Fire, Baptism, Division
return to the main player
Return to the Main Player
return to the main player
Return to the Main Player

Fire, Baptism, Division

Luke 12:49  (ID: 2199)

Jesus warned the crowd in Luke 12 that faith in Him would create division. Alistair Begg leads us through these difficult words, helping us understand how true unity can be found only in Christ. If we find ourselves separated from God’s Son, we should seek Him “while He may be found.” As the One who can use fire both to raze and to refine, Jesus is the only person from whom we must never be divided.

Series Containing This Sermon

A Study in Luke, Volume 8

Signs and Parables along the Way Luke 11:14–14:35 Series ID: 14208

Sermon Transcript: Print

We’re going to read this morning from Luke’s Gospel and the twelfth chapter. I invite you to turn there as I read from the forty-ninth verse. Jesus is speaking. 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 [that] 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.’

“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? As you[’re] 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. I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.’”

Amen. Thanks be to God for his Word.

Three Objections

Well, we continue our studies in Luke’s Gospel here at 12:49. And I think that if you were following carefully as I read this passage to you, that if you are at all honest, there would be at least part of you which instinctively recoiled from these words of Jesus. Fire, baptism, division—especially what he has to say about the dissolution of family life. Why would it be that we would ever respond to these words in a manner that was less than positive?

Well, there are, I think, a number of reasons that come immediately to mind. In fact, there are quite a few. I want to suggest to you that there are just three that may help us in leading into this study of this passage.

First of all, it may strike us as rather strange that Jesus would speak in such categorical terms, because we live in a world, and particularly in a culture, that dislikes dogmatism of any kind, that is wary of anyone who speaks in very straightforward terms. Individuals who have opinions that are clearly formulated and at the same time strongly held are increasingly unpopular in the contemporary climate. Therefore, for the words of Jesus to sound out down through the corridors of time and by the reading of the Bible and out into a context such as this this morning may immediately strike a number of ears in a way that is less than appealing. After all, people quite routinely will say to those who name the name of Christ, “Are you not rather arrogant to speak of Jesus in such convinced and such convicting terms?” If you speak about Jesus at all, inevitably people will say to you, “Well, I’m not sure that you should just be quite as forceful as you are.”

Now, what do we say in response to that? Well, I’m not sure what we say, but what we should say is something along these lines: namely, that as Christians, we understand Christianity to be a revealed faith. In other words, we would know nothing of it and nothing of God if God had not chosen to reveal himself. And he has revealed himself in the world that he has made; he has revealed himself finally and savingly in his Son, whom he has sent; and he has revealed himself clearly and categorically in his Word, the Bible. And in the writings of the Hebrews, we read that in the past God spoke in various ways by the prophets, and in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.[1]

And so we say to our friends and to our neighbors who may be inquiring: Christianity is not just a collection of philosophies and the ethical ideas of men. That is Hinduism, but it is not Christianity. No, Christianity starts from the premise that God has spoken—that it is therefore essential that men and women hear. It is at the same time essential that those who hear may come to believe what he has said and then, as a result of having believed what he has said, receive the responsibility and privilege of conveying that same truth to others in order that they also may come to believe. And so I often say to those who are in dialogue with me, “You know, if the message of Christianity is true, it is not arrogant. And if it is untrue, it is, frankly, irrelevant.”

James S. Stewart, Scottish theologian and minister of the early part of this century, said on one occasion in his writings, “It is quite mistaken to suppose that humility excludes conviction.”[2] Now, he was writing in an earlier era. Humility, he says, does not exclude conviction. And yet, today people say, “You know, if you are a humble person, you would not say the things you say.” Why? Because humility excludes conviction? Listen to Chesterton, 1937—G. K., that is. “What we suffer from to-day”—this is 1937—“is humility in the wrong place. Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction; where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed. … We[’re] on the road to producing a race of men too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table.”[3] Now, that was 1937. His words have proved prophetic, haven’t they? Modesty, he says, has been transferred from a spirit of proudful ambition to the realm of conviction. And as a result of that, instead of doubting ourselves and affirming truth, we affirm ourselves and we doubt truth, and we proclaim that really there is nothing that is actually knowable at all.

