Preached by Jason Abbott
In the Old Testament, as Israel is just beginning to enter the promised land, Joshua meets an angel he believes is a man. The angel is holding a drawn sword. Surprised, Joshua asks whether this visitor is on his side or on his enemies’ side. The angel responds abruptly—Neither! And, the angel’s terse response puts things in proper perspective; doesn’t it? This angel doesn’t identify himself with Joshua, nor does he identify himself with Joshua’s enemies. Instead, he identifies himself with the Lord. The Lord alone is in whom his allegiance resides.
In short, your disposition towards God determines if this angelic warrior is for you or against you. Choosing sides matters!
In today’s text, Jesus is going to make this point clear. Let’s see how.
49 “I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled! 50 I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished! 51 Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. 52 For from now on in one house there will be five divided, three against two and two against three. 53 They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
54 He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you say at once, ‘A shower is coming.’ And so it happens. 55 And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat,’ and it happens. 56 You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?
57 “And why do you not judge for yourselves what is right? 58 As you go with your accuser before the magistrate, make an effort to settle with him on the way, lest he drag you to the judge, and the judge hand you over to the officer, and the officer put you in prison. 59 I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the very last penny.”
As we dig into this passage, we’ll look at three things: (1st) Jesus’ baptism, (2nd) God’s judgment, and (3rd) our problem.
1. Jesus’ Baptism (vv. 49-53)
When we think of baptism, we often think of a church, salvation celebration: someone places his or her faith in Jesus then demonstrates that faith through the act of baptism. We might think of a sunny day or a clear lake or food and fellowship. But, we don’t usually think of God’s wrath. For Jesus’ original audience, however, baptism (or immersion in water) and God’s wrath were often closely associated. Just consider these verses from the Old Testament:
Deep calls to deep / at the roar of your waterfalls; / all your breakers and your waves / have gone over me (Psalm 42:7).
I sink in deep mire, / where there is no foothold; / I have come into deep waters, / and the flood sweeps over me (Psalm 69:2).
[The Lord’s] breath is like an overflowing stream / that reaches up to the neck; / to sift the nations with the sieve of destruction… (Isaiah 30:28).
Or, perhaps, the most iconic examples of the wrath of God being poured out on human sin and rebellion in the form of water are when God destroys the world in the time of Noah by the flood, or when he buries Pharaoh and his whole army under the Red Sea. So…we begin to see the connection between baptism and wrath for Jesus’ original audience.
And, we need to see it to understand what Jesus is saying here:
I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished (v. 50)!
Jesus isn’t talking about sunny days and clear lakes and food and fellowship, is he?! Instead, he’s speaking about the wrath of God being poured out upon him. He’s talking about his death. He’s speaking about his crucifixion. He’s in torment as he sees that day approaching! Can you imagine living your entire life, from birth to death, beneath the looming cloud of God’s wrath?
(Illustration: “Just wait till your father gets home…”)
Friends, I want you to know, Jesus lived his whole life under that dark cloud so that you wouldn’t have to. He walked toward Calvary, so you wouldn’t have to. Christ bore the wrath of God so that you wouldn’t have to. Trust him for all that! Trust that he’s drowned your sins at his baptism.
Well, if you do that, if you trust in Christ, he tells you what’s coming next. He tells you that your new allegiance to him will divide. Look at what Jesus says:
Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. For from now on in one house there will be five divided, 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 her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law (vv. 51-53).
Look, I don’t need to do a lot of work to illustrate the truth of this teaching from Jesus. Many of you have lived it and are living it. You begin to follow Christ, but your spouse doesn’t; and, it becomes a point of contention in your relationship. Or, you have close friends who can’t even begin to understand why you believe what you believe about Jesus, and even mock you for it. I know a young woman who became a believer in her teens, and, when she came home and told her parents that she wanted to go to church, they forbid her from doing so. Stories, like these, are common. So, consequently, Jesus tells us to expect these relationship divides when we follow him.
Well, let’s move on now to our second point. To do so, we’re going to jump down to the last few verses of the text and save the middle till the end.
2. God’s Judgement (vv. 57-59)
Jesus tells a little parable or little story to make a point about the importance of his person and work—to highlight the weight of what he’s teaching the crowds concerning the ultimate future of human history. Here’s the story:
As you go with your accuser before the magistrate, make an effort to settle with him on the way, lest he drag you to the judge, and the judge hand you over to the officer, and the officer put you in prison. I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the very last penny (vv. 58-59).
