Jesus—His Life and Message: Fire from Heaven (Luke 9:51–56)

By Peter Amsterdam

August 14, 2018

The Gospel of Luke describes several events in Jesus’ life which aren’t recorded in the other Gospels, some of which will be covered in this and the next few articles. The first of these is found toward the end of Luke chapter 9, starting with:

When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.1

These words begin what commentators refer to as “Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem” or the “travel narrative.” This section of Luke’s Gospel contains 424 verses or about 37 percent of this Gospel. It ends with Luke 19:44. Much of the text within this section is found only in the Gospel of Luke, and includes seventeen parables as well as various Lucan sayings.

The first recorded event in Jesus’ long trek to Jerusalem was that He and His disciples approached a Samaritan city. The hill country of Samaria lay between the Jewish area of Galilee in the north and Jerusalem in the south. Because the Jewish people didn’t consider the people of Samaria to be pure Jews, they generally avoided traveling through their part of the country. Instead, they would bypass it by going around it, adding an extra two or three days to their trip. Jesus, however, had no qualms about entering a Samaritan town.

He sent messengers ahead of him, who went and entered a village of the Samaritans, to make preparations for him.2

The reason for Jesus wanting to go to the Samaritan village isn’t specifically stated. It could have been that He wanted to lodge there for the night, or He could have planned to preach to the people in the town, or perhaps He intended to do both. We’re not told who the messengers were, but they were probably some of His disciples. A group of twelve or more people would be a lot for a small village to absorb on short notice, so sending someone ahead to secure lodging was prudent.

However, the townspeople refused to let Jesus and His companions stay there.

The people did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem.3 

The hostility between the Jews and the Samaritans was in part because of religious differences. The Samaritans worshipped at Mount Gerizim rather than in the Jewish temple on Mount Zion, and they only accepted the Pentateuch—the first five books of Moses—as Scripture. The hostility wasn’t only on the part of the Samaritans, as can be seen when the Jews, wanting to discredit Jesus, called Him a Samaritan:

The Jews answered him, “Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?”4

When Jesus was speaking to the Samaritan woman at the well, there is a phrase set off in parentheses: (For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans),5 showing that the animosity between the Samaritans and Jews came from both sides.

Jesus, however, didn’t hold such prejudice. When He healed a group of ten lepers, one of them was Samaritan, and in fact he was the only one of the ten who returned to thank Jesus.

When he saw them he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went they were cleansed. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice; and he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks. Now he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus answered, “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” And he said to him, “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.”6

Jesus also spoke at length with the Samaritan woman at the well, as mentioned earlier, and she then told her fellow Samaritan villagers about Him, which resulted in Him staying with them and teaching them for two days.

Many Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me all that I ever did.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them, and he stayed there two days. And many more believed because of his word.7

Jesus’ positive reception by Samaritans in some villages, however, didn’t extend to this particular village, because His face was set toward Jerusalem. One author wrote:

The Samaritan villagers, seeing that his face was set toward Jerusalem, would have nothing to do with Jesus. Their feud with the Jews was so bitter that they would not help anyone travel to Jerusalem, though apparently they did not mind receiving Galileans as such. Josephus [an ancient Jewish author] tells us that Samaritans were not averse to ill-treating pilgrims going up to Jerusalem.8

The rebuff to Jesus was apparently more because He was going to Jerusalem than simply because He was Jewish.

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?”9 

In the Gospel of Mark, we find that Jesus gave these two brothers a nickname: James the son of Zebedee and John the brother of James (to whom he gave the name Boanerges, that is, Sons of Thunder).10 Why Jesus called them Sons of Thunder isn’t explained, but perhaps it had to do with their fiery temperament. Here, they wanted to call down fire from heaven, and elsewhere, we read of bold statements from one or both of them.

John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”11

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came up to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What do you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”12 

The Sons of Thunder apparently had strong personalities and were men of action.

