At the very end of the Old Testament, in its second-to-the-last verse (Malachi 4:5), God declares that He will send Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome Day of the Lord. And so, based on God’s declaration regarding Elijah the Prophet, the Jews of Jesus’ day understandably expected Elijah to personally and physically return to Earth. They expected Elijah’s literal return. After all, why not? It seems like the simplest and most straightforward interpretation of God’s Old Testament-closing declaration. Indeed, such a reading makes scriptural sense. It does not strain credulity. And it can be explained readily. Hypothetically, since he had never died, Elijah could have physically returned. Since God had taken Elijah bodily to heaven with chariots of fire and in a whirlwind of fire (2 Kings 2:11), God could also return him again to Earth. So why not expect Elijah’s personal, literal, physical return? It stands to reason and seems to be the most straightforward reading of Malachi 4:5.
But no. That’s not how Jesus understood and explained the prophecy at the end of Malachi.
In Matthew 11:14 Jesus reflects on John the Baptist, “And if you are willing to receive it, he is the Elijah who is to come.” Notice, then, that Jesus does not interpret God’s declaration at the end of Malachi literally. Again, and for emphasis, Jesus does not opt for a literal interpretation here. Instead, Jesus clearly says that John the Baptist is the Elijah who was to come. In contrast to Jesus, not even John the Baptist recognized himself as the Elijah-to-Come (see John 1:21). Was John the Baptist wrong then? No, he wasn’t wrong: John was not literally the Elijah-of-Old. Was Jesus wrong? No, Jesus was right: John the Baptist fulfilled Malachi’s final prophesy.
Among his contemporaries, Jesus’ perspective was unique. Jesus saw what no one else did. And however it may be categorized, Jesus’ interpretation of Malachi’s prophecy is decidedly not literal. Jesus wanted his disciples (and wants us) to understand that the Elijah-to-Come mentioned at the end of Malachi is not the self-same Elijah-of-Old but is instead John the Baptist. Malachi’s Elijah-to-Come is not the Elijah-of-Old, but someone else entirely.
But why? Why in Malachi does God say it that way? Why does God say He will send Elijah the Prophet? Why not instead say that He will send a prophet who somehow resembles Elijah? God could have said things differently. God could have clarified things for us. Like his baffled disciples, we might find Jesus’ interpretation of Malachi a bit confusing, and maybe even suspect. Yet Jesus was right, of course. Jesus himself challenged his disciples (and us) to accept his interpretation. So because Jesus is Jesus, we accept it on his authority. But still, this particular interpretation leaves us somewhat perplexed. Would it be okay with the Lord if we were to ask a few follow-up questions? I hope this does not across as irreverent to my readers, since I really do ask interpretive questions like this, and often while in prayer.
One initial question: Why not, though? Why did Jesus not just make a literal interpretation of God’s Old Testament-closing declaration, when a literal interpretation was seemingly right there, almost begging to be had? The Transfiguration event allows for just such a literal interpretation (see Matthew 17:1-13; Mark 9:2-13; Luke 9:28-36). Elijah had reappeared. Elijah himself did indeed return in person, if ever so briefly. The Prophet Elijah made an intriguing cameo appearance, along with Moses. Moses and Elijah appeared out of nowhere, and appeared in glowing glory. The two of them spoke with Jesus at the Transfiguration. And yet, even though Elijah did appear again on Earth, his cameo at the Transfiguration was not the fulfillment of Malachi’s closing prophecy. It was John the Baptist who fulfilled Malachi’s closing prophecy. That point is twice emphasized by Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew, and, to a lesser degree, by the Angel Gabriel at the beginning of the Gospel of Luke (see Luke 1:17).
A second question: By giving us an unexpected non-literal interpretation of the final prophecy of the Old Testament, is Jesus perhaps teaching us something about the very nature of prophecy and how it should be approached? I mean, Jesus’ interpretation is unexpected. It does come as a counter-intuitive surprise. Almost everyone assumed that since Malachi’s final prophecy could be fulfilled literally, it would be fulfilled literally. Jesus’ own disciples pressed the question of the Elijah interpretation with Jesus, even immediately after the Transfiguration occurred (see Matthew 17:10-13). In paraphrase, the three disciples asked, “Hey Lord, we realize that we just witnessed Elijah and Moses in person up there on the mountain. We must say: That was spectacularly awesome. But it does raise a question or two for us: Why have we always been taught that Elijah will someday make a grand public reappearance? That has not happened, though. Isn’t Elijah’s reappearance supposed to precede your own public debut?”
And in essence, Jesus explained that it all becomes clear once someone realizes that they’ve been misidentifying who Elijah actually is.
This post-transfiguration conversation was not accidental. It was meant to be. The occasion was intended as an important interpretive lesson for those three disciples. Jesus did indeed mean to teach them (and us) a lesson about how to interpret that particular prophecy, at the very least. One clear take away is that not every prophecy should be understood literally. A literal interpretation can be very wrong, even if it is widely popular.
A third and final question: Why did Jesus get the interpretation right when everyone else got it wrong? Someone will immediately reply with “well, because he’s Jesus!” Well, granted; but is there anything more we can possibly postulate or extrapolate? If I may suggest an answer to my own question, I want to propose that Jesus had insight — unique, spiritual insight. Jesus was able to see something that others missed. Whereas his contemporaries had substantial scriptural knowledge, Jesus additionally had spiritual insight. More specifically, I suspect that Jesus discerned something crucial about the nature of John the Baptist’s personality and his ministry. In Jesus’ spiritual perspective, John the Baptist’s demeanor and ministry was a replay and reflection of Elijah’s demeanor and ministry. They had both been given a similar prophetic ministry — a ministry of urgently and zealously calling the wayward people of Israel back to devotion to God. Their respective ministries required an immediate and demonstrated repentance from the people. When Jesus saw how John the Baptist was preaching and what he was doing, he recalled what Elijah had once said and done. Jesus discerned the similarities in their return-to-God-right-here-and-now ministries. They looked alike to Jesus.
When we read prophecy, then, we need to realize that being smart is not enough. Knowing the Bible well is altogether helpful and immensely important; but it is still not enough. We will get our interpretations wrong if not for God’s help. We will need the guidance and insight that only the Holy Spirit can give. We need spiritual insight because apparent answers are not always the right answers. Literal readings are not necessarily the best readings. We need the Holy Spirit to give us understanding as we read and study. The good news is that the Holy Spirit is there for us whenever we open scripture, ready and waiting.