ELIJAH’S ADVENT IN JOHN BAPTIST
Matthew 17:10-13. And his Disciples asked him. saying. Why then say the Scribes that Elias must first come? And Jesus answered and said unto them, Elias truly shall first come, and restore all things. But I say unto you, That Elias is come already, and they knew him not, but have done unto him Whatsoever they listed. Likewise shall also the Son of man suffer of them. Then the Disciples understood that he spake unto them of John the Baptist.
IT is desirable that the evidences of our holy religion should be candidly examined, and clearly understood. The three favoured Disciples, Peter, James, and John, had just been admitted to behold a most extraordinary vision of their Lord in a state of transcendent glory, and had received from heaven this direct and audible testimony to his Messiahship, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased: hear ye him.” They had seen, also, Moses and Elias on the holy mount with him, both of them in their embodied state, sent from heaven to converse with him on the subject of his future sufferings and glory [Note: Luke 9:30-31.]. Now, it had been foretold that Elias, i. e. Elijah, should come as the forerunner of the Messiah [Note: Malachi 4:5.]; and an expectation of his arrival at that time very generally prevailed among the Jewish people. Yet the Disciples were forbidden by their Lord to report what they had seen and heard, till all the other things which had been predicted respecting his death and resurrection should have been accomplished. The reasons of this prohibition the disciples could not comprehend; since, in effect, it prevented them from giving to the Jews a very strong testimony to the truth of their Master’s divine mission. Hence they asked of their Lord an explanation of this matter: “Why, then, say the Scribes that Elias must first come,” when we are not at liberty to attest his advent? Here was a real difficulty; and it is felt no less by the Jews at this day than it was at that time; it being with them a very principal objection against the Messiahship of Jesus, that Elias, who was foretold as his harbinger, has never yet arrived.
Let us then consider,
I. The difficulty proposed—
Nothing can be more clear than that, if Christ be the Messiah, every prophecy concerning him must be fulfilled—
[St. Peter, affirming that “he and his fellow-Apostles had not followed cunningly-devised fables,” appeals to this very evidence which he and they had been favoured with, when, on Mount Tabor, they were made “eye-witnesses of Christ’s Majesty, and heard from the excellent glory the voice which bare witness to him.” But, aware that they might be suspected of having conspired together to propagate and maintain a falsehood in confirmation of some favourite system of their own, he appeals further to the “more sure word of prophecy,” which never did, nor could, issue from men, (since it was delivered at such distant periods and places as to preclude a possibility of a conspiracy between the persons delivering the predictions,) but which proceeded entirely from the Holy Spirit of God, who, at many distant ages, stirred up and inspired holy men to speak the things which should afterwards, in due season, be brought to pass [Note: 2 Peter 1:16-21. This I judge to be the true scope and meaning of this difficult passage.]. And doubtless prophecy, taken in this view, is the strongest of all evidences, that the religion established by it, proceeds from God. On the other hand, if there were so much as a single prophecy unfulfilled, that one failure would be sufficient to subvert all the fabric that was built on ten thousand prophecies; since God cannot but fulfil his own word, “nor can so much as a jot or tittle of it ever fail” of its accomplishment [Note: Luke 16:17.]. Hence, when all things relating to our Lord’s death had been fulfilled, except the offering of vinegar to him in his extremity, he said, “I thirst:” and then, after tasting of the vinegar, “he gave up the ghost [Note: John 19:28-30.].” We may assume it, therefore, as an unquestionable truth, that “the Scripture cannot in any single instance be broken [Note: John 10:35.].”]
But, in the instance before us, it seemed to the Apostles, as it does also to the Jews of the present day, that an important prophecy still needed to be accomplished—
[We wonder not that the Apostles were unable to account for the prohibition which they had received, and which seemed to disappoint the reasonable expectations of the Jews. Nor do I wonder that the Jews at this day lay a considerable stress on this, as invalidating the claims of Jesus to the Messiah’s office. I grant them all that they can desire; and willingly concede to them, that if this difficulty cannot be removed, they are justified in rejecting the Lord Jesus, and in looking for a Messiah yet to come.]
But let us, for the removing of this difficulty, attend to,
The solution given of it—
Our Lord, in reply to his Disciples, acknowledged that Elias was certainly foretold as his harbinger, but affirmed that “he was already come,” in the person of John the Baptist—
[John was born in a preternatural way, of parents who were at an advanced period of life. And the Angel who announced his formation in the womb declared, that “he should turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God; and should go before him in the spirit and power of Elias, to turn the hearts of the fathers to (with) the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the Lord [Note: Luke 1:13-17.].” Now this distinctly applied to John the very prophecy on which the Jews founded their expectation of Elias, [Note: Malachi 4:5-6.] and which our blessed Lord declares in my text to have been fulfilled in him.
Again: In John was fulfilled all that Elias was ordained to execute. He bore the most ample testimony to Christ, as “the Son of God,” “in whom all were to believe,” and who by his atoning blood should expiate the sins of the whole world [Note: John 1:29-34. with Acts 19:4.], and by his Spirit transform men into the image of their God, in righteousness and true holiness [Note: Matthew 3:11. These references in h, i, k, should be cited at length.]. Thus he fulfilled the office which God, by the Prophet Malachi, had assigned to the Forerunner of our Lord, “Behold, I send my Messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me;” and thus shewed himself a fit representative of that person whom the same prophet afterwards speaks of under the name and character of Elias [Note: Malachi 3:1; Malachi 4:5.].
To this it is objected, and a strong objection it appears, that John, when interrogated by the Priests and Levites whether he was Elias, distinctly declared that he was not [Note: John 1:19-21]; from whence it is said, and with great appearance of reason, that, supposing him to have been Elias, as our Lord affirms him to have been, he, by denying it, betrayed his office, and sanctioned the rejection of his Divine Master: but, as we cannot suppose that so good a man would have acted thus, we must believe what he says, and conclude, of course, that Elias is not yet come.
But it must be remembered, that the Jews expected Elijah the Tishbite to come, and inquired whether John were he: consequently, John was right in denying himself to be that identical person: and the time for the fuller and more explicit development of this point was not yet arrived, their minds being not yet sufficiently prepared for it; as our Lord afterwards said, “I have many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now [Note: John 16:12.].” But at this very time did John fully open his office as the Forerunner spoken of by the Prophet Isaiah; saying, “I am the voice crying in the wilderness: make straight the way of the Lord, as said the Prophet Isaiah [Note: John 1:22-23.].” And, if this declaration of his be compared with the testimonies respecting him by the Prophet Malachi [Note: Malachi 3:1; Malachi 4:5-6.], he will be found to have given the true answer to the inquiry of the priests, and that which alone, at that time, they were able to receive.
If it be still objected, that because neither Elias in person came, nor did John ever bear his name, the prophecy has therefore not been fulfilled; I answer, that to speak of one person under the name of another whom he represents, is not uncommon, either in the Scriptures or in classic authors. Of the Jews, after their return to their own land, God says, “I will set up one Shepherd over them, even my servant David; and I will be their God, and my servant David a prince among them [Note: Ezekiel 34:23-24; Ezekiel 37:24-25 and Hosea 3:5.]: yet was it never supposed by the Jews that David was to come again in person to reign over them in that day; but only, that their Messiah should come under the name of David, by whom he was typically represented. Let this be conceded, as it must of necessity be; and the whole difficulty is solved at once: and we are prepared for that which we are next to contemplate,]
The inference to be deduced from it—
We say, then, without fear, that Jesus is the Christ, the Saviour of the world—
[To the testimony of John our Lord himself appealed [Note: Matthew 21:25-26.]: but “he had greater witness than that of John, even the works which he wrought [Note: John 5:33; John 5:36.];” and to these he appealed, for the satisfaction of the messengers whom John sent to him, to inquire whether he were the Christ [Note: Matthew 11:2-6.]. He acknowledged indeed, that, under existing circumstances, there was some difficulty in receiving John the Baptist as the representative of Elijah: “If ye will receive it, this is Elias which was for to come [Note: Matthew 11:14.].” But that difficulty being removed, I will bear the same testimony to Christ as this Elias did: “He is the Son of the Living God,” even “Emmanuel, God with us [Note: Matthew 1:21-23.].” “He is that Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world:” nor is there a person in the world whose iniquities, though red like crimson, shall not, when washed in his blood, become white as snow [Note: Isaiah 1:18. Zechariah 13:1. 1 John 1:7.]” — — — Moreover, if only we believe in him, “he will baptize us with the Holy Ghost and with fire,” even as he did the three thousand on the day of Pentecost. Beloved brethren, think of all that ye can need, for body or for soul, for time or for eternity; and assure yourselves that ye shall find it all in him: for there is “a fulness of it all treasured up in him;” and “out of that fulness shall ye all receive,” according to the utmost extent of your necessities or desires. Nor would I have you discouraged by the reception which this testimony receives from an ungodly world. “John Baptist’s testimony was rejected by the Scribes and Pharisees, who said, He had a devil [Note: Matthew 11:18; Luke 7:30.]:” yet was his testimony true. And the wise and mighty of this world may reject our testimony also: yet is it true; and it shall be found true ere long, to the grief and shame of those who reject it, and to the unutterable comfort of all who truly and cordially receive it. Our testimony, in few words, is this; “That God hath given to us eternal life, and this life is in his Son: he that hath the Son hath life, and he that hath, not the Son of God hath not life [Note: 1 John 5:11-12.].” And so far are we from wishing any one to receive it without inquiry, that we challenge inquiry from every living man; and pledge ourselves, that the more the evidences of this blessed truth are examined, the more satisfactory will they be found; and that the more cordially the truth itself is embraced, the more influential will it become, for the comforting and sanctifying and saving of every believing soul.]
CHRIST PAYING THE TRIBUTE MONEY
Matthew 17:27. Notwithstanding, lest we should offend them, go thou to the sea, and cast an hook, and take up the fish that first cometh up; and when thou hast opened his mouth, thou shall find a piece of money: that take and give unto them for me and thee.
THERE was nothing in the whole creation over which our Lord did not exert his sovereign authority. He not only overruled the spirits of men, but caused diseases and devils to flee at his command. The very beasts of the forest [Note: Mark 1:13.], and the fishes of the sea, were subject to his control, and yielded a ready obedience to his will. A most remarkable instance of his power over every living creature occurs in the passage before us. To elucidate it we shall,
I. Unfold the circumstances under which he wrought the miracle—
A certain tribute was about to be demanded of him—
[This tribute was half a shekel [Note: About fifteen pence of our money.]. It was originally to be paid by every one above the age of twenty, whensoever the people should be numbered. It was called the ransom money, and an atonement for their souls, because it was an acknowledgment to God, that their lives had been justly forfeited, and were spared merely through his sovereign mercy. More was not to be paid by the rich, nor less by the poor, because the lives and the souls of all are of equal value in the sight of God, and there is but one ransom-price for all. It was to be applied to the service of the tabernacle and temple, in which all classes of men were alike interested, and to the due support of which all should contribute [Note: Exodus 30:12-16.]]
From this, Jesus had a right to claim an exemption—
[It is usual for kings to exact tribute, not of their own children, but of their subjects, and of the foreigners who trade with them. Now Jesus was the Son of God, and the heir of all things: he therefore was not liable to pay the tax; and this right of exemption he stated to his servant Peter.]
But he waved his claim rather than give offence—
[Just as his claim really was, it was not likely to be acknowledged by the tax-gatherers. If insisted on, it might have given them occasion to represent him as indifferent to the temple service; and it might perhaps have been drawn into a precedent by those who were God’s adopted children. He therefore chose rather to wave his right than by insisting on it to produce contention. He would “not give occasion to those who sought occasion against him,” “nor suffer his good to be evil spoken of.” He would not do even a lawful thing, if it might prove an occasion of offence [Note: 1 Corinthians 8:13.]
Not having money wherewith to answer the demand, he was constrained to supply his necessities by a miracle—
[In this miracle he discovered his omniscience. His all-penetrating eye beheld what was passing in the very depths of the sea: He knew that there was a fish, with one particular piece of money in its mouth; that it should be in the precise place where Peter should let down his hook; and that, coming to the hook, it should instantly be caught. What greater proof of omniscience could he give? And what in heaven or earth can be concealed from him, who discovered these things with such infallible certainty?
His omnipotence also was evinced by it. It is not to be conceived that such improbable things should occur, if they had not been accomplished by the secret agency of his overruling providence; nor would he have risked the credit of his divine mission upon so trifling an incident, if he had not foreordained that it should exactly correspond with his predictions. Can any thing then be impossible to him, who could thus overrule the motions of a creature so distant from him, and apparently so independent of him? Surely no miracle whatever could more plainly evince his eternal power and godhead.]
From the miracle thus illustrated we may,
Found upon it some profitable advice—
1. Was the Lord Jesus thus poor? Let us learn contentment with our lot, however poor and afflicted it may be—
[The Lord’s people are often most destitute and afflicted. But shall any one repine at poverty when he reflects on the condition of our blessed Lord? Though he was Lord of all things, yet had he not a place where to lay his head, or a piece of silver to pay his tax. Let all then be satisfied with their lot, however humble. Let us not judge of God’s love to us by the outward dispensations of his providence. Let us remember that, if God be our God, we are rich indeed, however poor our outward circumstances may be. The state of Lazarus was infinitely better than that of his rich ungodly neighbour. The true believer, though visibly he should “have nothing, yet in fact, possesses all things.” In fact, if we look at the state of our blessed Lord, we shall see, that the character most dignified on earth is that of a poor pious man: and he who best sustains it, is most conformed to the image of God’s only dear Son.]
2. Did Christ, to avoid giving offence, pay a tax, from which he was exempt? Let us not only pay cheerfully our just dues, but rather wave our strict rights, than, by rigorously insisting on them, give rise to clamour and contention—
[Our Lord submitted cheerfully to all the ordinances both of God and man; nor would he needlessly give offence by rigorously insisting even on his just rights. Alas! how different is the conduct of many who profess themselves his followers! He paid a tax which was not really due, rather than contend about it; whereas they clamour about the taxes which are legally due, and use every mean artifice to evade them. He paid notwithstanding he was constrained to work a miracle in order to gain the money, when he would have violated no law if he had withheld the tribute; while they, without any such urgent necessity, violate the most express commands of God, in refusing to “render to Cζsar the things that are Cζsar’s,” and to “pay tribute to whom tribute is due.” More especially, did he act thus in order “that he might not give offence?” Let us avoid a contentious spirit; and, instead of joining in the clamour which ungodly men are ever raising against their governors, determine ever to be found among them that are “quiet in the land.” We cannot doubt how Christ would conduct himself if he were now living amongst us: let it then be seen that we, all of us, “walk as he walked.”]
3. Did he, under the pressure of want, supply the necessities of himself and Peter by a miracle? Let us trust in him for a supply of all our wants in the time of need—
[To what situation can any one be reduced, wherein Christ will not be able to discern and to supply his wants? Are we embarrassed with temporal distresses? The Lord can multiply our barrel of meal, or send us fresh supplies by a raven or a fish; nor though his interposition should be less visible, shall it ever be withheld from those who ask it. He requires indeed that we should be diligent in our lawful calling; and it is usually in this way that he will (as he did on this occasion) send us relief. But the promise is sure to all, That, “if we seek him first, all needful things shall be added unto us.” Are our difficulties of a spiritual nature? He is at no loss to succour and support us. He will surely strengthen us according to our day of trial, and shew himself a present help in the time of need. Let all then trust in him, and say with David, “The Lord is my shepherd, therefore shall I lack nothing.” Let us remember that he has paid our redemption money: he has paid it at no less a price than his own blood. We may be sure, therefore, that he will give his Holy Spirit also to them that ask him, and that to the full extent of all our necessities.]