Jesus has been speaking of being ready for his return and our accountability to him for what we have done in his absence.
As he continued to speak of life on earth in his absence, he used three images: fire, baptism and division.
Jesus said he came to cast fire on the earth and would that it were already kindled. Remember that John the Baptist prophesied about Jesus that he would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. (Luke 3:16)
As we have seen in our studies, fire in Scripture usually represents divine judgment. The context indicates Jesus is not speaking of the final judgment here, but the judgment that occurs when the gospel is preached in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Fire affects different substances differently. It destroys some, such as wood. It refines others, such as gold or steel. In a sense, fire reveals. It reveals what is combustible and what is not. It separates one thing from another by revealing what those things are made of.
Paul used this very image, although writing about the final judgment. He said fire will reveal the sort of work each one has done. (1 Corinthians 3:13) He said each one’s work would be manifest, brought out into the open. Work that was not based on Christ is wood, hay and straw and is consumed. Work that is based on Christ is like a foundation built with gold and silver, it will endure.
Jesus then said he had a baptism to be baptized with and that he would be in great distress until it was accomplished. (50) This baptism is his death by crucifixion. On the cross he will suffer the wrath of God for our sin. Before he casts the fire of judgment on earth, he must suffer the judgment of the Father on our behalf. He would be immersed in pain and suffering.
Jesus knew how awful this would be. We know it because he prayed that the Father would remove it if there was any other way. He was in agony (22:44) Yet, he wanted to get it done. He came to save and he was eager to finish his mission. He said he would be in great distress until it was accomplished. (12:50)
Jesus did not come to be a unifier of all people. (51) The preaching of the gospel divides. Jesus here said he would divide houses and families. That is because some will believe and follow Jesus against all odds. Others will reject Jesus and those who follow him.
We have seen this in Jesus’ life so far. One woman loved Jesus so much she fell at his feet crying. She dried his feet with her hair and anointed him with an expensive ointment. Another accused him of being a demon.
It is this very division that causes some to water down the gospel they preach. It is this division that causes a politician to complain that Christianity is not fair to Muslims, that forces Christians to do things that violate their conscience for penalizes them for refusing. It will be this way all the way to the end. At the end of this age, the division will be permanent. Only then will believers experience peace uninterrupted. We will have peace with God during this age, but not peace with those who reject Jesus.
Sign of the Times
Jesus pointed out to the crowd that they could interpret signs of weather, a cloud that brings rain, a south wind that brings heat. But they were not able to interpret the “present time”.
What were the signs Jesus referred to? There were signs of the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. There were signs of Jesus speaking with authority. There were the signs of miracles, healing, casting out demons, and raising the dead.
They should also have seen the signs of judgment coming. From the words of Malachi 400 years before to the words of John the Baptist, the Jews were told judgment was coming. (See Malachi 4; Matthew 3:10) Jesus also told them the guilt of all the murdered prophets would fall on them. He told them the city and the temple would be destroyed.
Jesus taught them the principal of their accountability to God for their sin. Now he warned them that a time of judgment was upon them, urging them to repent and believe while they had the opportunity.
To illustrate his point, Jesus pointed out that they should be able to discern the truth he taught. The background here is the non-payment of a debt. In those days, if your creditor sued you, and you could not pay, the judge could put you in jail. Therefore, you would try to settle on the way. Otherwise, you would stay in jail until every penny of the debt was paid.
Similarly, a wise person would become reconciled to God through repentance and faith in Jesus before the end. Otherwise, they will pay for their sins throughout eternity.
An Attempted Deflection
At this point, some in the crowd told Jesus about some Galileans that Pilate killed. (1) The implication seems to be that they must have been really bad sinners to have suffered this way. This indicates their understanding that sins must be paid for. But it probably also indicated that they thought those Galileans were worse sinners than those listening to Jesus. It was a sort of deflection.
Jesus dispelled the idea that the Galileans were worse sinners. The same applied for the people upon whom the tower of Siloam fell. In fact, he said, unless you repent you will all likewise perish. (3) He referred here to the final judgment, not to physical death. Those who do not repent face eternity suffering under the wrath of God. This is what Revelation 20 calls the second death.
Paul spelled this doctrine out for us clearly. He wrote “the wages of sin is death”. (Romans 6:23) Jesus himself said “whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” (John 3:18)
We are all sinners. We must all repent and believe to obtain eternal life. (John 3:16) Jesus, through his stories, urged the crowd to do this.
“Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.” (John 5:24)
Parable Of A Fig Tree
Having spoken of judgment, Jesus followed by speaking of grace. In this parable, a man planted a fig tree that never bore fruit. The man wanted to cut it down. But, his vinedresser convinced him to let it live another year while the vinedresser tended to it, to see if it would bear fruit.
God demands repentance. Repentance bears fruit in the life of a believer. The believer turns from living for himself to living for God and, with the work of the Holy Spirit, begins to bear fruit the shows he has indeed repented and been saved.
For example, Paul distinguished the fruit of the Spirit from the fruit of the flesh. The fruit of the Spirit is love, whereas the fruit of the flesh is sexual immorality and impurity. Peace is a fruit of the Spirit, enmity and strife are fruits of the flesh.
The Old Testament contains several instances of God referring to Israel as either his vineyard or his fig tree. After all God did for Israel, he certainly expected the fruit of obedience from them. That would include acceptance of and obedience to the Messiah. God was not finding that fruit in Israel. Since Israel was not bearing fruit, God intended to cut it down, to destroy it. That is why John the Baptist said the axe was already laid at the root of the trees. (Matthew 3:10)
The vinedresser intervened to give the tree more time to bear fruit. God gave Israel more time also, He waited about 40 years from the time of Jesus’ ministry. During that time, the disciples preached the gospel in Jerusalem. The church began to spread. Witnesses to the resurrection recounted their stories.
But God does expect us to bear the fruit of good works and spiritual qualities. If we fail to bear fruit, it is a witness against us that we are not indeed believers. If that is true, the day will come when we are cut down, when we are held accountable for our sin.
So, repent and believe. Live for Christ, bearing fruit, maturing, and bringing glory to the Savior.