(Jesus): What did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, ‘Look, I am sending my messenger (Elijah) ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ Luke 7:26‭-‬27 NET

(John the Baptist): So 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 NET

How should I consolidate these verses without thinking one is speaking the truth and the other not?

  • 3
    Not so fast - Jesus was obviously speaking about Mal 3 & 4 about going in the spirit and power of Elijah. John was answering the question about whether he was literally Elijah resurrected - he was not.
    – Dottard
    Jun 22, 2023 at 12:06
  • when did Elijah died?😅
    – VNPython
    Jun 22, 2023 at 13:18
  • Elijah lived during the reign of king Ahab whose rule was from 874 to 853 B.C. Elijah continued for a short while into the reign of king Joram. Elijah probably died around 850 B.C. That means John the Baptist was not born till some 850 years after Elijah's death.
    – Anne
    Jun 22, 2023 at 15:21
  • any verse in the text that supports your claim?
    – VNPython
    Jun 23, 2023 at 1:31
  • Not in that text, for all that info is in the Old Testament. You need to go to 1 Kings 16:28 onwards to learn about when Ahab became king over Israel, and from ch.17 onwards you learn about Elijah being God’s prophet then. Further on you learn of their deaths. Bible chronologers have long established the dates of all the kings of Israel and Judah, working them out from info. in the O.T. accounts. Most of the prophets can also have dates given for them. If you know which kings were ruling when they prophesied, you get a clear picture.
    – Anne
    Jun 23, 2023 at 14:06

6 Answers 6


John clearly recognized that Jesus was the one he was supposed to prepare the way for, as he testified there is one who comes who John was not even worthy to loosen his sandals (John 1:27). Did he not equate that person to Jesus?

What reasons would John have had to question who Jesus is, after having been told "This is my son, in whom I am well pleased" (Matt. 3:17)?

  1. Rigidity of religious belief? Could it be that Jesus stepped out of bounds in John's opinion by doing things that are in possible conflict with the jewish laws, such as working on the sabbath (Matt. 12:1-2, Luke 14:3), defying the laws pertaining to defilement (Mark 7:3,5,14-19) and making himself equal to God (John 5:17-18), so supporting Jesus would potentially compromise John's public image of being absolute in his own faith?

  2. Perhaps John was disappointed in which direction Jesus took with his ministry, failing to fulfill John's own expectations of the Messiah or the Son of God, coming in power and glory, ruling over even the king and bringing the nation back together (Isaiah 9:5/9:6, 11:12)? Did John believe Jesus should have taken a different path? If so, why didn't John himself help it to happen?

  3. Perhaps he sought to distance himself from Jesus due to the pressures of the society to ostracize Jesus for being born illegitimately or for raising controversy that the pharisees, sadducees and/or romans would take a critical interest in? (Not likely, as John was apparently not afraid of controversy, seeing how he railed against the king's sins.)

  4. Might extreme humility have played a role? After all, he did publicly say he wasn't worthy to loosen the sandals of he who comes (John 1:27). I wonder if he might have believed Elijah was worthy to do so. Seeing how Elijah was expected to return in great glory and John was living an ascetic life of poverty, John could have felt inadequate compared to Elijah, and thus wouldn't have been able to imagine himself in Elijah's role, even though he publicly spread the same message as Elijah.

  5. The expectations that Elijah would return in the same way he departed, in a flaming chariot, would make it look like John was blaspheming if he had said he was indeed Elijah. It would at the very least have created a great controversy around John, even though he was greatly respected for his ascetic lifestyle (Mark 11:32).

