SET-2 Season of Elijah-Cross-Moses
Until the resurrection of Jesus, only Peter, James, and John, who were with Jesus at the time of his transfiguration, knew that experience because Jesus restricted them from revealing it to others. Since they saw Elijah on the mountain with Jesus, they doubted whether that was his arrival that Malachi had prophesied prior to the coming of the Messiah. However, the Elijah’s return must not be mere appearance but to prepare the way of the Messiah. Jesus clarified to the three that John the Baptist, who came in the spirit and strength of Elijah, was his precursor who already prepared his way by spiritually renewing the people who came to him. Jesus said, just as the authorities rejected John and killed him, Jesus will also have a similar fate. He had warned his disciples, “You will be hated by all because of my name, but whoever endures to the end will be saved” (Mt 10:22). If we are loyal followers of Jesus, we will also have hardships in this life and eternal reward in heaven.
BIBLE TEXT (MATTHEW 17:9-13)
The Coming of Elijah
(Mt 17:9) And as they were coming down the mountain, Jesus commanded them not to tell anyone what they had just seen, until the Son of Man should be raised from the dead. (10) The disciples asked him, “Why do the teachers of the Law say that Elijah must come first?” (11) And Jesus answered, “Elijah must come first to set everything as it has to be. (12) But I tell you, Elijah has come and they did not recognize him, but treated him as they pleased. In the same way they will also make the Son of Man suffer.” (13) Then the disciples understood that Jesus was referring to John the Baptist.
While Jesus and the apostles were at Caesarea Philippi, Jesus asked how the people and the apostles understand him. Though people had different views like John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or a prophet (Mt 16:14), Peter gave the correct answer: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Mt 16:16). After assigning Peter as the foundation rock of the church (Mt 16:17-19), Jesus revealed his imminent passion, death, and resurrection for which Peter rebuked Jesus (Mt 16:21-23). Then Jesus clarified the hardships in this life and reward in the afterlife the disciples should expect when they follow him.
After six days, Jesus took Peter, James, and John to the holy mountain. While he was praying, he was transfigured, “his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light” (Mt 17:2). Moses and Elijah appeared to them and conversed with Jesus. “A bright cloud cast a shadow over them, then from the cloud came a voice: ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him’” (Mt 17:5). Out of fear, the three apostles fell prostrate. Jesus woke them and comforted them. By this time, Moses and Elijah were gone. Jesus and the three apostles went down the mountain to meet with others.
The Coming of Elijah
(Mt 17:9) And as they were coming down the mountain, Jesus commanded them not to tell anyone what they had just seen, until the Son of Man should be raised from the dead.
As they were coming down the mountain
Matthew does not give the name of the mountain of transfiguration because his readers might know the mountain. According to the earliest tradition, it was Mount Tabor that stands alone as a mountain in that area. A church was there from the fourth century. Pilgrims visit there even today at the reconstructed church, which is around 2,000 feet above sea level. Since Jesus and the disciples were in Caesarea Philippi six days prior to the transfiguration, there are scholars who consider Mount Hermon, that is around 10,000 feet above sea level, as the mountain of transfiguration.
Jesus commanded them not to tell anyone what they had just seen
Immediately after manifesting his glory, Jesus used to tell the people not to publicize the event to limit the spread of his fame. So, after Peter acknowledged Jesus stating, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” (Mt 16:16), “he strictly ordered his disciples to tell no one that he was the Messiah” (Mt 16:20).
Jesus instructed demons not to reveal his identity as the Son of God. When Jesus was in Capernaum, he saw a man with an unclean spirit in the synagogue there. The demon possessed man said, “I know who you are—the Holy One of God!” Jesus rebuked him and said, “Quiet! Come out of him!” (Mk 1:24-25). Later, “He drove out many demons, not permitting them to speak because they knew him” (Mk 1:34). “And whenever unclean spirits saw him, they would fall down before him and shout, ‘You are the Son of God.’ He warned them sternly not to make him known” (Mk 3:11:12).
