Sunday Meditations: John MacArthur Is Not Very Smart

If you’re not aware of big news in the world of Christian evangelicalism, that sounds pretty great, actually.

But if you are, you probably heard this past week about John MacArthur, at his own church’s “Truth Matters” conference, making some dismissive and insulting comments about Beth Moore in specific and people wanting to allow women to be ministers in general.  Throughout, the audience laughed along with his blunt dismissals, which is the sort of thing that happens when you fill rooms with people who think exactly like you do for the purposes of reaffirming each other in your collective rightness.  I’m not going to link to the video because A) I don’t want to give it more press, B) you can easily find it via search, and C) I like to keep my blog reasonably porn free.

Many quarters of evangelicalism and not-so-evangelicalism reacted with varying degrees of outrage or at least disapproval, seeing as large amounts of evangelicals actually agree with his positions but considered his tone harsh and unloving and indicative of him not taking other arguments seriously.  Most of us were aware that this is pretty much how the J-Machine always runs, but this seemed particularly egregious to many.

So, there were two main prongs of dissatisfaction: his tone and his content.

His Tone

When Trump was on the campaign trail, a tape surfaced where, in an interview, he talked about how women let him have his way with them because he was so famous, and he could even grab them by their genitalia and they were totally fine with it.  This incident has a lot of interesting parallels with John MacArthur, but two points in particular stand out: 1) he made this comment in what he considered a safe space where he could speak freely, and 2) public outrage spiked – people still talk about this comment, today.

First off, whatever a person says when they are with people who they think agree with them, that’s who they really are.  It’s not a show.  When people think everyone around them will support them in what they say, they’ll say it.  You are getting an unfiltered look at what they really think.

For those of us who are Christians, take note!  What do we say in environments where we assume everyone agrees with us?  What kinds of comments or jokes do we make about other groups of people?  Would we make them if members of that group were sitting across from us at our dining room table?  If the answer is “no,” that means we harbor views that are intrinsically insulting and unloving and we should probably be seriously working on those.

Secondly, when everyone got so mad at Trump for that interview (as well they should – those were terrible things to say), I kept thinking, “Why are you so mad now?”

Because, all of a sudden, there was this huge segment of people who didn’t really express much of an issue with Trump up until that point.  Yet, prior to that point, his campaign was littered with incompetence and offensiveness.  That guy should not have been allowed to hold something with a sharp point on it, but somehow, certain segments of the population seemed to be totally fine with his bid for the presidency until they were shocked by his offensive comment about women.

Where was the outrage before that?  Why weren’t (some) people shocked at the gross ineptitude and overt classism, racism, and sexism before then?  It’s not that the “grab ’em” comment wasn’t offensive – it was terrible!  The outrage and disgust was well-deserved.  But the comment was also characteristic.

I admit a certain amount of similar dissonance at the wave of outrage against this latest incident with J Mac.

John MacArthur has always been a poor exegete, has always held untenable and destructive positions, and has always been mean about it.  For years and years.  His insulting dismissiveness to anything that is not his position is on display in countless videos and writings.

His fanbase is not repelled by this, but drawn to it.  They like it when he makes fun of opponents and pretends like there is no reasonable alternative to his views.  It makes them feel right and safe and superior – the noble vanguard against the forces of sin and foolishness in the world – the last defenders of the True Gospel – and everyone else is worthy of contempt whether they have the Spirit of Christ or not.  And if you disagree with J Mac, you probably don’t.

This has been his consistent message.  For years.  Why are all these evangelicals suddenly upset about it?

For years, he’s been saying that Pentecostals are servants of Satan.  For years, he’s been saying that God shows racial partiality.  For years, he’s been saying that the pursuit of justice undermines “the gospel.”  And if anyone has argued to the contrary, he treats them like a joke and encourages his disciples to treat them like a joke.

Why are we so angry, now?  All we’re seeing is classic John MacArthur.

