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John 1:19-21 says,
19 This is the witness of John, when the Jews sent to him priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20 And he confessed and did not deny, and he confessed, “I am not the Christ.” 21 And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” And he said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” And he answered, “No.”
The apostle told us earlier (verse 8) that John was a witness of the light and that the light was the word spoken into the world at the beginning of creation. The implication is that the Light is Christ, that this Light was to reappear in the world to begin a new creation, and that John the Baptist came to bear witness of Him.
A witness points to another, rather than to himself. The priests and Levites were sent from Jerusalem to ask John who he was. These were sent by the Pharisees (John 1:24), and yet in those days the Sadducees were in control of the temple. Why did the Sadducees show no interest in John’s ministry?
In fact, John, being from a priestly family, should have been baptizing people at the temple (laver) or perhaps at Bethphage, the priestly community just outside Jerusalem, where the people purified themselves by baptism with the ashes of the red heifer. But he was a nobody who was baptizing in the wilderness.
It appears that John had run afoul with the Sadducees. Perhaps the temple authorities had rejected his ministry already and had refused his baptism of repentance. Their refusal, of course, would have been reason enough for the Pharisees to look upon John with a bit more sympathy. Perhaps that is why it was the Pharisees who sent envoys to ask John who he was.
There were many expectations in those days. Obviously, there was a messianic hope, because the people wanted their captivity to end. They believed that the Messiah would be the great military leader who would rise up with miraculous signs and create an independent Jewish state that would dominate the world from Jerusalem.
Their understanding of Daniel’s prophecy was limited. Perhaps they recognized that the iron kingdom in Daniel 7:7 was the Roman Empire, but Daniel said nothing of its allotted time to rule. Rome had taken over Jerusalem in 63 B.C., so more than 90 years had already passed. They seemed to have no knowledge or understanding of the “little horn” that was yet to extend the rule of Rome.
John the Baptist explicitly denied being the Christ. But there were other expectations as well. They understood from Malachi 4:5, 6 that “Elijah” was to be sent prior to “the great and terrible day of the Lord.” So they asked John, “Are you Elijah?” But John denied that too.
This is interesting, because even before he was born, his father had received revelation from Gabriel that he and his wife would have a son who would “go as a forerunner before Him [the Messiah] in the spirit and power of Elijah” (Luke 1:17). Surely Zacharias told his fellow priests about this word from the angel. It was now about 31 years later, and when John began to baptize at the Jordan, some of the priests in Jerusalem may have remembered what Zacharias had told them.
The priests were probably asking if John was actually Elijah—perhaps reincarnated—or some other prophet. John denied that he was actually Elijah, because he had come only in “the spirit and power of Elijah.” His identification as Elijah was functional and ministerial only. Later, Jesus Himself declared in Matt. 11:13, 14,
13 For all the prophets and the Law prophesied until John. 14 And if you care to accept it, he himself is Elijah, who was to come.
So why did John deny being Elijah, while Jesus told people the opposite? Was John “Elijah” or not? This apparent contradiction is explained by the two comings of Christ. The priests and Levites were asking the question with the belief that “the great and terrible day of the Lord” was near. They defined this day in terms of being set free from Rome and ascending to a position of world domination.
John understood that he was not called to prepare the hearts of the people to overthrow Rome but to “restore the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers” (Mal. 4:6). To John, this was to be done by preaching repentance (Matt. 3:2). He knew that their captivity to the beast empires (including Rome) had been caused by their lawlessness and rebellion, and that the solution was to repent from their corrupt practices.
Elijah himself had established the pattern at Mount Carmel at his famous showdown with the prophets of Baal. Baal’s prophets failed to bring down fire from heaven, showing that God did not accept their offering by fire.
An altar signifies one’s heart. The priests of Baal had built a new altar, probably made of hewn stones in violation of the law in Exodus 20:25. When men shape the stones of their own heart, they only pollute the altar, for only God through His Holy Spirit can shape our nature and character without polluting the inner altar.
When Elijah’s turn came, he “repaired the altar of the Lord which had been torn down” (1 Kings 18:30). The old altar had fallen into disuse, and the stones had been scattered. 1 Kings 18:31, 32 says,
31 Elijah took twelve stones according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, to whom the word of the Lord had come, saying, “Israel shall be your name.” 32 So with the stones he built an altar in the name of the Lord….
The stones represented the twelve tribes and also represented their “fathers” who had worshiped God in a lawful manner. After pouring a lot of water upon the stones and the sacrifice, Elijah prayed in 1 Kings 18:37,
37 Answer me, O Lord, answer me, that this people may know that Thou, O Lord, art God, and that Thou hast turned their heart back again.
The fire of God fell upon the altar and consumed the sacrifice. The people then repented and declared Yahweh to be the true God. This event was later interpreted by Malachi as Elijah restoring the hearts of the fathers to the children and the children to the fathers. John the Baptist had this calling to prepare the people for Christ’s first appearance and later for the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2:3).