  6. Perhaps he did not equate Jesus as Son of God to Jesus as the Messiah? Those two roles were quite distinct in the eyes of the jewish society of those days. Being the Son of God was equated to being equal to God, much higher than being just a human Messiah (future king from the Davidic line or a high priest of Israel). To claim to be Son of God was considered blasphemy (John 5:18), but to have God's direct testimony that Jesus is His Son (Matt. 3:17), there is no way to personally refute it without finding oneself standing against God, a thing John was highly unlikely to do. However, who actually saw the dove and heard the words of God? Was it only John or was it only a disciple of Jesus, or was it everyone who was present at Jesus' baptism? The 4 gospels all mention this event, but with somewhat distinct perspectives. Mark 1:9-11 has the vision and words of God speaking directly to Jesus himself, but then how did the author come to know of this? Matthew 3:13-17 has the vision revealed to Jesus and the words of God as if spoken to one or more third persons. Luke 3:21-22 has the vision revealed but to whom is not said, but the words of God spoken directly to Jesus. Again, who else heard them? John 1:32-34 has John the Baptist as the narrator of the event, saying he saw the vision and that the one who sent him to baptize testified to John the Baptist about the one on whom the Holy Spirit descents. Then John the Baptist bore witness that "this is the Son of God", all the while not mentioning Jesus by name, making it all seem like part of his vision, rather than an actual physical event. At any rate, you see the reason for confusion here, I assume.

  1. Instead of extreme humility, might it have been false humility, ie. veiled arrogance, seeing how John the Baptist was raised to be what he was prophesied to be, and wanted to push Jesus to get more serious and take on national level issues rather than hanging out with sinners and living a seemingly more carefree lifestyle, while John felt like he himself was taking a much stronger stance against evil?

Thus, looking back, we can find many possible reasons why John would have sent that question, and it's not easy to discern which, if any of those, are accurate, due to the limited amount of information actually documented at the time.

Suffice it to say, though, that John was not uninformed, as he had received education, if not from his father Zechariah, very likely from the next chief priest and/or many other temple elders, as well as receiving spiritual revelation about Jesus' identity.

So, one might surmise that by the time of John's question, John's mind had become divided about Jesus and about what John should do in light of Jesus' identity as Son of God. This might have brought doubt into his mind that he wanted clarification on, ie.

  1. Elijah should come back in his flaming chariot like he was seen ascending to heaven and I didn't do that, so why did Jesus call me Elijah, when I know I'm John and my father is Zechariah?

  2. Since Elijah didn't return yet and he's supposed to precede the coming of the messiah according to the prophesy of Malachi 4:5-6, how can the messiah have already come?

  3. Therefore, how could Jesus be the messiah and who is Jesus really?

  4. Since I'm not Elijah, does that make Jesus a liar, or is he simply uninformed?

  5. If Jesus is wrong about me, does that make him not really Son of God? God's son should know what God knows and God knows everything, so how is it that he's wrong about me?

  6. God doesn't lie, so neither should His son, so did I really hear God testify to Jesus' identity or was that just my imagination?

So, based on a presumption, John's chain of logic might have driven him into such doubt and possible mis-judgement of Jesus. Scholars have concluded that John the Baptist was in jail no longer than 2 years, but that is a long time to be isolated in prison and it can have serious psychological effects on the mind, especially as dismal as the prisons were in those days.

This is purely my own speculation, based upon analysis of the known information and in large part based on an understanding of human nature and religious motivations. John was, of course both human and a highly religious person. Hopefully further discussion on these aspects may bring more wholesome understanding, rather than purely focussing on scriptural support for such assertions, which provide only a disjoint skeletal understanding of the events of the past.

  • Welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics! and thank you for your contribution. When you get a chance, please take the tour to understand how the site works and how it is different than others. I also recommend going through the Help Center's sections on both asking and answering questions.
    – agarza
    Jun 23, 2023 at 13:32
  • +1 - I'm sure many will disagree but that shouldn't prevent us from seeing a very thoughtful first effort here. Hope to hear more from you. On thing that crosses my mind [you mentioned this] is that John was more strict than Jesus about the Law (e.g. his criticism of Herod Antipas' marriage). He also was an ascetic while Jesus drank wine etc. Jun 23, 2023 at 14:08
  • This is certainly a well thought-out and presented answer, so an up-vote for that, though I don't agree with everything. When all the information in the scriptures is collated, then it can be seen that John the Baptist did not lie, especially when we grasp what Jesus meant by his clarifying statements about John.
    – Anne
    Jun 24, 2023 at 7:22
  • @Anne First off, thanks for your upvote! Next, if you got the impression that I indicated John would lie, that was not my intention in any way whatsoever. However, one doesn't need to lie to present the facts as questions or to seek an alternative explanation to the reality one faces. Please explain which part you disagree with and share your perspective on that/those point(s). I'm willing to explore other thoughts, as I'm certain I haven't gone down every possible rabbit hole of human logic. Jun 25, 2023 at 9:23
  • 1
    @Anne Since Jesus started his ministry after his baptism and 40 day fast in the wilderness, he had no apostles when he went to get baptized. Scholars say John the Apostle was a follower of John the Baptist. He may have actually been there when he baptised Jesus, so it seems the Gospel of John, attributed by bible scholars to John the Apostle, is the most credible account of that event. All other gospels are more indirect on this event, less detailed and maybe less precise. I failed to consider the reasons are not all mutually exclusive. We humans are each a mixed bag of thoughts and emotions. Jul 14, 2023 at 6:11

