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By Stephen Green. (First published in Christian Voice: June 2004)
In the Gospel of Matthew, in chapter 10, we read these words:
Matt. 10:34 Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.
35 For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law.
36 And a man's foes shall be they of his own household.
37 He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.
38 And he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me.
39 He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it.
These verses, which are among what are known as the 'hard sayings' of Jesus, are usually taken together as one complete teaching. The latter three verses show that we must put Christ first, and love him more than father, mother, son or daughter. The first three speak of a family divided, most probably pitting father and mother against their daughter, their son, and their son's wife. The question is, is a radical and unpleasant division of families really part of our Lord's injunction that He be put first in our lives? Are families to be divided because of our Lord and with His approval?
I should like to suggest that families are not divided with our Lord's approval, and that following Christ does not necessarily mean that a man's foes become they of his own household. I propose that there are two separate teachings here, each of three verses, and that Matthew has placed them together, thereby running the risk of confusing those of us who don't understand Jewish thought or remember the prophets in the way which Matthew takes for granted.
To compound the problem, in those Bibles where editors have placed headings they have often grouped the six verses together under the same heading. For example, in my Bible all six verses are under the heading "change brings conflict." But helpfully, there is also a cross-reference in my Bible to Luke 12:51-53 and Luke 14:26-27. Reference to Luke, who does not assume a perfect knowledge of the prophets, is for me a great help in understanding the verses as they appear in Matthew.
The three verses about putting Christ first are found in Luke's Gospel in chapter 14, two chapters after the verses of the family divided. They are put in a stronger form than the words recorded by Matthew, but that is not to say that one evangelist got it wrong. The Lord is capable of saying the same thing in different ways at different times or even at the same time. The word 'hate' in Luke should be understood from a Jewish point of view where everything is seen in black and white. 'I love this seat in the synagogue, I hate sitting in that one.'
Luke 14:25 And there went great multitudes with him: and he turned, and said unto them,
26 If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.
27 And whosoever doth not bear his cross, and come after me, cannot be my disciple.
It is clear from the context that the Lord is speaking of preference and priority in a typically blunt rabbinic manner. He does not expect us to hate our family or our life in the sense we in Britain normally understand the word. He expects us to put Him first, and everything else second.
Then again, if Christ is truly first in our lives, we will show His love to those around us, and especially to those closest to us. We may find it more of a challenge to love those closest to us than love a stranger. The closer people are, the more irritating they can be. But the requirement to love the members of our family with a love like unto that of God Himself is a Biblical assumption woven into God's institution of the family itself. God even uses the relationship of husband and wife and father and son to describe His relationship with His people.
Furthermore, did not the Lord's apostle command men to love their wives when he wrote to the churches in Ephesus and Colosse? (Eph 5:25, Col 3:19) Did not Peter say something very similar? Did not John say that it was impossible to love God and not to love your brother? He did not mean just your brother in the faith, he meant a brother by blood as well, because he used Cain and Abel as a specific example of how not to do it. So we are to love the members of our family with the life-giving, self-denying, all-embracing love of God.
How then do we understand our Lord's teaching of a family divided? When Luke records the teaching, there are two verses which precede the passage which do not appear in any of the other Gospels:
Luke 12:49 I am come to send fire on the earth; and what will I, if it be already kindled?
50 But I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how am I straitened till it be accomplished!
Then Luke continues:
51 Suppose ye that I am come to give peace on earth? I tell you, Nay; but rather division:
52 For from henceforth there shall be five in one house divided, three against two, and two against three.
53 The father shall be divided against the son, and the son against the father; the mother against the daughter, and the daughter against the mother; the mother in law against her daughter in law, and the daughter in law against her mother in law.
Immediately afterwards, we read this:
Luke 12:54 And he said also to the people, When ye see a cloud rise out of the west, straightway ye say, There cometh a shower; and so it is.
55 And when ye see the south wind blow, ye say, There will be heat; and it cometh to pass.
56 Ye hypocrites, ye can discern the face of the sky and of the earth; but how is it that ye do not discern this time?
If we follow the pattern in Luke, the Lord's words about a family divided are in the context not of service to Christ but that of looking for the signs of the times. The fire echoes back to an end-times prophecy near the conclusion of the book of the prophet Isaiah:
Isa. 66:15 For, behold, the LORD will come with fire, and with his chariots like a whirlwind, to render his anger with fury, and his rebuke with flames of fire.
