As the disciples spent time with Jesus, they marvelled at His words and works. The brightness of the kingdom He had proclaimed in the Sermon on the Mount was still seeking to penetrate the darkened recesses of their minds. Still tainted with the desire for earthly greatness, the disciples turned their thoughts to the positions they might occupy in the kingdom of heaven. This naturally led to another discussion:
Then there arose a reasoning among them, which of them should be greatest. Luke 9:46
Why did their thoughts turn towards self-importance? They were excited about the power of God manifested in Jesus, but they did not yet embrace His cross. They were afraid to ask Him the meaning of the cross because it suggested that it might disappoint their hopes.
And they were all amazed at the mighty power of God. But while they wondered every one at all things which Jesus did, he said unto his disciples, (44) Let these sayings sink down into your ears: for the Son of man shall be delivered into the hands of men. (45) But they understood not this saying, and it was hid from them, that they perceived it not: and they feared to ask him of that saying. Luke 9:43-45
Jesus perceived their thoughts for greatness and took a little child and folded His arms around him and told them:
Whosoever shall receive this child in my name receiveth me: and whosoever shall receive me receiveth him that sent me: for he that is least among you all, the same shall be great. Luke 9:48
The innocent child had no desires for national greatness. In his simplicity of understanding he simply responded to the warm and tender touch of the Master. This was the definition of greatness in His kingdom – a simple, abiding, trusting love for the Master. The disciples’ innocence had been taken away by the ambition and disappointments of life, but Jesus had come to give them back the innocence of childhood combined with the wisdom of years.
In their connection with Jesus the disciples came to love Him. Every day they saw His compassion and love for the people and heard the wonderful things He shared about His Father. One day after a long period of labour Jesus sent His disciples into a Samaritan village to seek lodging for the night.
And it came to pass, when the time was come that he should be received up, he stedfastly set his face to go to Jerusalem, (52) And sent messengers before his face: and they went, and entered into a village of the Samaritans, to make ready for him. (53) And they did not receive him, because his face was as though he would go to Jerusalem. Luke 9:51-53
When the disciples saw how the Samaritans treated their master they were indignant at their lack of hospitality. In the heat of their emotion they revealed the depth of the darkness that exists in human hearts:
And when his disciples James and John saw this, they said, Lord, wilt thou that we command fire to come down from heaven, and consume them, even as Elias did? Luke 9:54
It would appear they had Biblical justification for their murderous plan to burn up the Samaritans. They mentioned the story of Elijah who had called down fire from heaven on some who had determined to harm him. Armed with this story the disciples felt fully justified in calling for the death of these ungrateful Samaritans. The answer Jesus gave would have come as quite a shock.
But he turned, and rebuked them, and said, Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of. (56) For the Son of man is not come to destroy men's lives, but to save them. Luke 9:55-56
These words reveal the heart of the mission and character of Jesus. Jesus is not a destroyer but rather the Saviour. At the same time it would appear that Christ not only rebuked the disciples but also the actions of Elijah.
Then the king sent unto him a captain of fifty with his fifty. And he went up to him: and, behold, he sat on the top of an hill. And he spake unto him, Thou man of God, the king hath said, Come down. (10) And Elijah answered and said to the captain of fifty, If I be a man of God, then let fire come down from heaven, and consume thee and thy fifty. And there came down fire from heaven, and consumed him and his fifty. 2 Kings 1:9-10
A surface reading of this story would seem to indicate that although Jesus came to the earth to save men’s lives, God in the Old Testament was very willing to burn men alive for daring to capture His prophet. Did Jesus only rebuke the hatred of the disciples for wanting to destroy the Samaritans or was Jesus also rebuking the actions of Elijah as well? The answer Jesus gives to the disciples concerning His mission would indicate that the rebuke was also for Elijah. How could Jesus rebuke the disciples saying that His mission was to save men and then explain that in certain instances He would destroy men? If this were the case, Jesus would have told them that now is not the time for these things or that we should pray for them a little longer first. Jesus gives no indication of delayed retribution. He only speaks of saving people’s lives as opposed to destroying them.
This statement by Jesus in the King James Version appears to be quite an embarrassment for many of the modern translations of the Bible because these words are simply not there.
But Jesus turned and rebuked them. (56) Then he and his disciples went to another village. Luke 9:55-56 (NIV)
But he turned, and rebuked them. (56) And they went to another village. Luke 9:55-56 (RV)
Having this omission within these various translations has tremendous ramifications for understanding the character of God. One very big question that must be raised is this: Who brought fire down from heaven on those men? We need to rewind a little in the story of Elijah to something important that God showed him after his great victory on Mt Carmel.
