Many places in Scripture speak of the Messiah as one who will bring peace. What are we to make, then, of Jesus’ claim that He came to bring not peace, but division? Considering Jesus’ words, Alistair Begg helps us grasp a proper understanding of peace with God and the division that occurs when He changes us. The transformation that comes from the Gospel will affect all parts of our lives—and not everyone is willing to accept those who seek Christ with their whole hearts.
Our question comes from Luke chapter 12—you’ll see that from the card that you received—and if you would like to see it in its context, then if you turn to page 738 in the church Bibles, then you can find exactly where it’s set. It’s actually, as you will see, just part of the fifty-first verse, but let me read the little section that begins at verse 49.
Jesus is speaking and he says, “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! 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.”
A quite striking little section, isn’t it? And you say to yourself, “Well, why did we choose this one?” which is really the question I’ve been asking earlier in the day.
Last week we went out into the community with our question. We didn’t do that this week, but when we did so last week, asking people if they could answer the question “Who do you think Jesus is?” we received a whole variety of responses. They were very interesting, and nobody said they didn’t know. If we had gone out with this question this week, I think we would’ve discovered that there would be almost across the board the same response from people, if they had any response at all. And that is, if we asked them, “What do you think the answer is to the question posed by Jesus: ‘Do you think I came to bring peace on [the] earth?’” I think almost exclusively people would say, “Oh yes, I’m sure he answered yes to that.” And if we pressed them on it, they would say, “Well, if we know anything about Jesus, we know that he’s about love, that he is about forgiveness, and that he is about harmony.” And in saying that, of course, they would be expressing truth in every instance—but, of course, not answering the question correctly. Because the answer to the question is not yes but actually no. And the statement that Jesus makes in replying in this way to his own question—“Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division”—it’s all the more striking when we look at it in the wider context not simply of the immediate verses that are around this verse here but also in the rest of the Bible.
And so, for example, let me quote to you some verses from the Bible with which you may actually be familiar and which may have already come to your mind if you’ve been thinking about this question at all.
First of all, what about the arrival of Jesus—the birth of Jesus—and the angelic chorus? If you remember that from Christmastime at all, you will recall that when the angels sang, they sang what? “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men.” Well, that doesn’t just seem to fit properly with Jesus’ answer here.
And what the angels sang they sang in accord with the words that the prophets had spoken, strikingly in Isaiah chapter 9, which you will recall, if not from your Bible or from Sunday school class, from Handel’s Messiah: “For [unto] us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be [upon] his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, [the] Mighty God, [the] Everlasting Father, [the] Prince of Peace.”
And so what is Jesus on about here? “Do you think I have come to bring peace on the earth?” We’ve already gone to two very important passages that seem to contradict exactly what it is that Jesus is saying.
And what about the Sermon on the Mount? What about when he brought everyone together and taught them and gave them these Beatitudes and these internalized principles—a bit like the Ten Commandments turbocharged? And in the course of that in Matthew chapter 5 he says to his followers, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called [the] sons of God.”
It’s just getting worse by the quote, isn’t it? Because clearly Jesus did not advocate conflict. He didn’t put together a group of individuals who were going to be insurrectionists. In fact, he taught his disciples that at least in terms of their personal conduct, retaliation was not an option for them.
And when it was coming towards the time for him to go to the cross and he approached the city of Jerusalem, Luke records for us—in Luke chapter 19—that as he looks out on the city and as he views the people moving around the city, he exclaims to Jerusalem as a place, “If you, [Jerusalem,] even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes.”
So, when we study the Bible and we come to a difficult question in the Bible, one of the ways in which we deal with it, of course, is to do just what we’re doing now. And that is to say, “If we’re not going to lift this text from its immediate context and from the wider context of the Bible, then we have to be honest and fair and say that what Jesus says here in Luke chapter 12 in answer to his own question at least superficially seems to run counter to the whole drift of his emphasis, both in his words and in his works.”
