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Did John the Baptist fulfil Malachi’s prediction of Elijah?

Julian Spriggs M.A.

Elijah the prophet

Elijah is remembered as one of the greatest of the Jewish prophets in the Old Testament. He was raised up by God at a crucial period of Israel’s history. Ahab, king of Israel, had married Jezebel of Sidon, who dramatically increased the worship of Baal in the northern kingdom. God called Elijah to counter this threat of idolatry. By declaring that no rain would fall (1 Kg 17:1), he was challenging Baal, the god of rain. Through the contest on Mount Carmel he showed that Yahweh was the only true God, because Baal was incapable of bringing fire down from heaven (1 Kg 18). He also spoke out against social injustice and pronounced God’s judgement on the house of Ahab, following Ahab’s seizure of Naboth’s vineyard (1 Kg 21). At the end of his ministry he was taken up to heaven alive in chariot of fire (2 Kg 1:11), and therefore did not experience death. In her description of Elijah, Probably no other prophet had such a great influence on the destiny of the nation of Israel.

Malachi’s predictions of the Messenger and of Elijah

In the short book of Malachi, the prophet addresses a people who had become disillusioned as the years passed after the return to the land from exile in Babylon. They were living in hardship, facing hostility from other nations, and were still an occupied nation under the rule of Persia, instead of enjoying the prosperous times of blessing promised by the pre-exilic prophets, when Israel would be ruled by God’s anointed ruler in Zion. They had rebuilt the temple, but even though many decades had passed, they had not witnessed any supernatural event that would show that the Lord’s glory had returned to fill the temple, as predicted by Ezekiel (Ezek 43:1-5) . The book consists of six questions or accusations the people were making about God, each of which the prophet answers in turn.

The first prediction of the messenger of the Lord comes in the answer to the fourth question (2:17 - 3:5). The people are complaining that God appears to delight in the wicked, and are cynically asking where the God of justice is (2:17). The people are asking the perennial question of why the wicked prosper, and why God appears to do nothing about it. In response, Malachi says they are wearying the Lord with their words (2:17), because they were claiming he had failed to fulfil his promises.

In his answer, Malachi faces his people with the prospect of coming judgement. God himself announces that he will send his messenger (3:1) to prepare the way for his coming into the temple, just as people would prepare for a royal procession. The messenger will warn the people of the imminent judgement. The day of the Lord in which they delighted will surprise them by being a day of judgement (cf. Amos 5:18). The coming of the messenger is described in ominous terms, as he will come in advance of the coming of the Lord as a refiner to purify the priests, so they bring offerings in righteousness (3:2-3), and as a judge of the wicked (3:5). This shows that God does not approve of evil, as the people was thinking, and that he truly is a God of justice, in answer to their accusations (2:17). The wording of “preparing the way” (3:1) parallels Isaiah’s description of the voice crying out in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord” (Is 40:3), this therefore supports the identification of the messenger with John the Baptist, as this is how he identified himself (Matt 3:3).

In this passage, Malachi does not reveal who this messenger is, so there have been many different suggestions of his identity by different scholars . Some Jewish scholars have suggested that the messenger will be a heavenly being, such as an angel or the Messiah. It is impossible for God himself to be the messenger as Malachi carefully distinguishes between the two - the messenger will prepare the way for the Lord. Most scholars consider the messenger to be a human being. He could be a prophet, just as all prophets were God’s messengers, or even the prophet Malachi himself (whose name means “messenger”), but this is unlikely as the passage speaks of the messenger coming sometime in the future. Jesus quoted this passage to identify the messenger with John the Baptist (Matt 11:10).

The second passage in Malachi predicts that God will send the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord (4:5-6). This forms part of an appendix to the whole book, and even to the entire Old Testament. These verses mention two great characters of the OT, Moses, the giver of the law and Elijah the prophet, both of whom later appear with Jesus at his transfiguration (Matt 17:4). They call the people to look back and remember the giving of the law, and forward to the Day of the Lord, described as “the great and terrible” day, as in Joel 2:31. The passage continues to say that Elijah will turn the hearts of parents to their children and vice versa, so God’s curse will be avoided (4:6). Malachi is probably describing repentance in terms of restoration of family relationships, partly because broken families was one of the problems addressed by Malachi (2:13-16). Elijah will lead a renewal of social order before the end, which would avert or postpone God’s judgement. In his description of Elijah in the book of Ecclesiasticus, Sirach refers to this passage, when he describes Elijah as being destined to calm the wrath of God at the appointed time and turn hearts of parents to children (Sir 48:1-11). In seeking to turn hearts back, Elijah is continuing the same ministry as he performed on Mt. Carmel, when at the end of his prayer, he prayed that people might know that God has turned their hearts back (1 Kg 18:37).

Scholars have debated whether the messenger who is coming (3:1) should be identified with Elijah (4:5). Some Catholic scholars have suggested they are two different individuals: the messenger (John the Baptist) prepared the way for the first coming of Jesus, and at the end Elijah will re-appear to prepare the way for the second coming. Most protestant scholars have identified the messenger (3:1) as Elijah . Both will come as a precursor of judgement. The messenger will prepare the way for the Lord, when he comes in judgement (3:1), on the day which many cannot endure. Elijah will come before the great and terrible day of the Lord (4:5). Jesus links the two descriptions together, saying John is both the messenger (Matt 11:10), and Elijah (Matt 11:14).

Jewish expectations about the coming of Elijah

Both the beginning and ending of Elijah’s life are mysterious. Unlike other Jews in the OT, no genealogy is given, and no call to be a prophet is described. He suddenly appears in the presence of Ahab and announces that it would not rain (1 Kg 17:1). At the end of his ministry, he is taken up to heaven in a chariot of fire (2 Kg 2:11), and therefore did not die in the usual way. His lack of death, together with this prediction of Malachi led to a widespread expectation among the Jews of his appearance before the coming of the Messiah.

During the inter-testamental period, Elijah became very popular among the Jews, and many traditions rose up concerning him, which are still part of Jewish ritual today. He is mentioned in the saying of grace after meals, and in the Sabbath benedictions. In the circumcision ceremony, Elijah is believed to be present and an empty chair is set out for him, to show faithfulness to the covenant . During the Passover ritual a special cup of wine called “Elijah’s cup” is placed on the table . In the Talmud and mystical Jewish writings, they claimed the Elijah visited rabbis and mystics to instruct them in the meaning of the Torah . Edersheim says that Jewish tradition considered that Elijah’s ministry had never ceased, and that he always lives, frequently appearing for very diverse purposes of ministry . When Jesus cried out to the Father on the cross, people around thought he was calling to Elijah to come and save him (Mt 27:49). This again shows the popular understanding of the continuing ministry of Elijah to come to the aid of God’s people.

The translators of the Septuagint (LXX) evidently indicated their expectation of a literal return of Elijah when they named him specifically as Elijah the Tishbite (Mal 4:5). The wide use of the Septuagint would encourage this literal expectation of Elijah’s appearance among the people. From his studies of Jewish writings, Edersheim suggests that the expectation was that Elijah would appear personally, not merely in spirit and power. The Mishnah taught that Elijah would appear to anoint the Messiah, and even to awaken the dead, as well as preparing Israel for the age of the Messiah, resolving all religious controversies, and restoring the manna and Aaron’s rod.

The New Testament gives several indications of this popular expectation that Elijah would re-appear before the Messiah came. The priests and Levites asked John the Baptist whether he was Elijah (Jn 1:21), evidently because they believed that was a possibility. The disciples asked Jesus why the scribes taught that Elijah would come first (Matt 17:10). When Herod Antipas heard about Jesus, some suggested that he was Elijah (Mk 6:15), and when Jesus asked his disciples who people thought he was, before Peter’s confession, one of their answers was Elijah (Mt 16:14, Mk 8:28).

John the Baptist

Elijah is mentioned several times in the New Testament, particularly in the Gospels in connection with the ministry of John the Baptist. Most of these would suggest that John was the fulfilment of the prediction of Elijah, apart from an apparent contradiction in John’s Gospel (1:21).

