Not Peace but Division
49 "I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! 50 But I have a baptism to undergo, and what constraint I am under until it is completed! 51 Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. 52 From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, 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 daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law."
Interpreting the Times
54 He said to the crowd: "When you see a cloud rising in the west, immediately you say, 'It's going to rain,' and it does. 55 And when the south wind blows, you say, 'It's going to be hot,' and it is. 56 Hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky. How is it that you don't know how to interpret this present time?
57 "Why don't you judge for yourselves what is right? 58 As you are going with your adversary to the magistrate, try hard to be reconciled on the way, or your adversary may drag you off to the judge, and the judge turn you over to the officer, and the officer throw you into prison. 59 I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny."
The last semester in college that an education major typically has is a semester of student teaching where they spend the entire day at a school with a mentor teacher, eventually taking over that teacher’s classes and teaching them for the balance of the semester. I had a particularly good experience with that, as my mentor teacher was an incredible teacher who had actually been named the National Geographic teacher of the year. He was an amazing teacher and I was somewhat intimidated to have to take over his classes and teach them but what amazed me even more was his ability to know his students. I was taken a bit off guard in my first few weeks by how volatile the behavior of the students could be from day to day. One day they would be quiet, respectful, and in learning mode, while the next day they would be bouncing off the walls, so to speak. My mentor teacher had years of wisdom, discernment, and experience, however, that offset all of that. He would stand with me in the halls in the morning as the kids were arriving at school for the day and, based on a number of factors that he would explain, including the stage of the moon, the weather, the day of the week, and the time of the year, he would tell me how the kids were likely going to behave as a group that day. He would then readjust his lesson plans for the day based on that. What was amazing was that he seemed to always be right about his assessment. He could look at the signs and know what kind of day it was going to be and how to act accordingly. I realized then and there that I had a lot to learn about teaching that hadn’t been taught in our classrooms or I was going to be in big trouble.
In 1 Chronicles 12:32, praise is given to the tribe of Issachar because they had “men who understood the times and knew what Israel should do.” Training, privilege, and ability can all be good things but they pale in comparison to the ability to discern a situation and act on that information correctly. Israel, during the time of Jesus, had signs swirling about it everywhere. They had been waiting for God to act and to return to Israel to fulfill his promises for a long, long time. The Pharisees and Jewish religious leaders were constantly looking at Jesus and demanding signs, but they wanted to see certain signs that fit with their expectations. What they really needed to do was to open their eyes and look at the signs that were all around them. They had a lot to learn and needed to wake up or they were going to be in big trouble.
The Jews had been waiting for the return of God to Israel for many generations, thinking that this would be a time when God would defeat Israel’s enemies, presumably the Romans, and would exalt Israel in a position to rule with God over the whole world forever. This would be the much-anticipated day of the Lord that Israel waited for so expectantly, but they had seemingly forgotten or ignored the words of Amos, “Woe to you who long for the day of the LORD! Why do you long for the day of the LORD? That day will be darkness, not light. Will not the day of the LORD be darkness, not light—pitch-dark, without a ray of brightness? ‘I hate, I despise your religious festivals; I cannot stand your assemblies’” Amos 5:18, 20-21). The Day of the Lord (which was any day of specific judgment by God, but most immediately fulfilled in 70 AD with the destruction of Jerusalem, an event which points ahead to the final day of resurrection and judgment) would be a day of judgment and fire, and Jesus longed to see it come because it would be the day that would reveal who the children of God really were. The coming crisis and judgment upon Israel would vindicate the Messiah’s people as the true people of God.
But Jesus would undergo his own crisis as the deciding factor that would set in motion the wheels of final judgment upon Israel. His complete immersion in suffering and shame on a cross would not signal his defeat or failure as a Messiah. He would walk into death in the most shameful way possible in the first century, on a cross, but he would walk right into death and come out on the other side, declaring himself to be the true Son of God, starting the clock on the final judgment of those who opposed him as God’s agent, and vindicating his own disciples as people of the light.