As Christians, we understand Christianity to be a revealed faith. In other words, we would know nothing of it and nothing of God if God had not chosen to reveal himself.

Well, it is in that context that Jesus said, “I’ve come to bring a fire, and I wish that it were kindled. I have a baptism to undergo, and it is constraining me. And if you think I came to bring peace, you may want just to consider this.”

The second reason why it may strike us as less than immediately accessible is not simply because of the climate making dogmatism a very dislikable feature but also because of an unwillingness ever to be thought negative—ever to be thought negative. So people will urge us, “Well, you may speak up for what you believe, but please don’t speak against what other people believe. That’s just not your place.” And that is so inculcated in our minds and in the minds of our young people that it is a tremendous challenge for them to take seriously these unequivocal terms by Jesus in this passage as well as in others. And yet when the responsibility is laid upon the leaders of the church in Titus chapter 1, Paul says to Titus, “I want you to establish leadership in the church in such a way that these men will be able to encourage sound doctrine and, at the same time, to refute those who contradict it.”[4] Why? Because truth inevitably involves exclusions. We are always to be tolerant in our spirits, but we must beware of a form of intellectual tolerance which is, frankly, not the mark of intellectual maturity but is actually the mark of stupidity.

Again, Chesterton: “I am incurably convinced,” he says, “that the object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.”[5] You don’t want people just walking around like this. Close your mouth! Close your mind. And those of you who in the last decade have dabbled with Allan Bloom’s book The Closing of the American Mind would recognize that he, as a university professor, was wrestling with this very issue in the students who were under his tutelage, in the recognition of the fact that he said that the American mind is open to everything and closed to one truth—namely, truth itself.[6] And that’s the climate in which the words of Jesus come.

The third reaction—the third reason, I think, for reacting to these verses with diffidence—is simply this: because of the manner in which we’ve grown accustomed to hearing Christianity proclaimed. Why would these verses strike us as difficult? Because the culture says, “Beware of dogmatism,” because the culture says, “Make sure that whatever you are, you are not negative,” and thirdly, because the culture has grown used to a version of Christianity which doesn’t seem to meld with the definitive instruction and invitation of Christ himself. Consider the way in which the gospel is often declared, and you will find that it is largely an appeal to the self-interest of men and women. It’s an invitation for them to be happy, or “Would you like to be really successful? Would you like to understand what it is to be a truly creative person, a fulfilled person, a satisfied person?” and so on. And all of this is thinly disguised by a layer of religious jargon.

Now, it is not that there is not fulfillment or creativity or satisfaction in the Lord Jesus Christ, but those issues are byproducts of the message of the gospel itself, which Jesus here is declaring in a quite dramatic fashion. And if we go immediately to the byproducts as an appeal to our friends and neighbors, those who live self-satisfied lives will find no reason at all for a consideration of the gospel. “No, I don’t really want to add any more creativity to my life at all. I’m so creative, I’m driving myself and everyone else crazy.” “No, thank you, I’m really quite fulfilled. I really have no other rung on the ladder up which I wish to go.” “No, I’m really quite happy. My family life is intact. And really, I’m more successful than any other member of my family circle. So, no. Thank you for mentioning Jesus and considering the fact that I may like to know him, but frankly, he’s a complete irrelevance to me.”

Well, that wasn’t what happened when Jesus spoke, was it? No, they “picked up stones to stone him.”[7] They looked for ways to kill him. Because they understood that the message of Christianity, as Jesus says in this passage, brings delineation and division.

Small wonder that the listeners then and now would be rocked back on their heels as he speaks of a fire to be kindled and a baptism to be endured and a division to be faced. Now, those are our three points. They’re fairly straightforward, and they’re there. It’s not always that it falls out so nicely, but it does.

A Fire to Be Kindled

Let’s consider first of all, in verse 49, the nature of the fire of which he speaks: “I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!”

Now, I’ve been wrestling with this verse for a week now and am no more convinced at the end of the week than I was at the beginning of the week. The commentators that I’ve found most helpful are the ones that begin, “We cannot be perfectly sure just what Jesus had in mind when he said this.” I like that honesty, but I do long for some kind of clarity.

