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.

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

  1. My ESV Study Bible notes for Malachi 4:4-6 poses reasons why Malachi might have named Elijah as the forerunner for the Messiah, such as a long-standing drought like in the time of Elijah, or Malachi’s concern with marriage to an idolater like Ahab (as he spoke about the priests in Malachi 2:10-12). The contributor continues:

    “It seems most likely, however, that Malachi recognized that of all the OT prophets, Elijah best fit the portrait of the messianic prophet ‘like Moses’ predicted in Deut. 18:15 and 34:10-12. As such, Elijah stands alongside Moses in Mal. 4:4-6 as the representative of the entire OT line of prophets, much as he functions on the Mount of Transfiguration (Mark 9:4 and parallels). The promise to send Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome ‘day of Yahweh’ confirms the interpretation given here of Mal. 3:1-5, that the promised messenger is not Malachi himself but some future prophet. It is likely that this future prophet is identified with Elijah not because Elijah was spared from death, as if this might permit a literal return to life*, but because the future messenger would have a prophetic ministry similar to that of the historical Elijah. Compare the many OT predictions of a future ‘David’ that do not suggest David’s literal return to life (Jer. 30:9; Ezek. 34:23-25; 37:24). The NT identifies John the Baptist as the fulfillment of Malachi’s promised Elijah. When John the Baptist denied that he was Elijah, it is possible either that he was denying that he was Elijah in person, or that he rejected not the ministry predicted in Malachi but misguided popular elaborations of this promise based on other notable features in the original Elijah’s ministry, especially his many miracles, which pointed more to the Christ than to John.”

    (*Note, for cultural interpretation later: the Jews may have mis-interpreted the prophecy to believe that the promised Elijah would be Elijah himself, made possible because he was swept up in a whirlwind, and did not die, as recorded in 2 Kings 2.)

    This reminds me of when Jesus answered someone in quite a peculiar way, in Mark 10:17-18:

    And as [Jesus] was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.”

    Jesus certainly wasn’t denying that He was God, for He confirmed that truth multiple times in the Gospels. Jesus’ response revealed more about the man asking than it did Jesus–that the man believed he was ONLY a good teacher, and was not, in fact, divine, God-in-the-flesh.

    Could John the Baptist have been answering in the same way, more like he was addressing a misconception in the askers themselves?

    In Matthew 21:23-27, which reads:

    And when [Jesus] entered the temple, the chief priests and elders of the people came up to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Jesus answered them, “I will also ask you one question, and if you tell me the answer, then I also will tell you by what authority I do these things. The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?” And they discussed it among themselves, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘From man,’ we are afraid of the crowd, for they all hold that John was a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.”

    …here they are revealing what they believe, or do not believe, about John the Baptist (and Jesus himself, for that matter), clearly after Jesus had proclaimed John to be the fulfillment of Malachi’s prophecy about Elijah in Matthew 11.

    Here is John 1:21 in context: (I will quote the whole section of verses 19-28)

    And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” And he answered, “No.” So they said to him, “Who are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.”

    (Now they had been sent from the Pharisees.) They asked him, “Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” John answered them, “I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know, even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” These things took place in Bethany across the Jordan, where John was Baptizing.

    In answering why John the Baptist gave his particular answer to those particular askers, we must look at who was originally asking the question. In verses 19 and 24 John tells us that they were priests and Levites from Jerusalem, and they were sent from the Pharisees.

    They didn’t just ask if John the Baptist was Elijah. They asked about him being the Christ and the Prophet as well. (‘The Christ’ was the summation of all of the OT promises of a coming one who would lead God’s people, ‘a Savior in the line of David,’ paraphrased from the ESV study notes; Moses spoke of the Prophet in Deuteronomy 18:15-18. In NT hindsight, Jesus is both the Prophet and the Christ, and, as Randall wrote, the ultimate fulfillment of the coming Elijah.) Though he denies being all three, John the Baptist does acknowledge that he was fulfilling Scripture, notably Isaiah 40:3.

    We must note that all over the Gospels, you will hear references to and questions about the identities of the Christ, the Prophet, and Elijah. Even at the crucifixion, in Matthew 27:45-50, the crowd makes reference to Elijah:

    Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour. And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And some of the bystanders, hearing it, said, “This man is calling Elijah.” And one of them at once ran and took a sponge, filled it with sour wine, and put it on a reed and gave it to him to drink. But the others said, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.” And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit.

    So what about the question itself? What were the Pharisees, Levites, and priests *really* looking for as an answer to the question about John?

    In that time, it was between the testaments when God was silent, as no more prophets were speaking (Malachi to the time of John the Baptist)–not that God was not working, but that He was not relaying messages through messengers. As evidence, we don’t have any Scripture, God’s inspired words, from between the writing of Malachi and the NT books. They were living, after the restoration from the exile, under the rule of first the Greeks and the Egyptians, and then the Hasmonean (Maccabean) Jews, and then the Romans. The Pagan rulers were, at times, brutal and gruesome.

