Before the great and awesome day
The past few weeks, we have been looking at the transfiguration. Last week we looked at the question of why Moses was at the transfiguration. This week we look at the question of why Elijah was at the transfiguration. This is the question the disciples asked following the event in verse eleven. I have often pointed out the many things we take for advantage as we read the Bible. We are blessed to live with the complete Bible from Genesis to Revelation. To us, we hear of Christ crucified, and we think of the gospel. However, to the first century Jew, this was a perplexing statement. As we have seen throughout the gospel of Mark is the disciples are full of questions. They struggle to understand who Christ is and what he came to accomplish. Today we see one of these perplexities where they anticipated the coming of Christ but failed to recognize Christ when he arrived.
I. Risen from the dead
As they descended the mountain, Jesus told Peter, James, and John not to tell anyone what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead. Throughout the study, we have noted Jesus commanding people and unclean spirits several times not to tell anybody about what has happened. This is the last time in the Gospel Jesus tells anyone not to tell anyone about him, but he places a conditional statement to the end. It is that not that they should never tell people about who Jesus is but only after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. He often tells people after healing them. He explains that people will know who I am after you understand who I am. People would have said that Jesus was a healer, but he came to do more than heal people, but to save them from their sin.
The disciples have been told that the “Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected but the elders and chief priests and the scribes and be killed and after three days rise again” (Mark 8:31). He told them this plainly. However, we see that they have not yet grasped the reality of what this means. The Jews and even Samaritans were expecting Christ to come (John 4:25). They longing waited for the promised Messiah to come. He is here, as Peter confessed (Mark 8:29). Then Peter rebukes Jesus for explaining what Christ came to do (Mark 8:32). Mark shows that Jesus explained what was going to happen to Christ (Mark 8:31). However, the disciples did not agree with this or understand this. As we looked at previously, the Son of Man was a title used in Daniel where the Son of Man was given everlasting dominion, glory, an eternal and strong kingdom. Jesus speaks of suffering, death, and resurrection. The disciples and others did not expect Christ to come humbly or as a servant.
II. Why Elijah first
The disciples ask the question, “why do the scribes say that first Elijah must come?” The Pharisees kept the law. The Scribes knew the law. The Scribes were more philosophers. They would ask questions, “Why Jesus’ disciples do not fast?” “Which commandment is the most important of all?” A child asks a question because they are seeking an answer. A Scribe asks a question because they know the answer and want to tell you the correct answer. When the wise men from the east asked Herod, where is the King of the Jews? Herod assembled the chief priests and the scribes and asked them where was the Christ to be born. They could answer that he was to be born in Bethlehem in Judah because of Malachi 5:2. They loved questions but even better than the question was knowing the answer. The Scribes like to be seen and heard. Seen, as they walk around greeting everybody in the marketplace with their long robe on. They want the best seats in the synagogues and the feasts. They also like to be heard with their long prayers (Mark 12:38-40). The Scribes had rightly read the Old Testament and said that Elijah would come first. When people asked who Jesus is, they thought he was Elijah (Mark 6:15, 8:28). Even to this day, when Jews celebrate a feast, which they call Seders, they have an empty chair at the table in the anticipation that Elijah would return herald the Messiah. They believe that Elijah would come first because of Malachi, the last book in the Old Testament, the last two verses of the Old Testament say, “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” (Mal 4:5-6). Malachi explains that Elijah will come before the day of the Lord. One theme in the book of the division between Judah (son) not following in their father’s footsteps (Jacob). Elijah comes to restore all things, Jesus said (Mark 9:12). He comes to restore the children of Israel to their forefathers, not to show their biological DNA but their faith that they had in God.
Why was Elijah there on the mount of transfiguration? Some have suggested that Moses represents the Law and Elijah represents the Prophets, the law and the prophets are the formulae commonly used to describe all of the Old Testament (Cf. Matt 5:17). However, like Moses, we see Elijah has important lessons, particularly when looking at the ‘Day of the Lord.’ We first meet Elijah, the Tishbite, in 1 Kings 17:1. Elijah was sent to Ahab, the King of Samaria (Northern Kingdom). Elijah told Ahab, “I have not troubled Israel, but you have, and your father’s house because you have abandoned the commandments of the Lord and followed the Baals” (1 Kings 18:18). Eventually, Elijah is on the run from Ahab and Jezebel. Elijah comes to Mount Horeb, and God tells him to “go out and stand on the mount before the Lord.” God passed by. A strong wind tore the mountain apart, but the Lord was not in the wind. Then an earthquake, but God was not in the earthquake. Then fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. In the end, there came a sound of a low whisper. God speaks upon a mountain to Elijah, his prophet.
