Not long ago, I was having a conversation with a pastor and a good friend about John the Baptist’s denial that he is Elijah in John 1:21. It is sheer coincidence that this happened to dovetail with my latest devotional entry.
Although we had similar takes on why John the Baptist said “no,” he also offered that the actual Elijah will actually show up prior to the second coming of Jesus, citing Jesus in Matthew 17:11 saying that Elijah would come to “restore all things” (and John the Baptist did not do this) and Malachi’s prophecy in 4:5 stating that Elijah would come before the final judgment.
By contrast, I offered that the Gospels’ portrayals of John the Baptist and his ministry present him as the fulfillment of Malachi’s prophetic expectation, and there’s no Scriptural indicator that we should be looking for a future appearance of the actual Elijah.
What follows is my explanation to him of why I think the way I do with some minor edits for clarity. While it is maybe more scholarly than 97% of the emails I send, it’s also not a scholarly paper and is meant to serve as an explanatory overview than a thorough defense of a hypothesis.
Malachi is a revelation to Israel, and Chapter 1 begins with Israel’s election – preferred by God over her close relatives. But Israel is accused of not showing the honor a son should show a parent, and this is illustrated mostly by the carelessness of their religious ceremonies. It should be noted this reveals a heart condition, but it is illustrated in how little the priests and leaders care about how God is worshiped. They use blemished sacrifices, etc. In chapter 2, this gets into some very vivid imagery, such as God spreading the dung from the animals in the priests’ faces.
Malachi continues to show how good the covenant was and how God was faithful, but Israel continues to do evil, broadening the picture to include excusing evil behavior, adultery, accusing God of not keeping up His end of the bargain – a faithlessness that has made them a mockery even among pagan nations.
In chapter 3, God says he will send a messenger to prepare the way before Him, and this messenger will bring a refiner’s fire, judgement, etc. This imagery is largely how John the Baptist depicts the coming Messiah in the synoptics. The list of Israel’s crimes grows to include sorcery, oppression, and a variety of sins. God notes that, if Israel will return to Him, He will return to them, but they seem to not know how to do that. This chapter does note that the faithful few will be spared on this day of judgement.
In chapter 4, God describes this day as a terrible day of fire that will destroy the wicked, but those who are faithful will survive and rejoice and flourish in the aftermath. God reminds them to remember their covenant, and there says that Elijah will come before this day, turning the hearts of the sons to the fathers so that God will not smite the land with herem – a total destruction.
So, the context throughout the book is Israel. A day of judgement will come to Israel where the wicked in Israel will be destroyed and the faithful remnant of Israel will survive it. Before this day comes, Elijah will appear to turn these descendants’ hearts back to their ancestors and vice-versa. They will remember their covenant, and then God will not utterly destroy the land and everyone in it.
There is no textual indicator that anything in Malachi is talking about the end of history or a final judgement, and this bounding historical context is important. If I say, “I’m going to drive to my office. When I get there, I’m going to fire all the slackers,” the context sets the parameters. No one would think I was going to fire every slacker everywhere, because I established that this was going to happen at my office.
This will be a judgement in history that will come to Israel where the wicked in Israel will be destroyed and the righteous will be liberated, and before that day comes, Elijah will be sent to turn people’s hearts to avoid a total destruction.
2. Jewish Views Before Christ
Perhaps the oldest view we have of the future role of Elijah is Sirach 48, which is an entire chapter on Elijah. This would have been written around the 2nd century BC. The key verse that talks about his future role is verse 10:
designated in the prophecies of doom to allay God’s wrath before the fury breaks, to turn the hearts of fathers towards their children, and to restore the tribes of Jacob.
This is very similar to the text in Malachi with the addition that Elijah will “restore the tribes of Jacob.” In other words, restore Israel. Indeed, the entirety of Sirach is concerned with the destiny of Israel and the troubles she is suffering because of her treatment of these holy men of God and failure to keep the Law. The author looks for a time when God will fulfill these prophecies and clear out the wicked from Israel, restoring her to righteousness. Later rabbinic writings seem to confirm this understanding,
Again, there are no textual indicators about the fate of other nations or the world or this being the end of history.
It is noteworthy that there are other expectations that crop up over time. For instance, one popular view is that Elijah would put to rest all disputes about the Torah and explain it clearly to everyone to produce unity (thus turning the hearts of the fathers to their children and so on). This view shows up in at least three early sources (such as the Mishnah’s Eduyot 8 (redacted in the 3rd century AD but contents are much, much older)) and the Zohar says that Elijah will be like Aaron was to Moses.
There was also a view that Elijah would change the minds of people and lead them to repentance, although this seems to be a later, minority view. The earliest account of it I can find is a short passage in the Pirkei De-Rabbi Eliezer which would have been 8th or 9th century AD.
I could only find one reference to Elijah raising the dead, and this is in the Shir haShirim Zuta (10th century A.D.) which says that, in order to prove his identity, Elijah will raise the dead of people known to the people who see him. Sort of like Jesus’ miracle with Lazarus.
So, when we see Jewish thoughts on Elijah that might have influenced Jesus or been “in the air” at the time, it seems like the understanding is that Elijah will come and turn Israel back to her covenant, thus restoring Israel.
3. Matthew 11:4
and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. Let anyone with ears listen
Here, Jesus directly identifies John the Baptist as the Elijah who is to come. The addition of the “He who has an ear, let him hear” language tells us that this is happening in a non-literal manner. We have to spiritually discern Jesus’ meaning. John the Baptist is not the literal Elijah everyone was expecting, but he was the Elijah who was to come all the same.
