Peace on Earth?

Luke 12.49-59

We are in the middle of quite a long teaching Jesus gives to the crowds; we’ve been here for several weeks. And we’ve seen that as Jesus continues, what he says gets more and more troubling. 

Let’s remember the context. In the passages we’ve seen over the last few weeks, Jesus tells us what hypocrisy is and how to avoid it (already he starts off strong). He tells us that persecution will come our way (but tells us not to worry). He tells us to not lay up treasures for ourselves on earth (because we won’t be able to keep them). He tells us not to worry about material provision, because God will provide for us (even if he never gives us what we initially wanted). He tells us to be ready for his return at any moment, and to pursue his kingdom faithfully (because he will come at a time we’re not expecting him).

Finally, in the passage we saw last week, Jesus has gave his unsettling warning in v. 47-48, that those who know the will of God and reject it will be held accountable for what they know. It’s an unsettling reality, because presumably everyone in the crowds, since they’d been listening to Jesus, had access to knowledge many people didn’t. 

All this time, in everything we heard Jesus say last week, he’s been speaking to his disciples. So you can imagine the disciples would be a bit unnerved. What do they do when they’re with their friends and family? Those people to whom they were close would undoubtedly want to know what they’d been doing with Jesus all this time—what he did, what he had told them. And if the disciples told them everything Jesus said, that would make their loved ones accountable for that knowledge!

Not to mention the reaction of their family members themselves—Jesus was saying some pretty shocking things, in the context of 1st-century Israel. How would they react if they knew their sons or brothers were following this man who said these shocking things?

That’s exactly why Jesus says what he does here—he doesn’t say it to assuage their fears, but rather to confirm them.

He’s going to speak to his disciples about this first, then he’s going to seemingly change subjects and speak to the crowds. But being the good theologian he is, Luke does not insist on putting all these things together for no reason. So we’re going to look at these different things Jesus says first, then see how they’re connected.

Not Peace, but Division (v. 49-53)

So Jesus says (again, to the disciples, v. 49):

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! 

He says, I’ve come to do something monumental—and I both long for it, and dread it. I long for the “fire” I’ve come to cast upon the earth. Some commentators have suggested that the “fire” he speaks of represents suffering and persecution—but Jesus describes a longing he has for this fire—he essentially says in v. 49b, “I wish this were happening now!” And when Jesus speaks of his own suffering (which we’ll see in a moment), he talks about the “distress” he has in waiting for it. So I don’t think that’s it.

Another possibility, I think, hits closer to the mark. Fire is a frequent symbol of the work of the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity: in Acts chapter 2, when God the Holy Spirit descends on the disciples, they see his presence manifested by flames floating above their heads. (Weird, I know, but there it is.) 

So Jesus longs to see the Holy Spirit do his full work. He longs to see the Spirit regenerate the elect, to make them born again as sons and daughters of God (John 1.12, 13; 3.3-6). Jesus longs to see the Spirit live in the disciples and guide them (John 14.16-17). Jesus longs to see the disciples experience the Spirit’s power in their lives as a proof—or a “seal,” Paul calls it—of their belonging to God (Ephesians 1.13-14). He longs to see the disciples “sanctified,” that is, grow to be more and more like himself. And ultimately, he longs to see the Spirit work through the disciples, to bring the gospel to the ends of the earth.

These are things that Jesus desires. But in order to get there, he’s going to have to die. That’s the “baptism” he’s talking about in v. 50. He knows everything he will have to suffer physically—the pain of rejection by his closest friends, the pain of physical torture, the pain of death by crucifixion (arguably one of the most painful ways to die ever concocted). 

And he knows everything he’ll have to suffer spiritually, which is actually far worse. He’ll have to take on the sins of everyone of his children—past, present and future—and take them on so completely that, as Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5.21, he becomes that sin. He’ll have to suffer the wrath of his Father—the wrath that we deserve—in our place. 

And as willing as he is to do it, he is dreading it. I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished! No one dreaded anything like Jesus is dreading going to the cross (as we’ll see when we arrive with him in the Garden of Gethsemane). 

