The Messiah Would Be Preceded by Elijah the Prophet
This is the third “forerunner” prophecy. Isaiah 40:3-4 spoke of a voice crying out to prepare the way of the Lord in the desert; Malachi 3:1 prophesied of a messenger preparing God’s way and now in Malachi 4:5-6, God sends the prophet Elijah before the “great and awesome day of the Lord comes.” Elijah’s mission is to bring about reconciliation, as the passage indicates:
“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.”
Based on this passage and also on the fact that Elijah did not die but was taken up to heaven directly (2 Kings 2:9-12), Jewish tradition spoke often of the future return of Elijah. As an example, in the Mishnah (Edduyot 8:7), Elijah will come to settle all disputes and reconcile all discrepancies in the holy books. In that passage of the Mishnah, discussion ensues as to what Elijah will accomplish. At the end of the passage, “The Sages say, [Elijah will come]… to make peace in the world, as it is said…”1, followed by quoting the Malachi passage.
He is also involved with the resurrection of the dead in the Mishnah, Sotah 9:15: “The resurrection of the dead shall come through Elijah of blessed memory.”2 The resurrection was expected to happen at the end of history, so Elijah here is definitely associated with the end of time. And of course at Passover, an entire place setting is put out for Elijah as well as a special cup of wine, and the door is opened for him to enter. For the hope at Passover is that if Elijah comes, the Messiah himself cannot be far behind.
In the time of Jesus, messianic expectation was never far from the surface, and speculation was that both John the Baptist and Jesus were the reappearances of ancient biblical figures.
For example, see this passage in Matthew:
Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” (Matthew 16:13-16)
This is quite an interesting assortment of guesses! Some thought John the Baptist had come back to life, having previously been beheaded (Matthew 14:10). Others thought he was Elijah the prophet, while others speculated that he was Jeremiah come back – perhaps because both preached judgment and had hard words concerning people’s trust in the Temple. And “one of the prophets” in general ends the list of guesses.
We see several similar guesses about who Jesus is in Mark, where Herod seems convinced that although he had John the Baptist executed, he was risen from the dead!
King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some said, “John the Baptist has been raised from the dead. That is why these miraculous powers are at work in him.” But others said, “He is Elijah.” And others said, “He is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.” (Mark 6:14-16)
To further complicate matters, people similarly wondered about John the Baptist, not only about Jesus. This is from John’s gospel:
This is the testimony of John [the Baptist], 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 Messiah.” 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 Messiah, 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.” (John 1:19-27)
Here the speculation runs to whether John is the Messiah, Elijah or the Prophet (probably the prophet like Moses from Deuteronomy 18). John’s response is that he is none of those but rather the one who prepares the way for the Lord, quoting from Isaiah 40:3. The last part of the passage shows that the expectation apparently was that the kind of baptism John was performing was something that would happen at the end of time. They want to know: if you are not one of those figures who appears at the end, why are you doing this? Or perhaps they were after the source of John’s authority: who authorized you to do this? For the Messiah and the end-time-expected Elijah were figures who possessed ultimate authority (see above on Elijah settling disputes, his decision being authoritative). John points them to Jesus, but does not call him by name in this passage. The coming of the Messiah may indeed be near, but John is the Messiah’s forerunner, not some other person.
It is interesting that John the Baptist denies being Elijah in John’s gospel, while in Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus tells his listeners that John is indeed Elijah. Let us look at those three gospels and then we will see why John’s gospel is different.
In Matthew 11, Jesus speaks of the greatness of John the Baptist, and includes this in verses 14-15:
“If you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
Matthew has more to say about Elijah and John the Baptist in chapter 17. This chapter begins with the transfiguration, during which Peter, James and John see Jesus in glory on a mountain, in conversation with Moses and with Elijah. Then we read:
As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus commanded them, “Tell no one the vision, until the Son of Man is raised from the dead.”
And the disciples asked him, “Then why do the scribes say that first Elijah must come?” He answered, “Elijah does come, and he will restore all things. But I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man will certainly suffer at their hands.”
Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them of John the Baptist. (Matthew 17:9-13)
The disciples’ question was no doubt prompted by having seen Elijah with Jesus. They are reminded of the teaching of the scribes, that Elijah must come before the end of time and before the Messiah appears. Jesus’ response is interesting: first he agrees that Elijah comes and “will” restore all things, future tense. Then he immediately says that Elijah has already come and suffered (by imprisonment and execution), even as Jesus himself will suffer.
As to the future, it may well be that Elijah will appear before the second coming of Jesus, which will lead to the final restoration of “all things.” But the restoration will soon begin its preliminary stages through the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. In that sense, the apparently contradictory ideas of (1) restoring all things and (2) a suffering and dying Messiah, are reconciled. The first stage of restoration happens through the death of the Messiah, and John the Baptist is Elijah come back. In the same sense that the Messiah could be thought of as David resuming his rule – a “greater David” – so John the Baptist was a “greater Elijah.”
Mark is similar to Matthew:
They asked him, “Why do the scribes say that first Elijah must come?” And he said to them, “Elijah does come first to restore all things. And how is it written of the Son of Man that he should suffer many things and be treated with contempt? But I tell you that Elijah has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written of him.” (Mark 9:11-13)
The idea in Mark seems to be: if Elijah is supposed to restore all things, how can Jesus – using his preferred title for himself, “Son of Man” – suffer? Isn’t he supposed to reign triumphantly? Well, Elijah may indeed come in the future, but now John the Baptist has come as the “greater Elijah,” and has suffered just as the Messiah will suffer. The road to restoration is paved with suffering and death, until all things are ultimately and finally restored at Jesus’ second coming.
Finally, we have Luke:
He [John the Baptist] will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.” (Luke 1:16-17)
Luke here is explicit that John came “in the spirit and power of Elijah”– he is not a reappearance of the actual, literal prophet. Alluding to Malachi 4:5-6 (Hebrew, 3:23-24), he shows that John began to effect reconciliation (through his baptism of repentance) and in that way prepared the people for the coming of Jesus.
This explains why in John’s gospel, John the Baptist denies being Elijah. The delegation that asked him about his identity was thinking of end-times figures who were expected at the close of history and at the beginning of the messianic kingdom. But John’s work was preliminary to that. He is not the Elijah who appears at the end of history, but the “greater Elijah” who is the Messiah’s forerunner, coming in the spirit and power of that ancient prophet.
A greater David, a greater Elijah – that is who Jesus and John the Baptist are.
1. Philip Blackman’s Mishnah edition, vol. 4, Order Nezikin.
2. Ibid., vol. 3, Order Nashim.