Jesus questions the crowds
Pp Luke 7:24-30
Greatest and Lowest
1. No one greater the John
2. No one lower than John
On the previous web page, we noted that John, locked up within the confines of the fortress Machaerus, had begun to doubt whether Jesus was, in fact, the One of whom he’d prophesied and announced to Israel. Jesus’ response is to show and confirm the messengers that the ministry He has from God is the one which will continue and that the idea of vengeance and judgment is far from the will of God at that time.
As the disciples of John are leaving the scene (Mtw 11:7), Jesus turns to the crowds who were present to affirm the relevancy and importance of the ministry of John the Baptist. Matmor suggests that
‘...the fact that John had sent this embassy, coupled with the way Jesus replied, might well have given some hearers the impression that John was in the wrong and that Jesus was in some way in opposition to His forerunner’
and this may well have been the case, for we can’t be certain that the question that was posed by the messengers was shared quietly between just themselves and Christ. Therefore, part of Jesus’ proclamation concerning John may be both in his defence and as a declaration of what Jesus considered him to be that the people might hear what was thought of the forerunner.
Mathag is correct in pointing out that
‘The question from John the Baptist by means of which he hopes to evaluate Jesus [and which doesn’t do very much to meet the answer head on - more rightly, it changes the relevancy of his original question] leads naturally to Jesus’ own evaluation of John’
and, throughout Mtw 11:7-15, we get Jesus’ own view of John’s importance, one which the crowds would probably never have imagined was as high as Jesus makes it out to be.
There are some things in this short discourse which the crowds would have found difficult to accept (such as Jesus’ equating Elijah with John and His insistence that John is to be regarded at the same time both as the greatest of those born and the least important) but Jesus nails His colours to the mast, so to speak, and fully justifies John’s ministry in opposition to the assessment made by the scribes and Pharisees (Luke 7:30).
Very simply, Jesus presents John as being the final prophet who stands as the transition between the Old Covenant and the New and, as such, is in a unique position like no one before or after him. That John could not have seen or experienced the New in all its fulness is not particularly relevant here, but the call of God upon His life was a symbol more like a track relay athlete who passes the baton on to the next athlete without necessarily breaking the tape at the end of the race.
John is a necessary part of bringing about what is to come, but he fails to experience the reality of the promise of God to Israel.
Jesus questions the crowds
Before we begin our discussion of these four verses, it seems best to note that the alternative translation of verses 7-9 hinted at in the RSV’s margin is best to take as being the intention of the words here, solely for the fact of making the passage run with a little more symmetry and poetry than comes across in the present translation. There is little or no alteration of meaning and the reader can follow these notes whichever arrangement of the words he chooses but, so that you may know that I’ve deliberately chosen an alternative translation than the RSV, you should be aware that I will be quoting the verses as
‘What did you go out into the wilderness to behold?
A reed shaken by the wind?
What then did you go out to see?
A man clothed in soft raiment? Behold, those who wear soft raiment are in kings’ houses.
What then did you go out to see?
A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet’
where each of the odd lines represent questions while the even ones represent an answer even if it be offered up in the form of another question.
So, Jesus’ questioning of the crowd begins by presenting them with reasons for their journeying into the wilderness of Judea previously to hear the message of John the Baptist (Mtw 3:1) and to be baptised by him, though the first two answers posed as additional questions (the even lines) would naturally be answered ‘no’ by the people present before the response to the third which necessarily demands an affirmative reply and which Jesus gives as such.
Notice here that, although there is an alternative in the way we can render the Greek, Jesus isn’t recorded as having asked the crowds who but what they went out to see. That is, Jesus is concentrating on what John stood for as a representative of God than of the actual person that he was. The people are questioned as to what they were expecting not concerning the person that they’d gone to listen to - as such, John becomes simply a channel through whom God was making an appeal to the nation of Israel rather than a person who was to be followed.