What do you do when you come to a verse like this? Well, you seek to interpret Scripture with Scripture, because the Bible is a book that interprets itself. So we would look at this—those of us who’ve been going through the studies in Luke’s Gospel—and we would say, “You know, John the Baptist had something to say about fire, I think, when he was introducing Jesus.” And you would be perfectly right. And you would leaf back through your Bible to come to Luke chapter 3, and you would settle your eyes upon verse 9, where John says, urging his listeners, to “flee from the coming wrath”[8]—especially those who were tempted to believe that because of their religious background they were going to be okay—in verse 9 he says, “The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” Down in verse 16, he mentions fire again: “I[’m] [going to] baptize you with water,” he says. “But one more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I[’m] not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” And then into verse 17, a further reference: “His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor … to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”

Now, you say, “Well, where is John coming from when he launches into all of this?” And then you go back, and you say, “Well, what preceded John?” And the answer is the intertestamental period. And then you say, “Well, what was the message that was, if you like, beaming out across the divide between Malachi and Matthew?” And so you say, “Well, let’s go back and look and see the kind of thing that is said in Malachi.” So you go back to the last book of the Old Testament, and Malachi chapter 3. The Old Testament ends with the prospect of the messenger who will prepare the way. And in Malachi 3:2, the question is then asked, “Who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver,” and so on. And this was the message that the prophets were seeking to make sense of as the Old Testament closes. And onto the stage walks John the Baptist, the last, if you like, in the line of the Old Testament prophets, the one who is greater than those who have gone before, as he finds himself in immediate proximity to Jesus. And he picks up this very picture.

Now, we could go on, and you can do this yourself by simply taking a concordance, looking up fire and seeing all the various references to fire. Those of you who are thinking would go on to Acts chapter 2, and you would remind yourself that on the day of Pentecost, God comes down by his Spirit in tongues of fire, and in a great conflagration that is spiritual and powerful, the church of Christ is unleashed.[9] You also would go into the book of Revelation and find that, again, at the end of the age, this picture of fire comes once again.[10]

Now, given, then, that Jesus is aware of all of these dimensions and more, when he says, “I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” I think that we have to be honest to say that presumably, these three notions at least coalesce in the statement Jesus makes here—that when he thinks of fire, there is this dimension which speaks of consuming judgment. Luke 3:17: “This chaff will be burned up.” This is nothing other than Psalm 1: “The wicked are not so, but they are like the chaff, which the wind blows away. The wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.”[11] There is that dimension: the fire of consuming judgment. There is also, as we have noted, the fire of purification, and the fire of energizing power. “There is a fire,” he says, “that is to be kindled. I wish that it was already going.”

Now, where do all of these things coalesce? Where do they all unite? Where do they all find their focus? In the cross and in redemption. And what Jesus is saying is this: that “I long to fulfill the role that the Father has given me to fulfill. A body he has prepared for me.[12] I have a baptism to undergo, as we shall see.” And there is a fire that is attached to this. The same fire that destroys what is combustible will refine what is noncombustible. So, the same fire which consumes the wicked will refine the righteous. And if you go back and peruse Malachi 3 and think about that picture of the silversmith and read a little concerning it, you will discover that the responsibility of the silversmith was so to prepare the fire, maintain the fire at a certain level, that as he dealt with silver, the fire would burn in such a way so as to separate the dross from the silver. And the silversmith worked, disassembling the pieces, taking out the dross, and he considered his work complete when he could look into the surface of the metal and see the reflection of his face.

Now, that is a wonderful picture of what Christ is doing with those who are his own: so bringing us through the “fiery trial,”[13] as Peter says, which should not be a surprise to us, so that he might remove the dross from our lives and fashion us in such a way that his work will be complete when he is able to look into that which is the product of this refining emphasis and see his face reflected. And to that end, he longs that the work of salvation will be completed, in order that by the power of the Holy Spirit, evil may be undone and destroyed and the faithful may be purified and refined.

So in other words, he cannot speak—in terms of fire—just in terms of the purification of the faithful or in terms of the combustion of the unbelieving or in terms, ultimately, of the outpouring of the Spirit. For all of these factors come together in this work to which he is moving.

A Baptism to Be Endured

Now, that brings us directly to the fiftieth verse. Because before all of this to which he points in terms of a fire can be discovered, there is a baptism he says that he has to undergo.

