Is John the Baptist Elijah? Well, that depends on what the meaning of the word “is” is. 🙂 🙂 Please rest assured that your humble author has not become a relativist, neither a lawyer, nor a politician. But the seemingly straight-forward question, Is (was) John the Baptist actually Elijah requires some distinctions and explanations.
Some of you who read this may think the question itself to be a crazy one. “What do you mean is John the Baptist Elijah?!” A little biblical background may help give meaning to the question. Let’s begin in the Old Testament.
Biblical Roots of the Question – On the very last pages of the Old Testament, in the Book of Malachi God both promises and warns that the great and terrible Day of the Lord’s coming was sure to be and that God’s people must be ready for the coming of Lord. It is such an awesome day that God declares he must prepare the people ahead of time by sending Elijah to prepare them. Here is the text:
Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and the 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 rays. And you will go out and frolic like well-fed calves. Then you will trample on the wicked; they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day when I act,” 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 the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the LORD comes. He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; lest I come and strike the land with total destruction.” (Malachi 4:1-6)
So Elijah , it is said, will come again, before the Lord, to prepare the people and save them from the wrath that will follow. Exactly how he will come, or in what form, is not specified. Will it literally be Elijah come back in the flaming chariot that took him up, or is it an allegorical, or figurative Elijah that God will send?
The Book of Sirach has a similar prophecy concerning Elijah’s return:
How awesome are you, Elijah, in your wondrous deeds! Whose glory is equal to yours? You were taken aloft in a whirlwind of fire, in a chariot with fiery horses. You were destined, it is written, in time to come to put an end to wrath before the day of the LORD, To turn back the hearts of fathers toward their sons, and to re-establish the tribes of Jacob. Blessed is he who shall have seen you and who falls asleep in your friendship(Sirach 48:9-11)
This text too lacks specificity as to how Elijah will come and in what form. However, it is directed specifically to Elijah, and that would seem to anticipate a personal return. But here too it is not certain.
These Old Testament Texts surely point to the type of ministry that John the Baptist was undertaking. He called them to repentance just before the Lord’s coming on the scene and thus prepared them to receive him. Although many thought John to be the actual Messiah his denial of being the Messiah caused others to wonder if he were Elijah. This question was specifically put to John by priests and levites sent from the Jews in Jerusalem:
What are you then? Are you Elijah?” And he said, “I am not.” (John 3:21)
But there is a problem with John’s answer, for Jesus answers quite differently regarding John’s identity.
For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come. He who has ears, let him hear. (Matt 11:13-15)
As they were coming down from the mountain, the disciples asked Jesus, “Why do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?” He said in reply, “Elijah will indeed come and restore all things; but I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him but did to him whatever they pleased. So also will the Son of Man suffer at their hands.” Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them of John the Baptist (Matt 17:10-13; cf also Mark 9:13)
So what are we to make of this seeming conflict between John’s denial and Christ’s affirmation of John’s status as Elijah?
One solution is merely to apply the saying in Latin: Nemo judex in sua causa (no one is a judge in his own case). It is not always possible for us to fully understand our role in God’s kingdom. God has something very specific and very important for all of us to do and we are not always able to fully see this here. In heaven, all will be made plain to us as to our role and place in God’s Kingdom. Hence, although John the Baptist may not be able to fully see his role, Jesus as God, can and does know that role. So the seeming conflict is resolved in favor of Jesus teaching, for the reason stated. John the Baptist, as the Angel Gabriel said of him: “Will go before Him [The Lord] in the spirit and power of Elijah (Luke 1:17).
However this is not the same as Jesus saying that John the Baptist is Elijah reincarnated, or Elijah come back from heaven whence he was taken in a fiery chariot. We don’t need to interpret Jesus this literally. Jesus could well be saying that John the Baptist is the fulfillment of the Elijah figure would return, and that he was in the office or role of Elijah. We have already observed that the Old Testament texts do not specify the manner of Elijah’s “return.” We need not assume a physical return of Elijah. Rather, as Luke 1:17 implies, we can accept a return of the spirit of his mission, his role.
