Luke 9:51-56 “As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem. And he sent messengers on ahead, who went into a Samaritan village to get things ready for him; but the people there did not welcome him, because he was heading for Jerusalem. When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, ‘Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?’ But Jesus turned and rebuked them, and they went to another village.”
There are a number of important truths we learn about the Lord Jesus Christ in this passage.
1. THE LORD JESUS WAS GETTING READY AND WAS READYING OTHERS
When do you get ready? When you know are going somewhere. You prepare for it.
i] Our Lord Jesus knew his ultimate destination. He knew where he was going. He knew his destiny. That is one of the greatest achievements in life, to know where you are going, to know your ultimate end in life. Most people have no idea. Brian Moore is a former rugby hooker who played for England many times. Now he does a number of things; he is a lawyer; he is a TV rugby commentator; he has opened a nail shop in Soho, London; he is thinking of entering politics. He says, “I haven’t got a clue where I’m going,” and on the eve of his birthday tomorrow he gave an interview to a journalist describing, “The raw pain of my tormented search for happiness.”
The Saviour knew that he was going to heaven, and that affected his whole journey through life, the choices he made day by day, his relationships, how he spend his time and his money. This goal coloured everything about his life. Some of you believe that your end in life is non-existence. This, you believe, is the only life there is; your ultimate goal is nothingness, and that belief is bound to affect your own journey through life, isn’t it? I am hearing one terrible phrase more often than ever – ‘nothing really matters.’ “Soon we will all cease to be,” men think, “we will become nothing at all, so nothing matters. Even the life and death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ doesn’t matter, because nothing really matters.” You mock us for our trust in the Bible and in our Saviour but what a despairing faith you have! What an utterly inconsistent faith it is because you live as though your life and relationships matter very much, that you would lay down your lives for those you love. Your children, your parents, your husband or wife really matters. Your friends matter. You groan at the pain that they endure. You wouldn’t dream of going to them and counseling with the words, “Nothing really matters.” Things matter in this world and they matter because God made us and made everyone in his image.
The Lord Jesus knew where he was going; his destination was heaven; he would soon be home with his Father, the One who had sent him to this world. Here at this juncture in his life it had become clearer to Jesus that it wouldn’t be much longer before he was back where he always belonged. The time was approaching for him to be taken up to heaven; it would be less than a year. You know how Luke’s gospel ends. If you turn to the last few verses you read, “When Jesus had led the disciples out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven” (Luke 24:50&51). It is the very same phrase.
Our dear brother and former deacon at this church, Dr Derek Thomas, has written a grand book on this event, the ascension of the Lord Jesus Christ, and its title is derived from the very words of our text, Taken Up to Heaven (Evangelical Press). We know why Jesus the Son of God was going to heaven; it was an announcement to the world that this is the destination of all men and women who by faith have become the sons of God – not non-existence, not annihilation at all. Jesus went up to the everlasting doors of heaven and he turned the handle and opened them for all of us who are in him to enter. The God-man, Christ Jesus took his first steps in heaven and he went to the right hand of God, and sat there in the midst of the throne of heaven. He did that as the forerunner, that all of us who trust in him might walk through those pearly gates following him. He was going there in order to guarantee that future glorious destination for all of us. He went there first as the pledge of our being there too. “I am going to prepare a place for you,” he had said. You have family coming and staying with you for a time and you prepare a place for them. Christ is preparing a place for the whole family of faith and household of God. The Word who was in the beginning with God and who was God came down from heaven to earth in order to take us from earth to heaven.
It was essential for him to be taken up to heaven in order for him to continue the work of our salvation. From his place at the heart of heaven he would pour out the Spirit of God on us; that Spirit would lead us to hear about a glorious Saviour, to friends who spoke about him to us and to ministers who preached him to us as the one willing to save us, the Lord Jesus Christ, and through the Spirit he sent into our hearts we would become convicted of our sins; we would be given faith in him by the work of the same heavenly Spirit which he had commanded should enter our lives. The Lord Jesus would go on to sanctify us and prepare us for heaven – all by the Spirit whom he had commissioned from heaven to do this work. He would draw our hearts and affections up to him as he sits in the midst of the throne of heaven; “Jesus the very thought of Thee with sweetness fills my breast . . . My Jesus I love Thee I know Thou are mine . . .” The Spirit he sends from heaven into our lives causes us increasingly to love him and long for him, to join him there where there is fulness of joy and where there are pleasures for evermore at his right hand.
