MATTHEW 17:9-13
Pp Mark 9:9-13


As Jesus and the three disciples journey back down the mountainside to meet up with the rest of the disciples and the crowds which have gathered (or have continued waiting) in the valley (Mtw 17:14), the disciples’ minds seem to be perplexed at both the vision (Mtw 17:10) and the words which Jesus immediately speaks to them (Mark 9:9-10).

Their questioning of Jesus concerning Elijah is interesting not only because it seems to show that they seem to have either not heard or not heeded Jesus’ previous words in Mtw 11:13-14 but because there’s no question here as to why the same religious leaders said that Moses must first appear before the coming of the Messiah.

To the first point, however, I noted on a previous web page that the statement concerning Elijah was probably spoken to the crowds at the time when Jesus had just sent out the twelve into the cities where He was about to come (Mtw 10:5-6) so that we are probably doing them a great disservice by thinking that they’d either forgotten, not understood or refused to accept His previous statement.

They may well have heard the statement reported as having come from Him but, more likely, that they were in the dark as to Jesus’ association of John the Baptist with the Elijah of OT prophecy.

To the second point that there’s no question from the disciples as to why the leaders were saying that Moses had to first come before the Messiah was to appear, we saw on the previous web page that this was one of the beliefs of later Judaism and that it was put forward by some commentators as a solution to the problem of why the OT figures of Moses and Elijah appeared on the mountain.

One silence on the disciples’ part doesn’t prove that this belief in a returned Moses wasn’t believed, but it does go a long way to indicate that it wasn’t generally believed for their question should have been equally about the Lawgiver’s coming as it was about the prophet’s, seeing as they hadn’t literally witnessed either of the two characters in Israel before Jesus’ appearance.

Mark 9:9-13 is the only parallel passage here, where Luke skips the discussion as they descend the mountainside and moves straight on to the crowds which greet His arrival. The main variation between the two passages is the order of some of the statements by Jesus and also the two additions of material, one of which occurs in Mark 9:10 where the author records that the disciples kept the matter to themselves and puzzled over the meaning of the phrase ‘rising from the dead’ (a statement which has already been spoken to them previously in Mtw 16:21 where Peter’s reaction is about Jesus’ suffering and death rather than anything to do with a subsequent raising from the dead), and the other which occurs in Mtw 17:13 where the disciples are recorded as perceiving that Jesus had been speaking to them of John the Baptist and of him being the fulfilment of the coming of Elijah before Messiah.

I shan’t deal with the subject of Elijah being John the Baptist here in any great detail. Those who wish to read about this association should access my previous notes where the first declaration that the prophetic promise refers to the NT character is made.

We should note that, even though the event of the transfiguration has ended in which the disciples heard the three figures discussing Jesus’ imminent death in Jerusalem (Luke 9:31), the thought of this is still injected into the conversation, firstly with a reference to the rising from the dead (Mtw 17:9) and, secondly, with a deliberate parallel of John the Baptist with the coming suffering (Mtw 17:12).

The crucifixion, in this short time period, has started to become a central part of Jesus’ thoughts, one which He is embracing fully and instructing His disciples as to its necessity and importance in fulfilling the work to which He’s been called and set apart.

The disciples, it would appear, are still unconvinced for they can’t comprehend the rising from the dead (Mark 9:10) and make the connection of John the Baptist with Elijah but seem to bypass the statement about Jesus’ similar suffering at the scribes’ hands (Mtw 17:13).


The question which perplexed the Jews of Jesus’ day regarding Mal 3:1 and 4:5-6 was whether these two Scriptures were dealing with a literal Elijah who was expected to return to earth or to one who would be a type of Elijah who was to come before the Messiah to prepare the way before Him and to draw back the hearts of the nation towards God.

The Pharisees’ interpretation was to presume that the actual Elijah who had been translated into Heaven (II Kings 2:11) was the one who would return to earth and so be the forerunner of the Messiah. They had failed to understand the passage correctly that it was talking of a ‘type’, one who would precede the Messiah in the spirit and power of Elijah, one who would prepare the way for His coming - compare Luke 1:17 with Malachi 3:1, 4:5-6 where 1:17a=4:5, 1:17b=4:6 and 1:17d=3:1.

When the priests and levites asked their question in John 1:21, they had in mind the actual Elijah and it’s to this question that John the Baptist answers that he’s not the OT prophet, without detracting from himself being the typification of Malachi’s passage. Of course, if they’d asked him whether he was the fulfilment of that OT passage, they would have probably got a wholly different answer!

