Until the resurrection of Jesus, only Peter, James, and John, who were with him at the time of his transfiguration, knew that experience because Jesus had banned them from revealing it to others. Since they saw Elijah on the mountain with Jesus, they doubted whether that was his arrival which Malachi had prophesied prior to the coming of the Messiah. However, Elijah’s return must not be for mere appearance’ sake but to prepare the way of the Messiah. Jesus clarified for the three that John the Baptist, who came in the spirit and strength of Elijah, was his precursor, who already prepared his way by spiritually renewing the people who approached him. Jesus said, just as the authorities rejected John and killed him, he himself will also have a similar fate. He had also warned his disciples, “You will be hated by all because of my name, but whoever endures to the end will be saved” (Mt 10:22). If we are loyal followers of Jesus, we will also have hardships in this life and eternal reward in heaven.
BIBLE TEXT (MATTHEW 17:9-13)
The Coming of Elijah
(Mt 17:9) And as they were coming down the mountain, Jesus commanded them not to tell anyone what they had just seen, until the Son of Man should be raised from the dead. (10) The disciples asked him, “Why do the teachers of the Law say that Elijah must come first?” (11) And Jesus answered, “Elijah must come first to set everything as it has to be. (12) But I tell you, Elijah has come and they did not recognize him, but treated him as they pleased. In the same way they will also make the Son of Man suffer.” (13) Then the disciples understood that Jesus was referring to John the Baptist.
While Jesus and the apostles were at Caesarea Philippi, Jesus sought to know who the people and the apostles perceived him to be. Though people had different views like John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or a prophet (Mt 16:14), Peter proffered the correct answer: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Mt 16:16). After assigning Peter as the foundation rock of the Church (Mt 16:17-19), Jesus revealed his imminent passion, death, and resurrection for which Peter rebuked Jesus (Mt 16:21-23). Then Jesus clarified the hardships in this life and the reward in the afterlife that the disciples should expect when they follow him.
After six days, Jesus took Peter, James, and John to the holy mountain. While he was praying, he was transfigured, “his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light” (Mt 17:2). Moses and Elijah appeared to them and conversed with Jesus. “A bright cloud cast a shadow over them, then from the cloud came a voice: ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him’” (Mt 17:5). Out of fear, the three apostles fell prostrate. Jesus woke them and comforted them. By this time, Moses and Elijah were gone. Jesus and the three apostles went down the mountain to meet with the others.
The Coming of Elijah
(Mt 17:9) And as they were coming down the mountain, Jesus commanded them not to tell anyone what they had just seen, until the Son of Man should be raised from the dead.
As they were coming down the mountain
The evangelists do not give the name of the mountain of the transfiguration because their readers might know the mountain when they wrote the gospels. According to the earliest tradition, it was Mount Tabor that stands alone as a mountain in that area. A church was there from the fourth century. Pilgrims even today visit the reconstructed church, which is around 2,000 feet above sea level. Since Jesus and the disciples were in Caesarea Philippi six days prior to the transfiguration, there are scholars who consider Mount Hermon, that is around 10,000 feet above sea level, as the mountain of transfiguration.
Jesus commanded them not to tell anyone what they had just seen
Immediately after manifesting his glory, Jesus would tell the people not to publicize the event so as to limit the spread of his fame. So, after Peter acknowledged Jesus stating, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Mt 16:16), “he strictly ordered his disciples to tell no one that he was the Messiah” (Mt 16:20).
Jesus instructed demons not to reveal his identity as the Son of God. When Jesus was in Capernaum, he saw a man with an unclean spirit in the synagogue there. The demon possessed man said, “I know who you are—the Holy One of God!” Jesus rebuked him and said, “Quiet! Come out of him!” (Mk 1:24-25) Later, “He drove out many demons, not permitting them to speak because they knew him” (Mk 1:34). “And whenever unclean spirits saw him, they would fall down before him and shout, ‘You are the Son of God.’ He warned them sternly not to make him known” (Mk 3:11,12).
Sometimes Jesus instructed the recipients of healing, the crowd, and his disciples to avoid giving publicity to his favours for them or reveal his divine identity. After healing a leper, Jesus said, “See that you tell no one, but go show yourself to the priest, and offer the gift that Moses prescribed; that will be proof for them” (Mt 8:4; Mk 1:43-44). After raising Jairus’ daughter, “He gave strict orders that no one should know this and said that she should be given something to eat” (Mk 5:43). After healing a deaf man whom people brought to Jesus, “He ordered them not to tell anyone. But the more he ordered them not to, the more they proclaimed it” (Mk 7:36).
