Before I can compare these two Biblical figures, I need to present them as the Bible does. Elijah is considered the chief of the prophets. Not only does he have a large portion of 1 Kings given to him, but he also appears with Christ at the Mount of Transfiguration. It is there at the mount that Bible scholars figure his appearing with Christ implies that he is representative head of the prophets, and Moses, who also appeared, represents the head of the priests.
In many ways Elijah’s miracles were to prefigure the Christ who was to come. He raised a child from the dead, in the manner of which Christ was going to do. He fed the widow and her son with food that would not run out, even as Christ was to feed the five thousand. He withstood the soldiers of the enemy and conquered them, first with the priest on the mountain, and then with those set by the wicked king to apprehend him, and that is just as Christ is going to do at his return, where none shall be able to stand against his power and might.
John the Baptist, appearing in the New Testament, was nonetheless the last of the Old Testament prophets. It was his job to announce the coming of the Lord, and to proclaim to the people the need of repentance. He baptized many in the name of repentance, and even baptized the Lord when the Lord appeared before him. It was John who saw the Spirit of God descend like a dove and abide upon Jesus.
John the Baptist was like Elijah in several ways. 2 Kings tells us that Elijah “was a man with a garment of hair and with a leather belt around his waist.” Matthew tells us that John clothes “were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist.” If we were to see such men in our times dressed this way we would probably seek to have them committed. I have often wondered what Zechariah and Elizabeth thought of their only son, John, and whether they knew God’s hand was upon him, or if they perhaps thought John had lost it. My reflection is unrewarded, for we are simply not told what they thought; we are told that both of them were prepared for God to do something special. Due to their age, they may not have lived themselves to see what God did through John the Baptist.
John was also like Elijah in temperament. They both confronted kings and rulers with their sin. Elijah confronted Ahab and gave him a dire prophecy about the future of his descendants. John confronted Herod for marrying his brother’s wife, and ended being beheaded for it. They both seemed to like living on the edges of their society. Elijah seemed to show up at unexpected times and places, earning the enmity of Ahab. John seemed to delight in the wilderness, and became a big enough figure that many Jews started coming out to where he was. They both worked very hard to turn people back to God, and they both preached the deep need for repentance.
Interestingly, the connection between the two, though hundreds of years apart, is not as remote as you might think. The last words of the last book of the Old Testament say, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord: And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.”
Scholars have long thought that passage meant that either the real Elijah, or one in the spirit of Elijah, would come before the coming of the Lord. Now this is where it gets a bit complicated. John the Baptist was sent as the forerunner of Jesus, and we have clearly seen that he was in the spirit of Elijah. Indeed, had the nation of Israel accepted the coming of their King, John the Baptist would have been considered Elijah. Jesus himself said this (Matthew 11:14), “And if ye will receive it, this is Elias, which was for to come.”
But if he was not Elijah since Israel rejected their King, then that leaves the prophecy of Malachi unfulfilled. Interestingly Revelation does tell us of two prophets who both seem to be in the spirit and manner of Elijah. Is one of these two men the Elijah which is to come? Or is Elijah going to be another prominent character, not mentioned in the Revelation? I think the former is true, though there is no way to be certain until it happens. It is definitely the job of the two who are called witnesses to turn the nation of Israel back to repentance. This the Bible declares they will faithfully do until 1,260 days are past. That works out to exactly 3 ½ years.
Revelation 11 says that when their testimony is finished, then the beast will attack and kill them, leaving their bodies unburied in the streets of Jerusalem for 3 ½ days. The whole world will rejoice over the death of these two men because they tormented those who lived on the earth. But at the end of the 3 ½ days, God will cause them to come alive again, and will take them up to heaven, even while their enemies are watching. I can only speculate what will happen to the minds of the Jews who are watching, but it is easy to believe that at that point, with the incredible things they saw these two men do, along with their message, that they will as a nation at last recognize their folly. Zechariah tells us that at this time they will mourn for he whom they pierced, an obvious reference to Jesus. The prophets, coming in the spirit and power of Elijah, will have successfully accomplished that for which they were sent, to turn the hearts of Israel back to their God.
Why two prophets in Revelation, but only one prophet foretold in Malachi? I do not have an answer for that, but some scholars have suggested the identity of the two as Elijah and Moses, since these two were the ones appearing on the Mount of Transfiguration. Others suggest Elijah and Enoch, since these two men, out of all the men who have ever walked the earth were the only two not to have died. Enoch, says Genesis, was not, for God took him. Elijah was separated from Elisha by the chariots of fire, and a whirlwind carried him off to heaven. It would fulfill the Scripture just to have one prophet coming in the name of Elijah, and turning the nation toward God. But how God intends to do it no one is yet sure. We have to but wait and watch.
But the very names of Elijah and Enoch bring to mind that which the Lord has long promised. Both men escaped death, prefiguring the Rapture, the point at which God will pull his children out of the earth, that his judgments might at last be poured out upon the earth. Woe to those who are caught in this time! Think of it! The two witnesses are turning waters into blood, and bringing plagues upon man, and this is a woeful judgment, but at the same time it is evident in Revelation that judgments are being poured out upon the earth in many other ways. Israel will strike a false peace that will end with the death of the witnesses, and then the armies of the Middle East will mass to attack Israel. It is at that time, that great moment, the last possible moment before the little nation of Israel is destroyed, that the Son of Man shall appear, and all of the anger and sin against Israel shall come to exactly nothing.
Jesus tells us that he will come into Jerusalem, and there he shall rule for 1,000 years, bringing the peaceful bliss at last upon the earth, that has so desperately needed it. Zechariah and Isaiah describe this time as a time when men shall put away the instruments of war, beating their swords into plowshears, lifespans of men shall greatly increase, and all men shall honor the Jews as the nation which brought the Savior. Are we now living in the generation which shall see these things unfold? May it be so, and may Jesus return soon, heralded by one like unto Elijah.