Now, I think he says that to give the disciples a bit of context—to remind them that what he’s about to say to them, even if it seems frightening, is nothing compared to what he himself is about to endure; and to remind them that all of it is happening for a very good reason.

That being said, what might the disciples have to endure if they want to live for him? What might anyone who follows him have to endure? 

V. 51:

51 Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. 

Now before we keep going, we have to admit that this is a hard statement to swallow. It’s hard to swallow because, firstly, that’s not how people generally think about the person of Christ. We’ve seen the paintings of Jesus looking perfectly peaceful, with a beatific smile on his face, ready to welcome any and all those who come to him.

It’s also hard to accept because that’s not how the coming of Christ was described in this gospel. Remember the angels’ announcement to the shepherds when Jesus was born? What did they sing about him? Luke 2.14:  

“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth PEACE among those with whom he is pleased!” 

So how can Jesus say that he didn’t come to bring peace on earth, if that’s precisely what the Messiah was meant to do?

Jesus often redefines words or concepts that we used to think were clear for us. In just chapter 12, he redefines what it means to be a hypocrite. He redefines our idea of what security is. He redefines our idea of “the good life,” of what is most desirable, what is our treasure.

And here, he redefines our notion of peace—not by rejecting the idea we already had, but rather by showing that it’s different, more complex, than we imagined.

It’s more complex because Jesus does bring peace on earth. He does bring peace to his followers. But it’s a specific type of peace, with a specific target. So we need to take just a second to talk about this peace that Jesus brings.

Paul says it most explicitly in Romans 5.1:  

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. 

The Holy Spirit gives us faith in Jesus Christ: in his perfect life lived for us, in his death suffered for us, in his resurrection that applies all this work to our lives. And through Jesus Christ, by our faith in him, we are justified—we are declared righteous before God. Christ’s righteousness becomes our righteousness. The verdict God declares for his Son, he declares for us.

Or to put it another way: because Jesus took all of God’s wrath on himself, because he absorbed God’s wrath against the sin of his children, if we have faith in Jesus, he no longer has any wrath left for us.

If you have faith in Christ, there is no more conflict between you and God. God does not regret saving you. He has zero animosity toward you—no negative feelings, no second thoughts, no frustration. If you have faith in Christ, there is now absolute and perfect peace between you and God. 

And since we have peace with God, then we also have peace with everyone who is reconciled to God by faith in Christ. 

Paul says in Ephesians 2.17-19:

17 And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God...

One of the great benefits of the gospel is that it allows people from different nations, different cultures, different upbringings, different social classes, to be legitimately equal and one. We have a multiplicity of nationalities in attendance in our church, with a multiplicity of backgrounds—and we are all, without exception or favoritism, fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God. The gospel levels the playing field.

But having peace with God and with other followers of Christ does not mean that you will enjoy peace with everyone else. Quite the opposite, in fact. V. 51 again: 

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.” 

In other words, the message that brought us peace with God and peace with one another will inevitably cause division between us and those who reject it. As J. C. Ryle wrote,

“[Wherever] there are hearers of the Gospel who are hardened, impenitent, and determined to have their sins, the very message of peace becomes the cause of division.”

We live in a country that simply doesn’t know what to do with the gospel. Our society—like most in the West—is becoming increasingly relativistic, with clear boundaries of what is right, and what is wrong, becoming obsolete. So when you tell people in France that there is an objective right and there is an objective wrong, that we are all sinners who need a Savior, they don’t know what to do with it. 

So unless the Holy Spirit intervenes and does his work, you typically have one of two reactions: either they’ll smile, nod and leave confused and uneasy, or they’ll react with hostility and say you have no right to tell them that they’re sinners.

In either case, there is division. 

Now, this doesn’t seem like that big of a deal if you’re talking with a stranger on the bus, or even a casual friend. But what happens if it’s a member of your own family? What do you do when your parents find out you’re a Christian and lament your faith, saying that they didn’t raise you to be such an fool? What do you do when your brother or your sister begins to think you’re a bigot? 

