This comes from the incident in the gospels immediately after the transfiguration.
In Matthew 17v9 and Mark 9v9, Jesus tells his disciples:
“Don’t tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”Following this, in both accounts, the disciples ask the following question:
“Why then do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?”This strikes me as a very odd question, in context. It doesn't appear to follow from what has gone before. It could be that the disciples are thinking "We've just seen Elijah. He's supposed to come before the Day of the Lord. Therefore, the Day of the Lord is coming. Should we not tell people about this?" but that is perhaps stretching the written story too far.
Its interesting that Luke, in his telling of the transfiguration story (chapter 9), completely omits this discussion. In his telling, the disciples simply do not tell anyone about the transfiguration, even though Jesus never prohibits this, and the disciples do not discuss Elijah further.
I guess the disciples are thinking about the last two verses of the Old Testament (Malachi 4v5&6) which read:
“See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the LORD comes. He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction.”In Matthew & Mark, Jesus's answer to their question also raises a few issues, he says:
“To be sure, Elijah comes and will restore all things. But I tell you, Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but have done to him everything they wished. In the same way the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands.”Then Matthew goes on to say that the disciples then understood that Jesus was talking to them about John the Baptist, but Mark's version of the story does not.
So what's going on here? Was John the Baptist, in any way, Elijah?
- Matthew says Yes
- Mark implies Yes
- Luke says nothing
- John says No
- Reincarnation? Seems a bit unbiblical... but what other options are available?
Going by what is recorded in the gospels, no. John preached a message of repentance, which is about 'turning hearts' - but this was about people turning back to God, and was nothing to do with child-parent relationships. I might be inclined to read into this story something of the God as Father and us as his children reasoning, were it not for the fact that Malachi's 'parents' are emphatically plural, and something Elijah was going to do involved the parents having a turn of heart. Elijah wasn't about to turn the heart of God, was he?
But what did John the Baptist achieve? A handful of people repented and turned back to the Lord. Hardly restoring 'all things'. OK, so John baptised Jesus, but that raises more issues than it solves, and that also isn't restoring all things.
For now, the only conclusion I can come to here is that the whole thing is a mess. There is no consensus amongst the writers of the gospels as to whether or not John was Elijah or what John achieved if he was.
But the words attributed (by Matthew & Mark) to Jesus are interesting. How can anyone reconcile "Elijah comes and restores all things" and "Elijah has already come" and "They did not recognise him"? Surely if he came and was not recognised then he did not restore all things? If Elijah's mission failed, does that mean that the Day of the Lord cannot come? Or if he did come, does that mean that all things have already been restored? Confused.
Even the passage in Malachi itself is confusing. It says that:
- Elijah will come before the dreadful day of the Lord comes
- His mission will be to restore families back to loving relationships with each other
- His mission will be accomplished
- If his mission fails then the Lord will strike the land with total destruction
How can the mission fail if it will be accomplished? And what is the threat here anyway? These verses imply that 'the Day of the Lord' is not as bad as total destruction. What exactly is the 'dreadful' Day of the Lord as described here?
You know, the whole thing appears to be a confusing mess. I'm not sure any of it actually can be reconciled by someone who believes all these passages are inspired and infallible. It only makes sense using the understanding that all of these writings were written by fallible people with different (perhaps half-baked) ideas about what was going on.