Matthew 11:13-15 “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. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
This passage is sometimes understood to say it became no longer necessary to obey God’s law after John the Baptist was born. It’s not hard to see why many would understand it that way. But if we dig deeper into the context and translations, we find other options that don’t create contradictions.
First, in Matthew 11:13, “all the Prophets and the Law” are connected. We can’t declare one void without explaining why the other would not also be void. Most people would not declare the writings of the prophets void or entirely fulfilled prior to John the Baptist. For example, the event of Jesus being “pierced for our transgressions”, foretold in Isaiah 53, took place after John the Baptist. And we still look forward to the resurrection described by Ezekiel: “I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people…” (Ezekiel 37:12)
Luke 16:16-17 makes it even harder to go with the ‘law became void’ interpretation.
“The Law and the Prophets were until John; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is preached, and everyone forces his way into it. But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one dot of the Law to become void.” (Luke 16:16-17)
Let’s explore the connection to Elijah since it’s part of the same controversial sentence. Jesus said of John the Baptist, “he is Elijah who is to come.”
John the Baptist and Elijah
“From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. 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 11:12-14)
This statement carried great significance because they allude to the very last words from God in the Hebrew scriptures.
“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. 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.” (Malachi 4:5-6)
How was John the Baptist a fulfillment of this prophecy naming Elijah?
The angel of the Lord told Zechariah that his son John would have “the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children.”
Elijah was known for the Spirit and power of God that indwelled him. John the Baptist would be known for that same Spirit. Further, the Spirit and power in John would result in a reconciliation between Father and children. When did that happen? We get a hint from the only time the words ‘father’ and ‘children’ are used by John the Baptist.
“And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,‘ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.” (Matthew 3:9)
The connection is even clearer in the words from God’s messenger to Zechariah about John the Baptist.
“And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, 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.” (Luke 1:16-17)
John issued constant warnings to repent and be baptized. In other words, in the spirit and power of Elijah, John was calling the children of Abraham to turn their hearts back to their Father.
John also dressed like Elijah.
“He [Elijah] wore a garment of hair, with a belt of leather about his waist.” (2 Kings 1:8)
“Now John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.” (Matthew 3:4)
After the Transfiguration, Jesus reiterated that the Elijah to come was John the Baptist.
“And as they were coming down the mountain, Jesus commanded them, “Tell no one the vision, until the Son of Man is raised from the dead.” And the disciples asked him, “Then why do the scribes say that first Elijah must come?” He answered, “Elijah does come, and he will restore all things. But I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man will certainly suffer at their hands.” Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them of John the Baptist.” (Matthew 17:9-13)
“And they asked him, “Why do the scribes say that first Elijah must come?” And he said to them, “Elijah does come first to restore all things. And how is it written of the Son of Man that he should suffer many things and be treated with contempt? But I tell you that Elijah has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written of him.” (Mark 9:11-13)
Speaking of John the Baptist, Jesus also said:
“This is he of whom it is written, “‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you.’” (Matthew 11:10)
Jesus was quoting Malachi who foretold of the Elijah to come.
“Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts.” (Malachi 3:1)
People responded to John the Baptist with urgency
There’s another statement related to John the Baptist one sentence prior to the “until John” phrase. Unfortunately, many English translations don’t offer much help with the meaning. Matthew 11:12 says, “…the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence [βιάζεται], and the violent take it by force.”
The word “suffered” is not in the greek at all. Thayer’s Greek Lexicon says βιάζεται can mean “who strive to obtain its privileges with the utmost eagerness and effort”. Strongs 973 says it can mean, “one who is eager in pursuit”. HELPS Word Studies says it can mean, “positive assertiveness; used of the believer living in faith guiding and empowering them to act forcefully – i.e. “fired up” by God to act by His revelation.”
Here’s my expanded paraphrase that includes implications from the surrounding text.
Since John the Baptist started preaching, the Kingdom of Heaven has been proclaimed forcefully with the same power and Spirit associated with Elijah. People are getting fired up and have been responding with urgency. The law and the Prophets foretold God’s Kingdom prior to John and, if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah spoken of by Malachi the prophet. (Matthew 11:12-14 Jeff’s expanded paraphrase)
For more, please also see the section on Luke 16:16.