I know people whose families have totally ostracized them for their faith; whose families refuse to speak of their faith with them; even people whose families have disowned them for what they believe. Now, of course some Christians are fools. Some Christians are very unwise and unloving in how they share their faith. I’d even go so far as to say—as much as it pains me to say it—that some people who claim to be Christians are bigots. 

But that is not the case for all Christians. Many, many Christians love God, and they love others, and they wisely and patiently take every good opportunity they have to share the gospel, all the while loving others and treating them as equals, human beings created in the image of God, no matter what they believe.

Let me say this clearly: if this is you, if you have met Christ, and you have done everything you can to love him and to love your family and friends by patiently and lovingly sharing the gospel with them, and been rejected by them for that, you have done nothing wrong. 

In fact, Jesus himself said this would happen. 

He said that from now on, houses will be divided—brother against brother, father against son, mother against daughter. 

Why? Because without the work of the Holy Spirit, all of us pursue desires that are sinful, because they are not for God’s glory. 

And the gospel naturally pushes against our sinful desires; it calls us to put our sin to death. If the Holy Spirit changes our hearts and makes us born again, we want to do that.

But for those who are determined to not accept the gospel, and to pursue those sinful desires, the gospel will be offensive to them. Always. Because no one likes someone else to tell them that they aren’t wonderful. Which is exactly what the gospel does: it tells us we are all sinners in need of a Savior.

No one wants to hear that they’re not good. No one wants to hear that they’re flawed. No one wants to need help. We all want to be independent, self-sustaining, self-sufficient people.

So the gospel goes against every one of our natural desires for autonomy and self-determination. The gospel tells us everything about ourselves that we don’t want to hear. The gospel tells us we need help. The gospel tells us we’re far worse than we want to believe. The gospel tells us the problem in us isn’t our behavior, but our hearts. We are what we love, not what we think or do. 

And that will always be abhorrent to some people. No matter how truthfully you share the gospel, no matter how attractive you try to make the gospel sound, it’s always going to be the stench of death to some (cf. 2 Corinthians 2.16). 

Thankfully, sometimes—even often—God gives grace in ways we don’t expect. That’s why we have baby dedications at this church: people who didn’t know Christ, who experience hostility from their families, begin new families in which their kids have a favorable environment in which to become disciples of Christ. By God’s grace, if we are Christian parents, our children will never have the experience—at least not in relationship with us—that Jesus describes here. 

And often God surprises us with conversations in which we share the gospel, and expect division, but which the Spirit uses to awaken faith in the person listening, and they meet Christ. Thank God, this happens.

But until Christ comes back, this will not be the case every time. Division is what we, his disciples, can expect, in some form or another. For those who come to him in faith, we have peace with God and peace with each other; but for those outside the faith, there will be division. 

And I think the reason why Jesus warns the disciples of this is because given the possible hostility and division they’ll experience within their families, they will be tempted to hide their faith, to hide the gospel. They’ll be tempted with exactly the kind of hypocrisy Jesus warned against in v. 1-12. 

Now, at this point Jesus shifts gears a little bit; he goes from speaking to the disciples to speaking to the crowd. 

The Call to See and Repent (v. 54-59)

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? 

What Jesus is describing here, you often see it played out in marriage too. Anyone can look at a sky with dark clouds and say, “It’s about to rain.” Anyone can wake up in the middle of summer, lift up the blinds and say, “Wow—it’s going to be hot today.” And yet a husband can sit through an entire meal with his wife and not realize that she’s silently fuming at him for something he’s forgotten—something he did that he shouldn’t have done, or something he didn’t do that he should have. She’s sitting there without saying a word, just burning holes in his chest with her eyes, and he, blissfully ignorant, stands up and says, “Do you want some dessert?”

That’s sort of what he’s describing here. The people in the crowd were, for the most part, Jewish men and women. These people knew the Law of Moses. They knew the prophets. They knew the prophecies of the Messiah’s coming. So they should have recognized Jesus when he came.

The circumstances and events around Jesus’s coming so clearly matched what the prophets said would happen when the Messiah came that they should have seen it coming a mile away. It should have been as easy for the people to know Jesus was the Messiah as it was for them to look at a dark cloud in the sky and know that rain was on its way. 

