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4: Jesus Reveals John in Malachi

This entry is part 4 of 11 in the series The John the Baptist Experience: Book 1

The John the Baptist Experience
Book 1: The Exceptional Messenger
Chapter 4: Jesus Reveals John in Malachi

Copyright © 20221

Jim Kerwin

Cellmates in Solitary

Image of John the Baptist from a 16th Century painting“He must increase, I must decrease.”2

John the Baptist was finding that even a man in solitary confinement has cellmates. For months, he had been the “guest” of Herod Antipas, Tetrarch3 of Galilee and Perea, in the latter’s hot, dusty desert fortress of Machaerus. Perched atop a Perean mountain over 3,500 feet above sea level, the palace of Machaerus had a breathtaking view to the west of the expanse of the Sea of Tiberius (what you and I know as the Sea of Galilee). Not so John’s dark, windowless cell. No, at this point, all John could see were his four cellmates — doubt, depression, despondency, and despair, the devil’s disciples — and daily they tried to steal more of what little light the cell afforded.

Against some of his cellmates’ jibes and taunts John was indifferent. Isolation? He had grown to manhood in the desert, largely a solitary figure who kept to himself and to God. Close confinement? Yes, that was a bit more more difficult; after all, he had lived his life in the open, feeling the hot wind against his face as he trekked the desert alone, or dangling his feet in the current as he prayerfully communed with God along the Jordan. Loss of his successful and wildly popular ministry? He had lived in obscurity most of his life, so in some ways, his “retirement” came as a relief; but his concern grew daily for his disciples and for the tens of thousands who had publicly recommitted their lives to the path of righteousness in anticipation of the arrival of Messiah.

Messiah! Messiah? Ah, that was the jeer, the taunt from his cellmates that struck home, the barb that stung his soul far more often and deeply than ever the wild bees had done when he had raided their hives and appropriated their honey. He, John, had proclaimed the coming of the Messiah, the Christ. God had confirmed that John’s distant cousin Yeshua, Jesus, was this Anointed One of God. God had promised John a sign, that this Messiah, this Christ would be revealed by His Holy Spirit — and he had seen the Dove descending on Jesus, he had heard the Voice of God on that fateful day of His baptism.

But John’s cellmates were relentless in their derision and they doubled-down on the darts of doubts they fired his way:

“What makes you think you really saw a Dove?”

“You?! Hear the voice of God? You’re a nobody languishing in a cell!”

“How could a nobody from Galilee be God’s Messiah? You’ve deceived thousands of people by pointing to Jesus as God’s Lamb!”

John needed to silence his invisible tormentors. So the next time two of his faithful disciples were allowed to visit, he sent them to Jesus Himself in order to find out.

Jesus Ties John to Malachi’s Prophecies

  • 2Now when John, while imprisoned, heard of the works of Christ, he sent word by his disciples 3and said to Him, “Are You the Expected One, or shall we look for someone else?”
    4Jesus answered and said to them, “Go and report to John what you hear and see: 5the blind receive sight and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them. 6And blessed is he who does not take offense at Me.”
  • Matthew 11:2-64

We watch John’s disciples return to their master John with Jesus’ message, with the witness of their own eyes, and with the assurance of the fulfillment of not one but two Messianic prophecies.5 We trust that their message, their testimony, and the realization of yet more Messianic miracles brought hope and encouragement, enough to silence John’s “cellmates” for a time, enough to assure him that this Jesus truly was the Messiah, the Expected One.

Meanwhile, the crowd had re-gathered around Jesus. Some of them had heard His parting words to John’s two disciples. Others had strained to hear. Most of them had heard John’s preaching and been baptized by him. Jesus was ready to use this “teachable moment” to highlight another Old Testament prophecy about John. He turned to the crowd and raised His hand to indicate He was ready to teach again, and a hush rippled outward through the multitude. Let’s listen with them as we read in Matthew’s Gospel:

  • 7As these men were going away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John, “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? 8But what did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ palaces! 9But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and one who is more than a prophet. 10This is the one about whom it is written, ‘Behold, I send My messenger ahead of You, who will prepare Your way before You.’ ”
  • Matthew 11:7-10

Jesus had more to say about John, but we’ll save that for later in this chapter. While John’s understanding of his ministry was as the Isaiah 40:3 “voice crying in the wilderness,” Jesus’ two designations for John came from the words of the last prophetic voice of Old Testament history, Malachi. Let’s look at the first of those two Testament-ending prophecies.