The fire that appeared on the heads of the 120 disciples in the upper room was evidence that their heart-altars had been repaired and that God had accepted their sacrifice. Whereas Elijah built an altar of just 12 stones, the disciples numbered ten times that amount (120), showing that this was a greater fulfillment of the prophecy of Elijah.
John not only prepared the way for the Messiah but also indirectly prepared the way for the Holy Spirit. Both Jesus and the Holy Spirit were said to be Comforters, as we will see later in our study (John 14:16, KJV).
The law prophesied two comings of Christ by requiring two birds to cleanse lepers (Lev. 14:4) and two goats on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:8) to deal with sin. So also must “Elijah” come twice, the first time to prepare the way for His “Judah” work of redemption through the cross, and the second time to prepare for His “Joseph” work in manifesting the sons of God. The first was a death work, the second a living work.
John (“Elijah”) was killed in order to prepare the way for Christ’s own death on the cross. In our time, “Elijah” is (I believe) a body of people, a greater manifestation of the Elijah calling. These will not be killed, because the second work of Christ releases both the dove and the goat alive (Lev. 14:7; 16:10).
This company of living Elijahs thus prepare the way for the living work of Christ, which results in the manifestation of the immortal sons of God at the end of the age.
The gospels describe Elijah’s ministry within the context of the first work of Christ. If we are to understand the Elijah calling in the context of the second work of Christ, we must know the difference between the two comings of Christ. It is most helpful to know that Christ came the first time from the tribe of Judah to fulfill the calling of the dead lion (Gen. 49:10-12), but that His second coming fulfills the Joseph calling of Sonship (Gen. 49:22). Verse 22 literally reads, “Joseph is a fruitful son” (Hebrew: ben).
So also, Rev. 19:13 pictured the coming Messiah, saying, “He is clothed with a robe dipped in blood.” Joseph’s robe was dipped in blood (Gen. 37:31).
In His second appearance, Christ’s “Judah” role is subordinated to His “Joseph” role, in order to fulfill Joseph’s dream where all of His brothers bowed down to him (Gen. 37:7-10). Therefore, we see that Jacob blessed Judah by giving him the scepter temporarily “until Shiloh comes” (Gen. 49:10), at which time the scepter was to be passed from Judah to Joseph.
The Pharisees also asked John, “Are you the Prophet?” (John 1:21). The prophet in question was not Elijah but the one prophesied in Deut. 18:18, where God said to Moses,
18 I will raise up a prophet from among their countrymen like you, and I will put My words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him.
Malachi’s final words spoke not only of Elijah but of Moses as well (Mal. 4:4), causing many to believe that Moses may also reappear along with Elijah. This second Moses, or Moses-like figure was seen by many as a reference to the Messiah, though some saw him as being distinct from the Messiah Himself. Luke, of course, identifies Jesus as the One fulfilling this prophecy in Acts 3:22, 23. So once again, John the Baptist denied being any of the above. He was not the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the one who was like Moses.
John 1:22, 23 says,
22 Then they said to him, “Who are you, so that we may give an answer to those who sent us? What do you say about yourself?” 23 He said, “I am a voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as Isaiah the prophet said.”
John chose to identify himself as the one crying in the wilderness, according to Isaiah 40:3. The broader passage (verses 3-8) show that “all flesh is grass” and withers “when the breath of the Lord blows upon it” but “the word of our God stands forever” (Isaiah 40:6-8). This is the passage that is referenced in 1 Peter 1:23-25, where that apostle explains how we must be begotten by the Spirit—that is, by the incorruptible seed of the word.
Those who are begotten by flesh are like grass that withers and flowers that fade, because flesh is begotten by mortal seed. John’s baptism of repentance called for the people to stop depending upon their genealogical connection to Abraham (Matt. 3:9), which is of the flesh, and to look for the baptism of the Holy Spirit (Matt. 3:11). The flesh, or “chaff,” as he called it, was to be burned up “with unquenchable fire” (Matt. 3:12).
Therefore, we see that John chose to identify specifically with a more obscure prophetic personage that Isaiah did not name. That prophecy foretold the truth of sonship, and so John essentially told the people that repentance meant being begotten by the Spirit through the incorruptible word of God.
In setting forth John’s ministry in these terms, we see the ultimate goal of Christ’s own ministry, which is to bring forth the sons of God. Those who repent, receiving John’s baptism, are those who prepare their hearts to receive the promise given to the fathers. Restoring the children to the fathers and the fathers to the children, then, does more than point back to genealogical fathers. In the end, the children are the sons of God and they are begotten by their heavenly Father.
The Pharisees’ question, “What do you say about yourself?” is also an important question that everyone ought to ask Jesus Himself. In light of the controversy about Jesus’ relationship to the Father and questions about the Godhead, it is perhaps the most pertinent question. What exactly did Jesus say about Himself?
Jesus answers that question in various parts of John’s gospel.