Posted by: Standing Solus Christus | October 20, 2007

Why did the Jews ask if John was Elijah? (Lesson 4: Question 2 Answer)

2.  Why did the Jews ask if John was Elijah?  Does John contradict Jesus’ words in Matt 11:14 or Mark 9:13?

In this lesson we will continue our examination of the first three verses of our text by focusing on one of the questions the inquisitors had to John the Baptist.  Our text in this question is as follows:

19And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.” 21And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” And he answered, “No.”

The people of God were expecting a visitation from Elijah the prophet prior to the advent of the Messiah.  As we can see in our text above John is asked who he claims to be and responds emphatically that he was not the Christ or Messiah.  Once that clarification was announced the next question to John was if he was Elijah.  Naturally, this would have been the next question that the religious leaders would have asked to someone who was making proclamation in the manner as John.  One wonders if these questions weren’t already predetermined by the religious leaders who were probably dispatched whenever someone was making proclamation outside of the religious establishment (i.e. Jerusalem temple or synagogues).  A similar scene may have occurred a generation earlier with the events referenced by Gamaliel in Acts 5 discussed in our opening remarks.  Moreover, one may also wonder whether these inquisitors already knew the answers to there questions to John.  Remember John was of Levitical descent, his father Zechariah was ministering in the temple when his birth was announced.  Thus, it would have been highly likely that the inquisitors in this scene who came out to see John were his relatives or close family friends.  Thus, before even asking this question they may have already known that John was not Elijah who had ascended into heaven in a chariot.  John was the son of Zechariah who was possibly their uncle or distant relative.  The Scriptures do not mention much about his childhood, however they seem to suggest that John was not raised in Jerusalem or Judea.  In Luke 1:80, referenced above, it suggests that John lived in the desert from a young age until his public ministry.  This does not necessarily confirm or deny the possibility that John would have known these inquisitors very well. Nonetheless, it is reasonable to assume that these inquisitors knew about him, the long lost cousin who went off into the desert.

Another possibility is that the inquisitors were genuinely curious if John was some type of incarnation of Elijah or Elijah himself.  They may have been familiar with the prophetic writings of Malachi and were able to make a connection between them and John’s message.  Let us take a closer look at what they may have been considering, Malachi 4:1-5 is as follows:

1“For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble. The day that is coming shall set them ablaze, says the LORD of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. 2But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall. 3And you shall tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet, on the day when I act, says the LORD of hosts. 4 “Remember the law of my servant Moses, the statutes and rules that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel. 5 “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. 6And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.” (Emphasis added)

In this text the prophet is describing things that will happen prior to the day of the Lord in verse 1.  In verse 5-6 the prophet indicates that Elijah will come during that period to call Israel back to the Lord.  In calling back Israel to the Lord we would expect Elijah to proclaim and warn them of the forthcoming trials described in verse 1.  Keep this in mind while we review John the Baptist’s message during this time:

10Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 11 “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”  (Matthew 3:10-12, emphasis added)

The message of John the Baptist as quoted in the text above seems to characterize the message that the prophet Malachi would have assigned to “Elijah”.  This was a message of judgment and warning, which was characteristic of the Old Covenant prophets.  Incidentally, the sign of baptism, that John was in the desert administering, is itself a symbol of judgment (this we will develop in a subsequent question).  Nonetheless, it seems to be evident that the Jews of John’s day were expecting a physical incarnation of the prophet Elijah.65  This is a good segue into our follow up question relative to the apparent competing versus in our text with our Lord’s words in Matt 11:14 or Mark 9:13.  Although, there was most likely skepticism and/or curiosity the Jews referred to in our text were compelled to ask John if he was Elijah. 

As we move into our follow up question it would be appropriate to actually deal with the texts at issue.  We will begin with the passage in Matthew where our Lord says, “For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John, and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come.”  These comments are made within the context of our Lord’s response to John’s disciples delivering a message from him in prison.  In this instance the statement was unprovoked and not responding to a direct question about this issue.  However, our Lord here voluntarily interprets the times as a fulfillment of Malachi’s prophecy.  We will move onto to the next passage and then respond to both at the same time.  The passage in Mark our Lord says, “Elijah does come first to restore all things. And how is it written of the Son of Man that he should suffer many things and be treated with contempt? But I tell you that Elijah has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written of him.”  These comments are made just after the transfiguration when Elijah actually did appear with Moses on the mountain when the disciples beheld our Lord’s glory.  The statement is in response to a direct question about the text in Malachi indicating that Elijah must come before Him.

Clearly, it appears that these texts that are indicating that John was Elijah appear to be in conflict with our text where John denies that he was Elijah.  So how do we deal with this?  As stated above it is apparent that the anticipation of the Jews was that a literal physical incarnation of Elijah the Tishbite would occur prior to the advent of Messiah.  Thus, if this is truly what the text in Malachi meant, then we are on the horns of a dilemma.  Nonetheless, as we reexamine the responses that our Lord made, it seems more appropriate that He is advocating a figurative fulfillment.  Hence, the phrase “if you are willing to accept it” lends itself to a much more figurative way of looking at the situation.  In his commentary on this text, John Calvin explains this solution to the dilemma as follows:        

Why do they name Elijah rather than Moses?  It was because they learned from the prediction of Malachi, (4:2, 5) that when the Messiah, the Sun of Righteousness, should arise, Elijah would be the morning star to announce his approach.  But the question is founded on a false opinion that the soul of a man departs out of one body into another, when the Prophet Malachi announces that Elijah would be sent, they imagined that the same Elijah, who lived under the reign of king Ahab, (1 Kings 17:1) was to come.  It is therefore a just and true reply which John makes, that he is not Elijah; for he speaks according to the opinion which they attached words; but Christ, giving the true interpretation of the Prophet, affirms that John is Elijah (Matt 11:14; Mark 9:13).66 

Therefore, we may conclude that John’s statement in our text does not contradict with our Lord’s interpretation of the text in Malachi.  In fact it is our Lord who provides the proper interpretation and corrects the misconception of that time.  We can rest assured that the only contradiction between these texts is an apparent one.  This apparent contradiction can be harmonized and explained to confirm the conclusion we have made.

65 Geerhardus Vos (1948) Biblical Theology Old Testament and New Testaments (Banner of Truth Trust, 2000) p 314

66 John Calvin (1550) Commentary on the Holy Gospel of Jesus Christ According to John (Calvin’s Commentaries, 17; Baker, 2005) 57



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  2. […] Lord’s action.  Their response is reminiscent of the inquisitors at the Jordan River when the Jews and Priest’s questioned John the Baptist about his credentials.   This is not the first time this group has […]

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