Is this latest round of comments worthy of outrage and correction?  Absolutely.  Absolutely, no question.  But this isn’t an aberration.  This isn’t a normally thoughtful, loving man who is interested in struggling through biblical issues with the body of Christ whom he loves, and he just so happened to let some bad feelings out in an inappropriate fluke.  This is a consistently unloving, contemptuous man who couldn’t exegete his way out of a wet paper bag showing his typical contempt for most of those for whom Christ died because they have the audacity to understand the Bible differently than he does.

That, I might add, is a description of a not insignificant segment of evangelicalism.  It’s no surprise to me that JM has the influence that he does.  He’s not just a hero; he’s an incarnation of all of evangelicalism’s darker spirits.

In all honesty, I’m very forgiving of snark.  None of us should be snarky, but we all are.  We are all dismissive and contemptuous of the wrong people at the wrong times.  It’s definitely not a characteristic to admire, which is probably where I part ways with J Mac and Da Boyz, but it’s almost universal.  I do it.  You do it.  We don’t always do it in front of TV cameras, but we probably would if we had that kind of influence.  It doesn’t make it ok, but it’s easy to understand how it happens.

Whether you agree with Jahizzy about women pastors or not, what he said was wrong.  He should repent of what he said, and everyone calling for that is right to do so.

But where have those calls been for the past ten or twenty years?  This is just MacArthur doing MacArthur things, not some bold new escalation of his rhetoric.  He is always like this.  And the irony of all this – an even bigger irony than calling his ministry “Grace to You” – is that this is what he thinks it means to be Jesus in the world.

His Content

A long time ago, when I had the luxury of such discussions, a friend of mine and I were discussing the impact of Carl McIntire on Presbyterian history.

Carl signed up with J. Gresham Machen who had started the denomination known, today, as the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.  This denomination was started in response to increasing theological liberalism in the Presbyterian Church USA.

This still wasn’t fundamentalist enough for Carl, though, and he shortly broke from the OPC to form the Bible Presbyterian Church where they could emphasize clear, biblical distinctives like total abstention from alcohol, premillennial dispensationalism, and total disassociation from any group who might disagree with you.  Or, as my friend put it, “It’s like he dug through the OPC’s theological trash can and thought, ‘Hey, some of this stuff is pretty good!'”

I’m not sure I could put together a better description of John MacArthur’s strange collage of theological positions.

That’s not to say he’s wrong about literally everything, but the sheer volume of things he propounds as clear biblical truth has a high degree of overlap with “positions widely discredited by anyone with even a modicum of biblical scholarship.”

“Oh,” but you say, “he’s the founding president of a seminary!”

This is true, but you have to understand that seminaries, like martial arts schools, are not regulated in any way.  You could start a seminary right now.  Anyone could.  Whether anyone would recognize your credentials as valid is another story, but you don’t have to meet any level of qualifications to open a seminary.

Further, as someone who perennially considers seminary, I can tell you that many of them were not founded to further inquiry, scholarship, debate, and vital pastoral skills necessary to care for hurting people and help them rebuild their lives.  Most of them are focused on passing down a collection of theological distinctives.  Being associated with a seminary or having a seminary degree does not make you a serious scholar of the Bible, although it can help in that journey quite a bit.

“Well,” you might reply, “just because he holds to many biblically shallow positions and reads the Bible basically the same way people read newspapers does not mean he’s wrong about this one.”

Also quite true, but let me tell you where I’m going with this.

When I was younger, I worked in a college’s physical plant.  One time, I had to attend a seminar on a new fire suppression system.  It was just as exciting as it sounds.

The vendor explained the various statistics and operations of the system.  When he got to the smoke detectors you installed in parking garages, he took some time to explain some of the differences, one of which is that cigarette smoke would not set off the parking garage smoke detectors, even though the internal building smoke detectors would react to cigarette smoke.

At this point, a gentleman in the front row sat back in his chair, crossed his arms, and declared, “Well, all someone would have to do is set fire to your garage using a lot of cigarettes,” and grinned cleverly while looking around the room, convinced that he had discovered the fatal flaw in this vendor’s system.

