Will Elijah Come Back Before the Second Coming?

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.

1. Malachi

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.

Before Abraham Was: John 8:48-59

The Jews answered him, “Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?”  Jesus answered, “I do not have a demon; but I honor my Father, and you dishonor me.  Yet I do not seek my own glory; there is one who seeks it and he is the judge. Very truly, I tell you, whoever keeps my word will never see death.”  The Jews said to him, “Now we know that you have a demon.  Abraham died, and so did the prophets; yet you say, ‘Whoever keeps my word will never taste death.’  Are you greater than our father Abraham, who died?  The prophets also died. Who do you claim to be?”  Jesus answered, “If I glorify myself, my glory is nothing. It is my Father who glorifies me, he of whom you say, ‘He is our God,’ though you do not know him. But I know him; if I would say that I do not know him, I would be a liar like you. But I do know him and I keep his word. Your ancestor Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day; he saw it and was glad.”  Then the Jews said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?”  Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.” So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple.

John 8:48-59 (NRSV)

Who are the real children of Abraham?

This has been the point of discussion immediately prior to this passage, which is part of a longer discussion between Jesus and the Pharisees in which the Pharisees are trying to discredit Jesus after he creates a schism in the crowds – some of whom are claiming that Jesus is the promised Messiah.  The Pharisees are trying to show that this isn’t the case.

By the time we get down to this passage, the Pharisees have asserted their pedigree and the inapplicability of Jesus’ judgments and warnings because they are descendants of Abraham.

Jesus argues that they are not, because when Abraham heard from God, he believed what God had to say and acted in accordance with that.  Instead, they are more like descendants of the devil because they are lying to the people about Jesus and trying to kill him.

This is important.  The Pharisees who can claim a biological connection to Abraham are portrayed as not true descendants because they do not share Abraham’s faith.  Their physical birth is irrelevant; what matters is whether or not they truly share Abraham’s faith and, therefore, truly inherit the promises made to Abraham.  We see this theme crop up back when Jesus is talking to Nicodemus in John 3 – saying that ethnic Israelites must be “born again” to see the kingdom.  Nicodemus gets confused, stuck on the idea of a literal birth rather than the holistic renewal of the nation.

Then we get to our passage, where Jesus reiterates that God will confirm his message, that God is the judge, and those who believe Jesus as a Word from God will not be destroyed by God’s judgement.

The Pharisees of this chapter, much like Nicodemus five chapters earlier, get really hung up on the literal meaning of “taste death.”  Because Abraham died.  The prophets all died.  Is Jesus saying that he is greater than these patriarchs and prophets who died?

Jesus makes it clear that he is not trying to proclaim his own greatness, but rather that God glorifies Jesus.  The Pharisees claim to follow this God, but by trying to discredit Jesus, they are showing their true allegiances.  Jesus, by contrast, is being faithful to God and “keeps his word.”

In this sense, Abraham rejoiced to see this day.  Abraham received the promise and the covenant, but Abraham did not see these things fulfilled in his day – during his literal existence on the earth.  As the author of Hebrews tells us of the patriarchs: “All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them.”

Abraham begins God’s great work of new creation and is the man whose family became a nation who were meant to be all the things God hoped for it.  He did not see this actually happen, however.  He died looking forward to that day.

Jesus has come to make that day happen.  He is the one who will restore the fallen kingdom.  He is the one who will resurrect a nation where YHWH will be their God and they will be His people.  And, strangest of anything, all the old boundaries that defined ethnic Israel as this people will be torn down, so that even Gentiles who share Abraham’s faith will be welcomed into the people of God.

Think about the ramifications of that.  Gentiles who share Abraham’s faith will receive the fulfillment of his promises, but ethnic descendants of Abraham who do not share his faith will not.

Jesus has brought about this great, new day of the kingdom.  He is about this work, and God the judge will vindicate and glorify him.  Abraham longed for this.  And Jesus asserts his superiority in that great statement:

“Before Abraham was, I am.”

Jesus places himself before Abraham.  He is more important, more prominent, because he is bringing about the great day that Abraham longed to see – the fulfillment of the promise.  Abraham died without seeing it, but Jesus will bring it to completion, ushering in a new age of Israel’s survival, growth, and dominion under Jesus as the king.  God the judge will rule in favor of Jesus and faithful Israel and against her oppressors.  God’s faithful will burst all boundaries, rolling out of Judea and throughout the Greco-Roman world, and as we have witnessed, the entire globe.  Jesus is the keystone of this whole, great, apocalyptic rolling forward of God and His people in history.

The Pharisees beg to differ.  You don’t get to say that you’re everything Abraham hoped for, and therefore are greater.  They pick up stones to kill him for blasphemy, and he sneaks out.  These are the charges that will follow Jesus from the religious power structure in Jerusalem.  He speaks against Moses.  He speaks against the Law.  He speaks against the Temple.  He speaks against our traditions.  At every turn is Jesus making the claim that he has brought the fulfillment of these things, and at every turn his opposition wants to cling to them and exalt them.  They have gotten these people to where they are, after all.

But God is behind this movement of history, and He will not be stopped.  Abraham and Moses died (although they will live again).  The Temple will fall.  The Law will pass away.  But what Jesus will accomplish will stand forever.

Consider This

  1. What were the promises made to Abraham?  How did they end up being fulfilled in the actual history of the world?
  2. If, like me, you are a Gentile, consider that Abraham’s story is your story.  Consider that you got here because of Abraham’s faith and the faithfulness of his descendants.  Consider that God did not have to include you in His people, but He chose to out of love for you, humanity, His creation, and being faithful to His promises to a man long ago.  This is something to be thankful for.

