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In Malachi 4:5 we find:

See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the LORD comes.

From this verse and possibly also because Elijah had been, like Enoch, resurrected into heaven without dying, the Jews clearly expected him to come before Messiah. What sort of Elijah were they expecting?

I am specifically looking for a Jewish perspective as viewed under an Evangelical view to help understand and provide background to passages in the gospels that mention the fulfillment.

In other words how does the actual appearance of Elijah differ from what they expected?

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    Since you aren't asking for a specifically Christian answer, you might be better off asking on BH. Or, possibly, poking around Jewish Life & Learning. Commented Jun 24, 2012 at 6:13
  • @JonEricson - See your point, made the question Evangelicl specific. Will probably answer myself.
    – Mike
    Commented Jun 24, 2012 at 6:47

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Some Jewish history explains that neither Enoch nor Elijah had sinned, and accordingly they did not die. The traditional expectation and view of Elijah were different from John the Baptist.

First, Elijah was someone who was always working for the church.

According to one Jewish historian “from the time of his appearance in the days of Ahab to that of his return as the forerunner of the Messiah” Elijah’s relationship to Israel is represented “as continuous, and that he is almost constantly introduced on the scene, either as in converse with some Rabbi, or else as busy about Israel’s welfare, and connected with it.” ('The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah', by Alfred Edersheim)

With respect to his final ‘coming’ he was supposed to come very closely before the Messiah. However Elijah was not supposed to come in ‘spirit and power’ but in person, in his flesh. He was to have a similar but lesser role to that of Messiah. For example, just as with the Messiah (see this post for what they expected of Messiah) Elijah was “to appear, then to disappear and to appear again in the wars of Gog and Magog” (Seder Olam Rabbah.7.). But after Elijah would discharge his peculiar functions along side of the Messiah, everything else fell under the work of the Messiah only.

Regarding Elijah’s close relationship with Messiah he was to appear suddenly, not on a Sabbath or feast-day, possibly “three days before the Messiah” (Yalkut, vol. 2)

This verse leads to an interesting expectation:

How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, "Your God reigns!" (Isaiah 52:7)

On the first of those three days, “Elijah would stand on the mountains of Israel, lamenting the desolateness of the land, his voice being heard from one end of the world to the other, after which he would proclaim: ‘Peace’ cometh to the world; ‘peace’ cometh to the world! Similarly on the second day he would proclaim, ‘Good’ cometh to the world; ‘good’ cometh to the world! Lastly, on the third day, he would, in the same manner as the two previous days, make proclamation: ‘Jeshuah6423 (salvation) cometh to the world; Jeshuah (salvation) cometh to the world,’” ('The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah', by Alfred Edersheim)

Conclusion: Although the differences are substantial, it further conforms that prophecy was never meant to be absolutely understood, but did provide a certain level of expectation that would be satisfied and more fully explained, when the event actually took place.

For understanding the conflicting ambiguity and uncertainty of prophecy my recent addition to this post.

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Even today, Jews expect the coming of Elijah. His spirit is the unseen guest at every Passover table, and the liturgy for that holiday often includes the following hymn:

Elijah the prophet
Elijah the Tishbite
Elijah the Giladite -

May he soon (in our days) come to us,
with the messiah son of David.

In terms of what the Jews expected of him in the first century, the Jewish Encyclopedia says:

The climax of Elijah's activity is his appearance shortly before the Messianic time. "He is appointed to lead aright the coming ages, to restore the tribes of Jacob," says Ben Sira of him (Ecclus. [Sirach] xlviii. 10, 11). In the second half of the first Christian century it was expected that Elijah would appear shortly before the coming of the Messiah, to restore to families the purity which in the course of time had become doubtful (this is the opinion of Johanan b. Zakkai).

The New Testament confirms Rabbi Johanan's opinion: Elijah must come before the messiah appears:

And they asked him [Jesus], “Why do the scribes say that first Eli′jah must come?” And he said to them, “Eli′jah does come first to restore all things... But I tell you that Eli′jah has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased.” (Mark 9:11-13)

Matthew 17:13 adds: "Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them of John the Baptist." Since the sources are scanty regarding Elijah's importance in first century Judaism the following other ancient reference may also be useful:

A century later the notion prevailed that Elijah's office was "to bring peace and adjust all differences." It was expected that all controversies and legal disputes which had accumulated in the course of time would be adjusted by him, and that difficult ritual questions and passages of Scripture seemingly conflicting with each other would be explained, so that no difference of opinion would exist concerning anything...The notion which prevailed at the time of the origin of Christianity, that Elijah's mission as forerunner of the Messiah consisted mainly in changing the mind of the people and leading them to repentance, is not unknown to rabbinical literature (Pirḳe R. El. xliii., xlvii.). His real Messianic activity—-in some passages he is even called "go'el" (redeemer)—-will commence three days before the coming of the Messiah... When the archangel Michael blows the trumpet, Elijah will appear with the Messiah, whom he will present to the Jews.

What seems clear is that Elijah was definitely expected, and his role was very significant. Jesus' disciples worried that Elijah's non-appearance was a serious roadblock to their master's being accepted, especially by Jews familiar with the scriptures. Meanwhile, the New Testament portrays the early ministry of John the Baptist as extremely successful, so much so that Luke 3:15 says: "the people were in expectation, and all men questioned in their hearts concerning John, whether perhaps he were the Christ." However, all apparently did not go as hoped:

when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed, he did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Eli′jah?” He said, “I am not.” (John 1:19-21)

John's denial that he was Elijah may have been extremely problematic in terms of the Jews being able to accept Jesus. In the end, he died in prison, and the prophecy of Malachi 4:4 still awaits fulfillment, along with the Jewish hope that he will precede the advent of the messiah.

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    Re John 1:19-21 when John denies being Elijah, is there a sense that the elders expected the actual physical return of Elijah from heaven? Later in John and elsewhere John says he is "Elijah". Ye yourselves bear me witness, that I said, I am not the Christ, but that I am sent before him. John 3:28, let alone John 1:23. So, a case of mistaking a type of recall from the dead, rather than in the spirit of Elijah.
    – SLM
    Commented Oct 5, 2022 at 4:05
  • The sources are unclear regarding the physical "second coming" of Elijah vs. someone else coming to fulfill his mission. I don't see anywhere else where John reverses his denial. In 3:28 he is reaffirming that he is not the Christ. Commented Oct 5, 2022 at 13:26
  • John 3:28 quotes John as saying I am sent before Messiah. That's the requirement of "Elijah". John says he is the voice saying make smooth the paths, which is another requirement. So, John fulfilled the role of Elijah though he denies actually being Elijah. The expectation of a "back from the dead" Elijah was misplaced.
    – SLM
    Commented Oct 5, 2022 at 15:35

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