So that is the delightful work that lay before Jesus, the work of redeeming all of us, billions and billions of us, which only he could do, ever living to make intercession for us so as to save us all to the uttermost. He knew one day he would looking on a congregation of Christians in Aberystwyth in 2010 and he would be sending his Spirit to accompany the Word of God that they might trust him and love him more and find help in serving him. What delight Jesus had in anticipating being taken up to heaven and doing this work, and it greatly strengthened him for the labours he still had to do before his ascension, especially on Golgotha. We are told that for the joy that was set before him he endured the cross and despised the shame. So Jesus readied himself for the work of the next year by his consciousness of soon being taken up to heaven. But he also readied others for the work at hand.
ii] Our Lord Jesus knew his immediate destination. People quote the phrase “You are so heavenly minded that you are of no earthly use.” They have this fanciful idea that if Christians are absorbed with pie in the sky when they die then they won’t be concerned with needs in this world, which, of course, heavenly minded Christians certainly are. The people speak of what they do not know. Orphans in Kenya, people with learning difficulties in Wales, poor people in eastern Europe, the deaf in Cardiganshire, the partially sighted in Aberystwyth and there are members of our congregation involved in all of those concerns. We find no tension at all between our hopes of heaven and a life of practical good works here. We live under the responsibility of loving our neighbours as ourselves. We know that after death we face a judgment of whether our lives matched what we said we believed. Jesus will say to many, “I was hungry and sick and dressed in rags and in prison – you helped me, because you helped my people.” So we have a distant vision of the heaven to which we are going but also we have a close-up vision of the world around us today. Who is unable to get out of their homes because of the freezing conditions? For whom can we shop? Who is particularly lonely? We look up to heaven, yes, and that gives us strength to endure troubles in this groaning world. But we also listen to the groans to see if we can help. That is how every Christian behaves, because this is how Jesus behaved. So it was with Jesus, that he had both long-term and immediate goals.
Notice here in our text, we are told that he planned to visit a village in Samaria and so “he sent messengers on ahead, who went into a Samaritan village to get things ready for him” (v.52). That is quite fascinating. He could turn up in that place unannounced, and he could say to the people of that village what he said to the winds and waves, “Peace be still,” and their Samaritan resentment at this Jewish invasion would all disappear and those lions would have become lambs. However, that is not how Jesus worked then; it is not how he works now. Jesus sent messengers on to talk to the chief rulers of that village and tell them who was going to come, how many of them, why they were coming, what they were going to do, healing the sick and cleansing lepers and giving sight to the blind and teaching them the message of the kingdom of God. The messengers would go there to prepare for Jesus and the twelve, to buy food, and find lodgings for the men and women who helped for as long as it was necessary for them to stay there.
It is the great calling that we have in this 21st century to prepare people for an encounter with Jesus. We are thoughtful and sensitive to their prejudices and the ignorance they have about the faith. Many know so little; they are confused and hostile about this phrase ‘being saved.’ So Jesus prepares them by sending us to befriend them, to talk to them and to explain things to them, to defuse the situation of a possible explosion of resentment and anger. He comes in saving power to a prepared people. He has made them ready through us who are his servants who become experienced in doing this. How do you become experienced? By doing it again and again. Imagine if we lived in an area where there was a huge immigration of Muslims and Hindus. You have to talk to them, and be a good neighbour, you pay your debts to them, and you remove any stumbling blocks that would prevent them receiving Jesus Christ, you are patient and you answer their questions. You are a joy to have around. You remember how skilful Paul was in doing this? Isn’t this where we are failing most frequently?
Turn to Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians and chapter 9; it is a famous section. He says starting in the 19th verse, “Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings” (I Cors.9:19-23). So he would go to the synagogue in a new town and debate with them until they evicted him. He would insist that Timothy be circumcised so as to remove that offence when they were preaching to Jews. Then when he went to Athens and talked to the philosophers on Mars Hill he wouldn’t quote from Scripture directly (though all he said was faithful to the Bible) but he’d refer to one of their poets and quote what he said, but he wouldn’t fail to tell them of the resurrection of Jesus and the judgment that lay before us all. He prepared for the coming of Jesus into their lives by going as a man and speaking kindly and faithfully and openly as a fellow human being quietly and humbly, right in their midst, like Daniel, alone amidst the lions.
