He also said to the crowds: “When you see a cloud rising in the west, right away you say, ‘A storm is coming,’ and so it does. And when the south wind is blowing, you say, ‘It’
s going to be a scorcher!’ and it is. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?
“Why don’t you judge for yourselves what is right? As you are going with your adversary to the ruler, make an effort to settle with him on the way. Then he won’t drag you before the judge, the judge hand you over to the bailiff, and the bailiff throw you into prison. I tell you, you will never get out of there until you have paid the last cent.”
Christmas songs resound with the promise that the Messiah has come to be the Prince of Peace, bringing peace to all the earth. So what is up with verse 51? Jesus keeps blowing our preconceptions out of the water.
Consider the scriptures that speak of the Messiah as a peacemaker. Psalm 72 says the righteous will flourish under an abundance of peace. Isaiah 9:6 prophesied that the Messiah would be the Prince of Peace. Isaiah 55, 57, and 66 taught that he would bring peace to those near and even those far off. Ezekiel 34 & 37 predicted a new covenant that would bring peace. The Jewish people had every reason from Scripture to believe that the Messiah would bring peace.
When Zechariah prayed and prophesied over his son John he proclaimed that the Messiah would guide our feet into the way of peace. Jesus himself told many that he healed and forgave to "go in peace". In John 14 he taught his disciples, "My peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you." Two chapters later he tells them. "These things I have spoken that in me you might have peace." So why would he say he did not come to bring peace?
Let's look at the rest of John 14, "Not as the world gives peace do I give peace." That's a huge clue. In Colossians 1:20 Paul writes, "God made peace with everything in heaven and on earth by means of Christ's blood on the cross." Jesus' listeners expected him to bring a time of national peace, if he was indeed the Messiah. He would overthrow the Romans, and Israel could be it's own boss. John and Jesus both preached that the kingdom was one of peace, but this is the kingdom of God, not a kingdom of man. There can never be peace in the world unless every life is focused on bringing glory to God, every man has personal peace through the forgiveness of Christ, and each person is led by the Holy Spirit. This will not really occur until the second coming of Christ, but it is visible in snippets as we are transformed into the image of Christ. But as we reject the Prince of Peace we forfeit the kingdom of peace he brings.
In the Greek verse 49 reads this way, "For fire, I have come upon the earth." Jesus came to bring a fire that both cleansed and purged the hearts of men. "Baptism" here implies total immersion. Jesus had a task to undergo that consumed his ministry and his mind until it was complete - his propitiation for our sin and death on a cross. His death would be the kindling that lit the fire of judgment. The Old Testament speaks many times of fire as judgment, but the Jewish listeners would have been taught that the punishing fire of God was for Israel's enemies - Moab, Edom, and others in the Old Testament and certainly Romans of their day. Gentiles deserved the fire of God, his people did not.
Although we find unity in the body of Christ, the gospel bring division. We know in other countries that people converting to Christianity are persecuted and killed for their beliefs, even by their own families. I currently know of two former Catholics who were disowned by their families for joining Protestant churches. But even on a lesser level, families with mixed religious beliefs will have conflict. Different priorities, lifestyle, and beliefs will bring tension if not flat out arguments. (In verse 53, Jesus is also loosely quoting Micah 7:6. His listeners would have caught this reference to Micah's cry against the morality in his day and know that Jesus was comparing them to that wicked generation.)
Jesus reprimands his listeners for being able to interpret the signs of the weather better than spiritual signs. When a cloud appeared in the west or a wind blew in from the south, these amateur meteorologist did not need Doppler radar to know what was coming. Yet they ignored and misinterpreted the signs given by Jesus. He must be using the power of demons. He couldn't be the Messiah because he isn't performing the signs we expect.
He calls the throng hypocrites, comparing them to people on the way to court. It is uncommon for people to not proclaim their own innocence. We either claim we didn't do it or, if caught, offer excuses as to why we did. Jesus warns his listeners to settle before judgment is reached. Those found guilty would be thrown into a debtors prison, jailed until every penny was repaid. And how could you repay the debt from prison? Most would languish and die within the prison walls.
Jesus was truly speaking of a spiritual debt. We are hypocrites who cannot easily see our own faults. Common thought is that if the good outweighs the bad, we will be okay on the day of judgment. Can you imagine if we applied this thought to our court system. "But judge, look at all the people I didn't murder! And there were so many houses I could have broken into that I left alone." We would "throw the book" at someone with that defense. Yet that is how many plan to argue their case before the judge of all.
Have you ever heard a hypocrite describe himself? I describe him this way:—you are a mean, selfish person. “No,” he says, “I am not; I am economical.” I say to him, “You are dishonest, you are a thief.” “No,” says he, “I am only shrewd and clever...” Somehow or other he will make vice look like a virtue in himself, but he will deal the opposite with others. Show him a Christian who is really humble, and he says, “I hate his submissive ways.” Tell him there is one who is very courageous for Christ; and he says, “Oh! he is insensitive to the feelings of others!”... There are people like that who make virtues in others into vices, and vices in themselves they transform into virtues.
Now, if you are a Christian, I will tell you what your spirit will be like, it will be the very opposite; you will always be making excuses for others, but you will never be making excuses for yourself. The true Christian, if he sees himself sin, mourns over it. He says to another, “Oh! I feel so sinful;” and the other one says, “I cannot really see it; I can see no sin in you; I could only wish that I were as holy as you.” “No,” says the other, “I am full of weaknesses.” ... That is the spirit of a Christian; but the spirit of the hypocrite is the very reverse; he will judge, and condemn, and severely punish every other man; and as for himself, he is exempt, he is a king, he knows no law, and his conscience slumbers and allows him to go on easily in the very sins which he condemns in others. This is a very prominent mark of the hypocrite, and I question whether all of us must not blame ourselves a little here.