Firstly, then, had they gone out from their places of residence to look upon some naturally occurring spectacle? Obviously not. Though the wilderness was naturally both a desolate and a beautiful place, they hadn’t packed up their picnic baskets for a weeks’ trip to the banks of the Jordan river because they wanted to take Kodacolour snaps of the countryside.
Even the journeying into the wilderness must have represented a fair amount of hardship for many who made the trip - especially those who were currently listening to Jesus speak, most of whom would have probably been resident within Galilee or close to its borders. As the crow flies, the distance of their journey would be around sixty miles - mostly on foot - and would entail at least a time away from their residencies and livelihoods of a week, even if they just stopped over one night where John was.
The commitment of those who went out to hear John was not like our catching a train for a day out in one of our nation’s major cities - we’re looking at a determination from the men and women who travelled into Judea that had to have implied that they already saw in John something which was worth reaching out towards.
Matfran sees the possibility that the phrase ‘a reed shaken by the wind’ could refer to
‘a weak, pliable person’
which would be equally applicable here (Mathag sees it as indicative of ‘weakness and vacillation’). If this is the correct understanding, the crowds are seen as coming to him in their thousands not because he was some man who was a manipulated product of some religious impulses or teachings but that He spoke with authority and, as Matfran notes
‘It was John’s rugged independence which attracted a following’
Matmor also notes this possibility and accepts it as being the correct one. He sees that the reed
‘...blown here and there by a puff of wind is the most inconstant and unstable of things. This was obviously an impossible description of John, for the Baptist was not characterised by fickleness. He took a firm line in his preaching and his manner of life backed up his words’
This certainly is in keeping with what the crowds may have been thinking after they’d heard John’s doubts expressed through the sent messengers. After all, hadn’t John been the one who’d pointed to Jesus as the One to whom he’d come to bear witness? If John was now doubting his own testimony, that could give them warrant for believing John to be a man who changed belief as quickly as he could when situations weren’t going his way even though that wasn’t the person they’d come to realise he was. Mathen concludes the question by interpreting Jesus as teaching that
‘...it is wrong to condemn a person on the basis of one deviation from the straight course’
However, the former explanation seems to me to be the better one, especially as Jesus moves on from a naturally occurring phenomena to describe a king or ruler of the people. It would seem natural that, if the type of man is being described plainly in the second question, He would have done something similar in His previous rhetoric question.
One further possibility is that the reed spoken of here is an allusion to Herod Antipas (see the previous web page for a discussion concerning this king) and that the wind is an allusion to the moving of the Holy Spirit. The reason for the reed being indicative of the king is that, according to Mathag, a coin of that century pictures him holding a reed in his hand. This would tie in the description to the king in the next question and answer but the allusion seems to be just a little bit too strained to warrant acceptance.
Secondly, they knew when they first went out that what they’d find was no wealthy man draped in finery and gold adornments but a man who wore the simplest of clothes which were rough and uncompromising but which suited his lifestyle sufficiently well (Mtw 3:4).
He was distinct and separate from the rulers and their lifestyles but his words spoke with the authority of God which the earthly kings and rulers lacked.
There was no natural spectacle, therefore, that had prompted the nation to come out to witness what was transpiring there. Rather, their hearts felt that what was taking place was something that God Himself had begun and was doing for they regarded John the Baptist as a prophet - that is, one who was speaking with the voice of God to the nation of Israel. Matmor rightly describes this as a ‘strong motivation’ and that this was what was necessary to drive the people into the wilderness where hardship would be experienced.
As such, all who had gone out to hear him speak and to do as he was instructing them had shown that they had correctly perceived that God was on the move once more in the nation and that John was the chosen channel through whom He was making His will known.