This man was smug and convinced of his own cleverness and rightness.  He had seen what others had not seen and was able to point out the insidious danger of this evil vendor trying to sell us a bill of goods.

It did not occur to him that his observation was colossally stupid.

If you’ve ever been in a parking garage, you know that it is almost entirely made of metal and concrete.  In order to have a destructive garage fire using cigarettes, you would have to import a truly massive amount of cigarettes and somehow set the whole thing ablaze.  Further, unless you used other huge amounts of flaming cigarettes to light your imported huge amount of cigarettes, the detectors would detect your flames.

He might as well have said, “What if aliens set your garage on fire with lasers that don’t set off smoke detectors?  Answer THAT, you shyster.”

A scenario where someone would 1) want to burn down your parking garage, 2) realize the best way to do this was to burn it down with cigarettes so the detectors wouldn’t go off, 3) sneak in multiple truckloads of cigarettes, 4) place this massive quantity of cigarettes around the garage without anyone noticing, and 5) successfully set all these cigarettes ablaze without being detected is all just so crazy as to be astounding, and yet, this man was smugly self-assured that he was right and good – a protector of the less intelligent.

This is, more or less, the way I see John MacArthur: someone whose conclusions are so massively ill-founded that it makes their smugness both ludicrous and intolerable.  It’s offensive when someone calls you stupid; it’s intolerable when a stupid person calls you stupid.

When JM says that there is “no case that can be made biblically for a woman preacher, period, end of discussion,” we have to understand the phrase “no case” entails “no case that I am capable of understanding or interacting with in any way.”  Obviously, people can and have made biblical cases for women preachers, but addressing them seriously is not something JMac is equipped to do, so he pretends they don’t exist.

A couple hundred years ago, white theologians were saying that no biblical case could be made against slavery.  Turns out that you can actually make that case!  Whether it’s convincing to a slave owner is another matter, but the arguments do exist.

Another analogy is when certain mythicists say things like, “There’s no evidence that Jesus existed!”  Well, yes there is.  You may not find the evidence convincing, but it does exist.  It’s not an assertion that came out of thin air.

But, like our man warning us about the Hypothetical Cigarette Arsonist, it’s hard to take someone’s claim about there being “no case that can be made biblically” seriously when this same person contends that the Earth is 6000 years old and, one day, all Christians will mysteriously vanish.  He also says things like this: “The New Testament talks about the fact that the twelve tribes of Israel will be identified. Over each of the tribes will rule in the behalf of Christ, one of the twelve Apostles and we as believers having been glorified coming back to earth will even under the leadership of Jesus Christ rule over the earth and over the living people of Israel as well.” (Why Every Calvinist Should Be a Premillennialist, Part 2)

Do you remember that passage of Scripture that says an Apostle will rule each of the twelve tribes of Israel that will somehow be reconstituted in the future?  You DON’T?  Or how about when the church comes “back to earth” and rules “over the living people of Israel?”  You don’t remember that passage?

This is the man who says no biblical case can be made for women pastors.

Now, I think premillennial dispensationalism is what you get when you read the Bible with virtually no knowledge about the actual Bible while someone is teaching you premillennial dispensationalism.  When you don’t know anything about the ancient world or the historical events and concerns of the day or what a “genre” is, you get premillennial dispensationalism.

But even though I think J-Mac’s eschatology is the mathematical product of the raw text of the Bible and a massive amount of ignorance and cherry-picking, I’d never be bold enough to say that no biblical case could be made for premillennial dispensationalism.  You can make it.  People have made it.

Far more scholarship and respect for the Bible and awareness of its world have gone into the case for egalitarianism than in the entirety of J-Mac’s works put together.  He just has neither the authority nor the chops to make statements about the credibility (or in this case, the raw fact of existence) of biblical cases for women preachers.  Whether you agree with his position or not, he’s definitely not capable of speaking authoritatively on the state of the discussion.

Other than the fact that his arguments for complentarianism are bad, though, there was a point in his diatribe that really stood out to me.

He accused women wanting to be pastors of seeking power.  He even used the example that these women didn’t want to be plumbers; they wanted to be senators and pastors.  “They don’t want equality; they want power,” he said, and apparently the push for egalitarianism proves it.

This is just the dumbest line of argument ever.

Let me give you a slightly different situation.  I’ll even use J-Mac’s beloved plumber scenario.

Let’s say you have a group of plumbers, both men and women.  They have the same job title, same responsibilities, do the same work, operate the same complexity of scenarios – from a work perspective, they are completely indistinguishable.  However, the men make double the hourly rate that the women do.

If Johnny’s logic is correct, then if these women asked for equal pay, they wouldn’t be interested in equality.  They’d be interested in money.

Obviously, this is a ridiculous conclusion.  The money is where the inequity is.  You gain equality in this scenario by increasing compensation.  That’s what you’d ask for because that’s where the inequality is.  But I can hear J-Mac speaking out to those women, “You don’t just want a living wage, you want double your hourly rate!  You don’t want equality, you want money!  The Good Book tells us the love of money is the root of all evil, right after the story about the fox and the grapes!  A Christian woman shouldn’t be asking for higher salaries.”

This is a ludicrous criticism when the inequality is based in an unequal distribution of “power.”  (Incidentally, it says a lot about what MacArthur thinks about his role when he identifies “seeking to be a pastor” as a power grab.)  What else should they ask for?  Rubber ducks?  Free tickets to “Truth Matters?”  They have to ask for “power” because that’s what’s creating the inequality.

Now, you may think they shouldn’t have it.  That’s your opinion, but it’s idiotic to say that the fact that they’re asking to be allowed to hold a “power” position shows that they’re seeking power and not equality.  THAT’S WHERE THE INEQUALITY IS.

Women who want to be pastors (and senators, I guess) are only asking for something that men already have.  That’s seeking equality.  You can say they shouldn’t have it, but it makes zero sense to say asking for power means that they’re power-hungry and not interested in equality when the power is the thing that’s unequal.

When women ask for equal pay, does that make them money-hungry and not interested in equality?  When ethnic minorities wanted to use the same bathrooms, restaurants, bus seats, water fountains, and (gasp) colleges as white people, did that make them bathroom-hungry and not interested in equality?

John MacArthur has constructed a narrative where, if there’s an inequality, and you ask for that inequality to be rectified, that proves you aren’t interested in equality.  You’re only interested in whatever the heck you’re asking for that would make you equal.

I’m sorry; this is just the dumbest man in evangelicalism, and he considers himself the brightest.  He is the meanest, and he considers himself the most gracious.  If you are a complementarian, you need to find a new hero.

Sunday Meditations: Lover of Mankind

Last week, I was in Boston conducting a workshop for one of our clients.

Normally, I would have just flown in, done the workshop, and left, but the hotel they wanted me to stay at wouldn’t let me book for just one night.  So, I ended up having basically the morning free in Boston before my flight, and I headed downtown to see the two things everyone wants to see when they’re sightseeing: the public library and a very old church.

The Boston Public Library was unlike the public libraries in my own town, as was readily visible from the entrance.

public-library-front

We need more lanterns on our library!  Now, make them spikier!  Spikier, I say!

The library was full of art, sculpture, secluded alcoves, and tranquil courtyards.  I wandered aimlessly through both old and new sections.  There was a gallery of maps, several meeting rooms that would be terribly distracting simply due to the art and architecture, and a gift shop that I could observe through windows but never figured out the right path through the labyrinth to get there.

As I wandered, I walked up a flight of stairs to see this:

public-library-stairway-to-mural

I wasn’t really expecting this sort of thing in the library.  This was the entrance into the Sargent Gallery, where I spent a very long time.

The entire hall (including the vaulted ceiling) is covered in murals depicting various biblical and theological scenes, broken up only by doors or cases of very rare books.

Even the arrangement was striking, as one wall is occupied by the oppression of the Israelites just prior to the Exodus, and the other wall is occupied by the crucified Jesus Christ.

My favorite mural, however, was the Church, where she is depicted as a woman taking up the robe of the crucified Jesus.  What a striking visual representation of the Church and her mission.

All of this is probably due to the heavy, early Episcopalian influence on Boston, but you could also find traces of early American mysticism, such as the floor tiles with all the signs of the Zodiac or the occasional Masonic symbol.

The fusion of all these things struck me.  To some extent, it was all a physical embodiment of something I tried to express some weeks ago.  There is no reason a passionate pursuit of God and the refinement of the spirit in the way of Jesus Christ is antithetical to reason, knowledge, or inquiry.  And should we discover truths that shake our dogmatic certainty (dogmatic slumbers?), then we press into them, integrating and re-envisioning and re-evaluating.

Being at the library was a profoundly religious experience for me, confronted with both art and writing around every corner proclaiming the “sacred” and the “secular” without any awareness that a distinction should be made.  I spent a long time, there, just watching and thinking and praying and reading and meditating until I could no longer discern the difference.  It was definitely my kind of temple.

Speaking of spiritual experiences, I then grabbed a cold brew from the coffee shop in the library (why don’t all libraries have this?) and hiked across the square to visit Trinity Church.

trinity-church

An event truck, just as our spiritual forefathers had.

The church was like someone had magically taken the entirety of Episcopalian heritage and culture and made a building out of it.  Everywhere you turned was stained glass, lofty vaulted ceilings, and minute carvings and designs too numerous for the brain to take in at once.

trinity-church-sanctuary

I had gotten a little device that was supposed to give me an audio tour of the building, but since a gentleman was playing the pipe organ the entire time, I quickly abandoned the thing and just wandered around the building, myself.

I was particularly drawn to this panel – the Good Samaritan opposite Dorcas.

trinity-church-samaritan

As I left the building and was making my way around the outside to hike over to the Boston Common, I came across a statue of the church’s first rector, Phillips Brooks.  He’s probably most famous as the lyricist for “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”

trinity-church-philip-brooks

He was 6’4″ in real life, so this statue probably isn’t far off.

The plaque below the statue reads:

Preacher of the Word of God
Lover of Mankind

I didn’t know who Phillips Brooks was at the time I saw this plaque, but all I could think of was what a wonderful way for people to remember you.  I’m not a preacher by trade, but I hope people remember me this way.  Someone who shared the Word of God with them and was known as someone who loved their fellow man – not loved in some generic feeling of beneficence, but someone who actually valued, pursued, and was committed to the welfare of their fellow human beings.

What an amazing way to be remembered.  Surely, this is how we remember Jesus.

I was so stricken by the commemoration of this man in this way that I bought a couple of collections of sermons and letters by him.  I wanted to know what this man was like such that the people of Boston remembered him in this way.

As I began to read his sermons, it became clear.

I should note that Brooks and I would probably not agree on much about how to write a sermon.  He definitely comes from the “what does this verse make me think of” school of writing a sermon.  But unlike the unfocused meanderings or fiery rants against culture that such sermons often produce, Brooks’ sermons reveal someone who has spent a lot of time grappling with the larger truths of God and bringing them directly to bear into the struggles of his parishoners.

For example, his sermon on John 8:12 compares Jesus to the light of the sun that wakes up the world.  But he then presses on to drive the point home that Jesus, in his humanity, shows us the potential for what humans can be.  Humans are good, preaches Brooks, and evil is an intruder that, if we are to be saved, must be fought so that the goodness God has built into humans can shine forth.  Jesus is both our example and power that allows us to move closer to this, and we can see others moving closer to this as well, whether they are Christians or not.

In this way, Brooks says, all history is church history, because every advance humanity makes toward compassion and justice and away from selfishness and suffering is the advance of the victory of God in the world.  We are called to this mission and are indwelt with the power of Christ, should we choose to take it up, to follow.

