There is an interesting story about Jesus and his disciples that occurs in the gospels only in Luke 9. The time frame of the story is in the very late stages of Jesus public ministry. He has taken his disciples to the northernmost part of Israel, to Caesarea Philippi, where He revealed to them what was about to take place as far as his death and resurrection were concerned.
Then he takes three of the disciples, Peter, James, and John up on a high mountain to experience what has been called the “transfiguration”. While they are watching, Jesus meets with and talks to the “angelic” appearing Moses and Elijah, two of Israel’s greatest prophets, who have long since died and gone to heaven. They also see their rabbi transfigured and hear the voice of God thunder from the heavens. It is obvious that they are in special company in a special time in history.
After this amazing incident, the Bible says that Jesus, realizing that his time to be crucified was at hand, set his face resolutely towards Jerusalem. To get to Jerusalem, which is south of the Galilee quite a distance, the group decided to go the shortest route through the Samaritan mountains. They had taken this route in the past, if you remember when Jesus met the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well in Samaria. The Samaritans and the Jews did not get along, at all. Most Jews would not even risk going through Samaria and the same could be said for the Samaritans, as they were reluctant to go through Israel. Their hatred for each other had been going on for centuries.
As they traveled in Samaria, Jesus sent some messengers ahead to reserve a place to stay and to have something to eat. However, the Samaritans were not friendly at all, and would not let the disciples make any arrangements for their rabbi.
When James and John saw the Samaritans rude behavior, they quickly asked Jesus,”Can we call down fire from heaven on these guys and teach them a lesson and destroy this Samaritan village?”Jesus rebuked James and John and said, we’ll just go to another village. In the King James translation, Jesus replies, “I did not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them”.
Why would the disciples want to call fire down from heaven, besides the obvious fact that they were mad at them? If we knew our text better, the answer would be obvious. Elijah, the first great prophet of Israel, the one that they had just seen on the mountain, had done the exact same thing to the exact same people, in the exact same area, for the exact same reason! Look at the story in 2 Kings Ch.1! By gosh, if Elijah didn’t put up with these unruly Samaritans, then neither will we! Also, Elijah had called down fire from heaven in the contest with Baal on top of Mt. Carmel. So the fire from heaven was a prophet thing!
Moses, the other great leader of Israel that they had just witnessed, also called down fire from heaven on the Sons of Korah in Numbers 16:35 and on Aaron’s sons in Leviticus 10:2. So the disciples were trying to emulate these great prophets when they asked Jesus for permission to scorch these Samaritans! They had great precedent to do so; surely their rabbi would go along with it.
Jesus, however, said, “My ministry is going to be a little different “. What Moses and Elijah did was appropriate for that time and situation, but my ministry is going to be about trying to save these people’s lives, not wipe them out”. In fact, Jesus uses the Samaritans as examples in a lot of his parables and stories to show that we’ve got to love even our worst enemy, e.g. the story of the Good Samaritan.
Doesn’t this make this story a lot more interesting when you know the history and the context behind what was happening? We need to know our Hebrew Testament so much better! That is the book and the stories that Jesus and his disciples would have been so familiar with. This should motivate us to be better students of the text! Our rabbi and his disciples certainly were good students!