“A cloud appeared, overshadowing them, and a voice came from the cloud: This is My beloved Son; listen to Him! Then suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus alone. As they were coming down from the mountain, He ordered them to tell no one what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead. They kept this word to themselves, discussing what “rising from the dead” meant. Then they began to question Him, “Why do the scribes say that Elijah must come first? ” “Elijah does come first and restores everything,” He replied. “How then is it written about the Son of Man that He must suffer many things and be treated with contempt? But I tell you that Elijah really has come, and they did whatever they pleased to him, just as it is written about him.” (Mark 9:7-13 HCSB)
Growing up, the Rocky and Bullwinkle show was among my favorite shows to watch. Lots of fun and interesting characters, like Boris and Natasha, Sherman and Mr. Peabody and among them was one segment of the show known as “Fractured Fairy Tales.” It always consisted of a well known story that somehow took a wrong turn and didn’t have the expected outcome. Of course, without the expected outcome, the fairly tale ending and the moral of the story were greatly altered or “fractured.”
We tend to have fairly tale expectations for our lives and their outcomes, too. I think all of us probably had a few fairly tale type hopes and expectations for our lives when we were younger. Whether that involved our careers, our marriages, our children or our financial achievements, we likely believed that our future looked much better and brighter than it turned out. I’m really not trying to be a pessimist here. I actually tend to be a bit more of the eternal optimist. But I remember writing a paper during my junior year of high school in which I outlined my hopes and dreams for the future. Let me simply say, my current reality is certainly not bad but it is every different and a lot less than what I hoped for in that English essay.
Does your present reality look significantly different from the hopes and dreams of your childhood? If so, then you should know that you’re not alone. Does it look different from what you wanted, dreamt about and have been working hard towards achieving? Mine, too. But, does it also look different from what you thought God wanted or had promised? Yes, me too. Oh, I’m not saying that what I have is bad or even different from what God really intended, just different from what I intended, dreamt about, and expected. You see, I had notions of what God wanted and ideas of what God was doing but my ideas were often wrong. Not bad wrong, just not what I thought.
I started recognizing God’s call upon my life to serve Him in ministry when I was about 10 or 11 years old. That calling was affirmed on several occasions during the next 10 years, or so. But what an 11 year thought God meant – or a 14 year old, or a 16 year old, or even an 18 or 20 year old thought God meant – and what I’ve come to recognize God actually meant, are two very, very different things. My expectations and my experience began to diverge and take different paths but my trust in God and His calling upon me have remained steadfast and sure.
In this week’s focal passage, we are going to look at some expectations the disciples had and how their hopes and dreams are dashed by the reality of God’s divine plan. As you’ll recall from last week, Jesus has taken His inner circle of leadership, Peter, James and John, away from the group and up a high mountain and has been “transformed” in their presence. For a moment, the veil that has hidden Jesus’ divine glory has been pulled back just a bit and these men are eyewitnesses of it. They are left dumbfounded by what they see and by what they hear. God tells them, “this is My beloved Son; listen to Him!”
Suddenly, Moses and Elijah are gone, the glory of God that enveloped them is gone even as His words echo in their ears and only Jesus is left. Only Jesus is left standing there with them. Moses is gone. Elijah is gone. God’s divine presence and glory has faded away and only Jesus is left standing with them. But JESUS is all they need. He is ALL they’ve ever needed and He is ALL we will ever need. He is the fulfillment of God’s law – Moses is no longer needed. He is the fulfillment of God’s promises and prophecies – Elijah and the other prophets are no longer needed. Moses and Elijah are servants in the house, but Jesus is the promised Son – He is Lord over the household of God (see Heb. 2-4).
As they come down the mountain, Jesus orders them to tell no one what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead. This is the last time in Mark’s gospel that Jesus will tell anyone to keep His identity a secret and here it is provisional. Keep it among yourselves – don’t even tell the others – until the Son of Man has risen. Why? Why is it necessary to keep the unveiling of His glory and the confirmation of His identity as the unique and beloved Son of God a secret until His resurrection? Precisely because of what happens next. They kept this to themselves, but began discussing what “rising from the dead” meant – and that seems to prompt their next question.
