John the Baptizer and Elijah


By Wayne S. Walker

     In Malachi 3:1, God speaks through the prophet, “Behold, I will send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me.”  A more detailed description of this messenger is later given in 4:5-6:  “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord.  And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to the fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.”  Another prophecy of the same messenger is found in Isaiah 40:3-8.

No Bible personification is more clearly established than that the voice of Isaiah 40:3 and the messenger of Malachi 3:1 are John the baptizer.  Each of the four gospels affirms this (Matthew 3:3, Mark 1:3, Luke 3:4, John 1:23) [Homer Hailey, A Commentary on the Minor Prophets; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1972; p. 418].  Yet the Adventists, the Mormons, the Watchtower, other lesser known cults, and Premillennialists in general are looking for this prophecy to be fulfilled right before the second coming of Christ, which most of them believe is imminent.  Some think that Elijah himself will literally return from the dead.  Others believe in a more symbolic manifestation.  Billy Graham has even been suggested as a possible fulfillment.  Other identifications have also been made.  It is our purpose in this article to determine exactly what the Scriptures teach concerning Elijah and John the baptizer, and whether we can expect another “Elijah” to precede Christ’s second advent.

Jesus plainly stated the identity of this prophesied Elijah in Matthew 11:14, while discussing the work of John the baptizer, by saying, “And if ye will receive him, this is Elijah, which was for to come.”  He had earlier identified in John 10 as the messenger of Malachi 3.  However, the previously mentioned dispensationalists will not accept or “receive” John as this Elijah, but look for another.  When presented with this simple Biblical explanation, they generally turn to Matthew 17 and try to make some arguments from a passage in that chapter.  Let’s turn there and examine what is recorded.

In response to a question by the disciples following the transfiguration, Jesus said, “Elijah truly shall come first and restore all things” (verse 11).  Those seeking an Elijah still to come want to hold Jesus to the future tense, “shall come,” and thus conclude that John cannot be Elijah, or at least the Elijah which Jesus was speaking of in the future.  Some postulate a two-Elijah theory or double fulfillment.  To support this, they will point out that in John 1:21, the baptizer denied that he was Elijah.  So, they reason, John himself, as well as Jesus, recognized that someone else was needed to come along later and fulfill the prophecy.

J. W. McGarvey commented that the Jews expected the coming of the actual prophet Elijah to precede immediately their misconception of the Messianic kingdom, thinking at first that John was this literal Elijah. John denied this, but Jesus informs them that John, though not literally Elijah, was the person so called by Malachi, and thus fulfills the prediction of the Old Testament prophet.  John was called Elijah because the angel predicted that he was to go before the Lord “in the spirit and power of Elijah” (Luke 1:13-17) [J. W. McGarvey, The New Testament Commentary: Matthew and Mark; Dallas, TX: Eugene S. Smith, 1875; p. 99].

This whole argument rests on the claim that Jesus was talking solely of the future when He said, “Elijah SHALL come.”  Or as one man I talked with said, “Jesus said Elijah is going to come, and he will.”  However, Jesus was not necessarily speaking of a future time.  His statement in verse 11 can be explained satisfactorily in either of two ways.  Either He is saying, “In God’s plan, Elijah shall come first before the Messiah;” or possibly, “It is true what the scribes have been saying, that Elijah shall come first.”  But in no stretch of proper Biblical hermeneutics can Jesus’s words be construed to mean that preceding His second coming, Elijah, or someone similar, will be at work.

In fact, Jesus went on to say in verse 12 “that Elijah is already come.”  So we either take Jesus at His word or reject what He says.  And “the disciples understood that he spake unto them of John the Baptist” (verse 13).  Now it is true that the disciples did a lot of misunderstanding of what Jesus taught them.  However, it is clear, when we couple these statements with the Matthew 11 passage, that the disciples did not misunderstand in this instance.

Another argument made is that John the baptizer did not “restore all things,” so another Elijah must be coming to take up where he left off.  No scriptural proof is ever offered, and I believe that the Scriptures teach just the opposite.  Malachi’s Elijah had a mission to fulfill, and in Luke 1:17 the angel quoted that mission as belonging to John the baptizer, “to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people for the Lord.”  Zacharias, filled with the Holy Spirit (v. 67), expounded on this as he talked about John further in the chapter: “And thou, child, shall be called the prophet of the Highest; for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways; to give knowledge of salvation unto his people by the remission of their sins” (vs. 76-77).

Homer Hailey correctly observes that this Elijah/John was to restore a right relationship between parents and children, and to restore a right relationship between the children of Israel and God [Homer Hailey, A Commentary on the Minor Prophets; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1972; p. 425].  Even William Marrion Branham, who was himself a proponent of the latter-day Elijah belief, admitted that Jesus meant that in John Elijah has “already come, and you didn’t know it.  But he did just what the Scriptures said he would do.  He restored them, and you all, that received and believed on me” [William Marrion Branham, The Revelation of the Seven Seals; Tucson, AZ: Spoken Word Publications, 1967; p. 57].  John truly did complete his mission and “restore all things” which God had given him to restore.

Acts 3:21 may be quoted in an attempt to show that the “restoration [or restitution, KJV] of all things is connected with the second coming of Christ, hence the need for a future Elijah.  However, not all expositors are certain that this verse discusses the second advent, although it most likely does.  It is admittedly a difficult passage, but I think the problem is one of two passages referring to two different restorations.  Of course, the Acts passage says nothing about Elijah preparing the way for whatever it mentions.  A reasonable explanation of Acts 3:21 is that Peter, whether he fully understood the meaning of his words, indicated that Jesus would not come back at least until all the Old Testament prophecies were fulfilled.  These prophecies included the destruction of the Jewish economy which occurred in A. D. 70 (see Daniel 9:24-27).  Thus, Christ would not return before then [cf. J. W. McGarvey, New Commentary on Acts of Apostles; Cincinnati, OH: Standard Publishing Company, n.d.; p. 63].  In any case, according to context, the restoration here is evidently not the restoration mentioned in connection with “Elijah” and John as explained previously.

The plain teaching of Scripture is that John the baptizer was the forerunner of Christ’s first coming and was called Elijah by Malachi.  Nowhere does the Bible hint that the appearance of Elijah in some sense or another will occur as a sign of Christ’s second coming.  Rather, Jesus said of His return, “But of that day and hour knoweth no man” (Matthew 24:36).  According to Christ, no signs will foretell His next advent.  Instead of looking for signs so that they can begin to prepare for His descent, all people need to heed the Bible admonition to be prepared always and to “watch therefore: for ye know not what hour your Lord doth come” (Matthew 24:42).

—taken from Gospel Anchor; April, 1975; Vol. 1, No. 8; pp. 2-3, 15-16

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