So Malachi rather cryptically ends with

“See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction.” ~ Malachi 4:5-6

Now the most common interpretation I've come across is that "Elijah" is fulfilled in John the Baptist. John is the prophet that comes before the Lord and this "messenger"/"fore-runner" idea is echoed throughout Malachi.


This passage from the gospel of John:

They asked him, “Then who are you? Are you Elijah?”

He said, “I am not.”

“Are you the Prophet?”

He answered, “No.”

~ John 1:21

John denies being Elijah. Of course he could be denying being the ACTUAL Elijah, which is who the Jews were expecting. But then after the Transfiguration, this exchange occurs:

As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus instructed them, “Don’t tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

The disciples asked him, “Why then do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?”

Jesus replied, “To be sure, Elijah comes and will restore all things. But I tell you, Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but have done to him everything they wished. In the same way the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands.” Then the disciples understood that he was talking to them about John the Baptist.

~ Matthew 17:9-13

So why would John the Baptist deny being "Elijah"? Even if he was not THE Elijah, surely he would understand what they meant and a simple "No, but..." would've been enough.

What to make of his response?

  • This is a good question! BTW-Welcome to BH! We're a little different here, please take the site tour, as it explains how to post questions and answers.
    – Tau
    Commented Sep 11, 2014 at 10:13
  • 1
    @user2479 thanks - had a look at the site tour. Did I post my question incorrectly?
    – Nernie
    Commented Sep 12, 2014 at 13:00
  • Here's an interesting paper by a leading expert on the gospels that touches a lot on this topic a lot.
    – Noah
    Commented Sep 12, 2014 at 19:23
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    In a certain sense, Christ continues John's ministry, just as John himself also continued Elijah's. Nevertheless, Christ wasn't literally John the Baptist raised from the dead (Matthew 14:2, 16:14; Mark 6:14-16, 8:28; Luke 9:19). The same holds for John with regard to Elijah in the quoted passage.
    – Lucian
    Commented Jul 30, 2017 at 16:33
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    You need accuracy - The OT prophesied one would come in the spirit of Elijah - not that Elijah would come again.
    – Dave
    Commented May 20, 2021 at 18:09

4 Answers 4


The Hebrew Bible makes mention that Elijah will appear before the "great and terrible day of the Lord" (Mal 4:5). That is, Elijah was to turn the hearts of Israel for healing (Mal 4:6).

The Hebrew Bible makes mention that "the voice in the wilderness" was to prepare the way before the coming of the Lord (Is 40:3). John the Baptist claimed to be this voice (John 1:23).

The gospel writers also indicate that John the Baptist was "the messenger" who was to prepare the coming of the Lord (Matt 11:10 = Mal 3:1). That is, John the Baptist was to turn the hearts of Israel for healing in the same way as Elijah (Luke 1:17 = Mal 4:6). So there are some parallels with Elijah.

The following depiction therefore attempts to portray how the passages from the Christian New Testament interrelate with the Hebrew Bible in order to explain the fulfillment of some prophecies by John the Baptist relating to Elijah.

This depiction therefore tries to illustrate how John the Baptist could at one and the same time deny he was the person of Elijah (John 1:21) notwithstanding that his ministry had fulfilled prophecies relating to Elijah as "the messenger" who would precede and proclaim the coming of the Lord (Matt 11:14 and Matt 17:12).

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    How interesting! So, in the 2nd advent of Jesus we can wait for another "Elijah". It worth a study!
    – Click Ok
    Commented Oct 12, 2016 at 20:30
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    Also at the "Transfiguration" event, the prophet Elijah literally appears among them, only for Jesus to later say that John was "Elijah that should come". So clearly a distinction is drawn between the type of Elijah and the person of Elijah. John denies being the person of Elijah who will herald the "great and terrible day of the LORD".
    – wberry
    Commented Sep 5, 2020 at 21:01
  • I don't understand what is ambiguous about "Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him". So whatever John meant or understood, Elijah had already come at that point. What Jesus says > what John says. Commented Feb 5, 2021 at 17:35
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    I'd like to add that during passover, there is what is called "The Cup of Elijah", which is after the 1st portion of the Seder. During the Passovers that I've been to, there was an empty chair at thee table that was set up the same as the rest of us, to indicate that Elijah will come back. When it came time to Elijah's cup, a child would go check outside to see if Elijah was there. This website: messianicseder.com/messianic_haggadah.html is similar to how I've celebrated it at our local Messianic Synagogue. It adds meaning as to why he could be 1 of the 2 witnesses.
    – user42370
    Commented May 20, 2021 at 20:58

