James and John, aptly nicknamed the Sons of Thunder, thought it might be a good idea to call down fire from heaven and burn up a Samaritan town because they refused to welcome Jesus and his disciples. Not only did the Samaritan town not welcome them, they were considered one of the Israelites’ enemies. Bad blood there. Destroy the opposition. Show them who is boss. How dare they defy Jesus! We’re right, they’re wrong. After all, doing something that would make them like Elijah, Elisha, or even King David couldn’t be a bad thing, right?
To destroy the opposition is not the way of the cross.
Jesus rebuked them. The story, in Luke 9:51-56, doesn’t say what Jesus actually said to them. It records that he simply turned and rebuked them. He stopped, turned, and rebuked them. And it is worthy to note that this story directly follows the story of the disciples arguing who among them is the greatest. Who is the greatest? Destroy the opposition. The disciples and triumphalism. Not a good match. The gospels are rather choosy in the stories they record. This story is not there to fill space. It’s there for a reason. The gospels need to be forming, not just in knowing the story of Jesus, but they need to be theologically forming.
Jesus fulfilled the law and prophets (like Elijah and Elisha) and was in the line and kingship of David. He fulfilled the vocation of Israel. But he also changed some things. And one thing he changed is how we go about dealing with those opposed to us. The way of Jesus is not the way of Elijah, Elisha, and King David in that way. The way of the cross is not to destroy the opposition. Elijah, among other things, blessed the widow at Zarephath and even raised her son from the dead. He gave scathing rebuke to the way of those around him. He was a great prophet. Elisha, among other things, blessed a widow with overflowing oil to sell and raised from the dead the son of the Shunammite woman. He also brought the word of the Lord to the nation. Elisha was a great prophet. Jesus also did these same kind of things. He multiplied the wine at a wedding. He multiplied the loaves and fish. He healed the sick and raised the dead. He spoke the truth, he brought the word of the Lord, himself, to the world.
Elijah called down fire from heaven and burned up the water-logged sacrifice in the showdown with the prophets of Baal. He then had the prophets killed. Later, Elijah called down fire from heaven and burned up a captain and his company of fifty men. Not once, but twice! Elisha cursed a bunch of teens who made fun of his bald head. A couple of bears then mauled the forty two teens.
Destroy the opposition. Blood. Death. Judgment.
Now, big theological questions. Did God ordain these things? It seems so. What purpose did they serve? Answerable, but also opening up a bunch of deeper questions. However you navigate these kind of questions, even throwing in things like the conquest of Canaan, understand that God is the one who bears the responsibility for them. In his sovereignty he does not need to really explain why. No reason needs to be given for why Elijah called down fire from heaven to burn up one hundred and two men, even if you can reason out a good explanation. But the bigger point is this: Jesus is the perfect revelation of who God is. When the Sons of Thunder wanted to be like Elijah and burn up the Samaritan town, Jesus rebuked them. No more destroying the opposition. The entire story found in the Old Testament now needs interpreted through the one who it leads to and gives us: Jesus.
What happened to the Sons of Thunder? What happened to the ones who wanted to burn up the Samaritan town? Acts 12 records that James was martyred. He was not taken to heaven in a fiery chariot like Elijah. He was killed. No record of any discourse between James and those who put him to death with a sword. But I do not think he tried to call down fire from heaven and destroy them. Destroy the opposition. Vindication now. Prove right now that I am right. If he did ask for fire, it didn’t happen. I think by this time James had changed. He got it. Son of Thunder was now a martyr. He drank of the same cup that Jesus did. Death at the hands of others…the “opposition.” According to tradition, John lived to old age. He did not die a martyr’s death. He penned the gospel bearing his name. He wrote the epistles also bearing his name. He wrote the vision of Revelation. Take time to read 1, 2, & 3rd John. You will notice a couple of themes. One, John is dealing with heresy in the early church. The second theme is love. The other Son of Thunder focuses on love. He too became like his master. Tradition says that in his old age when he could no longer walk on his own, John was carried around and constantly saying, “Dear children, love one another.” By the time both James and John died, “Sons of Thunder” probably did not fit them anymore.
Jesus did triumph. He did conquer the opposition. But he did not do it by literally destroying the opposition. He did it by loving the opposition. He did it by dying for the opposition. When Peter drew his sword at the time of the arrest of Jesus, the sword was put away, the ear was healed. Why? The way of the world, winning by destroying the opposition, was not the way of Jesus. It is not the way of the cross. Nor is it the way of his followers. Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you. Die doing it that way if necessary. Triumph comes in the spiritual realm. That is where his kingdom is now. This is where our battle is waged. His rebuke of the Sons of Thunder was not just a onetime thing, only to get back to destroying the opposition later. Thank goodness. Imagine if we could burn up the opposition now. The earth would be scorched by us loving Christians. Of course, at one time we were all the “opposition”. You probably would have been fried. Good thing you were given mercy and not fire.
What about what John wrote in Revelation? Jesus is coming back, and maybe in your interpretation you are coming back with him, in judgment and war. Yes, judgment is coming. Yes, there is fire to come, eternity- the Lake of Fire. Jesus will do so perfectly- perfect judgment and justice. But that is not ours to do now. Our judgment would not be perfect. Ours to do is to be like him as he was on earth. Sermon on the Mount living. The Kingdom growing within us. Taking the gospel of Jesus Christ to the world. A gospel built on love and mercy and forgiveness. The good news of Jesus. Yes, the problem is sin and there is a judgment to come.
What does this lead to? As followers of Jesus – though we know we cannot physically destroy the opposition- our attitude, our rhetoric, and our action needs to be that of Jesus. Not an attitude, rhetoric, and “action” of destroying the opposition. However it then applies: in our workplace and businesses, in our politics, in our interaction in society, in our schools, in our relationships, in our interaction with non-believers, in how we stand up for our beliefs in all segments of society: we cannot leave behind the way of Jesus and then think we act in his name. I cannot walk through the thousands of scenarios and explain how this works in each one. There will be difficult applications. But it is our job as believers in Jesus to live by his way, it is our job to work it through.
Read what Jesus said. See what he did. Do you really believe this is the way of new humanity? Do you really believe that this is what abundant life is? Do you really believe this is the life you are called to live? Look at a sampling of the words he uses: things like meek, peacemaker, merciful. Paul uses words like gentleness, kindness. Why do we not hear these things preached about in our churches so much? Why are they often followed by “but”? Because when we are meek, a peacemaker, merciful, gentle and kind, we generally don’t “win”. We don’t win in the sense that I prove right at this moment that I am right, that I get my way, and I triumph over you. We don’t get to call down fire from heaven. We don’t get to destroy the opposition. We like to win, but our idea of winning needs changed. You want to inherit the earth and be called a son of God? Yes. That’s winning! (But not winning in the sense of I win and they don’t, I’m right and they’re wrong, “so there!” It’s a winning that this is what God intends and blessed are those who participate in it this way.) Then be meek. Be a peacemaker. That’s how Jesus says it’s done.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.