Sometimes Jesus instructed the recipients of healing, the crowd, and his disciples to avoid the publicity of his favors for them or reveal his divine identity. After healing a leper, Jesus said, “See that you tell no one, but go show yourself to the priest, and offer the gift that Moses prescribed; that will be proof for them” (Mt 8:4; Mk 1:43-44). After raising Jairus’s daughter, “He gave strict orders that no one should know this and said that she should be given something to eat” (Mk 5:43). After healing a deaf man whom people brought to Jesus, “He ordered them not to tell anyone. But the more he ordered them not to, the more they proclaimed it” (Mk 7:36).
Why Jesus wanted to keep the secrecy? The following could be the possibilities:
Until the Son of Man should be raised from the dead.
The secrecy was not permanent. After the inauguration of the church on the day of Pentecost, the disciples could reveal and announce the secrets of the kingdom of God to all. A premature revelation of the mysteries of the messianic role of Jesus could have disrupted his redemptive mission. After his resurrection, all the disciples could understand the mystery of transfiguration and other secrets hidden from them. Until then, the public could not comprehend whatever Jesus had revealed.
(10) The disciples asked him, “Why do the teachers of the Law say that Elijah must come first?”
The disciples asked him
While coming down the mountain, Peter, James, and John were still confused on the return of Elijah in an eschatological form. They had learned from the scholars of the Law and the Scripture that Elijah must return prior to Messiah. Though the three saw Elijah along with Moses on the mountain, that was for a short while and he had disappeared. The three disciples asked Jesus to clarify their doubt.
the teachers of the Law
The teachers of the Law and the Scribes have different shades of meaning. The scribes were a group of Jews whose primary responsibility was studying, copying, and interpreting the Holy Scripture. They served in the synagogues as readers and interpreters of the Bible. They were also experts in the judicial procedures, and some of them were members of the Sanhedrin. The Jews respected them because of their knowledge in the Bible, dedicated service, and adherence to the Laws. They thrived from the time of Babylonian exile to the destruction of the second Temple in 70 A.D. The top-level scribe was known as Rabbi.
The scholar of the law means an expert in the laws of Moses, given in the first five books of the Bible called Torah or Pentateuch. The difference between a scribe and scholar of the law is that the scholar of the law was a scribe who specialized in the Mosaic laws than in the other sections of the scripture. Such scholars of the Torah were in demand because the written laws and their interpretations governed the whole lives of the Jews.
Elijah in Hebrew and Elias in Greek means “My God is Yahweh.” He was a prominent prophet in the Northern Israel in the ninth century B.C. Like Jesus, he performed miracles including bringing fire from the sky on the burned offering, wood, stones, and dust (1 Kgs 18:19-40), multiplied a jar of flour and a jug of oil in Zarephath for a long time (1 Kgs 17:7-16), raised the son of a widow in Zarephath (1 Kgs 17:17-24), and God took him up in a whirlwind to heaven without facing death (2 Kgs 2:11). However, Jesus did more miracles than Elijah.
Elijah must come first?
Malachi had prophesied that Elijah would reappear as a forerunner of the Messiah. “Now I am sending to you Elijah the prophet, before the day of the LORD comes, the great and terrible day” (Mal 3:23 / 4:5). The Jews have been expecting the physical reappearance of Elijah and that is still a part of the Passover ritual of the Jews.
(11) And Jesus answered, “Elijah must come first to set everything as it has to be.”
God had informed of sending a precursor before the Messiah. “Now I am sending my messenger – he will prepare the way before me; And the lord whom you seek will come suddenly to his temple” (Mal 3:1). Through Malachi, God specified the messenger would be Elijah’s return. “Now I am sending to you Elijah the prophet, before the day of the LORD comes, the great and terrible day; he will turn the heart of fathers to their sons, and the heart of sons to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with utter destruction” (Mal 3:23-24).
The Jews took that in a literal sense and expected that Elijah, whom God took to heaven in a whirlwind without facing death (2 Kgs 2:11), would return in person before the Messiah. The apostles also believed the same teaching of the scribes.
(12) “But I tell you, Elijah has come and they did not recognize him, but treated him as they pleased. In the same way they will also make the Son of Man suffer.”
But I tell you
Jesus used this phrase to assert his view differently from others or from the popular understanding. People did not consider John the Baptist as the return of Elijah. When the Jews in Jerusalem enquired John about his identity through priest and Levite representatives, he said he was not the Messiah, Elijah, or a prophet (Jn 1:19-21). He said of himself: “I am ‘the voice of one crying out in the desert, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as Isaiah the prophet said” (Jn 1:23). Unlike John, who indirectly implied his role, Jesus witnessed John as the return of Elijah.
