In the sport of cycling, one of the strangest – but most enjoyable – events is the Keirin. This is effectively a multi-lap sprint on the track, but what makes it unusual is the ‘derny’: a motorised bicycle which sets the pace at the front of the race. For the first few laps all the competitors have to follow the derny, which increases its speed gradually until the official start of the sprint, when it quietly steers off the track, allowing the sprinters to race each other.
Today’s passage is really about another pacesetter: in the prophetic writings of the Old Testament – especially the prophet Malachi – the Messiah is promised a ‘derny’, if you like: one who will come and set the pace for his ministry and prepare the people for the race to come. This person is Elijah – one of the greatest prophets, who is promised to return before the Messiah arrives.
The supposed wait for Elijah to return became one of sticking points among those who did not wish to acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah. As they saw it, how could he be, as Elijah had not appeared yet? It’s not surprising, then, that, after seeing Jesus meet with Elijah, Peter, James and John felt moved to ask Jesus about it. Did this mean that this prophecy was fulfilled?
Jesus’ answer is effectively ‘yes, and no’. Yes, Elijah has come; but not on the mountain just now – rather, John the Baptist is the ‘Elijah who was to come’. Although Mark does not refer explicitly to John here – Matthew does in 11:14 of his gospel, quoting Jesus directly – Jesus does talk about John’s treatment at the hands of his opponents: ‘Elijah has come, and they have done to him everything they wished’ (v13). For the detail of that story, which we looked at a couple of weeks ago, head back to chapter 6.
In what sense does John the Baptist ‘restore all things’? My sense is that what Jesus means here is that he paves the way for Jesus: John exercised a powerful ministry of repentance, during which thousands of people dedicated themselves back to God. This ‘set the pace’ for Jesus himself.
Today’s passage might seem more of a theological ‘box-tick’ – another prophecy fulfilled! But Jesus’ fulfilment of prophecy is a powerful testimony of who he was and what he came to do. It validates all the great prophecies which rightly stir our hearts: salvation, freedom, justice, peace and the coming kingdom of God. Give thanks that Jesus is everything he claims to be; and may this Jesus refresh your heart and walk beside you this day.