John the Baptist, was he Elijah? By Jack Kettler
Who was John the Baptist? Was he a prophet? A messenger? Why did he not say whom he was when asked by the Pharisees?
In this study, we will look at these questions and see what the Scriptures say.
First, clearing up the confusion that sometimes exists between Elijah and Elisha:
- Elisha was the successor to Elijah.
- Elijah tutored Elisha for approximately eight years.
- Elias in the New Testament is not referring to Elisha.
Introduction to the Old Testament prophet Elijah:
“And Elijah came unto all the people, and said, how long halt ye between two opinions? If the LORD be God, follow him: but if Baal, then follow him. And the people answered him not a word.” (1Kings 18:21)
The Old Testament predictions of a coming prophet:
“The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” (Isaiah 40:3)
From Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers on Isaiah 40:3:
“(3) The voice of him that crieth . . .—The laws of Hebrew parallelism require a different punctuation: A voice of one crying, In the wilderness, prepare ye . . . The passage is memorable as having been deliberately taken by the Baptist as defining his own mission (John 1:23). As here the herald is not named, so he was content to efface himself—to be a voice or nothing. The image is drawn from the march of Eastern kings, who often boast, as in the Assyrian inscriptions of Sennacherib and Assurbanipal (Records of the Past, i. 95, vii. 64), of the roads they have made in trackless deserts. The wilderness is that which lay between the Euphrates and Judah, the journey of the exiles through it reminding the prophet of the older wanderings in the wilderness of Sin (Psalm 68:7; Judges 5:4). The words are an echo of the earlier thought of Isaiah 35:8. We are left to conjecture to whom the command is addressed: tribes of the desert, angelic ministers, kings and rulers—the very vagueness giving a grand universality. So, again, we are not told whether the “way of Jehovah” is that on which He comes to meet His people, or on which He goes before and guides them. The analogy of the marches of the Exodus makes the latter view the more probable.” (1)
“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.” (Malachi 3:1)
From the Pulpit Commentary on Malachi 3:1:
“Verse 1. – Behold, I will send (I send) my messenger. God answers that he is coming to show himself the God of judgment and justice. Are they ready to meet him and to bear his sentence? Who this “messenger” is disputed. That no angel or heavenly visitant is meant is clear from historical considerations, as no such event took place immediately before the Lord came to his temple. Nor can Malachi himself be intended, as his message was delivered nearly four, hundred years before Messiah came. The announcement is doubtless founded upon Isaiah 40:3, and refers to the same person as the older prophet mentions, who is generally allowed to be John the Baptist, the herald of Christ’s advent (Matthew 11:10; John 1:6). Prepare the way before me. The expression is borrowed from Isaiah, loc. cit. (comp. also Isaiah 57:14; Isaiah 62:10). He prepares the way by preaching repentance, and thus removing the obstacle of sin, which stood between God and his people. Whom ye seek. When ye ask, “Where is the God of judgment?” Shall suddenly come to his temple. The Lord (ha-Adon) is Jehovah, as in Exodus 23:17; Isaiah 1:24; Isaiah 3:1, etc. There is a change of persons here, as frequently. Jehovah shall unexpectedly come to his temple (τὸν ναὸν ἑαυτοῦ) as King and God of Israel (comp. Ezekiel 43:7). There was a literal fulfilment of this prophecy when Christ was presented in the temple as an infant (Luke 2:22, etc.). Even the messenger of the covenant. He is identified with the Lord; and he is the covenant angel who guided the Israelites to the Promised Land, and who is seen in the various theophanies of the Old Testament. The Divinity of Messiah is thus unequivocally asserted. In him are fulfilled all the promises made under the old covenant, and he is called (Hebrews 9:15) “the Mediator of the new covenant.” Some render,” and the Messenger,” etc., thus distinguishing the Angel of the covenant from the forerunner who prepares the way. But this is already done by the expressions, “My Messenger,” and “the Lord.” Whom ye delight in. Whose advent ye expect with eager desire.” (2)
“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)
The following entry from the renowned International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (ISBE) on Elijah will provide a helpful additional detailed look at the Prophet.