And he said, Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the LORD. And, behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the LORD; but the LORD was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the LORD was not in the earthquake: (12) and after the earthquake a fire; but the LORD was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice. 1 Kings 19:11-12
What was the point that God wanted to make to Elijah? The same principle expressed elsewhere in Scripture:
This is the word of the LORD unto Zerubbabel, saying, Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, saith the LORD of hosts. Zechariah 4:6
God was telling Elijah that He does not use force to compel men to obey and advance His kingdom but rather it is His still small voice that works in the hearts of men to turn them towards truth. It is contradictory for God to tell Elijah He is not in the fire and then turn around and burn up 102 men for seeking to capture Elijah. It was 102 men because the fire came down twice on two sets of 50 men and their leaders. It is true that God sent a fire to consume the sacrifice upon the altar but this fire was not sent to destroy men’s lives but to save them. When Elijah called fire to come down from heaven on these men he had already been shown that God was not in a fire to compel or force men to comply. The grovelling submission of the third captain of 50 men was not the submission God was seeking.
And again he sent the captain of a third fifty with his fifty. And the third captain of fifty went up, and came and fell on his knees before Elijah, and besought him, and said unto him, O man of God, I pray thee, let my life, and the life of these fifty thy servants, be precious in thy sight. 2 Kings 1:13
Did this man kneel in reverence before the God of Elijah because he loved Him and wanted to worship? Certainly not! He was terrified that he was going to die and was begging for his life. If this type of worship was acceptable to God then Jesus could have called down fire on a few Pharisees and a few Romans, and everyone would have been worshipping Him instantly – not out of love for Him, but rather through fear. Therefore it was not God who was in that fire that consumed those men. How then do we account for what happened there?
Then the king sent unto him a captain of fifty with his fifty. And he went up to him: and, behold, he sat on the top of the hill. And he spake unto him, O man of God, the king hath said, Come down. (10) And Elijah answered and said to the captain of fifty, If I be a man of God, let fire come down from heaven, and consume thee and thy fifty. And there came down fire from heaven, and consumed him and his fifty. 2 Kings 1:9-10
The captain and his men were under the authority of the king of Israel who had sent for help from Baalzebub, the god of Ekron. The god of Ekron was a false god inspired by Satan. In seeking help from this god, he was opening himself up to the jurisdiction of Satan.
Know ye not, that to whom ye present yourselves as servants unto obedience, his servants ye are whom ye obey; whether of sin unto death, or of obedience unto righteousness? Romans 6:16
Even though these men representing the king had placed themselves under the jurisdiction of Satan, the captain still recognized Elijah as a man of God. All Israel remembered what had happened at Mt Carmel when they saw that God was with Elijah. If the captain believed Elijah was a man of God why did Elijah seek a sign to validate it? We discover the answer a little later in the chapter:
And the angel of the LORD said unto Elijah, Go down with him: be not afraid of him. And he arose, and went down with him unto the king. 2 Kings 1:15
Elijah was told not to be afraid. Why was Elijah afraid? The problem stems back to just after the events of Mt Carmel.
And Elijah said unto them, Take the prophets of Baal; let not one of them escape. And they took them: and Elijah brought them down to the brook Kishon, and slew them there. 1 Kings 18:40
Before Elijah slew the prophets of Baal he had stood fearlessly before the king and all his men. Previous to this, Elijah had been hunted for over three years after fearlessly going in before the king to tell him there would be no rain. There is no mention that Elijah was afraid through all of these experiences. It was only after Elijah had killed all the prophets of Baal with the sword that he became afraid.
Then Jezebel sent a messenger unto Elijah, saying, So let the gods do to me, and more also, if I make not thy life as the life of one of them by tomorrow about this time. (3) And when he saw that, he arose, and went for his life, and came to Beersheba, which belongeth to Judah, and left his servant there. 1 Kings 19:2-3
It would appear that there is a reverse principle related to the golden rule and it goes like this. “What wrong things you do to others you will fear they will be done to you.” This was certainly the experience of Cain.
And Cain said unto the LORD, My punishment is greater than I can bear. (14) Behold, thou hast driven me out this day from the face of the ground; and from thy face shall I be hid; and I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer in the earth; and it shall come to pass, that whosoever findeth me shall slay me. Genesis 4:13-14
After Elijah had escaped the hands of the wicked Jezebel he said something strange.
But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a juniper tree: and he requested for himself that he might die; and said, It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life; for I am not better than my fathers. 1 Kings 19:4
Elijah ran for his life but then asks God to take away his life. Why not just let Jezebel kill him? Then he adds the mournful words “for I am no better than my fathers.” What did he mean by this? His confession to God a little later on reveals the motive.
