Elijah Will Come (and restore all things)
Matthew has taken great care to give his readers enough clues that they will identify John the Baptist as Elijah. However, we must remember that as this was unfolding in real time, not everyone was making that connection. Just like with Jesus being the Son of God, not everyone believed the evidence in front of them. The evidence was present to identify John as Elijah, but many refused to believe primarily because they refused to repent of their sins. Matthew has used other titles for John which include The Voice in the Wilderness and My Messenger.
In case you haven’t guessed, this is the next installment in The Tax Collector’s Guide to Fulfilled Prophecy. I am looking at prophecies or references to the law and prophets to see how Matthew records the fulfillment. Between Matthew 16:13 and 17:13 there are three clear references to Elijah the prophet. The first is a case of mistaken identity in 16:14. The second is Elijah himself appearing in glory (see Luke 9:31) with Jesus in the holy mount (II Peter 1:16-18). The third is the discussion between Jesus and three disciples concerning Elijah, how events concerning Elijah will be fulfilled, and the identification of John the Baptist as Elijah. While we do not have a clear quotation from the old testament, we have plenty of imagery from which to draw, all centered around the person of Elijah.
A Case of Mistaken Identity
Jesus asks the disciples what the crowds are saying about Him. Who are people saying that I am? The first wrong guess that Matthew records is John the Baptist. At this point, remember that John has been beheaded by Herod, see Matthew 14:1-14. Matthew writes that Herod is confused and perhaps haunted by his conscience concerning John. He knows he put to death an innocent man. Jesus had been known for some time before this, but not until after the death of John the Baptist did Herod hear of His fame. Because many did not hear of Jesus and His power until after John had died, they did not understand that their ministries overlapped to some degree, see especially John 3:22-24. For some it seemed like John was struck down, and someone more powerful rose to take his place. Surely this was John the Baptist, innocent man put to death, rising from the grave to continue his prophetic ministry. Sorry, guess again.
The second wrong guess is Elijah, the one whom we are discussing. Did people believe Jesus was literally Elijah, or someone carrying on in the spirit and power of Elijah? For the first answer, many people believe that Elijah never died, and therefore that makes him a candidate to come back from heaven. I don’t know why that is appealing to some people, but it is. I myself do not believe that Elijah was carried into the presence of God in II Kings 2, but rather the chariot and horses of fire separated Elijah and Elisha, and the whirlwind carried Elijah into the air, or heaven. There are different aspects of heaven, one of the primary aspects is simply the sky above us, see Genesis 1:6-8 which shows water above (clouds) and water below (sea) and what is in between those two is heaven. Remember that 50 of the sons of the prophets witnessed this entire event, see II Kings 2:7. After witnessing the event they begged Elisha to allow a search party to be sent out. Now where would they search for him if he had went straight up? Instead, it seems that Elijah went across the sky to another location allowing Elisha to carry on in the spirit and power of Elijah. Hence, the sons of the prophets went in the direction that Elijah was carried but could not find him. The primary reason I believe Elijah continued to live on earth is because of II Chronicles 21:11-15. It can be confusing because there are two King Jehorams (Joram for short). From II Kings 3:4-14 it is clear that Elisha had received Elijah’s mantle sometime during the reign of Jehoshaphat, king of Judah (southern kingdom). Now years later, after the death of Jehoshaphat, during the reign of his son Jehoram, a letter from the prophet Elijah arrives rebuking him for his sin. So Elisha saw Jehoshaphat face to face in his role as prophet, but after Jehoshaphat is dead, Elijah is still alive, and still a prophet to some extent. So my belief on this is that Elijah was carried to another location to live out his days until he died while Elisha bore the responsibility of prophet of God to the people of Israel.
