Theology in 3D

Was John the Baptist Elijah?

Ken Casillas | May 29, 2018
New Testament, Old Testament

As John the Baptist was preaching and baptizing, the Pharisees sent a delegation to question him about his identity and ministry. When John denied being the Messiah, his interrogators immediately asked, “What then? Are you Elijah?” John’s answer was simple and straightforward: “I am not” (John 1:21). This would seem to settle the matter and put an end to any controversy.

Later, however, Jesus said of John the Baptist: “He is Elijah who is to come” (Matt 11:14). This seeming contradiction naturally puzzles Bible believers and gives Bible critics an opening to attack the Scriptures. Is John Elijah or isn’t he?

Theoretically, it’s possible that John wasn’t fully aware of his identity in God’s redemptive program. After all, Jesus’ statement about John comes in the context of responding to John’s struggles concerning Jesus’ own identity (Matt 11:2-3). One wishes for a more satisfying answer than ignorance on John’s part, however. Such an answer is available through careful comparison of the relevant texts.

NOT THE HISTORIC ELIJAH

Malachi 3 predicts a day of divine judgment and salvation but indicates that this day will be preceded by the ministry of a forerunner (v. 1).

Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me.

Malachi 4 likewise prophesies the Day of the Lord and also speaks of a preparatory messenger (vv. 5-6):

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. (Mal 4:5-6)

In their longing for deliverance from oppression and the arrival of God’s kingdom, intertestamental Jews latched onto the hope of passages like Malachi 3 and 4. In particular, they expected that the historic Elijah—the one who had been spared from death and had ascended to heaven in a chariot of fire (2 Kings 2)—would return to the world as the forerunner of the Messiah.

This is evident, for example, in the Apocryphal book of Sirach or Ecclesiasticus (second century B.C.). After surveying the miracle-laden ministry of Elijah, chapter 48 says:

You who were taken up by a whirlwind of fire,
in a chariot with horses of fire;
you who are ready at the appointed time, it is written,
to calm the wrath of God before it breaks out in fury,
to turn the heart of the father to the son,
and to restore the tribes of Jacob.
Blessed are those who saw you,
and those who have been adorned in love;
for we also shall surely live. (vv. 9-10, RSV)*

If this is what first-century Jews were expecting, John the Baptist could not have been Elijah. He was not the original prophet Elijah reappearing on earth. He was a different human being altogether, born through reproduction to Zechariah and Elizabeth. In that sense John was correct to affirm that he was not Elijah.

BUT ELIJAH NONETHELESS

But we must move on to our Lord’s teaching about John the Baptist. First he describes John in terms of Malachi 3:1’s messenger prophecy (Matt 11:10; cf. Luke 7:27Mark 1:2ff). But note how Jesus couches his connection of John with Malachi 4:5’s Elijah prophecy (Matt 11:13-14, a fuller account than the parallel in Mark 9:9-13):

And if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.

Two clues here suggest how to understand Jesus’ statement and Malachi’s prophecy. First, the phrase, “if you are willing to accept it,” implies that what he is saying is different from what the disciples were used to thinking. We could expand on our Lord’s words this way: “John is Elijah, but not in the sense that Jewish tradition teaches.”

Second, Jesus’ comment, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear,” indicates that the disciples would have to ponder their Master’s words carefully in order to interpret them correctly. In essence, Christ knew that people would have difficulty figuring out John’s connection with Elijah! And his words urge us all to patient meditation in order to arrive at his meaning.

In reality, we have it much easier than the original disciples because we have the entire canon of Scripture for comparison. That canon includes Luke 1’s lengthy account of the birth of John the Baptist and the events leading up to it. Here Gabriel’s prophecy of John’s birth contains these important comments (vv. 16-17):

And he 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.

Gabriel is clearly drawing from Malachi 3 and 4, but he does not claim that John is the historic Elijah. Instead he says that John will go before the Lord “in the spirit and power of Elijah.” Similarly, after John’s birth Zechariah describes his son in terms of Malachi 3 and 4 but never equates him with the Elijah of the OT historical books (Luke 1:7678).