And this leads to a second and happier conclusion that John the Baptist’s response that he is not Elijah may not, in fact be wrong or in conflict with the Lord’s teaching. It is possible that he interpreted the question literally to mean, “Are you Elijah come back to earth?” To which he rightfully says, “No.” Jesus however speaks of him in terms of his role, calling him Elijah, not as a personal identification but in terms of the role he had as the Elijah figure, promised of old.
Hence we are back to the question: Is John the Baptist Elijah? Well that does actually depend on what we mean by “is.” Is John Elijah come back to earth? Likely he is not! Is he Elijah in the sense of having the office of Elijah and going forth in the spirit and power of Elijah? Yes.
The Fathers of the Church generally confirm this approach to John the Baptist and his role as Elijah, not the actual Elijah. But some add a twist. The twist is that they interpret Malachi 4 (quoted above) as referring more to Jesus’ second coming than his first and hold out for a coming of the actual Elijah at that time. This helps explain the references in the Malachi passage to fire and burning judgment which pertain more to the Second Coming. It also helps explain why Jesus said to his disciples Elijah will indeed come (i.e. the actual Elijah, just prior to the Second Coming) and then adds, but I tell you Elijah has already come (i.e. figuratively in John the Baptist).
1. St Jerome – That He says, This is Elijah, is figurative – (Quoted in the Catena Aurea)
2. St. Jerome – St. John the Baptist is called Elijah, not in accordance with foolish philosophers and certain heretics who introduce the topic of metemphychosis (transmigration of souls), but because, according to other evidence of the gospel, he came in the spirit and goodness of Elijah and had either the same grace or power of the Holy Spirit. The austerity of their life and firm resolve were equally strong in Elijah and John. Both lived in the desert. The former girded himself with a belt of skins, and the latter had a similar belt. The former was forced to flee because he accused Ahab and Jezebel of impiety in their lives. John was beheaded because he accused Herod and Herodias of unlawful marriage. There are those who think therefore that John is called Elijah because, just as Elijah would lead the way in the second coming of our Lord (according to Malachi) and would announce that the judge was coming, so John acted at the first coming. And because each was a messenger, either of the first or second coming of the Lord. (Commentary on Matthew 2.11.15)
3. St. Jerome – He then who at the Savior’s second coming will come in the truth of His body, comes now in John in power and spirit (Quoted in the Catena Aurea).
4. Remigius – for He did not say that John was Elias in person, but in the Spirit (Quoted in the Catena Aurea)
5. St John Chrysostom – For the Scriptures speak of two comings of Christ; that which has taken place, and that which is yet to be. But the Scribes, blinding the people, spoke to them only of His second coming, and said, If this be the Christ, then should Elias have come before Him. Christ thus resolves the difficulty, He answered and said, Elias truly shall come, and restore all things; but I say to you, that Elias has already come. Think not that here is a contradiction in His speech, if He first say that Elias shall come, and then that he is come. For when He says that Elias shall come and restore all things, He speaks of Elias himself in his own proper person, who indeed shall restore all things, in that he shall correct the unbelief of the Jews, who shall then be to be found; and that is the turning the hearts of the fathers to the children, that is, the hearts of the Jews to the Apostles. (Quoted in the Catena Aurea)
Well, as you can see, Scriptural interpretation is a careful matter that requires us to cover our desks with open books and references to other passages in the Scripture. As with many passages of Scripture there is a range of opinion and views. This article is a blog post. It is not a dissertation or an article in a theological journal. Hence, by nature it is incomplete. I invite comments to help complete the picture, and healthy (charitable) debate is encouraged.
The bottom line is that the strongest position is that John the Baptist is surely not the actual Elijah returned to earth. Rather he is an Elijah figure who takes up the ministry of Elijah in the Spirit and power. I also find the distinction of some of the Fathers helpful and compelling in seeing many of the details of Malachi 4 as referring to a return also of the actual Elijah just prior to the second coming. I do not claim this is a doctrine of the faith, only that the position is quite intriguing.