The ordinary people also seem to have thought of Elijah as needing to come back to earth literally for, in Mtw 16:14, this prophet is positively identified with Jesus. Admittedly, there are other characters here mentioned, but that the OT prophet was mentioned would surely indicate that his return was expected.

Jesus is able, firstly, to agree with the scribes’ interpretation that Elijah is to come first (Mtw 17:11) but shows their literal interpretation to be in error. He says that John the Baptist is the Elijah of prophecy (Mtw 11:14, 17:12-13, Mark 9:13) but that John is like the prophet in the sense that he moves in the same spirit and power as he did in his day (even though the outward manifestation in signs and wonders wasn’t present with John) and that, like Elijah in I Kings chapters 17-18, his ministry was to restore Israel.

The difficulty the disciples had in Mtw 17:10 was in their expectation of a return of Elijah before the Messiah came (who they believed to be Jesus - Mtw 16:16). But, to them, Elijah had not yet come (they were probably on their mission to Israel and away from Jesus when the first announcement had been made to the crowds - Mtw 11:13-15).

Theirs was not a question of doubt as to whether Jesus was the Christ but one of bewilderment as to how to reconcile their two beliefs. Realising that Mal 3:1,4:5-6 talks of a fulfilment in type, brings the sequence of the two figures into perfect harmony.

More can be made of Mtw 17:11 than should be. The RSV translates Jesus’ words here as

‘Elijah does come, and he is to restore all things’

which can be taken as indicating that Jesus thought of Elijah as needing still to come at some future time but that there was also a ‘first’ coming which He will go on to specify was fulfilled in John the Baptist. However, as Matmor points out

‘...the present tense is used to refer to something that is past; it brings out the continuing validity of the prophecy...’

and, Matfran, that the tense used (a present which is used as a prophetic future)

‘ that of scribal hope, not Jesus’ prediction of a still future coming of Elijah’

and all that Jesus is doing here is to affirm the truth in the scribes’ assertions that Elijah must come first before the Messiah appears (Mtw 17:10). If we were to take this sentence as affirming the need for the literal Elijah to appear, we would rather expect Jesus to speak of ‘the messenger’ of Mal 3:1 rather than to name him as ‘Elijah’ which points the reader to Mal 4:5-6. Previously, Jesus has already equated John with Elijah (Mtw 11:14) where He’s said that the prophet

‘ Elijah who is to come’

and not

‘...Elijah who was to come’

even though his ministry is largely over now that he’s locked away in Machaerus and shortly to die (if, indeed, he wasn’t already dead at that time). The present can be seen to speak of the past, therefore, and Jesus’ words shouldn’t be taken to be indicating necessarily a future emergence of the literal Elijah before the return of the Lord Jesus Christ.

This whole concept of what should be taken as literal and what as figurative is difficult for the modern commentator seeing as sincerity when dealing with the text is of paramount importance if one isn’t to be accused of twisting the clear intention of the prophetic writers and of making the Scriptures fit our own eschatological timetable.

We should note that, if we were to have lived in Jesus’ day, we would probably have taken Malachi’s statements with equal literalism and expected an OT prophet to be translated back to earth from Heaven and to restore the nation back into a covenant relationship with God through a return to obedience to the Law - unless, of course, we were liberal in our interpretation of the Scriptures.

It was only when the figurative arrived that the literal could be seen to be a false interpretation but there was no way of knowing at that particular time that this was what had been intended by the original prophecy.

So, when we come to passages even in the NT which speak of events which don’t appear to have yet taken place, how are we to know that what is being referred to is to be taken literally and not figuratively? And even more difficult is that, in this example, the OT passage couldn’t have been taken as it was written to mean anything other than something which was literal - it never said that someone in Elijah’s power would come or someone under a similar anointing but referred to the coming one as Elijah himself.

Perhaps because the literalism of Mal 4:5-6 is too much to reject or because Mtw 17:11 is taken to be a prediction of a future return of the OT prophet, the transfiguration commentary on the Ancient Sandals web site states that

‘Elijah may return in the future as the forerunner of Christ at His second coming (Rev 11:3) in fulfilment of Mal 1:5-6. At that time, he will “restore all things” on the basis of Christ’s redemption and in terms of the establishment of the Kingdom’

but, if we accept Jesus’ statements that the Scripture has been fulfilled in John the Baptist, the only possible inference left to us that Elijah might come is Rev 11:3-13 where the two witnesses’ power described for us here is partly similar to the OT prophet Elijah (Rev 11:6). However, they don’t restore the nation but condemn it and are murdered by the nations of the world before being caught up into Heaven, indicating that, if this is meant to be a literal return of Elijah, the fulfilment of Mal 4:5-6 seems hardly possible.