16 For by fire and by his sword will the LORD plead with all flesh: and the slain of the LORD shall be many.
But the Lord's comments about a family divided in Luke and Matthew are almost a direct quote from chapter 7 of the book of the prophet Micah. Micah is talking about a time of terrible lawlessness, in fact, of apostasy in Israel:
Micah 7:2 The good man is perished out of the earth: and there is none upright among men: they all lie in wait for blood; they hunt every man his brother with a net.
3 That they may do evil with both hands earnestly, the prince asketh, and the judge asketh for a reward; and the great man, he uttereth his mischievous desire: so they wrap it up.
4 The best of them is as a brier: the most upright is sharper than a thorn hedge: the day of thy watchmen and thy visitation cometh; now shall be their perplexity.
Micah goes on:
Micah 7:5 Trust ye not in a friend, put ye not confidence in a guide: keep the doors of thy mouth from her that lieth in thy bosom.
6 For the son dishonoureth the father, the daughter riseth up against her mother, the daughter in law against her mother in law; a man's enemies are the men of his own house.
For almost twenty years of His life, from the time he began to study the scriptures under the local doctors of the law in earnest around the age of twelve, to the time His public ministry began around the age of thirty, Jesus had been immersed in the Hebrew Bible, which we know today as the Old Testament. The Lord had an amazing recollection of the scriptures, no doubt helped by the fact that as the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, He wrote them in the first place.
In this case, he recalls the lawless time of Micah 7, a time we might call "The Day of the Lord." We are meant to look back to that whole chapter and see what goes on. The message is clear and direct: Israel is corrupt, will be judged, and then restored.
Nowhere in Micah 7 does the prophet suggest that dividing families is a good thing, much less a Biblical imperative. Micah 7 finds a parallel in Isaiah 59, Ezekiel 22, Hosea 4, Amos 5 and many other expositions of the sins of Israel. The prophet is saying that here is an appalling time, with the good man perished, none upright, men lying in wait for blood, and bribery, corruption and mischief in high places. How like our own time it sounds.
A man cannot trust his friend, and he even has to be careful of what he says to his wife. Worst of all, families disintegrate and the 'generation gap,' a complete abomination to Hebrew thought, rears its ugly head. The Fifth Commandment is the first with a promise:
Exod 20:12 Honour thy father and thy mother; that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.
Disrespect and dishonour within families, with sons and daughters rising up against their parents, is something so alien to God's plan that Micah lists it last, as the ultimate example of human depravity in this godless society he is describing.
By linking Micah chapter 7, through the use of verse 6, with fire and the signs of the times, Jesus is preparing us for the Day of the Lord, and warning us what conditions will be like before He returns in judgment. Would Jesus wish such a society to exist? Emphatically not. His comment that He wishes His return would happen immediately must be born of a desire to set up His earthly reign there and then to spare us. But we are being warned that things must follow their course. The fire is kindled, Satan is having a field-day, it is all building up, and the ultimate expression of it is in the division of families. The lack of the love of God in the family divided reminds us of Matt 24:12: And because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold.
We see this truth demonstrated all around us. In our nation today, iniquity has abounded and as a result people just don't care. That is why our trains are derailed, the innocent are convicted, our hospitals are left uncleaned to become a breeding-ground for super-bugs, the young are encouraged to be promiscuous, and end up infertile, and the elderly are battered to death for a few pence. It is a frightening thought that the love of the many, or of the majority (the definite article is there in the Greek) has waxed cold, but the evidence is all around us. People now just look out for themselves, and they have lost all respect for others.
Especially, they have lost respect for their parents, and a family is divided, not just through divorce, which is where half of all marriages now end up, but with children divided against their parents. The only hope for such a family and such a society is in the Lord Jesus Himself, and in His forerunner, the prophet who comes in the spirit of Elijah. Malachi writes this, in the closing words of the Old Testament:
Mal. 4:5 Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD:
6 And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.
That is how the Lord Jesus feels about families. That is how He feels about the relationship between generations. He desires love, respect and unity in a family, not hatred, dishonour and division. The latter qualities bring a curse. The former virtues bring a blessing. Would it not be good if Christian families were examples of what God has said a family should be? I shall say no more.