The Coming of Elijah: Past or Future?
In Brian Martin’s DVD “You’ve Got To Be Kidding” the point was made that John the Baptizer was Elijah as promised in Malachi 4:5-6. Brian made the excellent point that John was the “second coming” of Elijah, but not the literal physical return of the great prophet. Just recently, Brian received an “answer” to this claim. I am happy to respond to the Objection which is given here. (I am finishing a major book on John and his eschatological role. It is a subject sorely ignored by too many Bible students. The book is already available on Kindle, and will be available in book form shortly).
Here is the objection:
<<In one part of the DVD by Brian Martin, he cited Malachi 4:5-6 about Elijah to come, but failed to cite Jesus’ teaching in Mark 9:12 that an Elijah will still come to restore all things. John the Baptist did not restore all things and was not the final Elijah to come of Malachi 4:5-6 (see also The Elijah Heresies).
Later in the DVD, Brian Martin makes a lot about John the Baptist being spiritual and cites Matthew 17. He claims this is why no one should think that Jesus is literally coming in clouds, etc. as he says that physically, John the Baptist was the only Elijah to come and John did not do certain things one would expect from various Old Testament prophecies. I consider this to be a ‘sleight of hand’ move–he uses this several times in the DVD.
One theological error Brian Martin makes is that he fails to realize that the Greek in Matthew actually tells of a future “Elijah” to come after John the Baptist. Notice:
11 Jesus answered and said to them, “Indeed, Elijah is coming first and will restore all things” (Matthew 17:11).
In Matthew 17:11, the term translated “will restore” is the Greek term apokathistemi which means “to reconstitute” or “restore (again)” (Biblesoft’s New Exhaustive Strong’s Numbers and Concordance with Expanded Greek-Hebrew Dictionary. Copyright © 1994, Biblesoft and International Bible Translators, Inc.) and is preceded by the Greek term men which means “truly” in the asseverative sense. In Matthew 11:14 the Greek term mello is used which means “was,”this term is not used in 17:11.
Matthew 17:11 itself COULD NOT refer to John the Baptist, because he was beheaded (Matthew 14:10) earlier than Jesus spoke this and taught that Elijah still needed to restore all things. Also, John the Baptist did not restore all things. Thus, the Elijah prophecies must have a fulfillment beyond John the Baptist. While it is also true that Jesus said that John the Baptist was a type of Elijah, John could not in the future restore all things unless he was resurrected in the future to do so.
Thus, Brian Martin’s use of John the Baptist not literal fulfilling certain “Elijah” prophecies as proof that Jesus would not physically return is in grave error.>> (EoQ).
The Coming of Elijah- My Response
The Objector claims that the Greek of Matthew 17 proves that Jesus was predicting a still future coming of Elijah, who would come after John. This is false.
Note that this objection implicitly admits that John was in fact Elijah in some manner! If not, why even discuss John in the context of the coming of Elijah? If John was not Elijah, why didn’t Jesus say, very clearly, that John was not Elijah and that Elijah would one day truly come.
What did Jesus mean by saying “Elijah truly must come”? Look closely at the context. The Objector ignores it. The disciples asked, “Why then do the scribes say that Elijah must come?” Jesus’ response, “Elijah must come” is a confirmation of what the scribes taught, and had taught for four centuries. But, you see, the scribes simply reiterated what the ancient prophecies foretold! Jesus was not making a new prophecy of a future coming of Elijah. He was confirming that the scribes were correct to say Elijah would come, because the prophets foretold Elijah.
It is highly significant – and fatal to the objection – that after confirming the scribes’ teaching concerning the coming of Elijah, that Jesus then said, plainly, unequivocally: “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” (Matthew 17:11-12).
The Objector essentially ignored these interpretive words from Jesus, waving them aside as if they carried no meaning? Could words be any clearer: “Elijah has already come!”? After clearly stating that Elijah had come, and, “they have done to him (Him who? Elijah!- DKP) what they wished” the text declares, “the disciples understood that he spoke to them of John the Baptist.” Again, words could not be clearer. John was Elijah, or else Jesus was wrong. John was Elijah, or else the disciples were wrong to make the connection between Jesus’ declaration that “Elijah has already come,” and John the Baptizer.