Elijah has come
When Angel Gabriel announced the birth of John the Baptist to his father Zachariah, he predicted the child to be born as a spiritual return of Elijah. “He will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah to turn the hearts of fathers toward children and the disobedient to the understanding of the righteous, to prepare a people fit for the Lord” (Lk 1:17). Jesus confirmed this in his testimony about John to the crowd, saying, “This is the one about whom it is written: ‘Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you; he will prepare your way before you’” (Mt 11:10). Jesus continued, “if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah, the one who is to come” (Mt 11:14). When Matthew reports the discussion of Jesus and the three apostles during their return from the mountain of Transfiguration, he added, “Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them of John the Baptist” (Mt 17:13).
they did not recognize him, but treated him as they pleased.
Though John the Baptist came according to the prophesy on Elijah’s return, some believed that Jesus was the forerunner for the Messiah to come because the actions of Jesus resembled that of Elijah (Mt 16:14; Lk 9:19).
John the Baptist, who came in the spirit and power of Elijah, experienced acceptance, rejection, and martyrdom. People from Jerusalem, Judea, and Jordan came to listen to John and received baptism of repentance from him (Mt 3:5-7). The Jewish leaders from Jerusalem sent Levites, priests, and Pharisees to question his identity (Jn 1:19-28). However, after hearing from him, they rejected him. Because John questioned the immoral life of King Herod Antipas and Herodias, the king imprisoned him and later beheaded him (Mt 14:1-12).
Jesus mentions the Jewish authorities’ approach to John relating that to his passion and death. That was to fulfill what God had predicted of him through the prophets (Isa cha 53). Jesus told the three apostles, “I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him but did to him whatever they pleased. So also will the Son of Man suffer at their hands” (Mt 17:12).
In the same way they will also make the Son of Man suffer.
Jesus agreed with the apostles’ understanding that Elijah must come prior to the Messiah to fulfill the prophecy. Before further clarification on Elijah’s return, Jesus reminded the apostles of the prophesy of the suffering and the enemies’ contempt of the Messiah soon after the return of Elijah. Thus, Jesus justified his prediction of the previous week on his passion, death, and resurrection. Unlike the popular Jewish belief of the Messianic kingdom on earth, Jesus came first to redeem the world through his self-sacrifice, and then he will come again to establish his eternal rule of the just.
(13) Then the disciples understood that Jesus was referring to John the Baptist.
The apostles Peter, James, and John were the first to understand John as the precursor of the Messiah based on the private revelation they received from Jesus. Though John did not claim himself as the return of Elijah, he had identified and introduced Jesus as the Messiah to the public. John testified, saying, “I saw the Spirit come down like a dove from the sky and remain upon him. I did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘On whomever you see the Spirit come down and remain, he is the one who will baptize with the holy Spirit.’ Now I have seen and testified that he is the Son of God” (Jn 1:32-34).
SIMILARITIES BETWEEEN ELIJAH AND JOHN THE BAPTIST
However, there were differences also between Elijah and John, which might have caused people not to consider John as the return of Elijah. Elijah did 16 miracles, whereas John did no miracle. Even then, people accepted John as a great prophet. God took Elijah to heaven without facing death. While Elijah and Elisha “walked on still conversing, a fiery chariot and fiery horses came between the two of them, and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind, and Elisha saw it happen” (2 Kgs 2:11-12). King Herod Antipas beheaded John and his disciples buried him (Mk 6:17-29).
The Jews expected Elijah will arrive physically from where he exists because God took him out of the earth without facing death. However, John was born as the son of Zachariah and Elizabeth. According to Angel Gabriel, John “will go before him (the Messiah) in the spirit and power of Elijah” (Lk 1:17). So, John was not the reappearance of Elijah but a different person who came in the spirit and power of Elijah as the fulfillment of Malachi’s prophecy. Jesus affirmed it, saying, “And if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah, the one who is to come” (Mt 11:14). So, the disciples became convinced of the role of John the Baptist as the second Elijah, who came to prepare the way for the Messiah.