The Urgency of Today
Passage: Luke 12:49–13:9
The Urgency of Today
I’m sure we’ve all heard the phrase, “Don’t put off till tomorrow what you can do today.” I heard it a lot as a kid from my mom because I was a chronic procrastinator. And while it irritated me to no end, there is no denying the wisdom of mom’s using that phrase. Procrastinating tends to go badly, so it’s better to do your work today. There’s wisdom in that – so much so that if I had listened more to my mom, my grades in math would have been better. So, kids – there is an application for you this morning – mom is nearly always right. “Don’t put off till tomorrow what you can do today.”
There is a sense in which that well-known motherly advice accurately summarizes the point of our passage. Here in these verses, Jesus repeatedly calls his listeners to recognize the urgency of today. Of course, Jesus is not talking about math homework in Luke 12. He’s talking about responding to God. Jesus is reminding us that no one is promised tomorrow, and therefore, today always comes with urgency to respond. “Don’t wait,” Jesus is saying in this passage. Don’t put off till tomorrow what wisdom would say you ought to do today.
And this urgency, brothers and sisters, is made all the more pressing in light of Jesus’ mission. Why has Jesus come? There are a number of ways to answer that question, but perhaps the clearest answer is this: Jesus has come to carry out God’s will. What the Father planned in eternity past, the Son, through the power of the Spirit, has now come to fulfill. Jesus’ mission is to carry out God’s will, and that includes the announcement that God’s kingdom is near. “The time is fulfilled,” Jesus preached in Mark ch1, “the kingdom of God is at hand. Therefore, repent and believe the gospel.”
And that’s where the urgency comes. Since the kingdom of God is arriving in Jesus Christ, wisdom would say don’t put off till tomorrow what the gospel demands of you today. Don’t assume there will be time later on to do business with God. Repent and believe today, for the kingdom of God has come near in Jesus Christ.
So, what we need to do this morning is spend some time reflecting on the urgency of Jesus’ mission and message. Jesus’ aim is for people to respond, so that’s what we need to do. We need to slow down and pay attention to the wisdom of Christ and respond. Specifically, there are three truths in this passage that call for our response. These truths build on one another, so that by the end of the passage, there is one pressing application that faces us. With that in mind, let’s think more about deeply about each of these truths and the urgency of today.
The Gospel of Christ Divides Humanity
The first comes in vv49-53, where we see how the gospel of Christ divides humanity. Jesus begins with an alarming description of his mission. Notice again Jesus’ words, v49 – “I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled.” In Scripture, fire is often a picture of judgment. That judgment might be for the purpose of refining or purifying, but in this context, it is clear that Jesus means judgment in the divine sense. This fire, according to Jesus, is an expression of God’s judgment upon humanity. And that judgment comes in and through Jesus Christ. His coming, at least in part, reveals who belongs God and who does not.
But Jesus’ point is perhaps even more alarming in v51, where the idea of division is plainly stated. Listen again, v51 – “Do you think I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.” Clearly, that is not language about simply purifying or refining things. That is the language of divine judgment. Instead of peace, there will be division, as Jesus comes to cast fire upon the earth.
Now, what does Jesus mean here? We all know the well-known verse from Luke ch2, where the angels announce glory to the God in the highest and on earth peace among those with whom God is well pleased. But here, Jesus says he has not come to bring peace, but division. He came to cast fire on the earth. So, what does Jesus mean?
I would say that the path to an answer begins in v50. Jesus announces his mission, v49, and then in v50, Jesus speaks of what this mission will require of him. Notice what the Lord says – “I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished!” To be baptized, in the Christian ordinance, is to be immersed in water. But Jesus is not talking about the ordinance of baptism in v50. Jesus is again talking about judgment. Just as fire often pictures judgment in Scripture, so too does water. Think of the flood waters in Genesis 6. What did those waters bring? The judgment of God. You could even say that the earth endured a baptism of God’s judgment at the flood.
And that is the connection here in Luke 12. Jesus’ baptism is a reference to his endurance of judgment. His baptism will occur at the cross, where Jesus, the Son of God, will endure the judgment of God in the place of sinners like us. This too is central to Christ’s mission. Jesus both brings judgment and bears judgment. He enforces judgment and endures judgment. The terrible beauty of the gospel is that Christ is the Judge of all things who took judgment upon himself in order to save his people from the wrath of God. Remember that Jesus is on the road to Jerusalem at this point, and what we must realize is that there is no place for that road to end other than the cross. There is no future for the plan of God apart from Christ enduring the baptism of suffering at Calvary.
