The section opens with the note in verse 51 that Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem. The journey begins. It starts as the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven. Imagery of Jesus' fate and destiny appears even in the start to this section. "Setting one's face" to do something is an Old Testament way of speaking about resolve (Gen 31:21; Jer 21:10; 44:12; Lohse 1968:776 n. 45). Jesus is determined to accomplish God's will wherever it leads.
Jesus' path often leads to rejection. The lesson, however, is not rejection's presence but how we respond to it. This short account is unique to Luke. It also is the only passage where Samaritans are portrayed negatively (contrast 10:25-37; 17:11-19). As Jesus heads for Jerusalem, we might think that a change of scenery and an outreach program in a new ethnic area might have more success than earlier efforts. This brief account makes it clear that rejection is not limited to Israel.
In Jewish eyes Samaritans were half-breeds, ethnic traitors, bad guys. When the nation was divided, Samaria was originally a name for the capital of the northern kingdom founded by Omri (1 Kings 16:21-24). Samaritans intermarried with other peoples in the region. They even worshiped at a different site, Mount Gerazim (Jn 4:20-24). Many recognized only the Pentateuch as inspired. Traditionally Jews and Samaritans were hostile to one another. So Jesus' effort to reach out to them is culturally exceptional. It would be like ministering in a crossracial setting today. The reaction might be "What are you doing here?" and "Can you believe he ministers to them?"
Jesus sends messengers ahead to prepare the people for his arrival. Much like an advance public relations team, they were to help plan what would occur when he arrived. But the Samaritans did not welcome him. The explanation is that Jesus' face is set toward Jerusalem. In other words, rejection is his fate. Even though that rejection will occur in the capital of Israel, the Samaritan reaction mirrors that coming reality. The world is not responsive to Jesus; rejection is widespread.
The disciples react with the wish to use their connections and power to launch a retributive strike. James and John ask for the ancient equivalent of nuking the enemy: "Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?" The disciples understand the great power they have access to, but the question is whether vindictive use of this power is proper. Is their hostile reaction justified? The request for "fire from above" recalls the ministry of Elijah (2 Kings 1). In their view, surely rejection means instant judgment.
Jesus corrects them. The text does not tell us what he said. In a story that is a little unusual in form, it simply notes that Jesus rebukes them and they move on to the next village. Many Gospel accounts end with a climactic saying of Jesus, a pronouncement that is key to the event in question. Here Jesus' action speaks for itself. There is no saying; rather, the disciples' saying becomes a view to be rejected emphatically. The disciples are not to wield their power as a club of judgment. Vindication from God will come later, as he deals with those who reject him. Warnings can be issued, as in 9:5, 10:13-16 or 17:20-36, but God is giving people time to decide to come to him. So the disciples are to preach the opportunity for salvation. If they are not well received, they are to move on. So having left this Samaritan city, Jesus and the disciples continue their mission in another village.
Acts 8 shows that the disciples eventually returned to this region with some success. Second Peter 3:9 may well be a theological commentary on an event like this: God is patient, wanting all to come to repentance; his judgment waits so that more may have time to come to him.
IVP New Testament Commentaries are made available by the generosity of InterVarsity Press.
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