And he came thither unto a cave, and lodged there; and, behold, the word of the LORD came to him, and he said unto him, What doest thou here, Elijah? (10) And he said, I have been very jealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the children of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thine altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword: and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away. 1 Kings 19:9-10
Elijah pours out to God his disappointment and frustration at the failures of Israel, and the murder of the prophets of God with the sword. Elijah had hoped the nation would rally to his side and assist him in reforming the kingdom. When Jezebel threatened him, he had hoped that everyone would stand with him to defeat her purpose but he was left alone. It seemed everything was in vain. Also his motivation for the killing of the prophets of Baal is revealed. They had killed the prophets of God with the sword. The punishment for idolatry given in the law of Moses was death by stoning, not killing them with the sword. We will address the punishment of stoning in another chapter, but the point is that Elijah did not follow the process outlined in the Scriptures for dealing with idolatry. This reveals that although Elijah desired to honour the true God, he went about it the wrong way. This connects us back to the story of the disciples. They loved and honoured their master, but their love was subverted by Satan when things did not go as they wished and the spirit of revenge was revealed. Therefore it was fitting that the disciples in their spirit connect to the story of Elijah because it reflected a similar spirit. We are reminded that:
Elijah was a man with a nature like ours… James 5:17 (NKJV)
Elijah knew that the prophets of Baal were worthy of death, but his manner of dealing with this matter caused him to move in a way that was not in God’s order. This is proven through his sudden fear of death which he had not experienced before. This fear was still with Elijah when he was approached by all the soldiers. As Elijah had killed with the sword he feared that he would die by the sword. Although the captain had no doubt Elijah was a man of God, Elijah himself was wrestling with his fear of death and if he were still no better than his fathers. Satan capitalised on Elijah's doubt, prompting him to express it by saying:
If I be a man of God, let fire come down from heaven, and consume thee and thy fifty. 2 Kings 1:10
It is similar to these words uttered by Satan:
If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread. Matthew 4:3
The use of divine power to reassure a person of their standing with God is a lack of faith. We are to believe by faith that we are children of God by what God has already told us. How were the 50 men benefited by this display of power? How did this help them believe what they had already confessed about Elijah being a man of God? The one who was uncertain about this was Elijah. This uncertainty caused Elijah to forget that God was not in the fire, and he was overcome by Satan’s suggestion to call down fire on these men. Do we have evidence that Satan can bring fire from heaven and burn people up?
And the LORD said unto Satan, Behold, all that he hath is in thy power; only upon himself put not forth thine hand. So Satan went forth from the presence of the LORD…. (16) While he was yet speaking, there came also another, and said, The fire of God is fallen from heaven, and hath burned up the sheep, and the servants, and consumed them; and I only am escaped alone to tell thee. Job 1:12,16
There are some questions that still remain. If Satan deceived Elijah through his self-doubt how could it be possible that in the very next chapter Elijah could be translated to heaven? It seems absurd to think that making such a big mistake near the end of his earthly life should be rewarded with a direct passage to heaven and eternal life. When we consider John the Baptist he actually doubted that Jesus was the Messiah right before his death.
Now when John had heard in the prison the works of Christ, he sent two of his disciples, (3) And said unto him, Art thou he that should come, or do we look for another? Matthew 11:2-3
The Bible does not tell us how John responded. But by the way that Jesus spoke about John it seems evident that John overcame his doubts and was prepared for martyrdom. Jesus did say:
And if you are willing to receive it, he is Elijah who is to come. Matthew 11:14
We are also told:
He [John] will also go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah,… Luke 1:17
John the Baptist did a mighty work for God and then had a major crisis of faith which he overcame, resulting in him being prepared for death. This is in the same spirit as Elijah who did a great work for God and then had a major crisis of faith toward the end of his ministry. Elijah overcame his self-doubt that caused a fiery death for a hundred men, and was translated. This is a precious lesson for all of us, that the just shall live by faith and not upon the merits of what they have done. The translation of Elijah after such a major failure gives all of us great hope that we also can be translated after seeing how weak and helpless we are. Let us rejoice that salvation is in the merits of Christ alone, not in the supposed works of superhero prophets who can destroy others in the name of God while defending themselves.
The other question that needs to be considered is why did God allow these men to be destroyed by Satan with fire? As these men were servants of the king of Israel who had given himself over to Baal-zebub the god of Ekron, these men had no defence against the destroyer. As Satan was enabled to have access to these men, he needed to be able to kill them in a way that would indicate that God did it. It was almost the perfect deception; do the deed and convince the world that God did it. The fears of Elijah were exploited by Satan to give him the alibi that he needed. This plan has been very successful because most people believe that God burned up those men, but thankfully Jesus tells us that this is not His Spirit. He is the Saviour and not the destroyer.
How wonderful to know that our precious Saviour who took that little child into His arms and revealed to us the greatness of His kingdom, is a Saviour in whom we can rest assured. He won’t harm us in any way, because Jesus is the Shepherd, not the Butcher; He leads His sheep beside the still waters and does not torture them to death. Yet there is more on the subject of fire we need to consider before we can be certain that our Father in heaven is truly someone in whom we need have no fear.