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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.