Announcement of John’s birth (Luke 1:17)

In the angel’s announcement of the birth of John the Baptist to his father Zechariah in the temple, an allusion is made both to Malachi’s prediction of Elijah (Mal 4:6), predicting that he will turn the hearts of parents to their children, as well as to his prediction of the messenger (Mal 3:1), who will make ready a people prepared for the Lord This again identifies the unnamed messenger with Elijah. The angel specifically predicts that John will have the spirit and power of Elijah, again making a clear link between the two characters. John will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before his birth (Lk1:15), just as Elijah was noted for his empowering by the Spirit (2 Kg 2:9). Like Elijah, John will have a ministry of calling people to repentance, and making a people ready for the Lord. In the reference to fathers (1:17), the angel may either mean restoring physical family relationships, or turning hearts of people to the fathers of the nation - meaning the patriarchs, and returning the nation to their original faith and devotion to God.

Ministry of John the Baptist

In their descriptions of the ministry of John the Baptist, all three synoptic Gospel writers identify John as the fulfilment of the prediction of Isaiah (Is 40:3) of the voice in the wilderness preparing the way of the Lord (Mt 3:3, Mk 1:2-3, Lk 3:4-6). In John’s Gospel, John the Baptist makes this identification himself (Jn 1:23).

Matthew 3:1-17

Although John is traditionally remembered as “the Baptist”, this was not the main thrust of his ministry . In Matthew’s description of John’s ministry, the emphasis is on imminent judgement on sinful people, and the call for them to repent . Baptism was merely the outward response he required to show their repentance. When John saw the Pharisees and Sadducees coming, he asked them why they were fleeing the wrath to come (v7). John, like Malachi’s predicted messenger and future Elijah, came before the great and terrible day of judgement (Mal 3:2, 4:5), calling people to repent before it was too late. For both, there is a strong element of the coming judgement in their message.

Mark gives a shorter summary of John’s ministry, but quotes both Malachi’s prediction of God’s messenger (Mal 3:1), and Isaiah’s voice in the wilderness (Is 40:3), clearly linking the two predictions in their fulfilment in John the Baptist (Mk 1:2-4). Mark makes a composite quotation from those two passages, together with God’s promise to send a messenger before them (Ex 23:20), saying that Jewish rabbis had already combined these texts, identifying the messenger with Elijah . Luke gives a longer quotation from Isaiah (Is 40:3-5), to include the reference to all flesh seeing the salvation of God (Lk 3:4-6), one of Luke’s major themes in his gospel.

Matthew 11:2-15

John was arrested for speaking out against Herod Antipas marrying his brother’s wife Herodias (Mk 6:18), and while in prison sent his disciples to ask Jesus whether he was the expected Messiah, or whether they should wait for another (v:2-3). His doubts presumably arose because neither the judgement he had been predicting, nor the kingdom he expected had yet arrived, instead he as the forerunner was languishing in prison. After telling John’s followers to bear witness to him to the miraculous signs of the coming of the kingdom, signs of the Messiah (Is 35:5-6), Jesus spoke to the crowd about John’s greatness both as a prophet, and a fulfilment of prophecy . He showed that John was God’s messenger to prepare the way, quoting Malachi 3:1. Later, in his most explicit statement in the gospels, he stated clearly that John is Elijah, “he is Elijah who is to come”, if you are willing to accept it (v14). John fulfilled the prediction of Elijah coming, but he was not the literal physical Elijah whom the Jews were expecting . Jesus was challenging his listeners to accept that the prediction was fulfilled in a different manner from that they expected. Jesus concluded his statement with “let anyone with ears listen” (v15). The people needed not just to listen to his words, but also to think about them, to understand them, to consider their implications, and to accept them . He used the same words as at end of several of his parables of the kingdom (Mt13:9,43). In the same way that the nature of the Kingdom of God was different from the popular expectation, and people needed to accept the difference, the fulfilment of the Elijah prediction will also be different.

There is no parallel with this passage in Mark’s Gospel. In Luke, there are slight differences (Lk 7:18-30). Jesus identifies John as God’s messenger sent ahead to prepare the way (Lk 7:27, quoting Mal 3:1), but does not specifically identify John as Elijah.

