Revelation Revisited © 2013
They had been taught that Elijah would return before the Messiah set up His kingdom – and NOW THIS HAD HAPPENED! They could hardly wait to get back down the mountain and tell everyone what they had seen.
Imagine then, their absolute lack of comprehension as Jesus turned to them and cautioned them not to say anything about what they saw to anyone – until he was raised from the grave. Grave? Death? What?!! Wait a minute….
“But Lord,” they ask, “What about Elijah? Malachi said he would return before the Great Day of the Lord. Doesn’t this mean...”
At this point Jesus interrupted them and made another confusing statement. “Elijah truly shall come first and restore all things; but I say to you that Elijah has come already, and they did not know him, but have done to him whatever they desired.”
The Bible tells us that the disciples understood that He was referring to John the Baptist, but we must wonder if they realized the other implications of Jesus’ statement.
Jesus started by saying that “Elijah truly shall come…” By pointing them to the future fulfillment of this prophecy, he was affirming its legitimacy and confirming its future fulfillment. Elijah will come to prepare people before Jesus returns again. “Look,” he was saying, “This prophecy is still going to be fulfilled.” He was also telling them – without saying it directly – that Elijah’s appearance on the mountain did not fulfill Malachi’s words – the fulfillment was still ahead.
Then he whipsawed them in the opposite direction, “…but I say to you that Elijah has come already…” pointing them backward to his cousin John the Baptist.
By now their heads must have been reeling. Their recent dreams of the coming Kingdom – and their place in it – had vanished, replaced by the ominous words of Jesus that he would be treated as badly as the beheaded Baptist.
But did they catch what Jesus had just taught them about prophecy? Did they learn what we can learn?
1. The “obvious” fulfillment may not even be relevant. Just because Elijah showed up – as the Bible says he did – didn’t mean anything in terms of the prophecy. Why? Because the prophecy pointed
Can a prophecy point to more than one event?
to “Elijah’s” role in working with people to prepare their hearts for the coming of Christ. On the Mount of Transfiguration, Elijah had no such role. He came to minister to Jesus himself, to encourage him as He faced His life’s greatest challenge. No, the prophecy pointed to an “Elijah” that would do as the first Elijah did – prepare people for a return to God.
2. By stating that “Elijah truly shall come”, Jesus was showing that the primary fulfillment of this prophecy was yet future.
3. By stating that “Elijah has come”, He declared that the prophecy had met a true fulfillment in the life and service of John the Baptist, and was showing that a prophecy may have more than one valid fulfillment.
4. Both the former fulfillment (John the Baptist) and the future fulfillment are valid because they both meet the specifics of the prophecy. They both work as Elijah did to influence people to return to a true-hearted worship of God in a time just before He is about to take decisive action. As such, the earlier fulfillment may serve as a model, showing what the greater fulfillment will be like.
There are some Christians who are just a little bit reluctant – some even more than a bit – to accept the idea of multiple fulfillments of prophecy, but the Bible clearly demonstrates the principle. Often – as in the example above – the fulfillments can be seen as a “lesser” fulfillment and an “ultimate” fulfillment. When that happens, the earlier fulfillment often paints – in miniature – a picture that can teach us what the ultimate fulfillment may be like.
Another example may help make the point.
On To Matthew 24
We’ll be referring often to Matthew 24 as we study the Book of Revelation. The links between the statements of Jesus in Matthew and Revelation are clear. In fact, many of the disagreements that scholars have with each other regarding the Book of Revelation have their roots in Matthew.
For example, we have explained elsewhere that when the Preterist sees the links between Revelation and Matthew, and then reads that “This generation shall not pass until all these things are fulfilled – he takes it quite literally to mean that all of Matthew and Revelation were to be fulfilled in the lifetime of those hearing Jesus words. He does not allow that the prophecies of Jesus might apply to more than one event – that the history of the destruction of Jerusalem might tell us something about the larger, worldwide events yet ahead.
The Historicist also sees the links between Matthew and Revelation, and because he has come to see the first half of Revelation as a long overview of the course of history, he turns and imposes that same view on the words of Jesus in Matthew 24. He understands that the warfare, famine, persecution
and signs from the heavens (mentioned in Luke 21) are mirrored in the story of the Seals of Revelation but finds it hard to see these as future events because he has already assigned them a historic meaning.
Such differences in perspective are bound to cause disagreement!
Jesus’ great prophetic sermon found in Matthew 24 and 25 and in Luke 21 provides us with one of the best examples of a multi-layered prophecy in the entire Bible. You can find hints of its multiple layers in the questions that prompted His discussion.
Jesus and his disciples had just left the temple compound. His disciples, looking back, commented to Jesus about the beauty and strength of the Temple and its buildings. How surprised they must have been to hear Jesus’ reply! He simply told them that in the future every single stone would be thrown down and the entire structure ruined. I’m sure they walked on in stunned silence! But the questions were swirling through their minds; and when they got to the Mount of Olives, they could no longer contain themselves. "Tell us when all this will be," they asked, "and what will happen to show that it is the time for your coming and the end of the age?"
They believed the temple was sure to last until the final destruction at the end of the world, and that is exactly how they couched their questions. When is the temple going to be destroyed? What signs shall we look for to tell us that you are coming again, and that the world is coming to an end?
Jesus answered those questions. In a prophetic tour de force he described to them the events that would lead up to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman army in 70 A.D., and he used those same events as a microcosm of the great events that would signal that His return to earth was near.
Was He speaking of local events that would be fulfilled in the lifetime of his hearers? Yes. Was He speaking of globe-spanning events that would overtake the entire world? Yes.
The principle of multiple fulfillments allows us to answer “yes” to both of those questions at the same time without invalidating either. It helps us to understand that while the impact of his words to his listeners was primarily local, that he was using those local events as a model of global events yet to come.
So it is perfectly legitimate for us to ask, “What can these prophecies teach us who are awaiting Christ’s return? What specific end-time meanings have yet to emerge?”