The Jewish people of 2000 years ago were expecting to see the Old Testament Prophet Elijah literally, physically descend from heaven. They had been promised that this was going to happen by the Old Testament Prophet Malachi. This prophecy reads:
"For, behold, the day cometh, that shall burn as an oven; and... all that do wickedly, shall be stubble: and the day that cometh shall burn them up, saith the LORD of hosts, that it shall leave them neither root nor branch... And ye shall tread down the wicked; for they shall be ashes under the soles of your feet in the day that I shall do [this], saith the LORD of hosts.... Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD" -Malachi 4:1-5
According to the Old Testament book of II Kings, Elijah the Prophet had ascended "into heaven" in a "chariot of fire." (see: chapter 2) This spectacular event supposedly happened about 850 years before Christ. Later, in about 450 BC, Malachi prophesied that this same Elijah, who had ascended into heaven, was also going to return from heaven to herald the coming of the Messiah... the Christ.
As a brief comment on terms used here, please note that the word "Messiah" has the same meaning as the word "Christ". The word Messiah is Hebrew and is translated as Anointed. The word Christ is Greek and is also translated as Anointed. They are the same word from two different languages.
Elijah who had ascended "into heaven" in a "chariot of fire" was going to return from heaven to announce the coming of the Messiah... the Christ.
The reason why the return of Elijah prophecy was so important is that it became one of the primary reasons why the Jewish people rejected Jesus' claim to be the Messiah. The Jewish religious leaders of two thousand years ago knew that Elijah was going to return before the Christ was going to come. So, they concluded, that Jesus or anyone else who claimed to be the Messiah before Elijah visibly returned from heaven had to be an impostor.
"CHRIST... HAS NO POWER UNTIL ELIJAH
The story of how the 'return of Elijah' prophecy was actually fulfilled can be found in two separate places in the New Testament. It can also be found in a 1900 year old, non-Biblical, Christian book that provides us with what is probably the most graphic example illustrating the importance of this prophecy.
Justin Martyr was a very prominent Christian at a time when Christianity was still in its infancy. In "Eerdman's Handbook to the History of Christianity" Justin Martyr is described as "the most notable of the second century [Christian] apologists." (p. 108)
Justin Martyr lived approximately 100 AD. He wrote a book titled The Dialogue with Trypho the Jew. This book is a record of a discussion between Justin Martyr and Trypho- a Jewish rabbi. This "dialogue" begins with Justin telling the rabbi that he believes that Jesus was the long awaited Messiah. The following excerpt contains this rabbi's response.
"When I (Justin) had said this, [the students who were with the rabbi] laughed; but he smiling, says, 'I approve of your other remarks, and admire the eagerness with which you study divine things; but it were better for you abide in the philosophy of Plato..."
Before Justin became a Christian he was a follower of the Greek philosophers and he still wore the characteristic flowing robes of a Roman philosopher. The quote continues:
"...It were better for you abide in the philosophy of Plato rather than be deceived by false words, and follow the opinions of people of no reputation... for when you have forsaken God, and reposed confidence in man, what safety still awaits you?"
Now, here's the important part:
"...But Christ- if he has indeed been born, and exists anywhere... has no power until Elijah comes to anoint him, and make him manifest to all. And you, having accepted a groundless report, invent a Christ for yourselves, and for his sake are inconsiderately perishing." -Ante Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1, p. 198.
In this one short passage, this rabbi reveals exactly what the Jewish religious leaders and the Jewish people of two thousand years ago were expecting to see before the Messiah appeared. Trypho knew that Jesus could not possibly have been the Messiah because he knew from the unmistakable text of the 'return of Elijah' prophecy that anyone who claimed to be the Christ before Elijah the Prophet had visibly returned from heaven would have to be a false Prophet.
This prophecy was one of the primary reasons why the Jewish people rejected Jesus' claims to be the Messiah. No one had seen Elijah return from heaven yet... so how could Jesus possibly have been the Messiah?
"I WILL SEND YOU ELIJAH..."
