Jesus the Divider



"Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division." Luke 12:51

This is one of the "hard sayings" of Jesus. It must have shocked some of his hearers, and it is shocking to us when we discover it in Scripture. But it is in the Bible and we have to deal with it. Indeed, I think it states a profound and necessary truth.

Jesus never sought to be "politically correct." He did not say what people wanted to hear, but what was true. He did not adapt to people; he expected people to adapt to God's truth as he spoke it. He said that his words, which were given to him by his Father (John 12:49), spoke a universal truth that would outlast the physical universe. "Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away" (Matthew 24:35). He said that his words would be the test by which men would ultimately be judged (John 12:48). I think we need to take all of his words very seriously. (All Scripture quotations are from the New International Version, unless otherwise indicated.)

Let us take a closer look at Jesus's statement and its implications.

1. The Text of Jesus' Statement.

The full text of Jesus' statement is,

"I have come to bring fire on 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 completed! Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against one another, 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)

The Greek words translated "divide" and "division" (diamerizo and diamerismos) mean exactly that. They mean division, disunity.

In Matthew's gospel Jesus expresses the same thought in even more colorful terms "I did not come to bring peace, but a sword" (Matthew 10:34). I do not think "sword", in this text, implies bloodshed. I read it as a reference to the fact that the word of God is " sharper than any double-edged sword"; it "penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart" (Hebrews 4:12). God's truth is a sword which divides truth from falsity, right from wrong, good from evil, and much else. It confronts us and requires us to make decisions. The way we make those decisions can divide us.

2. How Does Jesus Divide People?

Scripture shows us very clearly how Jesus divides people. Jesus confronts us with the truth. He is "the truth" (John 14:6). We have to respond. The way we respond divides us. We can either accept the truth or reject it. If we try to ignore it, that is a form of rejection.

When Jesus ministered on earth he had some who followed him, and some who sought to kill him and eventually had him crucified. Today, also, he has some who follow him and some who seek to destroy his influence.

John's gospel tells us that there were some who received Jesus and some who did not receive him (John 1: 11-12). It tells us that "whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life", while "whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only Son" (John 3:16, 18). It tells us that "whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God's wrath remains on him" (John 3:36).

By his coming to earth, Jesus confronted us in a new way with God's eternal truth. Men had to react to this confrontation. Their reaction divided them into two groups, those who accepted Jesus and those who rejected him It was not unusual then, and is not unusual today, to have different members of the same family be in different groups.

Scripture speaks of two kingdoms, "the dominion of darkness" and the "kingdom of the Son [God] loves" (Colossians 1:13; see Ephesians 5:8). John's gospel says that those who receive Jesus can become the children of God (John 1:12). His epistle goes further and divides all mankind into two groups, "children of God" and "children of the devil" (1 John 3:10). Paul refers to the pagan "gods" of his day as "demons" (1 Corinthians 10:20), and says, "What does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? What agreement is there between the temple of God and that of idols?" (2 Corinthians 6:13-14). For Paul there could be no other foundation than Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 3:11). Paul resolved, in his teaching, to "know nothing... except Christ Jesus and him crucified" (1 Corinthians 2:2).

The Greek word "believe" (pistis) means much more than just intellectual acceptance. It means to put your trust in, to rely on, and to obey. Scripture tells us, "Do not merely listen to the word [of God], and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says" (James 1:22). Faith that does not reflect itself in actions is dead, meaningless (James 2:14-19). Paul said that his mission was to call people to "the obedience that comes from faith" (Romans 1:5). Hebrews says that Jesus is "the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him" (Hebrews 5:9).

Jesus never accepted mere lip-service. He spoke critically of those who "honor [God] with their lips, but their hearts are far from [God]" (Matthew 15:8). He said "Why do you call me, 'Lord, Lord' and do not do what I say?" (Luke 6:46). He said, "Not everyone who says to me 'Lord, Lord' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven" (Matthew 7:21).

The Scriptural view is that the world is divided into two groups: those who believe in Jesus Christ and those who do not believe in him, those who are in the kingdom of God and those who are in the kingdom of darkness. There is no middle ground. There is no room for fence-sitters. Jesus said, "He who is not with me is against me" (Matthew 12:30).

