Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Heroes of the Bible, heroes of the faith (3):
introducing Elijah in the New Testament

The Monastery of Profitis Elias near Pyrgos on the Greek island of Santorini

Patrick Comerford

As we continue our studies of Heroes of the Bible and Heroes of the faith, we are looking this morning [23 October 2013] at Elijah, one of the most studied prophets in the Old Testament, and perhaps too the loftiest and the most worthy of all the prophets.

But I also thought it would be worth looking at how Elijah is referred to in the New Testament, for – of all the Old Testament prophets – the New Testament mentions Elijah more than any other. As the predominant Old Testament figure, Elijah is mentioned by name 29 times in New Testament and he is alluded to a few other times.

Some English translations of the New Testament use Elias, a Latin form of the name, and in the King James Version the name Elias appears in texts translated from the Greek.

Elijah and Saint John the Baptist

An icon of the Prophet Elijah and Saint John the Baptist from the Monastery of the Prophet Elias (Elijah) in Preveza, Greece

In the New Testament, both Christ and Saint John the Baptist are compared with Elijah and on some occasions they are thought by some to be manifestations of Elijah.

In the Annunciation narrative in Saint Luke’s Gospel, an angel appears to Zechariah, the father of Saint John the Baptist, and tells him that John “will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God,” and that “the spirit and power of Elijah will go before him” (Luke 1:16–17).

In Saint John’s Gospel, Saint John the Baptist is asked by a delegation of priests and Levities from Jerusalem if he is the Messiah or Elijah. He replies: “No” (John 1: 19-21).

Saint John the Baptist preaches a message of repentance and baptism. He predicts the day of judgment, using imagery similar to that of Malachi, and he preaches that the Messiah is coming. For those who hear him, he does all this in a style that immediately recalls the image of Elijah. He wears a coat of animal hair secured with a leather belt (see Matthew 3: 1-4; Mark 1: 6), and he preaches frequently in wilderness areas near the River Jordan (see Luke 3: 4).

Christ says that for those who believe Saint John the Baptist is like Elijah, who would come before the “great and terrible day” as predicted by the Prophet Malachi (see Malachi 3: 1; Malachi 4: 5-6). In Saint Matthew’s Gospel, Christ compares Saint John the Baptist with Elijah, fulfilling his office but not being recognised for this, yet greater than Elijah (see Matthew 11: 7-14, Matthew 17: 10-13).

Elijah and Christ:

In Saint Luke’s Gospel, Herod Antipas is perplexed when he hears some of the stories about Christ. Some people tell Herod that Saint John the Baptist, whom he had executed, has come back to life, others tell him that Christ is Elijah, and others think that one of the ancient prophets has risen from the dead (see Luke 9: 7-9).

Later, Christ asks his disciples who do people say he is, and their answers include Elijah, other prophets and Saint John the Baptist (see Matthew 16: 13-14; Mark 8: 27-30; Luke 9: 18-20).

Christ is associated with miracle stories similar to those of Elijah, such as the raising of the dead (Mark 5: 21-23; Luke 7: 11-15, 8: 49-56; John 11) and miraculous feeding (Matthew 14: 13-21, Mark 6: 34-45; Luke 9: 10-17; John 6: 5-16; see II Kings 4: 42 ff). Yet Christ implicitly separates himself from Elijah when he rebukes James and John for desiring to call down fire upon an unwelcoming Samaritan village in a similar manner to Elijah calling down fire on the Samaritan troops (Luke 9: 51-56; cf II Kings 1: 10).

Similarly, Christ rebukes a potential follower who wants first to return home to say farewell to his family, whereas Elijah permitted his successor Elisha to do this (Luke 9: 61-62; cf I Kings 19: 16-21).

We might also ask whether the cup Christ blesses at the Last Supper is the Cop of Elijah.

During the Crucifixion, some of the onlookers mistakenly think Christ is calling out to Elijah and wonder whether Elijah will come to rescue him, for in the folklore of the time Elijah was seen as a rescuer of Jews in distress (Matthew 27: 46-49; Mark 15: 34-36).

Elijah at the Transfiguration

Elijah and Moses on each side of Christ at the Transfiguration ... an icon of The Transfiguration by Theophanes of Crete (Stavronikitas Monastery, Mount Athos)

In all three Gospel accounts of the Transfiguration, the Prophet Elijah appears with Moses at the Transfiguration (see Matthew 17: 1-9; Mark 9: 2-8; Luke 9: 28-36).

Have you noticed how Elijah’s appearance in glory at the Transfiguration does not seem to startle the disciples, and it appears they are overcome by fear only when they hear the voice from the cloud?

At the summit of the Mount of the Transfiguration, Christ’s face begins to shine. The disciples who are with him hear the voice of God announce that Christ is “My beloved Son.” The disciples also see Moses and Elijah appear and talking with Christ.

Saint Peter is so struck by the experience that he asks Christ if they should build three booths or tabernacles – one for Elijah, one for Christ and one for Moses.

Saint John Chrysostom explains the presence of Elijah and Moses at the Transfiguration in three ways:

● They represent the Law and the Prophets – Moses receives the Law from God, and Elijah is a great prophet.
● They both experience visions of God – Moses on Mount Sinai and Elijah on Mount Carmel.
● They represent the living and the dead – Elijah, the living, because he is taken up into heaven in a chariot of fire (see our Old Testament reading for this day), and Moses, the dead, because he does experience death.

Moses and Elijah show that the Law and the Prophets point to the coming of Christ, and their recognition of and conversation with Christ symbolise how he fulfils “the law and the prophets” (Matthew 5: 17-19). Moses and Elijah also stand for the living and dead, for Moses dies and his burial place is known, while Elijah is taken alive into heaven in order to appear again to announce the time of God’s salvation.

It was commonly believed that Elijah would reappear before the coming of the Messiah (see Malachi 4), and the three interpret Christ’s response as a reference to John the Baptist (Matthew 17: 13).

Other New Testament references to Elijah

Elijah is mentioned on three other occasions in the New Testament: in Saint Luke’s Gospel, in Saint Paul’s Letter to the Romans, and in the Epistle of James:

1, After he reads from the scroll in the synagogue in Nazareth and is criticised for his teaching, Christ cites Elijah as an example of the rejected prophets when he says: “No prophet is accepted in the prophet’s home town”:

24 And he said, ‘Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s home town. 25 But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up for three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; 26 yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27 There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.’ (Luke 4: 24–27).

2, Saint Paul cites Elijah as an example that God never forsakes his people:

1 I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. 2 God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. Do you not know what the scripture says of Elijah, how he pleads with God against Israel? 3 ‘Lord, they have killed your prophets, they have demolished your altars; I alone am left, and they are seeking my life.’4 But what is the divine reply to him? ‘I have kept for myself seven thousand who have not bowed the knee to Baal.’ 5 So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace. 6 But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace would no longer be grace. (Romans 11: 1-6)

3, Saint James, who we are commemorating today [23 October], says: “The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.” He then cites as examples Elijah’s prayers which start and end the famine in Israel (see James 5: 16-18).

Post-Biblical references to Elijah:

Elijah is honoured as a saint in the calendars of both the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Church on 20 July.

In addition, the stichometrical lists and patristic writings mention an apocryphal Apocalypse of Elias see Apostolic Constitutions VI, 16; Origen, Comm. in Matthew 27: 9; Euthalius; Epiphanius, Haer., 43) and it is said by some that this is cited in I Corinthians 2: 9 and Ephesians 5: 14.

This work was lost to the west since the early centuries, but it was partly recovered in a Coptic translation found in a monastery in Upper Egypt in 1893 by the French Egyptologist Gaston Camille Charles Maspéro (1846-1916). Other portions, also in Coptic, have since been discovered. We now the greater part of this Apocalypse, which was published in 1899 by Georg Steindorff. However; the passages said to be cited in I Corinthians 2: 9, and Ephesians 5: 14 do not appear there.

The Skete of Prophet Elias near the Monastery of the Pantokrator Monastery on Mount Athos

In Greece, chapels and monasteries dedicated to the Prophet Elias (Προφήτης Ηλίας) are often found on mountaintops, which themselves are often named after him.

Elijah is revered as the spiritual Father and traditional founder of the religious Order of Carmelites. In addition to taking their name from Mount Carmel where the first hermits of the order established themselves, the Carmelite traditions about Elijah focus on his withdrawal from public life.

Some concluding thoughts:

It could be said that to read Saint Luke’s Gospel with insight we also need to read the story of Elijah and Elisha. To read their story, keeping in mind the miracles, the actions, and the teachings of these two prophets, is to add a richness to our reading of Saint Luke, but also brings with it a vital understanding of the continuity and discontinuity of God’s ways in the Old Testament and New Testament.

Where do you find Elijah and Elisha in Saint Luke’s Gospel?

What are similarities and contrasts between Jesus and them?

Why is it easier to face a dilemma with the questions ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ rather than the questions ‘What Would Elijah Do?’

What richness does it add to your understanding of the kingdom?

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and an Adjunct Assistant Professor, Trinity College Dublin. These notes were prepared to supplement a Bible study with MTh students in a tutorial group on 23 October 2013.

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