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Sunday, January 17, 2016

Preexistence: John is Elijah

During my daily reading of the scriptures I read through a passage which brought to mind a much discussed, speculated mostly, question of preexistence. Did John the baptist exist before his life as the child who was born to Elizabeth? What might the lesson of John's preexistence reveal for us about the preexistence of Jesus before being born to Mary and Joseph?

the failure of lessons not learned

Israel readily understood and accepted many lessons from God. Some lessons were rejected. There was the lesson involving the human sacrifice of Isaac by his father Abraham.

Although Israel pondered the significance and meaning of the sacrifice of Isaac, which was virtual and not actual, it was a lost lesson. This, despite the reality of the human sacrifice of Egypt’s firstborn to procure the deliverance of Israel from its bondage of slavery to Egypt. These instances involving sacrifice represent just two lessons which God gave to instruct and inform Israel of what God was capable of doing. These lessons were part of the unfolding revelation of the will of God for Israel and for all mankind and which was to culminate with the coming of Messiah. History reveals the failure of Israel to learn the weightier lessons, hence, Israel’s denial, rejection and crucifixion of Jesus.

Christians are not exempt from the real possibility of a failure to understand some of those same lessons as concerns Jesus whom Christians revere as the Son of God. Although there are numerous New Testament texts which attest to the deity of Jesus, that is, that Jesus is God in the flesh, the saints continue to struggle concerning his deity. In some instances, the befuddlement leads to the deity of Jesus being rejected. Some do not see it as a struggle. They simply deny the deity of Jesus and ascribe to Jesus a divinity much like that of angels. Is it not possible that like as God did with the sacrifice of Isaac and the sacrifice of the firstborn of Egypt that He might have done no less concerning the question of the preexistence of his Son Jesus whom he sent into the world?

the lesson concerning John the baptist

There is a struggle which precedes, among some saints, their quest to understand and accept the deity of Jesus. The struggle in their mind centers on a god who had a beginning, as did Jesus, when he was born to Mary. According to their understanding the birth of Jesus as Mary’s firstborn child nullifies the belief and teaching by Christians that Jesus, the Son of God, had a preexistence before his appearance on earth. However, Jesus himself delivered a real-time history lesson for Israel and for Christians on preexistence. It was the lesson concerning John the baptist in Matthew 11:2-15.

John was related to Jesus. Their mothers, Elizabeth and Mary, were cousins. John was born shortly before Jesus. It was not long before John began his preaching message of baptism for repentance to the children of Israel. The account in the book of Matthew recounts the time when John was imprisoned and feeling a bit unsure John wondered about Jesus whom John himself had baptized. So John sent his disciples to inquire for an answer and some reassurance from Jesus as to whether Jesus was the one who was to come.

the response of Jesus to the inquiry of John

Jesus revealed quite plainly without subtleties or nuances to the disciples in the above text that John is Elijah. He did not say John was like Elijah. The words of Jesus are clear and without ambiguity. John is Elijah in a different aspect; as more than a prophet. Jesus, as was customary of him, knowing that such a clear and bold assertion by him could easily be met with resistance and rejection attached these words, He who has ears to hear, let him hear.

The Jews were aware and mindful of the expected fulfillment of the prophecy of Malachi 4.

5 "Behold, I am going to send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the LORD.
6 "He 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."

Malachi, the last book of the Old Testament, records by name Elijah as the prophet whom God would send before Messiah to prepare the people for the coming of Messiah. Jesus’ own disciples were familiar with the prophecy and asked Jesus about it. Jesus affirmed the prophecy of Malachi for them. Some time after the instance in Matthew 11 Jesus was later asked by the disciples concerning the same matter which he had plainly revealed to them concerning John being Elijah.

10 The disciples asked him, "Why then do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?"
11 Jesus replied,"To be sure, Elijah comes and will restore all things.
12 But I tell you, Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but have done to him everything they wished.In the same way the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands."
13 Then the disciples understood that he was talking to them about John the Baptist.

Note that the disciples understood from his response that Jesus was talking to them about John the baptist. The fulfillment of Malachi’s prophecy concerning the prophet Elijah in the life of John the baptist reveals some powerful lessons and raises some strong implications (and nuances) concerning the preexistence of Jesus. We may understand and not accept those lessons concerning preexistence, but that is why Jesus admonished his listeners with these words: He who has ears to hear, let him hear. The fear of being anything less than of sound doctrine among those who lead, teach and preach often has the effect (often the desired effect) of the saints keeping quite rather than bursting forth with joy upon coming to the realization of, for instance, the implications concerning the preexistence of Jesus.

the preexistence of John

The birth of John was almost as extraordinary as the birth of Jesus. One of the first lessons of the birth of John is that he existed prior to being born to Elizabeth. Do not rush to jump to crass conclusions on the preexistence of John so as to ascribe the status of deity to him. The preexistence of John does not equate to such a thing. The basis for this statement is that Jesus himself asserted that John is Elijah. Elijah lived several centuries before John was born. It is significant to note that while some saints may cite Hebrews 9:27:

And inasmuch as it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment

that the prophet Elijah did not die. He was taken up to heaven in a chariot of fire in the presence of Elisha and the prophets. (II Kings 2:11)

Elijah as John

The prophet Elijah had come in a new role. It was a role, Jesus said, as much more than a prophet. John is Elijah. It is important to note and understand the name change and to keep those separate and distinct and not to think we have gained any understanding merely by freely interchanging those names. It would be as inappropriate to address a married woman by her maiden name after she is married to her husband as it would be to call John the baptist Elijah. The statement by Jesus that John is Elijah is a clarification for his disciples and not an instruction for them to address John as Elijah. It does little or nothing to merely plug-in a name change or a title or a label instead of understanding the significance and implications of what it is that has been revealed for us. The mistaken practice of plugging in names, titles and labels (such as Yahweh, Father, and son) is as common among the saints in Christ as among the scholars whom the saints follow; the understanding of both being seriously questionable.

the lesson outline unfolds

What the lesson of the life and birth of John the baptist reveals for our understanding is the reality of preexistence of a specific individual. The lesson outlines for us from nothing less than the pages of the written word of God the name of that individual as being Elijah. When the lesson unfolds before the eyes of the disciples they are informed that John is that individual whom the prophet Malachi had named. John is the one whom the Holy Spirit designated as the one who would prepare the way for Messiah.

conclusion

Suddenly, the much mistaken notion and seemingly inexplicable and incomprehensible teaching of scripture concerning the question of preexistence in general, and as concerns Jesus specifically, is not such a conundrum, _ if we have ears to hear. What the birth of John reveals is that that physical birth by Elizabeth no more marked the beginning of John’s existence anymore than did the physical birth of Jesus by Mary mark the beginning of his existence. While the preexistence of John as Elijah does not make either of them deity; the physical birth of Jesus does not nullify or invalid his preexistence or his deity. Do not be quick to think that merely plugging in some other name for Jesus, who like John, appears in the Old Testament or that such a name change translates to an understanding of the preexistence of Jesus. It is not an inexplicable or incomprehensible teaching to understand from the Old Testament concerning the name by which the pre-existent Jesus is known. Yes, Jesus did preexist. Take heart. Be assured. Be encouraged. He was no less God when he humbled himself to take on the form of a man than when he appears throughout the history of Israel as recorded in the Old Testament. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.

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