A split loyalty will not do. You cannot serve more than one God. "You cannot serve God and mammon" (Matthew 6:24 KJV). Christians should not be "yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? What fellowship can light have with darkness? What harmony is there between Christ and Belial?" (2 Corinthians 6:14-15).

There is another sense in which Jesus divides us. At the end time, when he judges all men, he will "separate the people one from another", as one who divides sheep from goats. Those who have done his will will go to "eternal life" while those who have not will go to "eternal punishment" (Matthew 25:32, 46; see also Matthew 13:41-43, 49).

3. Significance for our Time.

I believe this divisiveness is crucial for our times. I shall give, very briefly, a few examples. More could doubtless be given.

a. "Inclusiveness."

A key word in today's society is "inclusiveness". We are told that we should accept "alternative lifestyles", accept all sorts of behavior that used to be considered unacceptable. Those who are considered unwilling to do so may be required to receive "sensitivity training". The watchword is "tolerance". Some have almost made a god of tolerance. Yet we find these same people can be quite intolerant of any viewpoint that does not tolerate every kind of behavior. Any deviation from the standard of tolerance is considered intolerable, and there are efforts in many countries, including ours, to make it illegal. In parts of Canada, for example, it is now illegal and punishable by law for anyone simply to repeat what the Bible says about certain forms of behavior.

Jesus was never tolerant of evil. He reached out to the sinner in love, but he hated sin. When a woman was found in adultery, Jesus did not say, "Your lifestyle is fine". He said, "Go now and leave your life of sin" (John 8:11). In his Sermon on the Mount and in other teachings he insisted on a very high moral standard. He denounced the religious leaders of his time, saying "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, hypocrites" (Matthew chapter 23).

Scripture teaches that those who do certain kinds of acts, and live in certain kinds of ways (including impurity and sexual immorality), will not inherit the kingdom of God and will incur God's wrath (Ephesians 5:5-7; Colossians 3:5-6; Galatians 5:19; see Romans 1:18-32; Revelation 21:8). It tells us "do not be partners" with such people (Ephesians 5:7). Jesus will come again "in blazing fire" to "punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ" (2 Thessalonians 1:7,9)..

Where many today teach tolerance of every conceivable kind of behavior, Jesus drew a sharp line of division. He said that some behavior is sinful and should not be tolerated. He said that some things are good and some things are evil, and the evil cannot be tolerated or accepted. I believe we urgently need that line of division today.

b. Moral relativity

Closely related to this teaching of tolerance is the concept of moral relativity. It is said, by many, that there are no moral absolutes.

Again, this is contrary to the Biblical standard. The Bible is very clear. There is good and there is evil, and the two must never be confused. "Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter" (Isaiah 5:20). Jesus drew very sharp lines between what was good and what was evil, what was moral and what was immoral. He spoke of those who "loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil" (John 3:19). He said that at the end of the age his angels will weed out of the kingdom of God "everything that causes sin and all who do evil" and throw them into the fiery furnace, while "the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father" (Matthew 13:40-43; see Matthew 13:49).

Jesus drew a sharp line of division between good and evil, which modern teaching seeks to blur. When we blur the line between good and evil, we invite all kinds of evil. I believe we urgently need to return to Jesus' sharp line of division.

c. Universal religion

There are those, today, who dream of having a single, universal religion that all can accept. They assert that "all religions are essentially the same" and that ending religious disagreements will promote world peace. They try to combine features of Eastern religions (such as Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism), of New Age thinking, and much else, with some of Jesus' ethical teachings, into an amalgam that they hope will be acceptable to all.

Scripture is totally opposed to any such effort.

Jesus declared that the one whom he called Father is "the only true God" (John 17:3), and that no man comes to God except through Jesus (John 14:6; see also Acts 4:12). God repeatedly told his people that he is the only true God. "I am the first and I am the last. Apart from me there is no God" (Isaiah 44:6). "I am God and there is no other" (Isaiah 46:9; see also Isaiah 45:18, 21). Paul wrote, "there is only one God" (Romans 3:30). "There is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live, and there is one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live" (1 Corinthians 8:6; see also James 4:12).

New Age teaching asserts that all paths lead, ultimately, to the same mountaintop. Jesus said that there are two paths, or roads. One is broad and leads to eternal destruction. Many travel by it The other is narrow and leads to eternal life. Few find it (Matthew 7:13-14). We need to choose which road we will follow. We need to "make every effort" to follow the narrow road (Luke 13:24).

