What is your image of Jesus? Where does it come from? Is it the Jesus ‘meek and mild’ of childhood Sunday school? If you read Luke’s gospels from beginning to end in one go, it will take you less than an hour. But you will discover something very profound. Following Jesus in the First Century, any more than now, was not for the faint hearted. It was an uncomfortable, unsettling and hazardous experience. Mark Galli, in his book, Jesus Mean and Wild, observes,
“Nearly everywhere we turn, in the gospel of Mark … we find a Jesus who storms in and out of people’s lives, making implicit or explicit demands and, in general, making people feel mighty uncomfortable.” For example, Jesus “sternly charges” or “strictly orders” people he heals (Mark 1:43; 3:12; 5:43; 8:30); he looks upon religious leaders with “anger” and “grief” (Mark 3:5). He destroys a herd of swine while showing no regret, providing no compensation to the owner (Mark 5:1-20); He overturns the money tables in the Temple in a moment of rage (Mark 11:15-17); He rebukes Peter as demonic (Mark 8:33). He is “indignant” with the disciples (Mark 10:13-14). He says the Sadducees are biblically and spiritually ignorant (Mark 12:24), He describes his entire generation as “faithless” (Mark 9:19). Jesus makes it clear that following him will entail suffering and death (Mark 9:35-37, 43-50). On one occasion, his ‘gospel appeal’ to the crowds included this promise, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.” (Mark 8: 34-35).”
John Ortberg says, “Mark writes of a Jesus that is unleashed, untamed, undomesticated, and unpredictable. I want to know this Jesus, though he scares me a little.” In our gospel reading from Luke today we witness Jesus being as controversial as ever. His questions are searching and his statements unsettling. They shatter any romantic notions of a gentle Jesus meek and mild. Here are three questions one for each paragraph: Why did Jesus come? When will Jesus return? How should we then live? Lets find answers.
1. Why Did Jesus Come? To Bring Division
“I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! But I have a baptism to undergo, and what constraint I am under until it is completed! Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. 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.” (Luke 12:49-53)
This must be one of the most controversial statements ever made by Jesus. Didn’t the prophet Isaiah describe the Lord as the ‘Prince of Peace’? Didn’t the angels announce ‘peace on earth’ at his birth? Didn’t Jesus promise his disciples “Peace I leave with you. My peace I give you, not as the world gives do I give you”? (John 14:27-28). Precisely. Jesus did indeed promise peace, but not the kind of peace the world offers, which is invariably conditional, superficial and temporary. This is why Jesus says he came to bring division. The world was then, and remains now, in open rebellion against God. Like the incision of the surgeon’s knife, which cuts out the tumour or the cancerous cells, Jesus divides people, even members of the same family. Jesus separates those who receive him from those who reject him. On another occasion Jesus challenged his hearers,
“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” (Matthew 7:13-14)
Jesus brought division between those who repent and those who persist in their rebellion. Jesus said “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the father except through me.” (John 14:6). Truth divides. Jesus said “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life “ (John 8:12). Light divides. This is how Jesus brings division as the truth and as the light. John 3 explains:
“This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.” (John 3:19-21)
Jesus told many parables about a landowner and his rebellious tenants too illustrate the relationship between God and his creation. If the coming of Jesus divided members of his own family, if he divided his own people, we should not be surprised when people we know and love, even those within our families, reject the Lord Jesus. You may have experienced the pain of that rejection if members of your family follow another faith tradition. That is why our relationships within the Body of Christ as often stronger and closer than within our biological families. Jesus’ point is simple: “Expect division. Opposition to me is a given.”
Jesus also refers here to his burning desire to be baptised. Now he does not mean with water but with nails. He is referring to his sacrificial death on the cross. He must face the wrath of God to save those under that wrath. He must die in our place that we might be saved. This is why Jesus came to bring division.
He did not come to bring judgement at his first coming, even though he longed to bring the refining fire of God to earth. He knew that fire must first fall on him so that we might be saved. We experience the peace of God in our hearts knowing our sins are forgiven. But lasting peace on earth must wait until Jesus, the Prince of Peace, returns as Lord and King to claim his kingdom. The peace that Jesus came to bring is not the absence of conflict but the presence of the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. Then and only then will the rebellious be judged, evil will be destroyed and lasting peace reign on earth. Why did Jesus come? To bring division in order to save some.
2. When Will Jesus Return? Interpret the Signs
“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. And when the south wind blows, you say, ‘It’s going to be hot,’ and it is. 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? “Why don’t you judge for yourselves what is right? (Luke 12:54-57)
In Palestine the weather can easily be predicted from observing the direction the wind is blowing. A westerly wind means that moisture from the Mediterranean will form clouds and rain will follow.
Southerly breezes mean that heat from the desert is on the way and a rise in temperature can be anticipated. If you can predict the weather, says Jesus, why can’t you understand the prophetic and miraculous signs God is working among you in and through me?
In other passages, Jesus does not refer to the precise timing of his return, but to the signs which indicate the inevitability and the imminence of his return. They remind us that God is in control because he announced before hand that these things would happen. This gives us hope and stamina to remain faithful when we are tempted to give up, because we know our labour is not in vain.
