John The Baptist; Elijah Or Not?

A Bible Study by Jack Kelley

The Day Of The Lord

“Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and that day that is coming will set them on fire,” says the LORD Almighty. “Not a root or a branch will be left to them.

But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings. And you will go out and leap like calves released from the stall. Then you will trample down the wicked; they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day when I do these things,” says the LORD Almighty.

“Remember the law of my servant Moses, the decrees and laws I gave him at Horeb for all Israel.

“See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the LORD comes. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers; or else I will come and strike the land with a curse.” (Malachi 4:1-6)

These are the last six verses of the Old Testament. They warn of two coming events, the last of which is given first. It’s the Great Tribulation, where the evil and arrogant will perish but those who revere God’s name will experience His healing and freedom. Elijah’s return is the other one, foretold in Malachi’s last paragraph.

Most scholars believe the writings of Malachi were God’s final word to the people of Israel before the birth of John the Baptist, who came about 430 years later to announce the coming of the Messiah. This confirms an earlier prophecy from Micah 5:2-5 that Israel would be abandoned for a time until she who is in labor gives birth (Micah 5:3).

Two Possibilities

John’s identity as the Elijah who was to come is the subject of some controversy, but as we’ll see it’s easily proven. More important is how this last prophecy in the Old Testament was written.  It reveals two possibilities.  One would have Elijah’s appearance cause reconciliation among the families of Israel and prepare them to successfully endure the coming judgment, after which they would enter the promised Kingdom. The other would result in the Lord striking the land with a curse and the End of the Age being delayed.

The key to understanding this is to realize that the judgment accompanying the Day of the Lord is a given. The Israelites would either be prepared, in which case they would have accepted both John and the Messiah he was sent to prepare them for.  This would have resulted in the fulfillment of all End Times prophecies and the establishment of God’s Kingdom on Earth.

Or they would reject John and Jesus and the land would be cursed.  In that case, the End Times judgments would be delayed and the establishment of the Kingdom would be put on hold.  Therefore Malachi’s prophecy was like several others we’ve discussed that were given with two possible fulfillments depending on Israel’s response.

Three New Testament passages speak to this issue. The first is in Luke 1:11-17 and tells of the angel Gabriel visiting Zechariah, the man who would become John’s father.

Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth. Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

When Gabriel appeared to Zechariah outside the Holy of Holies, He said that John was coming to minister in the spirit and power of Elijah, and used similar language to that of Malachi 4:5-6. According to Hebrew tradition, the mantle that Elijah had worn was stored beneath the incense altar near where Zechariah was standing. He retrieved it and took it home for the time when his son would need it.

The second is John 1:19-23.

Now this was John’s testimony when the Jews of Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was. He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, “I am not the Christ.

They asked him, “Then who are you? Are you Elijah?”

He said, “I am not.”

“Are you the Prophet?”

He answered, “No.”

Finally they said, “Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, “I am the voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’ “

Why Did He Say That?

If Gabriel had specifically referred to Elijah in giving his prophecy about John’s life, why did John deny being Elijah when confronted by the priests? Of course he wasn’t the Messiah. Nor was he the prophet promised by Moses in Deut. 18:15, which was also a Messianic prophecy.  But why didn’t he admit to being Elijah? Or at least say he was called to minister in the spirit and power of Elijah? Surely  Zechariah had told him of the angel’s visit and the information he had imparted concerning the purpose of John’s life.

The fact that he wasn’t literally Elijah (although 2 Kings 2:11 tells us that Elijah went live into heaven) is too simple an answer. He could only have been speaking from the understanding that he would not be accepted as Elijah, knowing in advance that the people would reject his ministry.

The Lord clarified this in the third passage, Matt 17:10-13.

The disciples asked him, “Why then do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?”

Jesus replied, “To be sure, Elijah comes and will restore all things. But I tell you, Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but have done to him everything they wished. In the same way the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands.” Then the disciples understood that he was talking to them about John the Baptist.

Just as the Lord would not be accepted as the Messiah, neither would John be accepted as Elijah. Both would have to come again. The proof of this is that the second possibility of Malachi 4:5 ended up being fulfilled. The land was cursed and the prophecies of a kingdom for Israel were put on hold.

Don’t get me wrong. Many people were prepared for the Lord when He came and were reconciled to Him at the cross. But the nation officially rejected him and that’s what matters in the context of the prophecy. Had they officially accepted him, there would have been a national revival and they would have been prepared for their coming King. He would have judged their enemies, and ushered in the long-awaited Kingdom.

When they rejected John as Elijah and Jesus as the Messiah the second possibility of Malachi 4:5 came to pass.   The End Times judgment was delayed, Israel’s clock was stopped and the door was opened to the gentiles, who would now precede Israel into the Kingdom. Hear the Lord’s own words on the subject at the end of the Parable of the Tenants.

Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures: ” ‘The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes’?

“Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit. He who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces, but he on whom it falls will be crushed.”

When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus’ parables, they knew he was talking about them. They looked for a way to arrest him, but they were afraid of the crowd because the people held that he was a prophet (Matt 21:42-46).

I Knew That Would Happen

Of course, God knew before He created Adam that He would be rejected as Israel’s Messiah, and often spoke through the prophets of bringing salvation to the Gentiles. But His own promises required that Israel have a bona fide offer of the Kingdom to accept or reject. Both John the Baptist (Matt. 3:1-2) and Jesus (Matt. 4:17) presented that offer and both were rejected.

Scriptures speak clearly of Elijah’s return in Rev. 11:3-6 where, as one of the two witnesses, he performs miracles unique to the Old Testament Elijah right down to their duration. And of course, they also speak clearly of Messiah’s return in ways that cannot be allegorized away or attributed to history.

And so the stage is once again set for the return of Elijah before the great and dreadful Day of the Lord.

But before that can happen, the Church, for whom the door was opened in part by Israel’s rejection of John the Baptist as Elijah, must exit. Hear Paul’s words.

I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers, so that you may not be conceited: Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved, as it is written:

“The deliverer will come from Zion; he will turn godlessness away from Jacob. And this is my covenant with them when I take away their sins.”(Romans 11:25-29)

As the End of the Age approaches, three supernatural events will combine to bring Israel officially back into God’s forever family. First, God’s “impossible any other way” victory over a coalition of Muslim armies will move them to reinstate their Old Covenant relationship and build a Temple in Israel. (Ezek. 39:28-29) Then Elijah will appear along with Moses and with signs and wonders, they’ll prepare Israel to expect their soon Coming King. (Rev 11:3-6) And finally, the Holy Spirit will come to remove their spiritual blinders and soften their hardened hearts to finally receive their Messiah. (Zech 12:10) He’ll judge their enemies and usher in their long-awaited Kingdom, just like Malachi said He would. If you listen closely you can almost hear the footsteps of the Messiah. 12-08-12