John the Baptist was once asked by the people, “Are you Elijah?” He replied, “I am not” (John 1:21). However, Christ said of him, “he is Elijah who is to come” (Matt 11:14). How could John say he was not Elijah but Christ said he was?
Matthew and Mark help us answer this question in their record of a conversation between Jesus and Peter, James, and John. In trying to figure out how Jesus could die before establishing His kingdom, the three disciples asked Jesus why Elijah was to come first, that is, before the establishment of His kingdom (Matthew 17:10; Mark 9:11). Jesus affirmed that Elijah would come and restore all things, meaning that he would turn Israel to repentance as promised long ago (Matt 17:11; Mark 9:12; cf. Mal 4:5–6). But then Jesus also says that Elijah came, was not recognized, and was treated as his captors pleased (Matt 17:12; Mark 9:13). The disciples understood Jesus that the Elijah who came was John the Baptist (Matt 17:13). Apparently, John the Baptist was Elijah who came (cf. Matt 11:14), and Elijah was going to come again.
John did not think of himself as the literal, historical Elijah, and neither did Jesus. At the same time, Jesus did see John as the promised Elijah of Malachi 4:5 and identified John the Baptist as Elijah according to Malachi’s promise. John apparently prophesied “in the spirit and power of Elijah” (Luke 1:16–17; cf. Mal 4:5–6) and could thus be identified by the name of Elijah. For Jesus to call John Elijah was to assume that Mal 4:5–6 characterized his life (cf. Luke 1:16–17) and to indicate this assumption by virtue of calling him by this name. The question at this point, then, would be whether Malachi thought his use of the name Elijah referred to the historical Elijah or spoke of a “generic Elijah” who would come and could be characterized by the historical Elijah (cf. 2 Kgs 2:15).
One way or the other, we find that the apostle John prophesied of two prophets to come just before the end of this age and that they do miracles like Moses and Elijah of old (Rev 11:6). Perhaps one of them will be the literal, historical Elijah. At the very least, it would seem that this Elijah-like prophet is the Elijah that Malachi promised and that Jesus promised would come as well. Whether the historical Elijah or a generic, Elijah-like prophet, we will have to wait and see!
Pastor regularly writes articles for our Sunday bulletin. See his bio on our staff page.