Elijah Truly Shall First Come

by Glenn Conjurske

The last two verses of the Old Testament prophesy the coming again of Elijah. “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.” (Mal. 4:5-6).

This is clear enough, but ammillennialists think otherwise, and would have us believe that this prophecy does not concern Elijah at all. The following from the commentary of Matthew Poole is typical of their comments:

“I will send; though the spirit of prophecy cease for four hundred years, yet at the expiring of those years you shall have one sent, as great as Elijah, and therefore he is now called Elijah, that shall prepare Messiah’s way. Elijah; not the same in person who reproved idolatrous Israel, who destroyed Baal, though both Jews and many Christians would gladly have it so, in favour of some errors they have adopted and would maintain. But this person here called Elijah was John Baptist, as is clear from Matt. xvii.12.13, Elias is come, and they have done to him whatsoever they listed. Then the disciples understood that he spake of John the Baptist. And he was that Elias, if they would receive him, Matt. xi.14. Elias, was to come when Malachi lived; Elias was come, and the Jews had ill treated him, and Herod had beheaded him, when Christ here lived; this Elijah then was John the Baptist, who came in the spirit and power of Elias, Luke i.17, and therefore bears his name in this prophecy.”

But there are several considerations against this view, some of which are weighty, and other of which are conclusive. To begin with, the Jews of all ages have believed the prophecy to refer to Elijah himself, and this view was held also by the early church, until philosophy and unbelief taught them to “spiritualize” prophecy.

Justin Martyr writes in his Dialogue with Trypho,

“Then I inquired of him, `Does not Scripture, in the book of Zechariah [sic], say that Elijah shall come before the great and terrible day of the Lord?’

“And he answered, `Certainly.’

“`If therefore Scripture compels you to admit that two advents of Christ were predicted to take place,—-one in which He would appear suffering, and dishonoured, and without comeliness; but the other in which He would come glorious, and Judge of all, as has been made manifest in many of the fore-cited passages,—-shall we not suppose that the word of God has proclaimed that Elijah shall be the precursor of the great and terrible day, that is, of His second advent?’

“`Certainly,’ he answered.

“`And, accordingly, our Lord in His teaching,’ I continued, `proclaimed that this very thing would take place, saying that Elijah would also come. And we know that this shall take place when our Lord Jesus Christ shall come in glory from heaven; whose first manifestation the Spirit of God who was in Elijah preceded as herald in John, a prophet among your nation; after whom no other prophet appeared among you.”’

Tertullian says, “But Elias is to come again, not after quitting life, but after his translation; not for the purpose of being restored to the body, from which he had not departed, but for the purpose of revisiting the world from which he was translated; not by way of resuming a life which he had laid aside, but of fulfilling prophecy—-really and truly the same man, both in respect of his name and designation, as well as of his unchanged humanity.”

And Commodianus, “He [the antichrist] himself shall divide the globe into three ruling powers, when, moreover, Nero shall be raised up from hell, Elias shall first come to seal the beloved ones; at which things the region of Africa and the northern nation, the whole earth on all sides, for seven years shall tremble. But Elias shall occupy the half of the time, Nero shall occupy half.”

But there is a weightier judgement than that of the Jews or the early church. Christ himself has spoken on this subject, clearly and unmistakably. “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 disicples understood that he spake unto them of John the Baptist.” (Matt. 17:10-13).

The scribes said that Elijah must come “first”—-that is, before the coming of Christ, and this they used as an excuse to reject Christ, in the teeth of the most convincing evidence. If their hearts had been right, they would have received that evidence, and received the true Christ, though it may have left them with an unresolved difficulty concerning the coming of Elijah. When the disciples asked the Lord concerning this, John the Baptist had already come and gone. His ministry was finished, and it was then that the Lord said to them, “Elijah truly shall first come, and restore all things.” He speaks of this in the future tense, though John the Baptist was dead and buried. On this Henry Alford well says, “Our Lord speaks here plainly in the future, and uses the very word of the prophecy Mal. iv.6. The double allusion is only the assertion that the Elias (in spirit and power) who foreran our Lord’s first coming, was a partial fulfilment of the great prophecy which announces the real Elias (the words of Malachi will hardly bear any other than a personal meaning), who is to forerun His greater and second coming.”