Matthew 17:1-13

In all three synoptic accounts of the transfiguration, Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus on the mountain (Mt 17:3, Mk 9:4, Lk 9:30). Different suggestions have been given for the significance of their appearance . In Jewish understanding, both were expected to return at the inauguration of the Messianic age. On the way down the mountain following the transfiguration, the disciples ask about the popular Jewish expectation that Elijah will appear and restore all things before the coming of the Messiah (v10). In his rather cryptic reply, Jesus said that Elijah has already come, but was not recognised (v12). Matthew adds a comment saying that the disciples understood that Jesus was identifying Elijah with John the Baptist (v13), matching the statement Jesus made earlier (Mt 11:14). The authorities treated John badly (v12), and in the same way the Messiah will suffer. By this time, John had been arrested by Herod Antipas, and finally executed (Mk 6:27). Neither the appearance of Elijah, nor of the Messiah met the popular expectations, therefore both were rejected. John’s sufferings could therefore be seen to foreshadow Jesus’ sufferings.

Jesus states that Elijah had come, with the intention of restoring all things, but was rejected, in the same way as he himself will be rejected. If the people, particularly the leadership, had submitted to his message, then he would have restored all things. But because he was rejected, the alternative prediction in Malachi will come about - the Lord will strike the land with a curse (Mal 4:6). Because both John and Jesus were rejected by the vast majority of the Jewish people, particularly the religious leadership, God acted in judgement, destroying the temple and its religious system, as well as the existence of the Jewish nation in A.D. 70 .

Mark’s account (Mk 9:9-13) is similar to Matthew’s, but he omits the interpretative comment identifying John with Elijah. Luke does not include the account of the disciples asking about Elijah following the transfiguration.

In his teaching on John the Baptist, Jesus brought together the three different predictions from Isaiah and Malachi (Is 40:3, Mal 3:1, and Mal 4:5-6). Jesus clearly stated the John the Baptist was the fulfilment the predictions of the appearance of Elijah, as God’s messenger who will be a voice in the wilderness to prepare the way for the Lord. However, he recognised that the prediction had been fulfilled in an unexpected way, and the people need to accept his words, even though it will mean laying aside their preconceptions.

Similarities between John the Baptist and Elijah

The appearance, character and ministry of John the Baptist had many similarities with that of Elijah. Both spent much of their time in the wilderness, both were dressed in rough clothing, and ate wild food (2 Kg 1:8, Mt 3:4). Also both had a ministry in confronting kings, Elijah confronted Ahab (1 Kg 21:20ff), just as John the Baptist confronted Herod Antipas (Mk 6:18). However, one difference is while Elijah performed many miraculous acts, John performed none (Jn 10:41). In many ways there were no two people in the scriptures with a greater resemblance to each other.

John’s Statement about himself (John 1:19-21)

In this passage, John the Baptist appears to contradict what Jesus said about him being the fulfilment of the expected appearance of Elijah (Matt 11:14). When the priests and Levites sent from Jerusalem asked who he was (v21), he denied that he was the Messiah, Elijah, or the prophet, presumably Moses (Deut 18:15-19). This again shows the popular expectation of the appearance of Elijah as a precursor of the Messiah and final judgement, as predicted by Malachi (Mal 4:5-6). It was Jesus alone who made the identification of John the Baptist with Elijah, John never made that claim for himself.

Instead he described himself as merely a voice, in fulfilment of the prediction of Isaiah (Is 40:3). It is only in John’s Gospel, that John the Baptist made this claim himself. The emphasis is not on himself as being the messenger, but on him bringing the message of the coming Messiah. One significant characteristic of John the Baptist was his refusal to claim to be more than he was. He came only to prepare the way, pointed out the Lamb of God (Jn 1:36), and encouraged his followers to leave him and follow Jesus. He summarised his attitude to himself when he said, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (Jn 3:30). John’s opinion of himself was much lower than Jesus’ evaluation of him. John rejected the title “Elijah”, but Jesus assigned it to him.

There are several other possible explanations of this apparent contradiction. There was a sense in which John was Elijah and a sense in which he was not. He fulfilled the ministry as God’s messenger to prepare the way as predicted by Malachi (Mal 3:1), but John was not literally Elijah, physically returning to the earth, and John clearly knew this. He knew very well that he had been born as a baby in the normal way, and was not a physical re-appearance of Elijah who had been taken up to heaven in a chariot of fire hundreds of years before.

