John the Baptist and Elijah

Detail from Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (d. 1682)

The Puzzle

Jesus testified of John the Baptist that, “if you are willing to receive it, he is Elijah who is to come.” (Matt. 11:14). John the Baptist was the forerunner of the Lord. Therefore, when Jesus will later speak in reference to John the Baptist, as “Elijah…come already” (Matt. 17:12-13), He is saying that John was an Elijah-figure, even though John himself had told the people that he was not Elijah (Jn. 1:21).

Because Christ was rejected for who He was, John’s Elijah-like role was also rejected. But there is a fascinating double entendre in Jesus’ witness to John, as can best be seen if we reexamine what is said in Matthew 17:

And His disciples asked Him, saying, “Why then do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?”

Jesus answered and said to them, “Indeed, Elijah is coming first and will restore all things.

“But I say to you that Elijah has come already, and they did not know him but did to him whatever they wished. (Matt. 17:10-12).

What is interesting about the Lord’s testimony here is that He seems to give the impression that John the Baptist’s ministry ended with his martyrdom (Matt. 14:1-11), yet He also said that “Elijah is coming first and will restore all things.” (Matt. 17:11). So what is the connection between John and Elijah?

Many scholars have argued that the fulfillment of the Elijah prophecy (of Mal. 4:5), is to be confined to John the Baptist.1 But their explanations of Jesus’ use of the future indicative apokathistemi in reference to John’s coming, not Elijah’s, look suspect. That Elijah has just been seen alongside of Moses on the Mount of Transfiguration (Matt. 17:1-8), no doubt caused the disciples to ask their question about Elijah coming first (for they saw Jesus before they saw Elijah). But this does not force us to conclude that there is no future work for Elijah to do. The Malachi prophecy refers to Elijah coming “before the…great and dreadful [yare] day of the LORD.” (Mal. 4:5), which is certainly not a reference to Christ’s first coming!2

The puzzlement over whether Elijah is still to come or whether John the Baptist fulfilled Malachi 4, enters because of the interpreter’s neglect of the separation of first and second coming prophecies. What I have termed the “first coming hermeneutic” when applied to prophecies about the second coming, always distorts the OT. It renders “impressionistic” interpretations of the Prophets, excluding important details, often about the land or Jerusalem or the temple.

But there need not be any confusion for the modern reader. John the Baptist was described as going before Jesus “in the spirit and power of Elijah.” (Lk. 1:17). In 2 Kings 2:9-10 Elisha asks Elijah for a double portion of his spirit. Just what that entailed is hard to know for sure (although Elisha is recorded as performing twice the miracles that Elijah did). But if Elijah’s “spirit” was transferable to Elisha, why would it not also be transferable to John the Baptist? And if so, it could be said that Elijah did come through John the Baptist (although not, it must be said, in the sense of possessing him!)3. It would also mean that at the very least, the question whether Elijah is to return prior to Jesus’ second coming would remain open.4

Although it enjoys less than majority support, the fact is that notwithstanding John being the fulfillment of Elijah “if you will receive it,” making John the last days Elijah does not solve the problem of the second coming emphasis of Malachi 4, neither does it confront John’s own denial that he was Elijah:

And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” – John 1:21.

Reconciling the Puzzle

There is a straightforward way to reconcile the problem. What if John’s coming “in the spirit and power of Elijah” would have sufficed if Jesus had been received for who He was? I recognize that this option is unpopular because it requires that a genuine offer of the kingdom was preached, and that this in turn creates a tension with the necessity of Calvary. The suffering Servant must precede the glorified Servant. But are we on the horns of a dilemma?

For example, there exists a parallel tension in some expressions of soteriology where the offer of the Gospel is said to be genuine to all to whom it comes, yet only the elect will believe. If one asks how an individual can be offered salvation if they are not elected to receive it, the answer that is usually given is that no external influence is applied to the will so that a genuine offer is genuinely refused.