In fact, notice the end of v50, where Jesus says his distress is great until this baptism is accomplished. That’s a little preview of the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus will sweat great drops of blood as the cross draws near. But notice Jesus says his baptism will be accomplished. That’s a word of purpose and fulfillment. It’s not an expression of what might happen, but what will happen according to the plan of God. Jesus’ baptism means he must endure judgment.
And this endurance of judgment explains what Jesus means when he says he did not come to bring peace. Or, to say it another way, Jesus’ baptism in v50 explains the reason for division in v51. The gospel of Christ is the great dividing line of humanity. There are two categories of people. There are those who trust in Christ and believe that his baptism of judgment occurred in their place. And there are those who do not trust in Christ but reject him as their Savior and Lord. The gospel is the great dividing line of humanity.
For those who trust Christ, there is peace – peace with God, through Jesus Christ our Lord. But for those who do not trust in Christ, there is no peace. There is division. Notice Jesus’ words in vv52-53. Even within families, how one responds to Christ may well bring separation – fathers divided from sons, and daughters divided from mothers. Now, that’s sobering, but think of Jesus’ words in John’s Gospel. “If the world hated me,” Jesus says, “know they will also hate you.” That doesn’t mean Christians are free to stir up strife and division on their own. This same Jesus who predicted division also commands us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. This same Jesus commanded us to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace, so woe to the Christian who believes boldness means creating strife, whether in the world or in the church. V51 does not give us permission to stir stuff up, far from it.
But v51 does tell us, brothers and sisters, what we ought to expect in this world. By all means, we strive for winsome witness to others. By all means, we love our neighbors as ourselves. By all means, we demonstrate the meekness, kindness, and compassion of Christ. But make no mistake, there is no level of Christian kindness that will eliminate the world’s hostility to the gospel. There is no level of explanation or nuance that will make the world view our convictions as anything other than loathsome and intolerable. At the end of the day, the cross offends those who do not belong to God. Or, to use Jesus’ words, he came to cast fire on the earth.
So, let’s sum this point up as best we can. The gospel is the good news of peace on earth, but that peace is not universal with no qualification. There is peace, but only for those who respond to Christ by grace through faith. For those who reject Jesus, the gospel becomes a source of division, and therefore, we ought to pray that the church will remain steadfast, particularly when the gospel does what Christ said it will do.
The Nearness of the Kingdom Demands Discernment
So, that is our first truth that reveals the urgency of today – the gospel of Christ divides humanity. The second truth comes in vv54-59: The nearness of the kingdom demands discernment. Without much transition, Jesus shifts to a new topic. He’s preparing to rebuke the crowd, but before the rebuke, he sets up an analogy with – of all things –predicting the weather. Look at vv54-55 – “He also said to the crowds, ‘When you see a cloud rising in the west, you say at once, “A shower is coming,” and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, “There will be scorching heat,” and it happens.’” Now, you can follow Jesus’ point. The people in his day had learned how to interpret the signs in order to anticipate a change in the weather. A cloud rising over the Mediterranean meant rain was likely. A hot wind blowing from the south meant it was about to get hot. These are basic observations, and Jesus’ point is the people knew how to read them. What’s more, the people in Jesus’ day didn’t argue with these weather patterns. They didn’t ignore the rising cloud or the sudden south wind. Instead, they got ready. They took action based on the signs that change was near.
But then comes the rebuke. V56, Jesus indicts the crowd for failing to respond to something much more significant than a change in weather. Notice v56 – “You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” Anytime Jesus calls someone a hypocrite, we should pay attention. It’s a stinging rebuke that indicates how deeply off-target someone is from the truth. And that’s the sense here. The crowd can interpret a change in the weather, but they cannot – or they will not – interpret a change in the spiritual season. All around them, there are signs that something significant is happening, and yet, they miss the importance of the present time.
Of course, that raises the question, “What is the present time that the crowd misses? What is happening that they ought to recognize?” In short, the present time is the arrival of the kingdom of God in Jesus Christ. What is happening is that God’s redemptive rule has broken into this age with Christ, and right now, the promise of salvation is being fulfilled before their very eyes. The signs are all around them, and yet, they cannot – or they will not – see them.
