How Did We Create John MacArthur: An Anemic Gospel

This is Part Three of a series.  You can read Part One, here and Part Two, here.

An Anemic Gospel

“The gospel” is such an interesting phrase to me.  It is the one phrase that evangelical Christians will stake everything on, and also the one phrase that everyone would define somewhat differently.

“This belief is a threat to the gospel!  This person is preaching another gospel!  The phrase ‘Happy Holidays’ undermines the gospel!”

Yeesh, well, what is this “gospel” that everyone seems ready to kill for?

One of the complicating factors is that it actually means something different depending on where the concept shows up in the Bible.

Take, for instance, Isaiah 52:7 –

How beautiful upon the mountains
    are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news [gospel],
    who announces salvation,
    who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”

In this passage, the good news is that God will deliver Israel from Babylon as He did from Egypt and Assyria.  It’s not about heaven or hell.  It’s not about the afterlife.  It’s not about freedom from sin.  It’s not about the institution of  new covenant.  The “salvation” is quite literally God saving Israel from Babylon and liberating Jerusalem, and the “gospel” is the announcement that God is doing this.

This passage is also quoted by Paul in Romans 10 to establish the need for preaching salvation, again, to the Jews.  In Romans 10, the context is that God has defined a righteousness apart from the Torah, which only cursed Israel.  Through faith in Jesus, the condemnation of the Law no longer applies to Israel, and their situation which was a result of the curse of the Law would be overturned.  Just as Isaiah saw the need for the announcement of this good news among Israel in his day, so Paul says a similar proclamation is needed in his day (and will likely get a similar response).

This is a tricky concept, because we’re very used to injecting words like “salvation” or “gospel” with what’s in our heads and assume that’s what the writers must have meant.  It’s important that when we read about “the gospel” that we take the time to determine what the actual good news is that’s being talked about in that passage, or what being “saved” might mean in that particular context.

I would argue that the “gospel” that is nearest to us is the announcement that Jesus has been made Lord and Christ and that his people who have his Spirit show that the true, creator God has not given up on the world or His vision for it, and no matter what the world looks like now or how empty or broken your life is in it, the creator calls you into His world in the here and now.  And, one day, all the structures that threaten you will be judged and removed, including death itself.

Obviously, we can debate that.

However, I feel fairly confident that at no point in the Bible is the gospel ever defined as: You are going to Hell when you die because you have committed sins, but if you accept Jesus into your heart, you’ll go to Heaven when you die, instead.

Now, most evangelicals, probably including John MacArthur, would say that sounds too reductionistic.  But if they were to “flesh it out,” most would just add more backstory.  They would talk about Adam and the Fall.  They would talk about God’s holy nature.  Some of them would talk about how accepting Jesus into your heart also means that your life needs to change (ironically, some would argue this is actually not at all the gospel).  A few of the more biblically astute might even point out that “Heaven” isn’t the end destination, but resurrection in a new heavens and new earth is (which is entirely correct).

But this is just more meat on the bones.  The core assertion is that the gospel is about an individual’s destiny after they die.

The consequences of this are twofold:

  1. Because this is the story, it gets read back into any and all passages that seem to mention it whether this would be intelligible to the authors or not.
  2. Anything unrelated to producing the conversion experience which transitions someone from Hell to Heaven is viewed at best as a secondary matter and at worst something Satan is using to take the church away from her mission.

I’m not going to belabor that first consequence.  The Isaiah passage I quoted illustrates how this happens and actually creates a lot of distance between us and the biblical text.  The good news Isaiah proclaims is not, “Hey, I know you’re exiled and under Babylon’s power right now, but if you accept Jesus, you’ll go to Heaven when you die,” and if you read the passage in that way, not only do you miss what Isaiah was trying to communicate to those faithful saints under persecution, you also potentially miss what comfort that passage might offer you, which is that God will not abandon His people to their circumstances no matter how dire those circumstances may appear in the world (or how long they may go on).