That is our calling this week; we are a week’s march nearer our eternal home. We are getting ready for glory, but before that we have to live amidst strangers and friends, members of our family and people we’ve long worked with. Most of them have wrong ideas about themselves and about the Bible; prejudices about Jesus Christ and what it is to become a Christian, and we go first to prepare them – by what we are and what we say – for an encounter with the living Christ. Before you invite them to church talk to them, and when after the service they talk and didn’t understand this and that, you explain things to them as best you can, “Get everything ready for me to come into their midst,” Jesus says to us, just as he once sent his disciples into this community before he came there. Become all things to all men so that by all possible means some might be saved. Become a Samaritan to the Samaritans. If they see a hint of your being a proud Jew then you will never get to first base with them. So Jesus was getting ready to return to heaven, but he was also readying others to prepare for his immanent visit to this Samaritan village.
2. THE LORD JESUS WAS RESOLUTE IN SETTING OUT FOR JERUSALEM.
You know better those translations of the Authorized Version, “his face was as though he would go to Jerusalem” (v.53), or that he set his face steadfastly to Jerusalem. Nothing was going to stop him. The hatred wouldn’t stop him going there. The 39 lashes wouldn’t stop him. The punches and the spitting in the face wouldn’t stop him. The mockery and the lying witnesses wouldn’t stop him. The weight of the cross and the chanting of the mob wouldn’t stop him. The crucifixion, the nails through his hands and his feet, his body suspended there for hours all would not stop him from going to Jerusalem. The absence of the comfort of God and the waves of divine wrath breaking over him would not stop him going to Golgotha and laying down his life for us because he loved so much someone like me or you. He had made up his mind to redeems us at great cost to himself. Yes, he was going to heaven, but the only route there lay via the lash and the nails and the spear and the grave. He chose that. He humbled himself to that death. He did it quite deliberately. His flesh naturally repulsed it. His friends sought to persuade him to fly like a bird to the mountains, but Jesus was determined to go. Why? Because only by dying the accursed death of the cross could we enter heaven with him. Only in this way could our sin and guilt be removed. Fire came down from heaven, yes, but not on the Samaritans that rejected him but on God the Son who would save them. If fire hadn’t fallen on him then James and John and all of us would have been consumed by the wrath of God.
Donald MacDonald was a fine Highland minister in Greyfriars Inverness for twenty years (cp. his Christian Experience, Banner of Truth, 1988, p.49). He says how he once knew an old man, a more religious man he’d never met; from his youth up he didn’t miss a meeting; he read the Bible daily. He seemed to be everything that a man could be, but then in his 80’s he became convinced that he was a lost sinner. He came to Donald who tried to comfort him. He tried to help by reminding the old man about a famous Christian convert, Muckle Kate of Lochcarron, who almost lost her eyesight weeping for her sins; but he wouldn’t listen to Donald. When he told him about her, the man said, “All her misery is nothing compared to mine; there was never anybody like me; there cannot be anybody as I am,” and he said these things weeping his eyes out all the time. Well, so it was, and what could Donald do? He could point him to the Scriptures, and pray, but it was all of no avail.
After a while he went to see him again, and he had something to tell him – I think he had actually sent for Donald that he wanted to see him. He had something to tell him. He’d found Christ; every cloud had been taken away, and by the grace of God his sins were as if they had never been, his sins of eighty-five years, his sin of self-righteousness and self-sufficiency. He had been long under a cloud and this is what had lain heavily upon his soul; but God had taken it away, and he said, “I see Christ in his mercy and his love.”
Well, that is what God does. His wrath is revealed from heaven against all unrighteousness of men. We read in the Book of Psalms, “If thou, Lord, shouldest mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand? But there is forgiveness with thee, that thou mayest be feared” (130:3-4). How is that possible? How can God be just and sin-hating and yet become a sin-forgiving God? Let me draw your attention to this scene – to a scenario that took place historically nearly two thousand years ago. When our Lord, the despised Nazarene, was hanging on a cross and all the incendiaries of God’s fury were targetting themselves upon his innocent head and soul. There was darkness upon the face of the earth – perhaps a merciful darkness, I don’t know – perhaps it was to hide from the eyes of all human beings something that was too sacred for them to behold. As Christ hung there in the gloom, every single drop of the fury of God against the sins of the elect fell upon his innocent soul – and all in the space of a few hours. Every drop fell upon him! He cried out in his agony, “I thirst.” His thirst in dying was caused by the fires of the wrath of God poured out upon his soul.
