Please help me resolve an apparent conflict in the Gospels. Matthew 17:12-13 seems to indicate that Elijah had returned as John the Baptist whereas in John 1:21, John the Baptist says that he is not Elijah. What did Jesus mean when He said that Elijah had already returned?
We need to start with a prophecy in Malachi which says that Elijah will come before the day of the Lord.
Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD. And he will turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers . . . (NKJV) Malachi 4:5-6
When we come to the gospels, we discover that after John the Baptist was asked if he is Elijah, he said that He was not!
And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.”. . . (NKJV) John 1:21
John knew that he was not Elijah. Yet, the gospels reveal some interesting facts about him. First, the angel that had spoken to his father, Zacharias, said that John would come in the spirit and power of Elijah.
And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. He will also go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah. . . (NKJV) Luke 1:16-17
Although he was not Elijah, his ministry would be like that of Elijah.
In Matthew Jesus makes a surprising statement to a crowd of people and then later to His disciples that John the Baptist was Elijah.
Assuredly, I say to you, among those born of women there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist; but he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force. For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to receive it, he is Elijah who is to come. (NKJV) Matt. 11:9-14
The gospel of Mark adds some further information. When Jesus’ disciples asked if Elijah must come before the kingdom comes, Jesus says this.
And they seized upon that statement, discussing with one another what rising from the dead might mean. And they asked Him, saying, “Why is it that the scribes say that Elijah must come first? And He said to them, “Elijah does first come and restore all things. And yet how is it written of the Son of Man that He should suffer many things and be treated with contempt? But I say to you, that Elijah has indeed come, and they did to him whatever they wished, just as it is written of him.” (NKJV) Mark 9:10-13
Does this mean that John the Baptist was wrong? The answer is buried in Jesus’ expression “if you care to accept it.” The answer is also buried in Jesus’ statement that the ” Son of Man should suffer many things and be treated with contempt.” Jesus is implying that Elijah was to come before the Messiah and then before the kingdom. The explanation to both of these statements comes later in the gospel of Matthew when Jesus tells His disciples that Elijah had come and was still to come.
And His disciples asked Him, saying, “Why then do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?” And He answered and said, ” Elijah is coming and will restore all things; but I say to you, that Elijah already came, and they did not recognize him, but did to him whatever they wished. So also the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands.” Then the disciples understood that He had spoken to them about John the Baptist. (NKJV) Matt. 17:10-13
John the Baptist came in the spirit and power of Elijah preparing the way for the Messiah (Mal. 3:1-2). He was not Elijah in the flesh because the real Elijah comes before the kingdom – the millennial kingdom. John the Baptist’s ministry was carried out in the spirit of Elijah’s. Elijah himself will come before the Day of the Lord which is the final half of the Tribulation.
Behold, I am going to send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the LORD. (NKJV) Malachi 4:5