem where, according to His own words, “He will be rejected by the elders, the leading priests, and the teachers of religious law. He will be killed, but on the third day he will be raised from the dead” (Luke 9:22 NLT). And as He and His disciples move closer to the capital city and His final fate, He continues to prepare them for what the future holds. The coming days will not turn out quite the way they had anticipated them. They were fully expecting Jesus to set up His earthly kingdom and restore the nation of Israel to its former glory.
Yet Jesus has been talking about the future kingdom in ways that made it sound as if it wasn’t coming any time soon. He even told them a parable about a master who went on a journey to celebrate a wedding feast. And the master’s servants were instructed to stay alert and prepared for his inevitable return. He could show up unannounced at any moment, and “The servants who are ready and waiting for his return will be rewarded” (Luke 12:37 ESV).
And Jesus warned His disciples, “You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect” (Luke 12:40 ESV). These words must have left the disciples scratching their heads in confusion. Here He was standing in their midst and yet He continued to talk about going away and coming back. They were perplexed by Jesus’ rhetoric and having a difficult time reconciling His words with their own expectations.
It would not be long before Jesus announced to them, “Dear children, I will be with you only a little longer. And as I told the Jewish leaders, you will search for me, but you can’t come where I am going” (John 13:33 NLT). And the always impulsive Peter will respond by asking, “Lord, where are you going?” (John 13:36 NLT). The answer provided by Jesus will leave them all more confused than comforted.
“You can’t go with me now, but you will follow me later.” – John 13:36 NLT
The closing days of Jesus’ earthly ministry were filled with insightful instructions for His disciples that were intended to prepare them for the inevitable but unexpected conclusion to His life. He had been slowly revealing the details concerning the true nature of His mission and trying to encourage them with words of comfort.
“Don’t let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, and trust also in me. There is more than enough room in my Father’s home. If this were not so, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? When everything is ready, I will come and get you, so that you will always be with me where I am. And you know the way to where I am going.” – John 14:1-4 NLT
On this occasion, it was Thomas who spoke up, revealing his frustration and confusion over Jesus’ words.
“No, we don’t know, Lord,” Thomas said. “We have no idea where you are going, so how can we know the way?” – John 14:5 NLT
Jesus had a way of mixing candor with cryptic-sounding statements that left His listener’s ears ringing. He could express something in easy-to-understand language and then follow it up with a statement that seemed to make no sense whatsoever. And this was just such a case. As His disciples listened with increasing anxiety and confusion, Jesus stated, “I have come to set the world on fire, and I wish it were already burning! I have a terrible baptism of suffering ahead of me, and I am under a heavy burden until it is accomplished. Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I have come to divide people against each other!” (Luke 12:49-51 NLT).
Even as we read these words from this side of the cross, we have a difficult time discerning what Jesus was trying to say. What did He mean when He said He came to set the earth on fire? And why did He claim that He had come to cause division? For the disciples, these words were particularly perplexing. They had no concept of the cross or of the Messiah’s sacrificial death as payment for the sins of mankind. They also had no way of knowing how divisive the message of the Gospel was going to become. The good news of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection was going to become a point of contention that divided the world into two opposing factions: Believers and unbelievers.
Jesus even quotes the Old Testament prophet, Micah, insinuating that He was about to fulfill what Micah had written centuries earlier.
“From now on families will be split apart, three in favor of me, and two against—or two in favor and three against.
‘Father will be divided against son
and son against father;
mother against daughter
and daughter against mother;
and mother-in-law against daughter-in-law
and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.’” – Luke 12:52-53 NLT
Little did the disciples know that their future would be marked by division. Rather than witnessing the unification of the nation under the righteous rule of the newly crowned Messiah, they were about to see the splintering of society as people were forced to choose sides. Would they believe that Jesus rose from the dead and accept His offer of eternal life and forgiveness of sins, or would they turn their backs on God’s gracious gift of salvation?
The day was coming when all would have to decide for themselves. And Jesus turns His attention to the crowd who stood by listening to His words. He warned them to discern the times. They were adept at predicting the weather by looking at the clouds, but they were unable to recognize the unique nature of the days in which they lived. They were walking alongside the Messiah of Israel and watching Him display the power of God through His many miracles. But they remained blind and oblivious to the signs that pointed to His true identity. And the same could be said of the 12 disciples.
What is so important to understand in all of this is how Jesus was continually pointing His disciples to the final stage of His mission. He has already told them that it is the “Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32 ESV). And rather than wasting their time worrying over temporal things like food and clothing, Jesus had encouraged them to “seek his [the Father’s] kingdom” (Luke 12:31 ESV).
In just a few chapters, Luke will record an exchange between Jesus and the Pharisees. they will ask Him, “When will the Kingdom of God come?” (Luke 17:20 NLT), and Jesus will respond, “The Kingdom of God can’t be detected by visible signs. You won’t be able to say, ‘Here it is!’ or ‘It’s over there!’ For the Kingdom of God is already among you” (Luke 17:20-21 NLT). Jesus understood that these men were demanding some kind of miraculous sign that would prove His claim to be the Messiah. And they weren’t expecting Him to heal or cast out a demon. They wanted something more substantial that would prove He had the power to defeat the Romans. But Jesus simply states the Kingdom of God was already in their midst. It was Him. He was all the proof they needed. And while He might not be doing the things they expected the Messiah to do, that did not invalidate His identity in any way.
What the Pharisees failed to understand was the divine timeline concerning the Messiah. There was a preordained sequence of events that must take place. First, Jesus had to die, be buried, then be raised back to life. That would be followed up by His ascension and the Holy Spirit’s coming, which would usher in the church age. At the end of that period of time, Jesus will return for His bride, the Church. Then the seven years of tribulation will begin, which will culminate with the Second Coming of Christ and the judgment of the world. That is exactly what Jesus alludes to when He says, “I have come to set the world on fire, and I wish it were already burning!” (Luke 12:49 NLT).
His Second Coming will bring closure to this age. It will usher in the Kingdom of God, when all those who have rejected God’s offer of salvation through faith alone in Christ alone will be judged and condemned. But all those who have placed their faith in the Son of God will enter the eternal state, a time of everlasting peace, joy, and unbroken fellowship with God the Father and God the Son.
Jesus closes this section of His teaching by encouraging His listeners to make their decision quickly. If they can predict the weather by looking at the clouds, why can’t they look at the evidence standing right in front of them and judge for themselves what is right? Now was the time to decide. They were not to put it off. And the illustration Jesus used was designed to impress upon His audience the need for immediacy. While Jesus was with them, they needed to make up their minds and decide whether they were going to believe. Because if they waited until they stood before God at the Great White Throne judgment, it would be too late. And the apostle Paul picked up this theme of immediacy when he wrote to the church in Corinth.
For God says, “At just the right time, I heard you. On the day of salvation, I helped you.” Indeed, the “right time” is now. Today is the day of salvation. – 2 Corinthians 6:2 NLT
Jesus had come as Savior, but there was another day when He would return as the judge of all mankind. And He wanted His disciples to understand that they were living in a day when salvation would be available to any and all who would accept it. His incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection would make reconciliation with God possible.
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” – John 3:16-18 NLT
But the day will come when the offer of salvation will be revoked. The opportunity to believe will end. So, Jesus encouraged His followers to take advantage of the grace of God made available through faith in the Son of God. The time of salvation was now.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.
The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson