Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Matt. 17:10 (Holman) So the disciples questioned Him, “Why then do the
Scribes say that Elijah must come first?”
Israel was expecting not only a Messiah, but also a forerunner. God had said, “I am going to send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome Day of the Lord comes” (Malachi 4:5). The Jews expected Elijah to return in his own literal person to clean up the world to make it fit for Messiah’s coming.
The Transfiguration rattled Peter, James, and John’s understanding of Elijah’s predicted role. They were confused. They saw Elijah not before Christ came, but after. Also, if Elijah was to improve everything, why must Messiah die, and how could Elijah fulfill his task in a few minutes on an isolated hill?
Matt 17:11-13 “Elijah is coming and will restore everything,” He replied. “But I tell you: Elijah has already come, and they didn’t recognize him. On the contrary, they did whatever they pleased to him. In the same way the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands.” Then the disciples understood that he spoke to them about John the Baptist.
Peter, James, and John’s error had been in thinking Elijah would actually be reincarnated as the forerunner. God instead meant He would send one like Elijah, a prediction fulfilled by John the Baptist. The angel Gabriel said of John, “He will go before Him (the Messiah) in the spirit and power of Elijah” (Luke 1:17). Jesus plainly said John is “Elijah who is to come” (MT 11:14b).
When John early on said he was not Elijah (John 1:21), he meant he was not the literal Elijah Israel was looking for. The religious leaders were blinded by their belief in a reincarnation. Had they been willing to look closely with an open mind, they could have seen the overwhelming likenesses between the two.
John and Elijah shared many obvious similarities. They lived in a desert, dressed similarly, defied kings, preached repentance, and confronted a nation.
The Bible spoke of Elijah like my mother-in-law spoke of the Dallas Cowboys’ quarterback Roger Staubach. Years after he retired, she would say, “The Cowboys need Starbuck (her pronunciation) back.” I knew she didn’t mean Staubach literally, but was saying they needed a great quarterback again.
God’s predicted forerunner did come. The leaders missed him for the same reason they missed Messiah. Neither Messiah nor His forerunner was a conqueror. Elijah did come and prepare the people. He set aside a remnant for Jesus to receive, and used the same methodology Messiah would use. He came by the way of suffering and sacrifice. The religious leaders refused to unlearn the political conquering motif. They thought what they, not God, wanted.
They made a classic error in the study of Bible predictions. The Bible, unlike any other book in the world, has accurately predicted the future many times. Scripture’s forward look is a rewarding study. For instance, studying the predictions made about Jesus hundreds of years in advance can help faith.
Studying Bible predictions can be a blessing, but dogmatism in our analysis of which Bible predictions have or have not yet been fulfilled can easily go awry. Prediction details are often hard to pinpoint. Thirty-five years ago I was the young Pastor of an aged Deacon named W.D. Tucker. I sat at his deathbed and was with him when he died. One thing he told me stayed with me. “Pastor, my whole life preachers have been predicting when Jesus would come. It never happened. Don’t make the same mistake.” Profound wisdom.
Predictions give us broad brushstrokes, generalized notions. We cannot begin to precisely understand a prediction fully till it is fulfilled, and sometimes we don’t know when it has been fulfilled, and sometimes we think one has been fulfilled, but hasn’t. In these discussions, there is much room for debate.
Don’t swallow ideas hook, line, and sinker. It’s okay to reject speculative interpretations of Bible predictions without rejecting the inerrancy of Scripture.
For instance, when trying to predict the second coming of Jesus, here’s what we know for sure. Jesus will bodily return to Earth someday to judge the world and reign over it as King of Kings and Lord of Lords. All else—including date, millennial reign, tribulation, rapture—is open fodder for debate.
USA Christians have in turn believed the Beast (RV 13) to be Napoleon, the Kaiser, Hitler, and Communism. Oops, missed it each time. My Grandpa Marshall, a Baptist preacher, in 1960 believed if Mr. Kennedy, a Catholic, were elected President, the Pope would take over America and become the Beast. Grandpa thundered from the pulpit against Kennedy, but then on election day, having been a lifelong yellow dog Democrat, he voted for Kennedy anyway.
Let me share what I believe to be another common error. Interpreting Bible predictions solely on the basis of what is happening in USA Christianity.
It seems presumptuous to interpret Scripture solely in light of what is occurring in only 5% of the world. We in the USA see the failing spirituality of our land as a sure sign of the imminent return of Jesus, but what about the greatest revival in Christian history taking place in Korea, Nigeria, China, etc.? We preach Jesus is coming soon, not based on seeing world events, but on the fact Jesus said He could return at any moment, and thus we need to be ready.
Opinions are okay. Avoid dogmatism. If the doomsdayers’ predictions come true, and I prove to be wrong, please know I’ll have a humble spirit at the end. I’ll be on Heaven’s front row, confessing, “I thought they might be right.”
A funny story; then we’ll move past this. Robert Schuller wants Paul Crouch of TBN to be buried in a pricy mausoleum owned by the Crystal Cathedral. Crouch has refused, saying he believes Jesus will come before he dies. Schuller promised him, “If that happens I’ll give you your money back.”
Matt. 17:14 When they reached the crowd, a man approached and knelt down before Him.
Jesus went from hearing the Father’s praise to hearing a father’s groan. Christ’s Heaven does not make Him unmindful of our Earth. He’s a perfect King who condescends to bless an imperfect world and His imperfect kingdom.
It’s good Jesus came back when He did. He returned to the valley in the nick of time, at the precise moment He was desperately needed. Things had not gone well in Jesus’ absence. They rarely do. The good news is, He is with us always. The bad news is, we often forget this, to our own peril.
Jesus’ mountain of glory preceded a valley of despair. He did not draw away from the crowd in order to neglect it. He drew away from the rabble in order to be energized to draw nearer to it than ever before. The best spirituality combines being alone with God in the private place in order that we might be more effective when we rub elbows with people in the everyday world.
We hold these two aspects of life in tandem. We enter the private place to be more effective in the public arena. A good example of this is portrayed in Raphael’s painting of the Transfiguration, which was his last work. He worked on it for three years and never completely finished it. It is said he was so obsessed with it, and caught up in it, that he worked himself to death on it.
Raphael’s picture, truly worth a thousand words, is an artistic pictorial exposition of the scene in our text. The stark contrast between the mount and valley is highlighted by the picture’s upper part being bright, the lower dark.
On the mount, glory dominates. In the valley nine defeated disciples, including our author, are nonplussed. In their defense, two are pointing to Jesus. All others—boy, father, crowd, the seven—are in hopeless despair.
The painting’s time warp presents one of its best teachings. The two events were actually consecutive, but in the portrait are shown as concurrent.
Raphael’s message is clear. In the Christian life, mountaintop experiences and valley-lows co-exist. They overlap. Life is not so much a roller coaster, victory following defeat following victory following defeat, as it is parallel tracks in which both are always happening at the same time. Be wise. Don’t let good times lull us into apathy, don’t let bad times cause us to quit. Let the mountaintop experiences help serve as a ballast to steady us in valley-lows.