“My Messenger”

  • “Behold, I am going to send My messenger, and he will clear the way before Me. And the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to His temple; and the messenger of the covenant, in whom you delight, behold, He is coming,” says the Lord of hosts.
  • Malachi 3:1

Let’s take a moment to compare the first two clauses in this prophecy: Malachi gives them out as we have just read, but when Jesus quotes the words, He deals with them in a personal and unique way. Every other Old Testament translation of which I am aware (in both English and Spanish) puts the personal pronouns from Malachi 3:1 this way:

  • I send
  • My messenger
  • he will clear
  • [My way — (understood from the context)]
  • before Me.

Yahweh Himself is speaking, sending His messenger [John] to clear the way “before Me,” that is, before the Person of God Himself. But listen to the personal pronouns Jesus uses when He quotes the verse:

Behold, I send My messenger ahead of You, who will prepare Your way before You.

This is the reading in both Matthew 11:10 and Luke 7:27. Did you catch the differences? Let’s read it again carefully:

  • I send
  • My messenger
  • before You
  • [he] who will prepare
  • Your way
  • before You.

A Bible student’s first temptation is to say, “Well, that must be the reading of the Greek Old Testament, the Septuagint.” That would normally be a good guess, as variations in New Testament quotes from the Hebrew Old Testament are often the result of the inspired writer citing the Septuagint. But it’s not so in this case, as we can see from this translation from the Greek of that passage:

Behold, I send forth My messenger, and he shall survey the way before Me,6 etc.

No, we can’t attribute this change to the translational variances of the Septuagint. So, why is Jesus’ quotation unique? Why does He use the different wording? Because Malachi recorded what he heard — the Godhead speaking its internal counsel; and Jesus, the Logos, the incarnate Second Person of the Godhead, reiterated it as He heard it when it was spoken to Malachi: “I [the Father] will send My messenger before You [the Son, the Logos] to prepare Your way before You.”

Jesus’ unique rendition of the verse was accepted as a “given” in the early Church, and we can see this in Mark’s Gospel. Mark, Peter’s “son” in the faith (1 Peter 5:13), faithfully passed on what Simon Peter had taught publicly, and taught him privately.7 So the wording of this prophecy used by Mark (and therefore Peter) is significant:

  • 1The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. 2As it is written in Isaiah the prophet:
  • “Behold, I send My messenger ahead of You,
    Who will prepare Your way;
    3The voice of one crying in the wilderness,
    ‘Make ready the way of the Lord,
    Make His paths straight.’ ”
  • 4John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
  • Mark 1:1-48

Now that we know what to look for, we can see it clearly. Mark (and Peter) start their Gospel with Jesus’ personal rendition of Malachi 3:1, that is, His divinely processed interpretation, that of the Father speaking to the Anointed Son:

I send My messenger ahead of You who will prepare Your way,”

rather than “who will clear the way before Me.” This is that same One, the Logos, who would say during His earthly ministry, “I and My Father are one” (John 10:30).

For someone who knew by heart the wording of the Malachi proph­ecy, hearing this beginning of Mark’s Gospel might have caused them to do a double-take. Jesus’ re-wording of the verse is an indirect claim to Divinity.

And we who think we know the Gospel should be having another thought as well: The “beginning of the Gospel” (and scholars tell us that Mark’s was the first Gospel written) starts with two prophecies, linking Malachi 3:1 with Isaiah 40:3. The Gospel starts with the “messenger,” the “voice” who will prepare the way for Messiah’s imminent arrival. This messenger’s job is to straighten, level, and clear the path for His approach, to prepare His way, not just in the arid wastes of some earthly wilderness, but in the desert of the hearts of His people. This herald’s assigned method for this preparation is a powerful message of repentance.

God’s Remarkable Man

Jesus didn’t give the crowd much time to think about what He had just said about John being “the messenger” of the Malachi 3 prophecy. But He had their attention focused on John, his ministry, and his message, and on the words of the prophet Malachi, so now He moves their thinking towards His intended goal.

  • 11“Truly I say to you, among those born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptist! Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. 12From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven is forcibly entered,9 and violent men seize it for themselves.10
  • 13For all the prophets and the Law prophesied until John. 14And if you are willing to accept it, John himself is Elijah who was to come. 15He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
  • Matthew 11:11-15

Our temptation, especially in the West, is to rush to the climax, the “Elijah part” of what Jesus is about unfold (v. 14). Sometimes we’re like foolish children who want to skip all the courses of a savory, gourmet meal because we want to get straight to the “dessert.” But we will miss a great deal if we are hasty. In what we have just read, there is a rare verb (used only twice in the New Testament) and even rarer noun (used only once). Understanding how these function in the divine narrative will help us to understand the nature of John’s ministry, the nature of the Kingdom itself, and give us a glimpse into the processes and responses required in true and lasting salvation. Let’s savor this “meal” that Jesus offers course by course, lest we miss His pièce de résistance, the main course of His banquet.