“Why do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?”
The only resurrection that these men knew was the one promised at the end of the age when God would judge the world and the righteous would be resurrected. Remember that Jesus had also promised that some of them (from among the larger group of disciples) would not taste death without seeing the kingdom of God come in power. In fact, our Old Testament closes with these words: “Look, I am going to send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome Day of the Lord comes.” (Malachi 4:5 HCSB) Let that sink in, a bit. In fact, I would encourage you to go read that entire chapter – Malachi 4. Go read it, now.
That chapter of Malachi speaks about a day that would come and the Lord of Hosts would judge the world and “all the arrogant and everyone who commits wickedness will be stubble” or fuel for the fire of His consuming judgment. Then Malachi ends with the promise that Elijah would come before that day “and he will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers.” We tend to stop there and assume that the one who is promised to come like Elijah will be successful in turning them, but is he successful? Do they listen to him? Are the hearts of the fathers and the hearts of the children turned? There is a closing conditional clause, “Otherwise, I will come and strike the land with a curse” (see Mal. 4:6).
Our Old Testament closes with that dire warning. The day is coming, burning like a furnace! A day that will consume the arrogant and the wicked. A day that will not leave root or branches. A day that will destroy all that you’ve held sacred and trusted in for so many years. Some think that is a promise regarding the destruction of the Temple and of Jerusalem. Nothing left, no branches and no root. Nothing you can use to start over and grow a good vine, one that produces good fruit, righteous fruit that honors God. Malachi tells them, remember what Moses commanded you to do and listen to Elijah’s prophecies regarding you when I send his spirit (him) among you, again. If you don’t, I will strike the land with a curse.
These men had just witnessed the glory of God revealed in Jesus and heard the voice of God confirm who He is – God’s beloved Son – and yet, He’s still talking about dying and rising from the dead. We’ve seen the kingdom of God come in glory and power with our own eyes – so why do the scribes say Elijah must come first?
I think there are probably four ways you can look at this question. First, You’re here, You have the power, let’s do this! Let’s just cut out the middleman, make some slight adjustments, cut a few corners and get this Messiah ON HIS THRONE! Suffering and death? The scribes say Elijah must come first? Why? Where’s the need? What’s the point? We’ve seen Your divine glory and heard God’s declaration that You’re His Son, so there’s no need to drag this out. Elijah doesn’t need to come first, it is time to display Your power and drive Rome out of Jerusalem. While this idea is plausible, given the disciple’s ongoing desire to cut corners and discard Jesus’ talk of rejection, suffering and death, the context doesn’t really lend itself to this interpretation.
Second, with the previous events fresh in their minds and the disciple’s misunderstanding regarding the prophecies surrounding the Messiah affecting their outlook on Jesus’ future, it appears the question is related to Elijah’s role in the Messiah’s mission. They just witnessed the Messiah’s glory and the presence of Moses and Elijah, then experienced the affirmation by God. But now You’re talking about “rising from the dead”. Elijah was here but left, what now? If he was to come first, why is he now gone? What have we misunderstood about what the scribes teach? Why do they say Elijah must come first, when the Messiah is obviously here?
Third, clearly the scribes have taught that Elijah must precede the Messiah. He must come first and prepare the way. He will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers. The sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings, and Israel will go out and playfully jump like calves set free from their stalls. They will trample the wicked, for the wicked will be ashes under the soles of their shoes on that great and terrible Day of the Lord. If that’s true, that Elijah must come first and these things will happen, then why are you talking about rejection, suffering, death and rising from the dead? That’s not your role. Elijah comes and restores everything and then You will come and lead us to victory over our enemies.