We know that Elisha carried on in the spirit and power of Elijah without actually becoming Elijah. We also know that John the Baptist went forward in the spirit and power of Elijah without constituting Elijah returning from the dead, or from heaven, whichever you prefer. Some people could have believed, “It is Elijah that has literally come back. It is his actual body.” Others may have believed, “The mantle of Elijah has come to rest upon Jesus of Nazareth. He is going forth in the spirit and power of Elijah.” The second option seems more likely. So when we read, “I will send you Elijah the prophet,” the general understanding could have been a continuation of the mantle that faded when Elisha passed away. Elijah had led the people in revival to the LORD, but it was not welcomed by Jezebel. This next appearance of a great prophet in the spirit and power of Elijah would be in anticipation of the Day of the LORD and His wrath, see Malachi 3-4. Whether the people believed that Jesus was literally Elijah or a fulfillment of the prophecy going forth in the spirit and power of Elijah, either way, their guess was wrong.
The third wrong guess is the prophet Jeremiah. I have written about this before concerning a different matter. Jeremiah was the last prophet at Jerusalem before the 70 year captivity. Two different sources name him as the one responsible for hiding the ark of the covenant. I will include the quote from II Maccabees in a comment below. It is possible that some Jews expected someone to reveal the location of the ark of the covenant in anticipation of the coming of the Messiah or the restoration of temple worship. Perhaps it would be Jeremiah returning from the grave or perhaps someone in the spirit of Jeremiah revealing the location of the ark as a sign to the people of Israel. It is difficult for us to know why Jeremiah is included in the list when others are absent, but Matthew includes him so we speculate. Whatever the case, it’s another wrong guess. It’s possible that the way Matthew words the statement that “Jeremiah or one of the prophets” is a third wrong guess and not a third and fourth wrong guess. Other prophets are not named specifically, so we cannot deal with them individually. Whatever the case, they were all wrong. Jesus is the Son of the living God, the Messiah, as Simon Peter said. The Father had revealed this truth to him and he clung to it.
Elijah Appears in Glory
The transfiguration is difficult for me to understand. I know what happened because I have read this story since I was a child. However, I don’t quite understand the why of what happened. The best that I can write here is that God the Father and Jesus wanted a very limited group to witness the glory of God revealed in Jesus Christ. Jesus had emptied Himself of His Godhead and took the form of a servant. Yet He retained His identity as the Son of God. Peter, James, and John were chosen to witness this event in order that they might communicate to the church after the resurrection that He had been the Son of God all along. Jesus did not become the Son of God when He rose from the dead. He had been the Son of God all along and they had seen and heard the proof. John would write about it in I John 1:1-2, John 1:14, and he identified Jesus as the Lord (the King, the LORD of hosts) enthroned in Isaiah 6, see John 12:37-42. Peter also wrote specifically about this event in II Peter 1:16-19. He states that they were eyewitnesses of His majesty, but instead of dwelling on his experience, he uses his experience to point people to the word of God. It confirms the prophetic word, to which we should pay attention, like a light shining in a dark place. In short, the transfiguration is yet another testimony that Jesus is the Son of God.
I believe there is something more to this event. It has to do with the appearance of Moses and Elijah. Why did these two men appear with Jesus in glory? While Jesus is God, we should also remember that Jesus is a man. He had told the disciples about His death, but Peter vehemently denied this would happen. They didn’t understand. Even though Jesus is the Son of God, as a human He may have needed someone to talk to about this death sentence that He must face. Here Luke helps us out by telling us that the initial reason that Jesus took them into the mountain was to pray. As Jesus prayed, the disciples fell asleep. When the disciples woke up, they found that Jesus had been transformed, shining like the sun. He was talking to Moses and Elijah about His own death which was about to be accomplished at Jerusalem, see Luke 9:28-32 for these details. We don’t know how long Jesus was talking with Moses and Elijah before the disciples woke up. Moses and Elijah had both experienced the rejection of the nation of Israel. Now Jesus was able to talk about His rejection at the hands of His own people to two men in glory who could identify somewhat.
