In 2 Kings 1, the prophet Elijah is portrayed calling fire from heaven to consume around 100 soldiers who had been sent to retrieve him for the king. The last captain with his 50 men were only spared because the captain pleaded for their lives. This took place in the region called Samaria. Now fastforward hundreds of years to the earthly ministry of Jesus:
“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. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, ‘Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?’ But he turned and rebuked them” (Luke 9:51-55 NRSV).
The funny thing about this, besides the obvious contrast in Elijah’s approach and that of Jesus, is that no explanation is given as to why He rebuked His disciples. A later interpolation that appears in the King James Version puts the account as follows:
“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? But he turned, and rebuked them, and said, Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of. For the Son of man is not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them. And they went to another village” (Luke 9:54-56 KJV).
This rendering of events would seem wonderfully explanatory, but even if it were accurate (and like I said, the textual evidence doesn’t support it), it would only make matters worse. Just try to reconcile this depiction of vehement mercy with the casual slaughter commited in the account of Elijah and you’ll end up with the ancient heresy of two gods, one of the Old Testament, and another of the new Testament.
I’m not sure how literally to take the stories of Elijah and Elisha. The floating axehead seems odd, and the bears mauling children who mocked the balding prophet doesn’t seem like cause for celebration. Whoever tossed in the connection between Elijah and Jesus in Samaria didn’t do us any favors. It’s a fall lead.
Whatever we’re supposed to learn from the account in 2nd Kings, my opinion is that Jesus rebuked the disciples because a firebombing of Samaria was indeed contrary to His spirit and teaching, and also that such and event would seriously disrupt the greater miracle he was so intent on performing in Jerusalem: Atonement for the sins of the world.