An iconic figure among the Old Testament prophets, he appears center stage, gibber 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.
400 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.
Messiah's Forerunner A decades-long prayer was answered when the angel Gabriel appeared to the Jewish priest Zacharias around AD 3 or 4, 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 Chose People. Yet, though there had been a hiatus in God's revelation, there was no lapse in His redemptive program. 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 11:9-11).
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 them, "Instead, 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 the suffer at their hands." Then the disciples understood that He spoke to them of John the Baptist (17:10-13).
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?