13 When the Lord saw her, He felt compassion for her, and said to her, “Do not weep.” 14 And He came up and touched the coffin; and the bearers came to a halt. And He said, “Young man, I say to you, arise!” 15 The dead man sat up and began to speak. And Jesus gave him back to his mother. 16 Fear gripped them all, and they began glorifying God, saying, “A great prophet has arisen among us!” and, “God has visited His people!”
A few chapters later in Luke’s gospel, Jesus questions his disciples about the popular consensus on his ministry. “Who,” he asks, “do the people say I am?” The disciples’ first answer is “John the Baptist,” which makes a sort of sense if we remember that people at the time didn’t have the internet, television, gossip magazines, or even newspapers. They had probably heard of John, but didn’t have any idea what he looked like. It’s an understandable misconception.
The disciples’ second answer is a little bit stranger: “Elijah.” By that point Elijah was a historical figure probably about 800 years removed. It would be a bit like me asking about my blog’s writer and having someone answer, “Chaucer.” Unlike the “John” answer, this couldn’t be merely a case of mistaken identity because the mistake would be too large.
Of course the difference between Elijah and Chaucer–the most relevant difference, not the only one–is that Chaucer died, while Elijah is described as having been taken into heaven without dying. One of the hopes that developed among the Jewish people was that Elijah would eventually come back. Frankly, for anyone familiar with the stories, it’s hard not to want Elijah to come back: he’s the rock star of biblical prophets. He didn’t write long confusing oracles; he set stuff on fire. He contended with gods and kings, and he did it all with attitude.
For the subjugated remnant of Israel then, who certainly weren’t lacking in their supply of gods and kings that needed contention, wanting Elijah back made perfect sense. That’s why they watched for him. Again though, they weren’t watching for someone that looked like him, but for someone who seemed to be picking up where Elijah left off and doing the sorts of things Elijah did.
Someone like Jesus.
When he brought back to life the widow’s son, the faithful and hopeful Jews in attendance recognized something. There was a story they’d heard before, one with a widow in it too, and her son who had died. In that story, just like they’d witnessed, a miracle had happened and the son had been restored to life and given back to his mother. The story had been about Elijah, though:
17 Now it came about after these things that the son of the woman, the mistress of the house, became sick; and his sickness was so severe that there was no breath left in him. 18 So she said to Elijah, “What do I have to do with you, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my iniquity to remembrance and to put my son to death!” 19 He said to her, “Give me your son.” Then he took him from her bosom and carried him up to the upper room where he was living, and laid him on his own bed. 20 He called to the Lord and said, “O Lord my God, have You also brought calamity to the widow with whom I am staying, by causing her son to die?” 21 Then he stretched himself upon the child three times, and called to the Lord and said, “O Lord my God, I pray You, let this child’s life return to him.” 22 The Lord heard the voice of Elijah, and the life of the child returned to him and he revived. 23 Elijah took the child and brought him down from the upper room into the house and gave him to his mother; and Elijah said, “See, your son is alive.”
This is why they exclaimed that a great prophet had arisen. Suddenly there was a man who did the sort of things Elijah did. He even did them better. Elijah prostrated himself three times and prayed to God, then God resurrected the widow’s son. Meanwhile, Jesus resurrected a man on his own authority just by talking to the corpse. For Jesus, restoring life to the dead was so easy that it was casual. It’s only natural then that they should expect Jesus to do the rest of the things Elijah had done–to contend with gods and kings–and also to do those things better.
Those sort of expectations led to the celebration that greeted Jesus at Jerusalem, when people lined the road in front of him with palm branches; he was the new rock star prophet. Those sort of expectations also led to confusion and disappointment when Jesus spent his time there critiquing Jewish leaders rather than ejecting Roman officials. According to one theory, those sort of expectations are even what inspired Judas’ betrayal: he wanted to provoke a confrontation so that Jesus’ prophetic ministry could finally get started.
In short, expectations caused trouble. The important takeaway is this though: the people’s expectations caused trouble not because the people expected too much, but because they expected too little. They wanted to have freedom from the oppression of evil men, to have the dignity of being God’s chosen people, to have the promise of a good and peaceful life. Christ offered freedom from the oppression of evil itself, the dignity of being God’s beloved children, and the promise of a glorious and eternal life.
Just as Christ’s miracle surpassed Elijah’s, his presence, ministry, and mission surpassed anything that a returned Elijah could have offered. When people mistook him for Elijah, it wasn’t because they were entirely mistaken; they just weren’t thinking big enough.
(For more on that bigger picture, see my second post on this subject, which I rather cleverly call “The Other Part.”)