Luke 12:49-53 “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.”

He was a nineteen year old soccer player who suddenly found himself beginning a Premier League game. The two regular strikers were injured or taken ill. He was playing against the team that were top of the league and the half backs were all international players. What a baptism for that teenager!

She, on the other hand, was an understudy for the leading soprano in the Coliseum, singing each night in the chorus, but one evening, a mere half an hour before curtain up, the prima donna hurt herself and couldn’t sing and this unknown singer was suddenly brought out of the chorus and dressed in the most sumptuous costumes to take the leading role. The President of the USA was in the audience that night. What a baptism for her!

The leading counsel in a case at the Old Bailey that had gripped the nation developed a throat infection and couldn’t speak in the summing up for the prosecution during the last days of a trial, and a young barrister had to take his place and present all the arguments seeking to prove the guilt of the accused. What a baptism for the young attorney.

Our Lord Jesus here is speaking of a great event that lay before him which was not at all unexpected, and this is how he described it; “I have a baptism to undergo.” What is he talking about? First let us clear a lot of misunderstanding away.


i] Jesus was not talking about water baptism because a few years earlier, at the beginning of his ministry, after his thirty years working with his father in Nazareth he had been baptized. You know what happened, how he said good-bye to the carpenter’s shop and went to the river Jordan where a distant relative of his, a man six months older than himself, John, had suddenly been raised up and was preaching the gospel of repentance and faith in the God who forgives repentant sinners. All of Judea and Jerusalem went out to hear him. They were gripped with interest because the gift of prophecy had lain dormant in the nation for almost 400 years. This was the nation that was known throughout the ancient world for its extraordinary prophets, men like Moses, and Samuel, and David, and Isaiah, and Jeremiah, and Jonah. Men whose words we still read today, men who began their messages to the people with the phrase, “Thus saith the Lord . . .” they prefaced all their preaching with that declaration, affirming the words on their lips were utterly unoriginal; they felt themselves mere messenger boys carried along by the Holy Spirit. They had not invented these prophecies, but the God of Genesis one, the God who in the beginning made the heavens and the earth, was not a silent, hidden God, but he revealed his heart and mind to his servants the prophets and through them to the world. I am saying that at the time of Jesus God had again raised up another remarkable man, the son of a priest, and his name was John.

When John began preaching then what we can picture as the hand of God was upon him, the authority of God was in his words, the convicting power with which he addressed the crowds had such an impact upon his hearers that a wave of excitement broke across the land, and multitudes went to his meetings. Many were moved by curiosity alone, but when they heard John speaking they were convicted and afraid. They had been ignoring God; they had lived their lives pleasing themselves, but day by day, unavoidably, they were approaching an open-ended encounter with him in death, and these men knew that weren’t ready to meet him. They broke their hearts; they confessed their sins and they asked John what they should do. He urged his disciples to share their possessions with those who had nothing; he urged converted tax collectors to stick to the law and not take more than what was legal from people, and he told born again soldiers not to extort money or accuse others of crime. John expected a profession of faith to be evidenced in new lives that were holy and kind and loving. John didn’t want people to become religious in some burst of excitement and crowd dynamics but the next day going on living as selfishly as ever.

John wanted them to show the reality of their faith by being baptized, publically in the river Jordan, and thousands were. So one day there was a line of people standing and waiting to be baptized – there was a thief, then a blasphemer, a drunkard, an immoral man, a violent bully, a crook, a Sabbath-breaker – and then John spotted his own cousin waiting there with all those men. He had to look twice. Yes there was Jesus. What was he doing there? He was the holiest and most godlike man he had ever met. John was an intimidating figure with his vast beard and strange clothes, but he was in awe of Jesus. “What are you doing here?” he said to Jesus. “I should be baptized by you. I am not worthy to untie the laces of your sandals.” Jesus said, “It must happen. I must be baptized by you. I am here to live a full and complete life of righteousness.”

