Mark 9:9-13. Coming down in more ways than one.

 “And as they were coming down the mountain, he charged them to tell no one what they had seen, until the Son of Man had risen from the dead. So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead might mean. And they asked him, “Why do the scribes say that first Elijah must come?” And he said to them, “Elijah does come first to restore all things. And how is it written of the Son of Man that he should suffer many things and be treated with contempt? But I tell you that Elijah has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written of him.”

 We looked last time at the transfiguration of Jesus, where he is clothed with the glory of the Ancient of Days on top of the mountain, and he speaks with Moses and Elijah. We said that this was a collapsing of the time barriers, a glimpse of the future. Jesus is seen there as he will be when he comes again- and as he promised the disciples that some of them would see him. He is seen as the king, as God come to earth. He is far greater than mere men like Moses or Elijah. The voice from heaven tells the disciples to listen to him, and when they look up, they see only Jesus.

As they come back down the mountain, Jesus speaks to the three disciples, and they have a peculiar conversation.

 “Don’t tell anyone what you’ve just seen, OK?”

“OK…But you know the scribes?”

“Yes.”

“Well, they say that Elijah has to come first.”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“Because Elijah does come first. And he comes in order to restore everything. You’ve read all about the Son of Man, haven’t you? Well, Elijah has already come, and look what happened to him.”

 Sometimes you overhear conversations which don’t make any sense at all. Usually you don’t understand overheard conversations because you aren’t aware of the context in which those conversations are occurring. Here though, we can read the conversation between Jesus and three of his disciples in the immediate context, and it still doesn’t seem to make any sense. But, this conversation- though cryptic to us- is profound. We just need to understand more about the context, and more than just the immediate context.

 1.      Why are the disciples told not to speak of the things they have just seen?

2.      Why do the disciples respond by asking about Elijah? Are they changing the subject?

3.      Jesus says, “Elijah does come first to restore all things”. The scribes also taught that this would be Elijah’s job. Why should Elijah “restore all things”?

4.      Jesus then says that Elijah has already come. Is Jesus talking about Elijah who has just appeared on the mountain, or about somebody else?

5.      Jesus also says that they did to Elijah whatever they pleased. Who are “they”? What did they do to Elijah?

6.      In between those two statements about Elijah, Jesus talks about the “Son of Man”. What has the Son of Man got to do with any of this?

7.      What is the lesson here for us?

 1. Why are the disciples told not to speak of what they have just seen?

On the way down the mountain, the disciples were commanded not to speak of what they had just seen until the Son of Man is risen from the dead. We’ve seen that this is because Jesus’ person and work can’t be understood except in the light of the resurrection. The disciples still haven’t understood that Jesus will die, and they certainly haven’t understood that he will be raised before anyone else, as a first-fruits from the dead. The disciples still only see half the picture about Jesus. They have read the Old Testament prophecies, and put together half the pieces of the jigsaw. They expected Messiah to come as a glorious king to reign over Israel. They expected the nations to come to Mount Zion seeking blessing. That was all in Peter’s mind when he asked about the tents.

But they don’t expect the Messiah to be a suffering servant. They don’t expect death and burial. The cross must come first to make clear who Jesus is. He is not just a wonderful visitor from heaven- he is God taking human flesh, and dying to redeem his people. He is the king, but he is not just a mighty ruler- he is the saviour too. He has come to die.

Many times in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus tells men and demons not to speak about him, not to tell others who he is or what he has done for them. This is because Jesus doesn’t want people to believe the wrong things about him. The disciples’ confusion shows that they will not grasp Jesus’ purpose, though he explains it ever so clearly. The Gospel is not according to man’s wisdom, as Paul says. Only when the events of redemption happen, only after the Son of Man is raised from the dead, will the disciples understand. And if even those closest to Jesus won’t understand until then, what chance does anybody else have? Proclaiming Jesus as the Son of God and the Messiah will only incite the mob to rebel against the Romans and make Jesus king by force.

 2. Why do the disciples respond by asking about Elijah? Are they changing the subject?

Peter, James, and John have been told to keep this matter to themselves. They do so, but they are baffled by Jesus’ comment about keeping it quiet only until the Son of Man rises from the dead. They have heard Jesus speak of himself as the Son of Man before this, and they discuss amongst themselves what Jesus means when he talks about rising from the dead. “Is he speaking figuratively? In what way will he rise from the dead?” they ask themselves. But when they come to ask Jesus about it, the question has changed into one about Elijah. Why? How does this question about Elijah fit with what they’ve been speaking about? Or is it a change of topic?