Men and women, this is how God accomplished the work of redemption. His wrath against sin fell on the Lord Jesus that it might not fall on us. Remember how Christ resolutely determined to go to Jerusalem and go to the Cross to suffer there as God poured out on him all his wrath against all our sins. “I must go to Jerusalem; I must suffer the judgment of God there,” he said because we could never enter heaven except that had happened. Our sins must be blotted out and only through the great atoning of the death of the Lamb of God could this occur. We are saved, not by the mere determination of Christ to die that death, but by his death itself that he the God-man died in our place to blot out our sins. The Lord Jesus was resolute to give his life a ransom for many
3. THE LORD JESUS WAS REJECTED.
We learn that Jesus’ men had gone to the Samaritan village as he had told them to go, and I am sure that with much graciousness and tact they talked to the mayor of the community and its elders and prepared them for the possibility of a visit of Jesus of Nazareth and the twelve. They told them what they could expect, that every sick person could be healed, and that the message of forgiveness and the gift of eternal life through faith and repentance would be preached. The Samaritans deliberated for a while among themselves and then they reported back to the disciples saying, “We don’t want you lot here. Go, and don’t come back. You are not welcome. You are Jews and you are on your way to your holy mount in Jerusalem. We have no dealings with you or your Jesus. Get out of our town.” It is not supposed to happen is it? We hear again and again religious enthusiasts telling us that people everywhere are looking for Jesus, that there is a hunger for him all over the land, that all we have to do is tell people about Jesus and they will fall over themselves to believe on him. We’ve not found that to be the case, but rather what happened in Samaria is happening all over Europe and north Africa and the Middle East today. It is happening in our town and in the university. There are more than 8,000 students at the university and a hundred attend the Christian Union. In other words 7,900 are not interested. “No thanks,” they say. “Don’t bother us.”
Christian men and women are going into the world at the command of the Head of the church, and they are seeking very spiritually and prayerfully to prepare hearts and lives for a visitation of the Lord Jesus. They are telling them that miracles of grace will occur if they receive him. Stony hearts will be replaced by a heart of flesh. The dead in sin will be made alive. People bowing low under the weight of the burden of guilt will find that burden lifted. Nervous, weak people will be given courage. Family lives will be changed; parents’ and children’s relationships will be transformed; husbands and wives will love one another more tenderly, if they but welcome Jesus into their homes.
There was a little town in Samaria called Sychar where Jesus went and spoke to one woman whose life was radically changed by what he said to her. She went and told the people of her community, “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Christ?” (Jn. 4:29). We are told, “Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, ‘He told me everything I ever did.’ So when the Samaritans came to him, they urged him to stay with them, and he stayed two days. And because of his words many more became believers. They said to the woman, ‘We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Saviour of the world’” (Jn. 4:39-42). Later on did a converted man from that village go on a journey and come across a man lying on the road side half dead, beaten up by thieves? Did he notice that a priest and a levite had stepped over that man without slowing down? But this Samaritan stopped and picked him up; he dressed his wounds and took him to an inn and paid the inn-keeper to look after him until he was better. The good Samaritan loved much because he had been forgiven much by Jesus. Maybe he was from Sychar. What a transformation of that community had occurred. So there is one village welcoming Christ and becoming full of faith and the blessing of God, but the other refusing to entertain him or listen to anything he had to say. How terrible the consequences of prejudice, to hear a person you are talking to of the love of Jesus replying, “That’s religion,” and dismissing it without any consideration. How damnable. Why one village responding and one village rejecting? Why one brother receiving Christ and another brother rejecting him? We don’t know. We only know that it is so. Even so Father, for so it seemed good in thy sight. So let’s make sure that we don’t dismiss Christ without considering what he’s got to say to us. He might tell us all that we ever did. We might find that this man really is the Saviour of the world.
4. THE LORD JESUS REBUKED HIS DISCIPLES.
We are told, “When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, ‘Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?’ But Jesus turned and rebuked them, and they went to another village” (vv. 54&55).
i] There is John’s request. Now all of us have heard of the beloved disciple John who wrote a gospel in which he wrote down John 3:16 about God’s love for the world, and that God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world but that the world through him might be saved. He wrote a mighty little epistle in which he said, “God is love,” and he urged us to love one another. Yes all that is true, there is dear, loving John. But I must say to you that he was not always like that. This is the restless ambitious disciple whose mother came on behalf of him to ask Jesus if her sons might sit on his right and his left in his kingdom. Again, John was amongst those disciples who asked Jesus when they saw men coming to arrest him, “Lord, should we strike with our swords?” (Lk. 22:49). This is the John who (back in verse 49) tells us he stopped a Christian man from preaching and delivering people from demons “because he is not one of us” (v.49). This is the same John who comes with his brother and asks Jesus if they could firebomb this Samaritan village killing everyone in it because it dared to refuse Jesus permission to preach there.
