Last time, we looked at Jesus’ healing of the servant of a centurion in response to his faith. We also considered the source of Jesus’ authority – God the Father, and we saw Jesus’ miracle of compassion on the widow of Nain in raising her son from the dead.
Continuing now in Luke 7, recall that Herod Antipas had imprisoned John the Baptist, and later beheaded him at the request of his wife, Herodias, the ex-wife of his half-brother Philip.
Matthew 14:3-53For Herod had laid hold of John and bound him, and put him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife. 4Because John had said to him, “It is not lawful for you to have her.” 5And although he wanted to put him to death, he feared the multitude, because they counted him as a prophet.
John was, of course, aware of the prophecies concerning himself and the awaited Messiah. In fact, before he was put in prison, he had testified to this very thing when questioned by the Jewish leaders.
John 1:19-2719Now this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?”
20He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.”
21And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?”
He said, “I am not.”
“Are you the Prophet?”
And he answered, “No.”
22Then they said to him, “Who are you, that we may give an answer to those who sent us? What do you say about yourself?”
23He said: “I am
‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
“Make straight the way of the LORD,”‘
as the prophet Isaiah said.” [Isaiah 40:3]24Now those who were sent were from the Pharisees. 25And they asked him, saying, “Why then do you baptize if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?”
26John answered them, saying, “I baptize with water, but there stands One among you whom you do not know. 27It is He who, coming after me, is preferred before me, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to loose.”
John had also testified to his own disciples concerning Jesus the day after Jesus’ baptism.
John 1:29-3429The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 30This is He of whom I said, ‘After me comes a Man who is preferred before me, for He was before me.’ 31I did not know Him; but that He should be revealed to Israel, therefore I came baptizing with water.”32And John bore witness, saying, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and He remained upon Him. 33I did not know Him, but He who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘Upon whom you see the Spirit descending, and remaining on Him, this is He who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ 34And I have seen and testified that this is the Son of God.”
Aside – Notice that John says that Jesus “was before me,” even though John was born before Jesus. Clearly John recognized that Jesus is God, come in the flesh of man, but nevertheless the same God who has always been since before the creation of the world.
How strange it is, that while in prison, John had apparently begun to doubt this testimony.
Luke 7:18-20 (Matthew 11:2-19)18Then the disciples of John reported to him concerning all these things. 19And John, calling two of his disciples to him, sent them to Jesus, saying, “Are You the Coming One, or do we look for another?”20When the men had come to Him, they said, “John the Baptist has sent us to You, saying, ‘Are You the Coming One, or do we look for another?'”
It is tempting for us to condemn John for his unbelief, even though he must surely have been in great distress and deprivation in Herod’s prison. After all, he had seen the sign of God’s Spirit alighting on Jesus, and even heard the voice of God the Father speaking from heaven on the day he baptized Jesus.
Matthew 3:16-1716When He had been baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened to Him, and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting upon Him. 17And suddenly a voice came from heaven, saying, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”
We know that God honors faith, and calls upon His children to simply trust His Word. Yet God, knowing our weaknesses, repeatedly shows mercy on those who doubt.
Matthew 14:25-3325Now in the fourth watch of the night Jesus went to them, walking on the sea. 26And when the disciples saw Him walking on the sea, they were troubled, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out for fear.27But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, “Be of good cheer! It is I; do not be afraid.”28And Peter answered Him and said, “Lord, if it is You, command me to come to You on the water.”29So He said, “Come.” And when Peter had come down out of the boat, he walked on the water to go to Jesus. 30But when he saw that the wind was boisterous, he was afraid; and beginning to sink he cried out, saying, “Lord, save me!”31And immediately Jesus stretched out His hand and caught him, and said to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” 32And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased.33Then those who were in the boat came and worshiped Him, saying, “Truly You are the Son of God.”