Notice the Objector’s presuppositional claims: <“Matthew 17:11 itself COULD NOT refer to John the Baptist, because he was beheaded (Matthew 14:10) earlier than Jesus spoke this and taught that Elijah still needed to restore all things. Also, John the Baptist did not restore all things. Thus, the Elijah prophecies must have a fulfillment beyond John the Baptist. While it is also true that Jesus said that John the Baptist was a type of Elijah, John could not in the future restore all things unless he was resurrected in the future to do so.”
The Objector claims that Jesus said John was “a type of the Elijah” that is yet to come. He said no such thing: “Elijah has already come,” is not, “John is a type of the true Elijah that will one day come.” It is wrong to turn Jesus’, “Elijah has already come” into, “Elijah has not come.”
Look closely at the reason the Objector rejects John as Elijah: John could not be Elijah because Elijah would restore all things. John did not restore all things– he was beheaded. The Objector’s presuppositional theology about the nature of the restoration of all things leads him to reject – to distort – Jesus’ emphatic identification of John. But once again, the Objector fails to grasp the power of Jesus’ words.
Note that Jesus said, “they have done to him what they wished.” This puts John in the category of one of the martyrs of God. John was joining Jesus and all of the OT prophets and martyrs in filling up the measure of suffering that would result in the great Day of the Lord (of Malachi 4:5-6) in vindication of the martyrs.
The Coming of Elijah and Martyr Vindication
In Matthew 23, Jesus spoke of Israel’s internecine history:
“Therefore you are witnesses against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers’ guilt. Serpents, brood of vipers! How can you escape the condemnation of hell? Therefore, indeed, I send you prophets, wise men, and scribes: some of them you will kill and crucify, and some of them you will scourge in your synagogues and persecute from city to city, that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah, son of Berechiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. Assuredly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation” (Matthew 23:31-36).
Jesus was emphatic, all of the blood of all the martyrs would be avenged at the judgment of Jerusalem in his generation. This motif is critical to understand.
In Matthew 21 and the parable of the wicked vineyard keepers, the martyrs would be avenged at the coming of the master of the vineyard, who would, “come and utterly destroy those wicked husbandmen” (Matthew 21:40f). According to Jesus, the martyrs would be avenged at his coming and he promised, “he will avenge them speedily” (Luke 18:7-8). (Some claim that “speedily” here does not suggest imminence. This is specious. See my lengthy discussion of the Greek of the text in my Who Is This Babylon? book. In short, there is not one occurrence of the Greek term used here (en tachei) that emphasizes rapidity of action over the imminence of occurrence).
In Revelation 6:9-17, John saw the martyrs crying out for vindication. They were told that they would be vindicated very soon (cf. Luke 18!) when the full number of martyrs would be full. Of necessity, that had to include John! That vindication would be at the Great Day of the Lord when no man could stand before Him ( Revelation 6:17). This is a direct citation of Malachi 3:1-3, where The Messenger would prepare the way for the coming of the Lord in judgment and: “Who shall stand before Him when He comes?” That is the Great and Terrible Day of the Lord to be proclaimed by Elijah!
The Messenger would prepare for the coming of the Lord in judgment when no one could stand before Him (Malachi 3:1-6).
The Day of the Lord in vindication of the martyrs, when no man could stand before Him, would be the Great and Terrible Day of the Lord (Revelation 6:17). (Don’t forget that this would be at the judgment of Jerusalem, per Jesus).
The Great and Terrible Day of the Lord is the Day to be heralded by Elijah (Malachi 4:5-6).
Therefore, the Day of the Lord in vindication of the martyrs, when no man could stand before Him, is the Great and Terrible Day of the Lord of Malachi 4:5-6– the Day to be heralded by Elijah.
But, John was The Messenger heralding the imminent coming of the Lord in judgment (Matthew 3 / Mark 1:1-2)– the Great and Terrible Day of the Lord.
Therefore, as The Messenger, was Elijah. The Coming of the Messenger Was the Coming of Elijah!
It is critical to understand that the Day of Malachi 3 would be the time of judgment on Israel – just like Matthew 23 – for violating Torah. This is demonstrated in v. 6, where the Lord said, “I will come near to you in judgment,” That judgment would be for violating Torah, specifically Exodus 22:21f and Deuteronomy 27:19f: mandates against sorcerers, extortioners, abusers of widows, etc.. Those passages make it clear that the judgment for those sins would be national judgment on Israel (Exodus 22:24)! With this in mind, note the following:
John was The Voice in the wilderness, preparing for the coming of the Lord in judgment. This is undeniable (Isaiah 40:1-12–> Mark 1:1-3/ John 1:23).
