The Spirit and Power of Elijah

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Since we’ve been studying Elijah for the past few weeks in the adult Sunday school class, I thought it might be helpful this Christmas to look at another Elijah — John the Baptist.

Four hundred years before Jesus was born, the prophet Malachi predicted that God would send Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful 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 (Mal. 4:5–6). This prediction is very clearly applied to John the Baptist in verse 17 of today’s text. Luke wrote, And he [John the Baptist] shall go before [the Lord] in the spirit and power of Elias, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.

Further testimony for the identification of John the Baptist as the promised Elijah comes from the mouth of the Lord Jesus Christ himself, who on two separate occasions acknowledged this to be so. In Matthew 11, after praising John for unique ministry, Jesus said, And if ye will receive it, this is Elias, which was for to come (v. 14). And again in chapter 17, after Moses and Elijah had appeared with Christ in the Transfiguration, the disciples asked Jesus to explain how what they had just witnessed relates to the prophecy of Elijah’s coming. Jesus answered, Elias truly shall first come, and restore all things. But I say unto you, That Elias is come already, and they knew him not, but have done unto him whatsoever they listed. Likewise shall also the Son of man suffer of them (vv. 11–12).

Even the fact that on one occasion John denied being Elijah does not contradict this. He meant only that he was not the same man who had confronted Ahab several centuries earlier. However, he did not deny that he was a prophet like Elijah.

So, there can be no doubt that John was the New Testament Elijah. But what exactly does this mean?

Gabriel’s Message to Zacharias

First-century Jews to a large degree expected the physical return of Elijah. Have you ever noticed how frequently this is mentioned in the New Testament? When John was baptizing in the Jordan River, the Jews asked him if he was Elijah (John 1:21). After Herod had executed John the Baptist and later heard of Jesus’ ministry, his counselors tried unsuccessfully to convince him that Jesus was Elijah or one of the prophets, and not a resurrected John the Baptist (Mark 6:14–16). At Caesarea Philippi, Jesus asked his disciples what men were saying about him. They said that some people thought he was Elijah (Matt. 16:14). And again, when Jesus cried out Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani on the cross, some of those who were standing nearby mistakenly believed that he was calling for Elijah (Matt. 27:46–49).

The expectation that Elijah would return physically to the earth was based on two things. First, the manner of Elijah’s departure. Remember that Elijah was one of only two men who never died. According to the second chapter of II Kings, he was carried into heaven in a whirlwind. This, of course, leaves open the possibility that he might come back someday. Second, the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Old Testament made about two hundred years before Christ, has a subtle but misleading rendering of Malachi 4:5. It does not say that God will send Elijah the prophet before the day of the Lord, as the Hebrew does, but that God will send “Elijah the Tishbite” (Ηλιαν τὸν Θεσβίτην). This translation more or less requires that that the Old Testament prophet himself return before that momentous day, while the Hebrew leaves the door open a little more for the Lord to send someone like Elijah.

Modern premillennialists also tend to expect a physical return of the prophet Elijah. They base this on two considerations. To begin with, they say that Malachi wrote that Elijah the prophet would come, and they interpret this according to its most literal sense. And further, they believe that Elijah will be one of the two witnesses mentioned in Revelation 11. The other one is Moses. The reason for this is that the “miracles” ascribed to the two witnesses resemble those of Moses and Elijah. Like Moses they can turn water to blood, and like Elijah they have power to make the rain stop (Rev. 11:6). Nonetheless, there are several reasons both in the immediate context of Revelation 11 and elsewhere for rejecting this interpretation, the main one being that Gabriel in our text and Jesus in the two passages already cited made it clear that Malachi’s prophecy foretold the ministry of John the Baptist and not a future return of the Old Testament prophet.

Consider, for example, what Gabriel said to Zacharias. He told him that, although both he and his wife were well beyond the normal years of procreation, they would nonetheless have the son for whom they had often prayed. He immediately added that their son would have a very special ministry. It would be his job to turn the hearts of the children of Israel to the Lord in anticipation of the Messiah’s arrival. To do this, he would come in the spirit and power of Elijah. Thus, John would not be Elijah per se, but his ministry would resemble Elijah’s.

Now, what does this mean? Actually, it means several things. There are some obvious superficial similarities in the ministries of these two men. Both of them, for example, were men of the wilderness who knew how to live off the land. Both were also prophets of God. But these things were true of many of God’s prophets. What particularly marked Elijah’s ministry, and John’s as well, was a bold, courageous and zealous call to repentance.