And let’s be clear, the signs of the kingdom are abundantly evident in Jesus’ ministry. Every miracle is, in effect, proof of the kingdom’s presence. Every time Jesus drives out an unclean spirit, is a sign that God’s redemptive power has come to crush darkness. Every time Jesus heals the sick, it is a sign that brokenness is being overcome. Every time Jesus restores or calms the natural world, it is sign that sin’s curse will not triumph. The signs are abundantly clear. The kingdom of God is at hand!
And yet, the crowd will not believe. The Jewish religious leaders will not see it. Indeed, they do the opposite. They oppose Jesus. They attribute his miracles to the power of Satan. They accuse him of breaking the Law. At every step, Jesus demonstrates the nearness of the kingdom, and at every step, the Israel of Jesus’ day says, “No, we won’t believe.”
So, how should they respond? If the crowd were to suddenly have eyes to see, what should they do as they see the nearness of God’s kingdom? Look at the parable Jesus tells in vv57-59. This parable pictures the response the crowd ought to give. Listen again, vv57-59 – “And why do you not judge for yourselves what is right? As you go with your accuser before the magistrate, make an effort to settle with him on the way, lest he drag you to the judge, and the judge hand you over to the officer, and the officer put you in prison. I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the very last penny.”
At first, this seems a very simple parable about settling disputes before they reach a crisis point. But there is more to this parable than everyday wisdom. Think about the first point of the passage – where Jesus is presented as the Judge of all the earth. In those opening verses, it was very clear that the judgment of God is coming. I’ll argue that those verses ought to shape how we interpret Jesus’ parable. He’s not simply talking about everyday wisdom, though that’s certainly true. Jesus’ point is about reconciling with God. The nearness of the kingdom should cause the crowd to recognize that the final day is near too. And therefore, wisdom would say, “Reconcile with God now, before you face his throne of judgment. Hear the good news that Christ proclaims, and respond to him as the One who brings in the kingdom of God.”
Scripture is very clear that every person is accountable to God. We stand in debt to you, you might say, and the source of that debt is sin. It’s true that our sin often hurts other people, but the reason why that is wrong is because those people are made in the image of God. Even when we think we’ve only sinned against others, we’ve actually and ultimately sinned against God. All sin is against God.
And that means all of us stand in debt before God. We are accountable to him. And what Jesus is telling us is that there is only one way for our accounts to be made right. There is only one pathway to reconciliation, and that is through the gospel of Jesus Christ. His entire life – from his miraculous conception to his mighty ministry to his authoritative teaching to his atoning death to his life-giving resurrection – Jesus’ entire life is making this one point: No one can come to God except through Christ. No one can settle up with God apart from Jesus’ payment at the cross. That’s what the crowd won’t see in Luke 12.
But more than the crowd, what about you? Do you recognize the significance of what Scripture reveals in Jesus Christ? Have you slowed down long enough to take the Bible seriously and discern what the gospel demands? Some people miss the truth of the gospel because they’re mired so deep in darkness, they can’t see anything else. That’s tragic, but do you realize many more people miss the truth of the gospel because they’re too distracted, too busy, too preoccupied to see the truth God has revealed very plainly before their eyes? I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard someone say, “Yeah, I would follow God if only I could see where he’s working. I’d follow if I knew for sure which way I ought to go.” Friends, God is not hiding. He’s revealed himself and his kingdom very plainly for all to see. It’s right here in Scripture, in the face of Jesus Christ. He is the Son of God sent to earth for the salvation of sinners. He is the One who took judgment on himself so that sinners would be saved from the judgment of God. That’s the truth, and it’s plainly revealed in Scripture.
The real question is not, “How do I find where God is working?” The real question is, “Will I discern, with humility, that God is working in and through Jesus Christ?” The nearness of the kingdom demands our discernment.
The Reality of Judgment Urges Us to Repentance
And those questions bring us to the final truth of the passage, where Jesus brings his teaching together in a final appeal. From ch13, vv1-9: The reality of judgment urges us to repentance. Jesus has just rebuked the crowd for their lack of discernment. They can interpret the weather, but not the present time. And here at the start of chapter 13, we find an illustration that proves Jesus’ point. Instead of responding to Jesus, the crowd comes to him with a point of theological dispute. Notice v1 – “There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.” This specific event is not recorded anywhere else, but it appears that Pilate had killed some Galileans while they attempted to offer their worship to God. This was heinous on Pilate’s part, but the crowd is not really asking about Pilate. They are asking Jesus about God. According to some Jewish rabbis, personal tragedy was a sign of God’s judgment on a person’s unrepentant sin. We think of the scene in John 9, when the disciples asked if the man was born blind because of his sin or because of his parents. That’s the same mindset that is driving the crowd’s question. They want Jesus to explain God’s actions. In other words, they are missing the point.
