Jesus’ brief rebuke of two of his closest disciples, James and John, ought to make us pause and consider our own spiritual lives and ambitions. 

“You do not 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” (Luke 9:55-56a).

The occasion? 

Jesus had sent messengers ahead of Him, as we’re told in Luke 9, to prepare a Samaritan village for His arrival as He was on His way to Jerusalem.  However, both they and He were rejected, apparently because of their intended destination—the capitol and holy city of the Jews, the Samaritans’ rivals. 

The “Sons of Thunder,” James and John, apparently decided this was a time to discharge their stormy disposition against the village.  So they asked Jesus, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” (Luke 9:54b). 

Jesus’ rebuke was stinging, immediate and public.  It was also surprising, when you consider the two men he rebuked.  They were both members of Jesus’ inner circle of three disciples. Along with Peter, they alone had been invited to see Jesus raise Jairus’ daughter from the dead (Mark 5:35-43).  They, with Peter, exclusively joined Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration when Moses and Elijah had appeared and spoken with Jesus (Matthew 17:1-7).  And they, only, along with Peter, would be invited to join Jesus in His hour of agonizing prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:36-38). 

Yet Jesus told even them that they were blind to their own self-righteous, vindictive and sinful natural inclinations!

Because of a single insult, formed by cultural and religious prejudices shared by both Samaritans and Jews, James and John were more than willing to have an entire village, full of many entirely uninvolved and relatively innocent men, women and children, wiped out in the most forceful and painful manner possible—by the descent of fire from heaven.

The incident makes me wonder how true what Jesus had to say about James and John might also be of me.  How often, in a moment of self-righteous indignation, have I confidently and arrogantly delivered my judgment on people and circumstances I haven’t fully understood or appreciated?  How often has my passion for Christ overwhelmed His more appropriate compassion upon people who have ignorantly rejected Him and His ways?

More than that, just what kind of spirit inhabits the human race as a whole? 

The incident reminded me of 20th century history.  I recently completed Gregory Koukl’s excellent book Tactics:  A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions.  Koukl ably debunks a common argument used against the Christian faith that goes like this:  “More wars have been fought and more blood has been shed in the name of God than any other cause.  Religion is the greatest source of evil in the world.” 

In a chapter entitled “Just the Facts, Ma’am”, Koukl answers the argument with these startling facts:

               Grab an older copy of the Guinness Book of World Records and turn

               to the category “Judicial,” subheading “Crimes:  Mass Killings.”  You’ll

               find that carnage of unimaginable proportions resulted not from religion,

               but from institutionalized atheism:  over 66 million wiped out under Lenin,

               Stalin, and Krushchev; between 32 and 61 million Chinese killed under

               Communist regimes since 1949: one third of the eight million Khmer—

               2.7 million people—were killed between 1975 and 1979 under the communist

               Khmer Rouge (Koukl, Tactics; A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian

               Convictions, p. 177).

The conclusion should be obvious.  The truth is precisely the opposite of what opponents of the Christian faith so often like to say.  The truth is that more blood has been shed in the name of atheism than any other cause.  Atheism—the lack of accountability and fear of God—has likely resulted in more bloodshed than any other evil in history.

That should give us some clue as to “what spirit we are of” apart from Christ.  Where there is no fear of God, there is little compassion for men or concern for what is right.  When push comes to shove in an unbeliever’s desire for utopia, or his lust just to have his own way, lives, even millions of relatively innocent lives, have become expendable. 

And that’s precisely why the fear of the Lord is so very crucial for every one of us, even as believers.  If James and John are any example, as we humbly consider “what spirit we are of,” we must realize that without the fear of the Lord, even in our zeal for the Lord, serious evil can become an option.

That apparently was the case even in the thriving early church.  In the gracious fresh bloom of Christian fellowship and love, Ananias and Sapphira thought they could steal a little of the glory for themselves.  They merely adjusted the truth about how much of the sale of their property they were giving to the church. 

The Holy Spirit was not impressed. 

And after Ananias and Sapphira were buried, we read “And great fear came over the whole church, and over all who heard all of these things” (Acts 5:11). 

Do you fear the Lord?

“By lovingkindness and truth iniquity is atoned for,
And by the fear of the Lord one keeps away from evil.”

(Proverbs 16:6)