“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 each other, 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)
In this passage Jesus speaks of two things: fire and baptism. He says that he is going to bring fire upon the earth - a sign of judgment that the messiah was expected to bring. Why was the messianic figure expected to do this? This is based upon the Hebrew notion that the eschatological renewal of Israel would come after a period of tribulation. Thus it is the role of the messiah, who ushers in the period of restoration and renewal, to inaugurate the period of judgment. Jesus appears to be alluding to this - and reminding us of the terrible day of the Lord which must come before the glorious day of the Lord can be experienced (cf. Amos 5:18) - and claiming that it is his specific job to pour out this fiery judgment upon the earth.
Yet there is a second part of his words - a mentioning of a baptism which he must be baptized with that appears to have similar overtones to it. Luke has already set the stage in that Jesus is moving in a deliberate fashion to Jerusalem where he must suffer and die, and his words reveal his own struggle with the events which lie before him. Interestingly, as one biblical scholar named G. R. Beasley-Murray stated it: ‘the Messiah has come to judge the world and be judged for the world!” This short paragraph certainly contains much theology and should be a key component for understanding the messianic role of Jesus.
I am convinced that the categories of fire and baptism (as well as Jesus’ own understanding of what it means to be a messiah) are defined by the third and final entity in this passage: division. Although many would simply divide the discussion of this passage into two parts - the first dealing with fire and baptism, the second with division - it is quite clear that this is a theological and thematic whole which must not be divorced. In fact, it is his harsh words of division which unveil the meaning of the entire saying. For us to understand how the images of fire and baptism go together as Jesus describes them can only happen when we consider that his primary objective is the restoration and redemption of Israel. And (as N. T. Wright uses as part of his foundation for the historical Jesus) Jesus goes about redefining the concept of Israel from the ground up. No longer is it based upon geographic or ethnic boundaries, but upon individual response to him.
So when Jesus comes in the manner of casting fire upon the earth he does so as part of the eschatological cleansing of Israel. And when he comes to be baptized with a specific baptism it is because he is absorbing the eschatological judgment in himself (to achieve what Israel could not survive). But this is only finds its proper context by seeing how Jesus comes to divide - by redefining ‘Israel’ as the eschatological kingdom community which is centered around the gospel message. Those who respond positively will have their judgment taken in Jesus’ second baptism of tribulation while those who respond negatively to the gospel will have the fire fall upon themselves. This is the restoration of God’s people and the establishment of his kingdom.
Questions remain. One important one: Is the final fulfillment of this left until the ‘not-yet’ period of inaugurated eschatology or do we see fiery judgment being cast at present?