The three men have just seen Elijah, and Jesus has just been speaking of resurrection. Remember that the disciples’ idea of resurrection was that it would be a general event- Messiah would come, and the dead would be raised, and Messiah would execute the final judgement, and set up his kingdom. Jesus speaking of resurrection suggests to them that the end is very near. Resurrection of the dead is for them a sign of the end of the current age and the start of the new age.

Now the scribes taught that Elijah would come before the end. The scribes were correct in their teaching here. The prophet Malachi, the last-but-one prophet of the Old Testament, and the last prophet for 400 years, had spoken of Elijah, saying,

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.”

Elijah the prophet (like Moses) was “missing, presumed dead”. Nobody actually saw the man’s corpse. Elijah was taken up by a whirlwind into heaven, and never seen again on earth- and after he had gone, some of those who’d followed his teaching insisted on sending out search parties to find him, sure that he would still be alive. Malachi, living centuries later, told the people that Elijah would be back.

So although they know they don’t really understand what Jesus has said about raising from the dead, the disciples are asking, “Well, Jesus is talking about the resurrection as being in our lifetimes, so the end must be very close now. And so what about Elijah? The scribes say that Elijah will come before the end. We’ve just seen him on the mountain. Does that mean that he’s come back to earth? Is he about to start doing his stuff? If not, then what are the teachers of the law on about? If the kingdom is finally going to happen soon, then isn’t Elijah is going to restore all things, as the scribes say?

 3. Jesus says that “Elijah does come first to restore all things”, and the scribes also taught that this would be Elijah’s job. Why should Elijah “restore all things”?

Malachi said that Elijah was to turn the hearts of the children to their fathers, and the hearts of the fathers to their children, and that by doing so, he would avert total destruction.

A quick scan of the book of Malachi gives some context to this prophecy. Malachi spoke to a disobedient and wayward people. They had no reality in their religion. They had no fear of God, and didn’t honour him as they ought (1:6). They brought stolen, sick, and blemished animals to offer to their God (1:13). Even the priests, whose job it was to keep the people on the straight and narrow (2:7), had stopped caring. Levi and Judah had led Israel astray instead of leading them in the worship of God. Malachi warned the people that the end was nigh. He warned that God himself would appear in his temple, and that this would not be an occasion for celebration. God would be angry (3:1-2). He would come to bring judgement and curses (3:5, 3:9). Malachi said that the day was coming, burning like an oven, when the evildoers would be torched so as to leave neither root nor branch (4:1). God threatened utter devastation.

Yet the book ends with a message that is hope to the faithful as well as death to the unfaithful. On that great and terrible day of the Lord, the sun of righteousness would rise with healing in its wings (4:2). For the faithful, there would be healing. God promised that before the judgement fell, there would be a restoration for Israel. The people would return and worship the God of their fathers. God would send them an Elijah-figure to call them back. Then when the predicted destruction fell, there would be some who would be saved.

 The promised messenger is called Elijah, because Elijah himself had done exactly this job in an earlier generation. If you remember, Elijah came to a nation who had almost completely abandoned God; a nation who followed the Baals instead. Led by evil king Ahab, who was in turn led by his even more evil wife, Jezebel, the people ran headlong into wickedness. And Elijah turned the nation around. He turned the hearts of the children to their fathers, calling the people of Israel back to worship the God of their fathers.

The climactic event of Elijah’s ministry came on the top of Mt. Carmel, when he organised a showdown between the true and living God, and the nonexistent Baal. After that, the people all cried out, “The LORD, he is God”.

Read I Kings 18:30-40, and as you read it, take note of three things. Notice that Elijah builds his altar of 12 stones, notice how Elijah addresses God in his prayer, and notice what Elijah actually prays for.

“Then Elijah said to all the people, ‘Come near to me.’ And all the people came near to him. And he repaired the altar of the LORD that had been thrown down. Elijah took twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, to whom the word of the LORD came, saying, ‘Israel shall be your name,’ and with the stones he built an altar in the name of the LORD.”

Elijah was deliberately, consciously, calling the whole of Israel back to worship the God of their fathers. He therefore builds his altar of twelve stones, for the whole number of the tribes of Israel, and he prays to “The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel”. You might think that he would pray to “The almighty God, the God who is able to send fire from heaven” or, “The God who is real, and not a powerless lump of gold and wood like these idols”, but he doesn’t (at least not at first). He prays to “Yahweh, God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel”. He’s praying to the God of the fathers of Israel. He wants to turn the whole of the people back to the God of their fathers.

