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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

up vote 1 down vote accepted

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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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
I'd rather see an answer written for the question than copied from external sources.… –  dancek Sep 1 '11 at 12:30

1.John's act of ‘Baptism by Water’ was not explicitly prophesied!

The prophecy of John was vague and a puzzle to piece. The prophecy of John could not be understood by the scribes and interpreters but only through the Holy Spirit.

Luk 1:67 And his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied, saying,

2. Their dress sense does not make them identical, but it implies:

  • Isolated from the passions of daily life
  • Not 'Fine' gentlemen but
  • 'Wilderness men' who Trusted in God for their sustenance

Now John wore a garment of camel's hair and a leather belt around his waist (Mat 3:4)


They answered him, "He wore a garment of hair, with a belt of leather about his waist." And he said, "It is Elijah the Tishbite." (2Ki 1:8)

Cross referencing Jesus' teaching of how John and Elijah fit:

Therefore do not be anxious, saying, 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?' or 'What shall we wear?' For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. (Mat 6:31-33)

3. Elijah's goal was to convert people to YHWH

1Ki 18:18 And he answered, "I have not troubled Israel, but you have, and your father's house, because you have abandoned the commandments of the LORD and followed the Baals. ... 1Ki 18:36 And at the time of the offering of the oblation, Elijah the prophet came near and said, "O LORD, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, and that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your word.

So also John, who led people closer to God:

Luk 7:29 (When all the people heard this, and the tax collectors too, they declared God just, having been baptized with the baptism of John, Luk 7:30 but the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected the purpose of God for themselves, not having been baptized by him.)

4.John & Elijah - The Greats! (i.e. Righteous)

Now to prepare the way of Jesus one was chosen who should be significant in God's eyes. Elijah was a great prophet on account of his holiness and righteousness. So, also John!

Of John

'Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.' (Mat 11:11)

'for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother's womb. Gabriel' (Luke 1:15 )

Of Elijah:

"My father, my father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!" -Elisha (2Ki 2:12)

The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. (Jas 5:16,17)

Righteousness for thought!

1Pe 3:12 For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears are open to their prayer. 1Jn 2:29 If you know that he is righteous, you may be sure that everyone who practices righteousness has been born of him.

5. John & Elijah - The Persecuted!

A. Herodias like Jezebel

Mar 6:19 And Herodias had a grudge against him and wanted to put him to death. But she could not,


1Ki 19:2 Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, "So may the gods do to me and more also, if I do not make your life as the life of one of them by this time tomorrow."

B. Unbelief and confrontation of the Pharisees like prophets of Baal:

Mat 21:25 The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?" And they discussed it among themselves, saying, "If we say, 'From heaven,' he will say to us, 'Why then did you not believe him?'

John 1:24-25 (Now they had been sent from the Pharisees.) They asked him, "Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?"

C. Doubting Herod like Ahab

'When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed, and yet he heard him gladly.' (Mark 6:19-20)

John and Elijah's examples = testimony of great faith

'They were stoned to death, sawed in half, and killed with swords. They went around in sheepskins and goatskins. They were needy, oppressed, and mistreated. The world wasn't worthy of them. They wandered in deserts, mountains, caves, and holes in the ground.' (Hebrews 11:37-38 ISV)

6. John was a great & popular prophet like Elijah

John was heard & feared by Herod: {Irresistible charisma & message} And Herodias had a grudge against him and wanted to put him to death. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he kept him safe. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed, and yet he heard him gladly. (Mark 6:19-20)

Was set apart from birth

And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High - Luk 1:76

Many believed in John:

John came to you and showed you the way that God wants you to live, but you didn't believe him. The tax collectors and prostitutes believed him. But even after you had seen that, you didn't change your minds and believe him. (Mat 21:32 GW)

A great teacher

Luk 11:1 Now Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he finished, one of his disciples said to him, "Lord, teach us to pray, as [John] taught his disciples."

John Had disciples

Mat 9:14 Then John's disciples came to Jesus.

His travels and popularity

The word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness. And he went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. (Luke 3:2-3)

John was greater than Elijah, hence chosen as the special 'Voice' to prepare the way for Jesus i.e. people believed in John and his message so he could direct people to Jesus when the Christ appeared on the scene.

Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. (Mat 11:11)

7. The Mystery of John as Elijah

  • The prophecy was a mystery and was revealed by the Angel and Holy spirit.
  • It was not possible for humans to fit the puzzle.
  • Jesus and John also showed us how to solve the puzzle. John denied he was literally Elijah. Reading the bible, led people to believe Elijah would rise and return to restore.
  • The 'spirit and power' of Elijah is in the context of chosen, holy and righteousness.
  • God did raise a prophet greater than Elijah that Christ may be accepted. (Yet the leaders rejected both John and Jesus)

And many came to him. And they said, "John did no sign, but everything that John said about this man was true." And many believed in him there. (John 10:41-42)

Before Christ appeared for his public ministry, John was Great, but after that time he directed people very explicitly to Christ -

He must increase, but I must decrease." (John 3:29, 30)

John's key message parallel'd with Jesus': 'Be Fruitful'

Mat 3:8 Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. - John

Mat 7:19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. - Jesus


And if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. He who has ears to hear, let him hear. (Mat 11:14, 15)

'If you are willing to accept it' – implying it was not obvious!

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