As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” And the disciples asked him, “Why, then, do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?” He replied, “Elijah is indeed coming and will restore all things; but I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but they did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man is about to suffer at their hands.” Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them about John the Baptist.
Matthew 17:9-13 (NRSV)
The vision Jesus is referring to is what happened on the Mount of Transfiguration, where some of the disciples saw a foreshadowing of the success of Jesus’ mission. Jesus appeared to them as a glorified saint – a citizen of the victorious kingdom of God – discussing the exodus event he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem with the great prophets and deliverers from Israel’s history.
Jesus commands the disciples not to tell anyone about what they saw until after his resurrection, identifying himself as the Son of Man figure that Daniel’s visions look forward to: the one who will receive the kingdom from God on the day when God destroys His enemies.
This isn’t the first time in Matthew that Jesus has asked the witnesses to keep what they saw under wraps. It’s not always clear why Jesus wants them to do this, but I think we can say, generally, that Jesus is concerned that he and his nascent movement don’t get snuffed out before it has a chance to take hold. When you start telling everyone that you saw the man Jesus transform into a glorified deliverer promised by God, authorities are going to take notice.
Rome may not believe in Jesus’ claims, but she certainly believes in the effect these claims may have on an oppressed population, and the experience of Jesus and the disciples (and the faith communities established by their testimony) will look very different if there’s a contingent of soldiers waiting for them in Capernaum.
But the disciples have seen a vision of the imminent arrival of a victorious kingdom with Jesus as the leader. They know what’s supposed to happen to the Son of Man. And Jesus has made a shocking claim that he will die and rise from the dead – a claim so absurd that it seems like none of the disciples take it seriously until after it happens.
All these things point to the fact that the day of the Lord is at hand, and this raises a question for the disciples. They have heard the scribes teaching that Elijah must appear before the day of the Lord can occur.
This may just be something that some of them have been taught as Jews. It may also be that this is a specific apologetic the scribes are using to discredit the idea that Jesus is the Messiah and that the hoped-for kingdom of God is at hand. Jesus can’t be the man and this can’t be the time because Elijah hasn’t appeared.
This expectation comes from a portion of Malachi:
See, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. But for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall. And you shall tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet, on the day when I act, says the Lord of hosts.
Remember the teaching of my servant Moses, the statutes and ordinances that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel.
Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse.
Malachi 4 (NRSV)
I once heard a really outlandish, but well-intentioned, sermon at an off-the-beaten-path Baptist church where the pastor said that the allusion to stubble, here, was beard stubble, and this showed us how important it was to keep up our cleanliness and grooming. “The point is: you just can’t let yourself go,” he said.
Needless to say, that’s not really what Malachi is getting at. What we’re seeing here is a prophesied day that will utterly wipe out the wicked so that the faithful will flourish. Notice, also, the role of Moses in this day as the one who gave the Law to Israel. But before this day comes, Elijah has to appear preaching repentance so that there is a faithful to flourish and all Israel doesn’t perish in the day of judgement.
Both Moses and Elijah appeared on the Mount of Transfiguration, but when Jesus says that Elijah has already come, he’s talking about John the Baptist.
John the Baptist was doing the exact thing that Elijah was supposed to do before the day of the Lord. He even dressed up like Elijah. He was preaching repentance to Israel so that they might be saved in the day of judgement. He baptized them, demonstrating the cleansing of their sin and entry into the renewed people of God. He was preparing the way for the Messiah who would enact the judgement described in Malachi 4. He was so committed to this vision that, when Jesus failed to start violently overthrowing the government and John ended up imprisoned by them, he questioned whether or not Jesus was the Messiah.
And that last bit is what makes it click for the disciples. When Jesus says that Elijah wasn’t recognized but was instead persecuted and killed by the powers that be, they know right away who he must be talking about.
Jesus also slips in that the Son of Man will have the same experience.
When we look at the prophets God sent to Israel to proclaim a coming judgement (and encourage repentance in order to avoid it), we don’t see a whole lot of success. What we see, instead, is an increasingly hostile leadership who isn’t keen on the criticism. The prophets point out how Israel’s leaders fail to shepherd their people and practice righteousness. They lay the blame for rampant oppression and corruption at the feet of the leaders. The prophets say that Israel’s troubles (exile, rule by pagans) are the leadership’s fault, and their circumstances are only going to get worse, culminating in an eventual destruction. The only way out is to repent of all of this madness and restore faithfulness, compassion, justice, and mercy.
But the leaders of Israel actually like things the way they are. They are prospering off the backs of their people even in the midst of exile and pagan rule. They ingratiate themselves with the political powers of their day and are rewarded with power and prosperity of their own. They really want the prophets to quit stirring up the people. They want them to shut up. Their responses move from mockery and discrediting into flat out violence.
This happened to the prophets. It happened to John the Baptist. It will happen to Jesus.
This is a crazy juxtaposition with what the vision of glory and success that the disciples have just seen on the mountain. How can Jesus successfully lead a deliverance of Israel and bring the kingdom of God to fruition if he will just follow the other prophets into imprisonment and death?
This is the value of that tantalizingly absurd claim: “Tell no one about the vision until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
- Jesus clearly indicates that the ministry of the John the Baptist is a fulfillment of the prophecy of Elijah returning. What implications does this have for how we might understand Old Testament prophecy, especially the apocalyptic sort?
- The prophets all the way up through Jesus called people out of an old way of life and into a new one that marked a new membership in a new Israel. What does this mean for you?