Questions From Readers
▪ Why did some Jews think that John the Baptizer was Elijah, as mentioned at John 1:21?
Before Jesus was baptized, some priests and Levites came to Bethany across the Jordan, where John was baptizing, and asked him whether he was the Christ. When John said that he was not, they asked: “What, then? Are you Elijah?”—John 1:19-28.
Why did those Jews think that John might be the Hebrew prophet Elijah, who had died some nine centuries before? It was because of a prophecy that had been uttered about midway between the time of Elijah and the commencement of John’s ministry. God’s prophet Malachi had foretold: “Look! I am sending to you people Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and fear-inspiring day of Jehovah.” (Malachi 4:5) Evidently some Jews understood that to mean a physical return of Elijah, perhaps by God’s resurrecting him. Then John appeared wearing a garment of hair and a leather girdle similar to Elijah’s dress. (Matthew 3:4; 2 Kings 1:8) And John was outspoken in proclaiming God’s message calling for repentance, as Elijah had been. So they asked John if he was Elijah.
John answered, “I am not.” No, he was not the actual Hebrew prophet Elijah, who was still asleep in death. In fact, an angel had told Zechariah (who became John’s father) that John would serve with “Elijah’s spirit and power,” to turn the Jews back to Jehovah. (Luke 1:17) John would not be Elijah; but he would do a work similar to that accomplished by the long-deceased prophet Elijah.
In line with this, Jesus later said with John in mind: “Elijah has already come and they did not recognize him.” (Matthew 17:12) He meant that John had fulfilled the prophecy in Malachi 4:5. He had prepared the way before the Messiah. Yet, most of the Jews did not accept John as fulfilling that role. Furthermore it is written at John 10:41: “John, indeed, did not perform a single sign,” whereas the original prophet Elijah performed eight signs or miracles.