The point of the story is that what Jesus is about to do—his baptism work—is of eternal consequence. It’s the difference between judgment and justification, between prison and a full pardon. Again, we find that the person of Jesus divides. He’s that important! He’s important enough to follow, though it may mean division between us and our family and friends. And, Jesus is important enough to follow because it’s he who divides all who are commended from all who are condemned. What you do with Jesus is of ultimate consequence! He’s teaching the crowds here that they have to choose sides—either they’re with or against him. Judgment hangs in the balance!
Often times, we have a distaste in our culture for this kind of Bible teaching about judgement and punishment. Yet, in reality, it’s not judgment and punishment we have the problem with. Rather, it’s the standard for judgment and punishment which we don’t like. You see, we all want to set the standard—or play the judge—don’t we?! I like him; I don’t like her. She’s good; he’s bad. This is how we think. And, we also think we know who should get a pass and who should get punished. That guy drives like a jerk; I hope his car breaks-down. That lady opened the door for me; I hope she has a good day. Thus, we think we could mete out justice better than God.
Yet, here’s a problem. We didn’t create the world and determine its purpose. Only God did that. He created us to worship him and enjoy him for all eternity. 1 God’s purposes are unwavering. They’ll always be humanity’s goal and standard—because God doesn’t change his mind. I change my mind. You change your mind. Our purposes change. Our standards change. And, so, we’re not reliable as judges. But God is!
And, here’s another problem. We don’t see fully. We don’t see to the heart. We don’t glimpse true motivations. We don’t grasp hidden desires—not of others and not even of ourselves. The Bible, however, tells us clearly that God sees these. He knows what’s in a man. He knows what’s just and right. He knows the thoughts of our hearts. So, God tells the prophet Jeremiah:
I the LORD search the heart and test the mind, to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his deeds (Jeremiah 17:10).
Last summer, I watched the entire ten episodes of the Netflix documentary: Making a Murderer in about three days. It tells the story of a man, Steven Avery, who spent about two decades in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Spoiler alert: (if you’ve not seen it and want to, this is when you plug your ears) once he’s freed, Avery finds himself being tried and convicted for another crime and is currently appealing that conviction from a Wisconsin prison.
What’s clear—whether you think Avery is innocent or guilty—is that it’s not at all clear whether he is innocent or guilty. Our justice system (as good as it is!) has flaws and is messy…because it’s created and run by flawed and messy people. Even the most just judge is not a completely just judge. And, it is for these reasons that we should long for God’s coming reign—in which, all hearts will be revealed; and, a holy standard will be applied; and, perfect justice will be done. This is why at the end of the Bible, while looking to the future, we’re taught to cry out in hope: Come Lord Jesus! Come bring your kingdom justice!
Well, this brings us to the last point and the middle three verses of our text.
3. Our Problem (vv. 54-56)
Look at what Jesus says here:
When you see a cloud rising in the west, you say at once, ‘A shower is coming.’ And so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat,’ and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time (vv. 54-56)?
Let’s talk football for just a minute. If your team is losing a football game with the ball and under a minute left, do you want your quarterback to take a knee? (Answer: No!) If your team is winning a football game with under a minute to go, do you want your players to run out of bounds? (Answer: No!) Congratulations… you grasp how to interpret the present time of a football game.
For those of you who failed to answer those questions correctly, the answer to both of those questions is “No” because time’s running out. So, in scenario one, you use time wisely by slowing it down and, in scenario two, you use time wisely by speeding it up. But, note that in each case time directs your actions.
With the first coming of Jesus, the Bible tells us we’ve entered the last days. We’re at the two-minute warning. The clock’s ticking and how we choose to act is of vital importance. God’s offer of victory in Christ is before us. What will we do with that offer? What will we do with Christ? How are we going to live differently considering the present time—these last days?
This is where you brace yourself for the guilty moment, in which I tell you that you need to go door to door sharing the gospel with people all over the city—people you don’t even know; or, that you need to stop watching so much television and, instead, begin reading your Bible and praying during that time. And, for sure, sharing the gospel with the lost is important. And, we should spend time dwelling in God’s word and sharing our hearts in prayer with him. But, I want to conclude by challenging you in another direction—a more basic direction.
In his letter to the church at Philippi, Paul says this:
Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things (Philippians 4:4-8).
Friends, rejoice in God! Fall in love with the Lord Jesus! Give Christ thanks and praise and glory in all things! When you do that, when you find your chief joy and pleasure is the Triune God, you will naturally want to share him with people; you will desire to read his word and turn to him in prayer; and, you will gravitate toward what’s true and honorable and just and pure and lovely and commendable and excellent and worthy of praise.
Brothers and sisters, to live rightly in this present time—in these last days—is not to starve ourselves of joy but to feast upon it. It’s not to discard good things but to hug most firmly the greatest thing—the one true God. And, when we do this, we will live rightly in this present time. Amen.