Also, John the Baptist is still alive when Jesus tells everyone this.
4. Matthew 17:10-13
And the disciples asked him, “Why, then, do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?” He replied, “Elijah is indeed coming and will restore all things; but I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but they did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man is about to suffer at their hands.” Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them about John the Baptist.
This passage is fun from a translation standpoint because the “is indeed coming” is erchontai which is translated as “came” the vast majority of the time it appears. Matthew 25:11 for instance. It is most commonly translated to mean something happened in the past, but it is sometimes translated as present or future, depending on the context.
Here, it is probably translated in the future because “will restore” (apokatastesei) is in the future, although obviously Elijah can have come and cause a future effect. “I showed up an hour ago, and I’m about to get some food.” This verb means to “reconstitute.” Something was broken up, and he will reform it. The word for “all things” is panta which just means “all.”
This seems to fit Malachi’s picture and the early Jewish rabbinical understanding of what it meant for Elijah to return. God is going to send a terrible day of calamity on Israel to remove the wicked, but He will save the faithful. So, prior to that day, God will send Elijah to turn people’s hearts back to each other and their covenant, and by doing so will restore Israel (as Sirach has it). This is what John the Baptist did.
Again, there’s no reason to think Jesus is talking about the end of the world or a final judgement of the world. Malachi isn’t, and no Jewish interpreter is either. It is certainly possible that Jesus is bringing a new meaning to these ideas. Wouldn’t be the first time Jesus did that with a traditional Jewish understanding. But the burden would be to prove that’s what he’s doing.
Perhaps the greatest argument that this is what Malachi and Jesus had in mind is that this is what actually happened in history. God’s judgement did fall on Israel and destroy their power structure, resulting in the deaths of an immense amount of Jewish people on that terrible day. And yet, those who repented escaped. Before this happened, God sent John to turn the hearts of the people so that they might repent and become the new Israel, and it was out of these people – the poor, the blind, the lame, and the sinners – that Israel was restored, while their priests and scribes and politicians and legalists were destroyed.
5. Mark 9:11-13
Then they asked him, “Why do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?” He said to them, “Elijah is indeed coming first to restore all things. How then is it written about the Son of Man, that he is to go through many sufferings 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 about him.”
In Mark’s version, the English translation is very similar to Matthew, but the Greek is a little different. Get to that in a moment.
It’s also interesting that, here, Jesus anticipates the objection that, if Elijah is coming / has come, then why will the Son of Man suffer? This is interesting because it shows us that, in Jesus’ mind, the coming of Elijah is before the Son of Man and it will not fix everything. Elijah comes, and the Son of Man will still be mistreated, and to prove his point, he highlights the fact that Elijah was mistreated “as is written about him.”
So, whatever it means for Elijah to “restore all things,” this act is not comprehensive enough to stop the mistreatment of the Son of Man.
When we look at the Greek, the “is indeed coming first” is elthon proton (in contrast to the tense the disciples use in their question – elthein proton). Elthein is consistently translated as “to come,” whereas elthon is consistently translated as “came” or “having come” – past tense – even more consistently than the erchontai of Matthew. The “restores” is apokathistanei which is present tense, not future. Elijah, having come, restores all things (panta is the same).
6. Luke 1:16-17
He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.
Luke does not contain a story where Jesus says that John the Baptist was Elijah, but it does contain this prophecy of John’s birth, which has a hint of the Isaiah passage in it, but is obviously a direct reference to the Malachi prophecy. I think Luke is the bridge that resolves the tension between John the Gospel and the other synoptics. John is not literally Elijah come back. But he has Elijah’s spirit and power and fulfills the prophetic expectation of what Elijah was supposed to accomplish.
7. The End (Finally)
Malachi prophecies a day of destruction that is about to come upon Israel where the righteous will be saved. Prior to that day, Elijah will come to turn people’s hearts so that not everyone will be destroyed.
Sirach (and others) expect that this will be the restoration/reformation of Israel.
Jesus proclaims that Elijah has come and will restore all, but this will not stop the suffering of the Son of Man. He identifies John the Baptist as the person who is doing this thing.
In history, the day of calamity falls on Israel, destroying many, but the repentant and faithful are saved.
To me, this all wraps up pretty neatly.
When we start with Malachi and move forward in history, this provides us a context for understanding Jesus’ teaching, and when we do this, we see that John the Baptist fits the bill and what God said would happen happened. There’s no particular reason to expect that a literal Elijah will appear before another calamity. This could happen, of course; there’s just no particular reason to look for it. The things that God said would happen did happen. Not necessarily in the exact way everyone expected, but that’s Jesus for you, and he explains to us that it did happen if we have ears to hear.
In my opinion, the only way to say that John the Baptist didn’t fulfill this role in prophecy is if we begin with a preexisting idea of what Jesus must be talking about – i.e. a final judgement of the whole world at the end of history and a restoration of everything in that world – and then carry that backwards through the texts. Obviously, that did not happen and John the Baptist didn’t do that, so our only option with that understanding is that it must be happening at some point in the future.
But that direction seems less sound to me. I don’t want to start with a preexisting idea of what Jesus must be talking about and then project that backwards. I want to understand Jesus against the background of his context and the continuity of what God was doing at the time. I don’t see anywhere in that chain of thought or history where a final judgement and restoration of the entire world is in view.
I do believe in a final judgement and restoration of the world from other passages. Paul especially develops this idea as he begins to realize the ramifications of what Jesus did for the nations, and John himself describes this picture at the end of Revelation. But I don’t think that’s what’s in view in Malachi and the subsequent passages that build on Malachi.