Prophecy in the NT: John and Elijah

We’ve been carefully building our understanding of how the New Testament uses the prophecies of the Tanakh by going through Matthew’s citations in order to establish principles of interpretation. Today, we’re going to go a little sideways, both reinforcing previous principles (as we’ve done before) and jumping ahead to the first citation in the book of Mark:

As it is written in Isaiah the prophet, “Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way, the voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,'” John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. (Mark 1:2-4)

Mark’s quote is perfect for our study because it seamlessly weaves together two prophecies: Isaiah 40:3, which we discussed in the previous post, and Malachi 3:1: “Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts.” (As an aside, “my messenger” in Hebrew is malakhi, the same as the name of the prophet.) Malachi describes this prophet and his mission in chapter 4:5-6.

“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.”

This is precisely the mission that Gabriel outlined for John the Immerser before he was born:

And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him 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.” (Luke 1:16-17)

Yeshua himself asserted that John the Immerser was “the Elijah who is to come” (Mat. 11:14, 17:10-13; Mark 9:11-14). And yet, there are quite a few who expect Elijah himself to come in the final days. Why is that?

Elijah in the Passover

eliyahu_cup_1By Jewish tradition, at every Passover table a seat is set and a cup of wine set out for Elijah. Towards the end of the Seder, a child is sent to open the outside door in the hopes that Elijah will appear and announce the coming of the Messiah.

This actually solidifies John’s identification with Elijah even further. We know that John’s father, Zechariah, served with the priestly course of Abijah (Luke 1:5), one of the 24 priestly divisions established by King David himself (1Ch. 24). Josephus explains the practice:

He (David) divided them also into courses . . . and he ordained that one course should minister for eight days, from Sabbath to Sabbath. And thus were the courses distributed by lot, in the presence of David, and Zadok and Abiathar the high priests, and all of the rulers . . . and this partition has remained to this day. (Josephus, Antiquities, 7.14.7, cf. Against Apion 2.8)

In other words, each division served two non-concurrent weeks out of the year, with two divisions overlapping on each Sabbath. In addition, to handle the additional crowds and sacrifices, every division served together for a week at each of the pilgrimage feasts: Passover, Shavuot (Pentecost), and Sukkot (Booths). Since the month of Nisan (roughly April) was the first month of the religious calendar (Exo. 12:2), the rotation began there. Abijah was the eighth division (1Ch. 24:10), and so would nominally serve the week before Shavuot. That is, you would normally have two divisions serving in Nisan before Passover (on the 14th), everyone serving together on the week of Passover (14th-21st), followed by six more divisions, followed by the week of Shavuot.

Factoring in the travel time for Zechariah to get back home, this means that John would have been conceived in early summer. Counting forward 40 weeks, we wrap around again to the time of Passover, John’s birthday. (Yeshua, born six months later (Luke 1:36), was born at the time of the fall feastdays, most likely Rosh Hashanah or Sukkot.) All of this means that John the Immerser, who Yeshua identified as “the Elijah who is to come,” was born at precisely the time that Jewish tradition has always believed that Elijah would come to proclaim the Messiah’s coming.

So why on earth do we Messianics still set out a cup for Elijah at our Passover Seder? Is it just for the sake of tradition? Or is there something more?

The Two Witnesses

Just to compound the problem, Revelation speaks of two witnesses whose modus operandi seems awfully familiar to those knowledgeable of the Tanakh:

And I will grant authority to my two witnesses, and they will prophesy for 1,260 days, clothed in sackcloth.” These are the two olive trees and the two lampstands that stand before the Lord of the earth. And if anyone would harm them, fire pours from their mouth and consumes their foes. If anyone would harm them, this is how he is doomed to be killed. They have the 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 strike the earth with every kind of plague, as often as they desire. (Rev. 11:3-6)

Elijah was of course famous for shutting up the sky by his prayers, and Jacob (James) tells us that he did so specifically for a period of 3 1/2 years (Jas. 5:17), just as the two witnesses will. Being empowered to summon fire is also very Elijah-esque. Turning the waters into blood and striking the earth with various plagues, on the other hand, sounds more like Moses. Interestingly, there is an old tradition in Judaism that Moses would return along with Elijah:

The Holy One, blessed be he, said to Moses: “Moses, by your life, just as you have given your soul for Israel in this world, so in the world to come, when I bring them the prophet Elijah, the two of you will come as one . . . In that hour he will come to comfort Israel. (Deuteronomy Midrash Rabbah 3:17)

This midrash may be based on the verse immediately preceding the announcement of Elijah: “Remember the law of my servant Moses, the statutes and rules that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel” (Mal. 4:4). It is also likely based on the requirement that every important matter (i.e., everything that is a matter of life and death) be established by at least two witnesses (Num. 35:30; Deu. 17:6, 19:15; cf. John 5:31-39, 8:13-18).

But if “Elijah” has come already in the person of John the Immerser, doesn’t that contradict the expectation that he is still to come?

Not entirely.

Two Parousias, Two Messengers

Interestingly, despite all of the evidence pointing to John as the fulfillment of Malachi 4, John himself denied it:

And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” And he answered, “No.” (John 1:21)

John could hardly be unaware of the prophecy of Gabriel over his own mission, nor could he have been ignorant of why they were asking. So why didn’t he say, “Yes,” or even clarify, “I am he who comes in the spirit and power of Elijah”?

In addition, when we look more closely at Yeshua’s own declaration that John is Elijah, we see an interesting caveat: “And if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come” (Mat. 11:14). An if-then statement implies the possibility of the opposite. Who was Yeshua speaking to? Not his immediate disciples, but the crowds (v. 7). So what if the masses of Israel were not willing to accept that John was “Elijah who is to come” and that therefore Yeshua was the Messiah that Elijah was supposed to announce?

And in fact, they didn’t. Only a minority accepted it.

What was the purpose of the messenger, according to Isaiah 40? To make straight the ways of the visiting King. To clear his path. Now suppose the king visited, left for many years, and then visited again. Would he not need to send his messenger, or a different messenger, to once again have those he was coming to prepare the road to receive him?

2olivtreesLet’s look again at the two witnesses in Revelation. In addition to having authority that mirrors that of Elijah and Moses–the ultimate prophets in Jewish history–they are called “the two olive trees and the two lampstands that stand before the Lord of the earth” (Rev. 11:4). This is a direct allusion to the vision of Zechariah chapter 4, where the two olive trees represent the two men most responsible for rebuilding the temple and revitalizing the worship of Hashem in the land of Israel: Joshua the high priest (Zec. 3:6-9) and Zerubabbel the governor (Zec. 4:9-10).

By invoking this earlier prophecy, John is telling us that the mission of the two witnesses is, just like their predecessors, to rebuild the temple and revitalize the worship of Israel–and thereby to once again “prepare the way of the Lord” by making “the crooked straight.”

Whether these two witnesses will be Moses resurrected and Elijah returned from heaven or, as in the case of John, two men “in the spirit and power of Elijah” and Moses remains to be seen. However, as we saw at the beginning of this study, a prophecy can have more than one fulfillment, and the ultimate fulfillment often literally fulfills even the fine details. That being the case, perhaps we can expect Elijah to literally join us at Passover one day after all.



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