But the second consequence explains so much.  If it’s not about an individual’s conversion, then it has nothing to do with “the gospel.”  Under this way of thinking, the church should simply not be distracted with issues like poverty, disease, racial or gender inequities, psychological health, or corruption in the halls of power.

One of the chief obstacles to this, unfortunately, is Jesus himself, who seems reasonably interested in addressing these things as they appear in his circumstances.  In terms of air time, personal conversion certainly gets mentioned, but this is just one facet of Jesus’ ministry in which he embodies and enacts the holistic restoration of a people.  The kingdom of God isn’t simply about the afterlife but an entire, competing world system.  It is literally a new kosmos.

It is the rise of this kosmos with Jesus as the king that threatens the Temple power structure and the Roman Empire and why they want to snuff it out.  People’s afterlives are no threat to any power structure, ever, and one could argue that some power structures have effectively harnessed an interest in the afterlife to preserve the political status quo (not naming names).  But the incursion of a new concrete, historical, political reality into the here and now is quite the potential threat, especially as it mobilizes large groups of people.

But the popularity of the conversion/afterlife-centric version of the gospel is immense and John MacArthur is a product of it.  If you think of the gospel primarily in terms of converting to secure a good afterlife, then you’re going to consider things like social justice and reevaluating women’s roles to be at best secondary concerns, but more likely an actual danger that keeps the church from doing her “real work.”

How Did We Create John MacArthur: Tribalism

This is Part Two of a discussion of how forces in evangelicalism produced the influence that John MacArthur has.  You can read Part One hereHere’s Part Three.

Tribalism

Here, I’m thinking of tribalism in the sense of defining your “tribe” over and against other possible “tribes.”  It’s Us versus Them, so we need to be vigilant about who is Us and who is Them.

This may come as a surprise or a disappointment to some of my more progressive friends, but I actually think a certain degree or variety of tribalism can potentially be healthy for the church.

When God calls Abraham (or Abram initially – Genesis 12), He calls him out of the rest of the world.  He selects Abraham to be His specific representative and progenitor of a people in the world who are going to be different from their neighbors.

These people are going to be a priestly people – a new creation people – an advance guard of what God would reveal was His desire for the whole world in the midst of a world that was not very much like that.

This would be a people who had a special agreement with God: they would be His people, and He would be their God.  Their destinies in the world would be intertwined.  It was the family of Abraham’s job to live in faithful service to God, and in return, God would not only preserve them in the world, but increase their number until they filled it.

And what would the outcome of all this be?  That all the families in the world would be blessed through what God would do through Abraham’s family.  Their job was not to destroy the other families until only they remained or oppress the other families of the world or rule them with an iron fist or even think badly of them.  Their job was to be God’s people in the world with an eye toward blessing everyone.

So, you do have a tribe.  You have a people who are defined against the canvas of a broken world to be a community of light.  And what characterizes this community?  Love of God and love of neighbor.

It is this kind of tribalism that I think is beneficial.  It’s the kind that looks at the principles at work in the world to hate God and hate our neighbors (and hate ourselves) and, instead, decides to run off of different principles.  Pro-God and pro-human principles.  Love, justice, mercy, healing, fidelity, wisdom, joy, restoration, peace.

We are a people who is meant to embody a certain thing in the world for the benefit of the world, and in that sense, it is helpful to focus on what kind of people we ought to be in the world and trying consistently to help each other be that thing.  Oh, if we spent half the energy on blessing the nations that we spent on critiquing them.

It is perhaps this principle of tribalism Jesus articulated in Matthew 12:30, when he talked to the Pharisees accusing him of being in league with Satan about his mission to deliver Israel from the evil that oppressed them: “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.”  In other words, “Pharisees, you’re supposed to be helping in this project, and if you aren’t using your position to help get this done, then you’re just making the oppression worse.”

And this leads us into the kind of tribalism that is endemic to evangelicalism, and that is the desire to vilify Them and constantly make sure that anyone in the Us is “truly” Us and not secretly or partially Them, because Them are just the worst.

