“The master of that servant will come on a day when he is not looking for him, and at an hour when he is not aware, and will cut him in two and appoint him his portion with the unbelievers. And that servant who knew his master’s will, and did not prepare himself or do according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes.”
A pastor recently wrote with this question:
The sources I’ve seen are uniform in saying that the servants in Luke 12:46-47 are unbelievers. Is there another opinion?
Yes, there is indeed another opinion concerning Luke 12:46-47. There are many compelling reasons to conclude that the man who is cut in two represents any believer who has lost sight of Christ’s soon return and has fallen into abusive and wayward living.
First, the man is a servant entrusted by the Lord Jesus with a stewardship (“Who then is that…steward…” Luke 12:42). There are few, if any, examples in Scripture of unbelievers who are called servants of Christ who are entrusted with a stewardship by Him.
Second, the cutting in two is obviously figurative and does not suggest eternal condemnation. Even if this servant did represent an unbeliever, he would not literally be cut in two and spend eternity in two pieces!
The figure refers to something that will cut a person deeply, to the core of his being. We know from other Scripture that the Word of God is like a two edged sword that cuts to the division of soul and spirit (Hebrews 4:12). Jesus’ words will deeply cut the unfaithful believer—in two, so to speak.
The apostle John spoke of this when he said, “And now, little children, abide in Him, that when He appears, we may have confidence and not be ashamed before Him at His coming” (1 John 2:18). Stinging rebuke will cause the faithless believer to be ashamed.
Third, the last word in verse 46, apistos in Greek, is translated as “the unbelievers” in many versions (NKJV, KJV, NIV, NASB). However, it could also be translated “the unfaithful.” In fact, it is translated that way in the Revised Standard Version. That, in my estimation is a better translation. Support for this translation is found at the beginning of the parable: “Who then is the faithful and wise steward…? The issue from the start is faithfulness, not faith.
Further support is found in the parallel passage in Matthew 24:45-51. On another occasion when the Lord gave this same basic message, He said that those who are cut in two are appointed a portion (meros)1 “with the hypocrites.” A believer is a hypocrite whenever he lives in a manner contrary to what he says to be true.
Remember that these servants are specifically given the responsibility to feed and rule over their fellow servants (“…his master will make [him] ruler over his household, to give them their portion of food in due season,” Luke 12:42). In the church this represents all who have some form of spiritual authority and teaching ministry. This would include all elders, Sunday school teachers, Bible study teachers, youth workers, etc. If a person teaches the Word for years, and then later falls away and violates his own teachings, then he is a hypocrite and unfaithful.
Fourth, there is a lessening progression of judgments in this passage. Some were well taught and did well for a time. Later they abused their responsibilities and hurt rather than helped their fellow servants. They will be “cut in two” by Christ’s rebuke. Others also knew what they should do (i.e., they too were well taught in the Scriptures) yet failed to properly prepare themselves to do it. They “shall be beaten with many stripes” (Luke 12:47), clearly a lesser penalty. Evidently these didn’t abuse their fellow servants, or at least not as much. Still less severe is the punishment of those whose failures are due to ignorance of God’s will (i.e., those who were never well taught) and who “shall be beaten with few [stripes]” (v 48). Ignorance does not eliminate all rebuke, but it does lessen it (“to whom much is given, from him much will be required,” v 48).
Unless all of these are seen as unbelievers, these must refer to degrees of stinging rebuke that unfaithful believers will receive.
Fifth, the issue in the passage is rulership, not kingdom entrance.2 Those who rule well now (v 42) will rule in the coming kingdom (v 44).3 The reference to “much given, much required” (v 48) is obviously rewards language, for eternal life is not received for perseverance in faithful service for Christ.
Sixth and finally, the setting is the return of Christ. The servant believes Christ is coming again (v 45) and for a time he lives in light of that soon return. (Note in v 45 the phrase “if that servant” refers to the servant mentioned in v 42-44 who was faithful to that point. Then he loses focus and falls into disgraceful behavior.)
While we need to be prepared to live out a lifetime if the Lord should tarry, we also need to be fully prepared for Him to come today. Jesus said, “Surely I am coming quickly” (Revelation 22:20b). Our response should be: “Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus” (Revelation 22:20c).
1The “portion” with the unfaithful (hypocrites) is not some sort of physical location. Rather it refers to sharing a common experience. This is the Greek word meros. In John 13:8 Jesus told Peter that if He didn’t wash his feet then he would have no meros, no part, no portion, with Him. The issue there is fellowship (cf. 1 John 1:9), but there may also be an implication of what we see in this passage as well. If any believer continued to walk out of fellowship with Christ, then he would have no portion, or share, in His kingdom reign.
2The Lord doesn’t even say that the servant who becomes faithless is excluded from all rewards. According to v 31-34 in this chapter (see also Matt 6:19-21; 10:40-42), any treasure we lay up in heaven is secure forever (“money bags which do not grow old, a treasure in the heavens that does not fail”), even if we later become unfaithful.
3So in terms of what I call “perseverance prizes” the options are ruling with Christ and the attendant privileges (right to eat the fruit of the tree of life, hidden manna, special white garments) versus not ruling and missing out on those special privileges. The former hear praise and approval (dokimos). The latter hear rebuke and disapproval (adokimos).