The question is important, as is the related question of why John, who was specially prepared to accept and testify to Jesus, did not become his disciple but died in prison wondering if Jesus was actually the Messiah or not. (Mt. 11:3 - “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?”)

I will look at two possible ways of reconciling the two verses.

    1. John was not the historical Elijah and thus answered truthfully, if coyly, even though he knew the prophecy of Luke 1:17 - "He will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah... to prepare a people fit for the Lord.”
    1. John was not aware of the prophecy of Luke 1, because this was given to his father, and his parents (who were very old) died before conveying it to John. Thus he answered in ignorance.

I prefer the second explanation. If John was aware of the prophecy, then there was no good reason from him to deny that that he was Elijah other than timidity to bear testimony, which would be highly uncharacteristic of him.

John's denial proved to be a serious problem when Jews considered the possibility that Jesus was the Messiah.

10 Then the disciples asked him, “Why do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?”

Matthew's account seems to imply that John's denial that he was Elijah played a role in Jesus' being rejected. Earlier, in Mt. 11, Jesus expresses disappointment in John's question, "are you he who is to come or should we look for another?"

I say to you, among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. 12 From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent are taking it by force. 13 All the prophets and the law prophesied up to the time of John. 14 And if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah, the one who is to come.

The phrase "if you are willing to accept it" would not be necessary if John had affirmed his providential role.

Given the serious consequences, I prefer to believe he denied his identity as Elijah in ignorance, rather than that he was playing coy with those who asked the question. At the very least, John must have been ignorant of the consequences of his denial.

  • Yes, Jesus says that John is "lower than the least in the kingdom of heaven", but that is true of all men, including Jesus himself. Jesus isn't putting John down, he is indicating the amazing potential that all humans share. As Psalms 8:4,5 says: "What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him? For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour.". This scripture is quoted in Hebrews 2:7 and 2:9 specifically referring to Jesus. Jun 22, 2023 at 13:25
  • point #1 is much more logical to accept than assuming on #2
    – VNPython
    Jun 22, 2023 at 13:56
  • @RayButterworth... Personally it is hard for me to read the preceding verses to "lower than the least in the kingdom" as anything but an expression of bitter disappointment in John, especially "blessed is he who takes no offense at me." The only other time Jesus says "the least in the kingdom" is when he refers to people who teach others not to honor the commandments. Matthew 5:19 Jun 22, 2023 at 15:35
  • @Dan Fefferman Might not John have believed that Jesus was the Messiah, but still have sent His disciples to ask Jesus, "Are you the one who is to come...?" So that John's disciples would hear from Jesus Himself Jesus' own testimony?
    – C. Stroud
    Jun 22, 2023 at 15:49
  • μικρότερος can mean "youngest" as well as "least" and was interpreted this way by at least some Greek Church Fathers, who explained that Jesus was referring to Himself, who was younger than John. See, e.g., Theophylact's commentary (I think).
    – user33515
    Jun 22, 2023 at 19:28

The parenthetical "(Elijah)" does not appear in Luke's text after messenger (ἄγγελός - angelos). Furthermore, the word is messenger (ἄγγελός), not prophet (προφήτης).