So Jesus was baptized by John, and as he did so the voice of the God who had created all things, the God who had commissioned John and the other prophets to speak to the world, spoke! The voice of God sounded forth, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased,” and the Spirit of God came upon Jesus as he left the river. He was to begin a new prophetic ministry himself. He was to bring to the world the words of heaven, the Sermon on the Mount, the parable of the good Samaritan and the prodigal son. He was to continue preaching what John had been preaching, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” So, do you see where I have taken you? Jesus in our text tells his disciples that “I have a baptism to undergo” and I am saying that he was not speaking of the sign of water baptism that we are going to witness tonight. Then what was he speaking of?

ii] Jesus was not talking about a baptism of fame and glory. That was not something he sought. There are two things that indicate that. Firstly that he often told people whom he had healed that they were to tell no one what had happened to them. Remember when he healed the daughter of synagogue official named Jairus he told him and his wife not to tell anyone what had happened. Now that seems to us to be a very strange request because everyone in Jairus’ community knew that his daughter had died. Some of his men had walked to meet him as he hurried home with Jesus. They came to tell him that she was no more, that bringing Jesus there was a wasted journey, and when they got to his house her room was full of people weeping and wailing at her death. Yet Jesus by a gentle word, “Get up little girl!” had raised her and shown that he is more powerful than death itself. Then he told her parents to keep the miracle to themselves. How was that possible? He was referring to the actual details of the resurrection in her room. When a reporter came from the Jerusalem Post the next day having heard a rumour of a remarkable event they were to say to him nothing. “We cannot speak about it.” And when in the next meeting of the Jewish Women’s Weavers’ Guild they gathered around Mrs. Jairus and asked her expectantly to spill the beans, she had to shake her head and smile, thanking them for their interest but she could not talk about it. Our Lord needed a couple of years to take these twelve men aside and explain to them the nature of the kingdom of God. Herod was killing men like John the Baptist, and Jesus could not be running from one cave in the Galilean wilderness to another, hunted by soldiers whose charge was to get him dead or alive. Jesus needs anonymity and peace – difficult as it was with his gifts and power and eloquence and love and counseling skills to find times of privacy with his men for tutorials and teaching. I am saying that Jesus never sought fame. This baptism he was talking about was not like that which comes to a sportsman who breaks a world record or who scores a hat-trick on his debut.

Then you also hear the tone of voice Jesus took when describing this great future event in his life: “I have a baptism to undergo, and how distressed I am until it is completed!” (v.50). This baptism was not something he welcomed with unmixed delight. It was an occasion the thought of which filled him with distress. It was an unavoidable event; he could not take a detour to avoid it. He had set out on a certain unique ministry in the world. He could not stop preaching, and so he could not avoid the consequences of his message; “I have a baptism to undergo.” Think of a recruit in the British Army who, after his basic training, is sent to Afghanistan. He is barely twenty years of age, and he is on night patrol, under fire, conscious that there might be roadside bombs, mines and trip wires. What a baptism into warfare! So our Lord Jesus was not talking about water baptism, nor a baptism of fame and glory.

iii] Jesus was not talking about an unpleasant baptism that any other men might also suffer. There are deep baptisms of suffering and loss. On the 11th of September in New York almost a decade ago, there was a terrible baptism of fire on the Twin Towers in Manhatten, and several thousand men and women of all races, religions and economic standing were killed. It was another black day in the history of the world. It showed the warped nature of the heart of man that such an event could be considered and performed, that men could kill children and women whom they’d never met, some who held to the same Islamic faith as themselves. Such sins are within the capability of men, even within your capability, if you were brought under certain pressures and influences and circumstances then you could be persuaded that what you were doing in flying a plane into a skyscraper would be doing God a favour – in actually snuffing out the lives of thousands of people in that way. They died and the people they killed also died. That is not what Jesus was talking about here. His was an utterly unique death. Sincerity and believing any religion is not enough.

Think again of what a cruel end lay before three men on that first Good Friday, all of them nailed to three crosses to a lingering death, three terrible baptisms of suffering. Was Jesus speaking merely of the end that many true prophets have endured, speaking up, taking on the system, and then becoming the victim of its hatred and condemnation? Haven’t we seen millions of brave people incarcerated and tortured and killed as they complained against the tyranny of the system they are forced to live under? Is that what Jesus was speaking about? He was going to complain, and then the leaders were going to arrest him, and torture him and kill him? Is that alone Jesus’ baptism?

Many brave men are prepared to face that. When Jesus spoke to the disciples about his future and its suffering then they told him they were prepared to die with him. If that baptism awaited him then they were prepared to accept that fate too. Jesus was once speaking to the brothers, James and John, who had aspirations of sitting with him in heavenly glory, and he said to them, “Can you . . . be baptised with the baptism I am baptised with?” (Mk. 10:38). The answer to that question is, “No way!” But they took it as referring to enduring suffering and death from following him, and they were ready to suffer that, and they were probably both martyred for his sake, one killed at the orders of Herod and the other probably knew no escape from the prison island of Patmos. Yes, men have suffered bravely the most terrible sufferings, but Jesus’ baptism of suffering was utterly and totally unique. No one died as Jesus died and its uniqueness caused him to say, “How distressed I am until it is completed.”