Therefore Luke 7:29-30 records the response of the crowds (the ‘people and the tax collectors’) positively as they heard Jesus speak
‘...having been baptized with the baptism of John; but the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected the purpose of God for themselves, not having been baptized by him’
John, then, was a prophet - a correct evaluation by the multitudes who went out to him - but, as Jesus notes, he was more than just a prophet (Mtw 11:9). For a great many years, the nation had never heard or seen a prophet and, even though many of the Israelites may have come to him out of curiosity, Jesus needs to emphasise that John should be regarded as being more than what they’d considered him to be.
Jesus will go on from Mtw 11:11 to outline the uniqueness of the Baptist and we’ll deal with this in the next section, but Jesus speaks in Mtw 11:10 of John as being the messenger, a fulfilment of a prophetic promise given to the nation concerning the coming of their God into their midst through the interpreted agency of Messiah. Therefore, he must naturally be thought of as more than a prophet - his coming has been anticipated by God and the nation is living in a time when the promises of God are being fulfilled in their midst.
Accepting the ministry of John naturally prepared the people for the message and ministry of Christ, just as Jesus goes on to state by paraphrasing Malachi 3:1 which appears in the original passage in the OT as
‘Behold, I send My messenger to prepare the way before Me...’
where the ‘Me’ represents God Himself. Jesus, however, alters the wording to make it read
‘Behold, I send My messenger before thy face, who shall prepare thy way before thee’
and so, perhaps deliberately, equates His own ministry with none other than God Himself. Mattask sees the alteration as being done
‘...so that the passage becomes an announcement made by God to the Messiah’
but, if the multitudes present had known the original Scripture, they couldn’t have missed the seemingly deliberate changing of the verse which equated Jesus with God Himself. Edersheim notes that Malachi 3:1 was applied to Elijah as the forerunner of the Messiah in a Rabbinic writing and, if this is correct, the Messiah could be expected to be none other than God Himself (Matmor also cites the Midrash Rabbah on Exodus to show how the Scripture was applied to Messiah and He appears to be equated as being a personification of YHWH).
Significantly, Mal 3:1 introduces the messenger in the context of the God of Israel coming to His people in judgment (Mal 3:2ff) just as John the Baptist had seen. John’s prophetic declaration to the nation, therefore, was in perfect unity with His prophesied role even though the call to repentance must necessarily go out first.
Greatest and Lowest
We have previously looked in the Introduction to this web page at John the Baptist and noted there that he stood as the transition between the Old Covenant with Israel and the New, established through the cross, resurrection and ascension of Christ. In the previous section also, we noticed Jesus’ words applied to John as being ‘more than a prophet’ - although the prophetic word quoted by Jesus points towards the reasons for such a statement, it isn’t until we reach this verse, Mtw 11:11, that we get two summations of John the Baptist which need explanation.
Here, Jesus says that
‘...among those born of women there has risen no one greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he’
where John is thought of as being at the same time both great and inferior in different contexts which Jesus doesn’t go on to explain at that time. These two aspects of John, however, need to be explained carefully that we might understand John’s unique position as a transitionary figure who stands, as Mathag
‘...between two separate orders’
1. No one greater the John
Jesus states here that
‘...among those born of women there has risen no one greater than John the Baptist...’
but we may, at first, find ourselves just a little perplexed as to the reasons why John should be spoken of in this way. When I was a young christian, I was told that the reason for such a statement by Jesus was rooted in the ‘fact’ that John had been filled with the Holy Spirit from the time of his presence in his mother’s womb (Luke 1:15) and as a consequence he’d committed no sin throughout his time on earth, pleasing God in everything in which he took part.
But why, then, should John be regarded as being in anyway inferior to Jesus if both were without sin (John 8:46)? The explanation came by an appeal to man’s fallen ‘nature’ which was still present within John because it was inherited from the first man, Adam, and which had been passed down the successive generations to all men.
Therefore, John was seen as both sinless and a sinner but it did, for the time being, account for the problem of Jesus’ declaration to the crowds who were listening. The theology does raise more questions than it seeks to answer, however!
