When the days drew near for him to be taken up, Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him, who went and entered a village of the Samaritans, to make preparations for him. But the people did not receive him, because his face was set towards Jerusalem. And when his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But he turned and rebuked them. And they went on to another village.
Luke 9 v51-56
Jesus predicts His death three times in Luke’s Gospel (9:21-22, 43-35; 18:31-34), but only after Peter’s confession that He is the Messiah (9:18-20), which is the turning point of the Gospel. From this point onwards , the action leads to the climax of the cross. Jesus sets His face to go to Jerusalem. He is determined. Resolute. The obedient Son committed to fulfilling the Father’s purpose. But notice Luke doesn’t say the time is coming for Jesus’ death but for him to be “taken up”. That translates a noun that is related to the verb used in Acts Chapter 1 to describe the risen Jesus being taken up into Heaven, what we call His ascension. Yes, Jesus will suffer and die and rise again, but the Father will receive His Son back into His presence, into the glory that is His by right, which was unveiled for a time at the Transfiguration. God’s plan is unfolding.
As he travels to Jerusalem, Jesus sends messengers ahead into a village of the Samaritans to prepare the way for Him. A few hundred Samaritans still live today in Israel and Palestine. Samaritans were descendants of Israelites who were left in the territory of the northern kingdom after it was conquered by Assyria in 722 BC. They inter-married with non-Israelites settled there by the Assyrians. They worshipped the God of Israel in a system centred on Mount Gerizim, which they believed to be the site where Abraham offered Isaac and which God chose for the Temple. The animosity between Samaritans and Jews forms the backdrop to the story Jesus tells in the next chapter of Luke – the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Shockingly, it makes a Samaritan the ‘good guy’ who demonstrates what love for one’s neighbour looks like.
The Parable shows that Jesus doesn’t share the normal Jewish attitude to Samaritans, but it’s clear in Luke 9 that Jesus’ disciples did. The villagers is to reject Him or, more precisely, His messengers. James and John – the two sons of Zebedee – are clearly incensed. Mark 3:17 says Jesus gave a nickname to these brothers: Boanerges, meaning sons of thunder. Mark doesn’t tell us why Jesus chose that nickname, but these events in Luke 9 might explain it. The brothers had a temper. The Samaritans had offended their Master. They deserved to be obliterated.
It seems odd that these brothers speak to Jesus as if they had authority to call down judgement from heaven. Who do they think they are? Between his account of the Transfiguration and this episode, Luke recounts the powerlessness of the disciples who didn’t join him on the mountain. They couldn’t exorcise a demon. But James and John had been on the mountain. Perhaps they had grown proud. “Those other disciples are powerless, but we saw His glory. We are empowered disciples! We can be the agents of God’s judgement”. The brothers seem to have felt superior to the others. Another thing we read between the Transfiguration and this episode is that the disciples argued about who was the greatest – verse 46. We can imagine these ‘sons of thunder’ in the thick of that dispute. Matthew 20 even tells us that their mother got involved, making a bid for them to have the most privileged positions in Jesus’ kingdom. Jesus rebukes James and John in their pride. They were on the mountain and saw the glory, but they didn't heed what the voice from Heaven said. Rather than listening to Jesus, they were trying to direct Him!
In fairness to James and John, judgement by fire from heaven was not unprecedented in Scripture. It happened to Sodom and Gomorrah in the time of Abraham and to soldiers in the time of Elijah. And they knew that sin demands God’s just judgement. Jesus upheld that principle. In Luke 10:13-15, He says that cities like Chorazin and Bethsaida, which rejected him and His messengers will, “be brought down to Hades”. So, why does Jesus rebuke the disciples here, besides for their arrogance? I think they got two things wrong.
Firstly, this Samaritan village weren’t like Chorazin and Bethsaida. Those towns would be judged severely because they didn’t receive Jesus despite having seen wonderful miracles. The Samaritans, by contrast, hadn’t seen miracles and they hadn’t heard Jesus preach either, because His mission was almost exclusively to the Jews. Later, after Jesus’ ascension, these villages would hear about Jesus and see miracles through Philip, who went to Samaria. Acts 8:6 says, “the crowds with one accord paid attention to what was being said by Philip when they heard him and saw the signs that he did”. James and John were wrong in wanting judgement on people who hadn’t had an opportunity to hear, repent and believe.
An additional reason for Jesus’ rebuke is that they wanted God’s judgement on those who reject Jesus to come now. They’ve got God’s timetable wrong. This is not the time for judgement, but for salvation. Jesus has not come in glory to judge, but in humility to die. Each time Jesus predicted His death they couldn’t grasp it. James and John are still expecting Jesus to set up God’s kingdom in Jerusalem in power. A scorched earth policy in Samaria would be an appropriate beginning.
The Samaritan village has rejected Jesus, but this is no time for judgement. There is immense irony here in two senses. First, because of the reason why the Samaritans reject Jesus’s messengers – because He’s going to Jerusalem. They spurn this Jewish Rabbi because they think He’s going to Jerusalem to celebrate in one of the Jewish feasts. They have no idea that, far from going to celebrate, Jesus is going to be rejected and killed. The hatred they experienced from the Jews would be directed against Him too. They have more in common with Jesus than they know. This irony is intensified when we remember that He knew He was going to die for sinful people. Including these Samaritans. They think He despises them, but He knows He will die for them.
There is a second kind of irony. This Samaritan village is a microcosm of Israel’s history. God sent messengers to prepare the way for His Son – a line of prophets culminating in John the Baptist. But the people rejected them. Now the Son has come, but they will reject Him too, handing Him over to death. James and John know that those who reject the Messiah deserve judgement. But, in their prejudice, they think that judgement is only for the Samaritans. In reality, the Jewish people stand under the same judgement. Including the ‘sons of thunder’ themselves. The Samaritans needed mercy. So did the Jews, including them.
So, this episode in Samaria illustrates how clueless the disciples were about what Jesus had come to do. They know He is the Messiah, as Peter confessed, but they have no idea what kind of Messiah He will be. Not judging – at least not yet – but rescuing those who deserve judgement. That was a day of hope, not condemnation. And this day still is a day of hope for those who will receive Jesus. In the next blog post, I'll continue on into Luke 9 to see what Jesus said about the call to discipeship.
This blog post is based on a sermong I preached in Bethany Church, Finaghy, on Sunday 15th May 2022.