Jesus was certainly referring to his death. There can be no question about that. There was no other event before him that he could be referring to in a phrase like this, no illness, no loss, no international event, nothing before him rose up to threaten him like his death. For that purpose he had come into the world. God had so loved the world that he had given his eternal and only begotten Son. He told his followers why he had come, not to be served by forty fawning flunkeys competing with one another to satisfy his every whim as one they believed to be their incarnate Creator. No, he came to serve his creatures, and the apex of his service was to give his life as a ransom for sinners. We know that before each one of us lies the unavoidable event of our death, that sooner or later we will breathe our very last breath, and our heart will give its very last beat, and my mentioning it today will not bring it one day sooner to any of you. We would do anything to avoid that. We would pay the highest price to escape from death. We wouldn’t say that we are here on earth in order to die but in order to live, and as long as we can.

Yet Jesus said he came to give his life up in death. When he was catapulted into the limelight at the beginning of his ministry he said, “My time has not yet come.” He often spoke about his future in terms of that event. “The time will come when the bridegroom will be torn away from his friends,” thus he warned them. He told Nicodemus that the Son of Man must be lifted up. He spoke of being betrayed, everyone abandoning him and he would be put on trial before the chief priests, be crucified, dead and buried to rise again on the third day. What a baptism of fire was to be our Lord Jesus.’ It irritated and scared his followers to hear him predicting these things. Simon Peter said to him, ‘Far be it from you to speak like that.’ Didn’t he have power over men and disease and death? Why should he give in to those powers at the end? ‘I will be with you always,’ said Peter. ‘Such an end is not for you!’ That’s what Peter said to our Lord. But Jesus didn’t say, ‘Thank you old friend for your comforting words.’ He was not at all pleased with Peter; in fact, ‘Get thee behind me Satan,’ he said to him. What a public put down! The night he was arrested and he said, “Father, the time has come.” The hour for which he had come into the world was the hour he left the world. Jesus was determined to die, but was also distressed at the thought of it. Why this obsession with his own death?

i] It was the loneliness of his death . . . but more than that.

When the priests and soldiers, led by Judas, came to the Garden of Gethsemane to arrest him then all his disciples took off like frightened rabbits and left him alone to be bound and taken away to his trial, to the flogging, and to the mockery and brutality of the soldiers. There was not one kind word said to him from that time onward. The only recognition came from a criminal dying alongside him who asked him to remember him when he came in his kingdom. Apart from that he was alone. He trod the winepress of God’s wrath alone. There were no voices crying out in his support. He couldn’t catch a look of sympathy in the eye of one of his friends or family. He was despised and rejected of men. The apostles writing about his death insist on this. “He by himself purged our sins.”

But more than being abandoned by the men he had loved and pastored so caringly for years, his death was a lonely affair because all contact and awareness of his heavenly Father was absent. He cried from the cross, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me.” It is the only time he ever addressed his Father as ‘God.’ He had always enjoyed the presence of God. Throughout eternity the Word was with God, towards God in love and delight. Then when he was born into this world, for 33 years he had known every day his Father’s smile, and support, and presence, but then came his dying and when he wanted God the most he had no sense of God’s presence at all. It was all uncharted territory, to experience for the very first time the frightfulness of existing without God. I am saying that Jesus knew that that lay before him and how distressed he was. So there was the loneliness of his death, but more than that,

ii] It was also the horror of his death . . . but more than that.

We have a news report on TV and the newscaster says, “Some viewers may find some of these scenes distressing,” and then he adds that for that reason they could not show other scenes of the bomb blast or the crashed plane. They were too horrible. So the physical death of Jesus Christ is too horrible to dwell upon; the gospel writers are restrained in describing what occurred on Golgotha, but the Lord Jesus knew exactly what baptism of horror lay ahead.