After all, if John is seen to be sinless from his mother’s womb because of the infilling of the Holy Spirit, that would infer that all believers must be sinless too who receive the Holy Spirit as part and parcel of the New Covenant.
But, no - the argument can be offered - we sin because we choose of our own freewill to go against the leadings and guidings of the Holy Spirit in and through us. So, why didn’t John choose to go out on his own and ‘do his own thing’ on occasions (you can see that I was a very problematical young christian, can’t you?)? Well, he just didn’t - that’s why he’s considered to be the greatest of all men who had ever been born of women upto that time.
I find it hard today to accept that I actually believed such a position way back then, but I did - fortunately, I came to a point in my life where I was challenged by a speaker to accept the Bible the way it was and allow it to speak for itself rather than to conform it to what my own belief structure was - and it revolutionised the way I began to understand what Jesus said and what God wanted to say through the Scriptures.
Not that it all became very ‘mystical’ and that the interpretation was only available to a few ‘on the inside’ but that it became more obvious and plain so that everyone should be able to understand it! I can’t remember when I threw away the above theology about John’s sinlessness - perhaps it was just forgotten - but I know that it’s a distant memory that I’d rather never have happened.
Certainly, there may be truth in the fact that John was filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother’s womb and that this could have been one reason why Jesus considered him to be the greatest of those previously born, but to insist that the Baptist was sinless is going one step beyond what we know and is provable from Scripture.
Rather, then, John’s greatness should be seen in terms of both his calling and position and the word ‘risen’ which is used by Jesus here naturally causes us to think not of natural gifts and talents but of someone who has been ‘raised up’ by God Himself into a unique position to stand between God and mankind. Matfran is right to comment that his greatness should be thought of in terms of
‘...his place in God’s purpose, not necessarily in his personal worth’
John was the Divine herald in a way that no one else dared have claimed the title. While it’s true that the prophets spoke of the days of the Messiah and of what was going to transpire, they were never able to witness the beginnings of the fulfilment of those promises, having to consign their prophetic utterances to parchment for a yet future generation to read and think upon.
Neither were their ministries prophesied before they came in any way similar (if at all) to John. For of which prophet was it said (Mal 3:1)
‘...I send My messenger to prepare the way before Me...’
or (Is 40:3)
‘A voice cries in the wilderness “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God”’
Therefore John becomes not just a herald of something which was to happen as the former prophets had been, but the herald of what was shortly to begin to happen before he died. He’s the one who sees the fulfilment about to take place rather than to just speak of it not knowing the time of its happening. And he’s the one who especially comes to God’s people Israel to make them ready for the Person promised for many centuries, the Messiah, who is none other than God Himself (Luke 1:16-17, Mtw 11:10 and compare Mtw 11:14 with Mal 4:5).
John, therefore, sits as the conclusion to the OT line of prophets, the concluding messenger of God who announces to Israel that everything which they had longed for was about to become a reality.
2. No one lower than John
Although Jesus has just proclaimed John as being the greatest of those previously born amongst mankind, He now goes on to comment that
‘...he who is least in the Kingdom of heaven is greater than he’
John immediately falls from his important position as being the greatest of those born to the least compared to those who are now striving to enter into the Kingdom of heaven. John, although he was the Divine herald of the Messiah, the one who saw the imminent fulfilment of the line of promise, belonged to the prophetic hope of a coming Kingdom and not to its reality. As Luke 16:16 states in words which are similar to Mtw 11:13
‘The law and the prophets were until John; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is preached...’
That is, the Old Covenant found its conclusion in the person of John the Baptist. After him, God’s relationship with His people is solely on the basis of the New Covenant in Christ, a relationship which becomes individual rather than national, where believers are brought together in Christ to form a nation rather than called as a nation made up of individuals who may or may not respond to the movings and will of God.
In that sense, John is just a part of the old - the most important part of all it’s true but still, necessarily, just a part of that covenant which is to pass away and through which God had dealt with His people.