This principle is all over John MacArthur’s labors.  The man has spent so much time and money fighting against what he (and by extension all True Christians) is against that you sort of have to dig a little to find out what he’s for.

His “Strange Fire” conference was not about a biblical theology of the Holy Spirit; it was about how wrong Charismatics are.  His statement on social justice wasn’t about comprehensively defining the good news of Jesus Christ for the world, but rather about how people pursuing social justice are wrong to do so (the “greatest threat to the gospel” as he said at the time – sorry, Satan).  He hasn’t carefully combed exegetical, historical, and scientific data and arrived at the position that the Earth must be 6000 years old; he’s against non-literal readings of the Bible.  This latest “Truth Matters” fiasco wasn’t about bold, vibrant definitions of ministry that could change the world; it was about how wrong everyone was that thinks women should be able to participate – especially the women, themselves.

One wonders how many of MacArthur’s positions are not the product of careful thought, prayer, and searching the Scriptures and are more just the end result of opposing things he thinks are terrible.  He has to take those positions, because if he doesn’t, the Evil will get in.

This describes an awful lot of evangelicalism.

Because the way we tend to see the world is that we are beacons of light surrounded by a night that is dark and full of terrors.  But worse than that, the ally at your side could, at any time, become seduced by that darkness and stab you in the back.  Every friend is a potential foe waiting to happen.

We all know this trope; it happens in every zombie movie, right?  You have the rag tag band of warriors fighting off the zombie hordes and, inevitably, someone gets bit.  And then it’s just a matter of time before the zombie plague is now inside the perimeter, destroying mankind’s last hope for salvation.

And this is why evangelicalism is not only at war with the world (and we might discuss whether or not that’s the best disposition to have toward the world) but at war with itself.  Have the wrong belief, and you’re out.  Show tolerance for the wrong group of people, and you’re out.  Vote for the wrong candidate, and you’re out.  Claim that something we think is a sin isn’t so black and white, and you’re out.  Any of that reeks of the little compromises that will turn you into a zombie that will kill us all.  Or, you know, at least turn you into someone who might write a book about it.

We are like this, and when we are like this, the people who are our heroes are the people walking among us, culling out the diseased so the rest will be safe.  They are the ones ferreting out the double agents and the heretics and the weak-minded who, if allowed to live inside the compound with the rest of us, will end up with the whole camp slaughtered by the evil outsiders.

John MacArthur incarnates this.  He has defined his ministry by it, and that’s why people love him.

How Did We Create John MacArthur: Conflating the Bible with My Reading

This is Part One of a series.  Here’s a link to Part Two. Here’s Part Three.

I realize the whole John MacArthur rage has died down a little and John Crist is the big thing, currently, but I don’t have a lot to say about John Crist since I only found out who he was last night.  I watched a compilation of “The Best of John Crist” last night, and if that’s the best, I’m not real impressed.  I think more of the jokes would land if you’re white, conservative, and marginally racist.

On the other hand, I sure wish evangelicals held their Presidents to the same standards as their comedians.

Anyway, a couple of weeks ago, I talked about John MacArthur and how nobody really needs to care what this guy says about anything.  He has a collection of deeply flawed positions and bullies people with them.

But that got me thinking: how is it that such an obviously ridiculous person ends up being a hero and a leader for so many in evangelicalism?  Granted, there are a decent chunk of evangelicals who think that guy should take a long walk, but his influence in evangelicalism as a whole is disproportionately large.

How does this happen?  How did we create a man like this and make him an icon?

There are many things that have occurred to me as I’ve pondered that issue, but I’m just going to pick three, lest this turn into an epic saga.  My three are: conflation of the Bible with my reading, tribalism and an anemic gospel.

Conflation of the Bible with My Reading

“A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.”

Why do you hate God’s word? Why must you twist the acts of the faithful women mentioned in scripture into something they are not?

That was a quote from a comment thread discussing an article arguing that there were women leaders in the early churchScot McKnight wrote the article in question, and if you have any familiarity with Scot McKnight, you know he’s hardly a bastion of theological liberalism and most certainly does not hate the Bible.

