St. John the Baptist and Elijah

The object of our Faith is the Lord, who brings about a transformation from old to new, effected by the sharing of our Lord’s life with us in grace. Scripture gives us so many analogous references of this transformation to the new, though none so powerful as that of St. John the Baptist, the precursor of Christ who represented the “old” and preached the coming of the “new” in Christ. Jesus taught us that St. John was Elijah the Prophet, who was to come:

9 Why then did you go out? To see a prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is he of whom it is written, 'Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, who shall prepare thy way before thee.' 11 Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has risen no one greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. 12 From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and men of violence take it by force. 13 For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John; 14 and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. 15 He who has ears to hear, let him hear. (Mt 11:9-15)

Let’s explore how St. John was Elijah, the great OT prophet. In doing so, we will see more on this transformation from old to new.

First of all, who was Elijah? He was an OT prophet sent to warn King Ahab of Israel of his offences against God. Among the OT prophets, Elijah was an amazing miracle worker. Everything we know of his life is found in 1 Kings, chapter 17 through 2 Kings, chapter 2. We’ll start with a simple description of his apparel:

8 …"He wore a garment of haircloth, with a girdle of leather about his loins." (2 Kgs 1:8)

We compare this with a description of St. John:

4 Now John wore a garment of camel's hair, and a leather girdle around his waist… (Mt 3:4)

They wore the same type of ascetic attire. In fact, they were both ascetics living in the wilderness. St. John preached the coming of the Christ and baptized in the Jordan river, as a symbol of repentance. After John pointed out Jesus as the Christ and sent his own followers to Jesus, he changed his message to include the evils of the tetrarch Herod Antipas who had illicitly married his brother’s wife, Herodias. It was Herodias who orchestrated St. John’s execution. Similarly, Elijah preached against the evils of the Israelite king, Ahab. Ahab’s wife, Jezebel, also tried to orchestrate the death of Elijah, though without success. And, as St. John created a following through baptism, so Elijah created a following through prophecy; his followers were called the sons of the prophets.

In the OT, the prophet Malachi told of the coming of Elijah before the Lord’s coming:

5 "Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible 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 smite the land with a curse." (Mal 4:5-6)

So in the NT we hear this prophecy applied to St. John. When he was born, the angel Gabriel told his father Zachariah:

13 But the angel said to him, "Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer is heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. 14 And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth; 15 for he will be great before the Lord, and he shall drink no wine nor strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother's womb. 16 And he will turn many of the sons of Israel to the Lord their God, 17 and 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." (Lk 1:13-17)

Both of these texts refer to a turning of hearts: a transformation. In the case of St. John, the transformation is clear: from the Old Covenant under the Law to the New Covenant of grace. St. John was both an OT priest (see another essay) and prophet. He preached the coming of the Christ, of the New Covenant.

But what of Elijah: what “followed” him to represent a transformation from old to new? It was his successor, Elisha, who received a double portion of Elijah’s spirit (cf 2 Kgs 2:9). Elisha is a type of Christ, a great wonder-worker whose works were similar to those of Jesus. For example, as Jesus cured a leper (Mt 8:1-3), so Elisha famously cured Naaman, the Syrian military leader, of his leprosy (2 Kgs 5:1-15). As Jesus raised a child from death to life (Mt 9:18-26), so Elisha did the same (2 Kgs 4:32-37). As Jesus multiplied the loaves of bread to feed 5,000 (Mk 6:34-43), so Elisha did the same for 100 (2 Kgs 4:42-44). Finally, we note after Elisha died, a dead body which touched the corpse of Elisha returned to life:

20 So Elisha died, and they buried him. Now bands of Moabites used to invade the land in the spring of the year. 21 And as a man was being buried, lo, a marauding band was seen and the man was cast into the grave of Elisha; and as soon as the man touched the bones of Elisha, he revived, and stood on his feet. (2 Kgs 13:20-21)

This image of death & resurrection reminds us of Jesus: we who are spiritually dead are restored to life by our contact with the crucified Lord (especially when we consider our physical contact with Jesus in the eucharist).

In summary, we see the analogous representation of Christian transformation in St. John the Baptist (the old) and Jesus (the new). They, in turn, were represented in the OT types of Elijah (the old) and Elisha (the new). As St. John’s mission was to prepare the way of the Lord, then we see “the old” has a purpose: to prepare for “the new.” So the Old Testament gives us promises that were fulfilled in the New Testament, which is the basic theme of Sacred Scripture.