The Prophet Who Came Before John the Baptist
With Advent right around the corner, we will soon be hearing a lot about John the Baptist. John the Baptist has a crucial role in salvation history, as he prepared the way for Jesus to come into the world. Even before he was born, John leapt in his mother’s womb to announce Jesus (Luke 1:41). Jesus himself said, “Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist” (Matthew 11:11). Because of his role in heralding the Messiah and calling people to repentance to ready their hearts for Him, we honor John the Baptist even to this day.
Just like the rest of God’s plan for salvation, the role of John is one that fits into a perfectly laid plan. John’s role can be traced back to a prophet of the Old Testament named Elijah. Elijah is considered one of the greatest prophets. He is known for calling the Israelites back to God after they started worshipping Baal under the influence of Jezebel and Ahab. After appointing Elisha as his successor, Elijah was carried to heaven in a chariot of fire.
But this is not the last we hear of Elijah. In the Book of Malachi, the prophet relates these words of God: “Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes” (Malachi 4:5). Because of this, the Israelites expected that Elijah would come before the Messiah. Some people even thought that Jesus was Elijah before they learned that He was the Messiah.
Other people thought that John the Baptist was Elijah. The descriptions of the appearances of both men are strikingly similar: Elijah was “a hairy man, with a leather belt around his waist” (2 Kings 1:8) who was known for his simplicity, and John the Baptist “wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey” (Matthew 3:4). It was also clear that both men were deeply devoted to obedience to God and that they were urgently calling God’s people back to Him.
However, John explicitly says that he is not Elijah (John 1:21). Later, Jesus appears to contradict this when he says about John, “he is Elijah who is to come” (Matthew 11:14). But there is an important distinction here. We can understand that Jesus is not saying John is literally Elijah, as reincarnation is not a Catholic belief. What we can infer is that John had the spirit of Elijah. He fulfilled the role that the returned Elijah was meant to have by preparing the way for the Lord.
The important thing to remember from Elijah and John the Baptist and their relationship with one another is their message of returning to God. Both had essential tasks from God at crucial points in history. Without Elijah, Israel might have abandoned God and turned to Baal worship. Without John the Baptist, the world would not be prepared for Jesus. Elijah and John shared a common message of cleansing, repentance, and a renewed and ardent focus on God.
Some people argue that Scripture implies Elijah will return before the end of time. Whether or not God sends Elijah at this time, we can always keep his message and the message of John the Baptist alive by constantly recommitting ourselves to God.