I received this perceptive question about Elijah and John the Baptist as a result of the sermon on Malachi 4. Because I did not have the opportunity to address this issue in the sermon, I wanted to share my response here.
Q: In the sermon from Malachi 4 entitled Where is God?, you mentioned Elijah and John the Baptist. Are you saying that Elijah was reincarnated as John the Baptist or did you mean that we need to believe that John the Baptist was a “type” of Elijah? And you said we need to believe that in faith. Why?
A: I wish there had been more time to explain Elijah and John the Baptist. Perhaps the easiest way to start is with the question, Why did God divide the Day of the Lord into two events (i.e. two different times when Jesus comes to the earth)? The Old Testament doesn’t give any hints that it might be two separate events. But, it needs to be two separate events because of the nature of God’s love for us.
Because the Day of the Lord is a day of judgment AND salvation, God didn’t want the Day of the Lord to come in its fullness yet because too many people would only experience judgment and not salvation (basically everyone). In order to bring the salvation aspect of the Day of the Lord, in many ways Jesus came disguised the first time he came. The first coming is only a partial fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies about the Day of the Lord. By doing it this way, God began to fulfill Old Testament prophecies now in part and in the spirit. That is the key. Jesus’ death and resurrection opened the door to salvation for all who will believe, which is why Jesus said that in his first coming he didn’t come to condemn but to save. He also said that he will come as Judge the second time. God’s grace to us is present in spirit and not yet in the fullness of what it will be.
As a sign of this, or perhaps because of it, the coming of Elijah in connection with the first advent of Jesus had to be in spirit. John the Baptist is not a reincarnation of Elijah, but fulfills in part the promise of the coming of Elijah, but does so in spirit. That’s why Jesus says we have to see with the eyes of faith. In Matthew 11:14, Jesus says of John the Baptist that he is the Elijah to come, “if you are willing to see it.” I think (and what follows is my theory with no specific Biblical proof) before Jesus’ second coming, the actual Elijah will return to earth. (There are two prophets who come back in Revelation. My guess is that they are Enoch and Elijah, the only two people in all of human history who didn’t die). In this way Elijah couldn’t actually come for Jesus’ first coming because he is supposed to proceed the fullness of Jesus’ coming to earth in Revelation. So God had Elijah come in spirit in the person of John the Baptist for Jesus’ first advent.
It is complex but because of how God chose to separate Jesus’ two comings, most of the Old Testament prophecies that are fulfilled in Jesus now are fulfilled in spirit and we are awaiting the day in which they will be fulfilled literally and completely.