But those who are in the Kingdom are experiencing the reality of the Kingdom come now (Mtw 13:16-17 - the full outworking of the Kingdom could only have been realised on the Day of Pentecost, however), tasting the reality of the promise which John and those like him could acknowledge as coming. While John could look in anticipation to what was to be, it was up to the ‘men of violence’ to eagerly take possession of it and to become a part of the prophetic fulfilment (Mtw 11:12, Luke 16:16). Therefore, John is the most privileged of those who have come in the Old but even the least in the new Kingdom is greater, for they have at their disposal the fulfilment of the great promises made through those who couldn’t taste them.
Hebrews 11:39-40 comments on this dichotomy between the old and the new when the writer states that
‘...all [the Old Testament faithful], though well attested by their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had foreseen something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect [or “made complete”]’
Apart from the new, the old is lacking a fulfilment but, because the new has come, the old is completed and brought to a fitting conclusion. As Mattask concludes
‘...because John could never enjoy the benefits of that Kingdom, for he was destined to die a martyr before the greatest of those benefits had been secured, he must be pronounced less blessed than the humblest of that eager throng who, in their desperate need, were violently striving to be the recipients of what Jesus had to bestow’
and Allen, quoted in Matmor, summarises the point well by stating that
‘The thought is that it is better to enter the Kingdom than to herald its coming’
John the Baptist, therefore is at the same time the greatest amongst all those who had preceded him with regard to his place in God’s plan, but also the least compared to any person who’s ‘in the Kingdom’ because John would never experience the fulness of what Jesus had come to bring.
There’s an immediate problem with this verse in its translation and different commentators come up with the most justifiable of reasons why their translation/interpretation is the correct one. Needlesstosay, judging by the various versions, it would appear that more than one Truth can be extracted from the verse in question!
Mattask understands the first use of the word for ‘violence’ (Strongs Greek number 971) as being possibly a different tense to that which is normally employed and appears to accept the RSV’s marginal alternative rendering (though, at the end of his discussion, he states that he’s opted for the original rendering of the verse in his commentary without giving the reader a definite opinion on the matter), reading the first clause as
‘From the days of John the Baptist until now, the Kingdom of heaven has been coming violently...’
He also parallels the verse with Luke 16:16 where a similar phrase on the lips of Jesus (though spoken at a different time and context) exists which states that
‘The law and the prophets were until John; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is preached...’
before going on to mirror the last phrase of Matthew’s verse almost identically. In that way, the two phrases are accepted as being synonymous and the advance of the Kingdom of heaven ‘with violence’ is taken to be demonstrated in the manifestation of its power through the healings and deliverances which have been brought to bear in people’s lives, the thought being of an advancing army which pushes back the forces of the enemy which are rebelling against the king’s rule.
Matfran, however, disagrees with this interpretation and insists that, because the phrase ‘men of violence’ in the last phrase of the verse can only ever be taken in a negative sense ( I have since found a commentary who points out that the phrase occurs only in three other places so that this assertion is far from conclusive by the sparsity of the usage), to take the first phrase as Mattask does in a good sense would be extremely unlikely.
Therefore, he rejects the RSV’s marginal reading and accepts the original which speaks of the violence which the Kingdom of heaven has suffered at the hands of violent men ever since the days of its first preaching to mankind from John the Baptist through to Jesus. There is a direct reference, therefore, with the fate which shortly awaits John the Baptist in the fortress of Machaerus (Mtw 14:1ff) and the opposition which steadily grows throughout the next two chapters (Mtw 11:1-12:50).
So, Matfran summarises the verse as teaching that
‘...while John was the last of the old order, his fate was the foretaste of the conflicts which are already beginning to affect the new order. Here again God’s Kingdom is clearly seen as already present, as a force sufficiently dynamic to provoke violent reaction’
Kittels is also of the opinion that this is the best interpretation and that Mattask’s suggestion of an interpretation
‘...does not go well with the second part of the verse...which seems to be interpreting the first half...Jesus is referring to contentious opponents who attack or hamper the kingdom and snatch it away from others...’
However, just when you thought that the solution was beginning to come into sharp focus, Kittels looks at Luke 16:16 where it’s written that
‘...everyone enters it violently’
and states that the interpretation which is accepted for Mtw 11:12
‘...does not fit the context very well...’
opting for an interpretation of Luke 16:16 which is Mattask’s of Mtw 11:12!! Therefore, to Kittels, Luke 16:16 speaks openly of
‘...the missionary impulse in Luke and the impression of an ardent and jostling response to the new message’
There’s no doubt that this fits the context of the Lukan passage in the best possible manner but it does cut across France’s assertion that the word group can’t be used in a positive light and gives us no firm foundation upon which to interpret the similar phrase in Matthew’s Gospel.
There’s also the possibility that people such as the later political movement called the zealots are in mind here and that the thought is that men are trying to bring the Kingdom about by violent means, viewing it as little more than a political movement which can be used as a means towards an end. While this is certainly possible, it remains rather perplexing as to why Jesus would suddenly shift from the subject of John the Baptist and the new Kingdom to a situation which finds no direct parallel in any verses either above or below. It’s best, therefore, to take either of the first two interpretations as being the correct understanding of the verse rather than this.
The only problem I can see with interpreting the first phrase as indicating that the Kingdom of God suffers violence whenever it’s made known and demonstrated, is that the second phrase translated by the RSV as
‘...men of violence take it by force’
seems difficult to understand as a consequent teaching which logically follows on. Mathag’s rendering of the phrase as
‘...and violent people plunder it’
makes even less sense and the author doesn’t go on to expound the translation very eloquently so one wonders just how men who are opposed to the Kingdom of God’s establishing can plunder the goods of the Kingdom when they’re given freely to all.
However, the verb translated ‘take...by force’ in the RSV’s rendering (Strongs Greek number 726) is interpreted by Kittels (see also the previous quote from this source above) in the Matthean context as possibly inferring
‘...that the Kingdom is taken away and closed’
That is, that, just as the Kingdom suffers violence at the hands of men and women, so too those men attempt to close its message from the realisation of others who would gladly accept it. Therefore, there’s a sense in which mankind has the power to negate the establishing of the Kingdom in areas by the violence which is directed towards its manifestation.
Of course, even though the Kingdom may be opposed, it can’t be ‘closed’ in the lives of those who have positively responded to it unless, individually, they reject the message that’s brought - which they could do when encouraged to give it up through the persecution and tribulation of violent men who oppose its establishment.
Therefore, perhaps the best interpretation because of the context of John the Baptist being in prison is that which takes ‘violence’ to be interpreted in a wholly negative way as directed against the establishing of the Kingdom of heaven. Nevertheless, the paraphrase, as Mathen, which renders the words as
‘The Kingdom is pressing forward vigorously and vigorous men are eagerly taking possession of it’
is equally possible and makes good sense. The only trouble with this, however, is that the context of the surrounding verses seems to pull away from it being the correct interpretation.
As to the explanation, we seem to have covered most of what the verse means in our discussion of the correct translation! Because of the experience of John the Baptist, Jesus’ words are particularly relevant for John, the herald of the good things which were to come in Christ, who is arrested and imprisoned because of his message of repentance which was directed against Herod Antipas and Herodias (Mtw 14:3-4). If the forerunner, therefore, was to be persecuted, how much more would be the open manifestation of the Kingdom of God now made known to Israel in and through Jesus.
Moreover, that violent men would stop short of nothing to close the Kingdom against others who might turn to the Father for healing and forgiveness - which the opposers themselves had rejected - is also an inference of John’s arrest, for the message of repentance which had been drawing Israel into the wilderness had now ceased (Mtw 3:1-2,5), stopped by the forceful action of the king.
The NT believer should note carefully that, although the Kingdom will advance through society and that, in a very real sense, God will be Sovereign in getting the proclamation of the Kingdom message out into all the earth regardless of what comes against both it and its messengers, it can still be opposed violently and the open door which God holds out to all men can be firmly shut.
There is a serious call, therefore, for the disciple who carries the message to the nations of the world to operate with wisdom (Mtw 10:16).
Little needs to be said about the first verse of these three where Jesus states that
‘...all the prophets and the law prophesied until John’
as I’ve already summated the reason for such a statement under the section above entitled ‘No one lower than John’.
Simply, John the Baptist is seen as being the final word of the Old Covenant and, now that Jesus has come, what the law and the prophets speak to men and women of has come as a reality rather than to be only viewed as a shadow and illustration of what God was intending to do.
Jesus had certainly not come to abolish either the Law of Moses or the statements of the prophets (Mtw 5:17) but their importance was now in the fact that they were about to be fulfilled. John, therefore, is the last one who looked forward to the days of promise (albeit to very imminent days) and so stood as the conclusion of the Old.
Jesus says plainly in Mtw 11:13 that John the Baptist
‘...is Elijah who is to come’
a saying which has caused a lot of different beliefs to spring up, not least because the way Jesus speaks gives the reader the impression that we’re looking at the re-emergence of the OT prophet Elijah into Israelite society.
Surprisingly, perhaps, the OT is incredibly quiet about what God’s plans are in any future day concerning Elijah the prophet but the idea that the actual person would return to Israel before the Day of Messiah comes from two OT Scriptures.
Firstly, the record of the prophet’s translation into heaven itself is found for us in II Kings 2:1-12, an incident only paralleled in the OT by Enoch in Gen 5:24 where we read that
‘Enoch walked with God; and he was not, for God took him’
Both Enoch and Elijah, therefore, are the only two characters which we can say with certainty never tasted death but were changed while they lived to appear before the Lord in heaven, swapping an earthly life for a heavenly one. Therefore (Heb 9:27)
‘...just as it is appointed for men to die once, and after that comes judgment...’
so they could have been (and were) considered to be two individuals who could be made to return to earth to bear witness for God and to be heavenly messengers of the divine message. Although Enoch disappears quickly from sight in this respect, Elijah is brought to the fore through Mal 4:5 which states plainly that God
‘...will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes’
and the Jews naturally took this literally in the sense that the actual OT character was to descend to earth and continue the ministry where he left off. Jesus identifies John the Baptist with this character, not only by quoting Mal 3:1 a few verses before (Mtw 11:10) which appears closely to the mention of Elijah within the same OT prophetic book, but by making the positive identification in Mtw 11:14 when He announces to the crowd that John
‘...is Elijah who is to come’
repeated in Mtw 17:10-13 when asked a question by the disciples (causing us to infer that this incident took place while the twelve were travelling through the cities and villages of Israel in connection with the commission previously given them - Mtw 10:5. Although the disciples were incredibly slow at times, one would have expected them to have remembered His previous words concerning the Baptist).
However, it seems best to understand the announcement in Malachi of Elijah’s return as using the name of the prophet as a type of the one who was to come, who would call Israel back to a pure relationship with God as he’d done in I Kings 17:1-18:46. The reason for the use of the name, therefore, naturally indicates the type of ministry which he was to perform rather than being a statement that the actual person would return. So Luke 1:17, spoken to Zechariah in the Temple before his wife, Elizabeth, was to conceive John, speaks of the child as going before the Messiah
‘...in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared’
This demonstrates that John’s similarity to Elijah is in terms of both his anointing and ministry. John also denied that he was Elijah in John 1:21, an indication that the intent of the priests and Levites’ question (John 1:19) was that of a literal return of the prophet to Israel. John was under no illusion that he had come in Elijah’s power and with his ministry but, equally, that he wasn’t the actual OT prophet. Matmor points out that his denial before the religious leaders
‘...may mean that he did not know that he was the fulfilment of the prophecy’
and, though this is possible, it remains unlikely for he was fully aware of how he was fulfilling other prophetic Scripture (John 1:23) which was also tied up with a return of Elijah as the messenger par excellence.
