The Coming of the Prophet Elijah
Prior to the arrival of Jesus Christ, the nation of Israel endured several hundred years of silence from the Lord.
The Old Testament prophets who had in days past delivered regular messages from God Almighty suddenly went silent.
But in the final verses of the Old Testament, God gave a promise to Israel. He promised to send the prophet Elijah before the great and dreadful day of the Lord.
In the first century, many Jews lived in a state of constant alert, ready for the arrival of Elijah at a moment's notice. It was this very atmosphere of expectation into which John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth first appeared.
Below is the prophecy which prompted great expectation of Elijah's coming. It appears in the Book of Malachi:
"Look, I am sending you the prophet Elijah before the great and dreadful day of the Lord arrives. His preaching will turn the hearts of fathers to their children, and the hearts of children to their fathers. Otherwise I will come and strike the land with a curse." Malachi 4:5-6 (NLT)
For the past 2,000 years, many Christians have believed Elijah's identity is an open-and-shut case.
The conventional wisdom is that he's already appeared, thus fulfilling completely the prophecies of Malachi 4. It's easy to see why this is a commonly held belief, because Jesus Himself said John the Baptist was Elijah:
"And if you are willing to accept what I say, he is Elijah, the one the prophets said would come." Matthew 11:14 (NLT)
But did Jesus really identify John the Baptist as the Elijah of Malachi 4:5?
Was He saying, "this is THE Elijah, and there is no other"?
Careful examination of the scriptures reveals that Jesus was not saying this. Yes, John the Baptist came in the spirit and power of Elijah, but he was not Elijah.
Just as the first century Jews expected a conquering Messiah rather than a suffering one, they also expected a much more powerful Elijah than the one they received. In his place, they received a man who, like his Messiah, would suffer greatly at the hands of his contemporaries.
In order to better understand the prophecy of Elijah's coming, let's examine the context in which the verse appears:
"The Lord of Heaven's Armies says, 'The day of judgment is coming, burning like a furnace. On that day the arrogant and the wicked will be burned up like straw. They will be consumed - roots, branches, and all. But for you who fear my name, the Sun of Righteousness will rise with healing in his wings. And you will go free, leaping with joy like calves let out to pasture. On the day when I act, you will tread upon the wicked as if they were dust under your feet,' says the Lord of Heaven's Armies. 'Remember to obey the Law of Moses, my servant - all the decrees and regulations that I gave him on Mount Sinai for all Israel. Look, I am sending you the prophet Elijah before the great and dreadful day of the Lord arrives. His preaching will turn the hearts of fathers to their children, and the hearts of children to their fathers. Otherwise I will come and strike the land with a curse.'" Malachi 4:1-6 (NLT)
First and foremost, this passage describes the great Day of Judgment of the Lord Almighty.
This day and the day of Christ's Glorious Appearing are one and the same. The "Lord of Heaven's Armies" is the conquering Messiah the Jews expected when Jesus first came. He is Lord of the same armies identified in Revelation 19:14, and the Antichrist and all his armies will bear the wrath of this heavenly force.
This event, "the great and dreadful day of Lord," is the one which will be preceded by the coming of the prophet Elijah.
However, the last two verses of this passage provide us with a valuable clue. They offer two possible outcomes.
When Elijah comes, his preaching will either "turn the hearts of fathers to their children, and the hearts of children to their fathers," or it will not. If it does, then Israel will be prepared for the King to Come. If it does not, then God will come and strike the land with a curse.
In the first century, the nation of Israel chose the latter option.
John the Baptist came, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to fulfill this prophecy. Yet, although many hearts were transformed by his ministry, like Christ, he was ultimately rejected.
Therefore, the land of Israel was cursed.
A few years later, it fell to the Romans, and the Jewish people were scattered all over the earth. The Day of Judgment was delayed, and along with it, complete fulfillment of the prophecies of Malachi 4.
What this means is that before the Day of Judgment arrives, the nation of Israel will witness the appearance of the prophet Elijah, and his coming will fulfill to the letter every prophecy of Malachi 4.
A Precedent for One Prophecy Pointing to Two Individuals
If this is true, then John the Baptist only partially fulfilled the prophecies of Malachi 4, and the ultimate fulfillment of these verses is still future.
Is this possible?
How can the same prophecy point to two distinctly different individuals separated by almost 2,000 years of human history?
Dual fulfillment of prophecy is not a new concept. In fact, Jesus spoke about the Antichrist's ultimate fulfillment of a dual prophecy while teaching His disciples about the end of the age.
