One of the striking aspects of the Gospel of Mark is that during the early part of Jesus’ ministry, nobody seemed to know what to make of Him: not just the religious leaders who opposed Him (Mark 2:7), but also His neighbors (Mark 6:1-3), His disciples (Mark 4:21), and even His own family! (Mark 3:21).
So, given that people had never experienced anything like Jesus before, it’s really not surprising that folks tried to identify Him with other notable figures of the past. It did make a certain creepy sense when King Herod, who had recently beheaded John the Baptist at the whim of his step-daughter, freaks out that this is John returned from the dead (Mark 6:16-29) – a guilty conscience will do that! But when Mark’s Gospel says that people were wondering whether Jesus wasn’t actually Elijah returned (Mark 6:15) doesn’t that seem a bit of a stretch? After all, Elijah had been gone for about 900 years! And given all the other prophets, why him?
On the other hand, Elijah, usually considered the second-greatest prophet of the Old Testament (Moses generally being given the top seed), could have been available for an encore appearance since he was taken directly to heaven without dying (2 Kings 2:1-12). In fact, Elijah does make a live appearance when he and Moses stand together with Jesus on the mount of transfiguration (Mark 9:2-11). But the question the disciples then ask on the way down the mountain indicates confusion: “Why do the teachers of the Law say that Elijah must come first?” Why did everyone have this expectation of Elijah’s return? And why did the sequence matter?
The clue can be found in God’s pronouncement in the very last verses of the very last book of the Old Testament:
“See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers; or I will come and strike the land with a curse” (Malachi 4:5)
Though over 400 years had elapsed, those words (marking the close of Jewish prophetic writings) established the expectation that Elijah would be coming back as the opening act for the promised Messiah by whom the kingdom of Israel was expected to be restored. The confusion of the three disciples who were with Jesus on the mountain is then understandable: seeing Jesus transfigured in His full majesty and hearing Him identified as God’s own Son had solidified their emerging recognition that He was the promised Messiah. But the chronology was confusing them: first came Jesus, then they saw Elijah. Wasn’t it supposed to be the other way around?
Jesus connects the dots for them: It was John the Baptist who was actually the promised Elijah figure (Mark 9:12-13, Matthew 11:7-15). Jesus didn’t mean that John was literally the reincarnation of Elijah, but rather that he came in the spirit of Elijah, as the angel had foretold when John’s conception had been announced to his father, Zechariah (Luke 1:11-17).
Thus, as so often is the case, we find that we fully grasp the depth of a New Testament account only when we understand it in the light of the Old Testament – it is one continuous narrative of God’s plan of salvation for His fallen creation, and we marvel at how all the threads converge in the person of Jesus the Christ (Messiah).
However, there is also a cautionary note in this example: an overly-literal reading of an Old Testament prophecy created an obstacle to recognizing its fulfillment. Those who were waiting for Elijah to physically return did not recognize in John the figure that would precede the Messiah, and thus Jesus too was misunderstood and rejected by many of those who were waiting for God to send their deliverer. God’s word is true and His promises are always fulfilled. However the power and sweep of His vision for His Kingdom so vastly exceeds our puny perspective that we may miss the point of what we see Him doing in the world. To perceive God’s hand, we watch and wait with confidence, faith – and humility