This may seem like an extreme example, but I assure you this kind of thing is a very common feature of evangelical discourse.  It may not be stated as overtly as the quote I used, but the sentiment is very present: if you disagree with me, you disagree with the Bible, ergo God Himself.

No evangelical would claim that they are God’s direct mouthpiece or that they have been gifted with infallibility.  Many evangelicals functionally operate this way, however, because they do not make a distinction between the content of the Bible and their understanding of that content.  The Bible, to such people, is crystal clear on various matters that comprise evangelical theology, so to disagree with an evangelical theological position is functionally the same as saying that you don’t care what the Bible says.

Take the quote above, for example.  This person has a passage of Scripture in mind that they believe is crystal clear and authoritative and no other thinking needs to be done.  It says what it says, that’s the end of the discussion (“Period,” some might add).  It’s impossible that someone else might also consider that passage authoritative but come to a different conclusion, perhaps in light of other Scriptures, historical context, genre, copyist notes about source text, etc.

When you cannot make a distinction between your understanding of the Bible and the Bible, itself, this by nature of the case makes an enemy and a rebel out of anyone who might understand the Bible differently than you do.  The only “logical” explanation for why someone might not agree with you is if they held the Bible in disregard or contempt.

Take another look at the quote, above.  The question isn’t, “Why don’t you understand this passage to be prohibiting women ministers,” the question is, “Why do you hate God’s word?”

In a similar vein, I once pointed out to someone that some of Paul’s advice to churches reflects a concern for scandal and survivability in a first century world, and someone asked if I was an atheist.  In their minds, because a scholarly concern led me to a different reading than their own, the only other possible option is that I must actually be an atheist trying to undermine the Christian faith.

Anyone who holds a different position is automatically caricatured as someone in open defiance of God who hates the Bible, even in cases where this is obviously ridiculous.  Scot McKnight does not hate the Bible.  I am not an atheist.  Yet, evangelicals (#NotAllEvangelicals) find themselves forced into ludicrous claims like this because that’s the only alternative they’ve allowed themselves.

In this way of seeing the world, your opponents are not thoughtful people.  They do not have the Spirit.  They do not love the Bible.  They are a group of people who have invented values that they prefer and do not care what the Bible has to say about them, because, in your mind, that’s the only other possible option.  The one option that is not possible is that the Bible actually means something different than how I understand it.

I believe what “the Bible teaches,” ergo, if you disagree with me, then you are directly flaunting Scripture, which means you are directly flaunting God Himself.  You can see how, if this is your thought pattern, any kind of discussion is virtually impossible, and the only way to handle disagreement is to treat it as rebellion and an incursion of the Enemy.

I blame modernism, although I will also say in the era of the Internet and sound bites and people being sharply divided on various issues, we seem to have lost the ability to believe we are right while also acknowledging that we might be wrong and making that a genuine possibility.

You can absolutely believe your position is completely correct and maintain it with passion while also acknowledging that you could be wrong (and mean it).  You can acknowledge that “the other side” has good points without having to surrender your position.  There have been plenty of times where I’ve had to acknowledge, “That’s a very good point, and I don’t really have any good response to that.  Overall, though, I’m still not convinced.”

This is one of the privileges of being an adult human being; you don’t actually have to justify your positions to anyone else’s satisfaction but your own.

But getting back to the issue, this dynamic of assuming that my position is the clear, biblical one, and therefore everyone who disagrees with me just doesn’t care what the Bible says is a major, major issue in evangelical discourse.

So, you can see how this dynamic leads us to a John MacArthur.  This is John MacArthur’s take on almost anything you might imagine.  Pentecostals are not Spirit-filled, Bible-believing folks who understand certain passages differently than you do; they are possessed by Satan.  Christians working for social justice are not Spirit-filled, Bible-believing folks who believe Jesus teaches us to address social evils; they are threats to the gospel.

In many ways, his words and life’s work, really, are the logical conclusion of a failure to differentiate between a reading of the Bible and the Bible, itself.

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.