Earlier in this chapter of Luke, Jesus had told His disciples what to do when they were not well received:

Whatever house you enter, stay there, and from there depart. And wherever they do not receive you, when you leave that town shake off the dust from your feet as a testimony against them.13

He made the same point later in Luke, and added a few more details.

Whenever you enter a town and they do not receive you, go into its streets and say, “Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet we wipe off against you. Nevertheless know this, that the kingdom of God has come near.” I tell you, it will be more bearable on that day for Sodom than for that town.14

Shaking the dust off one’s feet was a ritual Jews did upon leaving pagan territory to remove the “uncleanness” of the gentile lands from their feet. In this instance, the act warns those who reject Jesus’ message that judgment will come.

While it might have been legitimate for James and John to shake the dust off their feet when leaving this particular village, their recommendation for such severe retribution went way beyond the eventual judgment by God’s hand that Jesus had been speaking about earlier. The idea of fire from heaven in judgment, as James and John suggest, has Old Testament precedent as a severe form of retribution.

Elijah answered the captain of fifty, “If I am a man of God, let fire come down from heaven and consume you and your fifty.” Then fire came down from heaven and consumed him and his fifty.15

While God had sent fire from heaven on more than one occasion, James’ and John’s suggestion that they carry out the judgment was out of line, and Jesus let them know it was.

He turned and rebuked them. And they went on to another village.16

Why did He rebuke them? As one author wrote, rather than responding appropriately when faced with inhospitality, they instead act as persons intoxicated with their own sense of power.17 At times Jesus gave strong warnings of judgment, such as:

Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. But it will be more bearable in the judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You shall be brought down to Hades.18

However, that judgment would come at the Day of Judgment. The disciples’ desire for swift and destructive judgment was wrong, and it was not their place to pronounce such judgment.

A few Bible translations add in an extra two sentences of what Jesus said to His disciples. These sentences were not included in older manuscripts, and therefore are not included in most Bible translations. One added sentence says that when Jesus turned and rebuked them, He 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.” 19 While it’s likely this sentence was added to some manuscripts at a later time, the point it conveys is in alignment with what Luke was conveying in this chapter.

The disciples seemed to have forgotten the counsel Jesus gave them when He taught:

“I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”20

While they were commissioned to preach the gospel and even speak of judgment, that judgment wouldn’t come at the hands of the disciples, but rather from God at the time of His choosing.

The disciples would eventually learn this, and in time would witness to and win many Samaritans. After His resurrection, Jesus made it clear that His disciples should witness in Samaria.

“You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”21

The disciples obeyed this commission.

Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed to them the Christ.22

Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent to them Peter and John, who came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit.23

So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied.24

Throughout Jesus’ ministry, one of His main goals was to train disciples who would carry on after He ascended to heaven. Part of any training is being instructed when you are in error, as this incident exemplifies with Jesus’ correction of the overzealous “Sons of Thunder.”

(The next two articles will cover other events mentioned only in the Gospel of Luke.)


Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

General Bibliography

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Brown, Raymond E. The Death of the Messiah. 2 vols. New York: Doubleday, 1994.

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Morris, Leon. Luke. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1988.

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Young, Brad H. Jesus the Jewish Theologian. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1995.

1 Luke 9:51.

2 Luke 9:52.

3 Luke 9:53.

4 John 8:48.

5 John 4:9.

6 Luke 17:14–19.

7 John 4:39–41.

8 Leon Morris, Luke (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 198.

9 Luke 9:54.

10 Mark 3:17.

11 Mark 9:38.

12 Mark 10:35–37.

13 Luke 9:4–5.

14 Luke 10:10–12.

15 2 Kings 1:10.

16 Luke 9:55–56.

17 Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 405.

18 Luke 10:13–15.

19 Luke 9:55­–56 NAS.

20 Luke 6:27–28.

21 Acts 1:8.

22 Acts 8:5.

23 Acts 8:14–15.

24 Acts 9:31.


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