Two thousand years ago, the Jewish people were expecting to see Elijah literally, physically descend from heaven... possibly in the exact same "chariot of fire" that he had used to ascend "into heaven." Furthermore, they also expected that soon after Elijah's return, the Messiah was going to appear. And they knew that when the Messiah came, he not only was going to free them from Roman domination, but he also was going to exalt Israel over all the nations of the earth. The Jewish people had good reason to believe these things. These expectations are derived from explicit statements made in the Bible. Jesus explains how these prophecies were actually fulfilled.
According to the Old Testament account, about 850 BC Elijah the Prophet ascended "into heaven." (see: II Kings 2) Then, about four hundred years later (in about 450 BC) the Prophet Malachi promised that Elijah will return from heaven before the Christ appears.
Malachi's prophecy reads:
"try me in this, says the Lord of Hosts: shall I not open for you the floodgates of heaven, to pour down a blessing upon you without measure... Lo, I will send you Elia (Elijah), the prophet before the day of the Lord comes, the great and terrible day." -Malachi 3:10-24 (CATHOLIC DOUAY BIBLE)
ELIJAH ALREADY HAS COME
The Jewish religious leaders of Jesus' day were well aware of the 'return of Elijah' prophecy. At one time the rabbis had asked Jesus' disciples to explain how Jesus could possibly have been the Messiah when it was obvious that Elijah had not returned from heaven yet.
The Apostles couldn't answer this question, so they asked Jesus:
"Why do the Jewish leaders insist Elijah must return before the Messiah comes?"Jesus answered by first affirming that this question was valid and that this prophecy indeed was true. He said:
"They are right. Elijah must come and set everything in order..."But then, to everyone's surprise, Jesus explained:
"In fact, he [Elijah] already has come, but he wasn't recognized, and was badly mistreated by many... Then the disciples realized he was speaking of John the Baptist."-Matthew 17:10-13 (LIVING BIBLE-CATHOLIC EDITION) (this account can also be found in: Mark 9:11-13)
Clearly, Jesus taught that this was a true prophecy. Jesus agreed that Elijah indeed "must return before the Messiah comes." But then, to the surprise to everyone there, Jesus claimed that John the Baptist was the fulfillment of this prophecy.
WHAT WERE THE RABBIS EXPECTING?
Jesus' explanation was not well received by the Jewish religious leaders. The rabbis considered them selves to be the greatest experts of Judaism in the entire world. They knew what their prophecies said and they certainly thought they knew what was going to happen when the Messiah finally did appear. As far as they could see none of these prophecies had been fulfilled, Elijah had not returned and there certainly was no visible evidence that the Messiah had come. Nothing had changed. Everything was just as it always had been.
How, they wondered, could John possibly have been the return of Elijah? Malachi didn't say anything about Elijah's return being in some mysterious, unrecognizable way. Neither does he say that some other man is going to be born hundreds of years later and that this man somehow was going to be the return of Elijah. Instead, Malachi clearly says that Elijah himself was going to return. That's not a difficult concept to visualize. Elijah ascended into heaven in a chariot of fire. And he's going to come back. Visibly. Physically. In the flesh. Or so they thought.
The rabbis did not believe Jesus' explanation that John the Baptist was the return of Elijah. And why should they? They knew that Elijah was supposed to visibly return from heaven and, as the elect of Judaism, it's very likely that they would have expected to be among the very first to welcome him when he actually did return. After all, how could they possibly miss anything as obvious as a Prophet of God floating down from out of the sky in a chariot of fire?
Malachi's prophecy explicitly says that Elijah himself was going to return... not some other man. Instead of Elijah personally returning from heaven, what the rabbis actually got was John... a dirty looking fellow, who wore a leather loincloth, a camel's hair robe and who ate locusts for lunch. John the Baptist actually ate grasshoppers! John did not fit any picture that the rabbis might have had of what the spectacular second coming of Elijah was going to be like. John the Baptist didn't come floating down from heaven. Instead, he came into the world in the same way as everyone else. John had a mother. He had a father. John had been born as a child and he had grown up just like everyone else. On the other hand, Elijah had been born eight hundred and fifty years before John. John was not named Elijah. John had a different body, a different personality, different teachings and a different purpose.