This was John here; it was a very immature John; the fruit of the Holy Spirit, love, was not very evident in him at this time, and so we can take great encouragement can’t we from reading this? We would think that a soldier who wanted to destroy a rebel village in Afghanistan and all its inhabitants would be the last person to believe in Jesus, certainly the very last to be known as a disciple of love. Yet such a tough mercenary might be changed by the same gospel that changed John. What a change did take place in this man. Here we are seeing what was John before the cross. Here was John before the resurrection of Jesus. Here was John before Pentecost. What an effect these great unrepeatable redemptive events had on his life. He was no longer as he once was – the one seeking to annihilate a Samaritan village. In fact we read of him just a year or two later going to Samaria at the invitation of Philip and “preaching the gospel in many Samaritan villages” (Acts 8:25). Not angry with them but loving them and bringing Christ to them. What a transformation the saving grace of Jesus effects in a believing man who repents of the ways he used to think and speak and act. “What a change in you, John. What can account for that?” Another John tells us the reason
‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear
And grace my fears relieved.
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed.” (John Newton)
ii] There is Jesus’ response. We are told that our Lord “turned and rebuked them” (v.55). You will see in the footnote that there is an old tradition which tells us what Jesus said; “You don’t 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.” Jesus didn’t toss words like those over his shoulder as he walked on; he didn’t mutter them under his breath, he turned, we are told, that is turn and faced the slow-witted, hard-hearted, unbelieving James and John as men who’d suggested something utterly unacceptable – even to think it let alone say it – and he rebuked the pair of brothers. It was very solemn; it stopped them in their tracks, to be earnestly rebuked by Jesus.
Do you regularly attend a church where your flagrant sins are rebuked? If not there’s no need to search further for the reason that you’re not making progress in holiness. All God-breathed scripture is profitable, and one of the reasons God inspired it is in order that it rebuke us when we are going dangerously wrong. People are going to get hurt if you continue to behave as you are; people you love, people who depend on you. God rebukes our folly and wickedness. Thank God he does not shrug his shoulders and do nothing. We may kiss the divine rod that smites us. Faithful are the wounds of a friend.
What happened? That village had said no to them, so what should they do? No great dilemma and heart-searching; they went to another village; it was as simple as that. Maybe the village they went to was Sychar where Jesus met the woman at the well, and a great change took place there. One community receives Christ and the other rejects him. That is the doctrine of human responsibility, and if people refuse to listen to us then our response is to go to another person, and another person, and yet another person and we will find people who will listen if we are always ready to give a reason for our hope to people who ask us. It is obvious from this incident that Jesus still had a lot to do as he worked with these 12 men, and Jesus still has a lot to do working with you and with me. But this is an example of how Jesus works with us and changes us. He sends us to meet rejection and teaches us how to handle it graciously. A gentle answer turns wrath away. Do not overcome evil with evil but overcome evil with good. That is what Jesus is teaching them and you learn it when you join the front line of service. You don’t pick it up sitting in a conference or from a book but as you speak and serve, as you reach out and say a word and try to love them, and yet they reject you. How much it is possible to learn from the experience of rejection.
One final question; Is there a religion in the world today which would willingly kill any infidels who rejected its prophet? Would members of that religion, if they could, plant a dirty bomb in the middle of London killing a million people and making it uninhabitable for hundreds of years? Do members of this religion think that in doing such a heinous crime they are doing their god a favour? Are there such people who believe and act like that? My point is this; how can you say that all religions are the same? That they are all different roads that are leading to the same mountain top? How can you say that when the Lord Jesus here rebukes James and John for their religion which they thought gave them inspired verses encouraging them to destroy everyone in an infidel village? This is a different religion and it is a false religion, and people who believe this need to be delivered from it.
In other words Jesus did not preach the same message as Mohammed. The latter preached a message of works, that by what you did, for example, how consistently you repeated some prayers a few times each day, that you never ate pork or drank alcohol and you kept the ten commandments – then if these good works outweighed your bad deeds you might get to paradise and meet the virgins serving you glasses of sherbet. Christ preached another religion, one of God’s grace, that we are saved by Christ’s perfect good works and his atoning death. We are forgiven and join Jesus in paradise because we have entrusted ourselves into his loving hands, under the protection of his shed blood, clothed in the righteousness of his good works which have been mercifully imputed to us, and seeking help from the indwelling holy Spirit to follow him and do his will day by day, not in order to win heaven but in order to show that Jesus Christ is dwelling in our hearts.
10th January 2009 GEOFF THOMAS