Great and Greater

Let’s ask again: “What’s the context?” John has sent two disciples to assure himself that Jesus is the Expected One. Those two are eyewitnesses to the miracles taking place through Jesus, and they take back to John their testimony and an encouraging message from Jesus (Matthew 11:2-7). Jesus challenges the crowd to focus their attention on John and his ministry, and he assures them that John the Baptist is the fulfillment of Malachi 3:1 — the messenger sent before the Lord Himself (verse 10). Then He says (verse 11):

“Truly I say to you, among those born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptist! Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”

This incident is so vital to our understanding that the Holy Spirit has graciously provided a “”second witness” to this whole event. He has Luke record the visit of John’s disciples, Jesus’ response, and His teaching on the Malachi passages (Luke 7:18-30). What Luke adds to this account, as well as how he re-purposes Jesus’ words from this account (in Luke 16), will illuminate our Matthew passage further. Let’s pick Luke up at this point (Luke 7:28):

“I say to you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John; yet he who is least in the kingdom of God11 is greater than he.”

Matthew and Luke both relate a double-barreled blast of astonishing statements from Jesus. Consider what He has just said:

  • “Among those born of women, there is no one greater than John.” Pick anyone you want from the Old Testament — prophet, priest, patriarch, psalmist, scribe, reformer, king, queen, deliverer, law-giver, judge, or warrior — and Jesus says that John stands in the first rank among them. Choose any figure from history (up to the point in time at which Jesus spoke these words) — conquer­or, emperor, philosopher, statesman, hero, explorer, adventurer — and John the Baptist owns a place in the rarefied atmosphere of the most elite.
  • Yes, this is God the Son’s estimate of that hairy,12 scruffy fellow, now on Herod Antipas’ death row. How can this be? Other men and women had spoken for God, prophesied His words with His burden at His bequest, bringing His message to the people of Israel and the surrounding nations. Even Moses had served as the great intermediary between the God of Mount Sinai and God’s people. But no man had ever announced the arrival of God Himself and walked only a few steps before Him.
  • As the crowd pondered that astonishing declaration, Jesus added a second wondrous statement atop the first — “he who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than John.” What is “the Kingdom message”? What does it mean to be “in the kingdom”? And how does one enter it? That’s an exploration for the second book in our series, where we delve into the content and impact of John’s heraldic message. But theologically, it’s safe to say that no one (other than Jesus Himself) was in that Kingdom when Jesus made His declaration. We know that this is true because of what Jesus, the King, told a Pharisee named Nicodemus in the months leading up to John’s imprisonment (John 3:3-5):
  • “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.… unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.
  • New birth required, at a minimum, Jesus’ death and resurrection. So even John, whose key preaching phrase was “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand,” could not participate in the very Kingdom he proclaimed. This is why Jesus said that the one “who is least in the Kingdom of God is greater than [John]” (Luke 7:28).13
  • In what way does this new birth, this being “born of the Spirit,” open one’s eyes to the Kingdom and usher one into the Kingdom? Because it makes those newly born, as Peter puts it, to be “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4).

Nevertheless, John’s declaration of the imminence and immanence of the Kingdom of God required — and produced — a dedication and holy zeal among those whose hearts were moved. That brings us back to our text in Matthew 11. Now we’ll examine verses 12-13:

12From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven is forcibly entered, and violent men seize it for themselves. 13For all the prophets and the Law prophesied until John.”

When Luke shares this part of Jesus’s teaching in Luke 16:16,14 he puts the matter even more plainly:

“The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John; since that time the gospel of the kingdom of God has been preached, and everyone is forcing his way into it.”

John’s ministry marked a fundamental, permanent, spiritual transition, a heavenly sea change. Up until the Baptist’s preaching, the Law and the Prophets had been the proclamation through which God declared His will. But since that time, that is, from the days of the ministry of John the Baptist, what and how God communicated had been radically altered.

We deal in depth elsewhere15 on the various ways Matthew 11:12 can be translated, but the verse’s verb forms in their context allow us several interpretations, all of which prove true:

