They kept the matter to themselves, discussing what “rising from the dead” meant. And they asked Him, “Why do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?” Jesus replied, “To be sure, Elijah does come first, and restores all things. Why then is it written that the Son of Man must suffer much and be rejected? But I tell you, Elijah has come, and they have done to him everything they wished, just as it is written about him.”
As you can see, this is quite a confusing passage. Here are a few questions that I asked of these verses, some of which other scholars have asked too: 1) How do the disciples connect “rising from the dead” with the coming of Elijah? 2) What do the “teachers of the law” mean when they say that Elijah must come first? 3) What does Jesus mean when He says that Elijah comes first and restores all things”? 4) How does Jesus connect suffering and rejection to Elijah’s return? 5) Where is it written that the Son of Man must suffer and be rejected? 6) Since Mark relies, in-part, on Matthew’s work, should Matthew’s explanation that John the Baptizer has come in the place and tradition of Elijah to be carried over? 7) What do we make of the three statements in Mk. 9.13: a) Elijah has come, b) they have done everything to him they pleased, and c) as it is written about Him?
That is a lot of questions, I know (still, even more could be asked). But then again, this is a tricky passage. My thinking is that by asking pointed questions, we might arrive at a more clear understanding of what is written. So, I’m just going to go through the above questions, one at a time and try to make sense of what is said.
(1) So, how do the disciples connect “rising from the dead” with the coming of Elijah? The answer to this question is rather simple. The disciples had always been taught that prior to the “general resurrection of all Israel”, Elijah would come, preach a message of repentance and restore the hearts of wayward Jews to God (Malachi 4.4-6; notice the connection with Moses, here, too). Thus, when they heard Jesus talking about “resurrection”, the general resurrection came to their minds. Also, they had just seen Elijah and so, the saying in Malachi probably entered their minds too. Therefore, we might understand their thinking as follows: “Jesus, you are talking about the resurrection. We know that Elijah is supposed to come and turn the people to God before the resurrection. However, Elijah just came and He did not do that. So, is Elijah coming again, in addition the trip he just made here? Or, do you misunderstand the resurrection?” And as I have shown in a previous post, in this section of Mark’s Gospel we find that Peter really believes that Jesus has misunderstood “the” resurrection; that’s why he rebukes Him for it. We might see him doing the same thing here. His question is less about Elijah’s return than it is a rebuke of Jesus’ misunderstanding of the resurrection. Peter is trying to make a point.
(2) What do the teachers of the law mean when they say that Elijah must come first? Well, as I’ve alluded to, this was what Peter and company had been taught their whole lives: Elijah comes to restore before the resurrection. I think we should take Peter’s question here, though, as more of a point than a question. He is challenging Jesus. He wants Jesus to defend Himself and His new interpretation against the traditional teaching. Again, Peter thinks Jesus has got it wrong. By raising this issue, Peter is showing Jesus where He is off base.
(3) What does Jesus mean when He says that Elijah comes first and restores all things”? Here’s where things start getting foggy. And here’s where you also have to compare (or contrast) this question with the previous one. In placing these two questions side-by-side, we come to realize that Peter is on to Jesus. Peter realizes that what Jesus is saying definitely does go against what He has always been taught. In short, Peter realizes that Jesus has a different teaching than the traditional one given by his teachers. (This makes me wonder if the arguing “συζητεω” of the disciples—the NIV tames it down to discussing—is actually an argument between the disciples on whether or not Jesus is saying something different than the teachers of the law. I think this it is.)
So, up to this point, what we have found is that Peter is on to Jesus. He realizes that Jesus has a new teaching on the resurrection. Therefore, on coming down from the mountain here, we see Him challenge Jesus’ statements on the resurrection once more (again, he didn’t rebuke Jesus at Caesarea Philippi for saying that the Messiah would suffer—as every single commentator in the history of Mark seems to ‘presuppose’—but rather because Jesus was referring to a one-man resurrection; Peter believed that Jesus totally misunderstood the resurrection).
(4) How does Jesus connect suffering and rejection to Elijah’s return? Well, Jesus’ new interpretation of Elijah-before-the-resurrection, totally places emphasis on Himself. Essentially, Jesus is trying to say to the disciples: “You and the teachers are right that the Elijah passage exists. But where you go wrong is in how you understand that passage.” Thus, Jesus says, “Don’t take the passage so literally. The way you should understand Malachi 4.5-6 is typologically. Now, I know you just saw Elijah and at that time you did not see him preach repentance and try to turn people back to God. Well, that’s because that’s not his job. Malachi 4.4-6 is speaking of one who comes in the tradition or stead of Elijah; one who has Elijain traits and characteristics. Of course, that person is our dear fried John the Baptizer. John has come in the tradition of Elijah and he has preached a message of repentance. You ask, 'So what does this have to do with the Son of Man suffering and being rejected?' Well, if John is the “one like Elijah” then I am the Son of Man who must suffer. And if Elijah has already come to restore, then that means the time has come for Me to do My thing. The problem is, Peter, James and John, that you have developed timelines of The Day of the Lord and they are wrong. Quit relying on them and listen to Me—God the Father makes this suggestion to listen too.”