John 20:24-2924Now Thomas, called the Twin, one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25The other disciples therefore said to him, “We have seen the Lord.”So he said to them, “Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.”26And after eight days His disciples were again inside, and Thomas with them. Jesus came, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, “Peace to you!” 27Then He said to Thomas, “Reach your finger here, and look at My hands; and reach your hand here, and put it into My side. Do not be unbelieving, but believing.”28And Thomas answered and said to Him, “My Lord and my God!”29Jesus said to him, “Thomas, because you have seen Me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
Just as with Peter and Thomas, Jesus patiently encouraged John the Baptist in his own hour of doubt. This is a great encouragement to us, as well, whenever we experience a lack of trust.
Luke 7:21-2321And that very hour He cured many of infirmities, afflictions, and evil spirits; and to many blind He gave sight.22Jesus answered and said to them, “Go and tell John the things you have seen and heard: that the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have the gospel preached to them. 23And blessed is he who is not offended because of Me.”
Matthew’s account excludes the miracles that Luke relates here in verse 21, but the message Jesus gives to John’s disciples is virtually identical in both accounts. Jesus recounts for John, here, Messianic prophecies of Isaiah, including the one He read out in the Nazareth synagogue on the day His own townspeople tried to throw Him off the cliff.
Isaiah 26:19Your dead shall live;Together with my dead body they shall arise.Awake and sing, you who dwell in dust;For your dew is like the dew of herbs,And the earth shall cast out the dead.
Isaiah 35:3-63Strengthen the weak hands,And make firm the feeble knees.4Say to those who are fearful-hearted,“Be strong, do not fear!Behold, your God will come with vengeance,With the recompense of God;He will come and save you.”5Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,And the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped.6Then the lame shall leap like a deer,And the tongue of the dumb sing.For waters shall burst forth in the wilderness,And streams in the desert.
Isaiah 61:1-31“The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon Me,Because the LORD has anointed MeTo preach good tidings to the poor;He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,To proclaim liberty to the captives,And the opening of the prison to those who are bound;2To proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD,And the day of vengeance of our God;To comfort all who mourn,3To console those who mourn in Zion,To give them beauty for ashes,The oil of joy for mourning,The garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness;That they may be called trees of righteousness,The planting of the LORD, that He may be glorified.”
Not only did Jesus offer mercy and encouragement to John in his hour of doubt, He then began to praise John to the assembled people.
Luke 7:24-2724When the messengers of John had departed, He began to speak to the multitudes concerning John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? 25But what did you go out to see? A man clothed in soft garments? Indeed those who are gorgeously appareled and live in luxury are in kings’ courts. 26But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I say to you, and more than a prophet. 27This is he of whom it is written:‘Behold, I send My messenger before Your face,Who will prepare Your way before You.’
Jesus is quoting here from Malachi’s prophecy about John and Himself.
Malachi 3:1“Behold, I send My messenger,And he will prepare the way before Me.And the Lord, whom you seek,Will suddenly come to His temple,Even the Messenger of the covenant,In whom you delight.Behold, He is coming,”Says the LORD of hosts.
Of course, John was steadfast in his preaching of repentance, and his proclamation of the coming of the Lord, and did not waver as a reed blown about in the wind. Neither was John wealthy, having given up his earthly inheritance as a Levite to go out in the desert to minister. Living off the land in the wilderness, he was not clothed in fine apparel. Much the contrary.
Mark 1:6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair and with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.
There was certainly nothing appealing about John’s appearance or demeanor. What appealed to the people was the palpable Truth of his message, proclaiming the need for repentance before the coming of the Lord. So it is with the honest and straightforward preaching of the Gospel today. Amid the plethora of false teachers who spread a “feel good” gospel to those seeking personal affirmation by having their ears tickled with what they want to hear, there remains a deep, God-given hunger for the True Gospel of salvation from sin through faith in Jesus, and Him alone.
