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Elijah - John the Baptist
Question from Donna Marie on 1/6/2002:

Father, I appreciate your work on this forum very much. Could you help me understand Matthew 17:10-13? Are we to understand that John the Baptist was the returned, reincarnated prophet Elijah? I'm confused as I didn't understand reincarnation as a Christian belief. Another point of confusion for me, is Elijah/John the Baptist one person with one soul? Thank you!!!

Answer by Fr. John Echert on 1/7/2002:

Matthew records words of Jesus concerning the Baptist and Elijah:

11:10 This is he of whom it is written, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, who shall prepare thy way before thee.' 11:11 Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has risen no one greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. 11:12 From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and men of violence take it by force. 11:13 For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John; 11:14 and if you are willing to accept it, he is Eli'jah who is to come. 11:15 He who has ears to hear, let him hear.

Verse ten is a quote from the prophet Malachi, whose work appears last among the prophetic books of the OT and who prophesizes of the Messiah to come and the messenger who will introduce him. This important prophetic work ends with the following text:

4:5 "Behold, I will send you Eli'jah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes. 4:6 And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the land with a curse." Another important text regarding the return of Elijah is the earlier OT description of the departure of Elijah from this world, not through death but in an extraordinary manner up into the heavens, found in 2 Kings:

2:9 When they had crossed, Eli'jah said to Eli'sha, "Ask what I shall do for you, before I am taken from you." And Eli'sha said, "I pray you, let me inherit a double share of your spirit." 2:10 And he said, "You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it shall be so for you; but if you do not see me, it shall not be so." 2:11 And as they still went on and talked, behold, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them. And Eli'jah went up by a whirlwind into heaven. 2:12 And Eli'sha saw it and he cried, "My father, my father! the chariots of Israel and its horsemen!" And he saw him no more. Then he took hold of his own clothes and rent them in two pieces. It is in light of this ascent into heaven and the prophetic text of Malachi, it is no wonder that the Jewish leaders where asking the Baptist if he was Elijah or one of the prophets. The Baptist truthfully denied that he was Elijah, for they were and are separate human persons. But Jesus Himself explicitly associated Elijah with the Baptist, in that John was the fulfillment of the Elijah expectation. We call this typology, wherein a figure or event from the OT find a divinely intended point of connection and fulfillment in something of the NT, or more specifically, Jesus Christ. Most Jews were not prepared for this sort of interpretation and whereas those with open hearts were able to accept such associations based upon what Jesus was doing and teaching, those with hardened hearts rejected such connections and thereby missed the fulfillment of God’s promise. This association of the Baptist and Elijah is one of the major examples of typology. And this typology is one important aspect of the relationship between the Old and the New Testament which can help us to understand the OT at its deeper level and better appreciate the providence of God in the history of salvation. Christians who do not recognize the importance and prevalence of typology and OT fulfillment in the NT are prone to misinterpret such prophetic foreshadowing in the OT, just as the original Jews in the time of Christ often missed the fulfillment. And such misinterpretation can include some notion of reincarnation, which is not compatible with Biblical or Church teaching.

It is interesting to note that at least some of the Patristics reveal an expectation that the original Elijah himself will return to usher in the Day of the Lord, when Christ returns for the final realization of the Kingdom. Such would be consistent with the Scriptures and salvation history, in which there is multiple fulfillment in various ways, often unexpected. ©

Thanks, Donna

Father Echert

PS Readers of this forum, I will be away for the remainder of the week and will resume posts thereafter.

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