John was The Messenger, who would prepare for the coming of the Lord in judgment of Israel for violating Torah. Once again: Undeniable (Malachi 3:1-6 / Mark 1:1-2).
But, if John was The Voice and The Messenger, then without doubt, he was Elijah unless one is willing to say that as The Voice and The Messenger, John heralded a different coming of the Lord in judgment from that which Elijah was to proclaim! That is untenable.
Did John “successfully” fulfill his role as The Voice, The Messenger and Elijah, to warn of the Great Day of the Lord? If he did, then he fulfilled his role of “restoring all things.” He certainly fulfilled his role as a martyr, helping to fill the measure of end times, eschatological suffering.
What was John’s message, as The Voice, The Messenger and Elijah? (Space forbids lengthy discussion of the “restoration of all things” but, see my book Like Father Like Son, On Clouds of Glory, for an in-depth study of this fascinating issue).
Matthew 3:7: John said to the Pharisees and Sadducees: “Who has warned you to flee from the wrath that is (literally, “about to come”- from mello)?” This wrath is none other than the Day of fire of Malachi 4:1-3, the Great Day of the Lord of Malachi 4:5-6! John draws directly from Malachi.
Matthew 3:10, 12:
“And even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. … His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather His wheat into the barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
In Malachi 4:1, the Day of the Lord to be heralded by Elijah would be against the wicked and would leave them “neither root nor branch.” This was John’s message! So, Malachi said Elijah would herald the Great Day of the Lord when the wicked would be cut down, leaving neither root or branch. John (who Jesus said was Elijah) said the axe was already at the root. We are given no recourse but to see John as Elijah.
John said, “his winnowing fork is already in his hand.” The imagery tells us that the end of the age harvest, when the chaff would be burned up was already approaching! Once again, this is the Day of the Lord of Malachi 4:1-2 – the Great and Terrible Day of the Lord of Malachi 4:5-6– the Day for which Elijah (John) was The Voice and The Messenger!
Side Bar: Significantly, I have not found a single commentary (perhaps I have missed one) that denied that John was The Voice, or, The Messenger! Well, if John was undeniably The Voice and The Messenger, then he was equally, Elijah! There is no distinction!
In Matthew 3, John’s message was the message of Elijah in Malachi 4. And John, as The Voice, The Messenger and Elijah, said that Day of the Lord was imminent. That Day, the time of the vindication of the martyrs (of Matthew 23, Revelation 6) did fall on Israel in AD 70! Prophecy fulfilled! The Voice, The Messenger, Elijah fulfilled his role!
Let me summarize.
Jesus unequivocally said, “Elijah has already come.” It is wrong to deny this. Jesus did not say that John was a “type” of the true Elijah that will one day come.
The disciples understood that Jesus was talking about John as the promised Elijah. Were the disciples wrong? There is not a word in the text to suggest it.
Jesus put John in the company of the martyrs. Jesus said the eschatological, last days number of the martyrs would be filled in his generation. He said that all of the blood, of all the martyrs, – which of necessity would include John – would be vindicated at his coming in the judgment of Jerusalem that occurred in AD 70. That Day of the Lord in vindication of the martyrs is the Day of the Lord foretold by Malachi 3-4, that John, as The Voice and The Messenger, heralded. But, that is the Great and the Terrible Day of the Lord of Malachi 4:5-6, thus making John Elijah in fulfillment of Malachi.
John was irrefutably The Voice. But The Voice, just like Elijah, was to prepare for the Day of the Lord in judgment.
John was undeniably The Messenger who, just like Elijah, was to prepare for the Day of the Lord in judgment – the Day of the Lord against Israel for violating Torah!
Thus, to reiterate, unless John, as The Voice and The Messenger, foretold a totally different Day of the Lord from that of Malachi 4– and his message in Matthew 3 falsifies this idea – this serves as prima facie proof that John was Elijah.
The contrast between the Objector and Jesus could not be more stark.
Jesus said, “Elijah has already come.”
The Objector says Elijah has not come.”
The Objection has been Over-Ruled!