I could easily see how even the most skeptical of Brooks’ religion could not deny that here was a man who was for mankind.  Here was a man who, by the Spirit, envisioned a world where mankind was ever reaching for its potential, and that potential was not just defined by technological advancement, but moral advancement in love for one another and ourselves.

Brooks didn’t see this humanism as eclipsing a love for God, but rather a very natural progression of it.  For him, there was no division between spiritual and social salvation.  The Jesus-ward life isn’t about escaping Hell, but embarking on a deliberate journey into a new way of life that results in a new world.  If that isn’t biblical eschatology, I don’t know what is.

I am not much in the world, but I hope I can be a man who is remembered as someone who preached the Word of God and loved mankind.

Will Elijah Come Back Before the Second Coming?

Not long ago, I was having a conversation with a pastor and a good friend about John the Baptist’s denial that he is Elijah in John 1:21.  It is sheer coincidence that this happened to dovetail with my latest devotional entry.

Although we had similar takes on why John the Baptist said “no,” he also offered that the actual Elijah will actually show up prior to the second coming of Jesus, citing Jesus in Matthew 17:11 saying that Elijah would come to “restore all things” (and John the Baptist did not do this) and Malachi’s prophecy in 4:5 stating that Elijah would come before the final judgment.

By contrast, I offered that the Gospels’ portrayals of John the Baptist and his ministry present him as the fulfillment of Malachi’s prophetic expectation, and there’s no Scriptural indicator that we should be looking for a future appearance of the actual Elijah.

What follows is my explanation to him of why I think the way I do with some minor edits for clarity.  While it is maybe more scholarly than 97% of the emails I send, it’s also not a scholarly paper and is meant to serve as an explanatory overview than a thorough defense of a hypothesis.


1. Malachi

Malachi is a revelation to Israel, and Chapter 1 begins with Israel’s election – preferred by God over her close relatives.  But Israel is accused of not showing the honor a son should show a parent, and this is illustrated mostly by the carelessness of their religious ceremonies.  It should be noted this reveals a heart condition, but it is illustrated in how little the priests and leaders care about how God is worshiped.  They use blemished sacrifices, etc.  In chapter 2, this gets into some very vivid imagery, such as God spreading the dung from the animals in the priests’ faces.

Malachi continues to show how good the covenant was and how God was faithful, but Israel continues to do evil, broadening the picture to include excusing evil behavior, adultery, accusing God of not keeping up His end of the bargain – a faithlessness that has made them a mockery even among pagan nations.

In chapter 3, God says he will send a messenger to prepare the way before Him, and this messenger will bring a refiner’s fire, judgement, etc.  This imagery is largely how John the Baptist depicts the coming Messiah in the synoptics.  The list of Israel’s crimes grows to include sorcery, oppression, and a variety of sins.  God notes that, if Israel will return to Him, He will return to them, but they seem to not know how to do that.  This chapter does note that the faithful few will be spared on this day of judgement.

In chapter 4, God describes this day as a terrible day of fire that will destroy the wicked, but those who are faithful will survive and rejoice and flourish in the aftermath.  God reminds them to remember their covenant, and there says that Elijah will come before this day, turning the hearts of the sons to the fathers so that God will not smite the land with herem – a total destruction.

So, the context throughout the book is Israel.  A day of judgement will come to Israel where the wicked in Israel will be destroyed and the faithful remnant of Israel will survive it.  Before this day comes, Elijah will appear to turn these descendants’ hearts back to their ancestors and vice-versa.  They will remember their covenant, and then God will not utterly destroy the land and everyone in it.

There is no textual indicator that anything in Malachi is talking about the end of history or a final judgement, and this bounding historical context is important.  If I say, “I’m going to drive to my office.  When I get there, I’m going to fire all the slackers,” the context sets the parameters.  No one would think I was going to fire every slacker everywhere, because I established that this was going to happen at my office.

This will be a judgement in history that will come to Israel where the wicked in Israel will be destroyed and the righteous will be liberated, and before that day comes, Elijah will be sent to turn people’s hearts to avoid a total destruction.