Why Jesus wanted to keep the secrecy? The following could be the possibilities:
1. God had restricted the revelation of the Kingdom of God and Jesus’ divine identity to a limited people whom He chose. When the disciples asked Jesus why he spoke to the public in parables, he answered, “The mystery of the kingdom of God has been granted to you. But to those outside everything comes in parables, so that ‘they may look and see but not perceive, and hear and listen but not understand, in order that they may not be converted and be forgiven’” (Mk 4:11-12).
2. Jesus had to preach the Kingdom of God to a wide region. A larger publicity of his miracles would impede his movement in other areas. Mark reports, “Whatever villages or towns or countryside he entered, they laid the sick in the marketplaces and begged him that they might touch only the tassel on his cloak; and as many as touched it were healed” (Mk 6:56). When Jesus was leaving Capernaum to preach in the synagogues of Judaea, the crowds “tried to prevent him from leaving them. But he said to them, ‘To the other towns also I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God, because for this purpose I have been sent’” (Lk 4:42-44).
3. The opponents of Jesus were after him. The more miracles he performed and the popularity he gained; the more was his life at risk. Jesus did not want a premature death until his time (Jn 7:8) that the Father determined was at hand. He had to complete his mission before the appointed time of his sacrifice.
Until the Son of Man should be raised from the dead.
The secrecy was not permanent. After the inauguration of the Church on the day of Pentecost, the disciples could reveal and announce the secrets of the kingdom of God to all. A premature revelation of the mysteries of the messianic role of Jesus could have disrupted his redemptive mission. After his resurrection, all the disciples could understand the mystery of transfiguration and other secrets hidden from them. Until then, the public could not comprehend whatever Jesus had revealed.
(10) The disciples asked him, “Why do the teachers of the Law say that Elijah must come first?”
The disciples asked him
While coming down the mountain, Peter, James, and John were still confused on the return of Elijah in an eschatological form. They had learned from the scholars of the Law and the Scriptures that Elijah must return prior to the Messiah. Though the three saw Elijah along with Moses on the mountain, that was for a short while and he had disappeared. The three disciples asked Jesus to clarify their doubt.
the teachers of the Law
The teachers of the Law and the Scribes have different shades of meaning. The Scribes were a group of Jews whose primary responsibility was studying, copying, and interpreting Holy Scripture. They served in the synagogues as readers and interpreters of the Bible. They were also experts in the judicial procedures, and some were members of the Sanhedrin. The Jews respected them because of their knowledge in the Bible, dedicated service, and adherence to the Laws. They thrived from the time of the Babylonian exile till the destruction of the second Temple in 70 AD. The top-level Scribe was known as Rabbi.
The scholar of the law means an expert in the laws of Moses, given in the first five books of the Bible called Torah or Pentateuch. The difference between a Scribe and a scholar of the law is that the scholar of the law was a Scribe who specialized more in the Mosaic laws than in the other sections of scripture. Such scholars of the Torah were in demand because the written laws and their interpretations governed the lives of the Jews.
Elijah in Hebrew and Elias in Greek mean “My God is Yahweh.” He was a prominent prophet in Northern Israel in the ninth century BC. Like Jesus, he performed miracles including bringing down fire from the sky on the burned offering, wood, stones, and dust (1 Kgs 18:19-40), multiplied a jar of flour and a jug of oil in Zarephath for a long time (1 Kgs 17:7-16), raised the son of a widow in Zarephath (1 Kgs 17:17-24), and he was taken up in a whirlwind to heaven by God without facing death (2 Kgs 2:11). However, Jesus worked more miracles than Elijah.
Elijah must come first?
Malachi had prophesied that Elijah would reappear as a forerunner of the Messiah. “Now I am sending to you Elijah the prophet, before the day of the LORD comes, the great and terrible day” (Mal 3:23/4:5). The Jews have been expecting the physical reappearance of Elijah and that is still a part of the Passover ritual of the Jews.
(11) And Jesus answered, “Elijah must come first to set everything as it has to be.”