We might have expected heroic fearlessness from one who had had a full frontal encounter with the Devil, that such a man would be contemptuous of what men could do to him and, perhaps even be impatient to return to his Father. Yet this is not what we find. He sweated blood in the Garden as he asked if there were a possibility of another cup. The graphic portrayals of his praying agony in Gethsemane make it abundantly clear that the prospect of death was even more devastating and crushing than when he said these words of our text. His cross rose up in appalling terror between himself and his return to God. He prayed with extreme fervour, that he might be spared from this death – if it were at all consistent with the purpose of redemption. That is not the way that good men, or great men, have been accustomed to die. It was not the way apostles faced death: “I have a great desire to depart” – to die – wrote Paul. It was not the way martyrs died. “I take God to record,” cried James Guthrie, the Scottish covenanter, moments before his execution, “I would not exchange this scaffold with the palace or mitre of the greatest prelate in Britain.” So there was the horror of his death, but more than that . . .

iii] It was also the ugliness of his death . . . but more than that.

We are not in the business of making crucifixion pretty. We are not going to design pendant crucifixes for women to wear as a fashion object. The Cross was an object of sheer ugliness, a naked man with six inch nails through his hands and feet slowly dying in appaling agony. We are not going to romanticize it. We’re going to call it by its biblical name, ‘Golgotha’, in all its harsh gutturals and not use the more euphonious ‘Calvary.’ We refuse to sentimentalize it. We will talk of ‘the place of a skull’ not ‘the green hill far away.’

Of course it is a truth of the first importance that the resurrection has transformed this aspect of the crucifixion. The head that once was crowned with thorns is crowned with glory now. But this does not warrant our losing sight of the fact that the immediate associations of the Cross are grim, macabre and horrible. Golgotha was a place of execution, and the Cross an instrument of penal death. The circumstances attending this particular crucifixion were fearful. “There was darkness over the whole land” (Mark 15: 33) – like the midnight darkness of the first Passover. It was a time of deadly conflict and decisive triumph. Again “the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom, and the earth did quake and the rocks rent; and the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose” (Matt. 27: 51-52). We do not associate the death of the Lord Christ with beautiful things. We associate it with sacrifice, carnage, blood, death, curse, substitution and propitia­tion. That is why the Cross is an offense. Here, if anywhere, is Christianity a religion of the shambles.

There is a prophetic picture of the death of Christ in the Old Testament in the sin-offering of Leviticus. Look at that slaughtered animal – foul with dust and blood – its throat gashed across – its entrails laid open – and steaming to the sun in its impur­ity, waiting to be thrown onto the fire, a vile and horrid thing, which no one could see without experiencing emotions of disgust. No one could touch it without contracting defilement. That picture is too vivid, too much in your face, not in accord with the rules of good taste. It was something to be covered up, not put on display. That picture is of sin. Golgotha and the whole cluster of events surrounding the death of Christ are grim and ugly because sin is grim and ugly. This baptism is grim as an analysis of sin; sin kills God the Son; it will not rest until it has crucified the Lord of Glory. This baptism of Christ on the cross is grim as it makes clear the magnitude of the problem which sin had constituted for the Lord God. Sin is a vile and horrid thing which no one could truly look at without experiencing emotions of disgust. This baptism of suffering on Calvary is as it is that sin may be seen to be exceeding sinful, an object of horror and loathing. So there is the ugliness of death, but more than that.

I have been saying to you that the distress at the awareness of Christ’s baptism of suffering and death is more than the sum of its loneliness, and horror, and ugliness.

i] It meant he had to become the Lamb of God and take away the sin of the world. That is the only way there could be pardon. The very nature of God requires the wages paid to sin be death. The soul that sins shall surely die. Without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sin. There is no indifferent shrug in Heaven to whatever men choose to believe or reject or how they live, that God forgives everyone with a dismissive wave and ignores the lot of us. No it is not like that. We live and move and have our being in God. Our breath is in his hands. We are made in his image, and he tells us in his law how we’re live, and we have to answer to him. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. Either we must answer, or God will provide someone who answers for us. That is the choice; you take your own sin and guilt to God and answer for it, or Christ takes it to himself on Golgotha and there he deals with it comprehensively and exhaustively. You are unable to separate yourself from your blame and shame, but Christ will take it from you, otherwise it will be yours for ever. On the cross Jesus, the Lamb of God, took personal responsibility for his people’s evil. He was made sin for us – he who knew no sin. Like a bitter frost can come upon a beautiful flower and freeze it and kill it so it was that sin came upon the Saviour and he died under its presence and power. He was made sin.

