John and Elijah

This coming Sunday is the 2nd Sunday in Lent. In yesterday’s post we considered Peter’s response of offering to make three tents – one for Jesus as well as Moses and Elijah. Today, we listen to Jesus’ instructions to the disciples as well as his probing for their understanding of what they have just seen: “As they were coming down from the mountain, Jesus charged them, “Do not tell the vision to anyone until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” Then the disciples asked him, “Why do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?” 

The disciples have just experienced the Transfiguration and heard Jesus’ prediction of his death and Resurrection – and then the disciples ask about Elijah.  It may well seem an awkward shift in a conversation, but v.10 is not merely responding to v.9, but looks back at all of 16:13-17:9, portraying the advent of Jesus as the eschatological event, as the Messiah/Son of God who fulfills his ministry as the rejected and dying Son of Man, who will be vindicated by God at the resurrection. The disciples, who know already of Jesus’ identification of John as Elijah (11:10, 14), voice the objection of the scribal opponents of Matthew’s church to the Christian claims: How can the Christ have come already, since the Scripture says that Elijah must come first (Mal 3:23-34)?

In short, Jesus’ response is that Elijah has already come in the person of John the Baptist (vv.12-13). What is sometimes confusing is “Elijah will indeed come and restore all things” (v.11)  Hadn’t Elijah/John already come? Boring offers four suggestions (365):

  1. The future tense simply reflects the quotation from Malachi,
  2. The future tense may reflect the scribal expectations rather than Jesus’ own understanding,
  3. While Elijah/John had come the restoration in its fullness is still a future event
  4. More likely, the future restoration of all things has already begun in the advent of John the Baptist.

That Elijah had already come is an important declaration. The understanding that Elijah has not yet come will appear again in this gospel (16:14, 27:45).  Elijah/John is paralleled to Jesus:  he was sent from God, was opposed and killed by members of the kingdom of this world, was Messianic in that he was the forerunner of the Messiah.  And as it was with John, so with Jesus – this generation failed to recognize him because they were persuaded by the kingdom of this world.  Beginning with John/Elijah, the disciples are forming the new citizenry of the kingdom of God.

Image credit: Sunrise, Simon Berger, Pexels, CC

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