Presented at Trinity Fellowship on 05/28/95
Luke 12:49 "I have come to cast fire upon the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! 50 But I have a baptism to undergo, and how distressed I am until it is accomplished. 51 Do you suppose that I came to grant peace on the earth? I tell you no, but rather division. 52 For from now on five members in one household will be 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 daughter in law and daughter and law against mother in law." 54 And he was also saying to the multitudes, "When you see a cloud rising in the west, immediately you say, 'A shower is coming.' and so it turns out. 55 And when you see a south wind blowing you say, 'It will be a hot day,' and it turns out that way. 56 You hypocrites! You know how to analyze the appearance of the earth and the sky, but why do you not analyze this present time? 57 And why do you not even on your own initiative judge what is right? 58 For while you are going with your opponent to appear before the magistrate, on your way there make an effort to settle with him, in order that he may not drag you before the judge, and the judge turn you over to the constable, and the constable throw you into prison. 59 I say to you, you shall not get out of there until you have paid the very last cent."
Every Fall we are subjected on the 6:00 News to predictions of the harshness or mildness of the coming winter based on the bunions of the weather prophet, the chirping of crickets, or the thickness of the fuzz on wooly worms. Unfortunately, by the time winter actually arrives, we have had just enough time to forget what the predictions were, which prevents us from checking their accuracy. But Jesus tells us that there are some signs of the times that we had better pay attention to, because they are accurate and what they predict is upon us.
To understand what Jesus is saying here, we must remind ourselves of what he has just been saying, as we saw last week. He is clearly talking about the day of judgment, when the master of the slaves (himself) returns unexpected and rewards them for their faithfulness or lack of it. He concludes that section with a warning to the slaves who have not kept themselves ready: those who knew the master's will and did not do it will receive many stripes; those who sinned from ignorance but a few. In this context, the statement about casting fire on the earth is doubtless a continuation of the same discussion. These are not revival fires or the tongues of fire associated with the coming of the Holy Spirit but the fires of judgment, flowing from a strong strand of Old Testament imagery. "Therefore the Lord heard and was full of wrath, and a fire was kindled against Jacob and anger mounted also against Israel because they did not believe in God and did not trust in his salvation" (Ps. 778:21-22). "Seek the Lord that you may live, lest he break forth like a fire, oh house of Joseph, and it consume with none to quench it" (Amos 5:6). "Who can stand before his indignation? Who can endure the burning of his anger? His wrath is poured out like fire, and the rocks are broken up by him" (Nahum 1:6). "For all the earth will be devoured by the fire of my zeal" (Zeph. 3:8). "But who can endure the day of his coming? And who can stand when he appears? for he is like a refiner's fire" (Mal. 3:2). It is a strand of imagery picked up also by the New Testament. Peter was no doubt thinking of the Lord's words here when he said that "the present heavens and earth are by his Word being reserved for fire, kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men" (2 Pet. 3:7). And the Lord's audience would have remembered the fiery rhetoric of John the Baptist, who had predicted that the greater One who was coming would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. John made it clear that these were two alternative baptisms, for he immediately explains that the Lord's winnowing fork is in his hand, to separate the wheat for the barn but reserve the chaff for unquenchable fire (Luke 3:16-17). The wheat are those whom the Holy Spirit has called to faith and regenerated, and the barn is heaven. The chaff then are the wicked, and the fire is eternal punishment. So it seems plain that when Jesus speaks of casting fire on the earth he is anticipating the Day of Judgment.
But wait a minute. Jesus seems to be looking forward to casting this fire! He wishes it was already kindled. How can this be, when the Lord takes no pleasure in the death of the sinner? Well, truly he would prefer that they repent. But we are confronted here with the less comfortable fact that God is just as much just and righteous as he is merciful and gracious. Less comfortable, I say, but equally important, and indeed bracing in its own way if we can grasp it aright. God's justice is a good thing. It is not our favorite of his attributes--Grace, for certain very personal reasons having to do with our own need, will always be that. But it is a positive good nonetheless, and a necessary one. It is good that sin will one day be dealt with in such a fashion that it can no longer function, no longer harm people or damage and defile the universe. That is something which not only the Lord but we too should be properly looking forward to! It is due to human recalcitrance, human stubbornness and rebellion and unbelief, that this happy day will also involve a certain, shall we say, unpleasantness for the unrepentant. That is a sobering reality. It is the most grievous thing we know, and we should never make light of it. But if we let it keep us from looking forward to the establishment of God's righteous reign, it would be tantamount to giving Sin and Satan--and sinners--the right to highjack the universe and hold it eternally for ransom. Well, that is just what they want to do! But fortunately, the Ransom has been paid, and therefore anyone who really wants to can be in the barn instead of the trash fire. The point is, as we saw last week, that the fire is coming. The very arrival of Christ on the planet the first time brings it nearer. And the Son of Man will come at an hour that we think not.
I cannot resist thinking that there is a second, and perhaps even more profound reason why the Lord is anxious to get this fire started. What he is really looking forward to is the Marriage Supper of the Lamb. He tells us in the most personal of his discourses, the great high priestly prayer of John 17, that he longs to have the people that the Father gave him before the foundation of the earth with him where he is, so that they may behold his glory and be one with him and with each other. Well, that is the final consummation of all things. And the judgment is something that has to come first. I think the Lord wants this fire kindled because he wants to get it over with, so he can get it out of the way and get to his Bride! It is the last bit of work to be done, and then comes the Sabbath rest when we glorify him by enjoying him forever. No wonder he says, "how I wish it were already kindled!"
