We take stands for our beliefs all the time. We identify ourselves with a certain political view, sports team, school, musical group, or style of clothing. We make choices based on those beliefs every day, and those choices affect the way the people in our lives perceive us. Sometimes our allegiances will endear us to them, and at other times they will alienate us from them.
This morning we will be looking at a passage where Jesus explains that the Christian faith has a polarizing effect on the people around us. If we truly place our allegiance with Christ, we will alienate ourselves from some people, but Jesus also reminds us that giving Him first priority is the most important thing we can do.
Jesus uses three different illustrations in this passage. At first glance, they seem unrelated to each other, but I think we’ll see that all three emphasized the same thing—following Christ wholeheartedly is of the utmost importance.
The Coming Fire
Jesus addressed the people with him by telling them,
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 how distressed I am until it is completed!(Luke 12:49-50, NIV)
When we see Jesus stating that He intended to bring fire to the earth, it seems a little out of character to our minds. We think of fire being a bad thing because it is destructive. It doesn’t seem right that Jesus would come to the earth to bring destruction—and if He did, it doesn’t seem right that He’d be eager for it to happen. We must understand, however, that fire doesn’t only bring destruction. It can also bring purification. In my microbiology class in college, we ran tools through fire in order to ensure that they were uncontaminated—the tools weren’t destroyed, they were purified.
The fire that Jesus speaks of will bring both destruction and purification. This fire will consume that which is opposed to God and it will refine and perfect those that have trusted in Him. This fire of destruction and purification began with the coming of the Holy Spirit, and is completed at the second coming. Jesus longed for this process to start, but before it could, he said he had a baptism to undergo.
There is potential for confusion here. If you remember, Jesus had already been baptized. He went to John the Baptist and asked him to baptize him in order to fulfill all righteousness (Matt. 3:15). But Jesus wasn’t speaking of the kind of baptism we think of. In Greek the word baptize means to be plunged deeply into something. In Christian baptism, a person is plunged under the water. The baptism that Jesus spoke of was being plunged into God’s wrath on our behalf. The cross of Calvary loomed large in Jesus’ mind, and he knew what lay ahead. He longed for order to be restored to the earth, but that couldn’t happen until He took on himself the penalty of our sin.
There is a good chance that the people didn’t fully understand what Jesus was saying, but he continued,
Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. (Luke 12:51, NIV)
This seems wrong to us. We think of Jesus as someone who loved peace. As we read earlier in Isaiah 9, he is described as “the Prince of Peace”. When the angels announced his birth, they proclaimed that there would be peace on earth. If that is the case, then how can Jesus say that he did not come to bring peace?
We forget that Jesus’ primary goal was not to make everyone live at peace with one another. Jesus came to the world to make it possible for human beings to have a restored relationship with God. He came to reveal Himself as the only way of salvation for all mankind. Those who choose not to follow Him will miss the salvation that He alone brings. This isn’t a popular message but it is the message Jesus declared.
This differs from the picture that many people have of Jesus—that He wants everyone to be happy. They argue that Jesus would never have condemned people for sin. He wouldn’t offend people with “hate speech” that said that His way was the only way. These people are wrong, but their confusion is nothing new. Jesus was clear that some people would respond to his message with resentment and anger rather than gratitude. It is with this in mind that he told his disciples that believing in Him would have a polarizing effect on everyone around them, even to the point of dividing families.
In Jewish society at the time (and in some Jewish and Muslim societies today), a person who became a Christian would be disowned by their family. When a person took a stand for Christ, they were no longer welcome at home and their family acted as though they were dead. What Jesus was saying was an accurate depiction of what would happen to many of his followers. If a man and his wife became Christians, they would be put at odds with the rest of their family.
This doesn’t seem like a concern most of us would have today. Many of our families have no problems with their family members going to church or declaring themselves to be Christians. In some families, switching denominations would be a cause for conflict, but generally American families are pretty accepting of religious beliefs as long they don’t disrupt the status quo. But even though our society is different Jesus’ declaration is true for us as well.