 The whole of Elijah’s initial prayer, prayed just before God answered with fire, runs,

O LORD, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, and that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your word. Answer me, O LORD, answer me, that this people may know that you, O LORD, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back”

Elijah prays that God would make it known that he is turning the hearts of the people back to him. He is the God whom their fathers had known and trusted; the God who had provided for them. And now Elijah wants him to be the God of their children.

Malachi’s promise is to be understood in that light. “Elijah” was going to come again, and would again restore an apostate nation and reinstate the worship of the true God. When “Elijah” had done his work, the Lord himself would come to his temple in wrath and wipe out all the remaining idolatry.

 4. Jesus then says that Elijah has already come. Is Jesus talking about Elijah who has just appeared on the mountain, or about somebody else?

Elijah, we have seen, would come as the forerunner to the Messiah, to prepare the way for him. Now the scribes had interpreted Malachi wrongly, and were looking for Elijah himself to return from heaven. Elijah, as we have said, had not died as other men die. He had been separated from Elisha by chariots of fire, and taken up into heaven by a whirlwind. The sons of the prophets went looking for him, thinking he may have been set down on earth again, but they found nobody. The scribes presumably took this to indicate that Elijah was still alive and well, and waiting to be sent back down to earth. They looked for Elijah himself to come again and to lead the nation in repentance as he had the first time around. Then after Elijah, Messiah would come to judge the wicked and spare the repentant.

What does Jesus have to say about Elijah? He says that the scribes are right to say that Elijah comes first to restore all things- but “I tell you that Elijah has (emphasis on the has, already) come”. Who is Jesus talking about here? He’s not talking about Elijah on the mountain, but about Elijah by the river. John the Baptist is in view here.

We noticed back in the first chapter of Mark, that Mark quotes Malachi along with Isaiah,

“The voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight’.”

 Mark does that deliberately to link the passage in Malachi to the passage in Isaiah. The Malachi passage ends with the promise about Elijah, and Mark wants to connect Elijah to the voice in the wilderness of which Isaiah spoke.

Then, having made that connection, Mark wants to show us that this figure- the Elijah-wilderness voice- is John the Baptist. Mark plainly enough portrays these promises about a fore-runner to Messiah as finding fulfilment in John the Baptist. The Elijah who was promised was going to prepare the way for Messiah, and John was this Elijah.  In Luke’s Gospel, the angel tells John’s father,

Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth. Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous- to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

The angel took up the words of Malachi’s prophecy, and quoted them to John’s father.

John came to restore Israel to repentance. John preached and baptised with a baptism of repentance in the Jordan, near Bethany. He had a huge effect. He turned the hearts of many Israelites back to the God of their fathers. He brought them to be baptised and to join the group of those waiting for the coming Messiah and repenting of their sins before God. Many of John’s disciples then became Jesus’ disciples.

 5. Jesus also says that they did to Elijah whatever they pleased. Who are “they”? What did they do to Elijah?

6. In between those two statements about Elijah, Jesus talks about the “Son of Man”. What has the Son of Man got to do with any of this?

These two questions are aiming at the same answer.

Jesus’ reply isn’t straightforward at all. The disciples have asked him what is going to happen about Elijah- they know that the scribes say Elijah is going to come before the Messiah, but if Jesus is the Messiah, and if the resurrection is near, then they are wondering whether Elijah isn’t a bit late. Jesus could have answered much more simply by saying “Elijah does come first to restore all things, but I tell you that Elijah has already come”- cutting out half of his actual reply. Instead, Jesus answers “Elijah does come first to restore all things. And how is it written of the Son of Man that he should suffer many things and be treated with contempt? But I tell you that Elijah has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written of him.”

Jesus tags a bit about the suffering of Elijah on to the end of his reply, and sticks a bit about what the scriptures say of the suffering of the Messianic king into the middle. Why?

 Jesus says those things because he has seen something that is implicit in the disciples’ question. Before taking the disciples up the mountain, Jesus spoke about his suffering. Seven days ago, he told the disciples that the Son of Man must suffer many things, and be killed. This teaching did not go down well with the disciples. Peter rebuked Jesus for saying it. Then Jesus told all the disciples that just as he was going to suffer and die, so would they have to be ready to do the same- or else they couldn’t follow him. If they loved their own lives more than they loved him, then they couldn’t be his disciples. Jesus knew that this was a choice they would be forced to make- renounce Jesus, or die. If they didn’t love him more than life, they would end up deserting him.

