“For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John, and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come” (v. 14).
The OT’s final prophetic word is about JB as God’s end time Elijah, “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… and children… lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction” (Mal. 4:5, 6).
JB is central in Advent. Unless we grasp his identity and mission (cf. Luke 1:16, 17) we risk missing Messiah come in our midst. We may not marginalize JB’s significance in a rush to the Nativity, lest we come to the Feast unprepared, precisely the point of Advent. God does not spring salvation on blind and dull men; he always gives us notice.
We don’t usually associate Christmas with judgment; still forty days after birth, Jesus was dedicated to God in the temple. Every other firstborn male infant was presented to God but sacrificially redeemed (Ex. 13:1, 2, 13; Num. 18:15b, 16); not so Jesus! On Jesus’ presentation, Mary’s firstborn remained unredeemed* belonging to God, to be the law’s prescribed sacrificial Lamb for redemption of all men.
In the temple Simeon prophesied to Mary, picture of the NT church, about men’s acceptance of her Babe and of judgment, “Behold, this Child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed and a sword will pierce your own soul also, so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed” (Lk. 2:34, 35).
Judgment necessitates fair warning of the Babe and Israel’s need to “turn… to the Lord” (1:16); or as Isaiah put it, “prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God” (40:3; Mt. 3:3; 11:10).
JB, the end time Elijah, went before Jesus’ face in the power of his preached word converting arid and corrupt hearts coming out of their wilderness for receiving heaven’s “green wood” (Lk. 23:31), the Babe come for salvation and judgment.
The Nativity requires response; what do you think of the Babe, not so much in terms of doctrine, but relationally? Is the Child your only Lord, God, and Redeemer without whom you have no purpose of life; or is he more the chubby cherub of a seasonal greeting card?
Hearts are revealed relationally, aren’t they? If we love spouses, children, friends, and teachers we share our time and thoughts with them; thus, the church has always had difficulty with “Christmas & Easter Christians”, those not importantly involved in the life of the congregation other than the season’s pageantry, material excess, and a faux singing, “Joy To the World”.
Still, even the most faithful Christians, more than we like to admit, confront doubts about the hidden ways of God in Jesus’ crucified reign so offensive to human reason. On terms of man’s rebellious nature, Jesus must be disqualified from being God, requiring that we continually turn hearts for knowing God in the manner of his coming (cf. Jn. 3:16). By rejection, doubt, or reception of the Babe by a faith contrary to reason, the “thoughts from many hearts” are revealed either for judgment or salvation.
Today’s Gospel directs us to JB, imprisoned by Herod Antipas having preached against public adultery. As the last and greatest OT prophet JB received the HS, not as in Jesus’ Baptism, but episodic and partial measure. Imprisoned, JB was epitome of the deaf and blind whom Isaiah prophesied would experience release at Messiah’s coming (35:5, 6).
From his cell JB could no longer see the Kingdom. He was dependent for news of Jesus from reportage of others; John the preacher was removed from his pulpit, joining with the congregation as hearer of Jesus’ word. In his own word, “[Jesus] must increase, but I must decrease” (Jn. 3:30).
Unable to reason the ways of God in Christ, JB sent Jesus a delegation seeking assurances of his coming for judgment in Spirit and fire (Mt. 3:11) that had earlier been so clear to his sight. But now the Baptist’s heart was faint with doubt; he inquired, “Are you the Coming One or do we wait on another?”
Jesus is now “Qoheleth” (Eccles. 1:1), the Preacher and Teacher who unpacks what JB had preached, affirming the necessity of their dual ministries. To remove the scales of John’s blindness, Jesus sent his disciples with word that his miracles portended and revealed his Baptism with the Spirit for release of sin in the fire of the new creation coming into being.
Then Jesus taught the crowds about JB, “he is Elijah who is to come” and prefixed this warning, “if you are willing to accept it.” It is important we accept JB as prophesy’s the end time Elijah for turning hearts in preparation of Jesus’ hidden coming in manger and on cross as God’s work of salvation and judgment.
Let’s reflect on JB as Jesus’ end time Elijah going before his face, especially in infancy. Centuries earlier Israel’s king Ahab infamously accused the historical Elijah, “you troubler of Israel” (1 Kg. 18:17), the same accusation from the scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees, and Herod Antipas toward JB calling Israel to conversion and repentance.
For historical Elijah conflict with royal and religious authority came to a head on putting 450 of queen Jezebel’s Baal priests to death, kindling her murderous threats. Absorbed in doubt and self-pity Elijah escaped to Mt. Horeb. It seemed God had sent him on a fool’s errand. Nobody, he thought, trusted the God of Israel. Elijah, the persecuted prophet of repentance, needed a reassuring word. He did not receive it in the majesty of fire or earthquake; rather faith was restored in the unlikely sound of a “small whisper” (1 kg. 19:12).
It appears before Jesus’ Baptism that he was a disciple of his cousin who would testify, “A man is following me who has become my superior…” (Jn. 1:30); so also, with the disciple Elisha in receiving a double portion of Elijah’s Spirit when translated to heaven by a chariot of fire.
Jesus’ end time Elijah, JB finally received Jezebel’s kill through her latter-day sister Herodias, that betokened Jesus’ own passion in the fire of the Spirit on the cross. Jesus prophesied of his rejection, “the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence from men who would snatch it away by force” (Mt. 11:12).
On the Mt. of Transfiguration Moses and Elijah appeared with Jesus speaking of the exodus he would lead out of the world in the Resurrection; Moses as mediator of Sinai’s blood Covenant and purification sprinkling (Ex. 24:8), and Elijah, Jesus’ slaughtered end time prophet (JB) of Zion’s NT sprinkling from Golgotha.
This is JB’s catechism about Jesus as Christmas Babe, born for circumcision on the cross to be “Bridegroom of blood” (Ex. 4:25) for his church; a matrimony and consummation proclaimed in advance by his best-man, JB. Failure to receive the Babe as the church’s betrothed on the cross means risking judgment of an unconverted heart.
By Jesus’ word to John, his imprisoned herald; and Herod’s snatching away his proclamation; nevertheless “an eternal gospel” remains commending us to faith in God’s “small whisper” from the heart and breath of the Babe; born to violence; ironically the world’s cause for true rejoicing. Amen.
*(the turtledoves of Lk. 2:24 were offering for Mary’s purification; not Jesus’ redemption under the law).