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This should be straightforward, as John the Baptist explicitly says that he isn't:

John 1:19-21 (ESV)
19 And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, "Who are you?" 20 He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, "I am not the Christ." 21 And they asked him, "What then? Are you Elijah?" He said, "I am not." "Are you the Prophet?" And he answered, "No."

However, Jesus has something to say about the matter, too:

Matthew 11:13-14 (ESV)
13 For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John, 14 and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come.

So was he Elijah or not? Why do Jesus and John say such different things?

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I'm reminded that Jesus does likewise regarding himself: he orders his disciples not to tell anyone he is the Christ (Matthew 16:20)‌​; when the council asks him directly whether he is Christ, he gives evasive answers like "You wouldn't believe me if I told you" (Luke 22:67); etc. –  Muke Tever Feb 17 '12 at 13:28

3 Answers 3

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I've read articles which interpret the word translated as "spirit" in Luke 1:17 to mean something like "motivational attitude" as in "team spirit." I don't think that is what Luke 1:17 means. Let's compare the language of Luke 1:17 with other scripture:

Luke 1:17 - [Angelic messenger speaking to Zacharias] - And he (Gk. autos) shall be coming first in view of him (Gk. autou) in the spirit (Gk. pneumatos) and ability of Elijah...

compare with:

James 2:26 - As even the body apart from the spirit (pneumatos) dead is ...

To James, the word pneumatos meant the spiritual force which gives life to the material body. It seems likely that John used the word in the same sense. Therefore, "he" is going to be born with the spirit that gave life to Elijah's body giving life to his body.

It is possible, though, to question the antecedent of the pronoun autou ("him") from Luke 1:17. This might have referred to either John or perhaps Jesus (for whom it could be said that John "came first in the sight of").

Returning to your question around John 1:19-21, let's extend our research three more verses, to the end of the conversation in question, that is through John 1:24.

First, John said to the priests in 1:23 that John is the one sent to make the way straight for the Master, as per the prophecy from Isaiah.

Most important however, is John 1:24: "And the ones having been dispatched were out of the Pharisees."

Compare this to Jesus' teaching as to what one does with a Christian brother who will not repent from sin against you even when your church has asked them to, Matthew 18:17, "... let him be as unto you as one of those from nations (Gk. ethnikos) and the tax-collector."

A Pharisee is one of those from nations. The relevance of John 1:24 may be that John's statements to his inquisitors were less than forthcoming. It is possible that his answer "I am not" might have been further elaborated, "I am not, I am his return, named John."

In other words John 1:19-24 is the presumably true account of John's possibly misleading responses to hostile inquisitors.

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  1. He was Elijah but didn't know it

  2. The Malachi prophecy was not a literal return of Elijah, but rather that one day someone would come fulfilling the prophetic office of Elijah.

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Can you support at least #2 with Scriptural references? –  El'endia Starman Oct 3 '11 at 3:51
    
Malachi 4:5, john 1 and Matthew 11:14 –  jchaffee Oct 3 '11 at 3:53
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Feel free to incorporate those into your answer. –  El'endia Starman Oct 3 '11 at 3:59
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But they are already posted above, I don't want to clutter up the page with more text than I need to. –  jchaffee Oct 3 '11 at 4:02
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Honestly, you don't need to worry about that. There are answers on this site that are gigantic, spanning multiple pages. A few Scripture references isn't gonna do much. –  El'endia Starman Oct 3 '11 at 4:03

Malachi had prophesied that “Elijah” would prepare the way for the Messiah (Mal. 3:1; 4:5). He did not actually imply only a literal reappearance of Elijah, and John’s earlier denial that he was Elijah (John 1:21) was probably an attempt to correct a popular belief that Elijah himself would reappear. Before John’s birth, he was designated as the one who would minister in the “spirit and power of Elijah” (Luke 1:17), thereby fulfilling Malachi’s prophecy.

Crossway Bibles: The ESV Study Bible. Wheaton, IL : Crossway Bibles, 2008, S. 1842

John the Baptist, preacher of repentance and faith, was accordingly the Elijah who was to come. Like the Elijah of old, John too was a preacher of repentance. The two resembled each other also in the sudden character of their appearance, the incisiveness of their message, and the simplicity of their life. See on Matthew 3:3. True, John was not literally Elijah (John 1:21), but inwardly he was indeed, for “he went forth in the spirit and power of Elijah” (Luke 1:17), and was therefore called Elijah by no one less than Jesus himself (Matt. 17:12).

Hendriksen, William ; Kistemaker, Simon J.: New Testament Commentary : Exposition of the Gospel According to Matthew. Grand Rapids : Baker Book House, 1953-2001 (New Testament Commentary 9), S. 490

When asked: “Are you Elijah?” John clearly answered: “I am not.” (John 1:21) It had, however, been foretold that John would precede the Messiah “with Elijah’s spirit and power.” (Luke 1:17; Malachi 4:5, 6) In other words, John the Baptizer was Elijah in the sense that he carried out a work comparable to that of Elijah.

Watchtower 2001 5/1 Box on p. 22 DOES THE BIBLE TEACH REINCARNATION?

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Well said! Covered it well. –  RolandiXor Aug 24 '11 at 16:33
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I'd rather see an answer written for the question than copied from external sources. meta.christianity.stackexchange.com/questions/154/… –  dancek Sep 1 '11 at 12:30

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