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.

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The Enduring Promise: Mark 13:31

Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

Mark 13:31 (NRSV)

Roughly seven hundred years before Jesus said this, another prophet was prophesying resistance.

Assyria had made successful military campaigns against Israel, but the kingdom of Judah had gone somewhat unmolested.  That was about to change, however, as a new king of Judah allied with Egypt and became a threat.

Isaiah prophesied during this time.  Assyria had already demonstrated their ability to defeat Judah, but as Judah became defiant and Assyria prepared for yet another invasion, Isaiah called Judah to resist.  For his part, Hezekiah, the king of Judah, thought this might be a good time to make friends with Babylon.  This did not go over well with Isaiah, who insisted that the dalliance with Babylon would lead to invasion and exile at her hands (which is what happened).

But in Isaiah 40-41, Isaiah delivers a powerful message about how the Lord Himself will deliver Judah from the armies that oppress her.  Powerful images are enlisted of mountains being brought low and armies being blown away like chaff before a storm.  The Lord emphasizes that He, Himself, is Judah’s great help in her troubles and no other.  Deliverance from oppressors will come not from another nation, but from God moving into battle to save His people.

A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low;
The uneven ground will become level,
and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
    and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

A voice says, “Cry out!”
And I said, “What shall I cry?”
All people are grass,
their constancy is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
when the breath of the Lord blows upon it;
surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades;
    but the word of our God will stand forever.

Isaiah 40:3-8 (NRSV), emphasis mine

The “word of our God” that will stand forever is not the Bible in this particular passage.  There is no Bible when Isaiah’s prophecy is written.  It is about God’s word in the same way you might talk about your word – His oath, His commitment.  His promise to save.  Inconstant people will come and go, armies will vanish, but God’s oath to His people will stand forever.  And through this apocalypse, He will reveal His glory and all people shall see it.  They may not all literally see it as if everyone will be standing around watching Assyria or Babylon fall, but the world will know that Judah’s God is faithful to His covenant and will deliver him from the mightiest of powers.

We are, perhaps, now in a position to appreciate Jesus’ prophecy in Mark 13.

In Mark 13, the great Temple mountain is brought low.  We have powerful images of stars falling from the sky, nations rising against nation, earthquakes, famine – and these things are near, not far off.  But in the midst of all this chaos, the glory of the Son of Man will be revealed and all people shall see it.

It is perhaps disconcerting to think about the glory of Jesus being revealed in something so terrible, just as it is difficult to imagine God’s glory being revealed in epic battle in the Old Testament.  There are no pat answers or easy ways to think about this – none worth respecting, anyway.  But it is important to note that this is not destruction for the sake of destruction, or giving the bad guys what they deserve, or making a point.  It is destruction for the sake of the gathering and saving the oppressed.  The oppressor in Isaiah’s day was Assyria.  The oppressor in Jesus’ day was Rome and her unholy ally, the Temple and the power structure installed there.  Did God directly cause the horrors we read about in the destruction of Jerusalem?  We might debate that or how that works, exactly.  But from the standpoint of the narrative, God is clearly acting in this.

God is the help of His people, and He will not be idle in her times of travail.  The world will know God’s glory when He acts to save them.  And in Mark 13, He acts through the Son of Man.

But what a travail!  When the Temple is brought low, what horrible times will surround the followers of Jesus listening to his warning!  Will God leave them to die?  Is all this death and famine and Rome’s victory over the Holy City a sign that God has abandoned His people?

Into this fear, Jesus speaks:

“Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”

Hear you the echoes of a centuries old commitment?  The Son takes up the promise of the Father.  Everything around you will fall, but my oath, my commitment, my bond, my promise to save, will never fall.

And so our Lord’s friends and followers took this promise with them.  They took it into prisons, into courts, into furnaces, into lions’ dens, and up onto crosses, as did Jesus Himself.  As he looked and saw that his disciples had fled and his consciousness was slipping, I wonder if he, too, remembered that the word of the Lord would stand forever.  Resurrection forever.  I wonder if he thought of these things as his followers fled Jerusalem before the siege, trusting in the word of their Lord.

I do not have a prophetic warning to share.  There are certainly seedbeds that could easily erupt into an eschatological crisis that threatens the church, whether it is overt like the rise of militant religious extremism, covert like the rise of secularism, or cosmically universal like a rapidly failing environment.  It’s hard to know what the next big thing is for the people of God in the world.

But I will tell you this much.  No matter how much our world is disrupted and how much chaos falls about our heads, our God’s commitment to save is everlasting, and when He acts, His glory will be revealed and all people shall see it.

Consider This

  1. What are the upcoming crises that face the church, today?  Knowing that God may not deliver in the same ways he did in Isaiah or Jesus’ day, what are the things you know about God and what He has done that can help you trust him during our own troubles?
  2. If most of the places in Scripture that talk about God’s word are not talking about the Bible, at least as we know it, what implications does that have for us as we think about God’s word and/or the Bible?  Why is Jesus called the Word of God?