Elijah and John both lived during times in which sin was almost unrestrained. Baalism was the problem in Elijah’s day. Through Jezebel, his Phoenician wife of King Ahab, the cult of Baal became the chief religion of northern kingdom. God sent Elijah to denounce this false idolatry. In fact, as I’ve said in Sunday school, it would be even more accurate to say that God initiated a war with Baal through Elijah. In contest after contest, Jehovah showed himself invincible while Baal demonstrated that he had no power at all. In the end the people of Israel proclaimed, The LORD, he is the God; the LORD, he is the God (I Kgs. 18:39), and God had at least seven thousand in Israel who had not bowed their knees to Baal (I Kgs. 19:18).

John’s situation was quite different. Baalism was no longer an issue. In a sense, the problem was even worse. The formalism and hypocrisy of the Jewish hegemony threatened the true faith in the first century by making men’s hearts cold and indifferent to it. Pharisaical legalism and Sadducean unbelief conspired together to wrest God from his throne in the lives of his people. This is what Jesus meant when he denounced the Pharisees in Matthew 23:15, saying, Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, ye make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves.

Note how Gabriel stressed the extent to which John’s ministry would summon men to repentance. We see it in the word turn, which occurs once each in verses 16 and 17. John would turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. He would also turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just. His ministry would embrace both tables of the law. His job was to restore the true worship of God and right relations between men.

And like Elijah, who summoned all Israel to Mount Carmel (I Kgs. 19:19–20), the Lord promised to bless John’s ministry. Gabriel foretold that he would turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord. The gospel of Matthew reports that Jerusalem, and all Judaea, and all the region round about Jordan went out to him and were baptized in the Jordan, confessing their sins (Matt. 3:5–6). Jesus also acknowledged the power of John’s ministry, especially on those who really wrestled with their own depravity, when he said, For John came unto you in the way of righteousness, and ye believed him not: but the publicans and the harlots believed him: and ye, when ye had seen it, repented not afterward, that ye might believe him (Matt. 21:32). In fact, most of Jesus’ early followers came from among John’s disciples.

In their preaching of repentance, Elijah and John were as bold as lions. They reproved the sins of the people from the least to the greatest, and were hated and persecuted for it. John the Baptist eventually gave his life for his fearless denunciation of Herod’s adultery.

The Messiah’s Forerunner

Preaching repentance, though, was only part of the work to which God had called Elijah and John. Their ministries also ushered in periods of intense redemptive activity and revelation.

In the Old Testament, Elijah was a transitional figure in many ways. For at least two centuries before he came along, the emphasis was decidedly on the kings — Saul, David, Solomon, etc. — and their relationship to the kingdom of God. But beginning with Elijah God used the prophets more frequently both to reprove the kings and to encourage his people. In fact, we can say that God spoke to his people more directly through the word of the prophets than through the actions of the kings. And this is where Elijah comes in. As a fiery reformer, he not only prepared for Elisha’s ministry but even more importantly set the stage for the period of the writing prophets. He prepared the people to receive the Word of God.

John’s ministry was also preparatory. Again, this is exactly what Gabriel told Zacharias in our text. John’s preaching of repentance would precede the coming of the Lord and prepare the Lord’s people for his arrival.

In John’s case, we can be even more precise about what this means. The first few words in verse 17 predict that John would go before him. The question, then, is, To whom does the pronoun him refer? Grammatically, the nearest antecedent is the Lord their God at the end of verse 16. This is so obvious, in fact, that no serious commentator disputes it. But it is also obvious from Zacharias’ prophecy at the end of the chapter that the pronoun him refers specifically to the salvation that the Lord God of Israel was about to raise up for his people, viz., the Lord Jesus Christ. At one point in his prophecy, John’s father turned to him and said, And thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Highest: for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways; to give knowledge of salvation unto his people by the remission of their sins, through the tender mercy of our God; whereby the dayspring from on high hath visited us (Luke 1:76–78).

There are two things we need to understand here.

First, the fact that John’s ministry prepared for the coming of God, as Gabriel said, and for the coming of God’s salvation, as Zacharias said, shows unmistakably that Jesus is the God of the Old Testament, who for at least four thousand years had been arranging every detail in the universe for the redemption of his people. Of course, this can be demonstrated in countless other ways as well. One implication of it is that it shows the utter nonsense of ancient Gnostics and modern liberals who make the ridiculous claim that the God of the Old Testament is not the same as the God of the New Testament. The Old Testament God was mean, vindictive and warmongering; while the New Testament God is kind, compassionate and forgiving toward all men. Our text makes it clear that the God of both testaments is one and the same.