The words of Christ in this place strongly confirm the view of the scribes that Elijah is indeed to come, and the future tense in which he speaks can have no other meaning. But (lest any think we are wresting the Lord’s words) it is necessary to point out that “shall come” in our English Bibles is actually present tense in the Greek. The actual words of the text are * v V [ V j v v , literally, “Elijah indeed is coming, and shall restore all things.” But the present tense of “come” in no way alters the future sense of it, for first, being immediately followed as it is by a future tense in the other verb, the whole is necessarily future. If it be asked, Why then does the Lord use the present tense of “come”?—-I answer, “come” (as some other verbs) is often used in the present tense, in English as well as Greek, to speak of the future. We say, “I am going to Canada next month.” The tense of “I am going” is purely present, but the sense is clearly future. This is common in the New Testament, as the following examples will prove:

“The day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night.” (I Thes. 5:2).

“Ye have heard that antichrist shall come.” (I Jn. 2:18).

“Behold, I come as a thief.” (Rev. 16:15).

“Behold, I come quickly.” (Rev. 22:7 &12)

“Surely I come quickly.” (Rev. 22:20).

All of these examples speak of events far future. All of them employ the same word as is used in Matt. 17:11, and all of them in the present tense (in the Greek). Other examples might be given.

Observe further, the little word V , rendered “truly” in the King James Bible, and which might be rendered “indeed,” gives a strong confirmation of the common Jewish view of the matter, concerning which the disciples were asking the Lord. “Elijah cometh INDEED,” is Christ’s reply, and this he did not say to “correct” that view of the matter, as so many commentators would have it, but precisely to confirm that view. This is transparent upon the face of the text, to every English reader.

Not only so, but when the people asked John explicitly, “Art thou Elijah,” he replied, “I am not.” John certainly believed in the literal coming of Elijah, as the rest of the Jews did, but affirmed that he was not Elijah.

But perhaps of greater weight than any of this is the prophecy of Malachi itself, which says, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord.” The great and dreadful day of the Lord has nothing to do with the first coming of Christ, but concerns his second coming solely. Spiritualizers of prophecy of course have ingenuity enough to make “the great and dreadful day of the Lord” refer to the first coming of Christ—-by the same alchemy by which they can make almost anything to mean almost anything else—-but they should hardly expect to be taken seriously. Thus John Gill, “Before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord; that is, before the coming of Christ the son of David, as the Jews themselves own; and which is to be understood, not of the second coming of Christ to judgement, though that is sometimes called the great day, and will be dreadful to Christian sinners; but of the first coming of Christ, reaching to the destruction of Jerusalem.” But if this be so, what becomes of “lest I come and smite the earth [or land] with a curse”? It loses all significance, for he surely did smite the land with a curse at the destruction of Jerusalem. But the curse will be removed from all the earth after “the great and dreadful day of the Lord.” That is the second coming, and nothing else.

But did not the Lord himself say of John the Baptist, “If ye will receive it, this is Elijah”? He did, but this hangs upon “If ye will receive it,” and he immediately goes on to say, “He that hath ears to hear, let him hear. But whereunto shall I liken this generation? It is like unto children sitting in the markets, and calling unto their fellows, and saying, We have piped unto you, and ye have not danced; we have mourned unto you, and ye have not lamented. For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, He hath a devil. The Son of man came eating and drinking, and they say, Behold a man gluttonous, and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners.” (Matt. 11:16-19). The Lord’s point is that this generation has no ears to hear. They will receive nothing which comes from God, for their hearts are against him. John came in the spirit and power of Elijah, and they rejected him. If Elijah himself had come, they would have rejected him also. John’s ministry was certainly not the fulfillment of Malachi’s prophecy, but it was a sufficient test of the men of that generation, to prove what their hearts were.

But if all of this be true, why did not the Lord plainly say so to the Jews, and so remove their difficulty out of the way? First, because it would not have removed their difficulty. Their difficulty was not in their understanding, but in their heart, as the passage just quoted clearly shows. But in the second place, the solemn truth is, when men refuse the light which God gives them, he declines to give them more. For this reason he spoke to these same Jews in parables. For this reason he refused to give them a sign when they asked for one. They had light enough to acknowledge him as the Christ, whatever difficulty might have remained in their minds about Elijah, but they hated the light, and he was therefore at no pains to clear up the point about Elijah. Morally, in spirit and power, John could stand in the place of Elijah, so far as to leave that generation without excuse, so far as to prove that they would have rejected Elijah himself had he come to them—-but not to fulfill the prophecy.

