Jesus, the cause of division. 12:49-53


In the passage before us Jesus delivers two oracles which conclude with a commentary based on Micah 7:6. In these sayings Jesus gives his disciples an insight into life in this age, these "last days". Although the disciples possess the peace of God, they need to realize that peace on earth simply does not exist. In the age of the absent Lord, judgement faces the human family. People face decision, and decision produces division, division between friends and even between family members.

The passage

v49. "I have come to pour fire upon the earth. What is it that I want? Oh! I just want it to be kindled." Our passage for study stands within a number of other passages that deal with coming judgment. There is great debate as to what Jesus actually wants to pour upon the earth, but it is more than likely that Jesus is speaking about the coming of the kingdom of God and of the terrible judgment that faces humanity in that day. The coming day of the kingdom is not prefigured by peace on earth, but rather by "fire". There is ultimately the fire of the great assize, but in the meantime, the day of judgment is prefigured in the fire of Jesus "baptism", v50, and in the fire of "division", v51.

v50. William Barclay beautifully paraphrases this verse: "I must be plunged into a flooding-tide of suffering, and there can be no relief for me, until I have gone through to the end." Jesus knows well that the coming kingdom of God is realized through tribulation, and for Jesus, this means suffering and death. Jesus must himself face the wrath of God and for this reason he sets his face toward Calvary and with determination, presses onward toward the end. Jesus' "baptism" (the word is being used metaphorically here) is his suffering and death on the cross, his atoning sacrifice for sin on behalf of those who have put their trust in him for salvation.

v51. Jesus aligns himself with the Old Testament prophets when he reminds his listeners that the coming day of the Lord is not a day of peace, but rather, is a day of judgment, a day of apocalyptic tribulation, a day when the saved are separated from those doomed to destruction. In the present moment, this coming day is prefigured in social division, cf. v52-53. We know that Jesus makes much of the sign of "love", the love of the brotherhood, but what we have here is another sign of the kingdom, the sign of division.

v52-53. Jesus now explains what he means by division and then, in v53, supports his words by quoting Micah 7:6. Division was one of the commonly expected signs of the coming messianic kingdom, and so now, with the coming of Jesus the messiah, families can expect that household members will "turn against one another", CEV. Some members of the family will stand with Jesus and others will stand against him.

The sign of division

In our passage for study we see Jesus pressing on toward Jerusalem and the cross, or as he calls it, his "baptism. For Jesus, his death is a divine judgement upon guilt, not his own guilt, but a death on behalf of Israel's guilt. Israel, of course, is the remnant of Israel, and this remnant includes believing Gentiles, the "stranger within the gates." In his death, Jesus' draws us close to the "fire" of the great assize. For the present, "division" prefigures that terrible day, a division realized through the preaching of the gospel. Some accept the Spirit-inspired message, but many reject it. None-the-less, through the proclamation of the gospel the kingdom of God finds its consummation.

As we sit within the confines of our local church, an accepted social organization in Western society, we may find it hard to image the reality of Christ's kingdom, a kingdom "not of this world." We are inclined to put our weight on things like relevance, popularity, acceptance...., or we may go in the other direction and promote separateness, purity.... We may well think that Christ's kingdom is progressed by the way we do church. To promote gospel effectiveness we may put great store in making our church either attractive to outsiders, or separate from outsiders. Some even try to do both, a rather difficult task!

In truth, the reality of the kingdom has little to do with the business of managing a local church. There is nothing wrong with a good pragmatic approach to church management. The survival of an institution is actually dependent on good people-management and marketing. The only danger lies in assuming that pragmatics (most often supported by pseudo Biblical phrases such as "gospel effective outreach") actually builds Christ's kingdom. The kingdom of God is not flesh and blood; it is realized "'not by power, not by might, but by my Spirit' says the Lord God almighty." The preaching and teaching of the Word of God gathers and builds a heavenly assembly, of which the local congregation is but a poor reflection.

The distinct difference between the heavenly and earthly assemblies is most readily seen in the sign of "division", "the sword", as Matthew calls it. The church would not easily survive in society if it were identified as a divisive organization - a home wrecker. For this reason, the church promotes itself as an organization which affirms the unity of family and society. Yet, Christ's kingdom actually does bring division. It is right and proper for us to promote and strengthen relationships, but in the end we must remember that these are the last day and that the gospel, by its very nature, either condemns or blesses, and in so doing, can drive asunder the most substantial of relationships.


If division is a sign of the kingdom, does this mean we should promote division, and if not, why not?

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