Second, John’s preaching laid the groundwork for the Messiah’s arrival. He introduced the ministry of Christ, declaring him to be the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world (John 1:29). He baptized the Savior in the Jordan River, thus identifying him as the prophet, priest and king of his people. He sent his own disciples after Jesus to become Jesus’ disciples, saying, He must increase, but I must decrease (John 3:30). The work of Christ and the ministry of the apostles, including the writing of the New Testament and the proclamation of that same Word today, look back to John’s wilderness preaching. Thus, Jesus said, Among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist; but because John did not live to see the fruition of his work, Jesus added, Notwithstanding he that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he (Matt. 11:11).

John was Elijah the prophet in the sense that he revived the prophet’s ministry of summoning the people to repentance in preparation for a great work of God. Interestingly, this is stated three different ways. The Hebrew text of Malachi 4:6 says, 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 earth with a curse. The restoration of family relationships is central: fathers will be restored to their children, and children to their fathers. And the reason for this is stated in the negative: lest I come and smite the earth with a curse. The Septuagint paraphrases the same verse as follows: “He shall restore the heart of the father to his son and the heart of a man to his neighbor, lest I come and utterly smite the earth.”[1] The chief difference here is that in the second phrase a man and his neighbor replaced children and their fathers. The third version is our text, which read, To turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the Lord. As you can see, the text of Luke doesn’t follow either the Hebrew or the Septuagint. Perhaps the most significant difference is the last phrase, which puts a more positive light on the coming of Elijah. It expects his ministry to be successful at preparing the people for the Lord’s arrival.

Like Elijah, John prepared the people for God’s great redemption by focusing on two things: law and prophecy. Malachi mentioned both elements in his own prophecy. The law is in verse 4: Remember ye the law of Moses my servant, which I commanded unto him in Horeb for all Israel, with the statutes and judgments. Then he immediately connected that with a prophecy of the day of the Lord: Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD. John very clearly picked up on this. He also joined law and prophecy together. We see this, for example, in Matthew 3:2, which summarizes his preaching: Repent ye (law): for the kingdom of heaven is at hand (prophecy). The law reminds us that we have sinned and must turn to Christ for forgiveness, and the prophets set before us the coming of God’s kingdom and the assurance of everlasting life. His message was also urgent: men needed to repent then and there because the kingdom of God was near.

The angel Gabriel told Zacharias that his son John would have a ministry like Elijah’s, a ministry that would prepare for the Lord’s coming. What does this have to do with you? Why is it important for you to understand this?

One reason is that John’s ministry still directs you to the only Savior of men. What did John say? I indeed baptize you with water; but one mightier than I cometh, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to unloose: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire (Luke 3:16). It was not John’s purpose to draw attention to himself, but to urge all men to put their trust in the Lord Jesus Christ. Through the Word of God, he continues to urge you to do the same.

Another reason why you need to understand this is that you need to heed John’s call to repentance. I said a minute ago that John prepared for all subsequent preaching, and that includes the preaching that you hear week after week, as well as the exhortations that you read for yourselves day after day. God sent his Son to secure your entrance into his eternal kingdom. You need to humble yourself before the Lord Jesus Christ and accept his work in your behalf as a completely undeserved gift. You need to confess your sin to him and beg him for a greater measure of the Holy Spirit.

A third reason for studying John’s life and ministry is that his preaching also requires you to consider the prophecies of Scripture. The recognition of Christ as Savior and the call to repentance look forward to the day in which all men will appear before the judgment seat of Christ. John said, And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire (Matt. 3:10). Are you prepared for that day by repenting of your sins and looking to Christ for forgivneness? Have you shared the good news of the atonement with family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, acquaintances, supermarket cashiers, hospital janitors and others with whom you’ve come into contact so that they might also be prepared for that day? John never missed an opportunity to tell others about the Messiah. Can you say the same?

John prepared for the coming of the Messiah. Christ already come once to bear the sins of man; and unto them that look for him shall he appear the second time without sin unto salvation (Heb. 9:28). This is the promise of God’s Word. We must ready ourselves for that day. Although we do not know when he will come, we must live each day in such a state of preparedness that, whenever he comes, he will find us faithful to his gracious covenant. Jesus said, Blessed is that servant, whom his lord when he cometh shall find so doing (Matt. 24:46). Paul also wrote, Therefore let us not sleep, as do others; but let us watch and be sober (I Thess. 5:6). Amen.


[1] ὃς ἀποκαταστήσει καρδίαν πατρὸς πρὸς υἱὸν καὶ καρδίαν ἀνθρώπου πρὸς τὸν πλησίον αὐτοῦ, μὴ ἔλθω καὶ πατάξω τὴν γῆν ἄρδην (Mal 3:23 LXX).

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