Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Damage Control, and...Elijah Reincarnated? - Matthew 11:7-15

We Know Who John the Baptist Was...But Who Was He?
7 As these men were going away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John, "What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind?
8 "But what did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Those who wear soft clothing are in kings' palaces!
9 "But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and one who is more than a prophet.
10 "This is the one about whom it is written,
11 "Truly I say to you, among those born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptist! Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
12 "From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and violent men take it by force.
13 "For all the prophets and the Law prophesied until John.
14 "And if you are willing to accept it, John himself is Elijah who was to come.
15 " He who has ears to hear, let him hear."
I like to move chronologically in our verse-by-verse studies, but this conversation is quite intertwined, so I hope the way I have the passage outlined below makes sense to everyone. :-)
7 - Remember the context: John is in prison, and in a moment of weak faith, he sent his disciples to Jesus to ask if He really was the Messiah. Surely, the crowd swarming around Jesus overheard this conversation. Jesus takes the opportunity to 'defend John's honor,' reestablish His own identity as the Messiah (some in the crowd may have just begun to doubt, now that the John the Baptist even questioned it), and turn it into a teachable moment for everyone. Likewise, we also ought to be on the lookout for appropriate times to turn the conversation toward God. At the same, though, let's not force it and just make it awkward for everyone - any of you who follow John Acuff's blog Stuff Christians Like will know what I mean when I refer to this as a "Jesus juke." :-)
7-9,11-12 - I think Jesus's point here with the reed and soft clothing analogies is that John was not some delicate elitist like the Jewish religious leaders of the day - which is good for the crowd - it's someone they can relate to and who can relate to them. As we see in verse 13, this ties John to the prophets of old, but he also ushers in a new era - John is the climax of the pre-Messianic prophets. Jesus seems to be emphasizing that just because John is in suffering in prision, doesn't  mean they were mistaken about him being a prophet (and, if the people knew their history, they'd know that nearly all of the Biblical prophets' lives ended in immense suffering). Given that He has recently talked so much about the persecution His followers will face, this applies to more than just John the Baptist...it may well be in God's plan for you or Christians you know today to suffer for His kingdom, and if we or others are suffering, we should not automatically assume that God is mad at us or them.
11 - When Jesus said this, John the Baptist's glory - that of a famous, beloved prophet - was earthly. But I think the point Jesus is making here is that we shouldn't aim for popularity or honor here on earth, but instead should focus on God's heavenly kingdom. Life in heaven, even as the lowliest inhabitant, is better than being a superstar here on earth.
10,14 - In these verses, Jesus refers to the Messainic prophecies found in Malachi 3:1 and Malachi 4:5-6. Referencing these serves to reestablish both His and John's identities and reputations. But let's spend some time looking into verse 14, "And if you are willing to accept it, John himself is Elijah who was to come." Some people believe that John the Baptist was literally Elijah reincarnated. It's a complicated issue that the Bible gives us very little information about, so I don't argue too strongly about it, but I don't agree with this view for two reasons:
(1) The entirety of the prophecy in Malachi 4:5-6 says that the returned Elijah will bring restoration so God won't send any judgement. We know from the big picture of the New Testament that this will not be completely fulfilled until the very End of Days detailed in the book of Revelation. I think it is most likely that the literal returned Elijah will be one of the two messengers of Revelation 11. Why, then, would Jesus identify John the Baptist with this prophecy? Well, when you study Old Testament prophecies, you see that most of them applied to three time-frames: (1) the then-contemporary setting of those who the prophecy was spoken to, (2) the Messiah's coming, and (3) the End of Days/Messiah's second coming.
(2) Luke 1:17 says of John the Baptist, "It is he who will go as a forerunner before him in the spirit and power of Elijah..." Spirit and power is kind of like "in the name of" - it means acting like, through, or on behalf of. So, this makes it seem like John the Baptist is an Elijah, not the Elijah.
So, what's the takeaway from all of this? Things aren't always what they seem.
Talk to Me!
What similar "damage control" situations have you faced? Have you ever seen a perfect opportunity to shift the conversation toward God without making it awkward and forced?
Do you have a different take on the <John the Baptist possibly being Elijah> issue? Seriously, I'd love to talk about it - this is a place for us to learn from each other, not for me to spout my views.
Giving Credit Where It's Due
Image: St. John the Baptist by Titian. Wikimedia Commons. {{PD-1923}} Public domain in the United States. {{PD-old-100}} Public domain in countries with a copyright term of life of the author plus 100 years.

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