In this instance, the Levites are coming to see exactly what rabble John is rousing and if this affects their power. Should it threaten them, more than likely John would have seen a fate similar to that of Jesus at the hands of the Sanhedrin. Therefore John cannot claim to be Elijah or a prophet. Yet in the same breath, he does claim to be a prophet. Shortly after this verse, John quotes a prophet (Isaiah) to say that he is fulfilling prophesy by prophesying the coming of the Messiah in verses 22-23:

Finally they [the Levites] said, “Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”

John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’”

This is literally the function of a prophet and as such, the Pharisees are unconvinced and then go on to ask:

Now the Pharisees who had been sent questioned him, “Why then do you baptize if you are not the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?”

Clearly the Pharisees were unconvinced and you should be too. As you noted, Jesus goes on to state that John WAS Elijah, so everyone is pretty much in agreement (including John) that he was the voice of the prophet Elijah, yet John made this point without explicitly stating it and thereby avoiding a premature end at the hand of the Sanhedrin. In testimony, he would have plausible deniability because any witnesses would have to state that he explicitly denied being the messiah or a prophet because he offered this cagey answer, yet still was really claiming to be the prophet.

  • 1
    Interesting. I was just reading last night about how deception in the Bible is often viewed positively when it is used to prevent evil from happening (e.g. the midwives in Exodus 1). Your answer would seem to align with that (assuming John is read as a righteous character here).
    – Soldarnal
    Commented Feb 28, 2018 at 19:02

The answer is simple: John the baptist knew that there was to be another Elijah who comes before the great and awe-inspiring day of Jehovah (Armageddon). John did not fulfill that role. Christ stated that this future Elijah would come and "restore all things" (Matt. 17:11). John did not fit this description either.

Note that the Jews were expecting the Messiah, Elijah, and "that" prophet (the prophet like Moses - Deut. 18:15,18):

And he admitted it and did not deny it, saying: "I am not the Christ." And they asked him: "What, then? Are you E·liʹjah?" He replied: "I am not." "Are you the Prophet?" And he answered: "No!"

When do those persons come? Israel certainly got the Messiah. They also got a type of Elijah in John, but they did not get the prophet like Moses and the Elijah to come. How so? During the transfiguration, Jesus is having a conversation with both Moses and Elijah. This is a foregleam of the work of the two witnesses who are Moses and Elijah (Matt. 17:3; Rev. 11:5,6). Notice also that the prophecy in Malachi mentions both Moses and Elijah in connection with the last days:

Remember the Law of my servant Moses, the regulations and judgments that I commanded at Horʹeb for all Israel to obey. Look! I am sending to you E·liʹjah the prophet before the coming of the great and awe-inspiring day of Jehovah (Mal. 4:4,5).

Of course, Christ also comes at this time, which is why the Jews asked that question.

What does this all mean? It means that there is to be someone in the last days acting as the prophet like Moses and Elijah (the "two" witnesses - Rev. 11:3). This is what John understood and why he denied being Elijah. He was but he wasn't (in the fullest sense). That is why Jesus said that he was Elijah but John denied it. There is no contradiction. Both statements are true when the context is understood.


Lets take a deeper look at what is said through Malachi

Remember the Law of Moses, My servant, Which I commanded him in Horeb for all Israel, With the statutes and judgments. (Malachi 4:4 NKJV)

So he asks us to focus our attention to the time of the commandments Which is Exodus 20. When they said.

Then they said to Moses, “You speak with us, and we will hear; but let not God speak with us, lest we die.” (Exodus 20:19 NKJV)

Deuteronomy then speaks again of this event

“The Lord your God will raise up for you a Prophet like me from your midst, from your brethren. Him you shall hear, 16 according to all you desired of the Lord your God in Horeb in the day of the assembly, saying, ‘Let me not hear again the voice of the Lord my God, nor let me see this great fire anymore, lest I die.’ 17 “And the Lord said to me: ‘What they have spoken is good. 18 I will raise up for them a Prophet like you from among their brethren, and will put My words in His mouth, and He shall speak to them all that I command Him. (Deuteronomy 18:15-18 NKJV)

