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Epiphany, January 6, 2019

“What Did You See?”

Matthew 11:7-15

The people of Israel were waiting for the appearance of Elijah who would announce the coming of the Messiah (Malachi 3:5).  Jesus here states that John the Baptist is Elijah.  What does he mean by this?  He is not saying that John is literally the incarnation of Elijah.  In fact Jesus even in his earthly ministry would see the actual Elijah, along with Moses, on the Mount of Transfiguration (Matt. 17:1-13).

There are parallels between Elijah and John.  They both wore leather belts.  They both challenged the king and queen of Israel because of their immorality and injustice.  Yet there are also some striking differences.  Elijah calls down fire from heaven not once but several times to destroy both the false gods and the king’s soldiers (I Kings 18:20-40; II Kings 1:9-12).

Those who were asking if John was in fact Elijah (which Jesus here says he is) would probably have liked to see fire come down from heaven on the Roman emperor who was regarded as a son of god as well as on Herod and his troops.  John, like Elijah, was a “troubler of Israel” (I Kings 18:17).

However John, unlike Elijah, was at this point a prisoner in a jail cell.  No fire came down from heaven to rescue him.  Elijah went to heaven on a chariot of fire.  John’s life ends on a tragic note as he is beheaded by Herod under the pressure of a vengeful queen.  King Ahab and Queen Jezebel were unable to defeat Elijah.  Yet the combination of King Herod and his queen, Herodias, proves deadly for John.

How then is John “the Elijah who is to come?”  This is another case where perceiving is different from seeing.  John is fulfilling the role of Elijah in announcing the coming Messiah.  Yet he is not doing this in the way most people expected.  For that matter Jesus does not fit the expectations that many people had of the Messiah.

Those who were expecting a literal Elijah or for that matter Jesus as a literal king as a “son of David” were more than a little disappointed.  Jesus here as elsewhere reminds us that we are to read the scriptures spiritually more than literally. This is the case with  those who are willing to accept John as Elijah.

Jesus and Jesus alone is the fulfilment of the Old Testament.  Indeed everything in all of scripture can only be interpreted through his life, death and resurrection.  Jesus does not conform to our expectations.  We need to be conformed to him (Rom. 12:1-2).

Faithful and gracious Lord may I seek to understand you better.  Keep me from false expectations based on my own understanding.  I pray this in Jesus’ name, Amen.