Was John the Baptist Elijah? I’d like to answer this question in two ways. The first way is for people with a limited amount of time. The answer is no. The second way. Let’s dig into the scriptures and see what they have to say. There’s a lot of misunderstanding concerning this topic and the misunderstandings come from not looking closely at the grammar, not taking the language of prophecy seriously, and not looking at enough of the relevant passages.
MalachI 4:5-6 “Look, I am going to send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers. Otherwise, I will come and strike the land with a curse.” The language here appears to be quite literal and unambiguous. Remember Elijah has not died, according to 2 Kings 2:1-12, he was taken directly up to heaven. In Deuteronomy 18:15 Moses said “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own brothers. You must listen to him.” In Deuteronomy 18:18 the Lord said “I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers.” In Malachi 4:5, Malachi did not say “a prophet like Elijah.”
Critical to understanding prophecy is this: it is not uncommon for a prophecy to have a foreshadowing fulfillment. Isaiah 7:14 was originally meant for King Ahaz in Isaiah’s day and yet finds its complete fulfillment in the birth of Jesus. Similarly Hosea 11:1 applies to the children of Israel but is fulfilled in Matthew 2:15. There are many such examples. What we find in Matthew 11:11-14, Matthew 17:10-13 and Mark 9:11-13 are references to both the foreshadowing and the literal fulfillment.
Matthew 11:11-14 “Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one greater than John the Baptist has appeared, but the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been suffering violence and the violent have been seizing it by force. For all the prophets in the law prophesied until John. And if you’re willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who is to come.” John is the Elijah who is to come “if you’re willing to accept it”. Here the Greek literally says the one about to come. John was still living when Jesus said this and Elijah was yet to appear at the transfiguration. This is rather cryptic until viewed in the light of the next two references. Matthew 17:10-13. In the first part of Matthew 17, Elijah had just appeared at the transfiguration and John the Baptist was already dead. “So the disciples asked him ‘Why then do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?’ Jesus replied ‘Elijah is coming and will restore everything but I tell you Elijah has already come and they didn’t recognize him. On the contrary, they did whatever they pleased to him. In the same way, the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands.’” This indicates that John was the foreshadowing. Elijah is yet to come despite his appearance at the transfiguration.
The words of Jesus are very clear here. Elijah is coming and will restore everything. Mark 9:11-13 “Then they asked him, ‘Why do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?’ Jesus replied ‘Elijah does come first and restores all things,’ he replied. ‘Why then is it written that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be treated with contempt? But I tell you that Elijah has come, and they did whatever they pleased to him, just as it is written about him.’” Elijah had just appeared at the transfiguration. If Elijah had come and restored all things, Jesus would not have had to suffer many things. A difference between the foreshadowing and the actual fulfillment is indicated. Jesus did not say that John was the Elijah, of whom Malachi spoke. John was not the ultimate fulfillment of Malachi’s prophecy. He did not restore all things as Jesus said Elijah will. In fact, according to Acts 3:19-21, the restoration of all things is yet future and plainly prophesied. He came in the spirit and power of Elijah according to Luke 1:17. But he flatly denied being Elijah. John 1:19-21 “This was John’s testimony when the Jews from Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him, ‘Who are you?’. He didn’t deny it but confessed ‘I am not the Messiah.’ ‘What then?’ they asked him. ‘Are you Elijah?’ ‘I am not,’ he said. ‘Are you the Prophet?’ ‘No’ he answered.”
If Jesus had said that John was Elijah, after John said that he was not, we would have a contradiction. Our bible has no contradictions in it. We have very few options here.
- John was Elijah. But John denied this. John was the Elijah spoken of in Malachi 4:5-6. But this would deny the words of the prophet Malachi, who was inspired by the Holy Spirit. He said “Look I am going to send you the prophet Elijah (not someone like Elijah, not someone in the spirit of Elijah, I’m going to send you the prophet Elijah).
- John was the foreshadowing of Elijah, who is yet to appear. Only one of these leaves us with the integrity of scripture intact. John’s appearance was the foreshadowing of an event that is yet future. Jesus said in Mark 9:12 in the NRSV “Elijah is indeed coming first to restore all things.” The language here is not a subject for debate. When the Holy Spirit inspires a writer, every jot and tittle is inspired. Each word is carefully chosen with the utmost precision, with every detail in place. We can have full confidence that when a prophet of the Lord says that something will happen in a certain way, that it will indeed happen in precisely that way. Surely the inventor of DNA and the atom does not miss the smallest detail.