Continued from Chapter 32

(Malachi 3:1, 23-24)

Did Elijah come and we didn’t recognize him?

The prophet Malachi declares: Behold, I send you My messenger, and he shall clear the way before Me; and the Lord, whom you seek will suddenly come to His Temple; and the messenger of the covenant, whom you delight in, behold, he comes, says the Lord of hosts. (Malachi 3:1)

Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord. And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers; lest I come and smite the land with utter destruction. (Malachi 3:23-24). The Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels applies these verses to John the Baptist. He considers Malachi’s prophecies concerning Elijah, the forerunner of the Messiah, as completely fulfilled in John. He not only believed this but also believed that Elijah had returned in the person of John. When asked: Why then do the scribes say that Elijah must come first” (Matthew 17:10), Jesus replied: “Elijah, indeed, is coming and will restore all things,” that is, before the arrival of the Messiah (Matthew 17:11). He then continues: “But I am saying to you Elijah has already come” (Matthew 17:12). This is stated in Mark as: “But I say to you Elijah, also, has come” (Mark 9:13).

According to these Gospels, Jesus did not say that Elijah would come in the future. He explained the prophecies as showing that “Elijah, indeed, does come first and restore all things” (Mark 9:12). As Matthew and Mark narrate the story, it was Jesus’ understanding that Elijah must precede the arrival of the Messiah and that Elijah has already come.

What makes these statements most significant is that Jesus links John the Baptist with Malachi 3:1 (Matthew 11:10-11, Luke 7:27-28).

The New Testament’s Jesus contends that Elijah has already come in the actual person of John, thus fulfilling Malachi 3:23. But, the identification of John the Baptist with Elijah is totally rejected by John the Baptist himself (John 1:21). According to the Gospel of John, when asked, “Are you Elijah?” John answered, “I am not.” To the question, “Are you the Prophet?” his answer was, “No.”

Wishing will not make it so

Some Christians insist that what Jesus meant was that John the Baptist was not actually Elijah but only represented him in regard to Elijah’s “spirit and power” (Luke 1:17). But, if that were true the text would read “like Elijah,” or “similar to Elijah.” Instead, the Hebrew text of Malachi 3:23 reads, hinnei ’anochi sholeiach lachem ’et ’Eiliya hanavi’ (“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet”). The participle ’et is placed before the direct object of a verb if the object it indicates is definite. Elijah is a proper noun and is regarded as definite. The presence of ’et emphasizes that the individual who is to appear will be Elijah. Thus, the allegation that John the Baptist simply represented Elijah in spirit and power does not satisfy Malachi’s prophecy, as it does not agree with the plain meaning as defined by the grammatical usage of the participle. In any case, Jesus himself said that John the Baptist was Elijah in the flesh and not merely in the spirit. Jesus said of John while the latter was alive: “And if you care to accept it, he is Elijah who is intended to come” (Matthew 11:14). After John was executed, Jesus said of him: “But I am saying to you Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him” (Matthew 17:12).

Jesus did not differentiate between Malachi 3:1 and 3:23. Thus, he identified John as the “messenger” and announced that “he is Elijah.”

Evidence that demands to be heard

There are details of evidence that disagree with an identification of John as only in the spirit sand power of Elijah and not bodily. Elijah’s return is to be bodily not just in spirit. This is implicit in the fact that in leaving this world he was taken up bodily (2 Kings 2:11). There would have been no need for Elijah to ascend to heaven bodily if only his “spirit and power” were going to return. In addition, even the John the Baptist of the Gospels does not claim that he is Elijah in spirit. When he was asked who he was, John allegedly replied: “I am a voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as said the prophet Isaiah” (John 1:23). John is not identifying himself with Elijah since this verse from Isaiah is taken from a prophecy foretelling the return of the Jewish people from exile and there is nothing to link it to the supposed mission of John as the forerunner of the Messiah. The exile of the Jewish people was not terminated during John the Baptist’s lifetime. In view of John’s emphatic denial of having any connection with Elijah (John 1:21), it is obvious that either Jesus or John was in error about the role of the latter.

Who was in error?

Some Christians say that Elijah will come just before Jesus’ second coming, but it is obvious from the Gospel’s Jesus that he expected Elijah in his own lifetime. If John was Elijah in any form he failed in his God given commission. The biblical mandate for the forerunner of the Messiah includes ushering in an era of perfect peace and harmony between fathers and their children, ending all discord and strife between them. Malachi says clearly: “And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers.”

According to Luke, John’s mission was supposed to be “to turn the hearts of the fathers back to the children, and the disobedient to the attitude of the righteous; so as to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Luke 1:17). John the Baptist did not accomplish this task as he had little impact on his generation. Jesus explained his own function as the exact reverse not only of Elijah’s mission but of John’s as well. He said: Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I came to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. (Matthew 10:34-35) I have come to cast fire upon the earth; and how I wish it were already kindled! But I have a baptism to undergo, and how distressed I am until it is accomplished!

Do you suppose that I came to grant peace on earth? I tell you, no, but rather division; for from now on five members in one household will be divided, three against two, and two against three. They will be divided, father against son, and son against father; mother against daughter, and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law, and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law. (Luke 12:49-53) Undoubtedly, Malachi 3:1 and 3:23-24 refer to the actual return of Elijah immediately preceding the Messiah’s arrival. Since Elijah did not come during Jesus’ lifetime (although he claimed John the Baptist was Elijah) it is obvious that he could not be the Messiah.

© Gerald Sigal