John and Elijah
After the transfiguration (vs. 1-9), the first question the disciples ask the Lord is “Why then say the scribes that Elias must first have come?” At first glance this question may seem to bear no immediate connection to the preceding event, but closer examination will show us how relevant it was.
Peter, James and John had just witnessed the clearest evidence of the Messiahship of Jesus - His face shining as the sun, His raiment white as the light, and the voice of God to Him out of the cloud. There was no doubt that He was Israel’s promised Saviour and King. Yet while this fact could not possibly be disputed by those that had beheld that glorious sight, they were puzzled as to the apparent lack of fulfilment of the prophecy of Malachi 4: 5-6.
The scribes were right, Elias was to come again immediately before the manifestation of the Christ: “Behold, I send unto you Elijah the prophet, before the coming of the great and terrible day of Jehovah. And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.” Now the disciples knew all this, and since they did not doubt that Jesus was the Christ, they rightly wondered where the prophesied Elijah was! Elijah, (and Moses), they had just seen and recognised on the mount, and now that they knew what Elijah looked like, it was obvious that he had not come in fulfilment of Malachi’s prophecy! It didn’t add up: the prophet was to precede Christ, and yet Christ had come, whilst Elijah was nowhere to be seen! The disciples did not disbelieve the prediction, they just could not understand how it had been fulfilled.
The Lord answers first of all by confirming the truth of the prophecy: “And he answering said to them, Elias indeed comes first and will restore all things”, (v11) Then He reveals the astounding fact that Elijah had in fact already come: “But I say unto you, that Elias has already come, and they have not known him, but have done unto him whatever they would”. If we go back to Matt.11: 13, 14 we shall see that to faith, John the Baptist was Elijah: “For all the prophets and the law have prophesied unto John. And if ye will receive it, this is Elias, who is to come.” He was not of course the literal Elijah of the OT, and in fact denies it (see John 1:19-25), but he went before the Lord, “in [the] spirit and power of Elias”, (Luke 1: 17). If the Jew had accepted the testimony he gave, he would have been Elijah to them. Alas, his words were rejected, and he himself brutally slain, (Matt. 14: 10), and as a result when the Lord Jesus comes a second time, (in glory), he will be preceded by the real Elijah (see Rev. 11: 1-12). In the OT, the first and second comings are not clearly distinguished, and the Jew in fact could only comprehend the coming of Christ as one whole. They had no idea that He must suffer and die before He could reign as their king, and that there would be a vast expanse of time between the two! The literal fulfilment of Mal. 4: 5-6, with the literal Elijah will take place prior to the second coming, “before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Jehovah”, Faith however, recognises that John the Baptist was the Elijah heralding the Lord’s first coming. Thus when Jesus spoke of Elijah having come, the disciples eyes were opened to see “that he spoke to them of John the Baptist”, (Matt. 17: 13). They previously believed the prophecy, now they understood it!