The rabbis might have also pointed out that even John himself had said that he was not Elijah. At one point, early in his ministry, John the Baptist was asked whether he was Elijah. He answered that he was not. (see John 1:21)
Nothing about John would indicate that he was Elijah. Elijah had physically ascended "into heaven" in a "chariot of fire." And, everyone believed that the same Elijah who had disappeared into heaven was himself, personally going to return... possibly even in the same "chariot of fire" that he had used when he ascended up into heaven.
In what way could John the Baptist have been the return of Elijah? Certainly not literally. This apparent contradiction can be resolved by a statement made at the beginning of the Gospel of Luke where it explains that John went
"on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah." -Luke 1:17 (KJV)
Elijah had returned from heaven in the "spirit". John went "on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah."-Luke 1:17 (KJV) Viewed this way, both John and Jesus were right. The man named Elijah who had lived eight hundred years earlier had not literally, physically returned from heaven in the flesh as just about everyone expected. Instead, the fulfillment of the 'return of Elijah from heaven' prophecy had nothing to do with Elijah's physical body. It was the return of the same "spirit and power" of God that had animated Elijah eight hundred years earlier that had returned to also animate John the Baptist. The reality of Elijah's return was the appearance of yet another totally separate and distinct Prophet of God. (Yes, Jesus did refer to John as a Prophet.) This is the true meaning of "the return."
The same is also true with the rest of Malachi's prophecy which clearly states that Elijah's and the Messiah's enemies would be totally burned up. Malachi wrote that their opponents
"shall be stubble: and the day that cometh shall burn them up... it shall leave them neither root nor branch... ye shall tread down the wicked; for they shall be ashes under the soles of your feet..."
In what way did Jesus or John burn up anyone like "chaff" "with unquenchable fire" to the extent that they were "ashes under the soles of [their] feet..."? Clearly these prophecies too were not fulfilled in any kind of literal, physical way. However, like the unexpected fulfillment of the 'return of Elijah prophecy', these prophecies were again fulfilled in a non-literal, spiritual manner. John the Baptist, speaking of Jesus, said:
"I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance: but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and [with] fire: Whose fan [is] in his hand, and he will thoroughly purge his floor, and gather his wheat into the garner; but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire."-Matthew 1:11
Malachi said that the Christ's enemies "shall be stubble (chaff): and the day that cometh shall burn them up... ." And here John the Baptist said that Jesus "will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire."
None of these prophecies were fulfilled in any kind of literal, physical, visible way. The return of Elijah prophecy truly had been fulfilled unexpectedly, in a way that people could not see and in a way that could not be objectively verified. This was not the way that the rabbis were expecting these prophecies to be fulfilled and this certainly was not an explanation that they were willing to accept. Is it any wonder that these Jewish priests found it impossible to even seriously consider the possibility that John the Baptist was the return of Elijah?
Even today, two thousand years later, the Jewish religious experts still await the second coming of Elijah. And every year at the Passover meal, Jewish mothers, in a time honored tradition, still set an extra place at the table for Elijah hoping that this will be the year when he finally returns to join them.
JESUS CAME DOWN FROM HEAVEN TOO
One day as Jesus was speaking to his disciples (along with a group of other people) he was heard to say:
"I have come down from heaven..."
A number of rabbis were present in the crowd and when they heard Jesus claim that he had come down from heaven, they "began to grumble about him" and they asked
"Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know?' How can he now say, "I came down from heaven?"
Good question. The rabbis had known his mother and his father. They knew that he had been born as a child just like everyone else. Some of them might even have known him as a young boy and might have watched him grow up over the years. How could Jesus possibly have come "down from heaven"?
When his disciples heard Jesus claim that he had come "down from heaven" they too were extremely skeptical. They said
"This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?" And then this passage says that "From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him."-John 6:41,60,66 (NIV)
Most people know that Jesus had twelve Apostles. But, most people don't know that Jesus also had either 70 or 72 disciples (depending on which early manuscript you accept). It was these other disciples who abandoned him. These were the ones who "turned back and no longer followed him."
