Well, Elijah was whisked away in a whirlwind, so that’s it for him, right? Well, not quite! Elijah gets his last mention in the OT in the Book of Malachi, the last book of the new testament. In fact, Elijah literally gets the very last mention in the Old Testament, after which God would be silent for some 400 years.
“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
Malachi seems likely to have been written during the late 5th century B.C., likely during the period when Nehemiah returned to Persia for a visit. Things had not taken long to return to a state similar to the one that had caused them to be taken away to captivity in the first place. After only a century back in their homeland, the Jews had again turned from God’s law. Seems like a pretty good time for God to be silent because what would happen next time he spoke would change everything.
So, where and when did Elijah return? This is a fun study, and fun to talk about, and not everyone agrees about every detail. Before we dive into the discussion, let’s take a trip back to Malachi 3 and Isaiah 40 for some background. Both of these are clear prophecies of the coming of John the Baptist, and why that matters will come shortly:
“ 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
“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 3:3
How can we know John the Baptist is being talked about here? Well, at least in the case of the Isaiah passage, John himself verified it when he was being questioned by the Pharisees as to his identity. This is not unusual, as we all know the Pharisees were quick to question folks they thought might take away from their influence. Also, the Sanhedrin was responsible to investigate the claims of anyone claiming to be a prophet, and were obviously familiar with these passages from their own Scriptures.
“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
Okay. back to Elijah; what has the above got to do with any of that? Well there are some allusions, fairly clear that John was the fulfillment of the prediction of the return of Elijah:
“And as they came down from the mountain, Jesus charged them, saying, Tell the vision to no man, until the Son of man be risen again from the dead. 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 19:9-13
Of course, we can see that this may have only applied if the Jews accepted Jesus as the Messiah,
“And if ye will receive it, this is Elias, which was for to come.” Matthew 11:24
And then, there is the small issue that John himself said he wasn’t the prophet Elijah:
“And they asked him, What then? Art thou Elias? And he saith, I am not. Art thou that prophet? And he answered, No.” John 1:21
Some say the reference to Elijah was not literal but was to be a type of the prophet. That seems to fit quite well. The similarities between the personalities of the two men seem pretty clear.
“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 1:17
So, maybe John the Baptist was a type of and not a literal return of the prophet Elijah.
Some say the literal return of Elijah was contingent on the Jews accepting Jesus as Messiah, and that if they did not, the great prophet would arise later, perhaps as one of the two witnesses in Revelation 11:1-19.
And then, of course, we do have the clear fact that Elijah did appear to the disciples at the transfiguration of Jesus in Matthew 17:1-8, Mark 9:2-8 and Luke 9:28-36. I’m not really suggesting that as the return of Elijah, but merely as a note. He just appeared there and didn’t return. Also, it seems pretty clear that the appearance of Moses and Elijah appeared there as a picture of the Law and the Prophets, and the fulfillment of Jesus of both.
I tend to lean towards John the Baptist being a picture, or type of Elijah myself. But, I won’t die on that mountain.
Here’s the mountain I will die on as we close this study on Elijah. Regardless of how we interpret the prophecy in Malachi, one thing is clear. We see that Israel never got it right. They never followed the law, and they never succeeded in doing things God’s way. Guess what, friends? We can’t do it right either. We can’t follow the law enough or do enough good works to ever make ourselves right with God. In fact, without the power of God the Holy Spirit working on us, we don’t even have enough sense to want to follow Him. Yet, in His grace and love, He has released us from the burden of striving to “do.” At the end of that previously mentioned 400 years of silence, the Messiah did come and changed everything. Now, He draws us all to Him, because of His vast grace. Yet, we still need to repent, and accept the completeness of His atoning work, “For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” Romans 10:13