Fire can be a terrifying thing, especially in a forest. The speed with which it can spread and the damage it can cause can be incredible. But fire can also do positive things for a forest.
Among other things, fire can remove debris, opening it up to the sunlight, and thus allowing the soil to be nourished. It also burns up excess underbrush allowing the remaining trees to take in more of the soil’s nutrients, causing them to become stronger. In addition, it kills insects that prey on trees, and helps rid the forest of diseases.
In short, fire can cleanse and bring life.
Jesus told his disciples,
I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! (49)
What fire was that? Many people debate on the meaning, but I believe it is the fire of the gospel. How was it kindled? Jesus tells us in the next verse.
But I have a baptism to undergo, and how distressed I am until it is completed! (50)
I think it’s pretty clear that the baptism Jesus was referring to was his death. He makes another reference to this later when James and John ask to be his right hand men in the kingdom (Mark 10:38).
By his death and subsequent resurrection, the fire of the gospel was lit. And like a fire, it spread rapidly, cleansing the souls of people and giving them life, their sins forgiven, and their relationship with God restored.
But Jesus also knew that fire can burn and cause pain. So he warned his disciples as he did once before,
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. (51-53)
The same fire that cleanses is also painful to the touch. And some people don’t want any part of that. When their conscience is singed by the fire of the gospel, they recoil. Instead of letting it purify them, they run. More, they fight against anyone who tries to bring the gospel into their lives, even members of their own family.
That’s what Jesus is talking about here.
But as much as we may suffer from the rejection we may receive from others, even from members of our own family, remember that Jesus suffered much more when he died on that cross.
So as the writer of Hebrews put it,
Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. (Hebrews 12:3)
And let us carry the torch of the gospel forward that it may cleanse and bring life to those it touches.