Was John the Baptist the Promised “Elijah” Who Was to Come?

Question: In Matthew 17:11-13 Jesus tells his disciples that Elijah has already come and he was not recognized. It goes on to say that the disciples understood that Jesus was speaking of John the Baptist, however in John 1:21 when John is asked if he is Elijah, his reply is “I am not”. I am having a bit of trouble understanding this part of the scriptures and would be thankful for any clarity you could offer about this.

Answer: Jesus does not quite say that John the Baptist is the Elijah to come (a prophecy from Malachi 4:5,6 that says Elijah will come before the great and dreadful day of the Lord to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and of the children to their fathers). He says, “Elijah comes and will restore all things” (i.e., he is coming in the future to do this), but “Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him.” And in Matthew 11:14 he said, “If you will accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come.”

This suggests that like many prophecies there is a near fulfillment and an ultimate fulfillment. John the Baptist is not Elijah. But he was acting like the predicted Elijah of Malachi 4 calling the people to repentance in anticipation of the coming of the day of the Lord, a day when God visits His people for judgment and then blessing.

What would have happened if the leadership had accepted John’s testimony and received Jesus as the Messiah? Would God have brought the end of the ages to completion? Wouldn’t Jesus have still had to die for our sins? He would have had to die for our sins but we may suppose he would have been killed at the hands perhaps of the Romans instead of at the instigation of the Jews. Peter says in Acts 3:19-21 that if the people of Israel would repent that “the times of refreshing may come from the Lord.” He further said that Jesus “must remain in heaven until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets.” If the nation as a whole had responded to the gospel at that point perhaps He would have sent Jesus back and in essence John the Baptist would have fulfilled the role of Elijah in its ultimate fulfillment.

This also suggests that it may not be literal Elijah (revived from the dead or resurrected) who comes in fulfillment of Malachi 4, but someone who comes “in the spirit and power of Elijah” (Luke 1:17) as was predicted by the angel when he announced John the Baptist’s birth to his father. The “Elijah” yet to come will be like Elijah in the way he ministers and calls Israel to repentance.

Should John the Baptist have understood that he was the one to fulfill an Elijah-like role in Israel?  Should he have answered yes to the question of the religious leaders when they asked him if he was Elijah?  Perhaps it was dependent on the leaders recognizing him as such before he could boldly claim that role.  Perhaps he was unwilling to take that title upon himself, leaving that to Jesus, the king.

For further reading: