Elijah’s supernatural departure from this earth (2 Ki. 2:9-11) was certainly a unique privilege afforded the great prophet. Only one other, Enoch the seventh from Adam (Jude 14), has been exempted from walking “through the valley of the shadow of death” (Ps. 23:4; Gen. 5:24). Since Elijah did not die one might expect that he could return again someday to his place of ministry. That is exactly what a later prophet taught. As a matter of fact, the last word in the Old Testament is a prophecy concerning this great man of God. “Behold, I will send you Elijah, the prophet, before the coming of the great and terrible 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” (Mal. 4:5-6). It is the purpose of this article to explore how that prophecy was developed in the New Testament and in later Jewish tradition.
Elijah, John the Baptist, and Jesus
The appearance of John the Baptizer (literal translation) in Judea prior to Jesus’ public ministry must have caused many to compare him to the Prophet Elijah. John came out of the wilderness, as Elijah did (Lk. 1:80; 1 Ki. 17:1). John had a wild looking appearance, as Elijah did (Mt. 3:4; 2 Ki. 1:8). John issued a strong message of repentance and judgment, as Elijah did (Mt. 3:7-12; 1 Ki. 17:1; 18:21).
When the angel announced to Zacharias the birth of John, he described him thus: “And he shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah . . .” (Lk. 1:17a). It is not surprising, therefore, that the priests and Levites from Jerusalem asked John, “Art thou Elijah?” John unequivocally answered, “I am not” (Jn. 1:21). It is important to note John’s clear denial that he was Elijah because some teach that Malachi’s prophecy found its complete fulfillment in John. By John’s own word, this is simply not so. But this does not mean that John had no prophetic relationship to Elijah. A consideration of the account of the transfiguration and its aftermath will help to answer the question.
Matthew 17:1-9 records that Jesus took the inner circle of Peter, James, and John into a high mountain. The location of this miraculous event is disputed, but many believe it took place on one of the ridges of the majestic Mt. Herman in northern Galilee. While they were there the disciples received a preview of the glorious return of Christ as He was transfigured (Greek: metamorphosed) before them. Suddenly, two other figures appeared at the Lord’s side . . . Moses and Elijah, the great representatives of the law and the prophets. Luke informs us that they discussed with Jesus his approaching death in Jerusalem (Lk. 9:31). Interest in the Messiah’s death was something that constantly fascinated the Old Testament saints (cf. 1 Pet. 1:10-11). Without thinking, Peter suggested that three tabernacles or booths be built on the very spot. During the Feast of Tabernacles the people of Israel were to construct temporary shelters (tabernacles) in which they would live for a week (cf. Lev. 23:33-43). Most probably Peter thought that the Kingdom had arrived since the Feast of Tabernacles will be observed during that blessed period (Zech. 14:16). This was not to be the case, however, and following the event, Jesus commanded them not to report the vision until He had risen from the dead.
As the disciples descended the mountain their minds were racing with thoughts and questions. Isn’t Elijah supposed to come before the day of the Lord and the Kingdom? Didn’t we just see Elijah? Why isn’t the Kingdom about to arrive? Finally they burst out, “. . . Why then say the scribes that Elijah must first come? And Jesus answered and said unto 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 desired. Likewise shall also the Son of man suffer of them. Then the disciples understood that he spoke unto them of John the Baptist” (Mt. 17: 10-13). It is important to note that Jesus affirmed the scribal interpretation: “Elijah truly shall first come . . .” (v. 11). Even after the transfiguration appearance, the Lord spoke of Elijah’s coming as still future. John the Baptist did not fulfill all of the conditions involved in the prophecy of Malachi 4:5-6. However, in the person and ministry of John, Elijah had come in a certain sense. As John came in the spirit and power of Elijah before Messiah’s first coming, so Elijah will come in person before Messiah’s second coming. Since there would be two comings of the Messiah, so also there must be two forerunners. Jesus then makes the point that just as John suffered, so would He. In other words, a suffering forerunner was to be followed by a suffering Messiah.
Elijah in Jewish Tradition
There is a wealth of material on Elijah in rabbinical literature. The spirit of this character fired the imaginations of ancient and medieval rabbis who spun out hundreds of tales depicting the prophet’s appearances and exploits after his supernatural departure from earth.
There are two types of material in rabbinic literature. The first is called halacha (rule), which is legal material on what the law of God is and how to obey it. The second is called haggadah (narration) and is sermonic material consisting of parables, stories, legends, and maxims. The haggadah contains abundant references to Elijah. Since there is more about Elijah than about any other biblical character, only a summary of the facts about him can be given.
There is much in Jewish tradition about Elijah’s relation to the Messiah. For example, Elijah is presently comforting the Messiah in His long wait for His time to come. When the time of final redemption arrives, Elijah will, according to one tradition, appear to call Israel to repentance and to announce that the Messiah is about to appear – evidently because he is well known to the people while Messiah is unknown. Jewish tradition actually teaches that there will be two future messiahs – Messiah ben Joseph, who will suffer and die; and Messiah ben David who will conquer and reign. During the forty-five day period between the comings of these two messiahs, Elijah will read aloud the legendary Book of Jasher referred to in Joshua 10:13 and 2 Samuel 1:18-27. This reading will be sufficient enough to make the earth swallow the enemies of Israel.
When he comes he will supposedly settle all disputes, questions, and interpretations of the law. Furthermore, he will perform a series of miracles, one of which is to reveal the hiding place of the lost ark! (Wouldn’t that make a great movie?) Finally, Elijah will take the shofar and give a tremendous blast which will cause the dead to rise.
Elijah also was supposed to have appeared personally to many of the great Jewish rabbis and mystics. In these appearances he instructed them, answered their questions, and comforted them in their poverty and suffering. Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai, the reputed author of the Zohar (Jewish classic of mysticism), is said to have been instructed in the mysteries during the thirteen years that he was hiding from the Romans in a cave. One interesting custom in modern Jewish observance is associated with Elijah. When an eight day old Jewish boy is circumcised in a ceremony called the brit, the chair in which the grandfather sits holding the baby is called the chair of Elijah. This custom goes back to the story of the circumcision of Rabbi Isaac Luria in the sixteenth century. When the ceremony was delayed, Elijah appeared to his father and held the child. Afterward he said to the father “Take good care of him, for he will spread a brilliant light throughout the world.”
The personality of Elijah remains in the forefront of the Jewish mind through the ritual of the havdala, which marks the end of the Sabbath. Songs are sung recalling Elijah’s deeds with one refrain stating, “the prophet Elijah, the Tishbite from Gilead, may he come to us soon with the son of David, the Messiah,”
The most striking of all rituals connected with Elijah occurs during the Passover Seder. A cup of wine is reserved on the table for him and at a fixed moment in the proceedings a door is opened for Elijah while a child is dismissed to see if the great prophet has arrived to join the family. What a privilege it would be for him to join the family for it would mean that the Messiah would be “close on his heels.”
But does Elijah come? Perhaps it would be best to answer that question with a Hasidic story of a pious Jew who asked his rabbi: “For forty years I have opened the door for Elijah waiting for him to come, but he never does. What is the reason?” The rabbi answered: “In your neighborhood there lives a very poor family. Call the father and propose that you celebrate the next Passover in his house and that you will provide his family with everything necessary for the Passover season. Then on the Seder night Elijah will come.” The man did as the rabbi told him, but later he claimed that again he had waited in vain to see Elijah. The rabbi answered: “I know very well that Elijah came on the Seder night to the house of your poor neighbor, but you could not see him.” The rabbi then held a mirror before the man’s face and said, “Look, this was Elijah’s face that night.”
Elijah and the Last Days
The ministry of Elijah had been one of calling apostate Israel back to the Lord whom they had forsaken. According to Malachi 4:5-6 he will come again in order to avert the curse of God from Israel. This work John the Baptist did not fully accomplish in his ministry. Is there any indication in the New Testament that Elijah will personally return?
In the Book of The Revelation there is a fascinating passage that may answer that question. Revelation 11:3-13 describes the three and one-half year ministry of two witnesses. This period corresponds to the first half of Daniel’s seventieth week (cf. Dan. 9:26-27). This period precedes “the time of Jacob’s trouble” (Jer. 30:7), a period of unparalleled suffering also called the “great tribulation” (Mt. 24:21; Rev. 7:14). When these two witnesses conclude their testimony, they are killed by the beast (i.e., the Antichrist), and their bodies are then mocked in the streets of Jerusalem, but they are finally raised up by God to Heaven. The result of the entire spectacle is that “the remnant were terrified, and gave glory to the God of heaven” (Rev. 11:13).
While the identity of these two is not given in the chapter, the miracles they perform are strikingly similar to the great personalities, Moses and Elijah, who, interestingly, both appeared with Jesus at the transfiguration (Mt. 17:3-4). Two of their miracles (fire devouring their enemies and being able to shut off the rain) recall miracles of Elijah (f. 2 Ki. 1:10-12; 1 Ki. 17:1). The other two miracles (turning water to blood and smiting the earth with plagues) recall Moses’ ministry in Egypt (Ex. 7-10).
If this interpretation is correct, and there is much to commend it, then Revelation 11:3-13 would be the fulfillment of the prophecy in Malachi 4:5-6. How thankful we should be that we have the completed revelation of the New Testament, so we are not left to speculate about Elijah’s activities, as was so often the case with medieval Jewish tradition.
The impact of Elijah the Tishbite was overwhelming, extending far beyond his ministry in the ninth century B.C. to the distant future. Truly he was one of the greatest men who ever lived. But our perspective should not be lost as we admire this man of God. Returning to the account of the transfiguration, we are reminded of One who is greater than all the heroes of Israel. After Moses and Elijah appeared with Jesus and talked with Him, and while Peter was making his foolish suggestion, God the Father gave the final word on the matter: “While he [Peter] yet spoke, 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 very much 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, except Jesus only” (Mt. 17:5-8).
Truly One greater than Elijah has come!
Truly One Greater Than Elijah Has Come!