2. Jewish Views Before Christ

Perhaps the oldest view we have of the future role of Elijah is Sirach 48, which is an entire chapter on Elijah.  This would have been written around the 2nd century BC.  The key verse that talks about his future role is verse 10:

designated in the prophecies of doom to allay God’s wrath before the fury breaks, to turn the hearts of fathers towards their children, and to restore the tribes of Jacob.

This is very similar to the text in Malachi with the addition that Elijah will “restore the tribes of Jacob.”  In other words, restore Israel.  Indeed, the entirety of Sirach is concerned with the destiny of Israel and the troubles she is suffering because of her treatment of these holy men of God and failure to keep the Law.  The author looks for a time when God will fulfill these prophecies and clear out the wicked from Israel, restoring her to righteousness.  Later rabbinic writings seem to confirm this understanding,

Again, there are no textual indicators about the fate of other nations or the world or this being the end of history.

It is noteworthy that there are other expectations that crop up over time.  For instance, one popular view is that Elijah would put to rest all disputes about the Torah and explain it clearly to everyone to produce unity (thus turning the hearts of the fathers to their children and so on).  This view shows up in at least three early sources (such as the Mishnah’s Eduyot 8 (redacted in the 3rd century AD but contents are much, much older)) and the Zohar says that Elijah will be like Aaron was to Moses.

There was also a view that Elijah would change the minds of people and lead them to repentance, although this seems to be a later, minority view.  The earliest account of it I can find is a short passage in the Pirkei De-Rabbi Eliezer which would have been 8th or 9th century AD.

I could only find one reference to Elijah raising the dead, and this is in the Shir haShirim Zuta (10th century A.D.) which says that, in order to prove his identity, Elijah will raise the dead of people known to the people who see him.  Sort of like Jesus’ miracle with Lazarus.

So, when we see Jewish thoughts on Elijah that might have influenced Jesus or been “in the air” at the time, it seems like the understanding is that Elijah will come and turn Israel back to her covenant, thus restoring Israel.

3. Matthew 11:4

and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. Let anyone with ears listen

Here, Jesus directly identifies John the Baptist as the Elijah who is to come.  The addition of the “He who has an ear, let him hear” language tells us that this is happening in a non-literal manner.  We have to spiritually discern Jesus’ meaning.  John the Baptist is not the literal Elijah everyone was expecting, but he was the Elijah who was to come all the same.

Also, John the Baptist is still alive when Jesus tells everyone this.

4. Matthew 17:10-13

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.

This passage is fun from a translation standpoint because the “is indeed coming” is erchontai which is translated as “came” the vast majority of the time it appears.  Matthew 25:11 for instance.  It is most commonly translated to mean something happened in the past, but it is sometimes translated as present or future, depending on the context.

Here, it is probably translated in the future because “will restore” (apokatastesei) is in the future, although obviously Elijah can have come and cause a future effect.  “I showed up an hour ago, and I’m about to get some food.”  This verb means to “reconstitute.”  Something was broken up, and he will reform it.  The word for “all things” is panta which just means “all.”

This seems to fit Malachi’s picture and the early Jewish rabbinical understanding of what it meant for Elijah to return.  God is going to send a terrible day of calamity on Israel to remove the wicked, but He will save the faithful.  So, prior to that day, God will send Elijah to turn people’s hearts back to each other and their covenant, and by doing so will restore Israel (as Sirach has it).  This is what John the Baptist did.

Again, there’s no reason to think Jesus is talking about the end of the world or a final judgement of the world.  Malachi isn’t, and no Jewish interpreter is either.  It is certainly possible that Jesus is bringing a new meaning to these ideas.  Wouldn’t be the first time Jesus did that with a traditional Jewish understanding.  But the burden would be to prove that’s what he’s doing.

