As I was reading Matthew I had a thought about John the Baptist. Given the fact that in Matthew 11 Jesus says John the Baptist is Elijah I began to wonder, was John the Baptist actually Elijah himself, or was he merely the fulfillment of the prophecy spoken of in Malachi?
Let’s explore the angle of John being Elijah himself first. To do this, we need descriptions of the two. ‘Elijah wore a camel’s hair girdle and he wore a rough garment.’ (http://carm.org/bible-difficulties/matthew-mark/was-john-baptist-really-elijah) Here is the description of John from the 3rd chapter of Matthew: “Now John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.” As we can see, the descriptions are already strikingly similar. This can raise another question: does this mean that John was the reincarnation of Elijah?
In a word: no. ‘The idea of reincarnation was completely foreign to the Jews and faithful Jews would have rejected this notion. Besides, Elijah didn’t die; he was taken up in a whirlwind.’ (http://www.gotquestions.org/John-Baptist-Elijah.html) It is also unlikely that John was just Elijah assuming a new identity. In chapter 17, Moses and Elijah appeared before Jesus and the apostles in the transfiguration.
However, we cannot ignore the return prophecy, which states that Elijah must come first and restore all things before the Lord comes. Also, in response to the apostles’ question on the matter, Jesus states, “But I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but did to him whatever they pleased.” The apostles understood that he was talking about John the Baptist.
So, how was John the Baptist not actually Elijah then? Well, the answer comes in the book of Luke. “In Luke 1:17, we learn that the angel Gabriel told Zacharias, John’s father, that John would fulfill Malachi 4:6, stating that he would go before the Lord ‘in the spirit and power of Elijah.’” (http://www.equip.org/article/was-john-the-baptist-elijah/) Also, John himself denied being Elijah. With the way he preached his ministry, John the Baptist was denying that he was Elijah. At the same time, he knew that he was ‘to function in that role in the in the spirit of Elijah.’ (http://www.equip.org/article/was-john-the-baptist-elijah/)
Interestingly enough, ‘the whole debate about the Elijah prophecy was the reason why the Jewish people rejected Jesus as the Messiah.’ The priests interpreted the prophecy as to saying Elijah would literally raise up out of the ground, or come down from Heaven (not reincarnated as demonstrated earlier). Since the messenger was John the Baptist and not Elijah himself, the Jewish people felt that Jesus was lying. (http://bci.org/prophecy-fulfilled/elijah.htm)
Speculation continues today as to the true identity of John the Baptist. Given the research, I believe that John the Baptist was indeed the fulfillment of the prophecy, but he was neither Elijah nor the incarnation of Elijah.