‘I Will Send You Elijah’
A look at Malachi’s mysterious prophecy and the three phases of Elijah’s ministry.
Elijah has always been a bit of a puzzle.
An iconic figure among the Old Testament prophets, he appears center stage, bigger than life—and then disappears. Everybody knows him. Nobody knows him. He faces down evil King Ahab and Ahab’s devilish queen, Jezebel. Then he retreats from society and rides a chariot of fire to heaven.
Four hundred years later, the prophet Malachi prophesied,
Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD. And he will turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the earth with a curse (Mal. 4:5–6).
Will Elijah return? What is his role? How is he part of Israel’s hope for the Messiah? How should we understand him?
Malachi’s Elijah prophecy is best understood in three phases, or appearances, each with a unique identity, time, and ministry. Phase one involves John the Baptist. Phase two is the appearance of Elijah himself on the Mount of Transfiguration with Moses and Jesus, and phase three is a still-future ministry prior to and/or during the early days of the seven years of horrifying Tribulation promised to afflict the entire earth.
A decades-long prayer was answered when the angel Gabriel appeared to the Jewish priest Zacharias around 4 or 5 BC, announcing that Zacharias and his aged wife, Elizabeth, would have a son. Directly referencing Malachi’s prophecy, Gabriel expanded on it, telling the priest to name the child John and that the child was to be a Nazirite from the womb, separated unto God:
He will also be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. He will also 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 a people prepared for the Lord (Lk. 1:15–17).
John would fulfill (in part) Malachi’s prophecy about Elijah. Turning “the hearts of the fathers to the children” links the two revelations across 400 years of silence, when God provided no prophetic word to His Chosen People. Yet, though there had been a hiatus in God’s revelation, there was no lapse in His redemptive program (cf. Gal. 4:4–5). Gabriel’s message resumed God’s revelation to mankind exactly where Malachi left off.
John the Baptist would “go before” the Lord “in the spirit and power of Elijah,” accomplishing the spiritual ministry prophesied of Elijah (Lk. 1:17). He would be the forerunner of the Messiah and “make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (v. 17). Twice Jesus affirmed this truth about John:
But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I say to you, and more than a prophet. For this is he of whom it is written: “Behold, I send My messenger before Your face, who will prepare Your way before You.’’ Assuredly, I say to you, among those born of women there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist; but he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force. For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to receive it, he is Elijah who is to come (Mt. 11:9–14, emphasis added).
Calling John a prophet and more, Jesus said John was fulfilling prophecy as the forerunner of the Messiah. Later, Jesus appeared in His glory on the Mount of Transfiguration with Moses and Elijah. The disciples who witnessed the event asked,
“Why then do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?” Jesus answered and said to them, “Indeed, Elijah is coming first and will restore all things. But I say to you that Elijah has come already, and they did not know him but did to him whatever they wished. Likewise the Son of Man is also about to suffer at their hands.” Then the disciples understood that He spoke to them of John the Baptist (17:10–13, emphasis added; cf. Mk. 9:12–13).
Jesus affirmed that Elijah had already come, and the disciples understood He was referring to John the Baptist (Mt. 17:13). But what about John’s denial when asked if he was Elijah?
Now this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ [Messiah].” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” And he answered, “No.” Then they said to him, “Who are you, that we may give an answer to those who sent us? What do you say about yourself?” He said: “I am ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness: “Make straight the way of the LORD,”’ as the prophet Isaiah said” (Jn. 1:19–23).
He was not Elijah. But he was the prophet who came in the spirit and power of Elijah to fulfill Elijah’s ministry before the Messiah’s First Coming. Not a resurrected Elijah, but a prophet “sent from God…to bear witness of the Light” (vv. 6–7). He was the Elijah figure who fulfilled the prophecy for Jesus’ First Coming.
The second phase of Elijah’s ministry occurred on the Mount of Transfiguration. Jesus had arranged for His inner circle of disciples—Peter, James, and John—to spend the night in prayer with Him. When they were overcome with sleep, Elijah and Moses appeared and spoke with Jesus:
Now it came to pass, about eight days after these sayings, that He took Peter, John, and James and went up on the mountain to pray. As He prayed, the appearance of His face was altered, and His robe became white and glistening. And behold, two men talked with Him, who were Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of His decease which He was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. But Peter and those with him were heavy with sleep; and when they were fully awake, they saw His glory and the two men who stood with Him (Lk. 9:28–32).
Since Moses and Elijah—whom the disciples recognized immediately—“appeared in glory,” they both apparently possessed their heavenly bodies, as promised in 2 Corinthians 5:1–3. The primary purpose of this event was to give the disciples a vision of the Kingdom of God, which Jesus had promised a few days earlier.
Scripture never says why Moses and Elijah were present. But in thinking about Jesus’ situation, we realize He had no one on Earth who understood Him or His mission. Not the disciples, not John, not even His godly mother. So Moses and Elijah were sent to talk with Him about His impending suffering and death. These men had carried heavy prophetic responsibilities, encountered discouragement and frustration, and now had heaven’s perspective on their own lives and struggles; and they knew what Jesus was on Earth to do.
Aren’t we encouraged when we encounter someone who truly understands our situation? Wouldn’t it be just like the Father to send such friends to speak with His Son? One wonders how often this scenario might have occurred when Jesus went to pray alone on a mountain. Elijah ministered to Jesus as the Lord approached the roughest part of His mission.
The third phase of Elijah’s ministry is still to come.
Jesus was clear that an “Elijah” did come (John) and is still coming in the future (Mk. 9:11–13). Jesus’ mention of His own suffering and rejection seems to indicate “Elijah” encountered the same type of treatment: “But I say to you that Elijah has come already, and they did not know him but did to him whatever they wished. Likewise the Son of Man is also about to suffer at their hands” (Mt. 17:12).
Jesus indicated two fulfillments of Malachi’s prophecy: one at Christ’s First Coming, which met with humiliation, and one at His Second Coming to accomplish restoration. Jesus affirmed that an “Elijah” will appear to conduct a John-the-Baptist-type ministry, but with far greater results. God will use him to call men and women (most likely Jewish) back into a godly relationship with Him.
Will this person actually be Elijah, restored to human, physical existence on Earth? Some say yes and believe he will be one of the two witnesses of Revelation 11 who will minister during the second half of the Tribulation, when the Antichrist wields unbridled, worldwide power and Jerusalem is devastated. Some reason Elijah (and Enoch; see Genesis 5:24 and Hebrews 11:5) must return because “it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment” (Heb. 9:27). Neither Elijah nor Enoch died.
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On the other hand, there is good reason to think this future Elijah will be like the first one associated with the Messiah’s appearance. It’s neither likely nor necessary that Elijah the prophet return. If John the Baptist was Elijah at Jesus’ First Coming, it seems likely the future Elijah will be a Jewish prophet whom God raises up in similar fashion. This Elijah will be someone who effects the righteous restoration of millions of Jewish people during the early days of the Tribulation, also called “the time of Jacob’s [Israel’s] trouble” (Jer. 30:7).
Like Elijah and John the Baptist, it’s our responsibility to be diligent to what God has called us to do. Today He wants us to share the truth about Messiah Jesus with people everywhere. May we be found faithful.