Elijah Must Come: Matthew 17:9-13

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.”

Consider This

  1. 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?
  2. 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?

Someday Meditations: Intellectualism, Skepticism, and Mysticism

My journey through faith hasn’t always felt good.  It’s sometimes been terrifying.  It’s sometimes been profoundly sad.  But it’s never been boring.

The relationship of faith to doubt or critical thought is a troubled one, at least as far as American Evangelicalism is concerned.  It definitely hasn’t always been this way in church history, but it seems like it might be here, now.

You know as well as I do that the people on this campus who talk the most about theology have the most active spiritualities.

If you approach your faith with intellectual rigor, there is a danger of faith becoming a religion of the “head” rather than the “heart.”  While I understand this is a theoretical risk, I’ve almost never seen it play out this way.

I find that the people most drawn to intellectually examine their faith often have deep spiritual lives.  They can’t put it down.  It’s a topic of every conversation, the subject of the books they read, always on their minds.  It may not be a contented spiritual life, but it’s serious and ever present.

I’ve never met a group of people who would argue theological truths and their favorite scotch with equal passion – in an Irish pub.

In fact, I’d say an intellectual disinterest in the faith has a tendency to lead to a “head” religion.  American Evangelicalism is almost entirely about right belief, and the content of those right beliefs.  This is usually not due to some veneration of the intellect (although it can be that for certain individuals or congregations), but rather a definition of faith that involves being presented with cognitive content, assenting that content is true, and then never questioning it, again.

This is where the person with an intellectual interest in their faith starts to part ways.  It can’t be left alone, and if someone starts poking hard enough, eventually something happens that rocks the boat.

It doesn’t mean the boat capsizes or takes on irreparable damage, but you begin to realize that you’re not pointed in the same direction, and you can’t really go back.

For me, as a dyed in the wool fundamentalist Christian going to college, that moment was learning Greek.

When you learn Greek, you get exposed to the idea that we have competing manuscripts.  Nobody has the originals of the biblical texts.  We have copies of copies.  In most cases, we have quite a few to choose from.

So, let’s say you’re translating a verse, and you get to a point where our oldest copy says one thing, but almost all the other copies say something else.  Who wins?  Do you go with the oldest assuming that it’s the closest to the original?  Or do you go with the most numerous and assume the older text is an error?

And you’re translating into English.  What if there’s an idiom in the Greek that doesn’t exist in English?  Do you translate it into the literal equivalent and hope people will just figure out what it means, or do you pick a similar English idiom knowing that those words aren’t the translations of the Greek words?

Granted, some people have made a much bigger deal of this problem than it actually is.  If you read Ehrman when he’s on a roll, you might get the idea that biblical manuscripts are a Da Vinci Code-esque wasteland of irreconcilable differences, and that is not at all close to the reality.

But still, once you begin to realize that the text of your English Bible is to some extent based on judgement calls by translators, and even your “Greek New Testament” is the product of a selection process, you can’t really go back to where you’d been, before.

Now, some uncertainty has been introduced.  The chain of God’s mouth to the written page has been complicated, somewhat.

When people tell me that I don’t take the Bible seriously because I don’t believe in Hell, I tell them that I had to sit through a class on ancient Roman provinces.  That was the entire class subject.  I took that class because I wanted to understand the Bible better.  Did you sit through a class on Roman provinces?  You didn’t?  Maybe you don’t take the Bible seriously.

As you begin to make inquiries into biblical scholarship, historical studies, the history and current state of philosophy, the rise and fall of other religions, the mythologies of Israel’s neighbors, early Greek histories, the evidence progressively unearthed by the natural sciences, and so forth, you begin to realize that nothing is as simple as you thought it was.

You have to replace some old understandings or let some things go altogether.  You have to admit there are answers you don’t have.  That there are good counterpoints to which you cannot respond.  That some things have been offered to you as evidence that only holds together if you already believe the conclusions the evidence is supposed to support, and some of that evidence was never true to begin with.

And so, the intellectual pursuit of the faith begins to introduce uncertainty, criticism, skepticism, and doubt of a certain variety.

But the thing is – this is the byproduct of a passionate pursuit of the faith.  If you never went poking around, you’d never have found all that stuff.  You went poking around because you wanted to understand it better, because you loved it, because you couldn’t put it down.  The intellectual pursuit that ultimately led to greater uncertainty was a mark of a serious, passionate faith.

We should thank liberal Christians because they move the window of acceptability to include atheism.  And we have to be patient with this process.  Conservative Christians become liberal Christians who become agnostics who become atheists.  This is often how it goes.

This process is sometimes too much for people.  Once they are confronted with uncertainty or the uncomfortable fact that some of their beliefs are just flat out false, they can’t take it.  They give it up.  Their only choices were unshakable certainty in Christianity or unshakable certainty that Christianity is utterly false.

This is, of course, not at all the only reason Christians become atheists.  I’m not trying to make it sound like all former-Christian atheists were people who couldn’t hold a worldview together.

But for many of them, this was the choice we ourselves offered them.  We set them up for this.  They never learned to see the intellectual pursuit of their faith and the subsequent, unsettling uncertainty as spiritual growth and maturity.  They saw it as falling away.

And we do it right from the ground up with youth.  Do we teach them how to integrate an organic search for truth into faith that is genuinely their own, or do we teach them how to accept uncritically what they are taught and warn them of the dangers of getting too far outside the lines, or portray it as a waste of their time?

I mean, this just happened in a youth worship service I attended.  The casual contempt for learning and trivialization of knowledge, portraying these things as obstacles or at least irrelevant to true faith.

The paradigm for American evangelical faith is someone who believes all the right things unswervingly, never questioning.  Utterly credulous and intellectually disinterested.

That may be a way to have faith.  I’m certainly not trying to say my own journey is the only legitimate one or that the only way to be truly spiritual is to learn ancient languages or read controversial books all the time.

Certainly, knowledge for its own sake puffs up, as Paul warns us.  But static dogma is neither knowledge nor a remedy for pride.  It’s just assertions, typically tribal ones.

What I am saying is that our idea of what constitutes a passionate spiritual life may be backwards, or at least far too limited.

People learn all they can about something because they love it.  It’s a pursuit.  And when this gives rise to uncertainty, that’s love as well, because you love it for what it actually is.

To me, there’s always unexplored territory with no fences or signs telling me to keep out.  If we trust God, there’s no reason not to throw ourselves into the pursuit of our faith with all parts of our being.

It doesn’t always feel good.  Honestly, sometimes, it can feel pretty terrible.  But it’s always new.