So John the Baptist was Elijah in the sense that he ministered “in the spirit and power of Elijah.” This similarity extended to John’s rustic clothing (Matt 3:4; cf. 2 Kings 1:8). More importantly, John paralleled Elijah in that both strongly urged Israel to repent in view of God’s wrath against their sins (e.g. 1 Kings 18; Matt 3:7-12). Perhaps we should also see a correspondence in that both prophets boldly confronted the corruption of the rulers of God’s people, at great risk to themselves (e.g., Ahab in 1 Kings 21:17-24; Herod Antipas in Matt 14:1-12).

CONFIRMATION AND COMPLEXITIES

Matthew 17 reveals the disciples’ ongoing struggle to understand these issues. Here Peter, James, and John see Jesus transfigured and accompanied by the historic Moses and Elijah. As they descend the mountain, they try to connect the dots among OT passages about the Messiah’s glorious kingdom. Specifically, how can it be that the kingdom has arrived but Elijah hasn’t preceded it? “Why do the scribes say that first Elijah must come?” (v. 10). Jesus replies:

“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.” (vv. 11-12)

Verse 13 brings some closure: “Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them of John the Baptist.” I take this statement to confirm the distinction I made above: the historic Elijah—the one who had been on the Mount of Transfiguration, the one expected by the Jews—is different from Malachi’s prophesied Elijah.

Yet this text makes another point that the disciples would struggle even more to understand: John’s unjust execution anticipates Jesus’ own crucifixion. The shocking idea of Elijah/John and the Messiah being brutally killed before the kingdom comes in its fullness was not evident from Malachi’s prophecy! Though it was predicted by other OT passages, the suffering-before-glory dynamic of the kingdom would be fully understood only as redemptive history progressed (cf. 1 Pet 1:10-12).

Our Lord’s words in Matthew 17 introduce a further complexity. His opening comment, “Elijah does come, and he will restore all things” (v. 11), seems to indicate that an Elijah is coming in the future. Conservative scholars differ on how to interpret this, but it should likely be connected with the end-time witnesses of Revelation 11:1-14. In any case, what we’ve discovered about Malachi’s Elijah prophecy suggests that there may be a few more surprises as God’s kingdom program comes to its climax.

CONCLUSION

In sum, our study coheres with and validates these biblical axioms:

  • God’s words do not contradict themselves.
  • Understanding God’s words requires careful meditation and comparison, and unthinking adherence to tradition can prevent accurate understanding.
  • God is unfailingly faithful to all his words.
  • In anticipation, God’s words require faith; in hindsight, they deepen faith.

Like John the Baptist himself, sometimes we wonder whether our faith in the Lord and his words is well-placed. May our consideration of John’s identity strengthen us to persevere to the end like he did. And may it increase our longing for the consummation of the kingdom that he proclaimed!

*For documentation of similar Jewish sources, see Andreas Köstenberger’s discussion of John 1:19-51 in “John,” Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, ed. D. A. Carson and G. K. Beale.

Photo credit: falco, pixabay.com


28 responses to “Was John the Baptist Elijah?”

  1. Great summary of the data, Ken. One important dimension of the Malachi prophecy seems unfulfilled by John. The prophesied Elijah “will turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the earth with a curse.” The Gospel references that Elijah would “restore [apokathistēmi] all things” seem to allude to this prophetic detail. Yet it seems arguable (as some commentators note) that (a) John did not accomplish this restoration in view of Israel’s predominant rejection of Christ, and (b) the restoration is yet future and connected to the second advent (Acts 3:21, apokastasis). In fact, it seems that even the eschatological prophet(s) in Rev. 11 will fail to effect any widespread restoration.
    So, question: Do you think it’s significant that the prophecy doesn’t actually guarantee success? That it simply states the mission along with a potential consequence if the mission is not realized? Could it be argued that in both cases the mission is not ultimately successful, and in both cases the prophesied curse is realized: (1) in the case of John, the rejection of John and his ministry leads to a curse on the eretz of Israel in which Israel is thrown out for nearly two millennia; (2) in the case of Rev. 11, the rejection of the prophet and his ministry leads to a curse on the eretz of Israel (massive destruction of Jerusalem) and the whole earth as well. Thoughts?

