[This exegesis of Luke 12:49-53 was written for my recently completed class on the Synoptic Gospels.]
In the following paper I will attempt to engage the text of Luke 12:49-53, encountering it as a description of Christ’s mission, making note of various literary and symbolic structures, and attempting to discern any obvious spiritual sense. Since the object of this analysis is primarily to engage the text, historical questions about authorship and composition will be omitted, as will more complex reflections on the use of this prophetic material within the structure of Luke’s gospel, though obviously some treatment of this problem is necessary. My analysis will proceed line by line through the text. The Greek text used is from the 28th edition of the Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graece, and the accompanying translation is my own, made with reference to the 9th edition of Liddell and Scott’s A Greek–English Lexicon.
49 Πῦρ ἦλθον βαλεῖν ἐπὶ τὴν γῆν, I came to cast fire upon the earth. Our text comes in the midst of a series of warnings and parables about the coming of the final judgment. In the course of these, Christ breaks from speaking about the apostles and speaks instead of himself. “I came to cast fire upon the earth.” This line is extremely ambiguous, and I would like to suggest that it is intentionally ambiguous. The vision of fire falling upon the earth recalls both the warnings of John that the unfruitful would be cast into the fire (3:9), and the prophecy that Christ would baptize with fire (3:16). It also marks a sharp contrast with the image of a steward waiting with a lamp at night that preceded this passage (12:35ff.). Just as the steward waits with a little flame for the return of his master toward daybreak (a great illumination), so the little flame of the apostles signifies their faith, which participates in the light of eternity, to be revealed at the last judgment. But the flame that Christ came to cast upon the earth has a twofold significance, as is to be elaborated in subsequent verses. On one hand, Christ is a Promethean figure who comes down from the heavens bearing the fire of salvation to elevate, save, and instruct humanity, a fire the cost of which will be his own suffering. His fire is the fire of the Holy Spirit, who illuminates and enflames the hearts of the faithful, and renews the face of the earth. At the same time, Christ’s fire is like the fire of Zeus, the bearer of thunder, whose bolts of fire punish and destroy. Christ’s fire is a purifying fire, which will consume the chaff of the unfruitful and unrepentant. It is remarkable that both of these actions—elevation and judgment—are accomplished in the same fire.
καὶ τί θέλω εἰ ἤδη ἀνήφθη. And what do I wish, if it was already kindled. This line can be read in two ways: first as saying “How I wish that it was already kindled,” second as saying “What am I to wish once it is kindled?” Both readings convey a cogent theological sense, but they differ. In the first case, Christ is making an exclamation in anticipation of the terminal events which will signal the kindling of the aforementioned fire. In the second case, Christ is expressing the terminal fulfillment of his mission in the kindling of that fire. He elaborates:
50 βάπτισμα δὲ ἔχω βαπτισθῆναι, I have a baptism to be baptized, From the image of fire, Christ switches to the image of immersion, ordinarily associated with water. However the close conjunction of the mention of baptism and that of fire recalls once more the prophecy of John the Baptist (3:16). The baptism spoken of here, however, is clearly Christ’s death, burial and resurrection. This verse is one of the main attestations of the symbolic interpretation of the sacrament of Baptism as the initiation of the believer into Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection. If we consider the act of baptism in the context of the practice of John the Baptist, baptism clearly has a metanoetic function. It signifies purification and repentance. Christ’s baptism differs, however: both the baptism in the Jordan and that on Golgotha, but they differ in parallel ways. Neither is necessary for Christ’s conversion, but in both cases his divine glory is revealed and the Holy Spirit is poured out in response. Hence the reason for the identification of the passion as a baptism is the subsequent glorification of Christ and outpouring of the Holy Spirit consequent upon his act of obedience.
καὶ πῶς συνέχομαι ἕως ὅτου τελεσθῇ. And how I am hemmed in until it is accomplished! Verses 49 and 50 exhibit a parallel structure, where the second clause in each verse is an exclamatory comment on the coming fulfillment of what is predicted in the first. The repetition of this structure invites us to identify the two parallel prophecies as being fulfilled in a single event: Christ’s forthcoming baptism is also tied to the divine fire he was sent to bring. Additionally, the use of δὲ at the beginning of verse 50 indicates a continuation, marking the connection between the two statements. The second clause of verse 50 is interesting because of the peculiar imagery invoked by συνέχομαι, as if to suggest that Christ is cramped or restrained in himself. The word suggests two possible meanings: either that the period leading up to the passion is one of great anxiety, or that Christ’s full power and glory are shrouded and restrained until the appropriate time. Both readings are appropriate, given Luke’s description of the agony in the garden (especially his sweat falling like drops of blood, Luke 22:44) and his emphasis on the revealed glory of Christ after the resurrection and account of the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4).
