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Matthew 11:14 (NKJV)

14 And if you are willing to receive it, he is Elijah who is to come.

Could it be John was Elijah in a symbolic sense, so that John was not actually Elijah but served in the same spirit & power of Elijah, how can we understand the above phrase

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StudyLight.org has a great run-down of commentators on this verse: https://www.studylight.org/commentary/matthew/11-14.html

Albert Barnes' Notes on the Whole Bible

This is a mode of speaking implying that the doctrine which he was about to state was different from their common views; that he was about to state something which varied from the common expectation, and which therefore they might be disposed to reject

Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible

Basing their confident expectation of the return of Elijah before the advent of the Messiah upon Malachi 4:5,6, the Jews of Christ's day expected a literal return of the natural Elijah and had even tried to shake the faith of the apostles in Jesus' Messiahship because, in their view, Elijah had not yet come. Elijah did actually return and met with Christ on the mount of Transfiguration (Matthew 17:3); but in this passage, Christ revealed that the true intention of the prophecy was not a literal return of Elijah, but his spiritual return in the person of John the Baptist.

John Gill's Exposition of the Whole Bible

The words carry in them some suspicion of unbelief and hardness of heart, as though they would not receive it: however, whether they would or not, it was a certain truth, that this same person, "John the Baptist", is Elias, which was for to come; who was appointed by God to come, and was prophesied of Malachi 4:5 that he should come;

John Lightfoot's Commentary on the Gospels

The words hint some suspicion, that they would not receive his doctrine; which the obstinate expectation of that nation unto this very day, that Elias is personally to come, witnesseth also. Upon what ground some Christians are of the same opinion, let themselves look to it.

Vincent's Word Studies

More correctly, Rev., If ye are willing or disposed. For there would naturally be an unwillingness to receive the statement about John's high place, in view of John's imprisonment.

Calvin's Commentary on the Bible

he glances at their hardened obstinacy, in maliciously shutting their eyes against the clearest light.

Thomas Coke Commentary on the Holy Bible

There is nothing for the particle it in the original; therefore Dr. Heylin reads him; and if this be the proper supplement, says he, we must understand that total perfect repentance which constitutes the common character both of him and Elias.

Johann Albrecht Bengel's Gnomon of the New Testament

It is your interest that is at stake. The expression, βιασταὶ (used in the last verse), is explained: it is the willing only who are compelled. All is prepared: it only remains that you should be willing.

Schaff's Popular Commentary on the New Testament

The Jews expected that Elijah would rise from the dead, hence many would not receive it. The popular notions on the whole subject of prophecy were incorrect; for in the day of fulfilment our Lord thus prefaces an explanation.

Conclusion

The majority of these examples are in agreement: It was against expectation that Jesus said this because of the common beliefs about Elijah's appear.

This is a parallel idiom to the more familiar "He who has ears to hear, let him hear" which follows in verse 15.

In Matthew 13 Jesus explains what he means by this type of idiom when he tells the disciples why he teaches in parables. He does so, quoting Isaiah 6:9-10 (emphasis mine):

Matthew 13:12-17 (ESV)

12 For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. 13 This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. 14 Indeed, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says:

“ ‘ “You will indeed hear but never understand, and you will indeed see but never perceive.” 15 For this people’s heart has grown dull, and with their ears they can barely hear, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and turn, and I would heal them.’

16 But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. 17 For truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.

This shows that Jesus is speaking of spiritual things that must be spiritually discerned. Indeed, John the Baptist is the spiritual Elijah, not the physical person, and those with spiritual eyes (those willing to receive it) will see that they are receiving the fulfillment of the things they have been waiting for.

  • @BrianWeigand, no problem. Is it preferred to leave in verse numbers? I think I normally remove them. – DonJewett Dec 13 '16 at 21:43
  • no biggie, @BrianWeigand – DonJewett Dec 13 '16 at 22:17
  • In essence, is it sort of akin to saying (colloquially), "believe it or not, he is Elijah who is to come?" – RJ Navarrete Dec 14 '16 at 1:33
  • @RJNavarrete that's actually a pretty good equivalent. However, I think it fails to capture one aspect, which is the willingness to accept the truth being a requirement. – DonJewett Dec 14 '16 at 16:20
  • Those last 3 commentaries were "word salads"! – Ruminator Nov 7 '18 at 23:05
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There are two aspects of John the Baptist’s relationship to Elijah.

He was Elijah in the sense that “Elijah” did not refer to the person of Elijah himself, but rather, to the prophetic office, just as “David” refers to the kingly office.1 Hence, it is said that John the Baptist came in the power and spirit of Elijah,2 and in this same sense, the Lord Jesus Christ told his apostles and disciples that John the Baptist was Elijah if they could “receive”3 it.

He was not Elijah in the sense that “Elijah” referred to the person of Elijah himself. Hence, when the Levites and priests from Jerusalem asked John the Baptist (whom they did not know) if he was Elijah, it is because they wanted to know if he was Elijah himself who had returned from heaven (in order to usher in the Messiah). Do understand that they did not actually know whom that individual baptizing was, hence their question, “Who are you (τίς εἶ)?”


Footnotes

1 Eze. 34:23
2 Luke 1:17
3 The verb δέχομαι has the sense of both “accepting” and “understanding” something.

  1. of mental reception, take, accept without complaint, “χαλεπόν περ ἐόντα δεχώμεθα μῦθον” Od.20.271; “κῆρα δ᾽ ἐγὼ τότε δέξομαι” Il.18.115.

    b. accept graciously, “τοῦτο δ᾽ ἐγὼ πρόφρων δ.” 23.647; of the gods, “ἀλλ᾽ ὅ γε δέκτο μὲν ἱρά” 2.420; προσφιλῶς γέρα δ., of one dead, S.El.443; “τὰ σφάγια δ.” Ar.Lys.204, cf. Pi.P.5.86; τὸ χρησθέν, τὸν οἰωνὸν δ., accept, hail the oracle, the omen, Hdt.1.63, 9.91; “δέχου τὸν ἄνδρα καὶ τὸν ὄρνιν” Ar.Pl.63; “δ. τὰ ἀγαθά” IG22.410,al.; “ἐδεξάμην τὸ ῥηθέν” S.El.668: abs., “δεχομένοις λέγεις θανεῖν σε” A.Ag.1653, cf. X.An.1.8.17; accept, approve, τὸν λόγον, ξυμμαχίαν, Hdt.9.5, Th.1.37; τοὺς λόγους ib.95; διδόναι καὶ δέχεσθαι τὰ δίκαια ib.37, cf. h.Merc.312; δέχεσθαι ὅρκον, v. ὅρκος; accept a confession, and so forgive, “ἀδικίαν” LXX Ge.50.17.

    c. simply, give ear to, hear, “ὠσὶν ἠχήν” E.Ba.1086; “δ. ὀμφάν” Id.Med.175 (lyr.); “τὰ παραγγελλόμενα ὀξέως δ.” Th.2.11,89.

    d. take or regard as so and so, “μηδὲ συμφορὰν δέχου τὸν ἄνδρα” S.Aj.68; understand in a certain sense, “ὅπῃ βούλει δέξασθαι ταύτῃ δέχου” Pl.Ep.315c: c. inf., “κῶλά με δέξαι νυνὶ λέγειν” D.H.Comp.22, cf. Str.1.3.13, etc.

4 John 1:19–21

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