"Was John the Baptist really Elijah?" -- My Response
I have been hung up the past few weeks on Matthew Chapter 11. Specifically where Jesus references John the Baptist as Elijah. At first it escaped me as being just more of a reference to John being likened to a prophet. As I read more in the commentaries and researched a bit online and YouTube it is more confusing to me.
Some argue that, no John is not Elijah and the proof is in Revelations chapter 10 or 11 (?) when they mention the two prophets. The two are supposed to be Moses and Elijah.
And others are on the side of no because of the fact that Jesus was not accepted by the Jews and therefore Elijah could not have yet returned I believe this was referencing Malachi 3:1
But there are those who argue that indeed Jesus was stating that John was Elijah as stated in Matthew 11:13-15. The argument is that one would have to believe in the events to mark the coming of Jesus and the fact of Jesus' identity.
Anyway I have now gotten over my head on this and would really like your clarity on this subject.
I also want to thank you for your help always. I know I am at a snails pace going through this material but so much seems to be new to me. I appreciate that you are there to bounce questions off of. This means a lot to me sincerely.
Because of 2 Kings 2:11, Jews developed the belief that Elijah was still alive in the heavenly realms. They believed he didn’t die. In Jewish apocalyptic literature, it was common to state that Elijah would return right before judgment (which is evidenced as early as Malachi 4:5, and then appears in later Jewish literature often).
If you read Matthew 11:13-15 at “plain meaning,” which is sometimes the proper way to interpret, then it would mean that Jesus really thought his cousin, John the Baptizing One, was Elijah the prophet.
I’m not sure if I find the “plain meaning” compelling. Why? Because Jesus would have certainly known that John was his cousin, born of his aunt, Elizabeth (in Luke 1). John didn’t come from the heavenly realms…he came from Palestine. Jesus would have played with John at family reunions and religious holidays. They would have grown-up together, you might say. Moreover, Jesus calls John, “John,” almost every single time he’s mentioned. He only calls John, “Elijah,” in one instance.
Moreover, I don’t think anyone believed that John was the actual Elijah, since Elijah was still in the heavenly realms (as made explicit in the so-called “Transfiguration” scene in Mark 9:4).
So, I don’t think Jesus really believed that his cousin was the actual Elijah.
Instead, I believe that Jesus meant that his cousin, John, was functioning like Jews believed Elijah would function. Like Elijah was supposed to call people to repentance (Malachi 4:6), so, too, John does with the Jews. Jesus is referencing John symbolically (though Jews of his time would probably not have understood Elijah’s return symbolically, which is one reason it’s so hard for them to accept it, I think).
Then why not say that? Why say that “he is Elijah” (Matt 11:14) instead of “John is like Elijah”? Because of the force of that language. Jesus also said that a person must eat His flesh and drink His blood (John 6:53), and that his disciples must “hate his father and mother and brother and sister” (Luke 14:26), and on and on. The point is, it was common for Jesus to speak this way. It’s completely appropriate to interpret this saying by Jesus to mean that John is like Elijah in the fact that John acts like Elijah in his role.
And…that reference to Revelation 11 is irrelevant in my opinion. John the prophet didn’t write Matthew, nor seem to consult Matthew in his theology. So, I let Revelation speak for itself, in the language of apocalyptic (which is a whole other issue!).
So, for those “who can accept it” (Matt 11:14), we accept John’s role as the one who prepared the Jews for the Kingdom message of Jesus.
These are my thoughts!