But it gets even worse than that. Because when, after the ascension of Jesus, the Scriptures are penned, not only in the Gospels but also in the Letters, we discover, for example, that when Paul looks back on the words and works of Jesus and seeks to describe them for those to whom he writes his letters, he describes what Jesus has done in terms of peace. Let me give you just two quotes. In 2 Corinthians 5:19 he says that what was happening in the death of Jesus was “that God was reconciling”—which is a verb which just simply means “making peace”—“that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them.” And in his opening chapter when he writes to the church at Colossae, he says this: “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him”—that is, in Jesus—“and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven”—and now here comes the phrase—“making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.”
So it would seem that in expectation of the coming of Jesus, in the words and works of Jesus, it would be very, very hard to step away from the notion that somehow or another, how Jesus lived, what Jesus said, how Jesus died was without any question irrevocably linked to the issue of peace.
“Do you think I came to bring peace on [the] earth? No, I tell you, but division.”
I love this, because I had friends at school in Ilkley in Yorkshire when I was a boy who used to find passages like this and say, “There you go, Begg! There’s a contradiction for you. What’re you going to do with that one?” And we used to have these great discussions. Never did I think for one nanosecond that I would end up in the predicament in which I find myself this evening, but that is a story for another day altogether.
Let me try and unpack this for us in a way that will resolve the conflict and allow each of us at least a measure of relief. The words that we’ve just quoted from Paul—when he wrote to Corinth and then to Colossae—help us to understand what Jesus says immediately before his question here in verse 51. Before he comes to the question “Do you think I came to bring peace on [the] earth?” and then makes his striking response, he actually says two other things which are equally demanding when you think about them.
His preface to the question has to do with a “fire on the earth,” he says, and has to do with a “baptism” that he’s about to face. What does he mean by this? “I have come,” he says, “to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!”
Well, this is a reference—it’s not a unique reference, because even already in the Gospels there’ve been mention of fire. John the Baptist, who preceded Jesus and pointed to his coming, used this metaphor concerning the coming of Jesus and what he would say and do. And indeed, it is a picture that you find all the way through the Old Testament. But when Jesus says this, he is referring to the fact that fire does at least two things: it burns up what is combustible and it purifies what is noncombustible. So, for example, precious metals are purified in fire; newspaper, tissue, cardboard, various bits and pieces are consumed by fire. And this notion of a fire that is already kindled, to which Jesus refers, is a fire which will burn up and at the same time purify. He’s referring actually to the fire of God’s holiness, which will ultimately be unleashed against a world that persistently turns its back upon him.
Well, why would Jesus look forward to this? Why would he say, “I wish it were already kindled!”? Well, he’s looking forward to this because he looks forward to the day when evil will be removed entirely from the world—when evil will be removed entirely from the world.
Now, I haven’t met many people who aren’t intrigued by that possibility and, indeed, would be prepared to commit their lives to that eventuality. Every day, as we turn to our newspapers, as we listen to the news as it is broadcasted to us in various media forms, we say to ourselves, “I wish it were possible for all of this dreadful stuff to be done away with.” And what the Bible says is, it is going be done away with—that ultimately, he who is described in Isaiah 9 as the “Prince of Peace” will reign; he will reign eternally. But in the meantime, strife between good and evil continue.
That’s the fire. What about the baptism? “I have a baptism to undergo, and how distressed I am until it is completed!” “There’s a fire that’s going to burn, and I wish it was kindled! I have a baptism, and how I wish I was through it!”
Now, he’s not referring to baptism as here this evening. Jesus had been baptized in the Jordan; you may remember that from your studies in the Bible. And when he was baptized, John the Baptist tried to dissuade him; he said, “You know, I don’t think we’ve got this the right way round. I think since you are Jesus, the Christ, the Messiah, you should be baptizing me.” And Jesus says to John, he says, “[No, let it] be so now”—this is the King James Version—“[let it] be so now: for thus it [is fitting] to fulfil all righteousness.” In other words, “We’re going to go ahead with the baptism in this way in order that I might do the right thing before God, my Father.” And what Jesus was expressing in his baptism was his resolution to do the will of the Father.
What he refers to now in his baptism is his death upon the cross, which will, of course, will be the ultimate expression of his obedience to the Father’s will. Again, the Old Testament spoke about how it was the Father’s will to bruise his Son and to crush him. And Jesus, when he was baptized, was saying, “Father, I have come to do your will, and in my baptism here, I’m declaring at least this to all who watch me.” And then they listened to his words, and they watched him move towards Jerusalem, and suddenly they begin to put the pieces of the puzzle together. It takes a while, but they eventually get it. And what Jesus is saying here in verse 50 is simply this: that he lives his life under the looming shadow of his death—that he is living his life under the looming shadow of Gethsemane.
In the twenty-second chapter of Luke’s Gospel, Luke describes for us the scene that Jesus has in mind: “‘Father, if you are willing’”—in the garden of Gethsemane, he says—“‘take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.’ [And] an angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him”—listen—“and being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.” And this was in prospect of his death on the cross where, by taking the place of sinners, he would bring about a reconciliation.
Now, again, let me quote to you from Handel’s Messiah:
He was despised and rejected by men,
a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering.
Like one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
Surely he took up our infirmities
and carried our sorrows,
yet we [were considering] him stricken by God,
smitten by him, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was upon him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
Now, this message is awesome! Do you have your card in front of you? Do you see the quote at the bottom of it? This would be a good time just to look at that quote. What is happening here in the death of Jesus? Says Vaughan Roberts, “How can God forgive people and accept them into his heaven?”—especially when people are sinners! How can God forgive sinners and accept them into heaven? “On the cross Jesus stood in for others and took their punishment so that all who turn to him can be sure that they’re forgiven by God. That is how committed God is to ensuring that we need not face the hell of separation from him which we deserve. It is as if Jesus is saying to us, ‘You will only go to hell over my dead body!’”
Jesus is covered in shame so that those of us who, if we’re honest, have shameful lives may be covered with his glory. There is no story like this anywhere else that I’ve ever read in all of world religions. This is the story of a physician who heals by taking the patient’s disease. This is the story of someone so committed to effecting reconciliation between God in his holiness and men and women in their rebellion that he is prepared to put his very life on the line in order to effect that reconciliation.
I found a little book this week, written in 1905 by a man called the Reverend W. B. Russell-Caley, M.A., Vicar of St Matthias, Plymouth, England. And I read it in a sitting; there are hardly any pages to it at all. And part of it was related to what we’re just looking at here. And when he had explained in the course of this book the wonder of what Jesus had done upon the cross, he then writes as follows; it’s a little quaint, but it works. He says, “We must never ignore the necessity of personal acceptance and trust.”
In other words—someone asked the question last Sunday night, Is it enough simply to know these things in your head? Or, How do we move between just the awareness of these truths and them becoming the kind of reality we’ve heard expressed tonight in those who’ve been baptized? “I was an atheist, but I’ve come to trust in Jesus.” “I was brought up, but I went away; I’ve returned.” They’re all talking in very personal terms, aren’t they? It’s hard to avoid the fact that they’re apparently all on about some reality—some experiential reality. They’re not all trotting out just a standard textbook explication of religious orthodoxy.
And that’s what this man is referencing; he says, “We can’t ignore the necessity of personal acceptance and trust. The lifeboat is no good unless the drowning man gets into it. And no one else can get in for him. He must do it for himself. Yet surely, he would never say that the hand which sees the lifeboat was his salvation. He could only view it as the means by which he apprehended the proffered safety.”
Now, I’ve said enough to answer the question; let me answer it for you. What Jesus means here when he talks about division is directly tied to the work that he was to accomplish in effecting reconciliation. So that when a man or a woman comes to understand this story—this good news story, which is what the Bible is ultimately all about: “How can sinners be put right with God? How can my life be transformed, and how can I discover forgiveness?” and so on—when a man or a woman comes to trust in Christ in that way, their newfound faith in Jesus will prove, almost inevitably, to be a divisive factor.
And Jesus here was dealing with a Jewish mindset that viewed the idea of a coming kingdom in terms of tranquility and peace and harmony and everything being super. And you may have been places where folks have said to you, “You know, I think you should really try Christianity, because it is all about tranquility and peace and everything becoming super.” But that message doesn’t come from the lips of Jesus—at least not in Luke chapter 12, does it? “Do you think I came to bring peace on the earth?” he says. “I don’t want you fellows to go out into a fool’s paradise. No,” he says, “I actually didn’t come to bring peace. I came to bring division.”