Perhaps the greatest argument that this is what Malachi and Jesus had in mind is that this is what actually happened in history.  God’s judgement did fall on Israel and destroy their power structure, resulting in the deaths of an immense amount of Jewish people on that terrible day.  And yet, those who repented escaped.  Before this happened, God sent John to turn the hearts of the people so that they might repent and become the new Israel, and it was out of these people – the poor, the blind, the lame, and the sinners – that Israel was restored, while their priests and scribes and politicians and legalists were destroyed.

5. Mark 9:11-13

Then they asked him, “Why do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?” He said to them, “Elijah is indeed coming first to restore all things. How then is it written about the Son of Man, that he is to go through many sufferings and be treated with contempt? But I tell you that Elijah has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written about him.”

In Mark’s version, the English translation is very similar to Matthew, but the Greek is a little different.  Get to that in a moment.

It’s also interesting that, here, Jesus anticipates the objection that, if Elijah is coming / has come, then why will the Son of Man suffer?  This is interesting because it shows us that, in Jesus’ mind, the coming of Elijah is before the Son of Man and it will not fix everything.  Elijah comes, and the Son of Man will still be mistreated, and to prove his point, he highlights the fact that Elijah was mistreated “as is written about him.”

So, whatever it means for Elijah to “restore all things,” this act is not comprehensive enough to stop the mistreatment of the Son of Man.

When we look at the Greek, the “is indeed coming first” is elthon proton (in contrast to the tense the disciples use in their question – elthein proton).  Elthein is consistently translated as “to come,” whereas elthon is consistently translated as “came” or “having come” – past tense – even more consistently than the erchontai of Matthew.  The “restores” is apokathistanei which is present tense, not future.  Elijah, having come, restores all things (panta is the same).

6. Luke 1:16-17

He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.

Luke does not contain a story where Jesus says that John the Baptist was Elijah, but it does contain this prophecy of John’s birth, which has a hint of the Isaiah passage in it, but is obviously a direct reference to the Malachi prophecy.  I think Luke is the bridge that resolves the tension between John the Gospel and the other synoptics.  John is not literally Elijah come back.  But he has Elijah’s spirit and power and fulfills the prophetic expectation of what Elijah was supposed to accomplish.

7. The End (Finally)

Malachi prophecies a day of destruction that is about to come upon Israel where the righteous will be saved.  Prior to that day, Elijah will come to turn people’s hearts so that not everyone will be destroyed.

Sirach (and others) expect that this will be the restoration/reformation of Israel.

Jesus proclaims that Elijah has come and will restore all, but this will not stop the suffering of the Son of Man.  He identifies John the Baptist as the person who is doing this thing.

In history, the day of calamity falls on Israel, destroying many, but the repentant and faithful are saved.

To me, this all wraps up pretty neatly.

When we start with Malachi and move forward in history, this provides us a context for understanding Jesus’ teaching, and when we do this, we see that John the Baptist fits the bill and what God said would happen happened.  There’s no particular reason to expect that a literal Elijah will appear before another calamity.  This could happen, of course; there’s just no particular reason to look for it.  The things that God said would happen did happen.  Not necessarily in the exact way everyone expected, but that’s Jesus for you, and he explains to us that it did happen if we have ears to hear.

In my opinion, the only way to say that John the Baptist didn’t fulfill this role in prophecy is if we begin with a preexisting idea of what Jesus must be talking about – i.e. a final judgement of the whole world at the end of history and a restoration of everything in that world – and then carry that backwards through the texts.  Obviously, that did not happen and John the Baptist didn’t do that, so our only option with that understanding is that it must be happening at some point in the future.

But that direction seems less sound to me.  I don’t want to start with a preexisting idea of what Jesus must be talking about and then project that backwards.  I want to understand Jesus against the background of his context and the continuity of what God was doing at the time.  I don’t see anywhere in that chain of thought or history where a final judgement and restoration of the entire world is in view.

I do believe in a final judgement and restoration of the world from other passages.  Paul especially develops this idea as he begins to realize the ramifications of what Jesus did for the nations, and John himself describes this picture at the end of Revelation.  But I don’t think that’s what’s in view in Malachi and the subsequent passages that build on Malachi.