Elijah Will Come Again
What does the Bible mean when it speaks of Elijah coming again? Was this a literal prophecy, or did John the Baptist fulfill the prophecy in spirit? Or is it that the prophecy has a double-fulfillment: one of John the Baptist, and one of Elijah. This short paper will examine the issues at hand.
The two prophecies to which all New Testament references are based off of are found in Malachi 3:1 and 4:5-6 which read:
Behold, I will send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me: and the Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his temple, even the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in: behold, he shall come, saith the LORD of hosts (3:1).1
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 (4:5-6).
It is obvious that the Jews of first century Palestine were expecting Elijah to be raised from the dead and return to the nation of Israel to prepare the hearts of the people to receive their Messiah.2 Some of the Pharisees asked John the Baptist if he was Elijah that was to come (John 1:21-25). John denied that he was Elijah, rather testifying that he was "the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord" (John 1:21, 23), as prophesied by Isaiah (Isaiah 40:3). Others believed that Jesus was Elijah (Mark 6:15; Luke 9:19). Even Jesus' disciples testified that many in Israel believed He was Elijah come again (Matthew 16:14; Mark 8:28; Luke 9:19).
If neither John the Baptist, nor Jesus was Elijah come again, then who was Elijah? Jesus told the multitudes concerning John the Baptist that he was the messenger of Malachi 3:1 and the Elijah of Malachi 4:5 (Matthew 11:7-14, focusing on vs. 10, 14). On another occasion, after Jesus was transfigured and appeared with Moses and Elijah on the mountain, Peter, James, and John asked Jesus why the scribes said that Elijah must come back before all things could be restored (Matthew 17:1-13; Mark 9:2-13). Jesus explained to them, "Elijah truly shall first come and restore all things, but I say unto you, That Elijah is come already, and they knew him not, but have done unto him whatsoever they listed" (Matthew 17:11-12). Jesus thought of John as the Elijah of Malachi 4:5 (Matthew 17:13). How could this be?
This can be understood when we look at what the angel of the Lord spoke to Zechariah concerning John before he was ever born. The angel said concerning John's ministry, "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 1:16-17, emphasis mine). John was not the person of Elijah that was promised to come again, but John was ordained by God to prepare the way for Jesus at His first coming in the spirit and power that Elijah possessed. This does not deny that Elijah Himself will actually come again in his physical presence before Jesus returns to the earth to set up His millennial kingdom. It can be said, then, that John the Baptist partially fulfilled the prophecies of Malachi.
It may seem strange or even incorrect to say that a prophecy could be only partially fulfilled; however, we find that the Scriptures declare many prophecies to have dual references or partial fulfillment. In hermeneutics, this is called the double reference principle. Many of the prophecies concerning Jesus were double reference prophecies, meaning that they had an immediate fulfillment, and a future fulfillment. Here are a few examples.
Stephen claimed that the prophet which Moses spoke of in Deuteronomy 18:15, 18-19 was Jesus Christ. When you read the context of Deuteronomy 18, however, you will see that Moses was speaking of Joshua who was to be the next leader of Israel.
Matthew claimed the statement in Hosea 11:1 which says, "Out of Egypt have I called my son," was fulfilled when Jesus lived in Egypt until the death of Herod (Matthew 2:14-15). When you look at this verse in the context of Hosea, however, you will see that God was speaking of the Israelite's exodus from Egypt.
Matthew also attributed the prophecy of Jeremiah that says, "thus saith the LORD; A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation, and bitter weeping; Rahel [Rachel] weeping for her children refused to be comforted for her children, because they were not," (Jeremiah 31:15) to the slaughter of the male children in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:16-18). From the context of Jeremiah 31, however, we know that this prophecy was given by Jeremiah to the Jewish captives in Babylon promising them that their children would once again inhabit the land of Canaan (Jeremiah 31:16-17).
God foresaw John when He inspired Malachi, recognizing that He would fulfill the prophecies in spirit at Jesus' first coming; but He was focusing upon Elijah Himself, knowing that he would fulfill the prophecies at Jesus' second coming.
Elijah will come back again in his physical body to prepare the way for Jesus' return. The context of the two prophecies in Malachi indicate that Elijah was going to come back to turn the hearts of Israel to the Lord before the Messiah came to set up His earthly kingdom, so that the Lord's fury would not rest upon them when He came Himself (Malachi 3:1-3; 4:1-6).
This will be fulfilled when Elijah comes back as one of the two witnesses during the tribulation period right before Jesus returns during the battle of Armageddon (Revelation 11:2-12). We know that their ministry is to bring judgment upon the wicked, and give some sort of a testimony to the people (11:5-6).
Although the passage in Revelation does not specifically declare Elijah to be one of the two witnesses, many Bible scholars believe he is because the prophecies in Malachi need to be completely fulfilled, and the only place we find in the Bible where it could be describing Elijah coming again is this passage.
Another reason for this persuasion is the type of power the witnesses are described as possessing. The Apostle John said that if any man would hurt them "fire proceeds out of their mouth, and devours their enemies" (Revelation 11:5). In Elijah's ministry, he was shown to have the power to call fire down from heaven and devour the enemies of the Lord (2 Kings 1:9-14). Another description said they "have power to shut heaven, that it rain not in the days of their prophecy" (Revelation 1:6). Of course it was Elijah that prayed it would not rain for three and a half years. As a result the heavens were shut up and it did not rain (James 5:17-18).
Yet another reason for this theory is that when Elijah comes back, it is believed that he must die so that he can be judged by God (Hebrews 9:27). It is argued that since Elijah never died, he will have to return to the natural realm and suffer death to fulfill Hebrews 9:27 which says, "It is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment." Since Elijah's physical body was taken up into heaven, having never seen death (2 Kings 2:9-12), he must come back to earth and die. Since the two witnesses are shown to have been killed and then resurrected (Revelation 11:7-12), it seems like this would be the perfect place for the fulfillment of Scripture: Elijah would have come again, and he would finally see death so that he might be judged.3
The weakness of this last argument is found in the fact that multitudes of saints will be glorified at the coming of the Lord, never to see death (1 Corinthians 15:51-55; 1Thessalonians 4:14-18), and yet they will be judged at the judgment seat of Christ. While judgment necessarily follows death, death is not necessary for judgment.
We see, then, that Elijah, and not John the Baptist is the one to come again. Elijah's coming has not yet occurred, but is yet to take place during the tribulation period.
1. Read the context of Malachi 3:1-6 for the time frame and setting in which this messenger will come. I will be seen that it is during a time of great tribulation for Israel. The tribulation period (Daniel's 70th week--Daniel 9:24-27) and subsequent millenial reign seems to be in view. <back>
2. This was based in part on Malachi 4:5-6. Notice in verse six that the LORD said "lest I come and smite them with a curse." (italics mine) This is indicative that Elijah was coming to prepare the way for God as the Messiah. It was God who was speaking in this verse, and He said He would come to the earth. Before He did, however, Elijah would come. This is why the Jews thought John was Elijah come again, because He said he was preparing the way for the LORD in fulfillment of Isaiah 40:3. They reasoned that since John was preparing the way for the Messiah, he must have been the prophesied Elijah (Matthew 3:11-12; Mark 1:8; Luke 3:16-17; John 1:21-25). <back>
3. It is for this same reason that Enoch is commonly viewed as being the other witness. He was the only other human being to never see death, because the Lord translated him (Genesis 5:24; Hebrews 11:5). <back>
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