So let us look deeper at this next line in Malachi

הנה אנכי שלח לכם את אליה הנביא לפני בוא יום יהוה הגדול והנורא (Malachi 4:5 Hebrew OT: WLC (Consonants Only))

SEE (הנה)[Particle] - Behold.
MYSELF (אנכי)[Pronoun] - Myself
SENDING (שלח)[Verb] - Will Send.
YALL (לכם)[Preposition(2nd pers.plur.masc.)] - To You All
(את) - The Direct-Object Marker in Biblical Hebrew
GOD YE (אליה)[Noun] - Elijah.
PROPHET (הנביא)[Noun]
TO FACE OF (לפני)[Noun] - To Face Of
COMING (בוא)[Verb] - To go or come
DAY (יום)[Noun]
GOD (יהוה)[Noun] - God's Name. He Will Exist.
GREAT (הגדול)[Adjective]
AND TERRIBLE (והנורא)[Verb]

The first word is a Particle. A Particle is: an adverb or preposition used with a verb to form a phrasal verb. For example in the sentence "He quickly put on his clothes," "on" is a particle.

So the first word connects to the third word like "See the Sending".

The Second word is a Pronoun. A Pronoun is: a word that can function by itself as a noun phrase and that refers either to the participants in the discourse (e.g., I, you ) or to someone or something mentioned elsewhere in the discourse (e.g., she, it, this ). So shows "What is sending." In this case "Sending Myself".

The Fourth word is a Preposition. A Preposition is: a word governing, and usually preceding, a noun or pronoun and expressing a relation to another word or element in the clause. In this case the other word in relation is "MYSELF" proceeding the noun Elijah that is built from two Hebrew Words "אל" meaning God + "יה" meaning God's Name. Therefore through the meaning to the Hebrew word. And not the identity associated with the name "Not the actual person Elijah".

The fifth word Et is used to designate that the following word is the definite direct object of the verb. What Verb? Answer: "SENDING". What is the following word? It follows the word meaning "God God's Name".

So Decoded

Remember the Law of Moses, My servant, Which I commanded him in Horeb for all Israel, With the statutes and judgments. (Malachi 4:4 NKJV)

See I am sending to you all God, God's Name the Prophet, to face the coming day, God great and terrible. (Malachi 4:5 Decoded)

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.” (Malachi 4:6 NKJV)

Why does John the Baptist deny being "Elijah"?
Because he was not Elijah the man or the Prophet coming in Gods Name.

Look carefully at the response of Jesus.

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 17:12 NKJV)

The disciples come to their own conclusion

Then the disciples understood that He spoke to them of John the Baptist. (Matthew 17:13 NKJV)

My conjecture is that the conversation gets cut short because of the boy

And when they had come to the multitude, a man came to Him, kneeling down to Him and saying, 15 “Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and suffers severely; for he often falls into the fire and often into the water. (Matthew 17:14-15 NKJV)

  • The Synoptic tradition stresses the connection between John and Elijah on purpose. Mark describes John wearing the same clothes as Elijah. Luke borrows the language of Malachi 4 to describe John in his birth narrative. In Matthew, Jesus explicitly identifies John as 'Elijah who is to come' in 11.13-14. It's not accurate to say the disciples 'came to their own conclusion' when they'd already been given that conclusion be Jesus' own words. There seems to be a definite discontinuity between the Synoptics uniformly identifying John with Elijah, and the Fourth Gospel rejecting that identification.
    – user2910
    Commented Jul 3, 2017 at 17:43
  • Elijah in Hebrew stands for "God my Lord" indeed Jesus perceived that El came first. Also in Matthew 11:14, look close he says that "αὐτός ἐστιν" (he Is) Elijah, They translate it as "I am" yet the Iota represents a yodh. The Yodh as the prefix references "he will". Therefore "I is" references "he is", and "I is" references "Correct English" "I am", but "I is" pronounces "Ies", turned to Iesous, then Jesous, then Jesus.
    – Decrypted
    Commented Jul 4, 2017 at 11:21
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    That's not how either Hebrew or Greek works.
    – user2910
    Commented Jul 4, 2017 at 12:51
  • Go learn (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prefixes_in_Hebrew)
    – Decrypted
    Commented Jul 4, 2017 at 19:31
  • @MarkEdward: I believe you may be reading too much into too little. See my comment on the main post.
    – Lucian
    Commented Jul 30, 2017 at 16:35

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