God had announced the sending of a precursor before the Messiah – “Now I am sending my messenger – he will prepare the way before me; And the lord whom you seek will come suddenly to his temple” (Mal 3:1). Through Malachi, God specified the messenger would be Elijah’s return. “Now I am sending to you Elijah the prophet, before the day of the LORD comes, the great and terrible day; he will turn the heart of fathers to their sons, and the heart of sons to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with utter destruction” (Mal 3:23-24). The Jews took that in a literal sense and expected that Elijah, whom God took to heaven in a whirlwind without having him face death (2 Kgs 2:11), would return in person before the Messiah. The apostles also had believed the same teaching of the Scribes.
(12) “But I tell you, Elijah has come and they did not recognize him, but treated him as they pleased. In the same way they will also make the Son of Man suffer.”
But I tell you
Jesus used this phrase to assert his view differently from that of others or from popular understanding. People did not consider John the Baptist as the return of Elijah. When the Jews in Jerusalem enquired of John about his identity through priest and Levite representatives, he said he was not the Messiah, Elijah, or a prophet (Jn 1:19-21). He said of himself: “I am ‘the voice of one crying out in the desert, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as Isaiah the prophet said” (Jn 1:23). Unlike John, who indirectly implied his role, Jesus witnessed John as the return of Elijah.
Elijah has come
When the Angel Gabriel announced the birth of John the Baptist to his father Zechariah, he predicted the birth of the child as a spiritual return of Elijah. “He will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah to turn the hearts of fathers towards children and the disobedient to the understanding of the righteous, to prepare a people fit for the Lord” (Lk 1:17). Jesus confirmed this in his testimony about John to the crowd, saying, “This is the one about whom it is written: ‘Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you; he will prepare your way before you’” (Mt 11:10). Jesus continued, “if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah, the one who is to come” (Mt 11:14). When Matthew reports on the discussion of Jesus and the three apostles during their return from the mountain of the Transfiguration, he added, “Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them of John the Baptist” (Mt 17:13).
they did not recognize him, but treated him as they pleased
Though John the Baptist came according to the prophecy concerning Elijah’s return, some believed that Jesus was the forerunner for the Messiah to come because the actions of Jesus resembled that of Elijah (Mt 16:14; Lk 9:19).
John the Baptist, who came in the spirit and power of Elijah, experienced acceptance, rejection, and martyrdom. People from Jerusalem, Judaea, and Jordan came to listen to John and received the baptism of repentance from him (Mt 3:5-7). The Jewish leaders from Jerusalem sent Levites, priests, and Pharisees to check on his identity (Jn 1:19-28). However, after hearing from him, they rejected him. Because John questioned the immoral life of King Herod Antipas and Herodias, the king imprisoned him and later beheaded him (Mt 14:1-12).
Jesus mentions the Jewish authorities’ approach to John relating that to his passion and death. That was to fulfil what God had predicted concerning him through the prophets (Isa 53). Jesus told the three apostles, “I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him but did to him whatever they pleased. So also will the Son of Man suffer at their hands” (Mt 17:12).
In the same way they will also make the Son of Man suffer
Jesus agreed with the apostles’ understanding that Elijah must come prior to the Messiah to fulfil the prophecy. Before further clarification on Elijah’s return, Jesus reminded the apostles of the prophecy of the suffering and the enemies’ contempt of the Messiah soon after the return of Elijah. Thus, Jesus justified his prediction of the previous week on his passion, death, and resurrection. Unlike the popular Jewish belief of the Messianic kingdom on earth, Jesus came first to redeem the world through his self-sacrifice, and then he will come again to establish his eternal rule of the just.
(13) Then the disciples understood that Jesus was referring to John the Baptist.
The apostles Peter, James, and John were the first to understand John as the precursor of the Messiah, on the basis of the private revelation they received from Jesus. Though John did not claim himself as the return of Elijah, he had identified and introduced Jesus as the Messiah to the public. John testified, saying, “I saw the Spirit come down like a dove from the sky and remain upon him. I did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘On whomever you see the Spirit come down and remain, he is the one who will baptize with the holy Spirit.’ Now I have seen and testified that he is the Son of God” (Jn 1:32-34).
SIMILARITIES BETWEEEN ELIJAH AND JOHN THE BAPTIST
1. Elijah and John were prominent prophets of their time who got the recognition of Jesus. At the transfiguration of Jesus, Elijah represented the prophets of the old to appear with Moses, the lawgiver (Mt 17:3). Jesus said about John: “Amen, I say to you, among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist” (Mt 11:11).