  • “The Kingdom of heaven is forcibly advancing.” And Luke explains the means: “The Gospel of the Kingdom of God has been preached” (Luke 16:16). And it was not just proclaimed in words, but in power (as exemplified in the miracles recorded in Matthew 11:5, above).
  • Luke expands on this in his parallel account (Luke 7:21) —
  • At that very time He cured many people of diseases and afflictions and evil spirits; and He gave sight to many who were blind.
  • From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven is forcibly entered. Forcibly entered? How, exactly? Luke tells us: Everyone who has heard, really heard, this Good News of the Kingdom has been “forcing his way into it.” This accords with two things:
    • The people’s active, sincere, deeply penitent response to John’s heart-preparing message. When Luke repeats Jesus’ words — “yet he who is least in the Kingdom of God is greater than John” (7:28), he also adds these words (7:29)—
    • When all the people and the tax collectors heard this, they acknowledged God’s justice, having been baptized with the baptism of John.
    • To this, Luke contrasts the response of the religious establishment (7:30)—
    • But the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected God’s purpose for themselves, not having been baptized by John.
    • The other side to this “forcibly entered” is part of the teaching of Jesus Himself. This force of soul brought to bear on entering is exactly what Jesus was teaching about in Luke 13:23-24—
    • 23And someone said to Him, “Lord, are there just a few who are being saved?” And He said to them, 24“Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able.”16
    • Note the use of the verb strive and consider its impact. The Greek word is ἀγονίζομαι (agonízomai), from which we derive the English verb agonize. Its root word is ἀγών (agōn), and in classical Greek, it meant a “place of contest,” or stadium, and evolved to mean the contest itself, until it stood for any sort of conflict. Paul sprinkles the word through various epistles:
      • 29For to you it has been granted for Christ's sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake, 30experiencing the same conflict (ἀγῶνα / agōna17) which you saw in me, and now hear to be in me.
      • Philippians 1:29-30
      • 1:29For this purpose also I labor, striving (ἀγονίζομαι / agonízomai) according to His power, which mightily works within me. 2:1For I want you to know how great a struggle (ἀγῶνα / agōna) I have on your behalf and for those who are at Laodicea, and for all those who have not personally seen my face, 2that their hearts may be encouraged…
      • Colossians 1:29–2:2
    • Note that in this short passage both the noun (ἀγῶνα / agōna) and the verb — agonízomai (at which we’ll look in just a moment) — are used together.
      • Fight (ἀγονίζομαι / agonízomai) the good fight (ἀγῶνα / agōna) of faith; take hold of the eternal life to which you were called, and you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses.
      • 1 Timothy 6:12
    • Here again we see the pairing of the noun) (ἀγῶνα / agōna) and the verb — ἀγονίζομαι / agonízomai.
      • I have fought (ἀγονίζομαι / agonízomai) the good fight (ἀγῶνα / agōna), I have finished the course,18 I have kept the faith; 8in the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day….
      • 2 Timothy 4:7-8
      • Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race (ἀγῶνα / agōna) that is set before us…
      • Hebrews 12:1
      • …but after we had already suffered and been mistreated in Philippi, as you know, we had the boldness in our God to speak to you the gospel of God amid much opposition (ἀγῶνι / agōni19).
      • 1 Thessalonians 2:2
    • There is nothing of halfheartedness or indifference in the noun agōn (fight, struggle, conflict, suffering, race course) or the verb agonízomai. There are eight uses of the verb in the New Testament, four of which we have encountered in the points above (including Luke 13:24, the verse now under investigation). And as long as we are “striving” to thoroughly understand this critical verb/noun pair, let’s take one more lap around the track in order to consider the remaining four instances:
      • Everyone who competes in the games (the phrase expresses the single verb, ἀγονίζομαι / agonízomai) exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. 26Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air; 27but I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified.
      • 1 Corinthians 9:25-27
      • …discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness; 8for bodily discipline is only of little profit, but godliness is profitable for all things, since it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. 9It is a trustworthy statement deserving full acceptance. 10For it is for this we labor and strive (ἀγονίζομαι / agonízomai), because we have fixed our hope on the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of believers. 11Prescribe and teach these things
      • 1 Timothy 4:7-1120
      • Epaphras, who is one of your number, a bondslave of Jesus Christ, sends you his greetings, always laboring earnestly (ἀγονίζομαι / agonízomai) for you in his prayers, that you may stand perfect and fully assured in all the will of God. For I testify for him that he has a deep concern for you and for those who are in Laodicea and Hierapolis.
      • Colossians 4:12-13
      • We will end the list with the other time ἀγονίζομαι / agonízomai is found in the words of Jesus: “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting (ἀγονίζομαι / agonízomai) so that I would not be handed over to the Jews; but as it is, My kingdom is not of this realm”
      • John 18:36

    So we’ve seen ​Jesus’ commandment that we are to “agonízomai” to get into the Kingdom. And we’ve come to understand that word’s root — agōn — and the verb’s nuances — to strive athletically, strain, fight, run, struggle, compete, race, labor earnestly. Is it any wonder that people’s response would be to “forcibly enter” the Kingdom being proclaimed? This Kingdom and its entry aren’t for the half-hearted, for those who think “it might be a good idea.” The all-out response of God’s love, His spare-no-expense sacrifice on our behalf, properly understood, elicits — no demands — an all-out, spare-no-expense response from us:

