They were disciples, apostles, and brothers. Along with Simon, whom Jesus called “Peter” (meaning “a stone”), they were part of Jesus’ inner circle. Like Simon, they had been given a sobriquet. The Lord called them “Boanerges.” They were the “Sons of Thunder” (Mark 3:17).
Perhaps they were powerful preachers. Perhaps they had powerful personalities. We simply don’t know the full reason for the moniker.
James was the first apostle to die (Acts 12:2), John was the last. While Jesus walked the earth, no one was closer to him than the “Stone” and the “Sons of Thunder.”
James and John followed the Lord closely. They watched him minister and heal. They heard him preach to great crowds and to small gatherings. They, along with so many others, marveled at his manner of being and at his teaching. They came to be devoted to him, the Messiah.
Luke records Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem in wonderful detail. When Jesus set his mind to go to Jerusalem he sent messengers ahead to a Samaritan village. But this unnamed village did not wish to receive him because he was traveling to Jerusalem.
“And 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?'” (Luke 9:54).
Now that is an odd request, indeed!
Perhaps they had in mind Elijah. Many manuscripts include the phrase, “…as Elijah did.” (This textual variant is included in both the Majority Text and the Textus Receptus, but is excluded in the modern Critical Text.) This would refer us back to the occasion when Ahaziah, the king of Samaria, sent soldiers to Elijah. On two occasions, at the word of Elijah, fifty soldiers and a captain were consumed by fire from heaven. But on the third occasion, the captain of fifty came to the prophet in humility and was spared (2 Kings 1:9-15).
Perhaps they were encouraged by the power they had been given earlier to cast out demons and to cure diseases (Luke 9:1, 2). Perhaps having heard Peter’s confession (Luke 9:18-20), and Jesus’ call to total devotion (Luke 9:23-27), they were offended by the reaction of the Samaritans. Perhaps having seen the glory of the transfigured Lord and heard the voice of the Father proclaim Jesus’ supremacy (Luke 9:28-36), they felt a demonstration of God’s power was in order.
These devoted followers of the Son of Man were mistaken. Regardless of their motivations, Jesus rebuked them (Luke 9:55). Again we find a textual variant. Some manuscripts give further color to Jesus’ rebuke, saying, “You do not know of what sort of spirit you are. For the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives but to save them” (Luke 9:55, 56, EMTV, see also MLV). Clearly, Jesus’ ministry was one whose purpose was to glorify God (John 17:4), and to save the lost (Luke 19:10).
Maybe James and John needed reminding of Jesus’ teaching on rejection:
“Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets” (Luke 6:22, 23).
Maybe these thunderous ones needed reminding of Jesus’ teaching concerning retaliation:
“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To the one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either” (Luke 6:27-29).
No doubt, these good-hearted men demonstrated the changes that Jesus desired in their lives. James imitated the Lord in giving up his life, while John is known by many as the “apostle of love.” What a change from men who wanted to destroy a village for an insult!
While compassion, mercy, and love flowed from our Savior during his ministry, a reckoning is coming. Fire is coming from heaven one last time.
Those who reject Jesus will see his coming as a means of their destruction. Jesus will be “revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus” (2 Thessalonians 1:7-8).
Let us be thankful that the first time Jesus came he brought with him love, mercy, and forgiveness. Let us be thankful that Jesus suffered the insults, the rejections, and the cross for us. And let us be thankful that he will appear a second time to “save those who are eagerly waiting for him” (Hebrews 9:28).
How we live now will determine how we view the fire that comes from heaven later. Will it be vindicating or vengeful?