In John 1:19-28, John the Baptist is asked if he is Elijah, and he denies that he is Elijah (or the Prophet or the Christ). Yet in Matthew 11:14, Jesus says that John the Baptist is the “Elijah who is to come,” referring to the promise of Elijah to come before the day of the Lord in Malachi 4:5-6. The Gospel of Luke makes the same point about John as Elijah, as the angel who predicts John’s birth in Luke 1:17 says that John will go before the Messiah “in the spirit and power of Elijah.” The Gospel of Mark also affirms John is Elijah, as Jesus talks about a Elijah who has come and restored all things but also suffered in Mark 9:11-13 – words that point to John’s work in Mark 1:2-6 and John’s death in Mark 6:17-29.
How do we reconcile these two statements – John’s denial of being Elijah with Jesus and the Gospel writers’ affirmation that he is Elijah? One possibility could be that John did not realize that he was Elijah. The problem with this view is that John 1:23 shows us that John knew what he was doing, viewing himself as the one who prepare the way of the Lord as promised in Isaiah 40:3. Matthew, Mark, and Luke also all quote this verse; it seems that John saw himself in the same light as Jesus and the Gospel writers.
The issue does not seem to be John’s understanding of his own role but rather people’s understanding of Elijah. Jewish people at the time of Jesus were looking for a promised figure, an Anointed one (the term “Christ” or “Messiah” simply refers to one who is anointed), who would make the world right once again. If you look at Jewish writings at the time of Jesus, you will see that they had different names for this figure – sometimes they saw him as a king like David, sometimes a priest, sometimes a prophet. Jesus is all three of these, but we know this by looking back on what Jesus did; when people were still looking forward to Jesus’ arrival, some wondered if there might actually be multiple figures – a king, a priest, a prophet, etc. We shouldn’t blame them for their confusion – hindsight is 20/20!
Therefore, when the priests and Levites ask John if he is the Christ in John 1 and he says no, they wonder if maybe he is the anointed figured at the end but not the kingly one – which is one reason they ask if he is the Prophet, as Deuteronomy 18:15-18 talked about a prophet to come. Similarly, when they asked if he was Elijah, they were not asking him if he was Elijah who comes before the Messiah as we understand now, but rather if he was really Elijah, who some saw coming back (literally even since Elijah never died!) at the end of time as the figure who makes things right. Their view of Elijah thus was not that Elijah was a preparer/supporting actor but rather that he was the star of the show. Therefore, when John says he is not Elijah, he is not contradicting the other gospels but rather rejecting a false title given to him – he was not the star! The other gospels talk about John as Elijah who is a supporting actor, not the star.
While we are talking about Elijah, however, something I find remarkable is that people often saw Elijah coming before God Himself and the day in which He would come to restore his kingdom. Therefore, when Jesus says John is Elijah, Jesus is saying that he is God has come and has come to established his kingdom! This potentially confusing point should be another way in which we see the greatness of Jesus, that He is greater than us and that he should increase (and us decrease) because He is God in the Flesh!