After a great spiritual high often comes a spiritual low. We read about Elijah in our call to worship, in his marvelous encounter with all the prophets of Baal, and how the Lord delivered Israel from false worship. In the very next chapter, Elijah is off the mountain and fleeing for his very life. Paul also talks about a surpassing spiritual vision that caught him up into the third heaven. He was not permitted to speak of it, and, to keep him from being too puffed up, the Lord gave him a thorn in his side. Well, in our text here tonight, we see a very similar pattern. After the incredible experience of seeing the majesty of Jesus revealed in its true colors, the disciples now have to be brought down a notch again. That is why Jesus here tells His disciples once again about the true nature of discipleship.
The Transfiguration is still very important for our understanding of the passage. Moses and Elijah had appeared to Jesus on the mountain. We saw that that meant that all the law and prophets tell us about Jesus, and point us to Him. The appearance of Elijah must have sparked some questions in the minds of the disciples. See, the disciples all believed that Jesus was the Messiah. However, they also knew their Old Testament. The very last part of the Old Testament is the book of Malachi, and the very last prophecy in that book is that the Lord would send Elijah BEFORE the Messiah. It would be a very public event, because it would result in turning the hearts of the children towards their fathers and the hearts of the fathers towards the children. Otherwise the land would be struck with a curse. Elijah hadn’t appeared, at least not to the vision of the disciples. So then, how could Jesus be the Messiah if Elijah the forerunner had not come yet?
The Jews also believed that Elijah would come back. Remember that Elijah did not die. He was one of two people in the Old Testament (the other being Enoch) who did not taste death. Elijah went up to heaven in the chariot. So he could easily come back, and the Old Testament said that he would. Well, turning the hearts of the fathers to the children and vice versa was a good thing, but it was only a start, thought the Jews. The Jews eventually expanded the prophecy to say that Elijah would restore all things before the Messiah came. Of course, that didn’t leave much for the Messiah to do! And the Jews were going beyond what the text of Malachi was predicting. Malachi did not say that the return of Elijah would bring a restoration of all things, but that the return of the Messiah would bring the restoration of all things.
This is why Jesus then says that Elijah has already come. The Jews didn’t recognize him, because they had a completely different set of expectations concerning him. They thought he would restore the fortunes of the people of Israel in the land of Israel. Some people still think that that is the point of the nation of Israel today. But the project of the Elijah that Jesus is talking about was quite different from the Jewish expectation. It was a much more global, much deeper issue that this Elijah addressed. The problem is that of sin. This new Elijah proclaimed the gospel of the coming kingdom of God, which was a kingdom not limited to one particular people group, but one that would eventually extend over the entire globe. It was a kingdom based on repentance and the forgiveness of sins because of what the One coming after him would do.
Here we can see, incidentally, just how dangerous one’s theology can be. All that happened was that the Jews started adding a little bit to God’s Word. They added more to what Elijah would do. And they forgot that the passage in Malachi might not actually be fulfilled literally with the return of the literal Elijah. They forgot that it might be the idea of a forerunner, just as Elijah was the forerunner of Elisha, so also someone who could be called an Elijah might come before the Messiah. Because of these fairly small changes in their theology, they missed the coming of Elijah completely. When Elijah came, they filtered him through the eyes of their altered reading of God’s Word, and thus they missed him. It is indeed perilous to tamper with God’s Word. They wound up killing the forerunner because of their theology!
Of course, what is even more dangerous is that their rejection of the forerunner also meant that they would not accept the real Messiah either. Like forerunner, like Messiah. If the forerunner was concerned about a spiritual kingdom wherein repentance was the rule, the Messiah would be concerned about the same thing. All throughout Matthew we have seen that John the Baptist (for that is the Elijah here meant) and Jesus preached exactly the same thing. They both preached “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand, or has approached.”
So, just as they preached the same message, so also would their reception be the same: utter rejection. Just as John was executed by those who rejected his message, so also would Jesus be executed by those rejecting His message. This is what made the disciples finally realize who was the “Elijah” about whom Jesus had been speaking. It was John the Baptist. John the Baptist is like Elijah. How?
Malachi holds the key link for us. The Lord will send Elijah before the great and awesome day of the Lord. The great and awesome day of the Lord will put all to rights. The wicked will be punished and the righteous will be restored to all the glory that they should have as God’s people reflecting the glory of God. But then that raises the very important question, “If Jesus has come, why didn’t the great and awesome day of the Lord also come?” The answer to that is to remember that Christ is coming again. The reality is, you see, that Christ’s first coming and His second coming are really part 1 and part 2 of the same coming. The Day of the Lord has begun, and yet it has not yet finished in its entire work. Certainly, we see some of the things the Old Testament prophesied coming to pass now. For instance, we see that wherever the Gospel is preached, the hearts of the children are turned to their fathers, both their earthly, and their heavenly fathers, and likewise with the fathers’ hearts turning towards their children’s hearts. However, the final judgment has not yet come. There is still something that remains with regard to judgment. So, it is not as if God’s Word has failed. Far from it. However, God’s plan for the fulfillment of His Word surprises us rather a lot, because it splits the coming of Christ into two comings, thus creating an “in-between” time, the time in which we now live. And so we wait for that time when all will be made right.
We must learn from this passage that God’s Word will always find people to add to it or flat out reject it. People rejected the message that Jesus Himself gave out! That should be encouraging to us. Whether someone responds to the gospel or not has to with whether the Holy Spirit is working in that person’s heart. It does not have to do with how well or poorly we share the Gospel. They rejected Jesus, and they will reject us also. We should not be either surprised or discouraged by that fact. We should rather expect that we, being Jesus’ disciples, should not expect different treatment than the Master. We’ll be treated the same way. We should do what Jesus did anyway, however, because that is what He has commanded. Remember that the passage immediately before the Transfiguration passage is the place where Jesus told us that we must take up our cross and follow Jesus.
We must also learn to take great care with God’s Word. God’s Word has many things in it that are clear. Indeed, we say that when it comes to matters concerning salvation, God’s Word is very clear. However, there are still many places where it is possible to go wrong. We must not add to Scripture, we must not take anything away from Scripture, we must not distort Scripture, and we must not change Scripture. The Word of God is the Word of God, and He does not want it altered in any way. We must not lessen the force of God’s commands in order to justify what we want to do. We must not use our experience to twist the words of Scripture in order to justify our own experience. The Scripture is the judge of our experience rather than the other way around. We also must not allow modern culture to change what Scripture says. There are lots of people, for instance, in the feminist and homosexual groups who will reinterpret Scripture based on their cultural stance. Then they allow the Bible to say whatever they want it to say. We must rather be humble. For we know that the Scripture rules us. And yet, when the truth is on the line, we must not compromise with any untruth just because it might be convenient.