The dead teaching of the scribes and Pharisees had a hollow ring. When John came teaching with the authority of God’s Word, people flocked to hear him despite his repulsive appearance and the harshness of the message.
Luke 7:2828For I say to you, among those born of women there is not a greater prophet than John the Baptist; but he who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.”
This is high praise indeed from the Lord of lords and King of all creation. Yet Jesus is careful to reiterate that inheritance of the Kingdom of God does not come through earthly greatness, but through humility and surrender to the Truth of the Gospel.
Matthew 18:1-41At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”2Then Jesus called a little child to Him, set him in the midst of them, 3and said, “Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. 4Therefore whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
Mark 9:35And He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “If anyone desires to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all.”
In Matthew’s account Jesus offers us additional insight into John the Baptist.
Matthew 11:12-1412And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force. 13For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John. 14And if you are willing to receive it, he is Elijah who is to come.
Some have taken this passage to imply that prophecy ended with John the Baptist. But this would seem to fly in the face of Paul’s teachings about the gifts of the Spirit.
Romans 12:3-83For I say, through the grace given to me, to everyone who is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think soberly, as God has dealt to each one a measure of faith. 4For as we have many members in one body, but all the members do not have the same function, 5so we, being many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another. 6Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, let us prophesy in proportion to our faith; 7or ministry, let us use it in our ministering; he who teaches, in teaching; 8he who exhorts, in exhortation; he who gives, with liberality; he who leads, with diligence; he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness.
1 Corinthians 12:4-114There are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. 5There are differences of ministries, but the same Lord. 6And there are diversities of activities, but it is the same God who works all in all. 7But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to each one for the profit of all: 8for to one is given the word of wisdom through the Spirit, to another the word of knowledge through the same Spirit, 9to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healings by the same Spirit, 10to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another discerning of spirits, to another different kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. 11But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually as He wills.
Before we move on, we need to confront a profound mystery. Jesus says of John the Baptist in…
Matthew 11:14…if you are willing to receive it, he is Elijah who is to come.
Yet, as we saw earlier, John himself denied being Elijah in response to a direct question from the Pharisees.
John 1:21And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?”He said, “I am not.”“Are you the Prophet?”And he answered, “No.”
How are we to reconcile this apparent contradiction? Why did the Pharisees ask this question in the first place? First, recall that Elijah did not die in the ordinary sense, but was taken up alive into Heaven.
2 Kings 2:11Then it happened, as they continued on and talked, that suddenly a chariot of fire appeared with horses of fire, and separated the two of them; and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven.
In the final words of the Old Testament, Malachi prophesied that Elijah would return.
Malachi 4:5-65Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophetBefore the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD.6And he will turnThe hearts of the fathers to the children,And the hearts of the children to their fathers,Lest I come and strike the earth with a curse.”
So, being fearful of the vengeance of God upon their sinful nation, and having heard John’s prophecies about Jesus’ coming, the Pharisees were naturally anxious to learn whether John was Elijah having been sent in fulfillment of Malachi’s prophecy. Today, we believe that the day of the Lord foretold by Malachi is yet in the future. Even if John did fulfill the first part of Malachi’s prophecy, the remainder is yet to be fulfilled.
Furthermore, we know that Elijah appeared with Moses speaking with Jesus at His transfiguration, after John the Baptist was beheaded.
Matthew 17:1-31Now after six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, led them up on a high mountain by themselves; 2and He was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light. 3And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Him.
We have no way of knowing whether Peter, James and John had ever actually met John the Baptist or would recognize him if they saw him later. Even if they had, it seems clear that either they didn.t recognize Elijah as John the Baptist at the Transfiguration or didn.t consider it important enough to report. Perhaps Elijah.s glorified body is so different from John.s mortal body, as to be unrecognizable by them. We do know from multiple accounts, that people who knew Jesus – the man – intimately did not recognize Him in His resurrected body until He spoke to them, or performed some action they had previously witnessed Jesus perform in His human form (e.g. breaking bread and giving thanks).
The relevant scriptures taken together, seem to indicate to me, personally, that John the Baptist and Elijah are indeed the same person. Jesus says so in so many words in…
Matthew 11:14—if you are willing to receive it, he is Elijah who is to come.
While coming down from the Mount of Transfiguration, Jesus also confirmed that Elijah had already come, although in this case, He did not mention John by name.
Mark 9:9-139Now as they came down from the mountain, He commanded them that they should tell no one the things they had seen, till the Son of Man had risen from the dead. 10So they kept this word to themselves, questioning what the rising from the dead meant.11And they asked Him, saying, “Why do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?”12Then He answered and told them, “Indeed, Elijah is coming first and restores all things. And how is it written concerning the Son of Man, that He must suffer many things and be treated with contempt? 13But I say to you that Elijah has also come, and they did to him whatever they wished, as it is written of him.”
Furthermore, recall that Gabriel the archangel told John the Baptist’s father Zacharias that John would fulfill Malachi’s prophecy.
Luke 1:13-1713But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your prayer is heard; and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. 14And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth. 15For he will be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink. He will also be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. 16And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. 17He will also go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, ‘to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children,’ [Malachi 4:6] and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
Note that Matthew and Mark both relate the Transfiguration after the beheading of John the Baptist. Luke does not report John’s execution at all.
Although I am personally convinced that John the Baptist and Elijah are one and the same, I am duty-bound to point out that various commentators vastly more qualified than I, disagree – with me, with each other, and even with themselves.
In his exposition of Luke 1, J. Vernon McGee flatly states that John the Baptist is not Elijah. But in covering Matthew 11, McGee says he’s not sure and can’t explain it.
Matthew Henry declares in his extensive commentary that John was “the loop that coupled the two Testaments, – that John did indeed fulfill Malachi’s prophecy, and that “John the Baptist is the Elias [Elijah] of the New Testament.” Nevertheless, Henry says that John is…
not Elias in propria persona-in his own person, as the carnal Jews expected; he denied that (Jn. 1:21), but one that should come in the spirit and power of Elias (Lu. 1:17), like him in temper and conversation
In his commentary on Matthew 11, Chuck Smith makes a distinction between John the Baptist’s coming prior to Jesus’ incarnation, “in the spirit and power of Elijah” (as foretold by Gabriel to Zacharias in Luke 1), and the return of Elijah in fulfillment of Malachi’s prophecy prior to Jesus’ return to the earth (as foretold in Revelation). Smith also says he has no doubt that John the Baptist is one of the two witnesses spoken of in Revelation 11 and Zechariah 4.
To me, personally, there does not seem to be sufficient cause to take Jesus’ proclamations in Matthew 11:14 and Mark 9:9-13 as figurative. In the immortal words of David L. Cooper…
“When the plain sense of Scripture makes common sense, seek no other sense; therefore, take every word at its primary, ordinary, usual, literal meaning unless the facts of the immediate context, studied in the light of related passages and axiomatic and fundamental truths, indicate clearly otherwise.”
Nevertheless, if John the Baptist was actually Elijah, having come in fulfillment of Malachi’s prophecy, the question remains why John denied he was Elijah in his answer to a direct question from the Pharisees. Maybe, in his earthly form, he didn’t know himself. We have already seen that despite the signs, John still had doubts in the prison whether Jesus is the Coming One. If he is Elijah, one would think that he would recognize Jesus. Perhaps, in the person of John the Baptist, Elijah was ignorant of his own identity as well.
Furthermore, if John the Baptist and Elijah are the same person, then the fulfillment of Malachi’s prophecy would be split, part having been fulfilled already in John’s coming, and part remaining for the future great and dreadful day of the LORD.
No doubt, our contentions with this mystery, and our disputes among ourselves over it will seem silly and facile when all is revealed in the “sweet bye and bye,” but for now it is, indeed, a puzzlement.