    Were the whole realm of Nature mine,
    That were an offering far too small!
    Love so amazing, so divine,
    Demands my soul, my life, my all!21

    So, yes, the Kingdom of God is forcefully advancing. And, yes, it is being forcibly entered, as it were, taken by force. And no wonder! “Agonize — strive with every ounce of effort — to enter the narrow portal that leads to salvation. Or as the original Amplified Bible put it so colorfully:

    Strive to enter by the narrow door [force yourselves through it], for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able.22

    Any “middle ground” is imaginary, illusory, deceptive, non-existent. There can be no more “limping between two opinions.” Are you for God and His Kingdom or against Him? Are you “all in” or “all out”? This was John’s message… and this was the message of Elijah.23

“If You Are Willing to Accept It…”

We finally come to Jesus’ pièce de résistance, the dessert of the passage, if you will:

  • “And if you are willing to accept it, John himself is Elijah who was to come.” 15He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
  • Matthew 11:14-15

The crowd understood Jesus’ reference to the prophetic promises at the end of Malachi.24 They had known the words (Malachi 4:4-6) by heart since childhood:

4Remember the law of Moses My servant, even the statutes and ordinances which I commanded him in Horeb for all Israel. 5Behold, I am going to send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord. 6He will restore the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers, so that I will not come and smite the land with a curse.

For the sake of focusing on John, we must resist the temptation here to indulge in an exposition of Malachi. Even though such a study of the context of these prophecies would be interesting, it would deter our progress on the John-the-Baptist-related prophecies, and we, like John, are trying to straighten the way and smooth the road.

It’s very profitable, not to mention eye opening, to delve into this matter of John as the prophesied coming of Elijah. But let’s do one thing at a time. In this chapter, we’ll tie up Jesus’ teaching about John, particularly the prophetic material. In the next chapter, “Squaring John with Elijah,” we’ll fully explore the amazing parallels between these two men of God.

Let’s finish this chapter by pointing out the other significant time that Jesus made the same claim about John — that he was the prophesied Elijah of Malachi 4:5. When Jesus made this declaration the second time is significant, for it was right after the one New Testament appearance of the real, historical Elijah!

“Elijah Already Came…”

To see this in perspective, we have to trudge up a high mountain25 with Peter, James, John, and Jesus. Just a week before this event, Peter had received his revelation of Jesus as the Christ (Matthew 16:16). We’ll look primarily to Matthew’s Gospel (chapter 17:1-13) for the report of what happened, and let Luke (9:28-36) fill in some helpful details along the way…

  • Six days later Jesus took with Him Peter and James and John his brother, and led them up on a high mountain by themselves.
  • Matthew 17:1

Luke tells us the reason for the ascent and the retreat: They…

  • …went up on the mountain to pray.
  • Luke 9:28

If you’ve guessed that we’re reading the accounts of “the Mount of Transfiguration,” you are correct. This “mountaintop experience” was rooted in a “prayer retreat,” and Luke tells us that this famous transfiguration occurred while Jesus was praying (Luke 9:29). Now back to you, Matthew…

  • And He was transfigured before them; and His face shone like the sun, and His garments became as white as light.26 3And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Him.
  • Matthew 17:2-3

What were they discussing with Jesus? What was so important that the great representatives of the Law and the Prophets, Moses and Elijah, should appear at this juncture? Luke tells you. The two of them, “appearing in glory,…

  • …were speaking of His departure which He was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.”
  • Luke 9:31

“His departure,” of course, is a reference to His crucifixion and atoning death just a few weeks hence. Now Luke (9:32-33) helps us set the stage for Peter’s remarks with a key detail:

  • 32Now Peter and his companions had been overcome with sleep; but when they were fully awake, they saw His glory and the two men standing with Him. 33And as these [i.e., Moses and Elijah] were leaving Him…

I will resist the temptation to sermonize at this point, other than to say that, like Peter, we human beings have a tendency to capture and institutionalize a spiritual moment. Awakened from an uneasy sleep, I doubt we would have fared much better than Peter. Even as Moses and Elijah are fading from view…

  • …Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three tabernacles: one for You, and one for Moses, and one for Elijah” — not realizing what he was saying.
  • Luke 9:33

How futile it is to attempt to capture these moments! The fading “glory” associated with Moses and Elijah is about to be over-gloried by an even greater manifestation.