Jesus was telling the people that if they put Him first, there would be division. There is a difference between going to church and calling yourself a Christian and actually putting Jesus first in your life. The fact is that most of our country (and many in our churches) bristle at the notion of actually making Jesus the first priority in our lives. People who seek to actually put Jesus first are often labeled as fanatics or Jesus freaks. Most people are ok with Jesus as long as he doesn’t make any demands on their lives. As long as Jesus exists simply to make things better for us, we are ok with Jesus and with Christianity. We love Jesus when we need something, but we ignore Him when everything’s going well. When you start saying that Christians should live differently and should shift their priorities, people start getting uncomfortable. When you say that Christians shouldn’t participate in the same things that everyone else is doing, you are being unreasonable. If you insist on putting Jesus first, there is going to be division.
Think about some of the things we should be doing if Jesus is first in our lives:
- Refusing to lie to make a sale (or get a better deal)
- Refusing to let our children do something that “everyone else” is doing because it doesn’t honor (or distracts from) Christ
- Refusing to take part in gossip at your job, at the gas station, the ball field, or somewhere else
- Choosing not to support things that aren’t God honoring with your money (movies, businesses, products)
- Putting worship above all the other demands on our time
- Choosing to maintain the same standard of living and giving away the money that is above your basic needs
- Confronting some of the sinful tendencies people around you have (while being open to being confronted about your own)
- Sharing the truth of the gospel with everyone around you
If we find ourselves doing these kinds of things, we will experience some of the division that comes from putting Christ first. Many people think the idea of loving people like Jesus did is a great idea, but that putting Jesus ahead of the things the world says is important is crazy. As parents, your kids will complain that you are being unfair. People around you will tell you that you are being fanatical. Others in the church will tell you that it’s ok if you compromise just a little. When we insist on putting Jesus first, it will create conflict.
Now after making this declaration, Jesus seems to take a turn in his thinking. He told the crowd that they paid more attention to the weather than they did to what was happening around them. They paid far more attention to the trivialities of life on earth than they did to the major issues of eternity in Heaven.
I’m not sure what prompted this, but in my mind I picture Jesus talking to the people and noticing that many of them are no longer paying attention to Him. This happens a lot with public speakers. A good speaker notices that he has lost the attention of his audience and seeks to find out what his audience finds so interesting. Many times, in order to get people’s attention back, you have to address the thing that has distracted them.
I wonder if that’s what Jesus was doing here. I wonder if maybe he was talking and the crowd noticed clouds forming in the west and began to realize that rain was coming. As one noticed, he may have caught the attention of several others as if to say, “Jesus better wrap it up soon or we’re all going to get wet!” After not too long, I imagine everyone in the crowd shifting uncomfortably and beginning to get restless. Jesus may have sensed this and looked to the sky where everyone else was looking. When he saw that everyone was worried about the rain clouds forming to the west, he saw an opportunity to show the people how they were allowing themselves to focus on temporal things when there were eternal things at stake!
Jesus turned back to them and said,
54 “When you see a cloud rising in the west, immediately you say, ‘It’s going to rain,’ and it does. 55 And when the south wind blows, you say, ‘It’s going to be hot,’ and it is. 56 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? (Luke 12:54-56, NIV)
What made this such a big deal was that Jesus’ disciples didn’t notice what was going on, but other people did. Here he was, trying to help them understand that he wasn’t here to make life easy, and they were wasting all their mental energy forecasting the weather! He chastised the disciples because they were aware of what the weather was doing, but didn’t seem to care what God was doing!
The Pharisees saw what Jesus was doing and realized he was claiming to be the Messiah, and they didn’t like it at all. John the Baptist took note of what was happening and asked Jesus if He was the Messiah or not. Jesus told him to look around and see that the signs of the Messiah were being fulfilled in him. To anyone who was focused on what God was doing, it was clear who Jesus was, but many were far too wrapped up in their own lives to notice.
While our situation is a little bit different from Jesus’ original audience in Luke 12, we face the same struggles they did. We are often distracted by the things of the world, and as a result we don’t see what God is doing. We don’t know what God wants from us (or have wrong ideas about what God wants from us) because we aren’t trying to understand Him.
The antidote to this problem is to start having the same kind of devotion to understanding God as we do to:
- the weather
- following sports teams
- keeping up with the latest political commentary
- attending community events
- the TV shows we watch
- the current the state of the market
Think about how closely we follow these things, and how little time we devote to understanding what God is doing and what he would have us do.
