“I have come to cast fire upon 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 accomplished! Do you suppose that I came to grant peace on earth? I tell you, no, but rather division; for from now on five members in one household will be 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 daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” (Luke 12:49-53 NASB-U)
One type of biblical criticism that makes traditional church-goers uneasy is “redaction criticism”. Redaction criticism looks at Scripture, or a passage of Scripture, as a collection of smaller pieces “redacted” or edited together to make a greater whole. The gospels are a common place to use this type of criticism. I tend to use this sort of criticism to a point, and don’t suffer any contradiction in my sense of inspiration or validity of Scripture.
One of the big reasons I use this critical method (or some of it) is because of the different ways the gospels seem to juxtapose sayings of Jesus. Luke and Matthew will have something He said in a different place than Mark, or a completely different place and context from each other. It looks as if all three of them used material that was essentially a collection of things Jesus said or did, and they made a story out of it. It’s probably more true that the bones of the story were there in a slightly different form for all four, but they tied in the sayings in different places. In any case, all four are very different, even when they have the same saying.
One of the many benefits I derive from this method that makes the risks involved worth it has to do with passages like the end of Luke 12 (49-59). These things Jesus says really seem very disconnected, are in a different place/context from the same saying in Matthew or Mark (when they actually have this saying), and seem to have little to do on the surface with each other. The whole “Fire”-“Baptism”-“Division” elements for instance, what’s the the connection again? I’m assuming that “fire” has to do with strife or battle or at least tension. “Baptism” I believe for Jesus refers to His crucifixion and resurrection. And “division” obviously has to do with family problems (arguments?) within the closest relational structures in the Near East. So what’s the connection between strife/warfare and Jesus’ crucifixion and family discord?
A couple of details that I find interesting, but may be of no value in understanding here: 1) the family description has to do with father/mothers and their children and/or in-laws. 2) Five total, 3 versus 2, 2 versus 3, is an odd pairing; it’s unfair or lopsided one way or the other and is different in order and make up than 2 parents and 3 children. 3) Jesus will “cast” or throw fire on the earth. Considering the context, could this be His eventual return to complete history? It sounds a bit like Revelation’s description. And 4) the fire and possibly division happens after the baptism (crucifixion/resurrection), or at least the fire does.
Those details may not become important, but each of the three elements, fire, baptism, and division, each have at least one wonky detail. It’s as if Luke took a few sayings of Jesus and put them together in a way that makes little sense to readers today. It may have made sense to Luke’s audience then, churches in Asia Minor and Europe, but today the meaning is difficult to grasp. Or maybe what Jesus said was just difficult, and Luke preserved the difficulty (see why I like this method?).
But what’s the meaning and connection of these elements? How are Jesus’ baptism, fire He is to cast, and division in households He causes all connected? I don’t know for sure, but here’s my theory: Jesus knows that the disruption He has already caused among the Jews, both the people in general and the leadership particularly, will continue on after His resurrection, and even increase. He knows persecution is coming on His followers. He knows that this persecution will divide households. He knows that this message of His salvation work for all people will spread like fire, but like fire, leave massive destruction in its wake. But also like fire, this destruction may be exactly what the “forest” (or family) needs to be reborn and stronger.
If fire is a destructive force, it is also a very necessary force in nature. Many plants don’t even survive or thrive until after a fire. On the other hand, the longer it takes for a fire to sweep through an area the worse the destruction. While somethings thrive, some never recover. Things die and other things come to life. The forest as a whole though is often more healthy. If the “forest” or “prairie” in this case is a family, then the application is perhaps more easily understood. What Jesus is saying is that the effect of His baptism may cause strife, but it’s still good. Just because it causes family strife doesn’t negate the life-giving effects of the salvation itself.
But also keep in mind along with this statement of Jesus, very often entire households were converted and baptized at the same time. It just depended on the family. Cornelius and the Philippian Jailer both were responsible for leading their entire households to follow them in following Jesus. So Jesus’ baptism can lead to family discord, but doesn’t necessarily. When fire does come, trust that the family will be healthier after the fire; while some may die, some will survive; a much better outcome than the entire family dying. Kind of a harsh view point though, especially in a culture where we want everyone to survive.
Well, that’s my viewpoint. What does the Holy Spirit reveal to you from this passage of dividing fiery baptism?