Fourth, is a bit of the previous three with just a slight twist. The disciples have heard Jesus’ talk of rejection, suffering, death and rising from the dead. Those things were confusing in light of their understanding of the old prophecies. However, they had just witnessed a momentary glimpse of His divinity and glory. They had seen and heard Moses and Elijah talk with Him about these same topics. Then they experienced the glory of God’s presence in the cloud that enveloped them and heard His voice declare: “This is my beloved Son; listen to Him!” Jesus has now warned them to “keep this to yourselves, until the Son of Man has risen from the dead.” Then they begin to discuss what “risen from the dead” even means. So, they ask Him: “Why do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?” The key to understanding the question is to hear and listen closely to His answer.
The first sentence of His answer could be formed as a question, and not as a statement. “Does Elijah come first and restore everything?” We understand that John the Baptist has come in the spirit of Elijah and had been calling the people to repentance in preparation for the coming Messiah. But Malachi’s prophecy regarding Elijah carries a conditional clause. Elijah (or John) has come to call the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers. If they listen and repent, God will cause the sun of righteousness to rise with healing in its wings, and cause them to skip like calves set free from their stalls. They will trample the wicked under the soles of their feet on that day, that great and awesome Day of the Lord. That’s God’s desire for them, but if they refuse to listen then He will come and strike the land with a curse.
So, did Elijah come first and restore everything? If so, then how is it written that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be treated with contempt? But I tell you that Elijah really HAS come, and they did whatever they pleased to him, just as it was prophesied about Him. The scribes think they understand Elijah’s role in the promise of the Messiah, but the same scripture that speaks of Elijah and his role speaks of the Messiah’s suffering and rejection. How can you believe one and reject the other?
Elijah has come, and they did whatever they pleased to him. Just as it is written. Messiah has also come, and they will do whatever they please with Him, too. Just as it is written. He must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests. He must die and He must be raised again, on the third day! Just as it is written about Him.
Jesus has revealed to this small group His divinity and His glory. Why? So they can be witnesses of this when it comes to time for Him to die and to rise from the dead. They don’t yet understand, but they will. And when they do, they become empowered and emboldened to speak out about what they know: “However, so this does not spread any further among the people, let’s threaten them against speaking to anyone in this name again.” So they called for them and ordered them not to preach or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered them, “Whether it’s right in the sight of God for us to listen to you rather than to God, you decide; for we are unable to stop speaking about what we have seen and heard.” (Acts 4:17-20 HCSB)
We often create a fairy tale ending as to how our obedience to God and His Word will be demonstrated and achieved in our lives. But our fairy tale ending is, most often, quite wrong. It takes a wrong turn and it simply doesn’t finish the way we wanted or expected – our fractured fairy tale of God’s grace. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be used by God or didn’t end the way God expected. We are just humble clay vessels who get the privilege of being filled with the glory of heaven. God pours out His mercy upon us, forgives us over and over and over again, and fills us up with His presence, with His power and with His love… never because we deserve Him, but because we SO desperately need Him.
I had a fairy tale version of what my life of service and obedience to God would look like. Did you? Do you? I dreamt of material blessings but, instead, He offered poverty of spirit, treasures in heaven and His personal presence. I dreamt of prestige, power, honor and glory but, instead, He offered meekness, humility, a servant attitude and righteousness. Just like this group of disciples, I knew what God’s Word teaches regarding faith and obedience but I often chose to ignore it and hold onto my fairy tale. We are promised the same rejection, suffering and death that our Master embraced, but we often choose to ignore His words: “If you are going to come with me, then you must deny self, take up your cross and follow Me.”
Peter, James and John are challenged to see the Messiah of scripture. They’ve now witnessed His eternal glory even as He humbly embraces the will of the Father – rejection, suffering, and death – and He calls them to walk that path with Him. He also challenges us to see the Messiah of scripture and calls you and me to walk that same path – rejection, suffering and death. If you seek to save your life, you’ll lose it. But if you’re willing to give your life up for Him and the sake of the gospel, you’ll save it. What will it be? A fractured fairy tale or a walk with the Son of God? Trust me, His story is so much better.
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