We are still in a section of the gospel devoted to specimens of the Lord’s teaching. The Lord came to bring peace, but some things are more important than peace, or better, sometimes division and conflict are necessary finally to obtain true peace. This is the theme of this next short section.
v.50 Baptism is a New Testament word. In using it to describe his death as Jesus did on a number of occasions, he was echoing the use of the term in the preaching of John the Baptist. John spoke of the coming one who would baptize with fire; but Jesus brought God’s fiery judgment not first by imposing it on others but by undergoing it himself.
This rare glimpse into the mind of Jesus reveals a man who was both determined to fulfill his calling and anxious to be done with it, on the one hand, and, on the other, an agonizing and nervous reluctance in the expectation of how terrible it was going to be.
Put yourself in the shoes of the Lord’s disciples. Their hero was still commanding the stage. We don’t know at precisely what point in the ministry this teaching was delivered, but great crowds were still gathering and listening to him enthusiastically. They were riding the crest of a wave and could see nothing before them but triumph upon triumph. They were expecting nothing of what was actually to happen.
They had heard the Lord say that he would be killed in Jerusalem but, frankly, they didn’t believe him. So again and again the Lord found it necessary to disabuse his disciples of their overconfidence and their naïve optimism. Not only was he to die a violent death, but they would find that their loyalty to him would bring them into conflict with others, even within their own families. The Jews as a whole and the disciples among them did not expect that the Messiah would be the cause of division within the people of God any more than they expected that he would have to undergo a terrible death for their sakes. If asked, they would have said that the Messiah would heal the families of Israel, not divide them.
But here is the Lord saying that, once his great mediatorial work had been completed, his death for sin; once the gospel had set out on its course through the world, he would be the cause of unending conflict and contention. He uses the family here as a synecdoche, a part for the whole. If division would occur in families, among people who have the deepest natural loyalty to one another, you can be sure that it would be found in other relationships as well.
As we know, the Lord’s own family life foreshadowed this phenomenon. His own family had been divided over him. His mother held fast to him, though there was a certain amount of confusion even in her mind, but his brothers and sisters at first rejected his claim to be the Messiah and continued to do so until after his resurrection. And not only did they reject his claim to be the One sent from God, with a consistency of thought that few people demonstrate nowadays, they inferred that if he were not the Messiah, the Son of God, as he claimed, then he had to be mentally unhinged. Normal people do not make such preposterous claims about themselves.
And, of course, as we well know, the Lord’s prediction here has been vindicated many times over throughout the ages since. The Apostle Paul once said that for the sake of Christ he had suffered the loss of all things. It is hard to believe that in saying that he was not referring in some measure to a division in his own family, that he had been cut off by some of his loved ones who would neither follow him into the Christian faith nor forgive him for what they took to be his betrayal. And it has been the same throughout the ages. Christ compels a choice, a choice that, once made, others will not share or they will positively resent. In the very nature of the case, following Jesus Christ must be a controversial act, an act that leads to a conflict of loyalties, because he does not allow a half-hearted commitment to himself; a commitment to him is and must be all-consuming. To follow him in the nature of the case in certain circumstances must mean to abandon others.
The division arises from one of two things.
- First there is the great change that takes place in those who believe in Jesus and follow
Followers of Christ become different people, different in substantial ways from those who do not follow him. Their convictions change, their aspirations change, they measure things very differently now and that change in them provokes unending conflict with those who do not share their faith in Jesus and particularly with those who knew them before they became Christians.
Next Sunday is Reformation Sunday and that put me in mind of a sad story from the Reformation, a story that was repeated in one form or another many times in those days. Galeazzo Caraccioli was the nephew of Giovanni Petro Caraffa, who was first the head of the Roman inquisition — a tribunal charged with the discovery and punishment of heresy — and who later became Pope Paul IV. Caraccioli himself was a nobleman, a marquis, a member of one of the most prominent families of Naples. He was married to the daughter of a duke and also held an important position in the imperial court of Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor. He had before him a brilliant political career. He was as we would say nowadays a man going places.