And so, Jesus does what he so often does in these moments – he cuts to the heart of the matter. Notice his response in vv2-3, a response that puts the emphasis back where it should be – “And he answered them, ‘Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” Now, notice how Jesus quickly dismisses the crowd’s faulty assumption. Personal tragedy is not proof that someone has sinned. The Galileans whom Pilate killed are not any worse sinners than those present in the crowd with Jesus. “Don’t miss the point,” Jesus is saying. “Recognize that your end could come soon as well, and therefore, you ought to repent.”
Please don’t miss that. Jesus tells the crowd that the real tragedy is not a wicked Roman doing wicked things. No, the real tragedy is living as though you will not have to answer to God. Everyone will face death, Jesus reminds them. And therefore, everyone ought to recognize how urgent it is to repent. Indeed, this urgency is so great that Jesus repeats the point in vv4-5. The situation changes, but the point remains the same. “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
But still, Jesus is not finished. To emphasize the urgency, Jesus tells a parable in vv6-9. It is a parable about the urgency of today. Notice how the parable works. V6, Jesus describes a barren fig tree, which in this context represents the nation of Israel. The Israel of Jesus’ day is like a barren tree. The people lack the fruit of repentance. So, in the parable, the man who planted the tree wants to cut it down. What’s the point of a fruitless tree? But in v8, the vinedresser suggests a bit more patience. Notice vv8-9 – “[The vinedresser] answered him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”
That parable is a warning to Israel. Jesus reminds the crowd that today is the time for repentance. There is a day coming when God’s judgment will be revealed, so before that day comes, the people ought to bear fruit in keeping with repentance. If the people persist in rejecting the Messiah, then the only thing left will be the outpouring of God’s judgment. So, in context, this parable is Jesus’ warning to Israel.
But that does not mean the parable has no application for us. In a way, this parable is the summation of all that Jesus has been teaching throughout the passage. Here we are reminded of two incredible realities. The first is that God is unthinkably patient in his mercy. Did you catch that in the parable? The vinedresser gives the barren tree one more year to bear fruit. That’s a picture of God’s heart toward sinners. He is unthinkably patient. God is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance. God takes no delight in the death of the wicked. God makes the rain fall on the just and unjust. Every day that the sin rises, we experience the patient mercy of God. And that mercy is meant to lead us to repentance. Again, please catch the urgency of Jesus’ preaching. God is patient, and therefore, today is the day to repent and walk in the light with God.
But there is a second incredible reality that this parable brings home to us, and that reality is this: God’s patient mercy does not exclude his judgment. The vinedresser gives the tree another year, but only another year. After that, there will be judgment. So it is with humanity. God’s patience should not be mistaken for absentmindedness. God’s mercy should not lead us to conclude that we can put off till tomorrow what we ought to do today. Today, when you hear God’s voice in his Word, do not harden your heart, Jesus is saying. Today is the day to turn from sin and flee to Christ in faith.
That’s where we conclude. If you do not know Christ today – if you have not repented of your sins and trusted in Christ’s death to save you – then recognize the urgency of today. God’s Word is clear and plain before your eyes, and his Word demands of you the humility of repentance and faith. Repentance simply means to turn from sin, acknowledging how you have rebelled against God and against his Word. And that repentance is followed by faith, where the Holy Spirit causes your heart to trust in Christ, to believe that his death was in your place and that his resurrection is the assurance of your life with God. If you are not a Christian today, don’t put off till tomorrow what God demands of you today. Turn from sin, and trust in Christ to save you.
For those of us who are trusting in Christ, the urgency remains. Repentance is not something we do solely on the day of our conversion. The fight against sin continues throughout the Christian life, and therefore, we always stand in need of God’s grace to repent. Brothers and Sisters, there is always an urgency to respond to the call of Scripture. Part of following Christ means being quick to confess and quick to repent. In fact, you could say that one mark of growing in godliness is that we refuse to put off till tomorrow what the gospel promises to free us from today. So, let’s renew our commitment to that today, brothers and sisters. Let’s renew our commitment to walk in the light, just as God is in the light. And as we do so, let’s rejoice in the truth that in the light, there is fellowship with the Living God through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.