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The judgments of God are based upon the fiery law. God will judge the earth according to His own law, not by the laws of men. Luke 12:49, 50 says,
49 I have come to cast fire upon the earth; and how I wish it were already kindled! 50 But I have a baptism to undergo, and how distressed I am until it is accomplished.
Jesus wished that this “fire” had already been kindled, but He knew that it had to begin with the cross. This was a baptism that Jesus yet had to undergo. It referred to His trial and crucifixion, for He was preparing to go to Jerusalem soon.
This baptism had been foreshadowed—and even established—by His water baptism at the hands of John the Baptist. But whereas that water baptism was only a symbol of death and resurrection, Jesus was now facing the actual ordeal. The first baptism led directly to the second.
In this second baptism, Jesus took upon Himself the judgment for the sin of the world, so that the judgments of God upon the world would be corrective and ultimately beneficial to all men. Yet the cross was also a point of division between believers and unbelievers and between the faithful overcomers and those believers who abuse the other servants of God. So Luke 12:51-53 says,
51 Do you suppose that I came to grant peace on earth? I tell you, no, but rather division; 52 for from now on five members in one household will be divided, three against two, and two against three. 53 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.
This is a loose paraphrase of Micah 7:6, which prophesied of this division:
6 For son treats father contemptuously, daughter rises up against her mother, daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; a man’s enemies are the men of his own household.
The object of His coming was to bring peace, as we read in Isaiah 9:6, 7, but the immediate effect of His coming would bring division, conflict, and judgment.
When Jesus healed the man who had been blind from birth in John 9, the result was division. The priests “put him out,” (John 9:34) that is, they excommunicated him from the temple according to the law and cut him off from among his people. When the man found Jesus later, we read in John 9:39,
39 And Jesus said, “For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see; and that those who see may become blind.”
Paul said in Rom. 11:7 that the elected ones would obtain the promise, while the rest were blinded. So the people would be divided in their view of a crucified Messiah. Because the people were expecting the Messiah to overthrow the Romans and to set up the Kingdom in Jerusalem, with the Judeans as His special people, the crucifixion would disrupt their entire paradigm of prophetic belief. Most would say that His crucifixion proved that He was not the Messiah at all, for He failed, they said, to fulfill the prophets.
Others would understand, however, that all of the laws regarding sacrifice prophesied of Him, and that He had to die for the sin of the world before setting up His Kingdom. Paul said in 1 Cor. 1:22-25,
22 For indeed Jews ask for signs, and Greeks search for wisdom; 23 but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block, and to Gentiles foolishness, 24 but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God, 25 because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
Both Jew and Greek had a difficult time believing that a crucified Messiah was genuine. It made no sense to the Greeks, who relied upon human wisdom, and it did not fit the Jewish aspirations of a Messiah. To the Greeks, the idea of a crucified Messiah was foolishness—an absurdity. To the Jews, a crucified Messiah implied weakness, rather than strength.
Yet to those who are the called, God’s apparently foolish plan is the highest form of wisdom, and the weakness of the Messiah became His strength through the resurrection of the dead.
Nonetheless, the people would be divided over this, for the carnal mind cannot comprehend spiritual things, as Paul says in 1 Cor. 2:14,
14 But a natural [psukikos, “soulish”] man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised.
Paul also tells us in 1 Cor. 1:22 that “Jews ask for signs.” Signs in themselves are not evil; in fact, God does give signs. The problem is that carnally-minded men have difficulty knowing and interpreting the signs that God gives them. The primary sign that God was giving them was that of Jonah (Matt. 16:2-4). In other words, Christ’s death and resurrection were the fulfillment of the sign of Jonah. His crucifixion was the fulfillment of prophets, although the priests and rabbis did not understand this.
Matt. 16:1-4 runs parallel to Luke 12:54-57. Matt. 16:1-4 reads,
1 And the Pharisees and Sadducees came up, and testing Him asked Him to show them a sign from heaven. 2 But He answered and said to them, “When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.’ 3 And in the morning, ‘There will be a storm today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ Do you know how to discern the appearance of the sky, but cannot discern the signs of the times? 4 An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign; and a sign will not be given it, except the sign of Jonah.” And He left them, and went away.
