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Elijah and John the Baptist


PROPHET ELIJAH AND JOHN THE BAPTIST

Elijah in Hebrew and Elias in Greek mean “My God is Yahweh.” He was a prominent prophet in Northern Israel in the ninth century BC. Like Jesus, he performed miracles including bringing down fire from the sky on the burned offering, wood, stones, and dust (1 Kgs 18:19-40), multiplied a jar of flour and a jug of oil in Zarephath for a long time (1 Kgs 17:7-16), raised the son of a widow in Zarephath (1 Kgs 17:17-24), and was taken up by God in a whirlwind to heaven without facing death (2 Kgs 2:11). However, Jesus worked more miracles than Elijah.

Malachi had prophesied that Elijah would reappear as a forerunner of the Messiah. “Now I am sending to you Elijah the prophet, before the day of the LORD comes, the great and terrible day” (Mal 3:23 / 4:5). The Jews have been expecting the physical reappearance of Elijah and that is still a part of the Passover ritual of the Jews. Though John the Baptist came according to this prophecy, some believed that Jesus was the forerunner of the Messiah to come because the actions of Jesus resembled that of Elijah (Mt 16:14; Lk 9:19). Elijah and Moses appeared and spoke with Jesus for which Peter, James, and John were witnesses (Mk 9:4). It is appropriate that this prophet give witness to Jesus fulfilling the prophecy that he would return before the day of the Lord.

ELIJAH MUST COME FIRST

God had announced the sending of the precursor of the Messiah – “Now I am sending my messenger – he will prepare the way before me; And the lord whom you seek will come suddenly to his temple” (Mal 3:1). Through Malachi, God specified the messenger would be Elijah’s return – “Now I am sending to you Elijah the prophet, before the day of the LORD comes, the great and terrible day; he will turn the heart of fathers to their sons, and the heart of sons to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with utter destruction” (Mal 3:23-24).

The Jews took that in a literal sense and expected that Elijah, whom God took to heaven in a whirlwind (2 Kgs 2:11) without facing death, would return in person before the Messiah. The apostles also believed the same.

Jesus agreed with the apostles’ understanding that Elijah must come prior to the Messiah to fulfil the prophecy (Mk 9:12). Jesus told them, “I tell you that Elijah has already come and they have treated him as they pleased, as the Scriptures say of him” (Mk 9:13).

When the Angel Gabriel announced the birth of John the Baptist to his father Zechariah, he predicted the child to be born as a spiritual return of Elijah. “He will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah to turn the hearts of fathers towards children and the disobedient to the understanding of the righteous, to prepare a people fit for the Lord” (Lk 1:17). Jesus confirmed this in his testimony about John to the crowd, saying, “This is the one about whom it is written: ‘Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you; he will prepare your way before you’” (Mt 11:10). Jesus continued, “If you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah, the one who is to come” (Mt 11:14). When Matthew reports on the discussion of Jesus and the three apostles during their return from the mountain of Transfiguration, he added, “Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them of John the Baptist” (Mt 17:13).

John the Baptist, who came in the spirit and power of Elijah, experienced acceptance, rejection, and martyrdom. People from Jerusalem, Judaea, and Jordan came to listen to John and received the baptism of repentance from him (Mt 3:5-7). The Jewish leaders from Jerusalem sent Levites, priests, and Pharisees to check on his identity (Jn 1:19-28) and, then, rejected him. Because John questioned the immoral life of King Herod Antipas and Herodias, the king imprisoned him and later beheaded him (Mt 14:1-12).

Jesus mentioned the people’s response to John to relate that to his passion and death in fulfilment of what God had predicted of him through the prophets (Isa 53). Jesus told the three apostles, “I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him but did to him whatever they pleased. So also will the Son of Man suffer at their hands” (Mt 17:12).

SIMILARITIES BETWEEEN ELIJAH AND JOHN THE BAPTIST

1. Elijah and John were prominent prophets of their time who got the recognition of Jesus. At the transfiguration of Jesus, Elijah represented the prophets of the old to appear with Moses, the lawgiver (Mt 17:3). Jesus said about John: “Amen, I say to you, among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist” (Mt 11:11).

2. Both preached for a conversion of heart and return to the true Lord and His commandments. Elijah said to the people gathered on Mount Carmel: “How long will you straddle the issue? If the LORD is God, follow him; if Baal, follow him” (1 Kgs 18:21). John asked the Pharisees and the Sadducees, “Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance” (Mt 3:8).

3. Elijah and John had similar attire and thus shared a resemblance in appearance. Elijah “wore a hairy garment with a leather belt around his waist” (2 Kgs 1:8). “John wore clothing made of camel’s hair and had a leather belt around his waist” (Mt 3:4).

4. Both Elijah and John had unusual food in the desert. God sent ravens to Elijah with bread and meat in the morning and in the evening. He drank from the wadi” (1 Kgs 17:6). John’s food was locusts and wild honey (Mt 3:4).

5. They both questioned the false practices of the religious leaders of their time. Elijah fought against the pagan worship of Baal that Jezebel had introduced among the Israelites. John questioned the hypocrisy of the religious leaders. “When he saw many of the Pharisees and the Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?’” (Mt 3:7)

6. Elijah and John criticized the corrupt kings of the time. When King Ahab accused Elijah as “disturber of Israel,” he replied, “It is not I who disturb Israel, but you and your father’s house, by forsaking the commands of the LORD and you by following the Baals” (1 Kgs 17-18). Herod Antipas imprisoned John the Baptist because he confronted the king, emphasizing that it was unlawful for him to keep his brother’s wife as his own (Mt 14:3-4).

7. The evil queen of the time influenced the king to kill Elijah and John for their righteous attitude. After Elijah murdered all the false prophets, Jezebel decided to kill him. So, he had to flee to save his life (1Kgs 19:1-3). Herodias prompted her daughter to ask Herod to give her the head of John on a platter. “The king was distressed, but because of his oaths and the guests who were present, he ordered that it be given, and he had John beheaded in prison” (Mt 14:9-10).

DIFFERENCES BETWEEN ELIJAH AND JOHN THE BAPTIST

However, there were differences also between Elijah and John, which might have caused the Jews not to consider John as the return of Elijah. Elijah worked sixteen miracles, whereas John worked none. Even then, people accepted John as a great prophet. God took Elijah to heaven without having him face death. While Elijah and Elisha “walked on still conversing, a fiery chariot and fiery horses came between the two of them, and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind, and Elisha saw it happen” (2 Kgs 2:11- 12). King Herod Antipas beheaded John and his disciples buried him (Mk 6:17-29).

The Jews had expected that Elijah would arrive physically from where he exists because God took him out of the earth without facing death. However, John was born as the son of Zechariah and Elizabeth. According to the Angel Gabriel, John “will go before him (the Messiah) in the spirit and power of Elijah” (Lk 1:17). So, John was not the reappearance of Elijah but a different person who came in the spirit and power of Elijah fulfilling Malachi’s prophecy. Jesus affirmed it, saying, “And if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah, the one who is to come” (Mt 11:14). So, the disciples became convinced of the role of John the Baptist as the second Elijah, who came to prepare the way for the Messiah.


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