In October of 29 AD, seven months before the crucifixion, Jesus leaves Galilee for the final time to
go to Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles on October 15 (John 7:2). Jesus planned on going from Galilee, through the land of Samaria, and then entering Judea, where he would go to the feast in Jerusalem. In order to prepare a place for his disciples and those following him to the Jewish feast in Jerusalem, Jesus sent a couple of the disciples ahead into a village in Samaria to prepare for their overnight stay. Their assignment would have included securing shelter and food. The foresight and preparations would have been a courteous gesture to the Samaritan villagers who could have been seriously inconvenienced when overrun with these travelers.
Historically there had been opposition between the land of Samaria (northern Israel) and the land
of Judea since the days of Solomon’s son Rehoboam when the twelve tribes of Israel split into two countries: northern Israel and southern Judah. In 721 BC Israel was deported by Assyria and the population replaced with Gentiles who inter-married with the remaining Israelites to create the
people known as Samaritans. In 537 when the Jews of Judea returned from Babylonian captivity
to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem the Samaritans asked to join in the effort, but their offer was rejected by Zerubbabel, Joshua and the other leaders of Judah (Ezra 4:1-5).
In response to this rejection the Samaritans opposed the Jewish effort in Jerusalem, but also built their own pagan version of the Temple on Mount Gerizim in Samaria. In 128 BC John Hyrcanus,
one of the descendants of the Maccabees (called the Hasmoneans) who became the
High Priest/King of Judea attacked Samaria, forced them to convert to Judaism and burnt
their Temple on Mount Gerizim. When Rome annexed the lands of Israel in 63 BC they relieved
the Samaritans from their Judean oppressors.
So, by 29 AD when the Samaritans learned that Jesus “was heading for Jerusalem” through Samaria to worship at the Jewish Temple it, makes complete sense that “the people there did not welcome
him.” (Luke 9:53) The Samaritan opposition to Jews making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem through
their land was often hostile and at times violent to the point of battle and murder. Josephus records an event that occurred in 50 AD that involved Samaritans killing Galileans traveling through Samaria:
“It was the custom of the Galileans, when they came to the holy city at the festivals, to take their journeys through the country of the Samaritans; and at this time there lay, in the road they took, a village that was called Ginea…where certain persons thereto belonging fought with the Galileans, and killed a great many of them…they came to Cumanus (Roman procurator of Judea 48-52 AD), and desired him to avenge the murder of those that were killed; but he was induced by the Samaritans, with money, to do nothing in the matter; upon which the Galileans were much displeased, and persuaded the multitude of the Jews to betake themselves to arms” (Josephus, book XX, chapter 6, verse 1)
It is interesting to note that the attitude of James and John was completely normal for the age in which they lived. And, considering James and John had only a few days before been taken by Jesus up Mount Hermon near Caesarea Philipi to see Elijah who himself had called down fire on a military captain from Samaria and his 50 troops on two different occasions (2 Kings 1:9-12), it makes some sense that James and John would assume the appropriate thing to do to these opponents of Jesus and the Temple would be to ask, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?”
Jesus rebuked James and John because, as John himself would write over 50 years later,
“God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world.” (John 3:17) Neither was Jesus was going to force obedience on the Samaritans, but offered them an opportunity to respond by faith to the Truth and the Spirit of God. Judgment will come, eventually,
and it will come by the hand of the Lord. Mark records that Jesus called James and John
“Sons of Thunder” (Mark 3:17). Episodes like this one in Samaria may have earned James and
John this title. It is interesting that when we think of the aged Apostle John we do not necessarily think of a man of thunder.