WAS JOHN THE BAPTIST REALLY ELIJAH?
by Shawn Brasseaux
“Was John the Baptist really Elijah? Matthew 11:14.”
Thank you for this question. We will read the verse and its context, and then provide commentary by using parallel verses.
Matthew chapter 11: “ And as they departed, Jesus began to say unto the multitudes concerning John, What went ye out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken with the wind?  But what went ye out for to see? A man clothed in soft raiment? behold, they that wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses.  But what went ye out for to see? A prophet? yea, I say unto you, and more than a prophet.  For this is he, of whom it is written, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee.  Verily I say unto you, Among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist: notwithstanding he that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.  And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force.  For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John.  And if ye will receive it, this is Elias, which was for to come.  He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.”
So, returning to your question, “Was John the Baptist really Elijah?”
Luke chapter 1 sheds light on the topic in question. The Bible says in Luke 1:16-17: “ And many of the children of Israel shall he turn to the Lord their God. And he should go before him [the Messiah, Jesus] in the spirit and power of Elias, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” These words were spoken by the angel to Zacharias, the father of John, just before John was born.
John the Baptist was not Elijah reincarnated or resurrected if that is what you are asking. Still, as the angel suggested, John the Baptist and Elijah had similar ministries. The Prophet Elijah lived in a time when false religion was being introduced into the northern kingdom, Israel. This was because of its sanction by King Ahab and Queen Jezebel. Elijah was sent to preach against such wickedness and apostasy. He was one of the few men who remained faithful to JEHOVAH God. You can read about Elijah’s ministry from 1 Kings chapter 17 through 2 Kings chapter 2. About 800 years later, John the Baptist was sent to Israel to call out a people for God’s name from among apostate Israel.
When Jesus mentioned John the Baptist in Matthew 11:10, He quoted Malachi 3:1 as a reference to John: “For this is he, of whom it is written, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee.” In the closing verses of Malachi, chapter 4, we read: “ Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD:  And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.” As we just saw, the angel quoted this passage to Zacharias concerning his son John the Baptist. We can see parallels between Elijah and John the Baptist within the Prophet Malachi’s short book.
The book of Malachi was written about 400 B.C., some 450 years after Elijah the Prophet conducted his ministry in Israel’s northern kingdom. So, we know Malachi is talking about some future ministry of someone named “Elijah” (Malachi 4:5-6). It appears that Malachi 4:5-6 has a dual application. Matthew and Luke say that it first refers to John the Baptist. About 400 years after Malachi wrote, John the Baptist came to introduce Jesus Christ’s First Coming.
Matthew 17:10-13 seems to help us better understand Matthew 11:14. We read in Matthew 17:10-13: “ And his disciples asked him, saying, Why then say the scribes that Elias must first come?  And Jesus answered and said unto them, Elias truly shall first come, and restore all things.  But I say unto you, That Elias is come already, and they knew him not, but have done unto him whatsoever they listed. Likewise shall also the Son of man suffer of them.  Then the disciples understood that he spake unto them of John the Baptist.”
In this passage, we see two individuals referred to as “Elias” (the Greek form of the Hebrew, “Elijah”):
- ELIJAH AS ONE OF THE “TWO WITNESSES.” Jesus’ disciples asked Him why “Elias” is prophesied to “first come.” This is the Elijah of Malachi 4:5-6, the one spoken of in the prophets. Jesus replies, “Elias truly shall first come, and restore all things” (verse 11). Note the future tense. Jesus speaks of an “Elias” that will come future from His earthly ministry in the first century A.D. That is the prophet Elijah functioning as one of the two witnesses of the seven-year Tribulation (cf. Revelation 11:3-13). These two witnesses come before Jesus Christ’s Second Coming.
- JOHN THE BAPTIST’S MINISTRY SIMILAR TO ELIJAH’S ANCIENT MINISTRY. Then, the Lord Jesus talked about “That Elias is come already, and they knew him not, but have done unto him whatsoever they listed” (verse 12). Notice, the past tense. This is someone who already came and left before Jesus’ words in Matthew chapter 17. That refers to someone paralleling Elijah’s ministry, not actually Elijah himself though. Jesus was talking about John the Baptist there (see verse 13). John the Baptist had been put to death, just as the Jews wanted.
Just as the Prophet Elijah will function as one of the two witnesses, leading people to Jesus Christ during the seven-year Tribulation, whose preaching keeps Israel’s believing remnant pure for Christ’s coming kingdom, John the Baptist did the same in history to form a group of believing Jews during the beginning of Christ’s earthly ministry (which could have led to Israel’s kingdom had they accepted Jesus 2,000 years ago). Actually, had Israel trusted Jesus Christ 20 centuries ago, John the Baptist could have substituted for Elijah’s future ministry. Matthew 11:14 again: “And if ye will receive it [the kingdom of heaven, verses 11-12], this [John the Baptist, verses 11-13] is Elias, which was for to come. He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.” In addition, we see that the Elijah of the Old Testament was forming a believing remnant in the midst of intense false religious reforms during the reigns of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel.
This is a unique teaching method throughout God’s Word. These are called “shadows,” or “types” and “antitypes,” or “rehearsals.” God is constantly using various parallels from history to communicate truth about future events. This is the beauty of the Holy Bible. Some end-time examples include: Nebuchadnezzar as a preview of the Antichrist, the Great Flood of Noah’s day as a picture of the wrath of God during the seven-year Tribulation, Jonah being a preview of Jesus Christ being dead three days and three nights, King Saul a preview of the Antichrist, King David a picture of Israel’s believing remnant during the seven-year Tribulation, Solomon being a picture of Jesus Christ as King, Job as a picture of Israel’s believing remnant during the seven-year Tribulation, Passover a picture of Calvary, Pentecost a preview of Acts chapter 2, Israel’s battles of old being rehearsals for the major battle that Jesus Christ will fight at His Second Coming, and so on. So, it is not difficult to see how God’s Word would connect Elijah’s ministry of old with John the Baptist’s ministry and the ministry Elijah will have yet future during the tyrannical reign of the Antichrist.