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Luke 12:49-56 Biblical Commentary:
LUKE 12:35 – 13:9. THE CONTEXT
Our Gospel lesson is set in the middle of a larger section that emphasizes watchfulness, readiness, and faithful discipleship:
• 12:35-40 calls servants to be watchful.
• 12:41-58 emphasizes working faithfully in anticipation of the master’s return.
• 12:57-59 recommends settling with your opponent rather than going to court.
• In 13:1-5, Jesus warns, “unless you repent, you will all perish.”
• 13:6-9 is the parable of the barren fig tree, which the master wants cut down because of its lack of productivity.
LUKE 12:49-50. I CAME TO THROW FIRE ON THE EARTH
49“I came to throw fire on the earth. I wish it were already kindled. 50But I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how distressed I am until it is accomplished!“
In the original Greek, “fire” and “baptism” are the first words of their respective sentences, giving them added emphasis. The language of these verses is reminiscent of 3:16, where John the Baptist promised that Jesus “will baptize you in the Holy Spirit and fire.”
“I have come to throw fire to the earth” (v. 49a). Fire can be a metaphor for purification (Leviticus 13:52; Numbers 31:23; Malachi 3:2)—or for judgment (Genesis 19:24; Luke 3:9, 17; 17:29). Elijah brought the fire of judgment on the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18:36-40) and the soldiers of King Ahaziah (2 Kings 1:10-14). John the Baptist, in a verse bracketed by references to fire as judgment (3:9, 17), said that the messiah would “baptize you in the Holy Spirit and fire” (3:16). James and John wanted to bring fire upon the Samaritans who rejected Jesus, but Jesus would not permit it (9:54).
“I wish it were already kindled” (v. 49b). Jesus’ longing for closure is clear. In verse 50a, he mentions the baptism with which he must be baptized—a veiled reference to his death. In verse 50b, he mentions the stress that he is under until his baptism/death is completed. This reference in 49b then appears to be a longing to face the crucifixion and to move through it to the victory of the empty tomb. His crucifixion will be terrible, but the anticipation of it is terrible too. He longs to get it behind him.
“But I have a baptism (Greek: baptisma) to be baptized (Greek: baptisthenai–from baptizo) with” (v. 50a). This reference to baptism can best be understood in the light of Jesus’ response to James and John, who asked to sit at his right and left hand in the kingdom. Jesus said to them, “You don’t know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, and to be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” (Mark 10:38). The cup and baptism are metaphors for Jesus’ suffering and death.
The various forms of baptizo have to do with dipping, immersing, or submerging. It can mean overwhelmed, which is the case in this verse.
“and how distressed I am until it is accomplished!” (v. 50b). These are the words of a man committed to a difficult mission but distressed at the anticipation of it—wishing that the waiting was over and the mission completed. It is the kind of feeling that a soldier has when entering battle—that a police officer has while racing toward a crime scene—that a candidate for surgery feels while waiting for the time to come. We expect the trial to be bad, but the waiting is difficult too.
We will see Jesus’ distress again as he prays on the Mount of Olives, his sweat becoming “like great drops of blood falling down on the ground” (22:44).
LUKE 12:51-53. I HAVE COME TO BRING DIVISION
51“Do you think that I have come to give peace in the earth? I tell you, no, but rather division. 52For from now on, there will be five in one house divided, three against two, and two against three. 53They will be divided, father against son, and son against father; mother against daughter, and daughter against her mother; mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law, and daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.”
“Do you think that I have come to bring peace in the earth? I tell you, no, but rather division” (v. 51). This is a disturbing word! We prefer to remember Jesus as the Prince of Peace who comes “to guide our feet into the way of peace” (1:79) and to dispense peace and good will (2:14). However, a search on the word “peace” in this Gospel provides only small comfort. Jesus heals two women and tells them to go in peace (7:50; 8:48). Otherwise he offers peace only to those who share in peace (10:5-6) and to the disciples after the resurrection (24:36). Here he makes it clear that he brings division rather than peace. In Matthew’s parallel verse (10:34), Jesus brings a sword.
“For from now on, there will be five in one house divided, three against two, and two against three” (v. 52). Even families will be divided because of Jesus. In Israel’s life, family relationships are all important. A person’s place in the family confers both personal identity and a place in the community. People know who you are, because they know your father and mother (4:22). The family also provides a support system in a world without public welfare programs. To divide a family is to leave its members on shaky ground socially and economically. It is hacking at the very roots of the social structure.
