My mother would always set a place for me during holiday feasts. I regret that I missed far too many of those blessed occasions. It is tradition to set a place for Elijah — at Passover for instance — in expectation that the prophet will return before the coming of Messiah (Malachi 4:5). Rabbis pray for the return of Elias as his presence would announce the great day of the LORD, and the redemption of His people.
Ancient literature (Greek and Jewish) was commonly written in the style of allegory such as parables, metaphors, symbols and idioms. For example, Philo Judaeus (25 BC – 50 AD) was a Hellenistic Jew who mastered in the art of philosophy. As a writer he freely used allegory to blend Jewish and Greek thought.
Apocalyptic text — the Bible, for example — relied heavily on allegoric construct. It would, at least, be problematic to apply a literal interpretation of inspired authors who, in some instances, chronicled Divine revelation through the enriched symbolism of dreams and visions. Daniel’s vision of the Four Beasts rising out of the sea was a symbolic representation of four kings, or kingdoms; and not, for example, a literal lion with the wings of an eagle (Daniel 7: 1-8).
When John described his vision of Christ he said, out of His mouth came a sharp two-edged sword (Revelation 1:16). Obviously, this was not a literal sword but symbolic of the Word of God:
For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart (Hebrews 4:12).
Origen (ca. 254 AD) uniquely ascribed an allegoric interpretation of the Scriptures. Having studied Hebrew, and in consultation with Jewish friends, Origen discovered that in the symbols of Divine revelation there were hidden messages, or representations, such as the aforementioned Beasts in Daniel. But the early church father was careful to apply this style of interpretation to those verses that were so written. Otherwise, where Scripture is unequivocally clear, a literal understanding must be applied. Fundamentalists (or literalists) might deem Origen to be a heretic, but his method of interpretation was consistent with ancient Jewish study, and in conformance with the allegoric style in which the sacred text was penned.
New Testament writers, Jews themselves, applied the same manner of interpretation of the Law and prophets. They saw the Gospel message hidden in the Old Covenant, but revealed in the New.
Matthew often cited Scripture, this was to fulfill what was written; and Jesus said to His disciples:
… These are My words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled. Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures … (Lk 24:44-45).
The Scriptures are not always clearly understood, and we are mistaken to apply a strict interpretation of passages that are clearly metaphoric. Incorrect hermeneutics assumes the risk of imposing our own understanding of the text; and we are tempted to lift a verse out of context to make it fit into the framework of a predetermined theology. This lies at the core of false teaching and denominational separation.
Paul utilizes the method of allegoric interpretation in his letter to the assembly at Galatia:
Tell me, you who want to be under law, do you not listen to the law? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the bondwoman and one by the free woman. But the son by the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and the son by the free woman through the promise. This is allegorically speaking, for these women are two covenants … (Galatians 4:21-24).
An allegory does not necessarily present truth derived from a fictional narrative. Here, Paul is revealing that Abraham’s literal sons represented the two covenants of law and grace. Throughout his writings, Paul spiritualizes Biblical text — deemed a heretical method of interpretation by anti-Pauline detractors who zealously dismiss two-thirds of New Testament canon.
The apostle, however, is not the only one to similarly interpret Scripture. As noted, Jesus did so in His instructions to the disciples, and in the many parables which revealed hidden spiritual truths. This confounded His followers who asked of Him (Matthew 13:10), “Why do you speak to the people in parables?” It was to hide the mystery of the kingdom from unbelievers. Such riddles are not so clearly understood literally, or by those with a hardened heart. We must seek discernment to fully understand — as with this Old Testament verse:
Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes (Malachi 4:5).
Jews expect a literal return of the prophet Elijah in preparation of the coming of Messiah. Dispensational Christians share this same belief. Newsflash, my brothers — Elijah has already come:
… Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John (the Baptist), What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? … A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and one who is more than a prophet (Matthew 11:7-9).
Jesus , quoting Malachi 3:1 …
This is the one about whom it is written, ‘BEHOLD, I SEND MY MESSENGER AHEAD OF YOU, WHO WILL PREPARE YOUR WAY BEFORE YOU.’ (Matthew 11:10)
For all the prophets and the Law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to accept it, John himself is Elijah who was to come (Matthew 11:13-14).
John was greater than all his predecessors for they prophesied in mysteries whereas the Baptist spoke in revelation. When the Sanhedrin — looking for the fulfillment of Malachi — stood on the banks of the Jordan river they saw a man who, indeed, came in the power and spirit of Elijah.
The words of Malachi had led men to expect the reappearance of the great Tishbite in person as the immediate precursor of the Christ. It was the teaching of the scribes then; it has lingered as a tradition of Judaism down to our own time. A vacant chair is placed for Elijah at all great solemnities. Even Christian interpreters have cherished the belief that Elijah will appear in person before the second Advent of the Lord. The true meaning of the words of Malachi had, however, been suggested in the words of the angel in Luke 1:17, “He shall go before Him in the spirit and power of Elias,” and is here distinctly confirmed. The words “if ye will (i.e., are willing to) receive it” imply the consciousness that our Lord was setting aside a popular and strongly fixed belief: “If you are willing and able to receive the truth that John was in very deed doing the work of Elijah, you need look for no other in the future.” 
Again, by this exception, if you are willing to receive it, He glances at their hardened obstinacy, in maliciously shutting their eyes against the clearest light. But will he cease to be Elijah, if he shall not be received? Christ does not mean that John’s official character depends on their approbation; but having declared that he is Elijah, He charges them with carelessness and ingratitude, if he does not obtain that respect to which he is entitled. 
Jesus told his disciples that Elijah (in the person of John the Baptist) had come, but the people did not recognize him (Matthew 17:12). That he was not received does not invalidate the prophesy nor abrogate its fulfillment.
The beloved Dr. McGee said that John the Baptist was not Elijah — literally, that is — and he expected his literal return sometime in the future. Well, our Lord said different. Spiritually, Elijah was only a type of someone greater to come. As Jesus said, Truly I say to you, among those born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptist (Matthew 11:11).
In conclusion, I would encourage you to exercise discernment when interpreting Scripture. Do not force types and shadows into a literal construct. The writers of the New Testament revealed the greater meaning of the Old Covenant which, until the coming of Messiah, only concealed the truth of the Gospel.
And, secondly, while it is a quaint tradition to set an extra place at the table — don’t expect Elijah to show up for the Passover Seder.
Chag Sameach (KHAHG sah-MEHY-ahkh)!
1. A New Testament Commentary for English Readers, Charles John Ellicott, 1878.
2. Calvin’s Commentary on the Bible, John Calvin, ND.
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