Listening to Jesus About the Scriptures

William C. Brownson Uncategorized

READ : Mark 9:12-13

And he said to them, “Elijah does come first to restore all things; and how is it written of the Son of man, that he should suffer many things and be treated with contempt? But I tell you that Elijah has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written of him.”

Mark 9:12-13 rsv

What did Jesus have to say about the Old Testament scriptures? Quite a bit, really. Jesus appears in the gospels as One who quotes the Old Testament frequently, who recognizes the ancient Scriptures as the Word of God, who accepts their authority. Especially He sees Himself, His ministry, His saving work, as the fulfillment of the Old Testament.


Let me cite a few passages that give us the flavor of this. The first is a kind of aside in the tenth chapter of John’s Gospel. Jesus had been talking about His unique relationship to the Father. Some of His critics accused Him of blasphemy because He, being a man, made Himself, as they said, God. Here was the Lord’s answer:

Jesus answered them, “Is it not written in your law, `I said, you are gods’? If he called them gods to whom the word of God came (and scripture cannot be broken), do you say of him whom the Father consecrated and sent into the world, `You are blaspheming,’ because I said `I am the Son of God’? (vv. 34-36).
Note those words, “and scripture cannot be broken.” To Jesus, the Old Testament revelation stands firm. He says: “one jot or tittle shall in no wise pass from the law until all be fulfilled” (see Matt. 5:18).

For Jesus, this word from God had final authority. It settled every issue. Again and again He resisted the tempter in the wilderness by appealing to passages from the Old Testament. “It is written . . . It is written . . . It is written . . . .” And right at the heart of what He said on that occasion, these words: “Man shall not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4).

But His major emphasis is upon His own life and ministry as the fulfillment of the Old Testament Scriptures. He said to His challengers on one occasion: “You search the scriptures because you think in them you have eternal life, and it is they that bear witness to me” (John 5:39). Again, “If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote of me” (John 5:46). And after the resurrection, “beginning with Moses and all the prophets, Jesus interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27).


Today I want to think with you about a particular theme of the Old Testament, a promise made in the prophetic writings. Let’s see how Jesus dealt with it. I’m reading from Mark, chapter 9, at verse 9. This is right after the experience we call the Transfiguration:

And as they were coming down the mountain, he charged them to tell no one what they had seen, until the Son of man should have risen from the dead. So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what the rising from the dead meant. And they asked him, “Why do the scribes say that first Elijah must come?” And he said to them, “Elijah does come first to restore all things; and how is it written of the Son of man, that he should suffer many things and be treated with contempt? But I tell you that Elijah has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written of him.

Having just seen Elijah conversing with Jesus on the mountaintop, the disciples asked, “Why do the scribes say that first Elijah must come?” It was apparently a popular belief among the religious leaders of Israel that the Messiah would not come until Elijah had first reappeared. They based this belief on the last verses in the Old Testament, these words from Malachi, chapter 4:

Remember the law of my servant Moses, the statutes and ordinances that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel. “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.

The disciples wonder: What does Jesus think about this promise? What does He say about the expectation of the religious leaders? Jesus agrees with them. Elijah will indeed come, Jesus says, to restore all things. This Old Testament prophecy, this promise by the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, will surely be fulfilled.

In the religion of God’s people, Elijah was an enormously important figure. As the champion of the holy Lord against the entrenched forces of Baal, Elijah became a great hero in the eyes of later ages in Israel. He represented all that was highest and best in the prophetic tradition. He had been miraculously taken up to heaven. The prophet Malachi assured the faithful that this man of God, Elijah, would return to earth before the awesome day of the Lord.


But Jesus doesn’t stop with agreeing that Elijah must first come. He goes on to make a startling announcement, “I tell you that Elijah has come.” Questions must have sprung up everywhere: When? Where? How, Jesus, has Elijah come? His consistent answer was: “in the life and ministry of John the Baptist.”

In the Gospel according to Luke, we read these words which an angel conveyed to Zecharias, John’s father, “You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth; for he will be great before the Lord, and he shall drink no wine nor strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. And he will turn many of the sons of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared” (1:14-17). That was the first inkling that the career of John the Baptist would be like that of Elijah.

John, like the great prophet, was a man of the wilderness, a child of the open spaces. His clothing bore a striking resemblance to that of the fiery prophet. Here is the Old Testament description of Elijah: “He wore a garment of haircloth with a girdle of leather about his loins” (2 Kings 1:8). And here is the gospel writer’s sketch of John: “He was clothed with camel’s hair and had a leather girdle around his waist.” Both men called the Israelites to repent and turn to the Lord. Both contended against kings with the word of God on their lips. Both were hated and opposed by powerful, malicious queens. And just as Elijah had ushered in a new day for Israel with his fiery, prophetic ministry, so John the Baptist came to announce that the time was fulfilled and the kingdom of God had drawn near. Jesus, noting these things, and knowing John well, had this to say about him one day: “All the prophets and the law prophesied until John; and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. He who has ears to hear, let him hear” (Matt. 11:13-15).