Why Moses and Elijah? Why not Enoch and David? Or Abel and Zechariah the son of Jehoiada? I have no definitive answer. Moses is representative of the law. He received the law from God on Mount Sinai. He wrote the law, that is, the first five books of the Bible, and read them to the nation of Israel. Elijah is representative of the prophets. Samuel was the last judge and first prophet and then established the school of the prophets. It is this school of prophets that Elijah is seen with, in my opinion. In the midst of horrendous backsliding, Elijah appears out of nowhere and holds back the rain from heaven with his constant intercessory prayer. Elisha later takes up that same mantle. All the prophets which have books to their name prophesied after the downfall of the house of Ahab which was prophesied by Elijah. Elijah stands as the one who brought revival through the judgment of the LORD. It was his boldness that gave them boldness. Many times the old testament scriptures are referred to as the law and the prophets, see Matthew’s use of the terminology in 7:12, 11:13, and 22:40. Moses and Elijah represent in some way the law and the prophets.
Moses and Elijah also had face-to-face type encounters with the living God which resulted in some type of transformation. The story of Moses is probably more well known. In Exodus 33 the children of Israel had been committing idolatry and fornication. This resulted in God’s presence being removed from them, see Exodus 33:7-8 where it states that the tabernacle was pitched well outside the camp. Moses had to go outside the camp to the tabernacle in order to intercede for the people. Notice that this was not the holy tabernacle yet, but a tabernacle of the congregation. Moses talks with God face to face as unto a friend, see 33:11. He asks to see God’s glory, but the LORD states that Moses will only be allowed a glimpse, see 33:18-23. The result is that the face of Moses shone and he was required to put on a veil while talking with the children of Israel, see 34:29-35. During that time on Mount Sinai, Moses went 40 days and nights without food or water, see Exodus 34:28-29.
Elijah also went 40 days and nights without food and met God on Mount Horeb, which is another name for Mount Sinai, see Exodus 3:1, 12, 4:27, 33:6, Deuteronomy 5:2, 9:8, I Kings 8:9, Psalm 106:19, Malachi 4:4. In I Kings 19:8-18 we read the story of how Elijah met with God wrapping his face in a mantle. The wind, the earthquake, and the fire did not have the presence of the LORD. Instead, the LORD chose to speak to Elijah in a still, small voice, like you would expect from a face to face encounter. When Moses had his encounter, the LORD proclaimed His very character to Him, see Exodus 34:5-8. Elijah also hears the very character of God in keeping His covenant with the nation of Israel by choosing a successor for Elijah, choosing the next king of Israel, and choosing the next king of Syria. But most importantly, God determines to preserve a remnant for Himself, see Romans 11:2-5. This all reveals the character of God as Elijah speaks with Him face to face.
The final aspect of this appearance of Elijah (and Moses) that may shed some light as to why they appeared is the mention of the three tabernacles by Peter. Most preachers that I have heard and some commentaries try to make it sound as if Moses, Elijah, and Jesus were to be the objects of worship in Peter’s mind. It’s difficult to say because we don’t know why Peter said what he said other than Mark stating that he didn’t know what to say, see Mark 9:6. However, after reading a couple of better commentaries and meditating on this passage, I don’t believe that is the case. The tabernacle was associated primarily with Moses rather than the other two. The tabernacle was a place where God was worshiped while someone else interceded for others on their behalf. Notice Psalm 99:6-8 and how it names Moses as a priest who interceded for others. This happened at the tabernacle. Elijah also had an intercessory ministry of prayer, see James 5:17-18. So in Peter’s mind, he was saying that erecting three tabernacles on this Holy Mount would allow three ministries of intercession to be occurring on behalf of the nation of Israel. After all, if Moses and Elijah are now back, what else would they be doing? The disciples had no knowledge that they would be gone shortly. The voice of God the Father seems to be a direct response to Peter. “This is my Son. Listen to Him.” His ministry of intercession is the ultimate one. Jesus would talk with Moses and Elijah, but ultimately the voice of Jesus is to be adhered to.