Loving Darkness: John 3:17-21

“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

John 3:17-21 (NRSV)

Not that I don’t love Matthew, you understand, but I thought the end of the Sermon on the Mount might be a good place to have a brief intermission before moving into Jesus’ riotous healing ministry, and this passage also hits on some themes that will be important in Jesus’ healing ministry.

Today’s passage is part of a conversation Jesus is having with Nicodemus, who is a Pharisee and a leader of the Jews.  He sneaks over to Jesus’ place by night so nobody will see him consorting with Jesus, and they have a conversation about Jesus’ teachings, impressed as Nicodemus is by the signs that accompany Jesus.

Their conversation centers around Jesus’ mission of renewing (rebirthing, in John’s passage) Israel through the Spirit so that they might enter the kingdom of Heaven.  This whole conversation is made very unclear in English in a number of important places, such that some fairly significant misunderstandings have become entrenched in our traditions.

One of these important pieces is that Jesus is speaking about Israel corporately.  In English, “you” meaning one person and “you” meaning a group of people are the same word.  We do not have a second-person plural.  Our southern USA brothers and sisters have filled this linguistic gap with the word “y’all” while our more northern folk bridge it with “you guys.”

In the Greek, it is clear that when Jesus says “you” in this conversation, it’s plural.  You guys must be born of the Spirit to enter the kingdom of God.  This is invisible in English.

It’s an important point, though, because we have to understand that Jesus is talking about a corporate rebirth and a corporate entry into the kingdom of God.  This is something the prophets spoke of, including Ezekiel’s dramatic vision of the valley of dry bones in Ezekiel 37.  After Ezekiel sees God breathe new life into a valley full of skeletons, God explains:

Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord.”

Ezekiel 37:11-14 (NRSV)

This explains Jesus’ bemused comment to Nicodemus, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” (John 3:10)

So, this sets the stage.  Israel needs the Spirit to restore her to life and be the kingdom of God.  Jesus is point man on this operation.  He will have help, but ultimately, he is the one who is going to bring this mission to a conclusion – one that those who trust him believe will be successful.

But what will make the difference between those who are born of the Spirit and enter the kingdom and those who do not?  Well, here, Jesus tells us that it begins with believing Jesus that this is what he is going to do and trusting that he will successfully do it.  People who do not believe that are already outside the kingdom and will fall in the imminent judgement.

This is basically the main point of Jesus’ comments in today’s passage, but Jesus also makes it personal for Nicodemus’ benefit.  Did you see it?

“And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

At what time of day is this conversation taking place?  Night, of course.  And why is it taking place at night?  Because Nicodemus is afraid someone will see what he is doing.

Clever, no?

The use of dark and light and night and day is a unique feature of John’s gospel.  The ignorant and evil things happen at night, while the wise and good things happen in the light of day.  One notable example is when John has Mary and Peter (and an unnamed disciple) visit Jesus’ tomb “while it was still dark,” and they do not understand that Jesus has risen.  The other gospels place this visit in the morning.  There are many other occasions like this, not the least of which is John 1.

But in this conversation, light and dark are more than just symbols or rhetorical devices.  Nicodemus has literally stayed in the darkness and avoided the light because he does not want anyone to see his deeds.  By contrast, Jesus’ disciples and faithful followers who actually trust that he will save them are with him in broad daylight.  Everyone can see their deeds.  And thus, Jesus draws a helpful line for Nicodemus: you have already signed up to be condemned in the judgement, because you are hiding.  You do not truly believe, and this is what is necessary to be saved.

The story does not end here, however.  When Jesus is crucified, two men come forward to claim Jesus’ body.  One is Joseph of Arimathea, whom John describes as a disciple who was in secret because he was afraid of the Jews.  The other is Nicodemus “who came to Jesus by night” John says, just to make sure you know it’s the same one.  These men come out into the light and claim Jesus for their own.  Perhaps we might wish they had been more courageous earlier, but let us not forget that Israel’s Messiah is dead.  To all observers, it looks like he has failed in the mission that he laid out for Nicodemus.  Rome and the power structure in Jerusalem had judged and killed him, not the other way around.

And it is in that very moment when Jesus’ victory seems so ludicrously unlikely that Nicodemus stands before Pilate before Rome and the rest of the world and anoints Jesus’ body as a king.  Maybe he didn’t have it all figured out.  Maybe, like Jesus’ own disciples, he didn’t understand that Jesus would rise from the dead.  But in that moment, Nicodemus didn’t care who knew that he was allied with Jesus.  We don’t know for sure what happened to Nicodemus after that, but I like to think that he spent the next several years talking with the frightened lost of Israel saying, “Unless we are born of the Spirit as well as the flesh, we cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.  But Jesus did not come into the world to condemn us, but to save us.”

Consider This

  1. Have you ever thought about your membership in the kingdom and your relationship with God as part of a larger, corporate work God is doing?  Does the biblical story emphasize a highly individual spirituality or God’s work with a whole people?  What implications does this have for the focus of our spiritual lives?
  2. We sometimes use terms like “evil” and “darkness” to refer to blatant sins, but in this passage, Jesus is referring to someone hiding because they are afraid of what will happen to them if people find out they are associated with Jesus.  What does that association look like in a modern nation where spirituality is often a private matter?  What does fear of discovery look like?  Is our fidelity and outward display of our allegiance just as important as our ethical purity?