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:
“Behold, I will send you 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, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.” Malachi 4:5-6 (KJV)
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 ye will receive it, this is Elias, which was for to come.” Matthew 11:14 (KJV)
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:
“For, behold, the day cometh, that shall burn as an oven; and all the proud, yea, and all that do wickedly, shall be stubble: and the day that cometh shall burn them up, saith the LORD of hosts, that it shall leave them neither root nor branch. But unto you that fear my name shall the Sun of righteousness arise with healing in his wings; and ye shall go forth, and grow up as calves of the stall. And ye shall tread down the wicked; for they shall be ashes under the soles of your feet in the day that I shall do this, saith the LORD of hosts. Remember ye the law of Moses my servant, which I commanded unto him in Horeb for all Israel, with the statutes and judgments. Behold, I will send you 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, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.” Malachi 4:1-6 (KJV)
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 hosts” 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:
“When ye therefore shall see the abomination of desolation, spoken of by Daniel the prophet, stand in the holy place.” Matthew 24:15 (KJV)
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:
“And in the midst of the week he shall cause the sacrifice and the oblation to cease, and for the overspreading of abominations he shall make it desolate, even until the consummation, and that determined shall be poured upon the desolate.” Daniel 9:27 (KJV)
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:
“And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up: and, as his custom was, he went into the synagogue on the sabbath day, and stood up for to read. And there was delivered unto him the book of the prophet Esaias. And when he had opened the book, he found the place where it was written, The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, To preach the acceptable year of the Lord. And he closed the book, and he gave it again to the minister, and sat down. And the eyes of all them that were in the synagogue were fastened on him. And he began to say unto them, This day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears.” Luke 4:16-21 (KJV)
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 Lord GOD is upon me; because the LORD hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound; To proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD, and the day of vengeance of our God.” Isaiah 61:1-2 (KJV)
Jesus specifically chose not to read the final part of verse two, “and the day of vengeance of our God.” 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 unto my two witnesses, and they shall prophesy a thousand two hundred and threescore days, clothed in sackcloth. These are the two olive trees, and the two candlesticks standing before the God of the earth. And if any man will hurt them, fire proceedeth out of their mouth, and devoureth their enemies: and if any man will hurt them, he must in this manner be killed. These have power to shut heaven, that it rain not in the days of their prophecy: and have power over waters to turn them to blood, and to smite the earth with all plagues, as often as they will.” Revelation 11:3-6 (KJV)
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 did shine as the sun, and his raiment was white as the light.” Matthew 17:2 (KJV):
“And, behold, there appeared unto them Moses and Elias talking with him. Then answered Peter, and said unto Jesus, Lord, it is good for us to be here: if thou wilt, let us make here three tabernacles; one for thee, and one for Moses, and one for Elias. While he yet spake, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them: and behold a voice out of the cloud, which said, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye him. And when the disciples heard it, they fell on their face, and were sore afraid. And Jesus came and touched them, and said, Arise, and be not afraid. And when they had lifted up their eyes, they saw no man, save Jesus only.” Matthew 17:3-8 (KJV)
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, the two candlesticks standing before the God of 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 ye will receive it, this is Elias, which was for to come.” Matthew 11:14 (KJV)
Notice that Jesus doesn’t say, “This 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:
“For he shall be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink; and he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother's womb. And many of the children of Israel shall he turn to the Lord their God. And he shall go before him 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.” Luke 1:15-17 (KJV)
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:
“And his disciples asked him, saying, Why then say the scribes that Elias must first come? And Jesus answered and said unto them, 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. Then the disciples understood that he spake unto them of John the Baptist.” Matthew 17:10-13 (KJV)
Notice that Jesus says: “Elijah truly shall first come.” He doesn’t say “has” first come. He says “shall” first come. 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:
“And this is the record of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, Who art thou? And he confessed, and denied not; but confessed, I am not the Christ. And they asked him, What then? Art thou Elias? And he saith, I am not.” John 1:19-21 (KJV)
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, a website examining the relationship between bible prophecy and emerging trends in technology. For more information or to sign up for his email alerts, please visit his site.