Mark 9:9-13 (NIV): As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus gave them orders not to tell anyone what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead. They kept the matter to themselves, discussing what “rising from the dead” meant.
And they asked him, “Why do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?”
Jesus replied, “To be sure, Elijah does come first, and restores all things. Why then is it written that the Son of Man must suffer much and be rejected? But I tell you, Elijah has come, and they have done to him everything they wished, just as it is written about him.”
Teachings that people have received in the past, even false or erroneous teachings, are terribly difficult to modify or remove. And new teachings, even if they are absolutely correct and biblical, often have a hard time working into people’s hearts, especially if they challenge or contradict non-biblical teachings that are already there. And Jesus’ closest followers were no exception to this rule.
There were many teachings about the Messiah that were popularly believed in Jesus’ day. But since the Jewish Scriptures about the Messiah were scattered throughout the various books, and since some of them were ambiguous until Jesus fulfilled them, these teachings were sometimes accurate, and sometimes incomplete, or completely false.
Many of the people knew that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem from the line of David (cf. Matthew 2:4-6, 22:41-42), but some believed that He would just magically appear, and that no one would know where He had come from (John 7:27), which led to some rejecting Jesus right off the bat. Most people believed (correctly) that the Messiah would live forever (John 12:34), but few were willing to accept the Scriptures that He had to first be tortured, killed, buried, and rise again (cf. Isaiah 52:13-53:12).
So it was understandable that Jesus’ disciples were confused about what Jesus was now telling them. The whole idea that the Messiah would have to die and then rise from the dead before He would live forever had no place to take root in the traditions that they had received. It mystified them.
Jesus swore the three disciples that had witnessed the transfiguration to silence, because the experience alone could lead them to false assumptions, which would then be shared with others right along with the narrative of the experience. After Jesus rose from the dead, this would all make much more sense to them, and they would have a much more solid context from which they could accurately share what had happened. But in the meantime, they were still troubled by all of this talk about “rising from the dead.”
They were also troubled by the seeming non-fulfillment of the teaching that the Messiah would be preceded by the return of the prophet Elijah. They had now see Elijah in the (glorified) flesh, and realized that he had not come yet – at least they hadn’t seen him before. This teaching about Elijah was actually solidly based on Scripture (Malachi 4:5-6), but the fulfillment was a little different than the literal reading would suggest. Jesus knew that John the Baptist (who actually dressed like Elijah and spoke as boldly as he did – cf. 2 Kings 1:7-8 & Matthew 3:4) had already fulfilled that role, preparing the way for Jesus. John’s father, Zechariah, had been told by Gabriel before John was even conceived, “And he (John) will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous–to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” (Luke 1:17 NIV)
All of these new teachings were strange to the disciples, and it was difficult for them to find a place for them among the potpourri of Messianic teachings that they had already received. But it was critical that they begin to see and understand how the things that God had actually spoken about through the prophets were being fulfilled right before their eyes, so that, after Jesus rose from the dead and ascended back into heaven, they would be able to teach others accurately.
Father, it is a sad truth that bad teachings about the Scriptures can actually close people’s eyes to the real truths that are right there before them. That is probably why You point out that “we who teach will be judged more strictly” (James 3:1 NIV). Help us all, Lord, to be open to all that You want to show us from Your word. Help us to root out of our hearts any teachings that are not in accordance with the full counsel of Your word, and replace them with the actual truth, so that we can show those same amazing truths to others. Amen.