After a recent speaking engagement at a college, the following
question was sent to me by a student who had listened to my lectures:
"I want to know your opinion on something: Why, in your opinion,
did Jesus claim that John the Baptist was Elijah, even though John
himself had denied that claim?" (Matthew 11:1-19, John 1:21)
Because Elijah had been taken into heaven alive without experiencing death, a great deal of Jewish tradition centered around this
holy prophet returning to Earth someday heralding in the Messiah. To
this day, Passover celebrations leave a seat and wine cup for Elijah in
case Elijah returns to “crash the party.”
This tradition is rooted in Scripture. The prophet Malachi wrote
about Elijah’s return. Malachi was the last of the Hebrew prophets.
"See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the LORD comes” (Malachi 4:5).
A 400 year period of silence existed from the time of Malachi to the
first preaching of a new prophet in the Judean wilderness, called John.
This itself would have been sufficient cause for excitement. The idea
that he might actually be Elijah returned to earth made John’s ministry
even more significant.
Certainly it was possible for God to send Elijah back to Earth but
since John the Baptist was born like the rest of us, and since the story
of his parents and birth are found in the early chapters of Luke, for
him to be Elijah, we would have to be talking about some kind of
reincarnation. The Bible does not support reincarnation (Heb 9:27).
In any event, as indicated in the question, John was asked point
blank if he was one and the same as Elijah and he denied the insinuation
(John 1:21). But Jesus said to His disciples regarding John, “And if
you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come” (Matt
Actually, these two passages are easily reconciled. John the Baptist was not Elijah reincarnated but Elijah the Second, i.e. a person who was going to be coming in the same Spirit and power as Elijah. This very fact was prophesied over baby John
"And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of
Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the
disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous--to make ready a people
prepared for the Lord” ( Luke 1:17).
The specific manifestation of the Holy Spirit that gave Elijah a
unique ministry would also come upon John, just as it once came upon
Elijah's disciple Elisha.
And so, John was denying being Elijah himself, literally. Jesus was talking about an Elijah the Second.