  2. Ken Casillas says:

    I haven’t thought before about the interesting and important issues you raise. Your view seems feasible to me. I just wonder about integrating it with other prophecies. In particular, Malachi 3 has the progression of (1) the preparatory messenger, (2) God’s appearance, (3) purging/restoration/judgment. Maybe you should write a blogpost about this sometime. :}

  3. Eugene says:

    Great summary. Treats the text with a fair assessment. I wonder, though, whether you think it’s reasonable to believe that God could have, very well, placed the spirit of Elijah in the flesh of John? Meaning, is it unreasonable to think that God would reuse such a spirit, in time? I’m not implying a sort of “reincarnation”, but, again, an ordained reintroduction of a former spirit into a future human life. (I ask this question as a conservative Seminary trained, MDiv carrying, ordained Baptist minister of the gospel).

    • Ken Casillas says:

      Hi Eugene, thanks for your comment. I suppose that theoretically God could “reuse” a spirit, but I can’t think of any biblical evidence that he does or has done that. It would also raise significant logistical difficulties. Since Elijah was physically in heaven, what was the nature of his temporary existence without a spirit? Also, what will happen with John at the resurrection? Will he have a different spirit than what he had on earth? All things considered, I think the kind of explanation I gave is a safer and simpler and more biblically defensible approach.

  4. Mark says:

    Hi all, what about the point that Elijah did actually come….he spoke with Jesus and Moses which would make both things true independent of each other ie; John came in the spirit of Elijah AND Elijah actually came?! (Just simply that only a couple people saw him!)

    Just a though and it satisfies all views in a general sense..?

  5. Richard Z says:

    Hello all,
    The subject is very interesting to me. Over the last fifty years I have found that Young Oon Kim’s Divine Principle and its Application has a simple explanation of this complicated matter. First of all we need to apply the principle of “Human Portion of Responsibility” which means that human beings may be called and prepared by God for a certain purpose but must respond in a whole-hearted manner in order to fulfill the divinely appointed position. In applying this principle to understanding the various central persons and their families we can see varying degrees of success in fulfillment of the human portion of responsibility. Noah succeeded in his faithful role in the 120 years plus 40 days of the flood judgement, but unfortunately his sons did not inherit his faith successfully. In like manner Abraham failed in his first offering, necessitating the 400 year sojourn in Egypt. Abraham did succeed in the second offering in unity with his son Isaac. Jacob did succeed in his reclaiming of the blessing of the first born, and also finally in the reharmonization with his brother Esau, upon return to the hometown.
    Ok, now in applying this principle to the Jesus/John the Baptist situation we see that John was prepared and called, From Birth!!!, to fulfill a forerunner role for the Messiah, which is equivalent to the returning Eliljah mission. Unfortunately many devout people of the time assumed that it meant the literal return of Elijah as a physical person, to carry out a mission of national cleansing in preparation for the Messiah. However God uses natural ways and John is to fulfill this mission “in the spirit and power of Elijah”, not as the person of Elijah himself. In other words, a living person, born of woman, substitutes to fulfill the mission of Elijah. We see this in the transfer from Elijah to Elisha of a double portion of his “Spirit and Power” (2Kings 2). People who interpret the return of Elijah literally will have a hard time with Jesus. The literal return of Eliljah is some what equivalent to believing in Santa Claus who returns on a sleigh on Dec.25th. However if one believes in the spirit of giving and charity which circulates in the holiday season one can be satisfied, and in particular in the role of parents as representatives of the high spirit of Santa Claus. God works through real people in the flesh and blood to fulfill the unfinished business of our ancestors and predecessors, and to build on their goodness and restore their mistakes. The Human Portion of Responsibility is uppermost in all of this, the key missing link or element, because by fulfilling these divinely assigned portions of responsibility we inherit qualifications to be God’s Children and Leaders of Heaven and Earth. Satan be gone! The Human Portion of Responsiblity (POR) solves the problem of the question of Divine Predestination because the Divine Will can be delayed by the lack of Human Responsibility! But God endures forever!
    So I refer you to Young Oon Kim’s book, Divine Principle and its Application, or its re-release as “The Living Code”. It solves other theological issues involving the mission of Jesus, the Kingdom of Heaven, Providential history, Biblical time periods of 3, 7, 12, 21, 40, 210, 400, their repetition and significance, the Second Coming, The Fall of Man, and etc. For me this text allowed me to see clearly God’s benevolent yet challenging methods and to wholeheartedly receive Jesus Christ as Lord for myself as a scientific rational person, but with the heart of love, tears, and joy.