51 δοκεῖτε ὅτι εἰρήνην παρεγενόμην δοῦναι ἐν τῇ γῇ; Did you (pl.) expect that I came to give peace to the earth? This verse seems to be answering implicit expectations about the nature of the Messiah and his mission on earth. The Messiah was probably thought of as one who would herald a new dawn of peace, political stability and independence for the oppressed Jewish people. Christ is expected to bring unity to all men. As a personal curiosity, I would be interested in learning more about the provenance of the punctuation in the Nestle-Aland edition. If punctuation is a later addition to the text, might we read this as a statement instead of a question: “You expected that I came to give peace to the earth.” Aside from the concluding semicolon, there are no definite grammatical markers in this sentence to indicate that it is a question.
οὐχί, λέγω ὑμῖν, ἀλλ’ ἢ διαμερισμόν. No, I say to you, but indeed division. Christ continues his description on his ministry in this third and most jarring statement yet. First fire, then baptism, and now division. What sort of division does he mean to indicate here? (Note that in the parallel passage, Matthew says “as sword” instead of “division.”) I believe that the key to interpreting this passage is the ambiguity already introduced in verse 49. Because the fire Christ brings can be interpreted as both the fire of judgment and the fire of sanctification, we read διαμερισμόν as signifying the application of this fire to the earth with respect to the individuals who receive it. For some it will be a fire of grace that illuminates the Gospel to them and gives them the courage to preach; for others it will be a fire of perdition that seals their sinfulness and, by their rejection of the Gospel, damns them. But more than that, Christ is telling the disciples what to expect in their future reception of that fire: not peace, not harmony, not acceptance, but rejection and division, strife and discord. The Gospel is not a pacifying force. It is not something to be received by the earth as a gift. Christ’s denial of the ἐν τῇ γῇ in verse 51 implicitly establishes that the earth is not a context which can bound the gift of the gospel. The fire of the Spirit is not included in the world, but is cast against it – note the contrast with the forcefulness of verse 49’s ἐπὶ τὴν γῆν. Instead of being received as gift by the world it received as violence against the sufficiency and completeness of the world. The extent of this violence is born out in Christ’s elaboration on this saying.
52 ἔσονται γὰρ ἀπὸ τοῦ νῦν πέντε ἐν ἑνὶ οἴκῳ διαμεμερισμένοι, τρεῖς ἐπὶ δυσὶν καὶ δύο ἐπὶ τρισίν, For from now on there will be five having been divided in one house, three against two and two against three. The extent of the divisiveness of the Gospel is confirmed and elaborated. Where the household is the basic unit of worldly life, Christ prophesies the division of the household. The household clearly stands not only for individual familial units, but also for society at large. The significance of the numbers used in this saying is difficult to discern, but it seems that based on the following verse we could read the τρεῖς as referring to a son, a daughter, and the son’s wife, and the δύο as referring to the mother and father.
53 διαμερισθήσονται πατὴρ ἐπὶ υἱῷ καὶ υἱὸς ἐπὶ πατρί , μήτηρ ἐπὶ τὴν θυγατέρα καὶ θυγάτηρ ἐπὶ τὴν μητέρα , πενθερὰ ἐπὶ τὴν νύμφην αὐτῆς καὶ νύμφη ἐπὶ τὴν πενθεράν. They will be divided father against son and son against father, mother against the daughter and daughter against the mother, mother in law against her daughter in law and daughter in law against the mother in law. The passage concludes with an elaboration of the divisions. It is noteworthy that all of the divisions named are inter-generational, suggesting that part of the divide Christ has in mind is between old and new, perhaps marking a distinction between those who will cleave to the old covenant and those who will embrace the new. However, a great deal of ambiguity remains concerning this last portion of the passage. Where earlier in Luke’s gospel, Christ has many times invoked images of sorting and division, there has always been reference to a characteristic used as the basis for the sorting: sheep and goats, wheat and chaff, faithful and unfaithful, etc. Perhaps at the close of this prophetic exclamation, Christ is actively attempting to stress the chaos and confusion that will arise on the worldly plane from the arrival of the Gospel. In any case, the dualities and ambiguities that make up this pericope seem to suggest an intent on the part of Christ as speaker, and Luke as reporter, to leave listeners with a sense of the confusion and disarray brought to the worldly order by the arrival of the Holy Spirit in the aftermath of Christ’s passion and resurrection.