Because of this difficulty, many commentators through history have suggested that there will instead be two appearances of Elijah. Augustine taught that John was not Elijah, and instead expected Elijah to appear physically before the second coming of Christ. Some today, quoting early church fathers, suggest that John the Baptist was Elijah appearing in the Spirit, and Elijah in the flesh will come immediately before the end. The major problem with this understanding is that it can be seen to be in contradiction with the words of Jesus that John fulfilled the prediction of the coming of Elijah (Mt 11:14).

h3>The Two Witnesses (Revelation 11)

Many commentators on Revelation suggest that the two witnesses described in chapter 11 are literally Elijah and Moses returning to earth, during a future tribulation. Elijah is identified because the witnesses have authority to shut the sky so that no rain will fall (v6), as Elijah did (1 Kg 17:1). Then Moses is identified because they also strike waters and turn them into blood (v6), like Moses (Ex 7:20). If one of these two witnesses is Elijah, than this would be the fulfilment of the prediction of Malachi of Elijah coming before the great and terrible day of the Lord (Mal 4:5-6). In this case, John the Baptist was either Elijah coming in the Spirit, or a foreshadowing of the eschatological physical return of Elijah.

However, many interpreters of Revelation do not think that the two witnesses are literally Moses and Elijah in the flesh, even though they are certainly modelled after Moses and Elijah. Among the multitude of identifications suggested by different commentators of this difficult passage, suggestions include two individuals with the characteristics of Moses and Elijah who will be raised up to witness to Christ immediately before the end of the age. Otherwise they are symbolic of the witnessing church, either throughout church history, or specifically during a final tribulation.

Fulfilment of prophecy

Because John was not literally Elijah returned in the flesh, but was still identified by Jesus as the fulfilment of Malachi’s prediction, the question is left open as to whether Elijah will physically return in the future. It may be that this is an example of the tension between the “already” and the “not yet” of inaugurated eschatology frequently found in the New Testament. For example, there is a tension between the statements that the Kingdom of God has come in the person of Jesus, but has not yet come in its fulness. In this case, John would fulfil the Elijah prediction, but Elijah is still to come, because Elijah is a prophet who appears to mark the impending end.

If John did fulfil the prediction of Elijah, then the fulfilment has not been literal, but more figurative. To avoid the danger of subjective allegorization, we are not free to determine our own interpretation, but must be guided by Scripture. A figurative non-literal interpretation is confirmed by the context of Scripture in the New Testament, though not in the original prediction in Malachi. In this case, we should take serious note of Jesus’ teaching on John being the fulfilment of Malachi’s prediction of Elijah. Part of the nature of predictive prophecy is that fulfilment often occurred in a different way from what was expected . God is sovereign, and without ever contradicting his Word, he is free to work out his purposes in a way which is different from human expectations. The teaching of the New Testament confirms that the fulfilment of the Elijah prediction was in the person and ministry of John the Baptist.

Bibliography:

Joyce G. Baldwin. Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi. Tyndale OT Commentaries. IVP 1972.
D.L. Bock: Elijah and Elisha in Dictionary of Jesus & Gospels. ed. JB Green, S McKnight, IH Marshall. IVP 1992.
F.F. Bruce. The Gospel of John. Eerdmans 1983.
P.C. Craigie: Elijah in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. ed. W.A. Elwell Baker 1984.
A. Edersheim. The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. Hendrickson 1993
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Norval Geldenhuys. The Gospel of Luke. The New International Commentary on the New Testament (NICNT). Eerdmans 1993.
G.E. Ladd. A Commentary on the Revelation of John. Eerdmans 1972
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Leon Morris. The Gospel According to Matthew. Pillar Commentary. Eerdmans 1992. and The Gospel of John. The New International Commentary on the New Testament (NICNT). Eerdmans 1995.
R.H. Mounce. The Book of Revelation. The New International Commentary on the New Testament (NICNT). Eerdmans 1977.
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W.A. VanGemeren. Interpreting the Prophetic Word. Zondervan 1990.
Pieter A. Verhoef. Haggai & Malachi. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (NICOT). Eerdmans 1987.


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