Jesus is illustrating one of the laws of spiritual learning. What are these?
The student humbles himself before his teacher, and listens: Hearing is the first step. Following hearing, the student then sincerely applies the teachings of his teacher. Sincere application of such teachings coming from God's representative, results in the student re-establishing their loving service relationship with the Supreme Being. The student may then be empowered by the Supreme Being to pass on what he has heard: To give to others the sacred message from the Supreme Being.
Jesus participated in this process. He took baptism (a form of initiation - also considered anointing in the Old Testament) from John the Baptist, and he sat and heard John the Baptist's teachings.
Or do we think Jesus just went to where John was teaching, took the baptism and took off? Don't be ridiculous.
Following listening to these teachings, Jesus went to the desert to apply those teachings - solidifying his relationship with the Supreme Being Otherwise, why would Jesus have bothered going to the desert? Did he just want to become thirsty and be tempted?
At some point after Jesus's journey in the desert, John was thrown in prison for his teachings.
It was then that Jesus took on the responsibility of teaching the same messages as John, following in the footsteps of his teacher. As Jesus taught, he, like John, also took on his own disciples and students, and later told his own students - after they heard his teachings - to go out and teach the same message to others (Matt. 10:16-20).
This is how the Supreme Being passes along His message to us: Personally, from one loving servant to another. Each loving servant learns from another loving servant of God not only the words of the Truth, but how those words are applied. Once the loving servant applies those words and example of his/her teacher, that person may be empowered by the Supreme Being to pass this Message on to others.
And what is this Message? Jesus communicated this clearly:
"Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?" Jesus replied: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments." (Matt. 22:36-40)Jesus is repeating the same teaching that Moses gave in Deuteronomy. Is this a coincidence? Certainly not. It is evidence that the lineage of prophets - teachers and their students - between Moses and Jesus were passing on precisely the same Message.
So why did Jesus mention Elijah with respect to his teacher John? In Malachi God makes this statement:
"See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers; or else I will come and strike the land with a curse." (Malachi 4:5)So we must ask, what is the great and dreadful day of the Lord, and just who is Elijah?
Ecclesiastical institutions and their teachers beginning with Constantine's Synod of Nicea council - which led to the formation of the Roman Catholic Church - would have us believe that Jesus is Elijah. But if Jesus were Elijah, why is Jesus saying that John is Elijah?
The word "prophet" (נָבִיא) follows the word "Elijah" (אֵלִיָּה) - indicating the emphasis on "prophet." Furthermore, there were several people named "Elijah" in the Old Testament. There was "Elijah the Tishbite" and there was the Benjamite son of Jeroham, and there was the son of Elam and there was the son of Harim. Which Elijah is God speaking of, and if God is speaking of any of these Elijahs, why did they all appear before Malachi?
The meaning of the word “Elijah” means “My God is Yah.” In context, word Elijah refers to a "loving servant of God," or "one who has dedicated their life to God."
"Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and the day that is coming will set them on fire" (Malachi 4:1)
“The day of the Lord” is the day that each of us dies: It is the day we each must leave this body and face the Supreme Being in one form or another. At that time, we will be judged for our lifetime. This is the day we all must prepare for during our lives. Over recent centuries, this has been paraphrased as the day we "meet our Maker".
This has also been referred to as "Judgement Day," as this (the day of the death of our body) is the day our lives will be judged and our next destination determined.
And God is saying that those who hear such a His messenger's teachings and apply them will be prepared for their day of judgement - the death of their body - while others, who did not heed His messengers, will be doomed to resuming life in hell.
Jesus uses the word “Elijah” as it is used by God in Malachi. This means Jesus is applying the word “Elijah” to John the Baptist because he sees John as one of God's messengers. Let's consider this exchange between Jesus and his students regarding Elijah:
The disciples asked him, "Why then do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?"From this we know that Jesus considered John the Baptist - his teacher - as Elijah, as John was persecuted just as Jesus would be.
Jesus replied, "To be sure, Elijah comes and will restore all things. But I tell you, Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but have done to him everything they wished. In the same way the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands." (Matt. 17:10-12)
But note that Jesus also states, "To be sure, Elijah comes and will restore all things." Is he still speaking specifically of John the Baptist here - the person who's head was cut off by Herod?
Rather, Jesus is communicating that Elijah is a position rather than a particular person. This might be compared to saying something like, "the colonel walks in front of his troops." While the word colonel can be used specifically to describe a particular person, it can also be used to describe any person who occupies that position.
This is why Jesus uses the word Elijah as a title: “he was the Elijah” - rather than simply that John was Elijah.
In Malachi above, the Supreme Being instructs the nation of Israel to listen carefully to His devoted messengers of God (i.e., prophets whose God is Yah), for these empowered teachers will change the hearts of the people, and bring them back to God. As for those who do not heed the teachings of His messengers, God says, the land of those people will be cursed.
This is clearly a statement of: Listen and heed the teachings of My messengers and return to me, or be prepared to face the problems of the physical world alone. This is not only clear, but logical, because it is the Supreme Being who ultimately saves us from the physical world. Furthermore, the Supreme Being is behooving us to listen to His messengers and heed their instructions, of which the most important is to love God with all our heart and soul - before each of us has our "day" where we "meet our Maker."
Note that Jesus also states: “Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist.”
This is a clear sentiment from a devoted disciple regarding his teacher. Jesus obviously greatly respected his teacher John the Baptist, and considered him the greatest of all teachers. This is how any bonafide student or disciple should consider their teacher and messenger of God.
Certainly by this statement Jesus did not consider himself greater than John the Baptist, noting that Jesus was also born of a woman - remember mother Mary?
It is certain that by Jesus' statement that he considered his teachings based upon the legitimacy of John the Baptist's teachings. This is why he was promoting John's position as Elijah.
There is considerable discussion among many historians that part of Jesus' statement was added to the earliest manuscripts. That phrase is:
"yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he."This phrase indicates a possible addition during the period where two factions existed - those who understood the relationship between John and Jesus, and those who wanted to decrease John's stature in order to promote Jesus. The existence of these two sentiments in the years following Jesus' departure has been surmised from other sources. There is a translation of an early Hebrew version of Matthew that excludes this part of Jesus' statement.
Whether this phrase was added or not, it is clear from the rest of the statement that Jesus was a devoted student of John's. In addition, we cannot overlook that Jesus received baptism from John - a rite of given to symbolize a student's commitment to the doctrine of the teacher.
We must conclude from Jesus' statement that a strong and abiding relationship of love and humility existed between Jesus and his teacher, John the Baptist. This relationship reveals the method we can apply to re-develop our relationship with the Supreme Being.
(For a translation of Jesus' statements from the Book of Matthew without institutional sectarian influence, see the Gospels of Jesus - translated from the original Greek texts.)