What appears is Behold, I will send my messenger [ἀποστέλλω τὸν ἄγγελόν μου]. Christ is quoting directly from Malachi 3:1 LXX:

ἰδοὺ ἐγὼ ἐξαποστέλλω τὸν ἄγγελόν μου,
καὶ ἐπιβλέψεται ὁδὸν πρὸ προσώπου μου,
καὶ ἐξαίφνης ἥξει εἰς τὸν ναὸν ἑαυτοῦ κύριος,ὃν ὑμεῖς ζητεῖτε,
καὶ ὁ ἄγγελος τῆς διαθήκης,
ὃν ὑμεῖς θέλετε,
ἰδοὺ ἔρχεται, λέγει κύριος παντοκράτωρ.

Behold, I send forth my messenger,
and he shall survey the way before me:
and the Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come into his temple,
even the angel of the covenant,
whom ye take pleasure in:
behold, he is coming, saith the Lord Almighty.

Άγγελός means both messenger and angel (angel is the anglicization of the Greek word). Brenton translates it alternately as messenger and angel in the Malachi Septuagint passage. Angels are frequently understood as God's messengers, but the word for messenger and angel in Greek are the same. Theophylact explains the meaning in the context of Luke:

Then the Lord introduces the testimony of the prophet Malachi, saying, This is he, of whom it is written, Behold I send My angel before thy Face. John was an angel [ἄγγελός] on account of his angelic and almost immaterial way of life, and because he announced [ἀνήγγειλεν] the Saviour's visitation among men.

  • Question.... Are you disputing that Jesus thought John was Elijah - or only that the name doesn't appear in this verse? Matthew 11:14 'And if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah, the one who is to come.' Jun 23, 2023 at 13:57

John the Baptist knew the Hebraic prophecies about a forerunner to the promised Messiah. Some think he did not know what was said in Luke 1:17 (by an angel to his father, before he was even conceived.) However, given the way the Holy Spirit was 'with him' even while he was in Elizabeth's womb, with her obedience to the command not to drink alcohol, which had to be conveyed to him so he also would not drink alcohol, it's perfectly reasonable to suppose that all of the angel's words were told to him. And John's prophetic life-style, and what he said about one coming after him who would baptise with the Holy Spirit, show that he knew he was preparing Israel for the coming Messiah. But it was not until Jesus presented himself to John for baptism at the Jordan river the next day after he'd denied those questions, that John then identified this Messiah.

John knew what was said in Malachi 3:1 and 4:5 about a messenger, and a messenger of the covenant, and the coming of 'Elijah the prophet'. He knew he was not the messenger of the covenant (Messiah), nor was he Elijah (who was bone-dead); John pointed to Jesus as the one who was superior to him, for that one had come before him. John knew he was merely the messenger. But there's more to this query about "the prophet".

It was the Messiah, Jesus, who was "the prophet like Moses" that John's questioners had in mind when they asked if John was "the prophet". Consider Deuteronomy 18:15-19, which Peter says in Acts 3:22-26 was fulfilled in Jesus, not John the Baptist. Jesus was the prophet Moses pointed to, anyone not listening to that future prophet to be cut off.

This means that John rightly denied being the Messiah, the messenger of the covenant; he rightly denied being Elijah (for he knew he was no reincarnation of that ancient prophet); he rightly denied being "the prophet" foretold by Moses. He knew his role was to prepare the way for the Messiah, and that he had power from the Holy Spirit to do that. His authority to tell Israel to repent and to be baptized came from heaven, because that was a vital requirement for Israelites to receive Jesus as the Messiah. John knew his role would diminish once Christ appeared, while Christ's role would increase, and once he'd verbally identified Jesus as the Messiah the day after he'd denied being those three ones, immediately two of his own disciples left him to follow Jesus.

To clinch it, Jesus himself identified John the Baptist:

"This is he, of whom it is written, Behold I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee." Luke 7:27 A.V. [Bold mine]

John's negative answers were all true. He was not the messenger of the covenant (that was Jesus); he was not Elijah (who was just a collection of bones); he was not the prophet like Moses (that was Jesus). He was merely God's messenger, sent to prepare the way before the messenger of the covenant, Jesus. Now, had John's questioners asked him if he was the messenger of Malachi, he might have said "Yes, that's who I am - a mere messenger."