Let me illustrate. When Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party came to power in Germany in the 1930s, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the theologian, had the opportunity to leave Germany. But he chose to stay and resist. “Christians in Germany,” he wrote,” will face the terrible alternative of either willing the defeat of their nation in order that Christian civilisation may survive, or willing the victory of their nation and thereby destroying civilisation. I know which of these alternatives I must choose; but I cannot make this choice in security.” Bonhoeffer chose to follow Christ, and it brought him into conflict with his government. He opposed the Nazi regime and as a consequence spent two years in a concentration camp. Bonhoeffer was executed a few days before the Allies liberated the camp. But his death was not in vain. He read the signs and determined the stand he would take. Bonhoeffer has been an inspiration to many thousands of Christ-followers who have also interpreted the signs and chosen to follow Christ what ever the consequences. Only in heaven will be appreciate the consequences of our actions.
Jesus point is simple. If you can predict the weather can you not interpret the prophetic and miraculous signs being performed in your presence? Why did Jesus come? To bring division in order to save. When will Jesus return? We don’t know but interpret the signs.
3. How Should We Then Live? Ambassadors of Reconciliation
“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. I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.” (Luke 12:58-59)
Eugene Peterson captures this idea in The Message translation:
“You don’t have to be a genius to understand these things. Just use your common sense, the kind you’d use if, while being taken to court, you decided to settle up with your accuser on the way, knowing that if the case went to the judge you’d probably go to jail and pay every last penny of the fine. That’s the kind of decision I’m asking you to make.”
Having warned of approaching division and the need to observe the signs of what God is doing among them, Jesus calls people to make a decision. “Why don’t you judge for yourselves what is right?” The picture is not rocket science. The judgment in view is a legal, civil dispute, since Jesus mentions settling accounts before a praktor (officer). In this context the official figure is a sort of bailiff in charge of the debtors’ prison. Jesus’ advice is simple: better settle up accounts and avoid prison. In fact, his imagery is graphic, for those who fail to settle accounts and found guilty will be “dragged away” to prison. The warning of shame is obvious. The coming judgement is certain. Such a prospect is painful and embarrassing, though of course the comparison is not exact. Jesus is actually referring to our accountability before God.
Having warned about division and failing to read the sign of the time correctly, he warns of the need to repent. We all have debts before God that need paying. “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:23). Only Jesus can pay our debt, or we must in eternity. That is why C.S. Lewis once said there are two kinds of people in the world. Those who say to God, “Your will be done” and those to whom God will say “Your will be done” In that sense, hell is God’s very best for those that reject his son.
In our gospel reading today we have considered three questions: Why did Jesus come? Answer – To bring division in order to save some. When will Jesus return? Answer – We don’t know but interpret the signs. How should we then live? Answer – As children of God, forgiven and forgiving, urging others to receive Jesus too.
Assuming we have indeed been reconciled to God through Jesus, how should we deal with divisions when they occur between believers within his Body, the Church? Clearly our witness to unbelievers is undermined, or discredited, when we do not treat one another respectfully, in the same the Lord has accepted us. How can we ensure we are living out our faith in an attractive Christ-like way? Here are ten simple Principles of Conduct we use in our own church family. They are based on Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 18:15-20.
Ten Principles of Conduct
- If you have a problem with me, please come to me (privately)
- If I have a problem with you, I’ll come to you (privately)
- If someone has a problem with me and comes to you, send them to me (I’ll do the same for you)
- If someone consistently will not come to me, say, “Let’s go see him together. I am sure he will see us about this” (I’ll do the same for you)
- Be careful how you interpret me – I would rather do that myself. On matters that are unclear, do not feel pressured to interpret my feelings or thoughts. It is easy to misrepresent intentions
- I will be careful how I interpret you
- If it’s confidential, don’t tell. If you or anyone else comes to me in confidence, I won’t tell, unless the person is going to harm themselves, the person is going to harm someone else or it involves a child who has been physically or sexually abused. In cases of church discipline, the clergy will follow Jesus instructions in Matthew 18:15-20. I expect the same from you
- I do not read unsigned letters or notes
- I do not manipulate; I will not be manipulated; do not let others manipulate you. Do not let others try and manipulate me through you
- When in doubt, just say it. If I can answer it without misrepresenting something or breaking a confidence, I will.
I hope you find them useful. If we apply these principles I firmly believe people will see Christ in us. If division results from our witness it will not be because of our pride or selfishness,
but because having seen Jesus in us, people will receive him or reject him. Either way we will not leave them indifferent or unchanged. Given the stark nature of the choice Jesus offered, if the cost of discipleship is potentially so high, if the decision to follow Christ inevitably leads to division, why do so many follow willingly, freely, intentionally? Because of the identity of the One who calls.
There is no deeper joy than being forgiven our sin through the death of Jesus. There is no greater privilege than knowing God in eternity through the resurrection of Jesus. And there is no higher calling than introducing others to Jesus our King knowing he is coming soon. Maranatha, come Lord Jesus. Lets pray.