  6. Jonathan says:

    In response to Layton, in the short term Elijah may have not necessarily succeeded in turning the hearts of the children to their fathers and the hearts of the fathers to their children, but the very fact that it’s in the best-selling and most translated book ever written (by far) means that there have been millennia of influence, just as the words Elijah spoke in ancient Israel have reached more than those who physically heard his voice and just as John prepared the way of the Lord not just for early 1st century Jews in the land of Israel but for all people across all time anywhere where the gospel is preached.
    Maybe the “mission” wasn’t a short-term assignment to take place in Elijah’s life but a consequence of what he would do. The Bible never says he would do that before he lays to rest, does it?

  7. Modan Paleng says:

    Jesus Christ said that John the Baptist was Elijah but John the Baptist himself said that he was not Elijah.So,who’s statement is true Jesus Christ or John the Baptist?

  8. Zeke12 says:

    This seems to obfuscate more than clear anything up.

    “Not the historic Elijah … but Elijah nonetheless.”

    When Christ affirms John is Elijah, I do not see how it can be interpreted any other way than the “historic” Elijah. Otherwise it wouldn’t be much of a revelation.

    Perhaps John was not yet given full awareness of his status. In any case, this is a puzzler.

  9. Masslyne Kamara says:

    Thanks for making this research avaliable to us

  10. Aty chung says:

    Looks like the contemporary Jews understood the concept of reincarnations that John the Baptist was actually the reincarnation of Elijah, but they, including John the Baptist, were not willing to accept the existence of reincarnations.

    If the second coming of Jesus is to be reincarnated just like Elijah reincarnated as John the Baptist, how can the Christians know who is the Jesus II to be the Messiah. The second advent of the Messiah could be born as a child in the East as what the revelation say the Light of salvation is from the East.

  11. Paul Gordon says:

    Malachi 4:5, Elijah will return before the dreadful day of the Lord. At birth Jesus was not dreadful! Elijah will return upon the tribulation which will be dreadful times!

  12. Aaron says:

    Another similarity you could point to that confirms John as a “type” of Elijah is that one of Elijah’s greatest accomplishments was confronting the wickedness of King Ahab and his Queen, Jezebel. John was put in prison and eventually beheaded because he confronted Herod and Herodias for their wickedness.

  13. Randall says:

    I certainly believe that Elijah and John were separate people or separate humans but Elijah and the spirit of Elijah could have been in John!

  14. Courtney Rohan says:

    Does this point to reincarnation?

  15. Laura Weeks says:

    In response to Layton. Perhaps we should define what it means for father’s and children’s hearts being turned to each other. Here is a possible explanation: People can have differing opinions about scripture interpretation even to the point of bitter division. In John’s time, the Essenes were so offended by the state of religious practice that they separated from society. John may well have been in that group but what of his own father who was a priest? Most likely Zacharias was deceased but surely other Essenes had relatives with whom they disagreed. Also, consider those who became rebels against the Roman government likely having relatives who were obedient citizens (however begrudgingly they may have been). So, John’s message was to repent and that would include forgiving and understanding each other with that new found attitude. This message would be a precursor to that of the being in one accord of Christ’s message and the work of the Holy Spirit to make us one.
    On another note, Ken, do you know if there is any extrabiblical sources or historical Jewish commentaries that refer to the statement, “Elijah who is to come” as being an idiom to make a distinction from the “Elijah who was?”

  16. Elvis Acheampong says:

    I believe John the Baptist was ministering in the spirit of Elijah but was not Elijah reincarnated
    That is why Jesus told the disciples that Elijah has already come. Remember God took the spirit that was upon Moses and put it on the elders of lsrael to judge as Moses would judge. So Elijah could possibly be heaven and his spirit can be in John the Baptist.