In his baptism in the Jordan, Christ’s ministry was inaugurated. And in a baptism of blood upon Calvary, his ministry was crowned.

If you think of it, incidentally, in Pentecostal terms, I think there is a picture here: before the fire will fall upon the people in Pentecostal power, there is a baptism that he must face, which is that of Calvary pain. And in the same measure as we seek to follow after Christ, there is no reason for us to believe that we will live in the fullness of Pentecostal power and influence while bypassing, if you like, as Roy Hession said, the “Calvary Road.”[14] For the way to Pentecostal power is by route of crucifixion pain. And no man or woman was ever powerful and effective in the service of God who had not been brought to the crushing experience of the cross.

So, “There is a fire,” he says. “I would that it were kindled. But before we get there,” he says, “there is a baptism that I must undergo.” Well, I’ve already seen in Luke’s Gospel that Jesus was baptized in the Jordan.[15] He came to John. It confused John a little. He said that it was imperative that he did so—Matthew says in order that he might “fulfill all righteousness,”[16] teaching us at least this: that in his baptism in the Jordan, Jesus was expressing his resolution to do his Father’s will. Now, in prospect of his death upon the cross, we find the consummation of the embracing of that will.

Some of the people listening would be beginning to put the pieces together in the jigsaw puzzle. It was a strange thing that he who is the Messiah should be baptized. After all, John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance, and Christ had no sin of which to repent. What was he doing? Well, he was identifying himself with sinners in their place, and he was embracing the will of the Father. And what was faintly portrayed in the Jordan was then graphically unleashed in his death. If you like, in his baptism in the Jordan, his ministry was inaugurated. And in a baptism of blood upon Calvary, his ministry was crowned.

And that is why when we read the Gospels, we discover that the shadow of the cross hung over the life and ministry of Jesus like a permanent Gethsemane. You find this particularly in the Gospel of John, where you have this frequent reference to “the time” or to “the hour.” It comes, I think, from memory, first in the wedding at Cana of Galilee, when they run out of wine, and his mother comes to him and says, “You know, Jesus, I wonder if you could do something here, because we’ve run into a problem, and they are now in dire straits in relationship to their guests.” And Jesus responds, “Dear woman, why do you involve me? My time has not yet come.”[17] The people want to say, “What does he mean his time has not yet come?” And somewhere in the heart of Jesus was the awareness of the fact that these people were so concerned about whether they had enough wine to drink, as it were, at the end of the wedding ceremony, and he longed that they might be filled with the wine of his Spirit; and that this was just a bump on a log in relationship to his express purpose.

We cannot understand who Jesus is and why he came, nor wrestle with the implication of his words—striking as they are—until we see it in terms of this. John 12:27, just to give you one verse to hang this on: “Now my heart is troubled,” he says, “and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour.” And the people who want to suggest to us that Jesus is here simply to show us a way of life, simply to give us some good ideas about loving our neighbor and trying to be nice people, have just never wrestled with the claims of Christ at all. “My heart is troubled,” he says, John 12. Look at what he says here: “I have a baptism to undergo, and how distressed I am until it is completed!”

Every so often, I go into shops. I don’t know which ones they are, I don’t know who keeps them, but I see Buddha sitting in that lotus position with his little fat belly and his eyes closed and grinning. It is a quite obnoxious sight to me. And while the Buddha sits in the lotus position with his eyes closed and grinning, Christ hangs upon the cross, eyes open and groaning. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”[18] Do you think the answer is “I’ve forsaken you so that people on the east side of Cleveland may be happy and self-fulfilled, may be able to go about their days without facing illness, without facing disappointment and heartache”—in order that they might just be a little add-to-them in their lives, something that they can add, just in the way that you can click on America Online Super or whatever it is, and this’ll make it go faster or a little better or a little stronger? But really, it’s an irrelevancy. It’s just another mechanism to waste your time.

