49 “I have come to set the world on fire, and I wish it were already burning! 50 I have a terrible baptism of suffering ahead of me, and I am under a heavy burden until it is accomplished. 51 Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I have come to divide people against each other! 52 From now on families will be split apart, three in favor of me, and two against — or two in favor and three against. 53 ‘Father will be divided against son and son against father; mother against daughter and daughter against mother; and mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.’”
54 Then Jesus turned to the crowd and said, “When you see clouds beginning to form in the west, you say, ‘Here comes a shower.’ And you are right. 55 When the south wind blows, you say, ‘Today will be a scorcher.’ And it is. 56 You fools! You know how to interpret the weather signs of the earth and sky, but you don’t know how to interpret the present times. 57 Why can’t you decide for yourselves what is right? 58 When you are on the way to court with your accuser, try to settle the matter before you get there. Otherwise, your accuser may drag you before the judge, who will hand you over to an officer, who will throw you into prison. 59 And if that happens, you won’t be free again until you have paid the very last penny.”
Near the beginning of Luke, Zechariah prophesied that Jesus’ coming would turn the heart of parents to their children and children to their parents. Luke has carried this theme through consistently, highlighting a number of healing stories where sick or dead children were healed and given back to their parents. But also near the beginning, Simeon prophesied that Jesus’ coming would cause deep division in families, foreshadowing this quotation from Micah that Luke has carried over from Matthew. But as we keep seeing, even when Luke is using text from Mark or Matthew, he often adds something in that pushes the whole thing in the direction of his overall project. While the ministry of Jesus, and his followers, brings deep healing and reconciliation, Jesus also brings each person to the point of decision. How each person responds to Jesus is what causes the division Micah, Matthew, Simeon, and Luke are talking about.
You may think you have heard this sort of thing before. It is a standard part of any Christian apologetics – bringing a person to the point of deciding what they believe regarding Jesus. But that is not at all what I am saying, nor what I think Luke was saying. (Confession: I really don’t like apologetics. Sloppy logic, rigged games, and hucksterism should be reserved for carnival midways imo.) We should stop using the word “believe” with regard to Jesus because that word has come almost exclusively to mean “think the right thoughts,” or “have the right ideas.” The word the New Testament uses is pisteuo in its verb form and pistis in its noun form (the words are cognate for you grammar nerds). These words means “have faith, trust.” Most English translations use “faith” for the noun pistis, but “faith” doesn’t turn into a verb in English, so most of the time translators opt for “believe.” So we “believe” in Jesus like we believe in the Tooth Fairy or Santa Claus. And yes, this sort of decision does create division, but it is division of human manufacture. We erect boundaries to keep in those who agree with our ideas (the believers) and keep out those who do not agree with our ideas (the unbelievers).
But this is not the response Luke is driving us toward and this is not the division prophesied about. The question that faces each of us regarding Jesus is not who we think he is or was. The question that faces us is whether or not we are going to trust our lives to live the way Jesus has been describing. Are we going to trust Jesus enough to sell possessions? Are we going to trust Jesus enough not to live in fear? Not to worry? Not to be anxious? Are we going to trust Jesus enough to take the big risk of actually praying for someone who needs healing and then waiting through that awkward moment to find out if they were healed or not? Are we going to trust Jesus enough to pray for a second person even if the first person was not healed? The third? The forty-seventh?
This is the decision these Gospel accounts are driving us to. Not deciding to nod our heads at some creed we don’t understand and has no real bearing on our actual lives, but deciding to quit living our own way and become a follower of Jesus. This is not a decision many Christians ever make. And it is a decision that will bring real division, especially among those who think they are Christians based on what they think, not what they do. But this decision, this Way, is also what sets the world on fire.
Luke uses fire to signify two things: judgment and the Holy Spirit. People ask which of these applies here. I think it is both. In John, Jesus will tell us that the The Holy Spirit comes to convict the world of being the world. The Spirit does this by creating a group of people (the church) who follow Jesus and keep doing the things he did and teaching the things he taught. The Spirit’s anointing on the church is a holy fire. It is the same holy fire that convicts everyone it comes in contact with for not trusting Jesus with their lives, not practicing justice, and for all uses of dominating, manipulative power. The fire of judgment and the anointing fire of the Holy Spirit are the same. Jesus inaugurates his Kingdom with a loving self-sacrifice and all who follow him participate in this, what he calls baptism here. All baptisms are sacrifices of self. Even the baptism in the Holy Spirit. Once we trust Jesus enough to die to self, then the world is set on fire.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible. New Living Translation copyright© 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale HousePublishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.