The prophecy of which He spoke concerned an event known as the abomination of desolation, a satanic act in which a human being desecrates the Holy of Holies in God's Temple:
"The day is coming when you will see what Daniel the prophet spoke about - the sacrilegious object that causes desecration standing in the Holy Place." Matthew 24:15 (NLT)
Jesus spoke of this as a future event, yet it had happened once before in history.
In 167 B.C., the Syrian king Antiochus IV Epiphanes erected a statue of Zeus in the Holy of Holies and desecrated the sanctuary and its holy vessels.
Several centuries prior to this, Daniel (in Daniel 11:21-35) prophesied the life and times of Antiochus IV Epiphanes.
Yet those same verses, in many ways, also apply to the Antichrist, whose life is further detailed in Daniel 11:36-45. The same set of prophecies applies to two distinct individuals: Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who would come in the spirit and power of the Antichrist, and the Antichrist himself, who would ultimately fulfill the prophecies of Daniel 11. This is why Jesus referred to the desecration of the Temple as a future event.
Because, ultimately, the Antichrist will perform this act as well:
"He will put an end to the sacrifices and offerings. Then as a climax to all his terrible deeds, he will set up a sacrilegious object that causes desecration, until the end that has been decreed is poured out on this defiler." Daniel 9:27 (NLT)
Daniel 9:27 and Daniel 11:21-45 are clear references to the Antichrist. Yet both were partially fulfilled in the life of Antiochus IV Epiphanes. Likewise, the ultimate fulfillment of Malachi 4 requires a second individual.
The Elijah of the End Times
Some have put forward the argument that John the Baptist completely fulfilled the prophecy of Malachi 4:5 to send "the prophet Elijah before the great and dreadful day of the Lord arrives." They say that the appearance of John the Baptist over 2,000 years before the great and dreadful day of the Lord qualifies as his coming "before" that day.
Yet the Lord Jesus did not think in such terms.
In fact, when He first came, He specifically told the people of His generation that the Day of the Lord had not arrived. He did this in His own hometown of Nazareth, where He read a prophecy from Isaiah and, by exclusion, proclaimed it only partially fulfilled:
"When he came to the village of Nazareth, his boyhood home, he went as usual to the synagogue on the Sabbath and stood up to read the Scriptures. The scroll of Isaiah the prophet was handed to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where this was written: 'The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released, that the blind will see, that the oppressed will be set free, and that the time of the Lord's favor has come.' He rolled up the scroll, handed it back to the attendant, and sat down. All eyes in the synagogue looked at him intently. Then he began to speak to them. 'The Scripture you've just heard has been fulfilled this very day!'" Luke 4:16-21 (NLT)
This prophecy was indeed fulfilled on that very day by the Lord Jesus Christ. But let's examine the same verses in their entirety:
"The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is upon me, for the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to comfort the brokenhearted and to proclaim that captives will be released and prisoners will be freed. He has sent me to tell those who mourn that the time of the Lord's favor has come, and with it, the day of God's anger against their enemies." Isaiah 61:1-2 (NLT)
Jesus specifically chose not to read the final part of verse two, "and with it, the day of God's anger against their enemies." This verse is a direct reference to the Day of the Lord Almighty, the same day referenced in Malachi 4. Jesus was telling us that this day is still a future event.
In the Book of Revelation, the Lord promises to send two witnesses prior to the Day of Lord Almighty:
"And I will give power to my two witnesses, and they will be clothed in burlap and will prophesy during those 1,260 days. These two prophets are the two olive trees and the two lampstands that stand before the Lord of all the earth. If anyone tries to harm them, fire flashes from their mouths and consumes their enemies. This is how anyone who tries to harm them must die. They have power to shut the sky so that no rain will fall for as long as they prophesy. And they have the power to turn the rivers and oceans into blood, and to strike the earth with every kind of plague as often as they wish." Revelation 11:3-6 (NLT)
The powers of these two witnesses in Revelation 11 directly correlate with the powers God provided Moses and Elijah in the Old Testament.
Elijah is the only Old Testament prophet who called down fire to consume God's enemies (2 Kings 1:8-14). He also prophesied that it would not rain for three and a half years, the biblical equivalent of 1,260 days. In similar fashion, Moses was given the power to unleash plagues on Egypt and to turn the Nile red with blood. As a result, it seems likely that Moses and Elijah are the two witnesses of Revelation 11, for they will hold the same God-given powers.
