This text is shocking to the sensibilities of many modern believers. While many modern theological trajectories highlight peacemaking, tolerance and unity, this text portrays the ministry of Jesus in seemingly problematic ways. The angelic announcement at the birth of Jesus proclaimed “peace on earth” (Luke 2:14), but here Jesus says that he did not “come to give peace on earth” (Luke 12:51). Luke 19:10 succinctly states the mission of Jesus: “The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” But this text bluntly claims that Jesus “came to cast fire on the earth,” and—what is more—wishes “that it were already kindled” (Luke 12:49).
“Fire” is eschatological language (cf. Luke 17:29). It is not simply the language of “hell,” but more broadly the reality of divine judgment that comes from the future. “Fire” burns the chaff that is separated from the wheat (Luke 3:16; cf. also v. 9). It is a divine discernment that roots out evil in the world. It is eschatological in the sense that it is a discerning judgment that comes from the future and divides good from evil.
Luke 12:49-56 is set within an eschatological context. The previous two parables (Luke 12:35-48) are linked by the second Advent—“the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect” (Luke 12:40). Disciples are to watch for that coming and wisely use what has been entrusted to them. The present anticipates the future, and the future creates eschatological moments in the present. The ministry of Jesus was such a moment. The eschatological kingdom of God is present in the ministry of Jesus, and this creates critical moments and demands critical decisions. This is the eschatological reality with which the ministry of Jesus confronts us.
The “fire” of divine discernment creates turmoil rather than peace because it demands that people choose. They must choose how they will live. They must decide for or against the kingdom of God that now confronts them in the ministry of Jesus. This divides homes as some in the family choose the kingdom of God but others in the home reject it. There is no peace because family members have divided loyalties. When people decide for something they also decide against something and this creates a divide among people who have different loyalties. This is particularly true regarding the kingdom of God.
An eschatological crisis has broken into the world. Jesus himself will be tested by this crisis. He will be “baptized” (fully immersed or overwhelmed) in it; it will sweep over him. Jesus describes himself in “distress” until it is over. Divine discernment probes Jesus himself and he will face a choice in the Garden—will he submit to the will of God or not? Jesus will face his own eschatological test in the Garden.
We also face this testing. The eschatological crisis, created by the ministry of Jesus, creates tests where we must decide for or against the kingdom of God. Everyone must face this moment—it is decision time. The whole world is under trial because of the eschatological horizon under which it lives (cf. Rev. 3:10).
We all face this testing. Sometimes we fail and, hopefully, learn a few lessons. And the test returns…again and again.
Decision demands discernment. Humans are often fairly good at discerning the times. They know when rain is coming and therefore are alert to flash floods. Those who live in Palestine know that when a south wind blows that a scorching heat is on the way. People can discern the present and prepare for the future.
The ministry of Jesus is a present sign of a future reality. It is time to look at the “signs”; it is time to interpret what God is doing in the world through the ministry of Jesus. It is decision time. Discern the signs and decide for the kingdom of God.
But do not be surprised that that decision will create division rather than peace. It will kindle a “fire” that will burn through the chaff. We must not domesticate the kingdom of God because we fear division and tension. The kingdom of God brings “fire;” it brings discerning judgment.
It is decision time. Discern the kingdom of God in the present and decide for it.