Note that. John is Elijah in the eyes of Jesus. The promise of God is not only certain to be accomplished, according to Jesus. The fulfillment of it is now, for this generation, before their very eyes.

But Jesus’ idea of this fulfillment was manifestly different from that of His contemporaries. They expected Elijah to come and identify himself openly. Everyone would know who he was. He would appear to set everything right, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to the fathers. Under his ministry would come the restoration of all things. All Israel would surely rejoice when Elijah came at last.

But this John, on the other hand, was a controversial figure. He angered some of the best people in Israel with his urgent call to repentance, not seeming to recognize their piety and position. Further, when some of the Pharisees had expressly asked him if he were Elijah, he had denied it. All he said about himself was that He was a voice crying in the wilderness. He was preparing the way of One so great that he, John, was not worthy to stoop down and untie his sandals. He did no mighty works of healing, performed no wonders, directed attention consistently away from himself. If he were Elijah, they reasoned, He would surely have said so and acted accordingly.


To Jesus, then, the true fulfillment of the ancient Scriptures was sometimes surrounded by mystery, accomplished in hiddenness. That was true of His own ministry. Though He knew Himself to be the Messiah, the Son of God, He never seemed to advertise that. When people saw His mighty works and were overwhelmed with amazement, He would charge them again and again not to make Him known, not to tell anyone about what He had done.

Perhaps this reticence was due to popular expectations about the Messiah. The masses had their idea about what the Messiah would be like and how He would act. Jesus’ conception of His role and work was quite different. He didn’t want to encourage mistaken impressions. He didn’t want people to hail Him as the Christ until they understood what He had come to do. And so He gave occasional hints and glimpses of His glory, but showed deliberate reserve in making Himself known to the multitudes. For Him the promised reign of God was visiting the earth not in pomp and display but in strange hiddenness, through the ministry of One who was meek and lowly in heart.

Thus Jesus agreed with the Pharisees and with the rest of Israel that the Scriptures would be fulfilled, but the manner of their fulfillment as He saw it would frustrate and surprise many expectations. The fulfillment would be recognized only by those who had ears to hear and inner eyes to see, only by those who could read the signs of the times, those who welcomed Him in faith.

One theme in Jesus’ view of fulfillment seemed to surprise everyone. It was the note of suffering and rejection. The common belief was that Elijah’s coming would be attended by triumph, by glorious manifestations of God’s power. By contrast, see what happened to John the Baptist. After brief days of notoriety, when his preaching in the wilderness had caused a stir, he had gotten into trouble with King Herod. He told the monarch that he shouldn’t have married his brother’s wife. John had been thrown into prison for this boldness. It wasn’t long before the vengeful wife Herodias had conspired to have him murdered.

All of this seemed anything but Elijah-like. John appeared to be a pathetic figure, languishing in a prison and finally losing his head. Could this be Elijah – the John who seemed to fail in his mission, who came to such a tragic end?

And what about Jesus Himself? Remember what He said first in answer to that question about Elijah? “Elijah does come first to restore all things. And how is it written of the Son of man that He should suffer many things and be treated with contempt?”

This seemed even more mysterious. Jesus was speaking of the Son of man, that heavenly figure described in Daniel, chapter 7, to whom everlasting dominion would be given. According to Jesus, this Son of man, trailing clouds of glory, was yet to suffer terribly and be treated with contempt.

This for Jesus’ contemporaries must have been genuinely shocking. They looked for a triumphant Messiah. They expected one who, as the promised king in David’s line, would deliver them from the Roman yoke and restore the glory days. Jesus appeared as a quite different kind of king, without wealth or magnificence, without fighting men or royal retinue. He rode into Jerusalem on a donkey. Though He was a king in David’s line, He presented Himself most of all as the suffering servant. He was to be wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities. The chastisement of our peace would be upon Him, and with His stripes we would be healed. The Lord would lay upon Him the iniquity of us all. The servant of the Lord would endure rejection. He would suffer death.

So for John, the hoped-for Elijah and for Jesus, the promised Messiah, glory would come only through humiliation, fulfillment through suffering. Our Lord saw this as the great lesson to be learned from the Old Testament Scriptures. Suffering is the appointed lot of God’s faithful ones. First the groaning, then the glory; the cross before the crown.

Perhaps this surprises us, too. We had always thought that success, prosperity and esteem would come to God’s chosen ones. And surely it will be so in the end. But in the world, warns Jesus, His followers will have tribulation. We are disciples of the crucified One, and ours is the fellowship of His sufferings. To Jesus, this is the Word of the Lord.