At the end of Luke 12:51 Jesus makes a shocking statement, “Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.”
He didn’t come to bring peace? Huh? This is shocking to me because it seems to go against many of the things we believe about Jesus. It seems at odds with what he taught elsewhere. And it is nothing like the pop culture Jesus enlisted by talk show hosts and politicians.
Elsewhere Jesus is called the prince of peace (Isa 9:6). He gave a special blessing on the peacemakers, that they shall be called “sons of God” (Matt 5:9). Further the apostles taught that peace is an essential part of the Christian life: “Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.” (Hebrews 12:14). Paul wrote, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” (Romans 12:18). What does Jesus mean? Is this some kind of contradiction?
To make this problem worse, passages like this are sometimes used to justify the bad behavior of Christians. They are an easy and deceptive refuge for behavior that is rude, unloving, or eager to fight.
I think the answer to this dilemma is seen in the context. Jesus mentions that he came to divide even the closest of relationships. To divide families, fathers and sons, mothers and daughters (v. 52-53). In first century Palestine, as in many eastern cultures today, the family was everything. In collective cultures people find their value and identity in group conformity. What is the ultimate taboo? Step out of line and dishonor the family in some way.
In almost every generation social pressure is used to force conformity via the carrot and the stick. If we conform to the values of the group we are rewarded. If we break rank we may be reprimanded, excommunicated, or executed. For many of us, this level of family devotion seems extreme, rising to ridiculous. It is definitely NOT scandalous for us as Americans to see a child marry someone without (or even against) the approval of their parents. In some cases it is celebrated. Not so in Jesus’ day. The good of the family came before your own comfort.
This kind of social pressure has been used to reinforce evil. We have all heard of family members coerced into silence about the shameful and secret things that happen within the walls of the home. The average person or family can become small time terrorists, holding others hostage with the threat of conflict in order to get their way. We are master manipulators. This kind of pressure was used in Jesus day to protect the religious allegiances that had corrupted the culture. We read in John 12:42 “…many even of the authorities believed in him, but for fear of the Pharisees they did not confess it, so that they would not be put out of the synagogue.” There was a fear and loyalty that held the power to keep people from following Jesus. In human history when evil and injustice get the upper hand it is always supported and protected by forces like this. Call it peer pressure, groupthink, mob mentality, or the world. It has many names, and its power is almost unrivaled.
Further we know that excommunication from the synagogue would only be the beginning for anyone that dared break ranks to follow Jesus. “But be on your guard. For they will deliver you over to councils, and you will be beaten in synagogues, and you will stand before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them.” (Mark 13:9)
So in this context, Jesus’ statement makes sense. He didn’t come to negotiate with terrorists making their social demands. He didn’t come to bring peace at all costs. He came to free us from slavery to every other master or would be dictator. In the first century most people needed to be rescued from the absolute loyalty to their family or group. But things are different in America. Our chief value is not conformity but freedom and individual rights. And yet, this radical view of the self can be just as destructive as social pressure. It can lead us to abandon spouses and children, to destroy our careers, and to become enslaved to a dozen chemical masters. There are many kinds of bondage. Slavery to self is one of the worst.
Jesus came to remove the cancer of sin that is growing in our hearts. Getting treatment from Jesus is less like a visit to the massage therapist and more like a root canal. There are parts of our lives and cultures that require radical treatment for our own good. I think this is what Jesus is talking about in Luke 12. He did not come to make his followers into a group of passive conformists. Neither does he shape us into war hawks. But Jesus always leads us to take a stand against the world. And the world doesn’t like that. They want you to snap your heels and salute. They demand you fall in line and worship their golden statues. And sadly if you refuse, even if you are very polite (like Meshach, Shadrach, and Abednego) you may end up in the furnace (Daniel 3:1-23).
Here is the good news. Every other group that demands your allegiance will take advantage of you. They will use you for their own ends. They will expect you to sacrifice yourself for the good of the group. But Jesus is different. Just before he says that he did not come to bring peace, he says this, “I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished?” (Luke 12:50). What is this baptism? It is referring to his death on the cross (Mark 10:38). Every other group is a kind of vampire. They will use you for their own ends. And if you fail them, they will disown you. But Jesus, the only one worthy of your complete devotion, laid down his life for yours. And he had to do that because of your misplaced loyalties. And it is this love and sacrifice that is the power that moves us. It allows us to suffer the loss of relationships, respect, and approval that comes from standing with Christ against the world.