  • While [Peter] was saying this, a cloud formed and began to overshadow them; and they [i.e., Peter, James, and John] were afraid as they entered the cloud.
  • Luke 9:35
  • …and behold, a voice out of the cloud said, “This is My beloved Son,27 with whom I am well-pleased; listen to Him!” 6When the disciples heard this, they fell face down to the ground and were terrified. 7And Jesus came to them and touched them and said, “Get up, and do not be afraid.” 8And lifting up their eyes, they saw no one except Jesus Himself alone.
  • Matthew 17:5-8

All of this may have occurred at night, as Jesus was wont to have these prayer retreats at night.28 They would have needed some daylight to illuminate the path down the mountain. So the intervening period between this blinding revelation of God’s Transfigured Son and their descent would have provided time to ponder and reflect on what had just transpired.

Finally, the sun dawns and they begin their descent. Their hearts are full of wonder and their minds are full of questions. Did they really hear Moses and Elijah mention something about Jesus’ “departure”? What did that mean? What would they report of their experience? Jesus short-circuited many of their lines of imagination and thinking:

  • As they were coming down from the mountain, Jesus commanded them, saying, “Tell the vision to no one until the Son of Man has risen from the dead.”
  • Matthew 17:9

To their great credit, they were obedient to this word. Imagine having experienced one of the most amazing events ever to occur on Planet Earth (up to that point), and being told to “zip it”! We would have been “bursting at the seams,” so to speak; I’m certain Peter, James, and John were, too. Nevertheless, Luke assures us:

  • And they kept silent, and reported to no one in those days any of the things which they had seen.
  • Luke 9:36

Blessed, faithful men! And with that, Luke’s account ends. But Peter, who was there, gives us an interesting insight through his “son in the faith,” Mark, about part of the discussion that took place in Jesus’ “Walking Seminary” that day:

  • They seized upon that statement, discussing with one another what rising from the dead meant.
  • Mark 9:10

Peter, James, and John have all just seen the real Elijah! But they knew that this was not the fulfillment of the Malachi 4:5 prophecy:

  • And His disciples asked Him, “Why then do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?” 11And He answered and said, “ ‘Elijah is coming and will restore all things’;29 12but I say to you that Elijah already came, and they did not recognize him, but did to him whatever they wished. So also the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands.” 13Then the disciples understood that He had spoken to them about John the Baptist.
  • Matthew 17:10-13

And with that summation — Jesus’ clear statement about John the Baptist fulfilling Malachi’s “Elijah prophecy,” to men who had just seen the real, historical Elijah and his Law-giving counterpart, Moses, outshone by Jesus’ transfiguration and out-spoken by God’s own voice — we will leave the matter. Peter, James, and John were now clear about John’s prophecy-fulfilling role, even if they didn’t understand that John’s death and imprisonment were foreshadowings of Jesus’ sufferings and impending death.

The Malachian prophecies now rang with clarity:

  • “Behold, I am going to send My messenger, and he will clear the way before Me….”
  • Malachi 3:1a
  • “Behold, I am going to send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord.
  • Malachi 4:5

I know of people who think, “Well, if Jesus said it, I believe it, but… well, Elijah’s ministry was so much more powerful, spectacular, and miraculous. And John? Even the crowds said of him, ‘John did no miracle’ (John 10:41).” These folks don’t doubt Jesus’ words, but a vague disappointment nags them. To them John and his ministry seem like something of a letdown when compared with Elijah.

Are we missing something in the comparisons between the ministries of these two prophets of God? Yes! That’s why we’ll spend our next chapter, Squaring John with Elijah, taking the measure of each man and his ministry. Be prepared for some surprises!


  1. This is an excerpt from the forthcoming book The John the Baptist Experience: Book 1: The Exceptional Messenger; copyright © 2022 by Jim Kerwin. All rights reserved.

    Unless otherwise stated, all Scripture quotations are taken from New American Standard Bible (nasb) Copyright ©1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation, La Habra, CA. All rights reserved. Used by Permission. www.lockman.org

  2. Cover: Detail from Mathias Grünewald's altarpiece Crucifixion-scene painting for a church in Isenheim, France (c. 1515). Courtesy of Wikipedia, but copyright is held by Zenodot Verlagsgesellschaft mbH and licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. The Latin phrase in the “crook” of John's arm declares, “Illum oportet crescere me autem minui,” the Vulgate reading of John 3:30 — “He must increase, I must decrease.”
  3. Tetrarch means “ruler of a fourth.” Antipas had been given a quarter of the territory of Herod the Great by the Emperor Augustus.
  4. The parallel passage is in Luke 7:18-23, which adds some detail: that John sent two disciples (7:19); that those two make clear that it was John who sent the query (7:20); and Luke details a list of miracles that Jesus did before the very eyes of John’s two disciples (7:21). Earlier in Luke 7, just prior to this passage, Jesus has: a) healed the centurion’s servant (7:1-10) and raised the Nain widow’s son (7:11-16). News of those events seems to be the catalyst for this story line (7:17-18): 17This report concerning Him went out all over Judea and in all the surrounding district. 18The disciples of John reported to him about all these things.
  5. To get a better grasp of the message Jesus is communicating back to John, especially through the use of these two prophecies (Isaiah 35:5-6 and Isaiah 61:1-2), see Deeper Dive #2 — Jesus’ Message to John in Matthew 11.
  6. This and most quotations we take from the Septuagint / LXX / Greek Old Testament come from the 1858 translation by Sir Lancelot C. L. Brenton. (And, yes, that was the translator’s real name and title.)
  7. This is the testimony of the early church. Eusebius (c. a.d. 260-340), the early church historian, reports on the writings of Papias (a.d. 60-163), in which the latter shares that the Apostle John used to say that Mark faithfully recorded Peter’s teachings in his Gospel. This agrees with the testimony of such early Church Fathers as Origen, Jerome, Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Clement of Alexandria.

