Robert Whiting In search of awesome

Luke 1 Elijah


How is John the Baptist a fulfillment of prophecy about the return of Elijah?


On Monday, you asked about John the Baptist and why there are references to him as Elijah. My answer definitely came up short. I couldn’t find the prophetic references I was looking for. Here is some more context.

Gabriel’s speech

Gabriel appeared to Zechariah in the temple. This is the second half of his speech.

For he will be great in the sight of the Lord and will never drink wine or beer. He will be filled with the Holy Spirit while still in his mother’s womb. He will turn many of the sons of Israel to the Lord their God. And he will go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of fathers to their children, and the disobedient to the understanding of the righteous, to make ready for the Lord a prepared people. Luke 1:15-17

Side note: when Gabriel says that John will never drink wine or beer (v15), it’s a reference to the conditions that the Israelites would enforce on themselves when they were under a serious vow, and there’s more too it than just wine & beer. See Numbers 6 (the rules), Judges 13:3-5 (Samson).

Zechariah’s speech

Zechariah couldn’t speak until John was born and named. Then he spoke words from God, and it’s just full of references to the prophets and psalmists that describe John and Jesus.

Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied:

And child, you will be called a prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare His ways, to give His people knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins. Because of our God’s merciful compassion, the Dawn from on high will visit us to shine on those who live in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace. Luke 1:76-79

The Forerunner Prophecies

There are 3 prophecies about someone who would come right before

The wait is over

Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.

A voice of one calling: “In the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain. And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all people will see it together. For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

Through Isaiah, God is comforting his people at the end of a long exile–first in Babylon, then when they returned to their land, they still weren’t free and independent. The exile continued as they anticipated the Day of the Lord, the coming of God into their midst again.

The sign that the kingdom of God was at the doorstep was a man in the wilderness crying out to prepare the way for Him. Those who hear the message will need to make some major adjustments (to expectations of God’s kingdom? to their attitudes toward God?).

It will not be done in secret, everyone will see what the Lord is doing in Jerusalem. Jesus taught thousands at a time and was publicly executed. He was raised to life and seen by hundreds more for over a month.

Clear the path

Malachi does a lot of this pattern: statement from God, clueless questioning from Israel.

  • 1:1 I have loved you -> how have you loved us?
  • 1:6 you despised my name -> how have we despised your name?
  • 1:7 you present defiled food -> how have we defiled you?
  • 2:13 you cover the alter in tears -> for what reason?
  • 2:17 you wearied the Lord -> how have we wearied Him?

“See, I am going to send My messenger, and he will clear the way before Me. Then the Lord you seek will suddenly come to His temple, the Messenger of the covenant you desire—see, He is coming,” says the Lord of Hosts. But who can endure the day of His coming? And who will be able to stand when He appears? For He will be like a refiner’s fire and like cleansing lye. He will be like a refiner and purifier of silver; He will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver. Then they will present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. And the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will please the Lord as in days of old and years gone by. Malachi 3:1-5

Israel has utterly failed God repeatedly in every way. He is weary of them. See? I am going to send My messenger ahead of The messenger who fulfills the covenant.

The first messenger will clear the way before God. When the Day of the Lord arrives, who can stand before Jesus? He understands the thoughts and intentions of the heart and like a fire, he burns away pretense and anterior motives. Jesus will face the priests (Levites) and teachers of the law and refine them like gold and silver with his actions and questions.

Elijah before Jesus

The statements and questions continue, showing a complete disconnect and misunderstanding of the Israelites and their relationship to God.

  • 3:7 return to Me and I will return to you -> how can we return?
  • 3:8 you are robbing Me -> how do we rob you?
  • 3:13 you say harsh things against me -> what have we spoken against you?

Look, I am going to send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome Day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers. Otherwise, I will come and strike the land with a curse.” Malachi 4:5–6

This is the last 3 sentences in the prophecies of Malachi. It’s a cliff-hanger that leads us right into the new testament, where a man wearing the same clothes as Elijah (2 Kings 1:8, hairy, leather belt).

Before the Day of the Lord, God will send a messenger (Elijah), and he will heal broken relationships between kids and their fathers. Return to Me (your father), and I will return to you (3:7).

Some people believe that Elijah will return “for real” before Jesus’ second coming as one of the Two Witnesses referenced in Revelation 11. Jesus made it pretty clear that he believed John the Baptist was the fulfillment of the prophecy of a herald/messenger preceding Him.

Jesus’ comments

After John’s messengers left, He began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swaying in the wind? What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft robes? Look, those who are splendidly dressed and live in luxury are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and far more than a prophet. This is the one it is written about:

Look, I am sending My messenger ahead of You; he will prepare Your way before You.

I tell you, among those born of women no one is greater than John, but the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.”

(And when all the people, including the tax collectors, heard this, they acknowledged God’s way of righteousness, because they had been baptized with John’s baptism. 30 But since the Pharisees and experts in the law had not been baptized by him, they rejected the plan of God for themselves.)

Luke 7:24-29 - also in Matthew 11:7-19

Jesus saw John as “more than a prophet” because he was not only filled with the spirit spoke God’s words to Israel, but he also prepared the way (those who listened to John also listened to Jesus) for the Day of the Lord–when Jesus was among them declaring the coming the kingdom of God.


Your frustration seemed to come from the literal words about Elijah, but I want to make it really clear that the prophecies about the messenger preceding Jesus referenced Elijah as a mental hook or clickable link back to the prophecies so that Israel would know who John was–and more–who Jesus was.

John was a special prophet, so filled with the Spirit of God (like Elijah was) with the express life purpose of preparing and announcing that Jesus had arrived. It’s often frustrating to read the Bible because it wasn’t written in English using our own styles of writing.

Jewish literature does a lot of referencing and cross-referencing to show us what it means instead of (what we want) just saying it plainly. We’re not used to that, and it requires study. They would spend years studying the Tenak (instructions, prophets, writings), so they would pick out these references like we pick out Star Wars quotes.

Which is why we need to ask the questions, read, study, and ask God to help us understand his message to us–non-Jews on the other side of the world thousands of years removed.

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