A prophet was spoken of by Malachi who would come and be the forerunner for Jesus Christ the Messiah (Mal. 3:1; 4:4-6). Malachi says that the prophet would be “Elijah.” However, the Bible tells us that it wouldn’t be the actual Elijah, but rather, it would be someone who would come in the spirit of Elijah (Lk. 1:17). The Bible tells us that John the Baptist was that prophet prophesied by Malachi (Mt. 1:1-4; Lk. 3:1-6).
In John 1:19-21, a very interesting passage is found. When John the Baptist was preaching in the wilderness, some Pharisees had sent priests and Levites to try and figure out who this John the Baptist fellow was:
“Now this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, ‘I am not the Christ.” And they asked him, ‘What then? Are you Elijah?’ He said, ‘I am not.’ ‘Are you the Prophet?’ And he answered, ‘No.’” (Jn. 1:19-21).
How should we understand this passage since the Bible clearly teaches John the Baptist was the prophet spoken of in Malachi? Did John lie? Is this a Bible contradiction? No. In fact, this passage is easy to explain when we understand the immediate context and the totality of Scripture. Clearly, John was not the Christ. He was simply the forerunner for Jesus the Messiah. Therefore, we are left with trying to figure out why John answered the other two questions the way he did.
ARE YOU ELIJAH?
When the Jews asked John the Baptist if he was Elijah, they meant the actual Old Testament Elijah. Many of the Jews had misunderstood the prophecy found in Malachi and believed that the actual Elijah was coming. Consider the following verses:
“And His disciples asked Him, saying, ‘Why then do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?’ Jesus answered and said to them, ‘Indeed, Elijah is coming first and will restore all things. But I say to you that Elijah has come already, and they did not know him but did to him whatever they wished. Likewise the Son of Man is also about to suffer at their hands.’ Then the disciples understood that He spoke to them of John the Baptist” (Mt. 17:10-13).
“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” (Mt. 11:12-14).
When these Jews asked John the Baptist if he was Elijah, they were asking if he was the physical, Old Testament Elijah. The answer to that question is no. John was truly the one Malachi had prophesied about, but the prophecy was about someone who would be like Elijah and not actually Elijah himself, as many of the Jews had misunderstood it to be (Mal. 3:1; 4:4-6; Lk. 1:17; Mt. 3:1-3; Mk. 1:1-4; Lk. 3:1-6; Mt. 11:7-15; Isa. 40:3; etc.). Therefore, John the Baptist correcting answered them by letting them know he was not the physical, Old Testament Elijah.
ARE YOU THE PROPHET?
The Jews then asked John the Baptist if he was “the” prophet. Notice, they didn’t ask if he was just “a” prophet. Rather, they asked if he was “the” prophet. The Jews were looking for the prophet that had been spoken of by Moses. Consider the following verse:
“The Lord your God will raise up for you a Prophet like me from your midst, from your brethren. Him you shall hear” (Deut. 18:15).
The Jews referred to this prophet as being “the” prophet. The problem is, they didn’t realize that this prophet was Jesus. Peter explains this in one of his sermons:
“Repent therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that He may send Jesus Christ, who was preached to you before, whom heaven must receive until the times of restoration of all things, which God has spoken by the mouth of all His holy prophets since the world began. For Moses truly said to the fathers, ‘The Lord your God will raise up for you a Prophet like me from your brethren. Him you shall hear in all things, whatever He says to you. And it shall be that every soul who will not hear that Prophet shall be utterly destroyed from among the people.’ Yes, and all the prophets, from Samuel and those who follow, as many as have spoken, have also foretold these days. You are sons of the prophets, and of the covenant which God made with our fathers, saying to Abraham, ‘And in your seed all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’ To you first, God, having raised up His Servant Jesus, sent Him to bless you, in turning away every one of you from your iniquities” (Acts 3:19-26).
Therefore, John the Baptist correctly answered that he was not “the” prophet spoken of Deuteronomy 18:15. That prophet was Jesus Christ,
WHY DIDN’T JOHN CORRECT THEIR MISUNDERSTANDINGS?
Clearly, the Jews had misunderstood quite a few things. So why didn’t John the Baptist correct their misunderstandings? Well, technically he did. They just didn’t realize it. Once John the Baptist denied being the Messiah, the physical Elijah and “the” prophet, they asked him who he was.
“Then they said to him, ‘Who are you, that we may give an answer to those who sent us? What do you say about yourself?’ He said: ‘I am ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said” (Jn. 1:22-23).
John admitted he was the prophet spoken of in Isaiah 40:3. They just didn’t put together what all that meant. Remember, Jesus later would say many didn’t realize John the Baptist was the Elijah spoken of by Malachi (Mt. 17:10-13; 11:12-14).
John was the Elijah spoken of by Malachi. He was the one who prepared the way for Jesus. He was not the Messiah. He was not the physical Old Testament Elijah. He was not the prophet spoken of by Moses. John the Baptist did not lie, but rather answered the questions in the context in which they were asked. He was “answering a fool according to their folly” (Prov. 26:5).
– Kevin Pendergrass
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