When the days were approaching for His ascension, He was determined to go to Jerusalem; and He sent messengers on ahead of Him, and they went and entered a village of the Samaritans to make arrangements for Him. But they did not receive Him because He was traveling toward Jerusalem. When His disciples James and John saw this, they said, “Lord, do You want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But He turned and rebuked them, and said, “You do not know what kind of spirit you are of; for the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them.” And they went on to another village. (Luke 9.51-56, TNIV)I have to admit that this is a very confusing story for me personally. I’m going to ask you to put yourself in James’ and John’s sandals for a moment as we begin this week and consider some very important questions. The first question is this: why did James and John ask if they should call fire down from heaven on these Samaritans? The answer is even stranger, because it’s rooted and grounded in an Old Testament way of seeing God.
There are two bold historical events that give James’ and John’s question some basis. The first is the fire that God rained down out of heaven on Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19), and the second is Elijah and his interaction with actual Samaritans (2 Kings 1).
But it gets worse before it gets better. We have to add to these the additional numerous other accounts (I will only list a few of them here) as well as prophetic statements that form the basis for their question as well. This exercise may seem tedious, but I encourage you to stay with me until the end.
And fire came out from the presence of the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD. (Levitus 10.2)
Now the people became like those who complain of adversity in the hearing of the LORD; and when the LORD heard it, His anger was kindled, and the fire of the LORD burned among them and consumed some of the outskirts of the camp. (Numbers 11.1)
Fire also came forth from the LORD and consumed the two hundred and fifty men who were offering the incense. (Numbers 16.35)
For the LORD your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God. (Deuteronomy 4.24)
Know therefore today that it is the LORD your God who is crossing over before you as a consuming fire. He will destroy them and He will subdue them before you, so that you may drive them out and destroy them quickly, just as the LORD has spoken to you. (Deuteronomy 9.3)
For a fire is kindled in My anger, and burns to the lowest part of Sheol, and consumes the earth with its yield, and sets on fire the foundations of the mountains. (Deuteronomy 32.22)
Therefore, as a tongue of fire consumes stubble and dry grass collapses into the flame, so their root will become like rot and their blossom blow away as dust; for they have rejected the law of the LORD of hosts and despised the word of the Holy One of Israel. (Isaiah 5.24)
From the LORD of hosts you will be punished with thunder and earthquake and loud noise, With whirlwind and tempest and the flame of a consuming fire. (Isaiah 29.6)
And the LORD will cause His voice of authority to be heard, and the descending of His arm to be seen in fierce anger, and in the flame of a consuming fire in cloudburst, downpour and hailstones. (Isaiah 30.30)
And say to the forest of the Negev, “Hear the word of the LORD: thus says the Lord GOD, ‘Behold, I am about to kindle a fire in you, and it will consume every green tree in you, as well as every dry tree; the blazing flame will not be quenched and the whole surface from south to north will be burned by it.’” (Ezekiel 20.47)
“Thus I have poured out My indignation on them; I have consumed them with the fire of My wrath; their way I have brought upon their heads,” declares the Lord GOD. (Ezekiel 22.31)
So I will send fire upon the house of Hazael and it will consume the citadels of Ben-hadad. (Amos 1.4)
So I will send fire upon the wall of Gaza and it will consume her citadels. (Amos 1.7)
So I will send fire upon the wall of Tyre and it will consume her citadels. (Amos 1.10)
So I will send fire upon Teman and it will consume the citadels of Bozrah. (Amos 1.12)
So I will kindle a fire on the wall of Rabbah and it will consume her citadels amid war cries on the day of battle, and a storm on the day of tempest. (Amos 1.14)
So I will send fire upon Moab and it will consume the citadels of Kerioth; and Moab will die amid tumult, with war cries and the sound of a trumpet. (Amos 2.2)
So I will send fire upon Judah and it will consume the citadels of Jerusalem. (Amos 2.5)
Seek the LORD that you may live, or He will break forth like a fire, O house of Joseph, and it will consume with none to quench it for Bethel. (Amos 5.6)
The point I want to make for you is that James and John were fully “Biblical” in their response to the Samaritans’ rejection of Jesus. And yet Jesus REBUKED them. Don’t gloss over that word “rebuke.” It’s a strong word to describe a strong response to them by Jesus.
I am becoming more and more alarmed at modern Christians in their use of the Old Testament to justify their refusal to follow the clear teachings of Jesus and the principles of His kingdom. (I recently encountered this in some responses to comments I made on Facebook about the execution of Bin Laden.)