Fortunately for those who are not yet repentant, it is not kindled--yet. But it will be, and there are certain signs that it is getting closer. That is the point of this passage. Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand! You can tell when a storm is coming, but you can't see this? You hypocrites! The forecast has been made. The clouds are already gathering on the horizon! So bring in the potted plants, board up the windows, get ready! The storm is coming. In this context, the parable of the magistrate (vs. 58-59) is not in this passage primarily about reconciliation with your brother. Your "opponent" is the Law, which accuses you of capital crimes; the magistrate is God, the constable is Satan, and the prison is Hell. So the point is, wake up! The forecast has been given, the clouds are gathering, and you are already on your way to appear before the judge. The urgency in the uncertain time of the Lord's return is a motivation for the believer to be faithful at his post, as we saw last week. It is also a motivation for the sinner to repent now, before it is too late. That is the focus of the Lord's words that are before us today.
With the improving technologies of Doppler radar, hurricane chasers, and satellite imagery, meteorologists are more reliable than they used to be, but weather forecasting is still an inexact science. If the coming winter is a normal one for Northeast Georgia, I can tell you a couple of things with little fear of contradiction. First, we will probably get about two snowfalls that actually "stick" on the ground; second, neither of them will happen on a night in which they were predicted. When I was living in Chicago, the weather persons failed to predict a devastating late spring snow storm that hit right after studded snow tires had to be off the cars and thus paralyzed even that snow-hardened city. They were so embarrassed by this failure that for at least the next two years (after that I escaped back to Georgia and lost track, thank God!) they consistently overestimated every snowfall by about fifty percent lest they leave people unprepared again. It was laughably obvious that subjective factors like covering their own posteriors were trumping the science of meteorology in their predictions. We can all tell similar stories. But we still listen to the Weather Channel because their guess is in fact the best one available. And even without them we can tell some things. Hmm, south wind? Hot day (vs. 54-55).
By contrast, Jesus has given us signs of the approach of this storm that are absolutely infallible. Wait, didn't I just say last week that we could not predict the day or the hour? I'm glad you remember! They are infallibly designed not to tell us that, but to give us instead a trustworthy sense that the event is imminent and coming ever closer. The biggest sign of all is, as we have already indicated, the First Coming itself. Another list of phenomena whose increasing presence is a reminder that the end is drawing near is found in Matthew 24:3-14. They include false Christs (vs. 5). My experiences in Uganda training national pastors in the 21st century have reminded me that cults are multiplying faster than we can keep up with them. Wars and rumors of wars are mentioned in vs. 6-8. I won't bore you by reciting the current catalog of conflicts, which changes every year. Persecution of believers will escalate in vs. 9. In many parts of the world today it is more dangerous to be a Christian than it has been since the Roman persecutions ended with Constantine. As for the coldness of believers in vs. 13, just compare our churches to the ones in those persecuted countries.
Now, none of this is very specific to our time; it is a description of the world at most times. it is hard to tell if these things are really on the increase or if we are just more aware of them because of better media coverage. But the last sign is different: "And this Gospel of the Kingdom shall be preached in the whole world for a witness to all the nations, and then the end shall come" (Mat. 24:14). We live in the first generation of which it can be said that this prophecy is being fulfilled. There is now no nation without at least some Christian witness, though there are still "people groups" who are effectively unreached. Does that mean the Lord will come back in our generation? How should I know? The point is that it means that he could. And when you see such a momentous thing happening in your very own day, the implication of these Scriptures is, "What more do you need?" It is too late to come in out of the rain after you are already drenched! The storm clouds are gathering, and the rumble of thunder can be heard in the distance. To pretend that we have not been warned is arrant hypocrisy. Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!
What the Lord is doing here is really explicating the urgency implicit in his favorite way of presenting the Gospel: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!" It is urgent for all the reasons we have been seeing for two weeks now. "While you are going with your opponent to appear before the magistrate, on your way there make an effort to settle with him, in order that he may not drag you before the judge, and the judge turn you over to the constable, and the constable throw you into prison." In other words, now is the accepted time. If you have never committed your life to Christ, if you have never admitted to him that you are a sinner and cast yourself on his mercy and asked him to forgive you and save you, if you have never confessed with your mouth Jesus as Lord and believed in your heart that God raised him from the dead, what are you waiting for? Don't let anything hold you back! It is that serious.
The forecast has been made. The signs are clear. The fires of judgment are coming. Will they refine you or destroy you? The difference is the blood of Christ shed for sin. Have you accepted him? The forecast has been given, the signs are clear, the sky is dark, the clouds are gathering, and the thunder is rumbling. No one will be able to stand in that storm; there is shelter only under the blood of Christ. Have you come in? Will you come in? The forecast has been given, the signs are clear, the sky is dark, the clouds are gathering, and the thunder is rumbling. Therefore, choose ye this day whom ye will serve! For me and my house, we will serve the Lord.
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams