RPM, Volume 17, Number 34, August 16 to August 22, 2015

Announcing Elijah's Return

Luke 1:5-25

By D. Marion Clark


Halfway through the books of the Bible that present the story of the kings of Israel, a prophet suddenly appears — Elijah the Tishbite. He announces to the wicked king Ahab, "As the Lord the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word" (1 Kings 17:1). And then he goes into hiding. He doesn't appear in public for three years, when again he appears before Ahab, this time with a challenge. (By the way, there has been no rain.) He challenges Ahab to gather the 850 prophets of Baal and Asherah, and to meet him at Mt. Carmel. There he and those prophets will go on public trial to see whose god is the true God — Baal, the ancient god of the Canaanites, or Yahweh, the God who formed the nation Israel.

The test went like this. The prophets would offer a sacrifice to Baal and Elijah to Yahweh. As Elijah said, "The God who answers by fire, he is God." After spending almost a full day praying, ritualistic dancing, even cutting themselves, they failed to produce a spark. When Elijah's turn came, he had the audacity of drenching his sacrifice with water. Then, here is what happened:

And at the time of the offering of the oblation, Elijah the prophet came near and said, "O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, and that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your word. 37 Answer me, O Lord, answer me, that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back." 38 Then the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt offering and the wood and the stones and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench (1 Kings 18:36-38).

Now that's power! Elijah also prayed and produced a heavy rain storm. That is not all that Elijah did. While in hiding, he lived with a widow and her son. He saw that her jar of flour and jug of oil miraculously remained filled for three years. He even raised her son to life after he had died of an illness. He was a bold prophet, one who appeared three times before Ahab at the threat of his life. But the event that most captured the imagination of the Jewish people was his being taken up into heaven. Again, listen to it described:

And as they still went on and talked, behold, chariots of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them. And Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven. 12 And Elisha saw it and he cried, "My father, my father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!" And he saw him no more (2 Kings 2:11-12).

Only one other man in the history of mankind is recorded in Scripture as not dying. His name was Enoch. All that is said of him is that, "Enoch walked with God, and he was not, for God took him" (Genesis 5:24). There is nothing like what happened to Elijah, carried away in a chariot of fire by horses of fire!

Other than a reference to a letter that Elijah wrote to King Jehoram of Judah in 2 Chronicles, there is no more mention of him until we get to the last two verses of the last book of the Old Testament, Malachi. Here is what is said:

"Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. 6 And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction" (4:5-6).

Since then, the Jews looked for the return of Elijah. The rabbis and the writers of apocalyptic books (books about the Final Judgment) taught that Elijah would return to announce and present the Messiah. He would prepare the hearts of the people to receive the "Anointed One." And even now, each year as they celebrate the Passover, they set aside a chair for Elijah and open the door to welcome him in.

When Jesus came, some speculated that he was Elijah. Or if he were not, then perhaps his presence meant the coming of Elijah. Listen to this scene at the cross:

And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, "Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?" which means, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" 35 And some of the bystanders hearing it said, "Behold, he is calling Elijah." 36 And someone ran and filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a reed and gave it to him to drink, saying, "Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down" (Mark 15:34-36).

They were not joking. Darkness had covered the land. The suspense of something momentous was happening was climbing. Maybe, indeed, Elijah was about to appear.

But Elijah had already appeared, and they did not know it. Jesus had identified him: "For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John, and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come" (Matthew 11:13-14).

It is the birth of this Elijah that the angel Gabriel announces.


In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. 6And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. 7But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years.

There is something about bringing from barren wombs special babies. From Sarah, who was old and barren, God brought forth Isaac; after many years of barrenness, God gave Joseph to Rachel and then Benjamin. Samson was born of a barren woman, and the last of the judges of Israel — Samuel — was born to Hannah who had been barren. All of these men played significant roles in God's plan for his people. Through Isaac, God fulfilled his promise of descendants coming from Abraham's body who would form his covenant kingdom. Through Joseph, God preserved his people and prepared them to grow into a great nation. Through Samson, God delivered his people from the bondage of the Philistines. Through Samuel, God prepared his people for an anointed king. Now, centuries later, he has chosen a humble priest and his wife to bring into the world and raise another Samuel who will be the Elijah that prepares the people for the "Anointed King."

8Now while he was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, 9according to the custom of the priesthood, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. 10And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense.

This is a significant event in Zechariah's life, for it is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Priests from the territories of Palestine would come to Jerusalem to serve periodic stints at the temple. Their duties varied; there was much to do — helping with the upkeep of the temple and all the accessories connected with the sacrifices; administering the scores of daily sacrifices, and so on. But the privilege to which all the priests aspired to attain was to enter into the Holy Place and prepare the daily burning of incense. The privilege was chosen by lot and a priest was expected to serve only one term. It was possible that a priest was never chosen, and Zechariah must have waited for decades. There was no greater opportunity for him to aspire to experience…except, perhaps, the birth of a son.

11And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. 12And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. 13But the angel said to him, "Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John.

Remember now, Zechariah's heart was already beating rapidly. This is his one moment to carry out the most sacred duty as a priest. He is in the sanctuary alone, but a multitude is waiting outside for him to fulfill his task. Think of the person selected to light the Olympic torch. No doubt his full concentration is not making a mistake. He is in front of the world. It is a similar situation for Zechariah, but his anxiousness would be greater for he is in front of God. He is standing on holy ground a few feet away from the Most Holy ground behind the curtain. Instead of a crowd come to watch sports, there is a crowd depending upon him to bring God's blessing through his ritual of burning incense as their mediator between them and God. If he messes up, the consequences are terrible for the impact upon the people and himself.

Then he sees an "angel of the Lord." He comes into the presence of a holy being. Contrary to what the popular books, TV shows, and movies convey, there is more to get used to than being in the presence of an extraterrestrial being. C. S. describes a scene closer to reality in his novel, Perelandra:

On the other hand, all those doubts which I had felt before I entered the cottage as to whether these creatures were friend or foe, and whether Ransom were a pioneer or a dupe, had for the moment vanished. My fear was now of another kind. I felt sure that the creature was what we call "good," but I wasn't sure whether I liked "goodness" so much as I had supposed. This is a very terrible experience. As long as what you are afraid of is something evil, you may still hope that the good may come to your rescue. But suppose you struggle through to the good and find that it also is dreadful? How if food itself turns out to be the very thing you can't eat, and home the very place you can't live, and your very comforter the person who makes you uncomfortable? Then, indeed, there is no rescue possible: the last card has been played. For a second or two I was nearly in that condition. Here at last was a bit of that world from beyond the world, which I had always supposed that I loved and desired, breaking through and appearing to my senses: and I didn't like it, I wanted it to go away. I wanted every possible distance, gulf, curtain, blanket, and barrier to be placed between it and me.

Add to this fear in the presence of a holy angel the message that his wife will bear a son in their old age. Even Abraham, who is revered for his faith in God, had reservations when he received such a message. He actually laughed before God and urged him to make Ishmael (his son by his wife's handmaiden) the heir of the covenant. But this surreal experience gets all the more bizarre for Zechariah. The angel continues:

14And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, 15for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother's womb. 16And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, 17and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared."

Understand what Zechariah is being told. His son will be Elijah, the prophet for whom Israel has waited for centuries. His son will be the fulfillment of Malachi's prophesy. Understand further the message. The great and awesome "Day of the Lord" prophesied in Malachi is approaching. Try to grasp this news. Suppose Jesus had told us to expect the return of John the Baptist just before his Second Coming. Two thousand years have gone by. Let's say you are in your seventies; you have not had children. An angel appears before you and tells you that you will have a son, and he will be that John of Baptist foretold by Jesus. How would you handle such news?

18And Zechariah said to the angel, "How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years."

To put Zechariah's response in our modern terms: "You're kidding."

19And the angel answered him, "I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. 20And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time." 21And the people were waiting for Zechariah, and they were wondering at his delay in the temple. 22And when he came out, he was unable to speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the temple. And he kept making signs to them and remained mute.

Gabriel seems a bit impatient, maybe even a little arrogant: "I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God." But he is not saying to Zechariah, "Don't you know who I am?" but, rather, "Don't you know the holy sovereign God whom you worship?" And Zechariah does know. He stands before a creature who, because this creature stands in the presence of God, emanates the holiness of Yahweh. He feels the awesome power and majesty of God through this angelic servant. Zechariah knows the greatness of God at this moment in a far superior way than ever in his life. And, then, the angel hears him say, "I don't know? Are you sure you got the right guy? My wife and I are up there in age. Give me a sign." He got a sign all right.

23And when his time of service was ended, he went to his home. 24After these days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she kept herself hidden, saying, 25"Thus the Lord has done for me in the days when he looked on me, to take away my reproach among people."

Gabriel's word comes true, of course. We are given this touching response of Elizabeth that the Lord has taken away her shame of barrenness.


Let me introduce a lesson with a line from the movie "Casablanca." As they stand at the airport with a plane ready to take off, Rick is explaining to his true love Iisa why he is not getting on the plane with her: "It doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you'll understand that." The crazy world was experiencing WWII, and Rick had come to learn that the course of the world was far more important than the course of his love life.

This is what Zechariah and Elizabeth needed to learn (and they will we will see later). Despite the news that their son will be the Elijah that all Israel awaited and that he will prepare the way of the Messiah as the Day of the Lord approaches, their only focus is on the phenomenon of having a baby in their old age. The Lord is being gracious to this couple. He is answering Zechariah's prayer and removing Elizabeth's reproach, but the real news is that their little Johnny is the Elijah who will prepare the way of the Lord. The Messiah is coming! John's birth is not merely a nice story of an old couple having a baby. It is about the fulfillment of prophecy; it is about carrying out his ancient plan of redemption for his people; it is about the course of a God's holy kingdom. Elijah is returning. Get ready for a mighty work of God that will determine the course of mankind.

It would be good for us in the Christmas season to grasp the big picture that our lives fit in to. When we raise the issue of why certain things happen to us — whether good or bad — the world in which we live is…ourselves. God caused such and such to happen because…and we think of something that relates to our past or immediate future. Our favorite verse related to this is Romans 8:28: "And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose." We then look for the good thing that will happen to us.

Zechariah and Elizabeth probably would have said, "Look at us. We love God and he has rewarded us with a baby." But as nice as having a baby is, the real "good" was who this baby would be and the role he would play in the story of the Gospel. The real good for Zechariah and Elizabeth, for which all things were working together, was the redemption that the Son of God was accomplishing for his people. They would not see this greater "good," though they would benefit by it.

We go through our ups and downs of life. Some Christmases are wonderful and some are painful, depending upon the circumstances of our lives. But remember, the significance of that baby's birth to an old couple years ago transcends the ups and downs of our lives. It fits into the grand scheme of redemption; it fits into the course that God has set in our lives, for all of us who love God through Jesus Christ. Whatever God has planned for you in this life; whatever paths you walk upon, the good he has for you is no less than redemption, no less than resurrection, no less than glory. Centuries ago, the prophet Elijah stood before the people of Israel and gave them this challenge: "If the Lord (Yahweh) is God, follow him." This Christmas season, whatever takes place, follow your God, knowing that in this crazy world there is a bigger story going on, the story of God's redemption.

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