And when the gospel is portrayed in that way, then it is no surprise to me that people say to me, “No, I have no interest in adding Jesus to the sum total of my happiness.” Nor have I. But when a man or a woman is confronted by their sin and understands that on the cross Jesus bore that sin, then it changes everything. The hymn writer says,

My sin, oh, the bliss of [that] glorious thought!
My sin, not in part, but the whole,
Is nailed to [his] cross, and I bear it no more.[19]

Now, let me give you just one other reference before I move to our final point. Mark 10:38: Jesus is with James and John, the sons of Zebedee, and they say to him, “[Jesus,] we want you to do for us whatever we ask.”[20] It’s the kind of things that parents are on the receiving end of from their children. “I want you to make me a promise,” say the kids in the back of the car. “We want you to agree that you’re going to promise to do whatever it is we ask you before we ask you what it is.” Every sensible parent over time recognizes this is a dangerous position to find yourself in and therefore drive with care and also answer with care.

“We want you to do whatever we ask.” Jesus said, “What do you want me to do for you?”[21] Mark 10:37: they said, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in … glory.” Jesus said, “You don’t know what you[’re] asking.” They would have said, “Oh, yes, we do! We want to sit on your right and on your left! When you wrap the whole thing up, we want to be up there! We want to be in a really great position, you know. We don’t want to be at the inauguration, you know, seventeen hundred rows back. We want to be right there at the event. We want to be on the right and on the left, right beside you.” Jesus says, “You don’t know what you[’re] asking …. Can you drink the cup I drink or … the baptism I am baptized with?”[22] And then he actually says to them, “You know, you will drink the cup, and you will be baptized with the baptism.”[23] The distinction would be that the suffering of the disciples would not be an atoning sacrifice, but it would be a real sacrifice.

The sufferings of Jesus were dreadful. He was mocked. He was scourged. He was crucified. So why is it that we feel duty bound to present Christianity to our friends and neighbors as such a slaphappy, slovenly, self-interested affair? We do them a great disservice, don’t we?

A Division to Be Faced

“There’s a fire,” he says, “and I wish that it were already kindled. There is a baptism that I have to undergo.” And finally, and in light of what he’s said, there is a division that will inevitably come: “Do you think I came to bring peace on earth?” “Wait a minute, now, before you answer,” he says: “No, I tell you, but division.” “From now on,” he says, “you’re going to discover that the impact of following me will divide you even at the places of your most tender filial enjoyments.”

Nobody could ever accuse Jesus of gilding the lily. No one is ever going to be able to say to Jesus, “We never expected that the price of following you would be so high.” Jesus speaks in such a way so as to ensure that his followers will never live in a fool’s paradise. Jesus makes no wild, no delusive promises—not only here but everywhere. “Foxes have holes and birds have nests,” he said to the person who says, “We want to leave everything and follow you.”[24] He says, “Well, you know, a fox would be better off and a bird would be better off than I am. You might want to think of that before you come.” In Matthew chapter 10—and I do want to just underpin this by giving to you one or two verses this morning, perhaps more than usual—but Matthew 10:38–39, in a parallel passage to this, where he says, “Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.”[25]

These are staggering statements, are they not? Do we not love our children passionately? Isn’t it one of the benefits and blessings of Christian understanding to be concerned about these filial arrangements? And does not Jesus underscore that in his instruction “Honor your father and mother, that your days may be long upon the land”?[26] Would he not reinforce the words of Solomon concerning the nature of that which brings blessing and encouragement to our parents and the guidance and instruction of our children?[27] Well, clearly he’s not turning that instruction on his head when he says, “I want you to understand something.” Then he drives it in, verse 38: “And anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” And “whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”

Here is a great point of contact with your friend or neighbor who says to you, “You know, I’ve decided that in 2001, I’m going to find myself!” “Oh,” you say, “well, I’m delighted to hear that. Because Jesus had something to say about finding yourself.” “Oh!” says the person. “How does it go?” Then you will turn them to Matthew chapter 10, and you will point it out. And this is what you will say to them: “Because we were made for God and for his glory, the pursuit of myself and my self-interest and my self-fulfillment and my selfish agendas is death-dealing. And for the same reason, when self-interest dies for Jesus’ sake and is replaced by an enthusiastic loyalty for Christ, then I discover that to be life-giving.”