But when you think about it, if Elijah is going to come first and restore everything, then why does the Messiah have to suffer at all? Can’t he just stroll in and take the prepared kingdom from Elijah? Elijah is the warm-up act who breaks the ice on the audience and gets them ready for the main item. The headline act can then take the stage, go through his act, and receive the applause. That’s what happened with Elijah’s own successor, Elisha. Were we painting with broad brush strokes, then we’d say that Elisha came along and saw the harvest, after Elijah had done the hard work of clearing away all the weeds. Isn’t it Elijah who does the suffering, if anybody?

And if Messiah doesn’t have to suffer, then neither do his disciples!  Rather, they get to share in his victory, seated at his banqueting table as all the world pays him honour. The disciples still can’t square Jesus being the Messiah, God’s anointed king, with Jesus being rejected by the elders, chief priests and scribes, and being killed. They would very much like to believe that Jesus gets to waltz in to a “here’s-one-I-made-earlier” situation, take up his made-to-measure crown, and start reigning.

 So Jesus’ full reply is that:

a) Elijah does come first to restore Israel, but

b) The Son of Man will still suffer- as the scriptures say

c) Elijah has already come- he isn’t late

d) Elijah has himself suffered and died.

 “Doing to Elijah whatever they pleased, as it is written of him”, is a reference to John’s beheading and a comment on Mark 6:14-29. They did as they had pleased- not asking “How would God have us treat John”, but doing instead what they found pleasant and convenient. This is a contrast between John and Elijah. Elijah suffered for his message of repentance, but he was never killed. In fact, he didn’t even die. He was taken up to heaven having seen some of the people heed his calls. John ultimately was rejected and killed, because he was calling for repentance from sins- specifically calling Herod to repent from a particular sin of his. Jesus’ point is that as it went for his fore-runner, so it would go for him. King Herod had John locked up and beheaded. The Son of Man can expect no better treatment- and the scriptures are quite clear on that point.

 7. What is the lesson here for us?

You hear many “Christian” speakers present Jesus as the answer to all life’s problems. Depressed? Jesus can help you! In debt? Jesus can sort that out! Marriage falling apart? Don’t worry, Jesus has some handy marriage-counselling advice. All wrongs righted, all problems solved. Jesus: spiritual Prozac.

 Jesus is indeed the answer to all life’s problems, but he’s not an easy answer. Jesus himself never misled possible followers about the cost of discipleship. He didn’t promise instant happiness and serenity. Quite the opposite. He promised a cross to bear. But bearing it is the only thing worth doing. Everything else is ultimately empty and joyless.

 The kingdom ruled by Jesus will be the fulfilment of every good and right desire we have. We want peace? It will be there. We want harmony- never to fall out with anyone ever again? It will be like that. We want security, not to worry about being a victim of crime, or losing a job we’re doing well? It will be like that.

But it will be like that because Jesus will be worshipped totally and sincerely by everyone there. Things will be like Malachi said; God’s people will be refined and purified.

 Following Jesus brings joy now because the kingdom is already here. Christians experience harmony with other believers- a Christian can go almost anywhere in the world, and find family. But following Jesus brings pain too, because the kingdom is not yet. God’s world has rebelled, and is even now geared against God, and Christians can expect to lose out in such a world. Jesus made that very plain. If you worship Jesus in a fallen world, you can expect to make enemies.

As Jesus’ followers, we should expect to suffer. We should be willing to die. Most of the NT is written to persecuted Christians. Persecution isn’t something abnormal, something for occasional anomalous periods in church history.

God will change all that. Jesus will come to rule, in his Father’s glory with the holy angels. And it is those who live under his rule now, who will live under his rule then. Those who repent of their sins, and who trust Jesus to forgive their sins; those who ask God to change them, so that they don’t sin- they will have their prayers answered, and will live in a world without sin.

There are also those who don’t repent of their sins- who aren’t really sorry for them. Who choose to sin, and maybe think they have the right to do as they choose. They will also get what they have chosen. Those who choose sin now will live in a world where sin is unrestrained. Where everybody hates one another, where everybody is out to get what they want, and to do everyone else down. There will be no common grace there, it will be a world of insanity, and wretchedness. Only those willing to lose their lives for Christ’s sake, will find the life in all its fullness, that only Christ can give.

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