The meaning of the phrase “and he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children and heart of the children to their fathers” can be found by understanding the connection between Elijah and John the Baptist. Jesus Himself told us in Matthew 11:14 that John the Baptist was the fulfillment of the prophecy of the coming of Elijah in Malachi 4:5.
Matthew 11:14 (KJV):
14 And if ye will receive it, this is Elias, which was for to come.
Malachi 4:5-6 (KJV):
5 Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord: 6 And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.
In verse 6 of Malachi 4, we are told that John the Baptist’s purpose would be to turn the heart of Israel back to the Lord just as Elijah had done.
In 1 Kings 18 is the story of Elijah slaying the 450 prophets of Baal. The story goes that Ahab the king of Israel led Israel away from worshipping the Lord of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to the worship of Baalim. In chapter 18, Elijah confronts Ahab and challenges him to a contest between Baal and the Lord. They set up two altars of sacrifice and then take turns (Baal’s prophets and then Elijah) calling on their god to send fire to consume the sacrifices. After the 450 prophets of Baal fail in calling fire from heaven, Elijah then prays to the Lord. He prays in verse 37:
1 Kings 18:37 (KJV):
37 Hear me, O Lord, hear me, that this people may know that thou art the Lord God, and that thou hast turned their heart back again.
The Lord then sends fire from heaven and totally consumes the sacrifice.
Gesenius' Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon defines the phrase “and that thou has turned” in verse 37 as “Figuratively, to turn or direct any one’s heart to some person or thing”. The verse goes on to say that the heart turning is “back again” giving clear indication that Elijah pleaded with the Lord to turn Israel’s heart back toward Him as in days past.
In 1 Kings 18, after the people witness the fire fall from heaven after Elijah’s prayer, they state in verse 39:
1 Kings 18:39 (KJV):
39 And when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces: and they said, The Lord, he is the God; the Lord, he is the God.
This statement by the people has little to do with repentance of sin per se but more to do with belief and unbelief. The people whose heart had left the Lord did not believe that He was in fact the Lord, now do believe as they state that “He is THE God”.
In the same way that Elijah was to turn the heart of the people back to believe in the Lord again, John the Baptist’s mission was to do the same thing right before the Lord Jesus was revealed. Note the following verses:
- The angel of the Lord talking to Zacharias speaking of John the Baptist in Luke 1:16-17 (KJV):
16 And many of the children of Israel shall he turn to the Lord their God.
17 And he shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elias, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.
Please note the “b” portion of verse 17. The phrase “and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just” is synonymous with “turn the hearts of the children to the fathers” by explaining that John will point to the way of salvation through Christ by the grace and mercy of God.
- Zacharias’ speech after the birth of John the Baptist in Luke 1:76-79 (KJV):
76 And thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Highest: for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways;
77 To give knowledge of salvation unto his people by the remission of their sins,
78 Through the tender mercy of our God; whereby the dayspring from on high hath visited us,
79 To give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.
Please note that Zacharias is also explaining John’s mission which is to herald the new covenant way of salvation through the grace and mercy of God.
John the Baptist shows the way of salvation by preaching the “baptism of repentance” for the remission of sins (Mark 1:4, Luke 3:3, Acts 13:24). Please note that this message was NOT “repent” for the forgiveness of sins, but the “baptism of repentance” for the remission of sins. The Holy Ghost was responsible for this baptism.
The “baptism of repentance” is defined as believing on the Lord Jesus Christ in Acts 19:4 (KJV):
Then said Paul, John verily baptized with the baptism of repentance, saying unto the people, that they should believe on him which should come after him, that is, on Christ Jesus.
So both Elijah and John the Baptist were tasked with helping to turn the heart of Israel from unbelief to belief.