But the people to whom Jesus is speaking would not recognize him for the Messiah he was. It wasn’t because they were unintelligent; it wasn’t because they were ignorant; it was because they didn’t want to recognize him for what he was. They weren’t honest in what they wanted to get from him when they came to him. They weren’t honest in their inquiries, but tried to trap him into saying something that would condemn him.

They were, he says, hypocrites.

If they had had the will to honestly and objectively look at the evidence of Scripture, it would have been abundantly clear that Jesus was the Son of God. But they weren’t in this for the truth—they weren’t interested in really knowing who Jesus was. They were only interested in feeding their own desires, in increasing their own power, in seeing something spectacular. 

Because they didn’t want the truth, they didn’t see the truth. 

And Jesus calls them on it—he calls them to do what they haven’t done up to now. He calls them to respond to what they would know if they just opened their eyes.  

V. 57:

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.” 

In other words, seek to be reconciled with God before it is too late.

This is actually a good example of the kind of willful blindness Jesus mentioned before. Often this parable is confusing for people; but it’s not because the parable itself is confusing. We have a hard time understanding it because we don’t like to think of God as Judge, and we don’t like to admit that we are justly and rightfully accused before him.

So here’s the idea. God has told us his will. He has given us his law in his Word, and he has written his law on the hearts of all men (cf. Romans 2.15-16). Everyone has a moral compass; everyone has a conscience which tells them that some things are wrong, and some things are right. We can make ourselves numb to God’s law, we can ignore it, but it is there, in all of us, written on our hearts. 

And none of us have obeyed his law. None of us have listened to our consciences at all times. None of us have always done what we know is right.

So the “accuser” in this parable is God’s law. God’s commandments, given in his Word and written on our hearts, accuse us before him. They drag us before the Judge with a list of offenses written out against us. 

So Jesus encourages us to settle with our accuser on the way. 

How do we do that? We can’t do it on our own—Law, could you ignore all these times I didn’t follow you? The only way for the law to not accuse us would be for us to go back in time and live absolutely perfect lives. 

And I’m sorry, no matter how many time machines you had, you still wouldn’t get it right every time.

So what is the solution? How do we settle with our accuser before arriving before the Judge?

We trust in Christ, the one Person who lived a perfect life for us, who took our place next to the accuser, who stood before the Judge, and who was punished for our sin. We read in Romans 8.3-4:  

3 For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, 4 in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.

We settle with our accuser by letting Christ be punished for us. God did not sweep our sin under the rug, as if we did nothing wrong. He put our sin on Jesus, and punished him as if he were the sinner, so that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us.

I hope you understand, if you’re not a believer, that there is no other option here. Trusting in Christ’s life, death and resurrection for us is the only way to have peace with God, because the law has stacked up a weight of evidence against us, and the only thing the law can do is show us what God expects of us, and show us that we didn’t do it. 

No amount of good deeds or negotiating can convince the law to do anything else but show God how sinful we are. Our debt toward him is infinite, so it is a debt that is impossible for us to repay.

And if we don’t trust in Christ, if we don’t accept what he did on the cross through faith in him, the verdict will always be the same: 

59 I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the very last penny.

The Message of Luke 12

Chapter 12 of Luke’s gospel is a very heavy chapter—that’s why we took four weeks to see it. 

And it would be a shame—even impossible—to summarize what we’ve seen in these last ten verses outside of the context of the whole of chapter 12. The risk of doing so would be to take this difficult passage and to be discouraged, while in the context of the whole, what we see here is rather a heavy reality that gives weight to a profoundly solid encouragement.

Loanne and I have a friend; this friend is a Christian in his seventies, and he writes us a letter—sometimes two letters—every week. He tells us what’s going on in his life, what’s going on in his local church. He also listens to all of my sermons online, and comments on what he’s heard and how he’s living these things personally.