  17. Mae Gardnermills says:

    I always wondered why he didn’t make John’s decapitated head restored. I believe in reincarnation. I saw some place and to me it was like I have lived here before. I met a Cherokee Chief and he too felt we knew each other.

  18. Jeffrin johnson says:

    Thank you sir,pasters and every one for the clarity

  19. Kevin Smith says:

    LeBron is the “next” Kobe, Kobe is the “next” Jordan, Jordan is the “next” Magic and so on.
    Could it be JtB is not Elijah to the person but the “next” Elijah.
    May God’s grace and love be with you in our Savior Jesus Christ

  20. Annette Murphy says:

    Reincarnation is not of the Bible and it is appointed once to man to die and then to face the judgement.

  21. Mondli Caluza says:

    Great insights! Thank you.

    What’s the possibility that JtB is a metaphor for the church…the second witness in Rev 11:1-14?

  22. Les Araba says:

    Need to know the history of John the Baptist

  23. Aidan Mchawa says:

    Blessed be men of God.

  24. The simple truth of it all is, John the Baptist new he was the for runner of Jesus Christ, crying in the wilderness, he was at awe the honor to Baptize Jesus Christ. It is All about Jesus Christ, He shed His Blood and Suffered for us on the Cross for our sins, all have sinned, but Jesus saved us that day, on the Cross and took someone with him that day He died, a thief on a cross next to Him, the thief said, Remember me, and Jesus said Today you will be with Me in Paradise. Yes, it is All about Jesus Christ shed Blood that saved a sinner, Saved By Grace, no one else, not anyone else, Call on Jesus Christ and Thou Shall Be Saved. Choose this day whom you will Serve,…..

  25. Mandi Hodges says:

    Thank you much for this. I truly have felt alone in believing that John was the Elijah to come, just as Jesus was the Greater Moses to come. Therefore that means the 2 witnesses in Revelation have come. Jesus did rise on the third day, and many tombs opened that day. I feel that World Religions today struggle to admit that they could be wrong. They would have to admit that they are robbing from God by taking a tenth(tithe)and donations from the people, instead of giving to the storehouse in heaven, just as Malachi tells us. They would have to admit they have been false prophets. Today the Jews still set a place at the table for Elijah and Moses on Passover. They didn’t believe Jesus was the greater Moses to come and I wonder if by denying John, then does that mean we are denying Jesus words as well? Many have great intentions, at least that’s what I would like to believe, but many are also wolves in sheep clothing. I am not a scholarly individual like all of you on this post. I am just a woman who loves GOD and wants the truth. I believe our Father is not the author of confusion and when Jesus said, “If you believe me”, we should be asking ourselves, “Then why don’t we believe him when he told us, more than once, John is the Elijah that was to come. People want drama and want the book of Revelation to be something of blood and wrath. I don’t see that when I read it. Not sure why the pulpits preach it that way? I pray we all walk just as our Messiah taught us to walk, and love one another while we do.

  26. Vladimir Acuna says:

    In the Gospel in which Jesus says John is Elijah I notice that when Yahweh speaks from the clouds after the transfiguration, Yahweh says “ this is My Son listen to Him. In the other Gospels where Jesus doesn’t say John is Elijah, Yahweh doesn’t say “this is My Son, listen to Him”. What does listen to Him mean hear? And why wasn’t it in the other Gospel accounts? This has always puzzled me because I’m really trying to listen to Jesus as Yahweh says to. I’m pretty much an infant in Christ. Thanks God bless.

  27. Ojo Ayo says:

    The scripture says.. know we no man after the flesh… John the baptist knew himself after the flesh, while Jesus knew John after the spirit. Its important we understand where we belong in the spirit or who we are in the spirit. Was Jesus the son of David.. yes, but that’s knowing Jesus after the flesh. (Ro 1:3-4). Jesus corrected his disciples and the scribes who claim he was the son of David… that how can David call his son Lord.? The Lord said unto my Lord… sit at my right hand till make thy enemies thy footstool… quoting psalm 110…

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