When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him, who went and entered a village of the Samaritans, to make preparations for him. But the people did not receive him, because his face was set toward 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?” But he turned and rebuked them. And they went on to another village.
– Luke 9:51-56
It is not obvious what purpose this little vignette serves in Luke’s narrative. Previous passages cover the disciples ministry experience, the Transfiguration, and further healing ministries of Jesus. The immediately preceding passage demonstrates the disciples’ skepticism about the exorcism ministry of some non-Christ followers. In the passage immediately after this one, the cost of following Jesus is central.
But nothing really happens here. A village rejects Jesus and they move on.
However, there are two significant features of this text that we must not overlook.
1. Jesus “set his face toward Jerusalem”
Twice in this passage, we read that Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem” (51, 53). In v. 51, the reason why is given:“the days drew near for him to be taken up.” So the reason Jesus is determined to go to Jerusalem is because his time on earth was coming to an end. Those of us who have read the Gospels before, know what happens at Jerusalem. In this way, Jerusalem almost serves as literary synecdoche implying all that must happen to him there.
This is significant because in this passage, Luke is drawing out Jesus’ efforts to communicate his true purpose to the disciples, who clearly still misunderstand what the purpose of the Messiah is.
2. The disciples wanted to call down fire upon the rejecting Samaritans, as Elijah did.
The disciples had begun to see reflections of a prophetic ministry in Christ’s ministry, and thus by extension, in their own. This is what they thought the Messiah’s purpose was. Therefore a rejection such as this was offensive and, they thought, worthy of death, since these Samaritans had rejected God’s Holy Messiah. Surely that must not be tolerated; Jesus must be allowed to enter and minister where he sees fit, or else.
Yet Jesus rebuked them for this suggestion. Apparently, according to the ESV Bible footnotes, most manuscripts leave it at that, though some suggest further instruction with the rebuke. I agree, and think Luke’s purpose is clearer without it, lest we focus too much on Jesus’ words instead of Jesus’ priority.
The disciples were still confused. Just a page back, Peter had declared rightly who Jesus is “You are the Christ of God” (9:20). Yet what that meant still needed clarification. So Jesus began to clarify that and mention his imminent death (9:21-22; 43b-45). Yet they still did not get it. To be the Christ still meant something different to them. Considering their response to these Samaritans, they apparently thought it involved calling down fire on the opposition, putting on display mighty works of God in a flashy defense of his Authority and Power, this great God they served, with the Christ as God’s spokesperson and they as his followers, his Elisha’s.
“We still didn’t get it,” Luke appears to be saying through the events in passage. “His purpose was different than we thought.” Again we read in v. 53, “the people did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem.” Jesus knew or perhaps even influenced the hearts of these Samaritans. His purpose was not to continue endlessly parading through towns and villages healing, preaching, delivering, and feeding people. He ‘set his face’ toward, that is, he ‘determined to proceed toward without hindrance’ the place where he would be accused, convicted, beaten, crucified, mocked, killed, buried, and resurrected so that he could finish his task all at once. The point of this passage is: “Behold the purposeful focus of our Lord! Behold the lamb running headlong for the slaughter that he might save many sinners from captivity to sin and death! Behold our friend Jesus too concerned with laying down his life for his friends to stop off in one more village who would perhaps see his signs and not accept the one to whom such signs point.”
He set his face toward Calvary. He set his face toward our redemption, our full and final healing, our full and final deliverance, our full and final meal.
He set his face toward love.