The transfiguration of God the Father speaks when Elijah is present. We are not told of any strong wind, earthquakes, fire, but out of the cloud, God said, “This is my beloved Son, Listen to Him.” Elijah, like Moses, was pointing to the coming of Christ. Elijah did not see death but was taken up into the clouds on a chariot of fire (2 Kings 2:9-12). Elijah was coming to prepare people for the Messiah. If Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, then the disciples ask why Elijah must come first? Did we miss him? Jesus explains that he has already come. He explains that they did whatever they pleased. The Gospel of Matthew explains that the disciples knew he was talking about John the Baptist (Matt 17:13).
This raises the question that some have asked, why does John the Baptist say he is not Elijah? (John 1:21). John’s answer is, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord” (John 1:23). Some have suggested he merely has the Spirit of Elijah but not Elijah, and Elijah will come at the second coming (Rev 11:1-13). John the Baptist frequently ensures that attention is not centered on him. He seeks to point to the one who is to come. However, Jesus says that Elijah has come. Matthew explains that the disciples knew he was talking about John the Baptist (Matt 17:13). Luke records the angel’s words to Zechariah, explaining that he will turn the children’s hearts to their fathers (Luke 1:15-17, cf Mal 4:5-6). Not only do we get these scriptural quotes, but also we see four ways John the Baptist is like Elijah; 1) Dressed the same (2 Kings 2:8, Matt 3:4), 2) Preached in the wilderness (Matt 3:4); 3) Preached repentance (Matt 3:4) and stood before kings (1 Kings 18:17, Matt 14:3).
III. The awesome day
We have a big divide in our Bible. We have the Old Testament and the New Testament. We turn from Malachi to Matthew. Malachi explains that God will send Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day. Jesus explains as he comes down from the mountains to his disciples that Elijah has come. No longer are you waiting for Elijah, but you are on the great and awesome day. Just as Moses wrote and said, “You shall listen to him.” God now says, Listen to him. The before is gone. The great and awesome day has come. We always get excited about the eve of something, but the eve is only important because of the day. This is why Peter’s confession is so important. You are the long-awaited Messiah who Moses foretold. You are the one who would follow Elijah. But we do not merely talk about this as a historic day, but a glorious day for those who believe in Jesus. Because the one big divide that separated history happened in Genesis 3, man was cast out of the garden for his sin. Man was separated from God and had no way to reach him. Man’s sinfulness bars us from God’s holiness. Every man born of Adam has the effect of Adam’s sin upon them. You are I are separated from God. Paul writes in Ephesians 2:12, “Remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.” We do not need Moses or Elijah but Jesus Christ. Who came down to bridge the gap that no man could bridge because of their sin? Christ the God-Man who was sinless came down and died on the cross for our sin. Those who saw Jesus walking the earth were looking for a military leader to come and defeat the Romans, but they did not need a military leader. They required the true Christ to take away the sins of the world. This is why Malachi calls this the great and awesome day. The day had come and is now here. Where the prophesied Messiah walked the earth. We have quoted Hebrews 1:1-2 over the last weeks, but the author continues, and at the beginning of chapter 2, he explains,
“Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it. For since the message declared by angels proved to be reliable, and every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution, how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? It was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard, while God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.” (Hebrews 2:1–4)
This great and awesome day lead to our great salvation. Jesus is our yes and amen to all of God’s promises (2 Cor 1:20). God the Father spoke while upon the mount of transfiguration, “Listen to him.” Peter proclaimed, “You are the Christ.” However, Peter wanted to rebuke Jesus because he was not the Christ Peter wanted or expected. However, he is the Christ Peter needed. He is the Savior we all need, every man, woman, and child. Because without him, we have no hope; without him, the great and awesome day will be a horrific and dreadful day for those who are found in Adam and not in Christ
“But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. And the free gift is not like the result of that one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification. For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.” (Romans 5:15–17)