P.S. you put as a quote, "‘Look, I am sending my messenger (Elijah) ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ Luke 7:26‭-‬27 NET." But the word 'Elijah' is not in any Greek text. It can be misleading to think that 'my messenger' should read, 'Elijah'.

Further, Jesus spoke to an audience about J the B; "And if ye will receive it, this is Elias, which was to come" Mat.11:14. Then in John 5:46 he said, "For had ye believed Moses, ye would have believed me: for he wrote of me." 16 verses on, when an audience saw his miracles, they said, "This is of a truth that prophet that should come into the world." John the B came in the power and spirit of Elijah, in a prophetic role, and was a messenger ahead of the Messenger of the Covenant, the Messiah, who was "that Prophet" Moses foretold. The relevant Hebrew prophecies speak of two covenants, two messengers, and two particular prophets: John the Baptist was never in the new covenant as he died before Jesus inaugurated it; Jesus was the messenger of the covenant. John was A messenger. Jesus was the supreme prophet, with John the Baptist foretelling his coming, making him A prophet, but not THAT prophet Moses foretold.

Once these distinctions are clear, then John the Baptist answered those 3 questions honestly. But those who did not understand the scriptures clearly would be puzzled - until they discovered the supreme role of the Christ. Then it would all make sense.

  • so jesus didnt expect john Baptist's answer to be negative which reflects badly on jesus when he is proclaiming to his audience... 😅
    – VNPython
    Jun 23, 2023 at 1:36
  • @VNPython Jesus spoke to an audience about J the B; "And if ye will receive it, this is Elias, which was to come" Mat.11:14. Then in John 5:46 he said, "For had ye believed Moses, ye would have believed me: for he wrote of me." 16 verses on, when an audience saw his miracles, they said, "This is of a truth that prophet that should come into the world." John the B came in the power and spirit of Elijah, in a prophetic role, and was a messenger ahead of the Messenger of the Covenant, the Messiah, who was "that Prophet" Moses foretold. Jesus acclaimed John the B, and vice versa.
    – Anne
    Jun 23, 2023 at 8:57
  • first of all, is Moses human or god? Does Moses lead the Israel closer or away to/from God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob? Trinity is a foreign idea, no?
    – VNPython
    Jun 23, 2023 at 12:47
  • @VNPython Your 3 Qs above make no sense in context of your Q which I answered. You would need to post 3 separate, fresh Qs on the Stack Christianity site if you wish to explore those different issues. The 'Comments' bit here is not for discussions or changing topics.
    – Anne
    Jun 23, 2023 at 13:53
  • you cant quote stuff without backing what your claim. that's why i follow up on what you claim for source.
    – VNPython
    Jun 24, 2023 at 0:04

The biggest error we commit while reading the Gospels is ignoring the fact that they have been written by different authors with their unique personal narrative. If you respect that fact, you shouldn't find these discrepancies disturbing.

The answers that contain desperate harmonization ignore fail to understand the subjective nature of the narratives. The discrepancies explain the perspective of John and the synoptic Gospels, either about the meaning of Elijah's return or the fact whether John the Baptist was Elijah.

  • so having discrepancy is normal and is acceptable? 😅
    – VNPython
    Jun 22, 2023 at 13:53
  • anyway will go thru each discrepancy in the link and read about them. thanks for the link
    – VNPython
    Jun 22, 2023 at 14:04
  • 1
    Accepting the uniqueness of the narratives clears our discrepancies in interpreting ancient text.
    – Michael16
    Jun 22, 2023 at 14:25

Return of Elijah means return of the same characteristics. The same way we say springtime has come again (even though with the passage of time it's not literally last year's springtime that's come back). John the Baptist was the return of Elijah, not literally as in his body has physically returned as they are entirely different people who lived in different eras. It is the return of the spirit/characteristics not the physical body. For those curious to read it, The true meaning of the word "return" mentioned in the sacred scriptures has been fully explained in the Kitab-i-Iqan by Baha'u'llah.

  • Welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics! and thank you for your contribution. When you get a chance, please take the tour to understand how the site works and how it is different than others. I also recommend going through the Help Center's sections on both asking and answering questions.
    – agarza
    Jun 23, 2023 at 4:15

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