Elijah and John — Matthew 17:9–13

The glory of Jesus — part 3

40 blogs of Lent — day 30

For a change the scribes were right. The disciples Peter, James and John wanted to know why the scribes said that Elijah must come first. It is simple, it is because it was prophesied in their scriptures. Malachi 4:5 says, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes.”

A church statue showing John the Baptist pouring water over a man in a loin clorh.
John Baptist baptising
Free image from Wikimedia commons

And as they were coming down the mountain, Jesus commanded them, “Tell no one the vision, until the Son of Man is raised from the dead.” 10 And the disciples asked him, “Then why do the scribes say that first Elijah must come?” 11 He answered, “Elijah does come, and he will restore all things. 12 But I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man will certainly suffer at their hands.” 13 Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them of John the Baptist.

Matthew 17:9–13 ESV UK

The three disciples were probably asking about Elijah because they had just briefly seen him. Peter’s idea to build shelters for Jesus Moses and Elijah had been interrupted by a cloud coming down and Moses and Aaron disappearing.

As an aside, Elijah had gone up in a cloud before, and Jesus would later ascend in a cloud, but how that is relevant to a discussion of this passage I have no idea.

But I have an idea about Peter, first when Jesus said he was to suffer, Peter said no,
Then on the mountain Peter said let’s build shelters. God interrupted saying Listen to Jesus. If Jesus stayed on the mountain he would not go to Jerusalem and redeem creation. Following your hunches is fine most of the time, but there are times when we need to put them aside to follow Jesus.

Then with Elijah still in their minds they set off back down the mountain. Jesus tells them that Elijah has come and they understood his answer to point to John the Baptist. This leads us to a big theological problem, for while the synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke say this, and it has already been said before, “For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John, and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come.” (Matthew 11:13-14). In John’s Gospel this happens: ‘And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” And he answered, “No.”’ (John 1: 21)

The question is, was John wrong, and he was the Elijah who was to come, or was Jesus wrong and John was not Elijah?

I have come across both answers from Christians in looking. The one which concludes that John was right and he was not Elijah constructs intellectual hoops you have to to say that Jesus was not wrong and ends up going back to a form of dispensationalism which has only been around been around since the late 18th Century. (Dispensationalism has a long history, but the version popularised in the Schofield reference Bible of 1909 and 1917 is rigid and Schofield says it is the only way the Bible should be interpreted.) This theology says that Elijah will personally return before the return of Jesus at the end of the age, and that Jesus on Earth at the time the Gospels were written was not the final appearance of of God on Earth so John could not be Elijah. The way it describes Jesus as not being wrong when referring to John as being Elijah is remarkable in its complexity. The drawback to this approach is when talking about what the Scribes were teaching it does not look at evidence from writings by the scribes at the time, but from the Bible alone.

The issue is not with John’s understanding of his own role, but the people’s understanding of Elijah. When you look at what was written at the time in order to say something like, “the people believed that…” or “the scribes taught that…” But we can’t do that, like in all ages people believe different things to each other, That is never true, it is always a mess.

Confusion reigned. The people were anxiously waiting for a Messiah or Christ (both terms mean anointed one) The teachings included the bodily reappearance of Elijah, who had gone up to heaven alive in a whirlwind. Jewish writings of the time had different names for the anointed one, some said he would be a prophet, some a priest ans some a king like David. We know that Jesus fulfils all of these as prophet, priest and king, as shown in the hymn How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds and in Hebrews 1:1-3.

  • Prophet: God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son,
  • Priest: After making purification for sins,
  • King: He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high,

In the confusion some were expecting one Messiah and some three separate ones, a prophet a priest and a king. Some were wanting a judge in the sense of the ones in the book of Judges, warrior prophets who would kick out the oppressive foreign armies from the land.

When John said, “I am not Elijah,” he was answering a trick question. If he had said no, then they would have said he had no authority for his ministry, if he had said yes, they would have said he could not be as Elijah would come back fully grown. John the Baptist, son of the priest Zechariah and Elizabeth, instead said, “No, I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.'” quoting Isaiah 40:3.

Jesus told his disciples that John was ‘the Messiah who is to come’ in Matthew 11:14 and here he makes that hint again. In the light (pun intended) of the transfiguration that has just happened, Jesus is shown to be the Messiah, preceded by John in the spirit of Elijah and is out prophet, priest and king. The prophesies of the Messiah are all fulfilled in Jesus.

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