Now, what he means by that is clearly not that his ultimate objective was division but that the effect of his accomplishment of salvation would be division—that when a life is changed in its core, in its direction, in its values, in its focus, in its purpose, in its dreams, whatever that change may be, it changes the dynamic of interpersonal relationships.
And in the case of somebody coming to believe in Jesus—coming to say, “I actually realize that when he died upon that cross, he died as a sinless man. Why, as a sinless man, would he die? Well, apparently to effect reconciliation. Reconciling whom? Reconciling someone like me to a God who is absolutely pure and holy. So now I understand that this is a magnificent thing which Christ has accomplished, and I could never be the same again once I understood it. And when I began to share it with my family, my mother said, ‘You know, Penelope, your father and I have spent a large part of our lives making sure that you were brought up with Christian principles and Christian values. And you know that we took you to such and such a place routinely. And we don’t want you coming down to the breakfast table with that New Testament. And we don’t want another invitation to one of your talks, or your events, or whatever those things are you go to. You’re causing trouble in our family, Penelope.’” You ever heard anything like that?
Or, “What’s happened to you? We always ate our meal at this time on a Sunday evening. What do you mean, you’ve got to go twice? Who says you have to go twice?”
“No one says I have to go twice.”
“Well, why in the world would you go again? You go the first time, you get your ticket stamped; it’s over. Why’re you going again?”
“I like going.”
“What do you mean you like going? Once it’s done, it’s done. You don’t have to keep going back! We’ve taught you properly about these things.”
“Dad, I don’t think you understand. I have discovered Jesus as a living personal friend and Savior.”
“Oh, just… just… go on!”
Or someone says to their wife, as he’s pulling his socks on in the dimness of the morning before he heads out, and she’s been inviting him to something that he’d absolutely is sick to death of hearing about, and he turns to her as a parting shot, and he says, “You know, the strange thing about you, Mary, is that you have… something weird has happened to you, and you’ve begun to suggest that somehow I’m not a Christian at all.”
I have a friend in Glasgow—my wife and I do—a fine lady in suburban Glasgow, lives near one of my sisters. If she wants to meet with any other members of her family who share her personal faith in Jesus, she is forbidden by her husband to have them in their home. He will have none of it. For this lady, the reality of division is simply that—reality.
Now, let me wrap this up. Jesus demanded careful obedience—costly loyalty—and that’s why not everyone is prepared to pay the price, or to accept those who do pay the price. If you remember Pilgrim’s Progress, how does it start? Well, it starts with Pilgrim running down the road. And Bunyan says that once he had looked into this book and he had asked himself the question “What must I do to be saved?” and as he had started out on his journey, Bunyan says,
[And] I saw in my dream that the man began to run. Now he had not run far from his own door, when his wife and children, perceiving it, began to cry after him to return; but the man put his fingers in his ears, and ran on, crying, “Life! life! eternal life!” So he looked not behind him, but fled [forward to] the middle of the plain.
[And] the neighbours also came out to see him run; and as he ran, some mocked, [and] others threatened, and some cried after him to return; and among those that did so, there were two that resolved to fetch him back by force.
hat was the problem here? Well, he had begun to run after Christ.
In Ephesians chapter 2, Paul outlines the nature of things in a quite dramatic way. He describes the person before they become a believer in Jesus in this way: he says,
As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—[and] it is by grace you have been saved.
You got that little phrase there, “Like the rest, we were…” But when someone is brought into Christ, they are no longer “like the rest.” And it is that very distinction, which is the cause of division, which is the answer to the question before us tonight.
 Luke 2:14 (paraphrased).
 Isaiah 9:6 (NIV 1984).
 Matthew 5:9 (NIV 1984).
 Luke 19:42 (NIV 1984).
 Colossians 1:19–20 (NIV 1984).
 Matthew 3:13–14 (paraphrased).
 Matthew 3:15 (KJV).
 See Isaiah 53:5, 10.
 Luke 22:42–44 (NIV 1984).
 Isaiah 53:3–5 (NIV 1984). Original lyrics to The Messiah based upon the KJV.
 Vaughan Roberts, Turning Points (Carlisle: Authentic Media, 2003), 137.
 Roberts, Turning Points, 137.
 John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress.
 Ephesians 2:1–5 (NIV 1984).
Copyright © 2021, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.