The disciples asked Jesus, ‘Why, then, do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?’ He replied, ‘Elijah is indeed coming and will restore all things; but I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but they did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man is about to suffer at their hands.’ Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them about John the Baptist.
In today’s reading Jesus makes it plain how the relationship between himself and John the Baptist should be viewed.
At the end of the book of the prophet Malachi we read these words: I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. This is the basis of the question that opens our passage from Matthew today. The disciples have been brought up knowing this teaching … Elijah must appear before the coming of the Messiah.
Immediately prior to today’s reading we read of Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountainside. That moment of transfiguration confirmed Jesus’ identity as the long-awaited Messiah, confirmed by the words of the voice from the cloud which said: This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased: listen to him! But, if Jesus is the Messiah, why had Elijah not appeared first?
Jesus then affirms the truth of the prophecy by declaring that Elijah had already come amongst them. John the Baptist was the forerunner foretold in the prophecies of the Old Testament. John the Baptist was not recognized for he who truly was, and he was destined to be rejected and put to death, the same fate which awaited Jesus himself.
Today’s reading is important because it connects the ancient prophecies with current reality. So many people view the biblical accounts of Jesus’ life on earth as a wonderful story, the greatest story ever told. But, to view the gospel narrative in that way is to belittle its importance to the whole of humanity.
Earlier in Matthew’s gospel Jesus says: Do you think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. Today we are reminded of those words. Today we are invited to recognize and celebrate that the Messiah has walked amongst us, and that through the fulfilment of the law and the prophets, Jesus has redeemed the world.
As we continue our journey through Advent, let us pray that we might remain focused on all that Jesus has done for humanity. Let us remain steadfast in prayer, diligent in our reading of scripture, and let us go out into the world in order that others might come to know the reality of Jesus’ presence in their lives.
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