This week we received one of his letters, and in this letter he was thinking through what I preached two weeks ago, out of Luke 12.13-34. He wrote something that struck me; I went to bed thinking about it. I’d like to read just a small portion of that letter now:

“What are your dreams?” asked the study guide for the community group a couple days ago. I realized that I didn’t really have any dreams anymore, or I didn’t dare have any, or I had buried them to avoid being disappointed… Time keeps moving, death is approaching. It’s a fact.

But we mustn’t let Christ and his kingdom…become “what’s left over” when we’ve given up all the rest—that is, nothing. In other words, we need the living presence of God, and not just an act of will that is doctrinally motivated. The presence of Christ which approves and encourages, really and concretely strengthens us.

So many Christians feel disappointed when God calls them to give him their dreams. They look at the kingdom, and they look at all they’re giving up, and they feel (even if they’d never say it aloud) like they’re being shortchanged. They see the struggles they are called to endure for the faith, and because they want to go to heaven, they endure those struggles. But they only do it because they don’t want to go to hell—not because they actually experience anything that proves to them that the kingdom actually is a treasure, here and now.

Jesus tells his disciples (in the passages we’ve seen over the last few weeks) that he is coming to give his followers the opportunity to pursue their only lasting treasure in God. He encourages them to seek his kingdom above all else. He warns them that the message of the kingdom—the gospel—will bring division between them and even their closest relatives, the people they love the most.

And then he warns those who aren’t his disciples, who don’t follow him, to open their eyes and see the obvious truth of his identity, and to seek to reconcile with God before it’s too late—otherwise, they’ll be guilty before the Judge, and receive the punishment for their sin.

Can you see the implication of his argument? He’s trying to impress upon us exactly what Hervé said.

Those who don’t follow Christ continue to live in relative “peace.” They aren’t bowing to the demands of anyone but themselves. They are free to follow their own desires and their own preferences, free to follow their dreams wherever they may lead!

Or so they think.

In reality, if you don’t know Christ, then you aren’t free to follow your own desires; you’re a slave to those desires. You’re doing what you want to do, yes; but what you want to do is killing you. No matter how “good” it may seem, no matter how much real good you may actually do, you desire things that you weren’t created to desire, things that don’t glorify God or even satisfy you—at least not in any lasting way. No matter how much you have, after a while it will always fade, and you will be left wanting. 

And these insatiable desires for things that do not bring God glory are stacking up proofs against you for the day when you stand before your Judge.

On the other hand, we followers of Christ will have struggles, absolutely; we will suffer division from those around us, maybe even from the people we love the most. 

But at the same time, we are finally free to choose something other than our sinful desires. We are finally free to not be anxious about [our] life, what [we] will eat, nor about [our] body, what [we] will put on. We are finally free to want what we were created to want, to provide [ourselves] with…a treasure in the heavens that does not fail. 

And we have the promise that if our greatest desire is the kingdom of God, it is our Father’s good pleasure to give [us] the kingdom.

You see, the struggle Jesus describes to the disciples here—the struggle of not following our every whim, the struggle of potential persecution and rejection and division from those around us—is better than the so-called “peace” of a life without Christ. Because with Christ, we have the promise that our highest desire, our ultimate joy, will be ours, because our ultimate joy is God himself.

So the call of this text is twofold. If you don’t know Christ today, then come to him. Settle with your accuser before it’s too late. Accept what he tells you is true, even if it goes against what you naturally want, because ultimately, it’s infinitely worth it. When you come to Christ, and repent of your sins, and accept the free gift of salvation by faith in Christ, you receive infinitely more than you give up.

And if you are a Christian today, don’t be discouraged. Jesus warned us it wouldn’t be easy. He warned us we would experience division with people we love. This is normal. So don’t be discouraged; rather believe that the struggle Jesus describes here is better than a life of so-called “peace” in which everything goes the way we want. We give up eighty to a hundred years, in order to receive eternity. 

And God, in his grace, adds those years of our life back to us—he fills the gap in what we’ve given up with grace upon grace upon grace. He knows what we need, and it is his pleasure to give us the kingdom.

So seek his kingdom, brothers and sisters, and trust that these things will be added to you.