Apparently, both the antagonistic Jewish religious leaders and Jesus' own beloved disciples rejected his statement that he had come down from heaven because they thought that he was speaking literally. And from what they knew of Jesus' life... they knew that this was not very realistic.
The disciples didn't have the insight to see what Jesus was really saying. As Jesus stood there watching his disciples walk away, knowing that they were not going to come back, he proceeded to explain this "mystery" of His coming down from heaven. Jesus said:
"The Spirit (original Greek: PNEUMA) gives life, the flesh (Greek: SARX) counts for nothing: The words I have spoken to you are spirit (Greek: PNEUMA) and they are life." -John 6:63 (NIV)
"The words I have spoken to you are spirit..." Jesus apparently was trying to explain that when he said such startling things as "I came down from heaven", he was not speaking of his physical, fleshly body coming down from heaven and that his "words" should not be understood in their outer literal sense. Instead, Jesus was trying to tell us that he was speaking of non-fleshly, spiritual realities. It was the "Spirit" of God which dwelled in him that had descended from heaven... not his physical body. The same thing was true of John the Baptist. Jesus said that John too had come down from heaven.
Have people today learned anything from these important lessons from the past? Two thousand years ago people were expecting to see a spectacular, supernatural event which no one could mistake or misinterpret. What they actually got was the appearance of an entirely new Prophet... one who appeared with the same "spirit and power" of God which had, in centuries past, also descended upon Elijah.
Two thousand years ago, the Jewish people were expecting to see the visible return of a man from heaven who would burn up his enemies like chaff. Today we find that most Christians are also expecting to see the visible return of a man from heaven who is also going to burn up his enemies. What's the difference between then and now? Is the Bible consistent? Yes. Does God change? No. Is there a lesson to be learned here that most people haven't grasped yet?
God's principle governing how a prophet returns from heaven has been clearly explained- twice. both Jesus and Elijah came down from heaven... although not in the way that most people expected. Jesus' coming down from heaven the first time he appeared was not a fleshly occurrence. Neither was John's.
WHAT'S THE POINT?
According to Jesus, this prophecy concerning the return of Elijah from heaven was not fulfilled literally... in a way that most people could easily identify. Instead, it was fulfilled in a way that most people were not prepared to recognize. Elijah did return. But, it was his "spirit and power" which had returned... and not his fleshly body.
This is the hidden, true meaning of the return of the Prophets. In all of recorded history, not one of God's Messengers, has ever literally, visibly come down from heaven in the flesh. This inner reality of return has been clearly explained in the Baha'i writings:
"a return is indeed referred to in the Holy Scriptures, but by this is meant the return of the qualities, conditions, effects, perfections, and inner realities of the lights which recur in every dispensation. The reference is not to specific, individual souls and identities." -Selections from the Writings of `Abdu'l-Baha, page 183
Another place in the Baha'i Writings we can read:
"In the Divine Scriptures and Holy Books "return" is spoken of, but the ignorant have not understood the meaning... For what the divine Prophets meant by "return" is not the return of the essence, but that of the qualities; it is not the return of the Manifestation, but that of the perfections. In the Gospel it says that John, the son of Zacharias, is Elias (Elijah). These words do not mean the return of the rational soul and personality of Elias in the body of John, but rather that the perfections and qualities of Elias were manifested and appeared in John."-Some Answered Questions by Abdu'l-Baha, page 288
Ask yourself... if you had lived 2000 years ago do you think that you would have been one of the few who had the insight to recognize John the Baptist as the fulfillment of the 'return of Elijah' prophecy? Chances are, like the disciples of Jesus, you would not have understood how this prophecy had been fulfilled until after it had been explained to you.
Why is the example of the 'return of Elijah' prophecy important? Today we
have the exact same circumstances that we had two thousand years ago. Today most
Christians are expecting to see Jesus Christ literally, visibly return from
heaven. Baha'u'llah, the Prophet founder of the Baha'i Faith, unmistakably
claims to be the fulfillment of the 'return of Christ from heaven' prophecies.
Is Baha'u'llah truly the Promised One? Has history repeated itself? Did
Baha'u'llah come down from heaven? Yes! In exactly the same way that John the
Baptist and Jesus came down from heaven two thousand years ago.