“father against son, and son against father, mother against daughter, and daughter against her mother” (v. 53). Why would Jesus bring division? Jesus came into this world to establish the kingdom of God. He came to transform a sinful world, and that kind of transformation does not come easily. Many who are first in this world will be last in the kingdom of God (13:30), and cannot be expected to accept this reversal without a fight. Throughout his ministry, Jesus comforts the afflicted (those without power) and afflicts the comfortable (those in power). It is like poking a bear. One should expect that the bear will retaliate—and bears can be deadly. Jesus, of course, did not come to poke a bear, but to crush the head of Satan (Genesis 3:15), an even more dangerous game. Jesus will win, but it will be an epic battle.
Throughout his ministry, Jesus experiences conflict that will culminate on the cross. Simeon foretold this conflict while Jesus was still a baby. “And Simeon blessed them, and said to Mary, his mother, ‘Behold, this child is set for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and for a sign which is spoken against. Yes, a sword will pierce through your own soul, that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed'” (Luke 2:34-35).
The early church will also experience conflict from without and within. Jews, including Saul of Tarsus, will persecute Christians. Roman soldiers will line the roads with crosses. There will also be conflict inside the church—conflict regarding the status of Gentiles, eating of meat sacrificed to idols, and a host of other issues.
The church today still struggles with opposition from without and divisions within. Christians today are suffering persecution in many parts of the world, and are under pressure to mute their witness in most other places. If we are to do Christ’s work, we must expect opposition. Ordination of homosexuals, abortion, stem cell research, and military service are only a few of the dividing lines. Unfortunately, we also generate conflict within the church by fighting over such trivia as the color of the sanctuary carpet.
The first disciples left their families to follow Jesus. They have already experienced the family strains of which Jesus speaks here. Luke’s church is also experiencing persecution. While Jesus’ words about division might be unsettling to us, they are a comfort to these early Christians. Jesus’ words help them to make sense of a world that opposes them and causes them to suffer. In the Fourth Gospel, Jesus says,“I have told you these things, that in me you may have peace. In the world you have oppression; but cheer up! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
LUKE 12:54-56. HOW IS IT THAT YOU DON’T INTERPRET THIS TIME?
54He said to the multitudes also, “When you see a cloud rising from the west, immediately you say, ‘A shower is coming,’ and so it happens. 55When a south wind blows, you say, ‘There will be a scorching heat,’ and it happens. 56You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky, but how is it that you don’t interpret this time?” (Greek: ton kairon – from kairos)
“When you see a cloud rising from the west, immediately you say, ‘A shower is coming,’ and so it happens” (v. 54). Until now, Jesus has been speaking to the disciples, but now he turns his attention to the crowd. A cloud rising in the west, originating over the Mediterranean, promises rain. A south wind, originating in the desert, tells people to expect a scorcher. Farmers and shepherds know how to read such signs. Such knowledge is key to their survival.
“You hypocrites!” (v. 56a).
“You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but how is it that you don’t interpret this time?” (ton kairon – from kairos) (v. 56). They have learned how to read weather signs that are key to physical survival, but have not learned how to read signs of the kairos,
“this time” (v. 56) There are two Greek words for time– chronos and kairos. Chronos has to do with chronological time–clock time–the time by which we keep daily appointments. Kairos has to do with special time–special moments in time–the forks in the road that make all the difference–moments with the potential to determine destinies.
Jesus is talking here about the kind of time that is key to spiritual survival—the dawning of a new age that will follow his resurrection. It matters only for a short time whether the day is rainy or hot, but it matters forever that Jesus is among them as the Messiah, the Savior—the one who will usher in the kingdom of God.
Today, we are no longer an agrarian people and no longer know how to read weather signs. We get our weather forecasts from the Weather Channel. The signs about which we are concerned today are political or economic. What will the Congress do, and what effect will it have on us? Will the new road bisect our land, and how will that affect us? Will stocks go up or down? Can we find a way to predict the future so that we can make the right bets? We are much like the people to whom Jesus was speaking, because they too were interested in signs that would influence their economic future.
We are also like the people to whom Jesus was speaking in that, while we are keenly interested in political and economic signs, we care little about the great spiritual issues of the day.
• We see family disintegration, and act as its apologist rather than seeking to promote family integrity.
• We see an entertainment industry promoting sex and violence, but protest efforts to curb its freedom even as it corrupts our children.
• We see on television the poor of the world dying of starvation, but go to our dinner tables without considering how we might help.
• We see the people of Africa dying of AIDS, and change the channel.
• We hear stories of Christians being persecuted around the world, and fail to remember that these are our brothers and sisters.
• We see an explosion of bio-medical issues, and decide that they are too complex to understand. Like the people of Jesus’ day, we major in minors and “don’t interpret this time” (v. 56).
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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