Elijah and John the Baptist

Matthew 17: 9a,10-13
Sir 48:1-4,9-11 / Psa 80

Elijah will indeed come and restore all things; but I tell you, Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but have done to him whatever they pleased. In the same way the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands.
(Matthew 17:11-12)

May we be like the prophets of old,
Fearless as they proclaimed God’s Word;
Believing one day we shall behold
The Light of God as our reward.

As they were coming down the mountain, the disciples asked Jesus, “Why then do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?” Jesus replied, “Elijah will indeed come and restore all things; but I tell you, Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but have done to him whatever they pleased. In the same way the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands.” Then the disciples understood that He was talking to them about John the Baptist. (Matthew 17:9a,10-13)

Reflection

Jesus had brought His closest apostles, Peter, James and John to a high mountain where He was transfigured in the presence of Moses and Elijah. As they were descending from the mountain, the disciples recalled their traditional belief that the prophet Elijah, who was taken up into heaven alive (2Kings 2:9-11) would one day return, as the forerunner of the Messiah, just as the prophet Malachi had predicted: “I will send you Elijah, the prophet, before the day of the Lord comes, the great and terrible day…” (Mal.3:23).

Those who believe in reincarnation cite the above passage from Malachi, and the very words of our Lord, “…but I tell you, Elijah has already come…” to support their belief. They claim that John the Baptist was the reincarnation of Elijah. But this premise is far from the truth. John the Baptist was indeed Elijah the prophet in spirit. The angel Gabriel prophesied about him to his father Zechariah: “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.” Among other things, he was the Elijah figure of the New Testament. Like the famous prophet, John lived in the wilderness, feeding on locusts and wild honey. As the harbinger of the Messiah, he told those who came to him for baptism, “I baptize you with water, for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is mightier than I. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Mt.3:11). In fact, he was also like Elijah in appearance, wearing clothes made of camel’s hair and a leather belt (Mt.3:4), similar to the garment that Elijah wore (2Kings 1:8). St. Luke in his Gospel, likewise described him, quoting Isaiah: “A voice of one crying out in the desert: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord,’ make straight his paths” (Lk.3:4). What the prophet of the Old Testament and the prophet of the New Testament had in common was this: to reconcile an unfaithful people back to their God through repentance, as well as to condemn the sins of their rulers.

Jesus was not speaking literally when He said, “I tell you, Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him…” Typical of His style of teaching, He was speaking metaphorically about two prophets who had similar missions from God, faced with the same hard-hearted people and the same tyrannical rulers (King Ahab and King Herod). His apostles understood that he was talking about John the Baptist, and was merely using Elijah to describe him. The Bible never taught about reincarnation, but only about the Resurrection, as manifested by Christ our Lord. This is as central to our faith as we believe Jesus is the Son of God.

How great were Your prophets of Old, dear God, fearless when they proclaimed Your word. May their deeds inspire us to work in spreading Your Good News to others even in our own humble ways, so that “the hearts of others may turn back to You.” Amen.

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