The one true God is not Allah, or Buddha, or any of the Hindu gods, or the "gods" of the New Age movement, or "the goddess" of the feminist movement, or some impersonal force or consciousness. It is the God of Scripture, and him only, whom we must acknowledge, worship and serve if we would claim the promises of the gospel of Christ. He requires our exclusive worship. He will not share it with any other so-called "gods".

God is very explicit about all this. He warned his people, over and over, to have nothing to do with other so-called "gods". He told them not to worship other gods and not to listen to anyone who tells them to worship other gods (Deuteronomy chapter 13). He told them not to set a pagan image alongside his altar (Deuteronomy 16:21; see 2 Kings 17;41). He told them not to worship him in a pagan way (Deuteronomy 12:4). The whole thrust of the Mosaic law is that the worship of the one true God was not to be contaminated by any pagan elements. Much of the Old Testament history is related to God's insistence that his people should worship him and him alone. Ultimately the ten northern tribes of Israel were conquered and dispersed because "they worshiped other gods" (2 Kings 17:7-23).

Paul expressed the same concern. Speaking of the whole range of "gods" whom the non-Christians worshiped in his day - Greek and Roman gods, Egyptian and Persian gods, and the gods of various "mystery" religions - he wrote, "The sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to God, and I do not want you to be participants with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons too; you cannot have a part in both the Lord's table and the table of demons" (1 Corinthians 10:20-21).

God's concern is vividly expressed in the following passage from the prophet Jeremiah,

"'Has a nation ever changed its gods? (Yet they are not gods at all.) But my people have exchanged their Glory for worthless idols. Be appalled at this, O heavens, and shudder with great horror,' declares the Lord. 'My people have committed two sins. They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water'" (Jeremiah 2:11-13).

God is declaring clearly that he is the only God and that anything else which claims to be a god is not a god at all. It is worthless, like a broken jar that cannot hold water. And he is appalled that his people have left him to follow after such false and worthless things. I believe that those, today, who assert that all gods are the same and all religions are the same are doing just what this passage describes. They are forsaking the spring of living waters and digging broken cisterns that cannot hold water.

Scripture sometimes speaks of God as a "jealous" God (Exodus 20:5). This does not mean that he is envious of, or feels threatened by, other so-called "gods". Rather it means that he is "zealous" (another meaning of the same Hebrew word), he is intensely concerned, to protect his people from going down a path that will lead to their destruction, much as a mother would be zealous to make sure that her young child does not run out into a busy street.

(I have discussed this more fully in my paper entitled "Is Christianity Exclusive".)

d. Naturalism

In his remarkable book "How Then Shall We Live" (Tyndale House, 1999 (revised)) pp. 19-26, Chuck Colson speaks of the conflict of "theism versus naturalism. Theism is the belief that there is a transcendent God who created the universe; naturalism is the belief that natural causes alone are sufficient to explain everything that exists." I believe that these two views cannot coexist. Either there is a God who created all things (including me) and to whom I am accountable for all my actions and decisions, or else everything is the result of natural forces and I have no accountability to anyone.

Our nation was founded on theistic principles. Its founders believed that, without personal morality based on a strong Christian religion, democracy could not survive. But we have moved strongly in the direction of naturalism. Indeed, in our zeal to avoid "establishing" any religion, we have come very close to establishing naturalism as the religion of our public school system.

Here again, Jesus calls for a clear division. He spoke of his Father as the creator (Mark 10:6, 13:19). Jesus himself existed before the world (the physical universe) began (John 17:5; John 1:1-2). He participated in the creation of the physical universe (John 1:3; Colossians 1:16-17; Hebrews 1:2). By his Incarnation, Resurrection and Ascension he demonstrated God's power over all material things. His whole ministry declares our accountability to God for our acts. And a time will come when he will judge us by the decisions we have made (John 5:27-30).

Jesus confronts us with a choice between these two world-views. To accept the naturalistic world-view is to reject Jesus Christ.

4. Conclusion.

I believe we are approaching what Scripture refers to as the end times. As we approach them, I believe the lines are being more sharply drawn between good and evil, between truth and falsity, between the one true God and other false "gods", and between theism and naturalism. We must choose. There is no middle ground. Jesus confronts us with the choice. He divides us and judges us according to how we have chosen.