Now Jesus moves on to a new topic: the enigmatic nature of his mission (Lk 12: 40-53). Some parts of this periscope are from Luke’s own source ‘L’; verse 50 has some connection with Mk 10: 38; verse 51 and 53 have a parallel in Mt 10: 34-36.
Jesus uses the imagery of fire and water (baptism) to describe some aspects of his ministry. Fire is a symbol of testing and judgement. The purpose of his ministry is to enkindle the fire, that is, the fire of judgement. Jesus expresses his longing to see the earth burning with that fire. In the Old Testament fire is used as a symbol of purification (Lev 13: 52; Num 31: 23) and of judgement (Gen 19: 24; Ex 9: 24 etc.). In Lk 3: 16, John the Baptist had referred to the coming of one who would baptize with the fire of divine judgement. Jesus then describes his own mission as a ‘baptism’, that is, even of fire. Jesus himself had to first undergo that baptism (of fire). By this symbol is meant Jesus’ own death, even though it is not indicated here. But in the course of time the reader will be able to discover the significance and the meaning of baptism for which Jesus is longing (Lk 12: 50). Jesus expresses his longing for the baptism to be accomplished because it is the purpose and climax of his ministry as expressed in verse 49.
In Verses 51-53, Jesus comments on the effect of his mission in a rather enigmatic way: ‘not peace but rather division’. Even though Luke had described the effect of Jesus’ coming in terms of joy and peace (Lk 2: 10-14), we should recall that the enigmatic nature of Jesus’ mission was already anticipated in Simeon’s prophecy: “behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel…” (Cf. Lk 2: 34-35). The effect of division within families is described in verses 52-53.
In these verses we can notice an allusion to Micah 7: 6 where the prophet speaks about the consequence of the degenerations of Israel in terms of the break-up of family life. The division within family is a division Jesus’ ministry will bring about. It is not about quarrel or lack of peace that this passage speaks. It is the division of the ungodly from the godly; it is the division of those who accept him from those who would reject him.