In Luke 12:49, Jesus says "I have come to cast fire upon the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!" Because of popular, yet unwarranted, perceptions of Jesus and God, many people will read or hear this passage and automatically assume that these words represent Jesus' passion for casting into Hell all those that oppose Him. In this perspective, it would seem as though God's prerogative to cast people into Hell is a role that He cherishes. I want to respond to a question that I received this week from a friend regarding this issue: Hi Karl! I have a question about the article "Don't Side with the Accuser". So how did you conclude that the one Jesus is referring to is not God, but Satan whom we should fear? I thought that we are to only fear God? It seems like He could be the one to have the authority there - He does have the authority to take and give life, and to judge, and send to hell. In other parables, like the one where the king forgives the servant and the servant doesn't forgive, it is the king who is the one who throws him into the prison and hands him over to the torturers in the end. And in another parable, Jesus speaks about the wheat being separated from the chaff at the end and it is He who is the one doing the throwing out into hell or wherever, or at least He's the one commanding others to do it. And so, is hell retribution or simply natural consequence? ---Joanna Thanks Joanna! I think the first point that should be made is that Jesus is not a teacher of universal, timeless, truths. Jesus is a kingdom bringer, the Messiah, who is establishing God's rule and reign on earth as it is in Heaven. Jesus' words and deeds come to us within history and the things He said make the sense that they do within the historical setting in which they were said. We cannot collect the images found in the parables and paste together a picture of who God is. The life of Jesus does indeed explain to us who God is, as John eloquently testifies in his gospel, but the parables were not meant to work that way. For example, when Jesus shares the parable of the nobleman who goes on a journey and leaves his servants in charge of his investments, the master in the story, whom we might assume to be God, is described as being a "hard man, reaping where (he) did not sow and gathering where (he) scattered no seed." Is this character supposed to represent who God is? And in another parable about an unfaithful steward, the "master" in that story praises the "unrighteous steward" for "acting shrewdly". And are we supposed to understand this character to be a straight-forward representation of the nature of God? I don't think that we should. The Parables are pictures and stories that Jesus used to explain the things that He was doing and the things that were happening around Him. They were careful explanations and cultural commentaries that were meant for those "with ears to hear" but which also avoided providing sound bytes for His enemies to misuse against Him. The parables are not meant to function as a straight-forward revelation of who God is. The parables reveal who God is to us mostly by giving us insight into Jesus and into what He believed He was doing and what it all meant. In the case of Matthew 18:21-35, where the King sends the unforgiving servant into the hands of the torturers, Jesus says that God will do the same to those who do not forgive their brothers from their hearts, Jesus is still speaking to His contemporary audience and warning them that their persistent resistance to his "way of peace" was going to lead their nation into unspeakable suffering. Nevertheless, we can extrapolate this out and apply it to our own lives. But we should still be careful to understand that the king in this story is just doing what kings do to disloyal subjects. God is still not like this king, except for the fact that if Israel did not learn to forgive Rome, as God was offering forgiveness to Israel through Jesus, they would end up in the hands of the torturers. God will give them up, He will not Himself inflict the torture on them or take out vengeance upon them. God is willing to rescue them, indeed Jesus sheds tears because He desired Israel's repentance, but in the end, as Jesus declares, "You wouldn't have it." (Luke 13:34). In Luke 12, the hostilities toward Jesus had been mounting and Luke has told us that the scribes and the Pharisees were plotting against Jesus to catch him in something He might say. Jesus warns the disciples that they should make it a top priority to watch out for the Pharisees hypocrisy, meaning, their play-acting. We read in another passage that the Pharisees sent a man to Jesus who "pretended to be righteous" (Luke 20:20) in order to trap Him in a question. Being "righteous" in this context was not about being morally perfect but about being in right standing in regards to the covenant. In other words, the Pharisee's spy was not simply pretending to be a moral person who tells the truth and helps old ladies across the street. This man was wanting Jesus to be convinced that he was in earnest about keeping the covenant and wanting to speed the coming of the kingdom of God.This man wanted Jesus to believe that they had the same agenda and the same goal. He wanted Jesus to trust him so that He could get Jesus to say something that could be used to expose Him as a "false teacher who is leading the people astray." A charge like this could get Jesus killed. This was because the Pharisees did indeed have the same goal of establishing God's