But under the preaching of Peter Martyr Vermigli, the Italian Reformer, who preached the gospel in his native Italy for some time before he had to escape to find safe haven from the inquisition somewhere else in Europe, and a place where he might continue his preaching, writing, and study, as he eventually did in England, I say under Vermigli’s preaching Caraccioli became first curious, then interested, and finally a student of the writings of the Reformers. The Roman church’s persecution of suspected Protestants hardened him in his suspicion of Roman doctrine and soon he was a convert to the evangelical faith. Now he was in danger of the inquisition himself and fled to Geneva in June of 1551. He soon won the warm respect of John Calvin and became a citizen of the town. He resisted all efforts by his uncle and the rest of his family to persuade him to return to Italy precisely because they would have expected him and eventually required him to repudiate his new loyalty to Jesus Christ. His wife had refused to leave Italy with him even though, by all reports, they were an affectionate couple with great regard for one another. A meeting between them was finally arranged in 1558, but he was unable to persuade her to follow him with their nine children.
After this the Council of Elders in Geneva declared his marriage dissolved and in 1560 Caraccioli remarried. He became a highly respected figure in Geneva, an elder in the Italian church there, and an active humanitarian. Calvin dedicated his commentary on 2 Corinthians to him. [T.H.L. Parker, The History and Character of Calvinism, 184] Here was a man who found Christ and, consequently, lost everything else. He lost his wife, he lost his family, his extended family, he lost his nation, he lost his circle of friends, he lost his position, and he lost his future, at least his future as he had expected it to unfold. The changes in his loyalties and in his convictions were so profound that life could not continue for him as it had before. Loyalty to Jesus brought him into inevitable conflict with his loved ones, his church, and his nation. He was no longer the same person he had been and what he was now was not the individual they had known and loved before. But what he now was, what he now believed, his view of Jesus was now more important to him than anything else in his life: family, friends, even life itself. He couldn’t help taking the course he took, even if it meant the loss of his family, because he had to be faithful to Jesus Christ. And had not Christ himself taught that his disciples would have to give up wives and husbands and children and houses and fields for his sake? Perhaps in some sense the Lord was speaking metaphorically, but in some cases, as in Carracioli’s, it was and had to be literally true.
But it isn’t always the radical change in the Christian himself or herself that provokes the contention and the division.
- In the second place there is the hostility of those who do not and will not believe.
We know well enough that the Bible pulls no punches in describing the hostility of the unsaved mind to God and in warning believers that they would face that hostility precisely because they were associated with God. Sin is not just a negation, a refusal to do what is right or good, a refusal to accept the teaching of the Bible and submit to it. Sin is also a positive evil and a sinister and vicious spirit towards God.
We might have suspected otherwise. A Christian is taught to be faithful and kind, honest and loving toward others, sympathetic, respectful and the like. Even if one did not agree with the teachings of the Christian faith about the way of salvation, we might have thought that others would be glad to see people becoming Christians. Remember the remark made by some public figure someone a few years ago, I can’t remember who now, to the effect that if he were walking alone at night on a city street in some questionable part of town and saw several men coming out of a doorway, he might ordinarily be worried for his safety or that of his wallet. But, if he somehow had known that they were coming from a Bible study, his fears would immediately be put to rest. Men don’t come from a Bible study to assault others, to steal, or to kill.
Well, in the same way, we might think that unbelieving wives would be delighted to know that their husbands had come to faith in Christ because now they could count on them being faithful; they would know that, as Christians, they would have to aspire to love them as they believed Jesus Christ had loved his church. And vice versa. Husbands would know that they could count on their wives’ loyalty even if they remained the boorish dolts they had always been! Employers would be happy to have Christians in their employ because they could count on them not to steal, to work hard for their pay, to get along with their fellow workers, and so on. Parents might be distressed that their college-age children had become Christians through some campus ministry, but at least they would know that their children were now duty bound to respect them and that they would live highly moral lives. It’s what Christians do.
But, as a matter of fact, that is not the way people think, or at least very often not the way they think. That husbands or wives, parents or children, employers or employees become followers of Christ is very likely to offend and annoy those who do not. In fact, it is often the case that they would have been happy if they had become almost anything else except Christians. Let their college children become Democrats or Republicans, Buddhists, members of Green Peace or PETA and it would be unlikely to trouble parents nearly as much as their children becoming earnest and serious Christians.
There is an anti-God state of mind in the unbeliever. He or she won’t admit this, of course, but it is true. The sinful mind is hostile to God, as Paul put it. And James reminds us that friendship with the world — and that is what unbelievers are, friends of the world — is hatred of God. It is a point rarely made in Christian preaching any more, but it is fundamental to an understanding of human life, to understanding what is happening in our culture and in our society today. Sin does not merely distract men and women or make them disinterested in God, it makes them his enemies.