I have little interest in this book to engage in the debate between Calvinist and Arminian views on salvation. I only mention it because many evangelical scholars believe in the tension, and because it is analogous to the problem before us. Perhaps the tension between the offer of the Kingdom and the rejection and suffering of the Messiah is deliberate? In fact, upon reflection, how else could one claim that Israel’s rejection of their promised Liberator as required by Isaiah 53 was a real rejection?

The scenario as I understand it must go something like this:

  1. Messiah/Christ is prophesied as both coming to reign and to suffer vicariously.
  2. Logically He will suffer before He reigns.
  3. His suffering is said to include rejection and death.
  4. Therefore, the OT leaves us with a Savior who dies before He becomes King.
  5. From an OT perspective, this means that either Messiah will rise from the dead immediately after He is killed and assume the role of King of the Earth, or that there is a time gap between His resurrection and His glorious reign.
  6. If the latter, there must of necessity be two comings of Messiah—one to suffer and die, and one to conquer and rule.
  7. An alternative might be that Messiah’s reign would be spiritual and invisible rather than (or prior to) being physical, but from an OT vantage point this is not even hinted at.
  8. If there are two comings of Messiah, then Elijah would have to be a precursor to both.

This is where John the Baptist coming “in the spirit and power of Elijah” enters in. John is the forerunner of the first coming of Christ, and according to Matthew 17:12 he was destined to suffer—his death being alluded to. A resurrected John could be the forerunner of the second coming, but to what point? Elijah himself was transported up to Heaven seemingly without seeing death.5 He therefore would be in a good position to return in line with the expectation raised by Malachi 4. Moreover, Revelation 11:5-7 describes an Elijah-type figure who will prophesy for three and a half years before being killed by the Beast of the Abyss.

Leaving aside the interpretation of the book of Revelation for the present (although a futurist interpretation certainly lends credence to Christ’s statement that “Elijah is coming first and will restore all things.” – Matt. 17:11), it would seem reasonable to assume that since Malachi so emphasizes the ministry of Elijah in connection with the conquering Messiah (viz. at the second coming), then Elijah himself will indeed return to prepare the way for the future coming of King Jesus. We therefore extend the list of points above to include the following assertions:

  • At the first coming of Messiah as the suffering Servant John the Baptist is “Elijah” coming in Elijah’s “spirit and power.”
  • At the second coming of Messiah as Conqueror and King, Elijah himself returns to prepare the way.

There is little difficulty then in accepting John the Baptist’s first coming ministry as “Elijah” who prepared the way for Messiah, who preached the coming of the Kingdom of God, but was rejected as predicted by Isaiah and Daniel. There are two comings of Messiah, and although this is hardly seen in the OT, and was not perceived until after the Resurrection in the NT, this makes it necessary that Elijah will come to prepare the way of the victorious Messiah in the future.


1 E.g., Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992, 443, Robert H. Mounce, Matthew, Peabody, MA: Hendricksen, 1991, 169, Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 14 – 28, Dallas: Word Books, 1995, 499. Cf. William L. Lane, The Gospel of Mark, NICNT, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974, 326-327.

2 It is to be noted that Malachi refers to “the Law of Moses, My servant” immediately before mentioning Elijah (Mal. 4:4). The last three persons spoken of by the prophet (and therefore the Prophets) are Moses, Elijah, and Yahweh (Mal. 4:3-5). This may well have triggered the question of the disciples after seeing them together on the Mount.

3 I am certainly not suggesting that Elijah somehow dwelt within John. But Elijah’s spirit (however it is understood) may have had an influence on John’s appearance and ministry. Of course, this is just speculation.

4 Craig L. Blomberg, Matthew, Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1992, 266. See also Stanley D. Toussaint, Behold the King: A Study of Matthew, Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1980, 211, and the insightful treatment of Ed Glasscock, Matthew, 357-359. Mark also refers to this incident (Mk. 9:11-13), but employs the present tense (apokathistanei), which focuses attention on John’s sufferings. See e.g., Louis Barbieri, Mark, Chicago: Moody, 1995, 199-200.

5 It is unnecessary to press this point.

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