2. Both preached for a conversion of heart and return to the true Lord and His commandments. Elijah said to the people gathered on Mount Carmel: “How long will you straddle the issue? If the LORD is God, follow him; if Baal, follow him” (1 Kgs 18:21). John asked the Pharisees and the Sadducees, “Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance” (Mt 3:8).
3. Elijah and John had similar attire and thus shared a resemblance in appearance. Elijah “wore a hairy garment with a leather belt around his waist” (2 Kgs 1:8). “John wore clothing made of camel’s hair and had a leather belt around his waist” (Mt 3:4).
4. Both Elijah and John had unusual food in the desert. God sent ravens to Elijah with bread and meat in the morning and in the evening. He drank from the wadi” (1 Kgs 17:6). John’s food was locusts and wild honey (Mt 3:4).
5. They both questioned the false practices of the religious leaders of their time. Elijah fought against the pagan worship of Baal that Jezebel had introduced among the Israelites. John questioned the hypocrisy of the religious leaders. “When he saw many of the Pharisees and the Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?’” (Mt 3:7)
6. Elijah and John criticized the corrupt kings of the time. When King Ahab accused Elijah as “disturber of Israel,” he replied, “It is not I who disturb Israel, but you and your father’s house, by forsaking the commands of the LORD and you by following the Baals” (1 Kgs 17-18). Herod Antipas imprisoned John the Baptist because he confronted the king, emphasizing that it was unlawful for him to keep his brother’s wife as his own (Mt 14:3-4).
7. The evil queen of the time influenced the king to kill Elijah and John for their righteous attitude. After Elijah murdered all the false prophets, Jezebel decided to kill him. So, he had to flee to save his life (1Kgs 19:1-3). Herodias prompted her daughter to ask Herod to give her the head of John on a platter. “The king was distressed, but because of his oaths and the guests who were present, he ordered that it be given, and he had John beheaded in prison” (Mt 14:9-10).
However, there were differences also between Elijah and John, which might have caused the Jews not to consider John as the return of Elijah. Elijah worked sixteen miracles, whereas John worked none. Even then, people accepted John as a great prophet. God took Elijah to heaven without having him face death. While Elijah and Elisha “walked on still conversing, a fiery chariot and fiery horses came between the two of them, and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind, and Elisha saw it happen” (2 Kgs 2:1112). King Herod Antipas beheaded John and his disciples buried him (Mk 6:17-29).
The Jews had expected that Elijah would arrive physically from where he exists because God took him out of the earth without facing death. However, John was born as the son of Zechariah and Elizabeth. According to the Angel Gabriel, John “will go before him (the Messiah) in the spirit and power of Elijah” (Lk 1:17). So, John was not the reappearance of Elijah but a different person who came in the spirit and power of Elijah fulfilling Malachi’s prophecy. Jesus affirmed it, saying, “And if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah, the one who is to come” (Mt 11:14). So, the disciples became convinced of the role of John the Baptist as the second Elijah, who came to prepare the way for the Messiah.
1. Jesus made Peter, James, and John a representative body of the disciples. These three had the privilege of witnessing the transfiguration of Jesus. However, they had special roles in the Church after Pentecost. Peter was the head of the Church, James was the first martyr among the apostles, and John took care of Mary while preaching in Ephesus and in the neighbouring areas. By our very calling as Christians, we have responsibilities and hardships to accept in this world.
2. The Pharisees and the teachers of the Law missed out on the privilege of recognizing John the Baptist and Jesus. Though they did investigate as regards John and Jesus through their representatives, their conclusions were predetermined and close-minded. Hence, they could not understand Jesus. Our pride and stubborn approach can also make us hardhearted to ignore Jesus and object his representatives.
3. Jesus knew he would have to endure the passion, death, and resurrection prior to his victory of the resurrection. The disciples of Jesus followed him, facing persecution with the hope of a resurrection and eternal reward at the second coming of Jesus. We should follow the same method of entering through the narrow door to rise from the dead and to inherit the kingdom of God.
4. John the Baptist came in the spirit and strength of Elijah. The apostles and other disciples preached the gospel and served humanity with the spirit and strength of Jesus. Do we have the same spirit and strength of Jesus in our lives? Let us remember the warning of Jesus: “You will be hated by all because of my name, but whoever endures to the end will be saved” (Mt 10:22).
5. When John the Baptist and Jesus came, the Jewish authorities did not recognize them because of their hardness of heart. We are fortunate if we can identify the word of God in the Bible, experience Jesus in the Holy Eucharist, and serve the less fortunate in society as Jesus’ representatives.