Before Jesus gave up His spirit, He cried out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Yesterday, we pointed out that this was a quotation from Psalm 22; a Psalm about a righteous sufferer who is vindicated by God. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus quotes this Psalm in Hebrew saying, “Eli, Eli, lema sebachtani?” Hearing Jesus cry out “Eli,” some of the people standing nearby misunderstood Him and thought He was calling for Elijah and they said, “Let’s see if Elijah comes to save him” (Mt. 27:49). The end of the book of Malachi says, “See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the LORD Comes” (Mal. 4:5). Because of this, many people at the time of Jesus expected Elijah’s coming before the coming of the Lord. Also, rabbinic traditions of the time thought that Elijah acted like an angelic helper to rabbis in their time of need.
With this tradition if mind, Matthew wants his readers to think back to the previous mentions of Elijah in his Gospel. In chapter 11, speaking of John the Baptist, Jesus says, “all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come” (Mt. 11:13-14). Elijah then appears with Moses during Jesus’ transfiguration and Jesus again makes the connection between John the Baptist and the prophet Elijah saying, “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” (17:11-12). Jesus’ disciples “understood that he was talking to them about John the Baptist” (17:13).
These passages illustrate one of the many ways in which Jesus flipped people’s expectations on their heads. The people observing the crucifixion thought Jesus was calling Elijah to come rescue him from the cross. But Jesus knew that “Elijah has already come, not to rescue Jesus from this fate but precisely to point him towards it, assuring him that he is going the way God has commanded” (N.T. Wright). This upside-down expectation is consistent with Jesus’ proclamation of an upside-down Kingdom. Jesus’ Kingdom is one where the poor, the hungry, the weeping and the hated are blessed (Lk. 6:20-23). Jesus’ Kingdom is one where people love their enemies, do good to those who hate them, bless those who curse them, and pray for those who mistreat them (Lk. 6:27-28). In Jesus’ Kingdom, the first are last, the last are first, the exalted are humbled and the humbled are exalted (Mt. 20:15; 23:12). And most upside down of all, in Jesus’ Kingdom, the King is enthroned on a cross and defeats His enemies by giving up His spirit.