Kingdom, but Jesus had a radically different vision than the Pharisees, at some very important points, as to how this was going to happen. It is this kind of play-acting, or hypocrisy, against which Jesus warns the disciples. "Don't let anyone lure you into a trap" Jesus is saying, "because it will be blasted from the house tops if you do and then we will all be in trouble." These are the ones who will "kill the body" or at least who will get someone else to do it by making a bad report to Herod about Jesus. The Pharisees are making the threats, not God, but Jesus says not to be afraid of them. But now, to finally address the question head-on, Jesus says that the one who should be feared is the one who has the authority to cast into Hell after killing. This being is not God but the satan. God is not the one who is threatening people with death, it is the Pharisees, Herod, and the Romans. Jesus says that the disciples should watch out for the Pharisees and He tells the Pharisees that they should watch out for the Romans, because their current disposition was driving them headlong into a fatal confrontation with Rome. One of the main reasons that the Pharisees wished to be rid of Jesus was because He opposed their violent nationalistic agenda. Jesus' warnings about their current disposition was a warning that the end result would be destruction. If they did not abandon their current disposition toward their enemies, particularly Rome, the wrath of Rome would come descending upon their heads as Jesus says explicitly in Luke 13:1-5. So, not listening to Jesus' warnings results in the loss of life AND it results in the double loss of now being in the hands of the accuser whose side you took. This can indeed be seen as being a punishment from God and it can been seen as the wrath of God, but only in the sense that God gave people over to their own designs, not that He took out His own vindictive anger out on the world which He so loves. The issue at hand for Jesus is that the disciples might be bullied into submission by the Pharisees into their way of doing the Kingdom. And Jesus warns the Pharisees that their way of doing the kingdom was not God's way. Their way of doing the Kingdom was going to lead to death and that death was going to lead to Hell because they knowingly opposed God's anointed leader of the Kingdom of God. This is much like the blaspheme of the Holy Spirit, which is not an unforgivable sin because God's love runs out at that point. No! God's love never runs out! It is unforgivable because, by it's nature, it opposes any rescue, i.e. any forgiveness, that God could offer. Jesus encourages and exhorts His disciples to stand strong because there are worse things than losing your life, like spending it on a revolution that opposes God. In contrast, Jesus exhorts His disciples to trust God and not to be afraid of Him, because He is good and knows what they need before they ask it. There is, of course, a proper fear of God but that is of a very different nature than the fear of a strong temper and a sensitive ego. What Jesus isn't doing, and this has been my point all along, is coercing obedience on the pains of eternal torture inflicted by God Himself. Nor is Jesus threatening to even the score should He be snubbed. Jesus is simply trying to rescue His people from self-inflicted suffering which comes as a natural consequence of opposing God's Messiah, God's mercy and God's Kingdom agenda. So, yes, it can be seen as the wrath of God and the judgment of God, but it is something God grieves over, not something He willingly inflicts. God doesn't take delight in being able to vent his frustrations on disobedient subjects through torture. No, there is a being like that and we call it the "Satan" or "the accuser", and the Satan hates God and all of His mercy. Of course, the Satan is also within the confines of God's sovereignty and it can only do what God allows. Even the Satan has a purpose within God's plan. Nevertheless, we should resist any picture of a vindictive God who must kill someone to satisfy His wrath and we should replace that image with the picture of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey,weeping because of the destruction that was coming upon it. This is our God of love and compassion who wants to rescue the world and His image-bearers from evil. When Jesus says that he came to cast fire on the earth and He wished it was already kindled, it was a fire that would consume Himself. It was a fire of enduring the suffering brought on by other people's foolishness and wickedness. It was a fire of suffering after being falsely accused. It was the fire of the cross that Israel had been courting for herself but which Jesus went ahead of them to experience Himself and thereby to exhaust it's power. Jesus wished to kindle this fire because He wished to have it over with. He sweat drops of blood in anticipation of it. It grieved Him and caused Him anxiety. It in no way brought Him pleasure.
There is an old Hymn which says "He had no tears for His own grief But she's drops of blood for mine." And I want to say that I think that is entirely inaccurate. Jesus wrestled in the garden because of the fiery trial He was about to endure. "Take this cup from Me" is not a prayer request you make when you are excited about the near future or the current pressure that you face. Jesus was not eager to cast fire upon the earth to destroy it, Jesus was eager to fight the battle He had to fight , to win it, and to rescue the earth and the world which He so loved.