If we want to understand God’s will for us, we have to spend time with Him. This is why Bible study, prayer, and worship are so important. It isn’t enough for us to ask other people what God wants us to do; we have to seek to understand God for ourselves. We should take a hard look at how we spend the time we have. Chances are that many of us are far better at predicting the weather or the winner of the Super Bowl or American Idol than we are at seeing what God is doing around us at any moment.
Jesus called the people around him hypocrites, because they spent lots of time chasing silly things, and little time on the things that were really important. The question we must ask ourselves is what would Jesus call me?
Jesus condemned the people not because they were paying attention to the weather, but because they weren’t applying that same mental energy to the things of God. His point was that they knew how to think for themselves, so they should use that ability to do what God wants. So Jesus used an illustration from the legal system to help them understand what they should do.
57 “Why don’t you judge for yourselves what is right? 58 As you are going with your adversary to the magistrate, try hard to be reconciled to him on the way, or he may drag you off to the judge, and the judge turn you over to the officer, and the officer throw you into prison.59 I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.” (Luke 12:57-59, NIV)
In Roman society if two people wanted to have a case decided by a judge, they had to come to the court together. Jesus said that if they were going to court with someone, their best bet was to seek to be reconciled on the way. If they waited until they get to court, they would have no recourse when the judge decided to throw them in jail.
This illustration can be understood in two ways. It can be understood as just good, practical advice. It is certainly good advice, but I think it was advice that the people didn’t need. They knew that it was better to reach an agreement with a person they had wronged rather than have a punishment dictated to them without any appeal or recourse. Jesus wasn’t merely giving practical advice—he had a spiritual point.
He was telling the people, you know that it is foolish to stand before a judge and receive the punishment you know you deserve if there is a way to settle out of court. That’s just common sense. Apply that same reasoning to the spiritual realm! You are guilty before God, and you need to be reconciled to Him while there is still time, because if you wait until you stand before the Righteous Judge, it will be too late.
Many of the people were probably lost by what Jesus was saying. They didn’t see that Jesus was offering a way for them to be reconciled to God. In fact, many of them probably didn’t understand that they needed to be reconciled to Him. There may be some of you here today that think God should be pleased with how much you do. Some of you may think that God must be happy that you make time for Him when you can—because surely he understands how busy you are. Understand this: unless you have trusted in Christ and put Him first in your life, you will stand before the Judge of the Universe and will be declared guilty. At that time, it will be too late to cut a deal.
The fact of the matter is we do not know how long the trip to the courthouse is. We do not know how long we have left. Just as it is foolish to ignore an out-of-court settlement when you know you are guilty, it is even more foolish to ignore the pardon that Christ offers to you today. The question Jesus asks is will you apply your common sense to your spiritual life or not?
This passage contains some hard teachings of Jesus. As we read a passage like this, we feel uncomfortable, realizing that we often aren’t following Jesus wholeheartedly. I really think that’s the point. Jesus’ goal with his audience was to shake them awake so they would change course. We should do the same this morning.
There are several things we should do. First, we should be clear about what the gospel entails. Jesus did not come to the earth to make our lives easier; He came to make it possible for us to have a restored relationship with God. Jesus is far less concerned with our earthly successes than He is with teaching us to put Him first. We need to ask ourselves if there is division in our lives as a result of Christ. If it seems that we are at peace with everyone, we must ask why. If there is peace in every relationship we have is it because everyone in our lives is following Christ—or is it that we are all indifferent to Him?
Second, we should seek to understand what God wants us to do and then do it. We put great energy into all sorts of earthly pursuits, but how much time do we put into our relationship with God? If you recognize that you are neglecting time with God cut back on the things that are distracting you. It may mean that you have to make some people mad, because you will be backing out on what is most important to them. Remind them that Christ is more important to you than anything else in life—even more important than making them happy. It is a great testimony and you will be doing your friends a great service by calling them to a true discipleship.
Third, we should take action today. Jesus condemned the disciples because they had the ability to understand what God wanted from them, but they chose to ignore it. God has given us the Bible and the Holy Spirit. If we don’t know what to do, it’s because we haven’t really tried to find out. If you feel God prompting you to do something today and ignore it, you have made your priorities clear.
In every facet of our lives we have to take a stand. Some stands are more important than others (like standing up for your freedom or for what is right). However, there is no more important stand than this one: You can stand with Jesus or you can stand with the world. It is a choice we must make every day many times a day. The line is clear. The consequences are eternal.