It’s best to take the prophecies concerning Elijah to have been wholly fulfilled in the Baptist, therefore, and to look for no future literal fulfilment in the period immediately before the return of Jesus to earth. That another figure may be raised up in Elijah’s power is quite possible but a literal coming again of the OT prophet appears to be founded on rather shaky ground seeing as the scribes’ literal interpretation of a passage which seemed to be only capable of a literal interpretation turned out to be figurative!

But what are we to make of other literal passages, interpretations of which have long since dogged the Church? For instance, Rev 13:16-18 which speaks of the mark of the beast as being the number 666. Leaving aside such Hollywood interpretations that make the verse out as saying that will be an imprint on the beast himself and the new one which surfaced a year or so ago that it was actually meant to be written the opposite way round and so meant 999 - meaning 1999, the year that we were currently in and before the arrival of the year 2000 (which, incidentally isn’t the start of the new millennium - that takes place with Jan 1st 2001!) - leaving these aside, then, we should note that the number has been variously interpreted in our modern day by christians who vary widely in their assertions.

To some it was a number which would be printed on credit cards, to others, a simple code which would be tattooed on men and women to allow them to trade. To still others, it’s become a mechanical implant under the skin which declares one’s identity and, if you’ll excuse me a touch of madness, it could even be taken to be a conspiracy organised by the taxi drivers of Jerusalem.


You see, when I was in Israel in 1986, I noticed that all the taxicabs in the city of Jerusalem bore the number 666 on their license plate - perhaps the result of some bright spark in the vehicle licensing centre who had a sense of humour? Having been driven in one, I can vouch for their close affiliation with demonic driving - at least, it doesn’t appear to be of God.

All these interpretations rely on a literal interpretation of the facts and make no attempt at an interpretation which is, as the word ‘revelation’ implies, a ‘behind the scenes look’ at what is about to transpire on earth (Rev 1:1). If such a book is written and stated as being a look ‘back stage’ and, from Rev 4:1, can be seen to be written from heaven’s perspective, why should we take it as a record of literal events? Why not figurative events? Or, at the very least, of events which take place on earth but as seen from Heaven?

The difference will be the same as between an audience who sit watching a play and who see a man fly onto the scene supported by a rope and a back stage hand who just sees a group of men pull on a rope connected to pulleys. We tend to interpret literal sounding Scriptures as if we’re the audience, rather than realise that it’s being written for us to read as someone back stage would witness.

I know I’m going off the subject here but, returning to the mark of the beast, the hands and forehead are best taken as being symbols which are defined by other Scriptures. The hand in the OT was a symbol used for what one did (Ps 7:3, 18:20, 18:24, 24:4, 26:6, 26:10). If a person is said to have ‘clean hands’ then it meant that they’ve done nothing wrong. To use the hand, therefore, is indicative of doing something whether it is inherently evil, good or neutral.

The forehead, on the other hand, was a symbol of what one thinks (Jer 3:3, Ezek 3:8, 3:9). In each of these three bracketed Scriptures, the symbol of the forehead conveys defiance and determination in a certain course of action (so not necessarily implying the thought processes). However, it implies a definite act of the will, a resolve to follow a course of action whether it be negative or positive.

By stretching the point just a little, it infers a mindset that is in active rebellion against the will of God, a mindset that cannot be persuaded to choose any other direction.

Very simply, then, the hand and forehead can be used figuratively to denote what one does and how one thinks (the latter implying a thought process that will not choose God’s way).

The reader might be wondering why I’ve included this interpretation here seeing as the passage under consideration has nothing whatsoever to do with the mark of the beast - perhaps the author is struggling to write anything substantial on the discussion that Jesus and the disciples had, you say (and with some justification, I hasten to add!).

But it illustrates a point which is equally true of the problem in first century Israel. By interpreting the passages in Malachi as being literal, the scribes missed the coming of the one promised and so did to John the Baptist whatever they pleased. Had they been looking for a figurative coming, they shouldn’t have been so quick to reject his ministry.

So, too, if we take the mark of the beast as being literal and expect our own interpretation of what that means to be fulfilled before our eyes, we may well miss the fulfilment and, even worse, be part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

What I mean is, if you’re willing to lay down your life so as not to receive a mark, you may well allow your mind to be conformed to thoughts of the world and to do those things which the world takes for granted as being a part of human life.

Not to receive a literal mark is easier to recognise and resist to the point of death than is rejecting thought processes and deeds which cause the individual to gain acceptance amongst their friends and acquaintances.

Therefore, literalism can be a grave danger to the believer for, in such interpretations, one can ultimately reject the true fulfilment of prophetic passages.