On this Alford says (on Matt. 11:14), “Our Lord cannot be understood in either of these passages as meaning that the prophecy of Mal. iv.5 received its full completion in John. For as in other prophecies, so in this, we have a partial fulfilment both of the coming of the Lord and of His forerunner, while the great and complete fulfilment is yet future—-at the great day of the Lord.” This I believe to be the exact truth, though I am not satisfied with the terms in which he couches it. Many speak of a partial and a complete fulfillment of prophecy, and others speak of a near and a far fulfillment. I endorse their sentiment, but not their terms, for the near or partial fulfillment is not a real fulfillment at all. That is, it does not actually fulfill the terms of the prophecy, but is only a shadow or type of the real fulfillment. To the terms “near and far fulfillment,” I especially object, for they seem to imply an actual fulfillment in both cases, and thus give countenance to the spiritualizing view, which takes any kind of vague resemblance for fulfillment, though the actual terms of the prophecy are not fulfilled at all. The term “partial” is not quite so objectionable, but I prefer to call it a typical fulfillment. The flood was a type of the fulfillment of Enoch’s great prophecy, “Behold the Lord cometh, with ten thousands of his saints, to execute judgement upon all the ungodly.” The actual terms of the prophecy were no way fulfilled by the flood, and the prophecy is repeated in the New Testament, as yet to be fulfilled. So is the prophecy of the coming of Elijah, for it was after John was dead and buried that Jesus said, “ELIJAH TRULY SHALL COME FIRST, AND RESTORE ALL THINGS.”

Matthew Poole, with the ingenuity of a man grasping for arguments, contends that in these words the Lord is only quoting Malachi’s prophecy, in order to expound it of John the Baptist: “Our Lord first repeateth the words of Malachi, and so he saith, Elias shall come, or is coming; and then he expounds the words of Malachi of John the Baptist.” But the fact is, the Lord did not quote Malachi, or repeat his words. What Malachi said and what the Lord said have only two words in common, “Elijah” and “shall restore.” The Lord was not quoting Malachi’s prophecy to expound it, nor quoting it at all, but only reaffirming its contents, and putting his stamp of approval upon the common belief of the prophecy. His use of the word V makes this clear enough: “Elijah is coming INDEED.”

And speaking of the ingenuity of the spiritualizers of prophecy, another of them has this to say on Malachi 4:5: “The fact that he is called `the prophet,’ and not `the Tishbite,’ implies that it is his official, and not his personal relations, that are here contemplated.” To this rhetoric we need only answer, It implies no such thing to those who have no subtle system of unbelief to maintain, and the fact (overlooked by this commentator) that he is called Elijah “implies” that Elijah “is contemplated.” Interpreters and believers of prophecy can of course dispense with such rhetoric as “implies” and “is contemplated,” and say “Elijah is Elijah.” “Elijah the Tishbite” and “Elijah the prophet” are the same person.

And this brings me to speak of the main issue involved in this question. The prophecies of the Bible are to be literally fulfilled. The prophecies of Christ’s first coming have been fulfilled literally. The prophecies of his second coming will be fulfilled in the same way. God spoke of Cyrus by name, before his birth, and said, “that saith of Cyrus, He is my shepherd, and shall perform all my pleasure, even saying to Jerusalem, Thou shalt be built, and to the temple, Thy foundation shall be laid.” (Is. 44:28). Because this prophecy has been literally fulfilled, all will acknowledge that “Cyrus” must mean “Cyrus,” but if the literal interpretation had not been already proved by the literal fulfillment, spiritualizers would be telling us quite the contrary—-perhaps that “Cyrus” means “Christ” (and “Jerusalem” the church!)—-or whatever else their ingenuity could devise. And alas, even some premillennialists have begun to give way a little on this point. Thus J. Dwight Pentecost nearly forty years ago wrote that “Elijah personally need not appear.” (Things to Come, 1958, pg. 312.) He holds that John the Baptist could have fulfilled Malachi’s prophecy, and cites a similar opinion from E. Schuyler English. And though this is but a small step in the wrong direction, it bodes ill for sound doctrine. With the same kind of interpretation, others can tell us that Christ need not personally appear, and that Satan does not personally exist. With the same kind of interpretation, havoc may be made of the whole Bible and all its doctrines. Such interpretation was born in unbelief, and has been for centuries the buttress of doctrinal confusion and error, and there is no reason for premillennialists to yield anything whatever to it. John did not fulfill the Old Testament prophecy of Elijah, and cannot fulfill that of the New Testament.

Whether Elijah is one of the two witnesses of Revelation 11, as many hold, we cannot say, and therefore need not inquire. This much we surely believe: “ELIJAH IS INDEED COMING.”

Glenn Conjurske