    Additionally, Mark’s faithful recounting of Peter’s personality and teaching style comes across in the use of what must have been the Apostle’s favorite word. For more on this, take the plunge into Deeper Dive #4: Peter as “Mr. Euthus-iasm.”

  8. I have deliberately chosen the more “difficult” of the two readings of verse 2, which would seem to “erroneously” assign the Malachi 3:1 quotation to the prophet Isaiah. If this is of concern or of interest to the reader, we investigate the matter a bit more at the end of this book in Deeper Dive #5: Malachisaiah?
  9. This is the alternate, marginal reading in the nasb for the given text “suffers violence.”
  10. Again, I present the alternate, marginal reading in the nasb for the given text “take it by force.” My preferred reading for the whole verse would be the one from Lavender’s New Testament: “And from the days of John the Baptizer until now the kingdom of the heavens is entered with burning zeal, and the passionate eagerly claim it for themselves.” I explain my reasons for preferring this translation of Matthew 11:12 in Deeper Dive #6 — Verb Voices and Violent Versions.
  11. Careful readers may wonder why Matthew uses the phrase “the kingdom of heaven” (or “the heavens,” in some translations), whereas the other Gospel writers, like Luke, default to “the kingdom of God.” Why?

    Matthew was writing for a predominantly Jewish audience. One thing devoted Jews were committed to was keeping the fourth commandment: “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain” (Exodus 20:7). It had come to the point by Jesus’ time that God’s covenant name — Yahweh or Jehovah (depending on the transliteration) — was not pronounced aloud. The phrase ha Shem — literally, the Name — was substituted, for instance, during the public reading of the Scriptures in the synagogue. (This reverent deference about God’s name, by the way, is the origin behind the divine name being represented in most English Old Testaments in SmallCaps — the Lord, or the Lord God.)

    Another possible step in this sacred verbal dance of deference was to substitute the word “heaven.” Thus, a simple phrase like, “God bless you,” in the waltz of words and swirl of substitutes became “Heaven bless you.” Yet everyone understood that “God bless you” was still the import of the phrase. So it was with Matthew’s “kingdom of heaven.” The Apostle, deferring to the religious sensitivities of his Jewish readers, substitutes heaven in the phrase “kingdom of God.”

  12. Hairy? This is my extrapolation of two items. Like Elijah before him (“He was a hairy man” — 2 Kings 1:8), John the desert dweller probably wasn’t overly concerned about hair styles. And it’s possible, based on Gabriel’s strictures (he “shall drink neither wine nor strong drink” — Luke 1:15) that John may have been a Nazirite, one consecrated to God according to a pattern laid out in Numbers 6. (We addressed this at some length in book 1, chapter 2, More Important Than You Think.) Besides the aforementioned abstinence, a lifelong Nazirite was never allowed to cut his hair. See Numbers 6:5; Judges 13:5-7; 16:17.
  13. See also Matthew 11:11, where Jesus makes this same point.
  14. Not in the parallel account to Matthew 11:12-12, that is, in Luke 7:24-29, but later in Luke 16.
  15. In Deeper Dive #6 — Verb Voices and Violent Versions
  16. Jesus’ warning in this passage continues:

    25“Once the head of the house gets up and shuts the door, and you begin to stand outside and knock on the door, saying, ‘Lord, open up to us!’ then He will answer and say to you, ‘I do not know where you are from.’ 26Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in Your presence, and You taught in our streets’; 27and He will say, ‘I tell you, I do not know where you are from; “Depart from Me, all you evildoers.”’ 28In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but yourselves being thrown out.”