(5) Where is it written that the Son of Man must suffer and be rejected? Well, a number of passages, including Psalm 53 have been suggested here. But this is precisely where I differ with every other commentator (at least 30) that I’ve read. I would say that we should stick with the Malachi reference here. After referring to Moses and Elijah, it is stated by God Himself that if the people do not turn their hearts to Him, He will strike (נכה) them with a curse (חרם; Mal. 4.6b). I think that Christ is applying this to Himself; He is taking the curse on His own shoulders. This is precisely why He will suffer; suffering that is the result of first rejecting God and then rejecting repentance. I am quite amazed that no commentator to date has suggested this. Therefore, as we see, Jesus has given the Malachi passage a new spin; Peter surely wasn’t expecting the answer Jesus gave.
(6) Since Mark relies, in-part, on Matthew’s work, should Matthew’s explanation that John the Baptizer has come in the place and tradition of Elijah be carried over? This question is biased, of course. I hold the view that Mark used Matthew’s work as well as Luke’s and thus, I do conclude that the tradition of John coming in the place of Elijah should be carried over. Again, Jesus is applying this passage in a way that neither Peter nor anyone else would have ever seen coming. And it is such a radical way of interpreting it that Peter just has to challenge it. Everything that Peter has ever heard concerning this passage is being challenged by Jesus and so, everything that Jesus says, Peter challenges.
(7) What do we make of the three statements in Mk. 9.13: a) Elijah has come, b) they have done everything to him they pleased, and c) as it is written about Him? Certainly, this is the most complicated portion of the pericope in focus. Concerning (a), we have already noted that this is a cryptic reference to John the Baptizer. As for (b), I would say that this is actually a reference back to the “Son of Man”. On (c), I would point us, as I did in #5, back to Malachi 4.6b. But these answers require a bit more of an explanation. To arrive at this conclusion, I have taken Mark 9.12 and 9.13 together. In each of these verses, Jesus starts off talking about Elijah, then soon after He makes reference to Himself and along with an “as it is written” statement. A table might help us visualize this:
In this table, we see that in verses 12 and 13 statements about Elijah come first. After that, Jesus refers to Himself and the Malachi passage where these things are written of (or the Malachi passage and Himself). Either way, Jesus is giving the Malachi verse a new spin. Let’s connect the dots in a very summarized manner: Before going on to the mountain to witness the transfiguration, Peter had rebuked Jesus for misunderstanding the resurrection. After coming down from the mountain, Peter still thinks Jesus has the resurrection wrong. So, Peter challenges Jesus because a one-man resurrection goes against everything Peter has ever heard. Having just seen Elijah, Peter asks, “Oh yeah, Jesus, isn’t Elijah—as my teachers have always said—supposed to come back and turn people to God before a general resurrection can happen? And from what I just saw on the mountain, he didn’t do that. So, you’re talking about a resurrection but Elijah hasn’t even returned to preach repentance. Doesn’t this suggest that the resurrection is far off and that you’re view of the resurrection is indeed, wrong?” Jesus answers by putting a twist on the Malachi passage. Jesus says that John has come in the tradition of Elijah—thus, the attempt to turn people to God has already happened. Moreover, Jesus says that because many have not repented, a curse must be placed upon Him—just as the Malachi passage says. Jesus then goes on to say once again that Elijah has come (that is, John has come in the tradition of Elijah) and as for Himself, people are already plotting to kill Him and are doing whatever they please to Him. In short, Jesus has taken the curse of sin upon Himself, just as it was spoken of in Malachi, that if people didn’t turn to God, He (God) would send a curse. (This comes terribly close to what Paul speaks of in Galatians 3.10 where Jesus has the curse placed upon Him.)
In this post I have argued for a bit of a new reading of Mk. 9.10-3. Among other things, one of the suggestions I have made is that the Malachi passage must be borne in mind for this whole episode, not just part of it. In addition to this, I have suggested that Jesus gives a radical new reading of those verses, a reading Peter could never have imagined. In fact, it is so far from anything Peter had ever heard that he just couldn’t go without challenging Jesus’ view of the resurrection once again (immediately after Jesus says to keep quiet about it, Peter decides to say something to Jesus about it). Peter’s reply is both a challenge and a rebuke, though this rebuke is a bit softer than the one offered in the previous episode at Caesarea Philippi.
From the standpoint of application, one of many things that this story suggests to me as a modern reader is that in the wake of the transfiguration, there is no need for trying to develop eschatological timelines. Peter had his timeline (e.g. Elijah then resurrection) and so did others. Still today, people like developing charts and timelines (e.g. Dispensationalists like John Hagee or others like Perry Stone or Michael Rood). The fact is, anyone who has ever tried to predict the Day of the Lord has been wrong. When it comes to this subject, there is a 100% failure rating. Indeed, we should quit “debating” (συζητεω) these things and get busy sharing and living the Gospel. Furthermore, we should not only take the message of Moses, Elijah, John and Jesus—the message of repentance—to the ends of the earth but we should heed to it and practice it ourselves. Besides, I have found that when I’m striving to live a life of holiness, when I have to repent as little as possible, I’m not at all eager for the day of judgment. Finally, I share the conviction of Jesus and the prophets that if people will only turn to God, His judgment might be delayed and because of that, we’ll have more time to share the love of Christ with those who need it most.