So there is an amazing irony in this, isn’t it? “Well, I want to find myself.” Then lose yourself! If you lose your life in Christ, you will discover why you exist. If you continue to try and discover why you exist, absent a consideration of who Jesus is and what he came to do, then you will discover that all of your desires for self-fulfillment will lead only to eternal death. And that’s where some of you are this morning. Because your interest in coming to church is largely self-interest. You’ve said to yourself, “You know, I think I need a little faith in my life. I think I need a little structure. I think I need a little religion, whatever it might be. Oh, nothing that will radically change me. Nothing that will alter me constitutionally. Just something that I can keep in my glove box to refer to when I need it. It can be just a little secret, just between me and you.” No, it can’t.

Now, I suggest to you that it is only by viewing the words of Jesus in these life-and-death terms that we can begin to grasp their import and their impact. “Do you think I came to bring peace?” he says. “No, I tell you, but division.” Well, any thoughtful person says, “But after all, is he not the fulfillment of Isaiah 9 and the Prince of Peace?”[28] Yes, he is. “Did the angels at his coming not declare, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace [amongst] men [up]on whom his favor rests’?”[29] Yes, they did. “Is it, then, moving to a great consummation when these peaceful experiences will be discovered and displayed?” Yes. “When there is a new heaven and a new earth[30] and the lion lies down with the lamb?”[31] But in the meantime, the message of Jesus divides. The message of the cross leaves neutrality as not being an option.

Jesus here is not declaring that his primary objective was to bring division within families. What he is making clear is that one of the effects of the gospel is just this: that when a man or a woman is truly converted, then it will radically alter everything about them, including their relationships.

Now, I say to you, and I use my words very pointedly and guardedly: when a man or a woman is truly converted, it will change everything. If a man or a woman merely embraces religion, merely expresses an interest in Jesus, merely takes up a theological course of study or decides that they’re going to get a little religion in their lives, then they may live happily with everybody. But if they are converted, if they are turned by Jesus upside down—which, since we live upside down, is to be turned the right way up—then we will suddenly be walking in a way that is completely different to everyone who remains unconverted. Because the Bible says that we are living our lives upside down. Conversion to Christ is to turn us this way up. Now, if my mother’s head is down here and my head is up here, or my husband’s head is down here and I as the wife are up here, then it is impossible for us to say, you know, “Well, we’re all on the same sheet. We’re all going the same direction. It’s just that I like to go along for an hour on a Sunday, you know. And don’t worry about it at all. I know you like to go to exercise or whatever else it is, but after all, the things that unite us, you know, are far more significant than the things that divide us.” I hope you have never said that as a Christian to your unbelieving spouse or to your unbelieving daughter or son, because it isn’t true! The things that divide for all of eternity are the most crucial issues. And that is why the urgent longing of the true believer is to see their friends and family members converted—turned the right way up.

Jesus says, “I’m going to tell you something: when my message goes forth clearly, when this fire as it begins to kindle, when the message of this baptism that I undergo suddenly breaks out for men and women to consider, then the core of a life, the direction of that life, the value of the life, the focus of the life will inevitably clash from the society from which that life has emerged.”

If you lose your life in Christ, you will discover why you exist.

In the Old Testament, again, I just give you one more reference in Micah. Daniel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Jonah, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah. I said that so I could find it myself. Micah 7:6:

For a son dishonors his father,
 [and] a daughter rises up against her mother,
a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—
 [and] a man’s enemies are the members of his own household.

Clearly, Jesus has this in mind as he speaks now. And the Jewish people amongst the congregation would have said to themselves, “I think that’s one of the prophets he’s quoting. He’s making a reference there to that mention back there in Micah 7. Isn’t that what we read at the synagogue?” And Jesus is saying, “That’s exactly what you read.”

Now, you will notice, carefully, will you not, that the point is not that those who become the disciples of Jesus turn against their family members. That’s what happens in the cults. That’s what happens if your son or daughter gets involved in a cult. If they get involved in a cult, then you will find that they’re not going to call you. You’re not going to hear from them. They’re not going to give you their telephone number. They’re not going to give you their address. Why? Because the cult says, “We’ve got you now, and you must turn your back on your family members.” Christianity doesn’t say that. Jesus is not saying that the converted person will now turn in a spirit of animosity to those who remain unconverted, but he says that the unconverted people will naturally find themselves challenged by the change that is brought about in the converted person’s life.