    I’m sure they were looking for deliverance from these political kingdoms based on the promises and prophecies of the Old Testament because of the persecution they faced under those kingdoms. I’m sure they were looking forward to a “day of Yahweh”, or judgment of unrighteousness, for their deliverance, as promised in the time following Elijah’s coming in Malachi 4:5. Yahweh describes his feelings about man’s pridefulness through Isaiah in Isaiah 2:12 and 17-19:

    “For Yahweh of hosts has a day against all that is proud and lofty, against all that is lifted up—and it shall be brought low….And the haughtiness of man shall be humbled, and the lofty pride of men shall be brought low, and Yahweh alone will be exalted in that day. And the idols shall utterly pass away. And people shall enter the caves of the rocks and the holes of the ground, from before the terror of Yahweh, and from the splendor of his majesty, when he rises to terrify the earth.”

    And Joel 2:28-32 says:

    “And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit. And I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and awesome day of Yahweh comes. And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls on the name of Yahweh shall be saved. For in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape, as Yahweh has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom Yahweh calls.”

    If I were under oppression from brutal, earthly leaders, passages like these would give me hope. Surely Yahweh would bring these prideful, haughty kingdoms to justice and remember those whom He deems righteous.

    And I’m sure they looked forward to the promise of a greater kingdom in passages like Jeremiah 31:31-34:

    “Behold, the days are coming, declares Yahweh, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares Yahweh. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares Yahweh: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know Yahweh,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares Yahweh. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”

    So I’m sure that the Pharisees were looking to see if this would be the appointed time for the day of Yahweh and the fulfillment of the promises for the new covenant.

    Even John the Baptist, who had declared Jesus to be “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29) the day after he answered the question in 1:21, even he questioned Jesus’ coming in Matthew 11:2-6:

    Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” And Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”

    (A few verses later is where Jesus says that John was a prophet and the fulfillment of Malachi 3:1 and was “Elijah who is to come.” 11:14, referring to Malachi 4:5-6.)

    Even AFTER Jesus had risen, the apostles asked, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6)

    Everyone really, really wanted deliverance from the earthly, political kingdoms and really, really wanted the establishment of the Messianic kingdom based on the promises and prophecies of the Old Testament.

    I believe when the Pharisees asked John if he was one of the “big 3” that they were looking to see if it was time for deliverance. I mean, after 400 years of not hearing Yahweh speak and then to have such a man like John the Baptist appear on the scene must have alerted the Pharisees and everyone else to something. They were eagerly on the lookout for Elijah, the Prophet, and the Christ…but only in one way. And they are still eagerly on the lookout for Elijah, the Prophet, and the Christ. This makes my heart break for those who are still eagerly opening the door for Elijah during the Passover dinner to usher in the kingdom of the Messiah…they have missed him.

    Time and time again Jesus taught that He fulfilled Scripture and performed works as an authentication of His authority from God as the long-awaited Messiah. However, Jesus did not meet their expectations of political deliverance. Jesus did not come to bring judgment on the Romans. So, they killed Him.

    Once the Holy Spirit came, the disciples must have realized that Jesus’ first coming was deliverance not from political, earthly kingdoms, but deliverance from the kingdom of darkness and sin into His kingdom of light, as Peter wrote in his first epistle in 1:9-10. And the apostles wrote several times about the end to come after Christ’s second coming, as Jesus spoke of His second coming (e.g., Matthew 13:24-30, the Parable of the Weeds and its interpretation in Matthew 13:36-43), so they finally understood and we now understand that ultimate, physical deliverance is yet to come.

    And the truth is, we, who are recipients of the New Covenant now, established by Jesus’ blood shed for us on the cross, get to start living that Messianic Kingdom life NOW, while on this earth, as we eagerly long to live it out in the presence of King Jesus Himself.

    Now, back to John the Baptist…could he have known all of this that we now know? Probably not, considering he was also confused about Christ’s first coming, and that we now understand God’s plan for salvation and deliverance given throughout Scripture in hindsight. He lacked full knowledge about all the things to come.

    In the ESV study notes for John 1:20-21, the contributor writes, “John denies being the Christ, Elijah, or the Prophet. …Elijah, who never died, was expected to return in the end times to ‘restore all things’. Though the Baptist resembled Elijah in his rugged lifestyle, he denied that he himself was Elijah (though Jesus, understanding more about this than John, saw John as fulfilling the prophecy about Elijah).” Another contributor writes in the notes for Matthew 11:14, “Malachi had prophesied that ‘Elijah’ would prepare the way for the Messiah (Mal. 3:1; 4:5). He did not actually imply only a literal reappearance of Elijah, and John’s earlier denial that he was Elijah was probably an attempt to correct a popular belief that Elijah himself would reappear. Before John’s birth, he was designated as the one who would minister in the ‘spirit and power of Elijah’ (Luke 1:17), thereby fulfilling Malachi’s prophecy.”

    Considering he proclaimed that Jesus was the Lamb to take away sin, but then later asked if he should look for another as the Christ, all of these explanations can probably be combined in some way: he may have been addressing some belief and expectation of the day about Elijah, that he would literally return; he may have been addressing some misconception of himself (much like Jesus did; he did know that he was fulfilling Scripture, as he quoted Isaiah, but not in the way they expected); or he did not have Jesus’ wisdom in the interpretation of Malachi’s prophecy. At any rate, Jesus does claim that John the Baptist did fulfill Malachi’s prophecy, and we know that the day of Yahweh is still to come.

    (All of this makes me really grateful that God has not yet brought ultimate deliverance and has allowed me to live to know Himself. If He had produced deliverance at that time, we might not be here right now.)

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