In the Book of Matthew, we read of the event commonly known as "the transfiguration." This is when Jesus was suddenly transfigured "so that His face shone like the sun, and His clothing became dazzling white" Matthew 17:2 (NLT):
"Suddenly, Moses and Elijah appeared and began talking with Jesus. Peter exclaimed, 'Lord, it's wonderful for us to be here! If you want, I'll make three shelters as memorials - one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.' But even as he spoke, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, 'This is my dearly loved Son, who brings me great joy. Listen to him.' The disciples were terrified and fell face down on the ground. Then Jesus came over and touched them. 'Get up,' he said. 'Don't be afraid.' And when they looked up, Moses and Elijah were gone, and they saw only Jesus." Matthew 17:3-8 (NLT)
The transfiguration seems to highlight both the present and future importance of Moses and Elijah in God's Kingdom, and it can be interpreted as strong evidence that they are "the two olive trees and the two lampstands that stand before the Lord of all the earth."
What's also noticeable in this passage is that this event is witnessed by Peter, James, and John.
All three of these disciples were contemporaries of John the Baptist. They knew what he looked like, and yet, they immediately identified Elijah as the Old Testament prophet Elijah and not John the Baptist. If John the Baptist were the second coming of Elijah (which would have been possible since Elijah was taken up to heaven before he died), then the disciples would've asked to build shelters in honor of Moses and John the Baptist, not Moses and Elijah.
John the Baptist Was NOT the Elijah of the End Times
If all of this is true, and John the Baptist is not Elijah, then why did Jesus say He was? After all, he clearly stated so:
"And if you are willing to accept what I say, he is Elijah, the one the prophets said would come." Matthew 11:14 (NLT)
Notice that Jesus doesn't say, "He is Elijah, the one the prophets said would come."
Jesus knew the Jewish people were expecting the Elijah who would come before the great and dreadful Day of the Lord. Just as it was difficult for the Jewish people to accept a suffering Messiah when they expected a conquering one, He knew it would be just as difficult to accept John the Baptist as the first coming of Elijah, "in the spirit and power of Elijah," without the Day of the Lord accompanying him.
John the Baptist was not Elijah. He was only one who would appear in "the spirit and power of Elijah." This was clearly stated by the angel Gabriel prior to John's birth:
"He will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even before his birth. And he will turn many Israelites to the Lord their God. He will be a man with the spirit and power of Elijah. He will prepare the people for the coming of the Lord. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and he will cause those who are rebellious to accept the wisdom of the godly." Luke 1:15-17 (NLT)
Gabriel is clear in his statement that John the Baptist would be a man with "the spirit and power of Elijah." But he would not be Elijah himself. This is further evidence that Malachi 4 is a dual reference prophecy.
Jesus addressed this dual fulfillment of Malachi 4 when His disciples directly asked Him about the coming of the prophet Elijah:
"Then his disciples asked him, 'Why do the teachers of religious law insist that Elijah must return before the Messiah comes?' Jesus replied, 'Elijah is indeed coming first to get everything ready. But I tell you, Elijah has already come, but he wasn't recognized, and they chose to abuse him. And in the same way they will also make the Son of Man suffer.' Then the disciples realized he was talking about John the Baptist." Matthew 17:10-13 (NLT)
Notice that Jesus says: "Indeed, Elijah is coming first."
He doesn't say "has" come first. He says "is coming" first.
This indicates a future coming of the prophet Elijah.
Yet, just as the Messiah (Jesus) was not recognized, one who came in the "spirit and power of Elijah" (John the Baptist) was also not recognized. The rejection and suffering of Jesus and John the Baptist are distinctly separate from the coming of the prophet Elijah and the Glorious Appearing of Jesus, both of which will occur at the end of the age.
As further evidence of this fact, John the Baptist himself states that he is not the expected coming of the prophet Elijah:
"This was John's testimony when the Jewish leaders sent priests and Temple assistants from Jerusalem to ask John, 'Who are you?' He came right out and said, 'I am not the Messiah.' 'Well then, who are you?' they asked. 'Are you Elijah?' 'No,' he replied." John 1:19-21 (NLT)
John the Baptist clearly states that he is not Elijah.
Does his statement contradict the one Jesus made in Matthew 11:14?
No, it does not.
Both Jesus and John the Baptist knew the distinction between the Messiah's first and second comings. Both knew that each coming would be preceded by the prophet Elijah. The first instance would be John the Baptist coming in the "spirit and power of Elijah" and the second instance would be the appearance of the Old Testament prophet Elijah himself.
Given the numerous signs of the end of the age - the rebirth of Israel as nation, her subsequent possession of Jerusalem, the rise of Gog/Magog alliance, the rise of the revived Roman Empire (the European Union), the certainty of global government, and various other signs - we can rest assured that His Return is very near, right at the door. Ours is the last generation of this age.
The prophet Elijah is coming, and the Glorious Appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ will soon follow!
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! And may the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with us all.
Britt Gillette is the founder of End Times Bible Prophecy and the author of Coming To Jesus and Signs Of The Second Coming. Receive his book 7 Signs of the End Times for FREE when you sign up for his monthly newsletter.
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