And so the family members turn against us. It may not be in a dramatic way. It may be in simple ways. And some of you are here this morning, and you’ve told me these things. Your family members say to you, “I really… I don’t know what’s wrong with you. We brought you up in good Christian ways, but what you’re doing now is ridiculous.” A fanatic is always someone who loves Jesus more than me. “You know, we brought you up. You went to church. I don’t know what you’re on about with this ‘converted’ thing! If you would just let go of that and settle things down for our family, Thanksgiving would be a far happier occasion. Our Christmas party would go a lot better.” To which you have to reply, “Mom, I never mentioned it.”

What is it? It is the offense of the gospel. It is the awareness in the heart and mind of the unconverted that they are the wrong way round and that you have been turned the right way up. “We’ve always done this as a family. Why are you being so difficult? You seem to be suggesting that somehow, we are not Christians, and you are.”

And your mind should shoot to Pilgrim’s Progress, as the word comes to him in the reading of the book, and as his wife and his family shout after him, “Ho now, Pilgrim! Don’t you go running off there with that burden on your back. Don’t you go! Stay with us! After all, you’re the dad! You’re the father! You’re the protector! You’re the provider! We need you!” And Bunyan pictures him with his fingers in his ears, running away from his family, having urged upon them the necessity of them fleeing from the City of Destruction to the place where their burdens will be removed. And they said, “No!” And then he said, “Well, if you say no, I must go on. ‘I have decided to follow Jesus, no turning back. Though no one join me, still I will follow.’[32] Despite that in my ears I hear those same taunts, those same barbs, those same criticisms, those same accusations.”[33]

Yesterday (and it often happens this way)—two days ago, sorry—in the course of trying to find a telephone number in what I thought was England but turned out to be Scotland, I phoned one person. I asked them, “Please get a telephone directory and look up this person’s name.” And then I phoned up that person, and then I asked them about the other person. It was cheaper than using AT&T. It almost inevitably is. And frankly, flying across the Atlantic would be cheaper on a number of occasions.

But when I finally got on to this person (and I was looking for another person; I was calling to the home of a couple), the gentleman, whom I had never met, answered the phone. I identified myself; he didn’t seem impressed. I put it down to the fact that he was just a gruff Scotsman, and I’m sure he’s a very nice man. Later in the day, yesterday, when I spoke to the individual with whom I was trying to get in contact, he said to me—quite unrelated to what had happened to me on the phone—he said, “You know, the lady whom you called is a believer. Her husband is not. He detests her belief in Jesus. He despises every converted member of the family circle. She is unable to have anything take place within the home that is remotely related to her faith in Jesus Christ. And if she wishes to spend time with other believing family members, he has mandated that it must take place either in the other family members’ camp or in neutral territory, but it will not, dare not, take place within their home.”

And then my friend said to me—and he didn’t know that I’m studying Luke chapter 12—he said to me, “You know, it is a mystery to me, except it is only explicable by God’s goodness, that she is able to maintain not only her faith in Christ but such a joyful disposition in the face of such animosity.” “From now on… Let me tell you.”

Now let me wrap this up by pointing out to you that theologically—and it is only theologically that you can make sense of this… Ephesians 5:8, Paul says to the Ephesian believers, he says, “You were once darkness, but now you[’re] light in the Lord.” So for those of us who have lived in darkness, which by nature we do, who have lived in the maze of our unregenerate experience, and by God’s grace we have discovered at the cross an exit from the maze, we turn back and look only to find that our family members are still in darkness and still in the maze. We discover at the same time that Jesus demands careful obedience, costly loyalty, and not everyone is prepared to pay that price, and certainly not everyone is prepared to accept those who do pay the price. The Bible says that all mankind is in the grip of Satan and sin, and therefore, those who do not accept Christ as their personal Redeemer and thus become liberated will continue to live in hostility towards Jesus and in hostility towards those who follow Jesus. And anyone who doubts this just hasn’t considered the history of the last twenty centuries.