Think of Satan and his devils. They know the truth. They know who God is and what God is like. They have some sense of how the future will unfold. They know that men and women are being given eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ. They know their own rebellion has pitched them into a life of bitter misery. We might have supposed that, even though they couldn’t be saved themselves, they would be glad to see others delivered from their own miserable existence. After all, they are getting nothing but what they richly deserve. But they are not glad that God is merciful to others. They hate God and they want everyone else to hate him too. In the devils one sees the sinful principle, the spirit of sin come to its own and into full flower. Human beings are the same; and in the end their hatred of God will come into the open as well because it’s the same sin in them that is in Satan. A Christian husband or wife, daughter or son, even friend is now the presence of the hated God in the life of that family. The Christian is, therefore, the traitor who has gone over to the enemy’s side.
Take the case of the famous Stephen Hawking. It is a particularly poignant example of what the Lord said would happen. You remember Hawking as the famous mathematician and astrophysicist, the Cambridge University scientist famous for black holes and his book A Brief History of Time.
Hawking’s former wife, Jane, is a Christian, a devout Anglican. She is also an extraordinarily intelligent and able woman, holding a PhD in Spanish poetry. She wrote an engaging, interesting, sad, and very candid memoir, Music to Move the Stars: My Life with Stephen Hawking, in which she told the story of her marriage and her divorce and the conflict between her Christian faith and his atheism that was eventually the undoing of their union. It had been her love that helped him to break out of the severe depression that followed his learning that he had what we Americans call Lou Gehrig’s disease, an illness of the brain and nervous system which ordinarily is fatal but in Hawking’s case resulted in severe paralysis that first confined him to a wheelchair and then rendered him incapable of speech without a synthesizer. It was Jane’s Christian faith which sustained her during the twenty-five years in which she cared for her invalid husband, with whom she had three children.
As Hawking began toying with what he calls his “no boundary” condition of the cosmos, which requires no beginning and no end and, therefore, for Hawking, no God, [by the way nobody is talking about that anymore, everybody bought A Brief History of Time, six or seven people actually read it and nobody thinks twice about the book today], but as Hawking began publicizing his atheism greater strain was placed on their marriage. Jane believed in God, Stephen adamantly not. He grew increasingly contemptuous of her faith and relished the celebrity status he had acquired as one of the world’s foremost atheists. He eventually abandoned Jane — despite her attempts to reconcile with him and despite all she had done for him over twenty-five years — to marry one of his nurses, the wife of the man who had designed Hawking’s mobile voice computer. Gratitude is not one of Hawking’s strong suits, but then, if God does not exist, gratitude is no longer a moral obligation; it is only a biological reflex.
But see how once again Christ brought not peace, but division. This time, however, not because faith in Christ worked such a radical change in Jane, but because her faith in Christ provoked such distaste in her husband.
But whatever the reason — whether the implications of loyalty to Jesus for the Christian himself or herself or the hostility of the unbeliever to Christ — the result is often contention and division. So it has been and so it is today.
According to one recent study of the millions who today are being persecuted for their faith, three-quarters of them are Christians. The persecution of Christians by Muslims is particularly vicious and has frequently proved fatal. In Japan, receiving baptism is a very great step for a convert because it publicly identifies him or her as a Christian which almost always has negative and sometimes severely negative consequences in the family. But it happens here as well.
Some years ago I had a correspondence with a young man who was a friend of a friend. My friend had suggested he write me and we wrote back and forth a number of letters. He eventually went to Scotland to study for a PhD in classics at St. Andrews University. He had become a Christian as a student at the University of Pennsylvania through the ministry of Inter-Varsity Fellowship. He had wanted then to go to seminary and into the ministry. But his parents were furious. They wanted no son of theirs to be an evangelical Christian, must less a Christian minister. It would have been deeply embarrassing to them to have a Christian in the family and to have a Christian minister in the family was beyond their thought. They opposed his spiritual interest at every step. Studying Latin and Greek was his way of showing his parents respect while, at the same time, getting training that would repay the time and money spent when finally he went to seminary. The day was coming, and he well knew it, when he would have to forsake his parents’ wishes altogether. He was prepared for it because, as with any faithful Christian, there could be no question whatsoever where his highest loyalty lay and to whom he owed the supreme allegiance of his life.