Elijah-Talk by Jesus
Here is the section of this post that will show us how prophecy works. On the way down from the mountain, Jesus commands them not to tell anyone what they saw in the vision until after the Son of man be risen again from the dead. They don’t understand about the resurrection, but they do ask about Elijah since it is still fresh in their minds. Apparently, the disciples had conversation with some of the scribes who insisted that before the Messiah could come, Elijah the prophet must first come. It may have been a common objection from the scribes. “He can’t be the Messiah because the scriptures clearly state that Elijah must first come.” Before we go any further, let’s look at the prophecy to which the scribes were referring.
Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.
The message of Malachi is relatively simple. The nation of Israel was sinful. They need to repent because the LORD wants to bless Israel and make His name great among all nations, see Malachi 1:5, 11, 14, 3:12. A fiery judgment is coming and who can endure it? See 3:2-3, 4:1. Now here to close his book, he foretells that Elijah would be sent prior to the Day of the LORD to preserve a godly remnant to prevent utter destruction. Families would be restored so that when the Messiah comes they could be the instrument of God’s blessing upon the nations rather than suffer His judgment.
The disciples ask, “Then why do the scribes say that first Elijah must come?” They are curious, like we are, as to the timing of things. The response of Jesus defies timing as we know it. Jesus gives an answer that is both past and future. It is quite easy to identify which portion is past and which is future. But this isn’t the way we normally talk, or is it? Let’s look at the first statement in the answer of Jesus.
He answered, “Elijah does come, and he will restore all things.”
If we look solely at this statement, we would come away with the impression that Jesus spoke of Elijah only in the futuristic sense from His point in time. Elijah, according to Jesus, is yet to come. Elijah will come and restore all things. It will happen just like Malachi foretold and just like the scribes are insisting. Elijah himself, or someone in the spirit and power of Elijah [carrying his mantle if you will] will turn the heart of fathers and children to each other bringing about a restoration. This will be before the fiery judgment known as the Day of the LORD. Count on it. It will happen.
However, Jesus has a following statement.
“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.”
If we look solely at this statement we would think that Jesus spoke of Elijah strictly in terms of the past. Elijah has already come. They were unwilling to recognize him, although all of the information was right in front of them. They could not bring themselves to repent, so they had to insist that his authority was not from God. Gabriel had told the godly priest Zechariah that John would go before the LORD in the spirit and power of Elijah, see Luke 1:17. John dressed like Elijah, see Matthew 3:4 with II Kings 1:7-8. He ate simply like Elijah, see I Kings 17:6. He was in the wilderness like Elijah, see Matthew 3:1, Luke 1:80, I Kings 18:10-12. And, most importantly of all, he preached a fiery judgment just like Malachi said would follow Elijah’s coming, see Matthew 3:10-12, Malachi 4:1.
This is how prophecy works. It doesn’t have to be complicated. Sometimes passages are talking about past and future events in the same context. Sometimes they are talking about the same person, but two different people at the same time. Sometimes it seems like an event is just on the horizon, but many other events must chronologically occur before it will arrive. Look at Philippians 2:8-11. Jesus humbled Himself with death and is highly exalted. Our suffering Savior and exalted King are described in the same context. It’s not that Paul felt it would all happen at once. He knew of the present time in between Christ‘s coming in humility and His coming in glory. The prophets of old wrote in similar fashion. Jesus spoke of Elijah in the past and future at the same time. He spoke of John being Elijah and someone else in the future being Elijah after having just talked to actual Elijah. John the Baptist preached a message of repentance in light of a fiery judgment as if it were impending over the nation of Israel in his generation and almost 2000 years later that fiery judgment is still future.
We don’t need to get bent out of shape about the way this works. We should just accept it. Prophecy is capable of many things. The minute we start making rules about the way prophecy works, we will find some place in scripture that breaks our rule. Context will determine what is past and what is future, and sometimes it will be both.
The sobering part of this passage is that at this point in time, John the Baptist’s head had been chopped off. Jesus was here predicting a similar fate for Himself. He also told His disciples that a disciple is never above their teacher, see Matthew 10:24-25. Righteous people suffer at the hands of sinful people. Yes, Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. But that doesn’t mean that we escape the effects of this sinful world.
Have fun and stay busy – Luke 19:13
-The Orange Mailman
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