ii] It meant the anathema of God. The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of man. That is the response of light to darkness – it banishes it. That is the reaction of uncreated holiness to disgusting wickedness. Jesus sees that hawkers, liars and thieves have taken over God’s house and he makes a whip and drives them out of the Temple. He sees the Pharisees forcing simple people to do what they themselves never tried to do, heaping burdens on them, and stealing from widows, while ignoring the needs of their own parents. “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” Wouldn’t you say the same thing whenever you heard of violence and abuse and theft from the vulnerable and needy? You saw the grief of two parents when the body of their young daughter was discovered recently in Bristol; she had been strangled. Wasn’t one of your reactions, “I hope they get the man who killed that girl.” Your mother is beaten up; your sister is raped; your most valuable possessions are taken from you; con-men take all your money. Are you indifferent? Of course not. You are made in God’s image and you express your righteous anger. God is angry with the wicked every day.

But what do we see here? Something incredible. The wrath of God descends on Jesus! The heavenly Father does not protect his own Son. He protects Daniel in the lions’ den, much more should he protect Jesus. Wasn’t he holy and harmless? He is God’s beloved Son in whom he is well pleased. Why should he suffer anything, especially the death of the cross? I will tell you why, and what is the very heart of Christianity. It is because Jesus is dying there in our place. He is making atonement for our guilt. We hear of a bomb disposal soldier laying down his life that his friends might be spared. What Jesus did is in a different league altogether. He is enduring our condemnation. He is satisfying the justice of God for our misbehaviour. Christ is dying for the ungodly. Peter says that the Lord Jesus himself bore our sins in his own body on the tree. He voluntarily became accountable for them. He loved the church and gave himself for her. He loved me and gave himself for me. Christ was made sin for us – he who knew no sin – in order to bring us to God. The anathema of God that would have plunged a world into hell fell on Jesus so that we, who are joined by faith in him, are raised up to heaven. All our debt has been cleared. All our pollution has been washed away. That is the baptism that Christ was facing, on the cross being consumed by the magnificent rectitude of a sin-hating God, that there might be for all who are joined to him no condemnation . . . ever! Little wonder that Christ was distressed at the thought of enduring the baptism of anathema and condemnation upon the cross. Doesn’t that give us cause to pause? If the Lord of Glory, with a conscience void of offence, is appalled at the prospect of Calvary, what does the Valley of the Shadow of Death hold for the ungodly and the sinner?

There is a direct line between this Christian baptism today and this baptism of Jesus. In today’s baptism the person being baptized is saying, “I have been saved and changed by the life and death of Jesus Christ. I am what I am because of the grace of God in our Lord Jesus. He is the Lamb of God who has taken away my sins. His was a baptism of judgment that mine might be a baptism of grace. I know that there is forgiveness with him because he rose from the dead, and because he has said that all who believe on the Lord Jesus Christ will have everlasting life.”

The word ‘baptize’ comes from a Greek Word that means “to dip,” and it refers to the work of people who dye cloth in different colors. To be baptized means we take on the “colour of Christ,” so that we’re recognizable as members of his family. Going ‘under the water’ is a symbol of being united to Jesus Christ in his death, and to having received new life in Jesus in his resurrection. The apostle Paul says, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:3-4). An Ethiopian whom Philip baptized came to understand that Jesus was the promised Messiah, the one through whom believers in all the nations of the world were going to be blessed, in Africa and in every other continent. He had been reading about him in the scroll of Isaiah, and Philip came along and explained to him that Jesus was the Son of God and the Lamb of God. The African saw that God’s plan for man’s salvation was all in Christ. He trusted in Christ; he wanted that new life that Jesus brings. “See here is water, what hinders me from being baptized,” he asked Philip, and together they went into the river and Philip baptized him. So he became the first Christian convert outside the Jewish community. He became a follower of Jesus – before any European did. He went on his way to Africa rejoicing.

Baptism is the sign that believers have entered that new life. They are professing that they have joined Jesus, that they are one with Jesus Christ. Alas there are others who don’t believe this. We are not all Christians in Aberystwyth, and we are not all followers of Jesus here tonight. So, inevitably, there is division, the believer and the unbeliever. The Lord Jesus speaks about it in our text: “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” (vv.51-53). So it has always been. There will be two ways until the day of judgment, a broad and a narrow. There will be sheep but there will also be goats. Some will be welcomed to Christ’s right side and others banished to his left. There is heaven, but there is also hell. You choose this day whom you will serve. You hear this day the words of this same Christ saying, “Come unto me . . . and I will give you rest.” Come to him and enjoy his rest.

30th January 2011 GEOFF THOMAS