Elijah in the New Testament from the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia:
“Malachi (4:5) names Elijah as the forerunner of “the great and terrible day of Yahweh,” and the expectation founded upon this passage is alluded to in Mark 6:15 parallel Luke 9:8; Matthew 16:14 parallel Mark 8:28 parallel Luke 9:19; Matthew 27:47-49 parallel Mark 15:35, 36. The interpretation of Malachi’s prophecy foreshadowed in the angelic annunciation to Zacharias (Luke 1:17), that John the Baptist should do the work of another Elijah, is given on the authority of Jesus Himself (Matthew 11:14). The appearance of Elijah, with Moses, on the Mount of Transfiguration, is recorded in Matthew 17:1-13 parallel Mark 9:2-13 parallel Luke 9:28-36, and in Matthew 11:14 parallel Mark 9:13 Jesus again identifies the Elijah of Malachi with John the Baptist. The fate of the soldiers of Ahaziah (2Kings 1) is in the mind of James and John on one occasion (Luke 9:54). Jesus Himself alludes to Elijah and his sojourn in the land of Sidon (Luke 4:25, 26). Paul makes use of the prophet’s experience at Horeb (Romans 11:2-4). In James 5:17, 18 the work of Elijah affords an instance of the powerful supplication of a righteous man.” (3)
The New Testament Scriptures on John the Baptist:
“And as they departed, Jesus began to say unto the multitudes concerning John, What went ye out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken with the wind? But what went ye out for to see? A man clothed in soft raiment? Behold, they that wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses. But what went ye out for to see? A prophet? Yea, I say unto you, and more than a prophet. For this is he, of whom it is written, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee. Verily I say unto you, among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist: notwithstanding he that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” (Matthew 11:7-11)
“For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John. And if ye will receive it, this is Elias, [Elias, (Ἠλίας, Greek) (Elijah English) Strong’s 2243] which was for to come.” (Matthew 11:13-14)
From Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers on Matthew 11:14:
“(14) This is Elias. — The words of Malachi (Malachi 4:5) had led men to expect the reappearance of the great Tishbite in person as the immediate precursor of the Christ. It was the teaching of the scribes then (Matthew 17:10; John 1:21), it has lingered as a tradition of Judaism down to our own time. A vacant chair is placed for Elijah at all great solemnities. Even Christian interpreters have cherished the belief that Elijah will appear in person before the Second Advent of the Lord. The true meaning of the words of Malachi had, however, been suggested in the words of the angel in Luke 1:17, “He shall go before Him in the spirit and power of Elias,” and is here distinctly confirmed. The words “if ye will (i.e., are willing to) receive it” imply the consciousness that our Lord was setting aside a popular and strongly-fixed belief: “If you are willing and able to receive the truth that John was in very deed doing the work of Elijah, you need look for no other in the future.” (4)
“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.” (Matthew 17:10-13)
At this point, the disciples did not fully comprehend who Jesus was. That is why they asked Jesus the question about Elias/Elijah.
“As it is written in the prophets, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee. The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. John did baptize in the wilderness, and preach the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. And there went out unto him all the land of Judaea, and they of Jerusalem, and were all baptized of him in the river of Jordan, confessing their sins. And John was clothed with camel’s hair, and with a girdle of a skin about his loins; and he did eat locusts and wild honey; And preached, saying, There cometh one mightier than I after me, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to stoop down and unloose. I indeed have baptized you with water: but he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost.” (Mark 1:2-8)
In these passages, Mark describes the work of John and his message to the people of Israel.
“But the angel said unto him, Fear not, Zacharias: for thy prayer is heard; and thy wife Elisabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John. And thou shalt have joy and gladness; and many shall rejoice at his 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 1:13-17)
“He said, I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord, as said the prophet Esaias.” (John 1:23)
Why did John deny the following when questioned by the priests and Levites?
“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. Art thou that prophet? And he answered, No.” (John 1:19-21)
From Matthew Poole’s Commentary on John 1:21:
“John was at Bethabara when these messengers came to him, John 1:28. They asked him if he were Elias. The Jews had not only an expectation of the Messias, but of Elias to come as a messenger before him, according to the prophecy, Malachi 4:5; as appeareth, Matthew 17:10 Mark 9:11; of which they had a gross conception here, that Elias should come out of heaven personally, or at least that his soul should come into another body, according to the Pythagorean opinion. Now the meaning of the prophecy was, that one should come like Elias; and this was fulfilled in John, Luke 1:17, as our Saviour tells us, Matthew 17:12 Mark 9:13; but they asked the question according to that notion they had of Elias. To which John answereth, that he was not; neither that Elias that ascended in a fiery chariot to heaven; nor any body informed with Elias’s soul: and thus the words of our Saviour, Matthew 17:12 Mark 9:12, are easily reconciled to this text. They go on, and ask him if he were
that prophet, or a prophet. Some think that they meant the Prophet promised, Deuteronomy 18:18; but that was no other than Christ himself, which he had before denied himself to be; nor doth it appear from any text of Scripture that the Jews had any expectation of any other particular prophet; but it is plain from Luke 9:8, that they had a notion that it was possible one of the old prophets might rise again from the dead, for so they guessed there concerning Christ. But others think that the article in the Greek here is not emphatical, and they only asked him if he were a prophet; for the Jews had a general notion, that the spirit of prophecy had left them ever since the times of Zechariah and Malachi; which they hoped was returned in John the Baptist, and about this they question him if he were a prophet. To which he answereth, No; neither that Prophet promised, Deuteronomy 18:18, nor yet any of the old prophets risen from the dead; nor yet one like the prophets of the Old Testament, who only prophesied of a Christ to come; but, as Christ calls him, Matthew 11:9, more than a prophet, one who showed and declared to them a Christ already come; for the law and the prophets prophesied but until John; the law in its types foreshowing, the prophets in their sermons foretelling, a Messiah to come; John did more. His father indeed, Luke 1:76, called him the prophet of the Highest; but there prophet is to be understood not in a strict, but in a large sense, as the term prophecy is taken, Romans 12:6. And the term prophet often signifieth one that revealeth the will of God to men; in which large sense John was a prophet, and yet more than a prophet in the stricter notion of the term; and in that sense no prophet, that is, no mere prophet: so, Numbers 11:19, Moses tells the people they should not eat flesh one, or two, or five, or ten, or twenty days, because they should eat it a whole month together.” (5)
John the Baptist was not the Prophet Elijah reincarnated. Nevertheless, he was the fulfillment of the prophecy of Elijah.
Jesus identifies and explains who John is:
“And he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.” (Luke 1:17 ESV)
It is essential that the reader can see the distinction that John was a prophet, but not “that prophet.” As Poole notes, “That Prophet promised,” Deuteronomy 18:18; was none other than Christ himself. That is why John emphatically denied it that he was “that prophet.”
Another reason why Jesus and John were seemingly cryptic in dealing with the Jewish leaders:
“And the disciples came, and said unto him, Why speakest thou unto them in parables? He answered and said unto them, Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given. For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath. Therefore speak I to them in parables: because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand. And in them is fulfilled the prophecy of Esaias, which saith, By hearing ye shall hear, and shall not understand; and seeing ye shall see, and shall not perceive: For this people’s heart is waxed gross, and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes they have closed; lest at any time they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears, and should understand with their heart, and should be converted, and I should heal them. But blessed are your eyes, for they see: and your ears, for they hear. For verily I say unto you, That many prophets and righteous men have desired to see those things which ye see, and have not seen them; and to hear those things which ye hear, and have not heard them.” (Matthew 13:10-17)
God in His Sovereignty had not opened the hearing and eyes of all of the people of Israel.
“And many resorted unto him, and said, John did no miracle: but all things that John spake of this man were true.” (John 10:41)
From Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible on John, 10:14 provides an edifying closing commentary of John and his witness to the Christ:
“And many resorted to him, … From all the parts adjacent, having heard of his being there, and of the fame of him; and many of them doubtless personally knew him; these came to him, some very likely to be healed by him, others to see his person and miracles, and others to hear him preach:
and said, John did no miracle; though it was now three years ago, yet the name, ministry, and baptism of John, were fresh in the memory of men in those parts; and what they say one to another, was not to lessen the character of John, but to exalt Jesus Christ, and to give a reason why they should receive and embrace him; for if John, who did no miracle, who only taught and baptized, and directed men to the Messiah, was justly reckoned a very great person, and his doctrine was received, and his baptism was submitted to, then much more should this illustrious person be attended to; who, besides his divine doctrine, did such great and amazing miracles; to which they add, though John did no miracle to confirm his mission, ministry, and baptism,
but all things that John spake of this man, were true; as that he was greater than he, was the Lamb of God, yea, the Son of God, the Saviour of the world, and true Messiah, who should baptize men with the Holy Ghost and with fire.” (6)
To answer the question at the beginning of this study, John was a prophet and a messenger. John fulfilled Isaiah’s prophesy (Isaiah 40:3) by coming in the spirit and power of Elijah (Luke 1:17).
Parallels between Elijah, John, Elisha, and Christ:
- Elijah prepared the way for Elisha, (1Kings 19:16; 2Kings 2:6-8).
- Elisha had a double portion of Elijah’s spirit, (2 Kings 2:9).
- Elisha did more miracles than Elijah did.
- Elijah was a type of John the Baptist (Isaiah 40:3, John 1:23).
- Elisha was a type of Christ (Luke 4:27).*
*Shortlist of parallels between Elisha and Jesus to reach this conclusion:
- Both received the Holy Spirit at the Jordan River (2 Kings 2:7-15; John 1:28)
- Both cleansed lepers (2Kings 5; Mark 1:40-45)
- Both healed the sick (2Kings 4:34-35; Mark 8:22-25)
- Both raised the dead (2Kings 4:1-7; Luke 7:11-17)
- Both had treacherous disciples, (Gehazi 2 Kings 5:20 and Judas Matthew 26:14-16)
“To God, only wise, be glory through Jesus Christ forever. Amen.” (Romans 16:27) and “heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:28, 29)
- Charles John Ellicott, Bible Commentary for English Readers, Isaiah, Vol.4, (London, England, Cassell and Company), p. 521.
- H. D. M. Spence and Joseph S. Exell, The Pulpit Commentary, Malachi, Vol.14., (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Eerdmans Publishing Company reprint 1978), p. 39.
- Orr, James, M.A., D.D. General Editor, “Entry for ‘ELIJAH,’” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Eerdmans, reprinted 1986), p. 933.
- Charles John Ellicott, Bible Commentary for English Readers, Matthew, Vol.1, (London, England, Cassell and Company), p. 66.
- Matthew Poole’s Commentary on the Holy Bible, John, vol. 3, (Peabody, Massachusetts, Hendrickson Publishers, 1985) p. 281.
- John Gill, Exposition of the Old and New Testaments, John, (Grace Works, Multi-Media Labs), 2011, p. 355.
Mr. Kettler has previously published articles in the Chalcedon Report and Contra Mundum. He and his wife Marea attend the Westminster, CO, RPCNA Church. Mr. Kettler is the author of the book defending the Reformed Faith against attacks, titled: The Religion That Started in a Hat. Available at: THERELIGIONTHATSTARTEDINAHAT.COM