Jesus taught us:
Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. Whoever hits you on the cheek, offer him the other also; and whoever takes away your coat, do not withhold your shirt from him either. Give to everyone who asks of you, and whoever takes away what is yours, do not demand it back. Treat others the same way you want them to treat you. If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners in order to receive back the same amount. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for He Himself is kind to ungrateful and evil men. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. (Luke 6:27-36)
I know this is going to raise some significant questions for some of you. It’s OK. Live in those questions for a moment. Put yourselves in the same head-scratching position as those who listened to Jesus in His own day.
Consider what the account of Jesus’ Transfiguration is whispering to us today.
Follow closely. The Jews based everything they believed about God on the Law and the Prophets (the cultural symbols for these were Moses and the greatest prophet, Elijah, himself being translated.)
To the law (Moses) and the testimony (the prophets represented by Elijah)! If they do not speak according to this word, it is because there is no light in them. (Isaiah 8.20)
But the picture of God that the people in Jesus’ day had taken from these two sources was imperfect. It was partial. It wasn’t complete. In the Transfiguration, what we are witnessing is a special transfer of authority from Moses and Elijah to Jesus, to be witnessed by Jesus’ disciples. Peter, James and John witnessed Moses and Elijah, figures which, in their culture, stood for the source of all of their beliefs about God and how He calls us to live, standing there with Jesus. Then the Father speaks audibly:
Then a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is My Son, My Chosen One; listen to HIM!” Luke 9.35 [emphasis added.]
What is this saying? As you have based everything you believe about Me on the teaching of Moses and Elijah, now base everything you believe about Me on My Son! Listen to Him now!
You see, although what they believed about God was based on the Law and the Prophets, they had grossly misinterpreted this God they had found in the Law and the Prophets. They had taken from these two sources a picture of God that was lacking. We are not to think that Jesus came to abolish the Law and the Prophets, but rather, Jesus radically re-interpreted the Law and the Prophets in such a unique way that it gave the people of His day a completely different picture of God. (It also undermined the entire religious system that had been built on that wrong picture and that is one of the primary reasons that they crucified Him.)
Take note of Jesus’ reinterpretation of what the Law and the Prophets were actually teaching with James’ and John’s original question in mind:
In everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you, for THIS is the Law and the Prophets. Matthew 7.12 [emphasis added.]
This is the message of the New Testament. The Old Testament, although true, had been misunderstood. Jesus had come, by contrast, as the exact, full, complete representation of the character of God.
God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, . . . . And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature . . . . (Hebrews 1.1-3)
For the Law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ. No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him. (John 1.17,18)
Once again, I’m not saying that Jesus came to abolish the Law and the Prophets (Matthew 5:17) at all. But the picture of God that the people in Jesus’ day had understood from these two sources was imperfect. It was partial. It wasn’t complete. Paul understood this when he wrote to the Corinthian believers,
For we know in part and we prophesy in part; but when the perfect comes, the partial [picture of God ] will be done away. (1 Corinthians 13.9)
It was this tension between the Old Testament and the Teachings of Jesus that caused the religious leaders of Jesus’ day to reject Him. It is this tension that we need to live in today as followers of Jesus. And it is this tension that should give us grave warning not to base our treatment of our enemies on Old Testament stories but on the life, teachings, death and resurrection of God Himself in the person of Jesus Christ. When we find tension between the Old Testament and Jesus’ clear commands, we must, by default, side with Jesus’ clear commands and assume we are misinterpreting the Old Testament. Remember, Jesus interpreted the Old Testament in such a way that allowed Him to still give the Old Testament authority in His life, but in a way that simultaneously gave Him a radically different picture of God than what others had gotten from the Old Testament.
Lastly, I hope those who need to hear this right now will understand what I’m saying and what I’m not saying. When we look at the violence of Christian Church history, and even today’s American nationalistic violent version of Christianity, we do not find that the teachings of Jesus have been tried and found wanting. We find that the teachings of Jesus have been found difficult and left untried.
Thinking of all those who are not believers, but who are watching us today from the outside, may the day come soon when the label “Christian” is used, once again, to designate those who are following the teachings of Jesus. I want to be a part of that, don’t you?
Something worthy of wrestling with. (For sure.)
Imitate God. Live in Love. Love like Christ. And go build the kingdom.
Much love to each of you this week.