Jesus—His Life and Message: Elijah, John, and Jesus
May 28, 2019
by Peter Amsterdam
Jesus—His Life and Message: Elijah, John, and Jesus
In the previous post, we saw that during Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountain, a bright cloud had come over Jesus and the disciples who accompanied Him, and Jesus’ face shone, His clothes became white, and Moses and Elijah conferred with Him. After His transfiguration, Jesus instructed Peter, James, and John not to tell anyone about this event until after He was risen from the dead.1
On the way down the mountain, the disciples asked Him,
“Why do the scribes say that first Elijah must come?” He answered, “Elijah does come, and he will restore all things. 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.” Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them of John the Baptist.2
Having seen Elijah on the mountain, the disciples had been reminded of the last words in the book of Malachi:
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.3
The scribes of Jesus’ day expected that before the “day of the Lord” arrived, Elijah would be an important player in the event. (Of course, because the religious leaders of the time didn’t believe Jesus was the promised Messiah, their expectation was that Elijah would come sometime in the future.)
This expectation of Elijah’s return can be seen throughout the Gospels. In the Gospel of Mark, some people thought that Jesus was John the Baptist raised from the dead, while others said “He is Elijah.” And others said, “He is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.”4 In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus asked His disciples, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” And they answered, “John the Baptist. But others say, Elijah, and others, that one of the prophets of old has risen.”5 Right before Jesus died on the cross, He cried with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And some of the bystanders hearing it said, “Behold, he is calling Elijah.” And someone ran and filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a reed and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.”6 The belief that Elijah would come at the end of days is found in many ancient Jewish writings.
Jesus confirmed what the scribes believed, “Elijah does come, and he will restore all things.” However, He went on to state what the scribes had missed. But I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but did to him whatever they pleased. The scribes were looking forward to a time in the future when there would be a restoration of all things. In their view, it was necessary that Elijah precede the Messiah. Jesus pointed out that the prophecy regarding Elijah had already been fulfilled, but that “they”—most likely speaking of the scribes and other Jewish leaders—didn’t recognize him; and even worse, they opposed him. They did to him whatever they pleased.
In saying that Elijah had already come, Jesus was referring to John the Baptist. Earlier in this Gospel, He said,
All the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John, and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.7
In the Gospel of Luke, in speaking to Zechariah the priest, whose wife Elizabeth was barren, the angel said:
You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord. … And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.8
There were a number of similarities between Elijah and John the Baptist.
They both lived in the wilderness for some time. Elijah was instructed to depart from here and turn eastward and hide yourself by the brook Cherith, which is east of the Jordan.9 This was a desert area. John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.’”10
They both ate simple food which God provided them with. The Lord said to Elijah: “You shall drink from the brook, and I have commanded the ravens to feed you there.”… And the ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning, and bread and meat in the evening, and he drank from the brook.13 We’re told that John’s food was locusts and wild honey.14
Their prophetic messages were warnings to Israel. Elijah came near to all the people and said, “How long will you go limping between two different opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” And the people did not answer him a word.15
[John] said therefore to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?16 Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”17
They were both threatened by powerful women. After Elijah commanded the people to seize the prophets of Baal and to kill them, their patroness, the queen Jezebel, sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me and more also, if I do not make your life as the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.”18 In Elijah’s case, he was able to get away, as he arose and ran for his life.19
John the Baptist was jailed and beheaded because of King Herod’s wife. Herod had seized John and bound him and put him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because John had been saying to him, “It is not lawful for you to have her.”20 At the instruction of Herodias, her daughter asked the king for John’s head on a platter; and after he was beheaded, the daughter presented the platter to her mother.21
While there were similarities between Elijah and John, we also find that Jesus’ ministry had a number of parallels to John’s: they were both regarded as prophets, opposed by the religious authorities in Jerusalem, eventually rejected and executed, and buried by their disciples. There are also a number of parallels in Jesus’ teaching and John’s.
John referred to the Pharisees and Sadducees as You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?22 When Jesus was excoriating the scribes and Pharisees, He referred to them in a similar way.
You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?23
Another time, He said to them,
You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.24
John challenged the religious leaders,
“Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.”25
Jesus made a similar point when He stated that those outside of Judaism would come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.26
John used the illustration of fruitless trees to warn the Pharisees and Sadducees of the judgment to come because of their false teaching that, because they were Abraham’s descendants, they would avoid judgment.
Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
Jesus also spoke of false religious teachers, stating,
You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruit.27 Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad, for the tree is known by its fruit.28
Jesus made a comparison of the response John’s ministry received to His own.
“To what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to their playmates, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.’ For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds.”29
John preached the need for repentance and of judgment by fire.
“I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I … His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”30
Jesus preached a similar message:
Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the close of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.31 So it will be at the close of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.32
It’s interesting to note that while John was linked with Elijah in the things he experienced, there were also similarities between some of the miracles Jesus performed and Elijah’s miracles.
Elijah multiplied oil and flour so that a widow and her son wouldn’t starve during the three-year famine.33 Jesus multiplied bread and fish for five thousand people, and again for another four thousand.34 Later, when the son of the widow became ill and died, Elijah lay down on top of him and cried out to the Lord, and God brought the boy back to life.35 Jesus also raised the dead, including raising Lazarus, who had been dead for four days,36 Jairus’ twelve-year-old daughter,37 and the son of the widow in the town of Nain who was being carried to his burial.38
Scripture recounts that Elijah didn’t die, but was taken directly up into heaven.
As they [Elijah and Elisha] still went on and talked, behold, chariots of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them. And Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven.39
Jesus, of course, did die, but then was raised from the dead three days later. For forty days He remained on earth, appearing to His disciples and others, including an appearance before 500 people.40 He then ascended into heaven.
He led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them. While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven.41
Jesus stated that John the Baptist was Elijah the prophet, who was to be sent before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes.42 John was the forerunner of Jesus, and in his execution, we find a foreshadowing of the fate of the Messiah, just as Jesus prepared His disciples for.
From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.43
Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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1 Matthew 17:9.
2 Matthew 17:10–13.
3 Malachi 4:5–6.
4 Mark 6:14–15.
5 Luke 9:18–19.
6 Mark 15:34–36.
7 Matthew 11:13–15.
8 Luke 1:14–17.
9 1 Kings 17:3.
10 Matthew 3:1–3.
11 2 Kings 1:8.
12 Matthew 3:4.
13 1 Kings 17:4–6.
14 Matthew 3:4.
15 1 Kings 18:21.
16 Luke 3:7.
17 Luke 3:9.
18 1 Kings 19:2.
19 1 Kings 19:3.
20 Matthew 14:3–4.
21 Matthew 14:11.
22 Matthew 3:7.
23 Matthew 23:33.
24 Matthew 12:34.
25 Matthew 3:9.
26 Matthew 8:11–12.
27 Matthew 7:16–20.
28 Matthew 12:33.
29 Matthew 11:16–19.
30 Matthew 3:11–12.
31 Matthew 13:40–42.
32 Matthew 13:49–50.
33 1 Kings 17:1–16.
34 Matthew 14:14–21, 15:32–38; Mark 6:34–44, 8:1–9; Luke 9:12–17; John 6:4–13.
35 1 Kings 17:17–24.
39 2 Kings 2:11.
40 1 Corinthians 15:3–6.
41 Luke 24:50–51.
42 Malachi 4:5.
43 Matthew 16:21.