The Basis of Unity

Well, let me conclude. Some of you might be saying, “Well, thank you for sharing this this morning, Alistair, but I want you to know there is no division in our family at all. So glad we’re not in verses 52 and 53 here of Luke chapter 12.” Can I ask you a question? What is the basis of your unity as a family? Is it the result of your being all one in Christ Jesus? Or is it the result of your being all one in sin? Is it the peace of believing, or is it the peace of indifference? Is it that all of you as family members are converted or all of you as family members are unconverted? There is no greater sadness, I suggest to you, than to find a whole family with the name of Christian and yet spiritually unable to identify the saving blessings that are available in Christ and, in actual fact, to be no better than heathens at all. So they say to themselves, “Well, you know, we’re not divided like that!” I ask you again: Is the reason for the absence of your division because you are all converted or because you’re all unconverted? For those are the only two options for an undivided family: either united in Christ or united out of Christ. But once in Christ, the cross brings division.

Think: that the single circumstance that none of you have ever suspected that you might be wrong in this is actually there to convince you that you’re all wrong and to say to you as a family this morning, “You’d better go out and talk about this. You’d better go out for lunch and face the fact that we’re all unconverted.” “That’s the reason we all get on so well with one another. Because none of us are in Christ!” And then you’d better seek the Lord while he may be found.[34]

And if you are unconverted in a family that believes, can I say to you: I don’t think that you ought to seek their injury. Realize this: that your family’s fondest desire for you is your everlasting happiness. So instead of fighting them and carping with them and abusing them, why not follow them as they seek to lead you to Jesus? You silly teenager, listen to me! Your parents long for your eternal security and safety and transformation! Do you want to fight them all the way? Why not follow them on their journey? Why not seek Christ?

And for those of you who are on the receiving end of the jeers and the criticism and the allegations, don’t let anyone persuade you that faithfulness to Christ is somehow inconsistent with the affection that is due to your family. For what better proof can you give to your family that you love them and care for them as to live in such a fashion so as to introduce them to he who is the Prince of Peace? So I say to those of you who are struggling, and husbands with spouses, and wives, spouses, and parents with children, and so on: let us then endeavor to be prayerful and to be faithful and not to despair of winning over our friends and family who are yet holding out against Christ.

And finally, how unbelievably happy and blessed are the family members who, by God’s grace, have been brought together to live in the experience of forgiveness and peace and joy and hope that is found in Christ!

How marvelous! How wonderful!
And [our] song shall ever be:
How marvelous! How wonderful!
Is my Savior’s love for me![35]

[1] See Hebrews 1:1–2.

[2] James S. Stewart, Heralds of God (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1946), 210.

[3] G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (New York: John Lane, 1908), 55–56.

[4] Titus 1:9 (paraphrased).

[5] G. K. Chesterton, Autobiography (London: Hutchison, 1936), 223–24.

[6] See Allan Blook, The Closing of the American Mind (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988).

[7] John 8:59; 10:31 (NIV 1984).

[8] Luke 3:7 (NIV 1984).

[9] See Acts 2:1–4.

[10] See Revelation 20:14–15.

[11] Psalm 1:4–5 (paraphrased).

[12] See Hebrews 10:5.

[13] 1 Peter 4:12 (KJV).

[14] See Roy Hession and Revel Hession, The Calvary Road (Manila: Christian Literature Crusade, 1950).

[15] See Luke 3:21–22.

[16] Matthew 3:15 (NIV 1984).

[17] John 2:3–4 (paraphrased).

[18] Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34 (NIV 1984). See also Psalm 22:1.

[19] Horatio Gates Spafford, “It Is Well with My Soul” (1873).

[20] Mark 10:35 (NIV 1984).

[21] Mark 10:36 (NIV 1984).

[22] Mark 10:38 (NIV 1984).

[23] Mark 10:39 (paraphrased).

[24] Matthew 8:19–20; Luke 9:57–58 (paraphrased).

[25] Matthew 10:37 (NIV 1984).

[26] Exodus 20:12 (paraphrased).

[27] See Proverbs 10:1; 13:1; 20:20.

[28] See Isaiah 9:6.

[29] Luke 2:14 (NIV 1984).

[30] See Revelation 21:1–4.

[31] See Isaiah 11:6.

[32] “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus.” Lyrics lightly altered.

[33] John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678). Paraphrased.

[34] See Isaiah 55:6.

[35] Charles H. Gabriel, “My Savior’s Love” (1905).

Copyright © 2024, 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.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.