There is, perhaps, an element of the mysterious deliberately injected into the narrative by the writer of Mark in 1:4 (my italics) when he writes that
‘John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness...’
being almost the next consequential sentence which could have been inserted after the incident of II Kings chapter 2 in which Elijah disappeared close to the Judean wilderness, on the far side of the Jordan from where John began to perform his ministry. Luke makes it plain, however, that John was born rather than descended from heaven (Luke 1:1-25,57-80).
There are a couple of other references to Elijah which we would do well to clear up here before moving on. In Matthew 17:3 where the transfiguration takes place, the record shows that
‘...there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with Him’
where the two characters are normally taken to be indicative of the Law and the prophets of the OT and, in Rev 11:3-4, John records an incident when God (in Jerusalem - Rev 11:8) will
‘...”grant My two witnesses power to prophesy for one thousand two hundred and sixty days, clothed in sackcloth”. These are the two olive trees and the two lampstands which stand before the Lord of the earth’
which, again, has prompted much speculation. Because two are mentioned here, they’re normally associated either as the re-emergence of Moses and Elijah - because Rev 11:6 comments that their ministry is that
‘They have power to shut the sky, that no rain may fall during the days of their prophesying, and they have power over the waters to turn them into blood, and to smite the earth with every plague, as often as they desire’
examples of the miracles and wonders which were demonstrated through them while on earth, or as Enoch and Elijah who, being the only two humans recorded as having been translated into heaven without tasting death, are seen to have to return to die - their ascent back into heaven (Rev 11:12) also being used to point towards the identification of the two characters.
The difficulty with this identification, however, is that we seem to be doing exactly the same as the interpreters of Mal 4:5 did by accepting a literal appearance of someone who was promised to reappear before the Lord God would return to the nation!
Concluding, Jesus’ announcement that John the Baptist is Elijah should be taken as a statement that John came with the same type of ministry to the nation of Israel rather than as teaching that he was none other than a reincarnation of the prophet himself (a difficult enough theology to suppose from other Scriptures!).
This identification will be a difficult statement for all those present to accept, so Jesus prefixes the statement by appealing to the crowds that it will be accepted only by those who are ‘willing’. Matmor comments that
‘...it always takes an effort of will to accept something radically new, such as the place of Jesus in the divine economy’
and such is the teaching which is being brought here. So difficult is the premise of Jesus delivered to the people that Jesus further concludes with an appeal in Mtw 11:15 that
‘He who has ears to hear, let him hear’
a simple declaration to the people to not be spiritually deaf but to fully accept the truth which is being brought to them. Jesus repeats it at least twice in this Gospel, though in a slightly different form (Mtw 13:9, 13:43), once as a conclusion to a parable which was not easily comprehensible and the other as the conclusion of an explanation of a parable which the disciples may have found difficulty accepting.
The only other usages of the phrase in the Gospels (though they raise their head again in the concluding words in each of the seven letters in the Book of Revelation to the churches of Asia Minor - chapters 2 and 3) are found in the parallel passages to the parable of the sower (Mark 4:9, Luke 8:8) and in another ‘hard saying’ which speaks about judgment (Luke 14:35). Matfran comments of this phrase that
‘This phrase is used by Jesus after sayings which require special insight...It is a call for more than superficial understanding, an invitation to explore the implications of what has been said’
Very simply, it’s an appeal to receive the words that are being spoken and not to become hard in the heart against the Truth which is being brought. After all, in the words of Mathag
‘John cannot be Elijah if Jesus is not the Messiah’
or, to turn that round to display the difficulty with which the crowds would accept Jesus’ statement that John is Elijah, if they accept the premise, they have to accept Jesus as the Messiah as a natural consequence.
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