    Jesus’ Old Testament quotation comes from Psalm 6:8—

    Depart from me, all you who do iniquity,
    For the Lord has heard the voice of my weeping.

    and from Psalm 119:115—

    Depart from me, evildoers,
    That I may observe the commandments of my God.

    and perhaps even from Psalm 139:19—

    O that You would slay the wicked, O God;
    Depart from me, therefore, men of bloodshed.

    The point is that this is a recurring theme in the Psalms.

  17. A different word? No, ἀγῶνα / agōna is merely the “accusative” or “direct object” form of ἀγῶν / agōn.
  18. When Paul says that he has finished the course, he uses the word δρόμος (drómos) or race course. It’s a rare word in the New Testament, only used by Paul in his teaching and writing. Besides its appearance here in 2 Timothy 4:7, we find it in two other places:
    • Acts 20:24, where Paul is addressing the Ephesian church leaders for the last time: “But I do not consider my life of any account as dear to myself, so that I may finish my course (δρόμος / drómos) and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify solemnly of the gospel of the grace of God.”
    • Paul uses it again in his sermon in the synagogue in Pisidian Antioch in Acts 13:23-25. Note how in verse 25 he applies this word from the world of competitive sports to John the Baptist and his ministry: 23“From the descendants of this man, according to promise, God has brought to Israel a Savior, Jesus, 24after John had proclaimed before His coming a baptism of repentance to all the people of Israel. 25And while John was completing his course (δρόμος / drómos), he kept saying, ‘What do you suppose that I am? I am not He. But behold, one is coming after me the sandals of whose feet I am not worthy to untie.’ ”

  19. Again, this is not a different word; ἀγῶνι / agōni is the dative or indirect object form of ἀγῶν / agōn.
  20. I have incorporated more than the immediate verse under consideration to show that the analogy of physical training is in Paul’s mind as he writes of the discipline of godliness, for which he and Timothy should be striving / agonizing. The remaining exhortations in the chapter (vv. 11-16) are all the charges of a “coach” focusing the attention of his athlete on ways he can and should excel and improve his “performance.”
  21. From Isaac Watts’ famous hymn When I Survey the Wondrous Cross
  22. Amplified Bible, Classic Edition (ampc), Copyright © 1954, 1958, 1962, 1964, 1965, 1987 by The Lockman Foundation.
  23. It is Elijah who challenges erring Israel on Mount Carmel with this picturesque Hebrew idiom: “How long will you go limping between two different opinions?” (1 Kings 8:21)
  24. “The end of Malachi.” As non-Jewish readers of the Bible, we might be tempted to say, “The end of the Old Testament.” That’s because our Old Testaments, while containing the exact same material as a Jewish Bible, are organized differently. In the Jewish organization of the Scriptures, Malachi falls at a point past “the middle,” at the end of the section called the Nevi’im (the Prophets). Nevertheless, like us, Jesus’ audience would have recognized the chronological order, the “last word spoken” status, of Malachi’s book.
  25. Whether this was Mount Tabor (1,886 ft. / 575 m.) or Mount Hermon (9,232 ft. / 2,814 m.) is debated, but is irrelevant to our purposes.
  26. Should we expect anything less of God, who “is light,” of “the Sun of Righteousness,” of “the true Light which… enlightens every man,” indeed of “God, who clothes Himself with light as with a garment”? See John 1:9; 8:12; 9:5; Malachi 4:2; Psalm 104:2.
  27. Here Luke 9:35 adds, “My Chosen One.”
  28. Or in the wee hours of the morning. See, for example, Matthew 14:23; 26:36-42; Mark 1:35.
  29. Notice that I have ever so slightly altered the text by putting ‘single quotes’ around the phrase ‘Elijah is coming first and will restore all things.’ Here is my reason for doing so.

    I believe that, based on the disciples’ question, Jesus is quoting the generally accepted formula of “the scribes,” the teaching mentioned in verse 10: “Why do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?” Thus, in His reply, Jesus first quotes the generally accepted teaching: “Elijah is coming and will restore all things” in order to set up the contrasting, deeper truth.

    Note the important phrase in verse 12 — “but I say to you.” This follows Jesus’ established teaching-by-contrast method, found in places like Matthew 5:22, 28, 32, 34, 39, 44; 12:6, etc. — “You have heard that it was said… but I say to you….” If you study the matter, you’ll discover that every time Jesus uses this phrase, He takes an established truth or commandment (e.g., “You shall not commit adultery” Matthew 5:27) and applies it more deeply, more intimately (e.g., “Everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart” Matthew 5:28).

    On this hike down the mountainside, Jesus is essentially responding to the disciples’ inquiry like this: “Yes, you’ve heard it said by the scribes, ‘Elijah is coming and will restore all things.’ But let me explain to you the reality that they don’t see or understand. John is the fulfillment of that Elijah prophecy, and they have missed the fulfillment completely!”

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