Certainly Jesus’ kingdom message was one of peace (Lk. 2:14) but Jesus did not want his disciples to miss an important point that the religious Jews of the day had apparently missed. He would also be the “cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed” (Lk. 2:34-35). Jesus referred them to the prophet Micah, who declared that when the Messiah came that his message would divide families, neighbors, indeed the nation of Israel itself (Micah 7:6). This was one of the signs that people should have been looking for. A Messiah who came as a great military leader would have been extremely popular throughout most of Israel, as Judas Maccabeus had been a popular military leader a century earlier. But the true Messiah would divide right down the middle of households as some embraced him as their true inheritance as the people of God and others rejected him.
His behavior would force a choice that would divide families. His message of peace would not bring peace within all of Israel but only to those who entered into his community. The rejection of traditional values and badges that normally demonstrated Israel the people of God would cause Jesus’ disciples to behave in ways that would be regarded as deviant and distasteful by their unbelieving family members. The continued deconstruction of the normal family bonds in favor of God’s new family was something that was a central tenet of Jesus’ teaching in Luke (Lk. 8:19-21; 9:57-62; 14:25-35; 18:28-30) but one that has been largely watered down if not altogether ignored in our time.
This division causing message should have served as a sign along with many other aspects of Jesus’ ministry but the Jewish leaders had already made up their mind as to the type of Messiah they wanted. With their preconceived notions firmly set, they were looking for signs in all the wrong places. This was particularly troublesome to Jesus who chided them for their ability to read signs everywhere except where it really mattered. Oh sure, they could read all the signs in the environment and tell when it was going to rain or be hot, a skill which was valuable in a time when there were no television weathermen, but these were still of limited importance. How could they pay such careful attention to all the right signs in things of limited value but miss the things that really matter? How could they observe all that was going on around Jesus and through his ministry and not see that this was the Messiah that God had promised? God was returning to Israel and they were completely oblivious to all the tip offs of that. Those who failed to discern those signs, said Jesus, were hypocrites, by which he meant not what we tend to think of when we hear that word, which is the idea of saying one thing and doing another, but rather the idea of being completely void of God’s purposes in their lives.
Jesus’ ministry forced people to read the signs of the time, and to discern rightly and make a choice as to whether they would pay attention to those signs or not. We would do well here to remember that Jesus’ warnings here were primarily referring to the near-future fulfillment of the coming crisis on the nation of Israel rather than specific warnings to individuals concerning the final judgment at the resurrection. This is likely why Jesus transitions into an example in verses 57-59 that come from the Roman world rather than a specifically Jewish context. If someone were to be taken before a Roman magistrate by another party they had better make every effort to drop their agenda and surrender quickly. The majority of the Jewish leaders had decided that a war with Rome was what God wanted, but it was really their projection of their own desires of how God should be working. If they continued running towards that end, they would be in trouble. In Jesus’ example, the stubborn subject of the parable would wind up paying for his stiff necked behavior with every last penny unless he repented. This was a stern warning to Israel to abandon their agenda and embrace Jesus’ way of peace in the kingdom of God.
This does not, however, mean that there is nothing in this passage for us. Quite the opposite actually. The disaster that was coming upon Jerusalem is a foreshadowing and teaching point to warn those who would reject God’s covenant family as to what will happen to the family of fallen humanity at the resurrection and final judgment. That does not mean that every single prophecy about the coming destruction of Jerusalem will have a corresponding fulfillment at that time, but as a whole the principle is the same. We are called to be a people that can discern and understand the times and to preach the true message of the gospel, calling people of all nations to join the family of Christ and escape the coming wrath of God. If that message, like Jesus’, causes division between those who would embrace it and those who would reject the truth of this message, then so be it. That is the nature of the gospel.
It is one thing to read that Jesus’ message would cause division and even to say that ours should do the same. But it is a whole other thing to stand firm and boldly proclaim the gospel wherever we are in the face of that division amongst our fellow students, co-workers, and family members. Are you really prepared to face the consequences of the dividing message of the need for all people to join the family of God? Do you proclaim that gospel boldly? Does your proclamation of the gospel have the divisive effect that Jesus’ true message will always have? These are all things to take some time today to consider carefully.