Until the time of John [the Baptist] all the prophets and the Law of Moses spoke about the Kingdom; and if you are willing to believe their message, John is Elijah, whose coming was predicted.
[A crowd has gathered to hear what Jesus has to say about John the Baptist, who has been arrested by King Herod.]
Good old Elijah, one of the great heroes of the Old Testament. Be aware that when you hear a Jew talking about the “second coming” they aren’t talking about Jesus. They are talking about Elijah.
Long after the time of Elijah had left the earth, the prophet Malachi predicted that Elijah would return before an anticipated “great and terrible” day of judgment.
The Lord Almighty says, “The day is coming when all proud and evil people will burn like straw. On that day they will burn up, and there will be nothing left of them. But for you who obey me, my saving power will rise on you like the sun and bring healing like the sun’s rays. You will be as free and happy as calves let out of a stall. On the day when I act, you will overcome the wicked, and they will be like dust under your feet.
“Remember the teachings of my servant Moses, the laws and commands which I gave him at Mount Sinai for all the people of Israel to obey.
“But before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes, I will send you the prophet Elijah. He will bring fathers and children together again; otherwise I would have to come and destroy your country.” (Malachi 4:1-6).
Even today the Jews set a place for Elijah at the Passover meal each year. They are still waiting.
Elijah lived after the time of Moses, David, and Solomon and you can find his story in the book of I Kings, starting at Chapter 17. At this time King Ahab ruled over Israel. Ahab was one of the really bad kings of Israel who had no respect whatsoever for God’s laws. To make matters worse, he married Jezebel, arguably the nastiest woman in the Bible. She worshipped the god Baal and the goddess Asherah, so Ahab built a temple and altar so everyone could worship Jezebel’s gods in the proper manner. She hated the God of Israel and killed many of the prophets. Those who escaped her grasp were forced to flee to the countryside and live in caves.
Elijah came in from the wilderness, kind of like John the Baptist. Like John, he wore clothing made of animal skins, and his hair and beard were long and unkempt. He came before King Ahab and told him that God was going to impose a drought on Ahab’s kingdom, which started immediately thereafter and lasted more than three years. The drought ended only after there was a great showdown between the prophets of Baal and Elijah, the prophet of God. It was awesome.
The challenge was to see which god would send down fire to his altar and consume the sacrifice of an ox. The 450 prophets of Baal set up their altar and called out to their god but there was no response. Elijah laughed at them, threw his ox on God’s altar, poured 4 barrels of water on the altar until it was soaking wet, and prayed to God. Suddenly fire fell from the sky and consumed the sacrifice, the water, and even the altar itself including the stone. All of it zapped by God’s holy fire. Nothing left. Vaporized. The people all turned against the prophets of Baal and became worshippers of the true God. It was definitely the high point of Elijah’s ministry. And then to everyone’s joy the rain came and the drought was over. Jezebel spent years unsuccessfully trying to kill Elijah but she was eventually thrown off a wall and eaten by dogs. Elijah, on the other hand, didn’t die. He swept away into heaven in a whirlwind on a fiery chariot, never to be seen again. He truly went out in a blaze of glory.
Elijah performed or witnessed many other miracles during his lifetime.
- He turned a handful of meal and a little oil into a never ending food supply for a starving widow and her son.
- He raised a boy from the dead.
- An angel provided him with fire, bread and water when he was forced to hide in the desert.
- He talked directly with God on Mt. Sinai just like Moses.
- He accurately predicted the disastrous fates all of King Ahab’s family.
- He mentored Elisha, who followed him and performed many more miracles.
It seems like John the Baptist and Elijah had a few things in common:
- They dressed the same.
- They called for the people to turn away from sins and false gods and faithfully obey God.
- They confronted the Kings of their day about their sins.
On the other hand, John didn’t perform any miracles and he certainly wasn’t whisked away to heaven in a whirlwind.
So, back to the scripture, Jesus says, “Until the time of John all the prophets and the Law of Moses spoke about the Kingdom; and if you are willing to believe their message, John is Elijah, whose coming was predicted.”
To me he is not making a definitive statement that John is Elijah. I think this is a challenge to the crowd. Jesus invites people to be obedient to God’s law and the teachings of the prophets. If they choose to do this on the basis of John’s ministry, then John is Elijah to them. If they choose to be disobedient to the law and teachings, then John is not Elijah to them. That’s the way I read it.
Interestingly enough, this is one of several passages that highlight the Jewish belief in reincarnation. Jews of Jesus’ time believed in the possibility of both the resurrection of the body and reincarnation into another body after death. They are still waiting for a reincarnation of Elijah that will be a sign of that judgment day that is still apparently yet to come.
If anybody deserves to get a second go at things it would be Elijah. He had a pretty rough time the first time around, but God was with him all the way. He’s one of those heroes of the faith that I’d really like to meet. And it would be totally cool to go back in time and see that fire from heaven zap that altar or witness that heavenly whirlwind that took Elijah away. Awesome. Don’t let anyone tell you that nothing exciting happens in the Old Testament. They must not know about Elijah.
What does this scripture say to you?