Luke 12:54-57 says similar things to the crowd on another occasion:
54 And He was also saying to the multitudes, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, immediately you say, ‘A shower is coming,’ and so it turns out. 55 And when you see a south wind blowing, you say, ‘It will be a hot day,’ and it turns out that way. 56 You hypocrites! You know how to analyze the appearance of the earth and the sky, but why do you not analyze this present time? 57 And why do you not even on your own initiative judge what is right?
Paul’s answer, of course, is that the natural man cannot discern spiritual things. Its ability is limited to natural things. Only the spiritual mind, or “the mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:16), can discern all things—the things of God as well as natural things.
The problem was that both the leaders and the people held strong and deeply-ingrained opinions about the Messiah and what He would do. Most of them were not open minded enough to do a thorough investigation of any other viewpoint. And so the disagreement was to persist until the Great White Throne judgment settled the matter.
Hence, Jesus criticized the people for knowing the signs of earth and sky without understanding the signs that were given by God—the sign of Jonah in particular. They preferred to disagree without taking the initiative in analyzing the issue with prayer and discernment. So Jesus continues in Luke 12:57-59,
57 And why do you not even on your own initiative judge what is right? 58 For while you are going with your opponent to appear before the magistrate, on your way there make an effort to settle with him, in order that he may not drag you before the judge, and the judge turn you over to the constable, and the constable throw you into prison. 59 I say to you, you shall not get out of there until you have paid the very last cent.
No doubt there were some in the crowd who had been taken to court in the past, and few had made a determined effort to settle with their opponents out of court. This in itself was a sign of their stubbornness in believing themselves to be in the right without fully hearing or understanding the opponent’s perspective.
Jesus used this as a metaphor for the division between believers and unbelievers and how the unbelievers would refuse to take the initiative to understand a different viewpoint. The point is that if unbelievers refuse to settle their differences with the believers, the case will eventually reach the court, and the Judge will settle the matter. Unfortunately, when the matter is settled, the party that is in the wrong will be turned over to the constable for imprisonment. They will not be released until they have paid “the very last cent.”
This speaks of the Great White Throne, where nothing can be hidden, where all truth will come to light, and where all matters will be settled. There every knee will bow, and every tongue will swear allegiance to Him (Isaiah 45:23, 24), and, as Paul says, every tongue will confess Him as Lord to the glory of God the Father (Phil. 2:11).
Nonetheless, they will yet be judged by the fiery law that flows like a river of fire toward the people who are rising from the dead (Daniel 7:10). This river forms a “lake of fire” in Rev. 20:14, 15. Whereas the “river” speaks of the decree of judgment flowing from the throne to the people, the “lake” speaks of the outworking of that decree in the time ahead—that is, until they have paid the very last cent.
Jesus was warning the people that if they would not seek diligently to know the truth prior to the Great White Throne judgment, then they would be judged when all things are revealed. At that point it will be too late to avoid divine judgment.
However, Jesus did not say that this judgment would be endless. He said it would last until they had paid the very last cent. A similar statement is made in Matt. 18:34, where the Lord “handed him over to the torturers until he should repay all that was owed him.” The common word used for a jailor in those days was “torturer,” or “tormentor.” Dr. Bullinger explains this in his notes on Matt. 18:34,
34 tormentors: or jailors. Gr. basanistes. Occ. Only here. Imprisonment was called in Roman law-books, cruciatus corporis.
The word basanistes means “one who elicits truth by use of the rack; an inquisitor, torturer.” In the laws of the nations, jailors were the ones responsible not only to imprison people but also were often called upon to torture people to elicit truth.
Of course, God has no need of a rack to elicit the truth from witnesses. When men are arrested and summoned to the divine court, God simply adjures them to speak the whole truth, as the law of public adjuration provides, and they will be unable to do otherwise. While men may torture people in an attempt to obtain information, God does not do so.
In biblical law, there is always an end to divine judgment. The purpose of judgment is to correct the sinner and give him a change of heart during the time of his sentence. Further, the law of Jubilee provides a limitation on all sentences, even as the flogging law limits the number of lashes a man may receive to just forty.
Hence, even the unbelievers who refused to reconcile with their opponents will be reconciled to God in the end. They will not be able to avoid divine judgment, but that judgment will end at the Creation Jubilee.