That, of course, is the Lord’s point here. The commitment he requires of his disciples supersedes even the highest and strongest natural loyalties of one’s life. Now many of us have enjoyed the great blessing of growing up in Christian homes. Our faith has never divided us from our parents or our siblings. Indeed, our parents have in most cases both hoped and worked to form in us a deep and abiding faith in Christ. But the point the Lord is making here applies to more than just the relationships of one’s family. And all of our Savior’s teaching applies to all of his disciples sooner or later and in one measure or another. Christ will bring division in your life too. At least he will if you remain loyal to him.
Let me speak to you young people whose lives lie largely ahead of you, as their Christian lives lay largely ahead of his disciples when Jesus taught them that he had not come to bring peace but division. What you have to realize and remember is that, however the Christian faith may be entirely natural to you, it is a radical affront to others. However much you may share it with virtually all the important people in your life today, you will soon find yourself among others that not only do not share your faith in Jesus Christ, but find your faith preposterous or disgusting. There are people who will refuse to associate with you if you are an out and out Christian. There are others who will assume all manner of bad things about you because you are a Christian. Are you prepared for that? Are you willing to endure the dislike or the contempt of others because of your association with Jesus Christ? What will you do and what will you think when people ridicule you for your Christian faith?
Will you shave your beliefs to avoid the reproach? Will you keep only those parts of your faith in Jesus that the world doesn’t object to at this particular moment? Many so-called Christians have done just that and are doing just that in our day. Or will you return contempt with contempt and grow a hard heart toward the unbelieving world? Many Christians have done that as well.
Or will you, as Jesus himself, your master did, continue to love even those who hated him, continue to pray for even those who persecuted him, and continue to hope the best for those who lied about him and treated him with contempt?
I hope you take the Lord’s teaching here to heart. I hope you realize that what the Lord is saying to you is that to be his follower is a very great thing, a dangerous thing, a risky thing. It puts you at odds with many people; it exposes you to hatred and ridicule, as it did him. It means that any truly faithful Christian life, any life that is comprehensively identified with the name and cause of Jesus Christ is going to be a difficult life in some ways. Joyful and happy to be sure, but full of conflict as well. Are you ready for that? Can you welcome that? Do you love Jesus enough to share in his sufferings?
You don’t have to think or act as if it were an easy thing or a light thing to find yourself at odds with people you love or care for, with people whose respect and regard you desire and would treasure. In the same way that the Lord Jesus spoke about his baptism here, as something that he was determined to undergo but, at the same time, something he was by no means looking forward to, in that way you can both courageously accept your calling to suffer for the sake of the Name and recoil from the prospect of doing so.
But, finally, you must be ready to suffer reproach and rejection for Jesus’ sake? I remember hearing a man who grew up in the church, in a Christian home, and who knew the gospel well, finally realizing what a grand thing the gospel was, what a magnificent thing it was to be a Christian, and what a high calling it was to serve Christ when he realized for the first time that Christ was someone to suffer for rather than merely someone to suffer with. That there was something so important, so provocative, and so unworldly about Jesus and salvation that he could count on there being active and powerful opposition. Your Christian faith is not the wallpaper of your life; he is your king, your country, your family, your life, and your cause. He is also your Redeemer who gave himself for you to bring you to God and to heaven. And he did that by suffering the opposition of his enemies. Have you stopped to ponder that fact recently?
I very much hope that you will think your salvation and your faith in Jesus are very great things; that he is a very great Savior and that he is worth your undivided loyalty, no matter how much that loyalty may cost you in friendship, in family life, in employment, or in some other way. The Scripture says,
“the wicked man flees though no one pursues, but the righteous are as bold as a lion.”
And for the younger and the older among us, this question: Are we, if the truth be told, strangers to the reproach of Christ, to the world’s animosity toward him, and to this division that he brings? If we are, is that because we have not been sufficiently loyal to him, because we have not worn our love for him on our sleeve for everyone to see? Has his cross, his baptism, lost its power in our lives? Christ and his cross are never far apart. The last thing we want to find is that our lives are calm and free of contention because there is nothing or too little of Jesus Christ in them.
Remember this: the Lord never asks of his disciples what he did not do first himself. He suffered contention and division because he was so faithful to his calling as the Son of God and the Savior of the world and because your salvation and mine required that contention and that division. A zealous and faithful Savior deserves zealous and loyal disciples!