Was John the Baptist the Reincarnation of Elijah?

Currently at White Fields Church we are studying through the books of 1-2 Kings in our series called Desiring the Kingdom. We recently looked at the taking up of the Prophet Elijah in a whirlwind (watch or listen to that message here: 2 Kings 1:1-2:12 “The Legacy of Your Life”

Check out: Did Elijah Really Go to Heaven?

One of the questions this brings up, is in regard to the identity of John the Baptist. Was John the Baptist actually the return, or the reincarnation of Elijah?

Here are the key issues:

Elijah Never Died…

Elijah is one of only a handful of people in the Bible who never tasted death. Another is Enoch, in Genesis 5.

Some people speculate that maybe Moses never actually died, but was also taken by God before tasting death. The reason for that has to do with something in Revelation 11, which I will address further down in this article, but Deuteronomy 34:5 clearly states that “Moses died in the land of Moab according to the word of the Lord.” The speculation here comes from the idea that this chapter of Deuteronomy was not written by Moses, and therefore the writer only assumed that Moses died. That conclusion seems to be clearly in contradiction of what the text clearly states, however, and as people who believe in the inspiration of the Bible, we should reject it.

The Prophecies

Malachi 3:1, speaking about the coming of the Messiah, says: “Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts.”

Malachi 4:5, also speaking about the Day of the Lord and the coming of the Messiah says: “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.”

The Words of Jesus

Here’s what Jesus had to say about John the Baptist:

As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds concerning John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written,
“‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face,
who will prepare your way before you.’

For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John, and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.

Matthew 11:7-15

Two important things here:

  1. Jesus is claiming that John is the promised messenger from Isaiah 40:3 who would prepare the way for the coming of the Messiah.
  2. Jesus is claiming that John is the fulfillment of Malachi’s prophecy about the messenger in Malachi 3:1.

This statement of Jesus that “if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come” has led some people to believe that John was the return, or reincarnation of Elijah. However…

The Claim of John the Baptist Himself

John the Baptist explicitly denied being Elijah the Prophet:

And 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.” So they said to him, “Who are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.”

John 1:19-23

Rather, John identifies himself as the promised messenger from Isaiah 40:3, which Jesus also identified him as.

Are John and Jesus contradicting each other?

Some people believe that John was in denial about his identity as Elijah…

I don’t believe either of these options to be true, rather there is a simple explanation:

“The Spirit and Power of Elijah”

In the Gospel of Luke, chapter 1, when the angel Gabriel is telling Zechariah (John the Baptist’s Father) about who his son will be, he says that John “will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.” (Luke 1:15-17)

Here, Gabriel is quoting from Malachi 3:1 and 4:5. This tells us that those verses are speaking about the same person, and it tells us that that person is John.

In conclusion, John the Baptist was not literally Elijah, i.e. the reincarnation of Elijah, rather he is a prophet sent by God in the spirit and the power of Elijah.

This is why Jesus said John “was Elijah, if you are willing to accept it.” In other words, John is the fulfillment of the coming of the prophet Elijah in the sense that he came in the spirit and power of Elijah, but he is also not literally Elijah reincarnated.

The Transfiguration

Further proof of this fact is that Elijah himself appeared at Jesus’ transfiguration (Matthew 17:11-12), not John the Baptist.

Furthermore, both Herod and the people distinguished between Elijah and John the Baptist (see Mark 16:14-16 & 8:28)

Will Elijah Come Again During the Great Tribulation?

Revelation 11 describes two witnesses who will come on the scene during the Tribulation, a time of great trouble for the world before the return of Jesus.

And I will grant authority to my two witnesses, and they will prophesy for 1,260 days, clothed in sackcloth.”
These are the two olive trees and the two lampstands that stand before the Lord of the earth. And if anyone would harm them, fire pours from their mouth and consumes their foes. If anyone would harm them, this is how he is doomed to be killed. They have the power to shut the sky, that no rain may fall during the days of their prophesying, and they have power over the waters to turn them into blood and to strike the earth with every kind of plague, as often as they desire.
And when they have finished their testimony, the beast that rises from the bottomless pit will make war on them and conquer them and kill them, and their dead bodies will lie in the street of the great city that symbolically is called Sodom and Egypt, where their Lord was crucified. For three and a half days some from the peoples and tribes and languages and nations will gaze at their dead bodies and refuse to let them be placed in a tomb, and those who dwell on the earth will rejoice over them and make merry and exchange presents, because these two prophets had been a torment to those who dwell on the earth. But after the three and a half days a breath of life from God entered them, and they stood up on their feet, and great fear fell on those who saw them. Then they heard a loud voice from heaven saying to them, “Come up here!” And they went up to heaven in a cloud, and their enemies watched them.

Revelation 11:3-12

From the descriptions given of the two witnesses, it seems clear that allusions are being made to Elijah and Moses.

In 2 Kings 1, when Ahaziah sent soldiers to arrest and assumedly kill Elijah, Elijah called down fire from Heaven to consume them. This isn’t exactly “fire pouring from their mouths to consume their foes” but it is similar.

Elijah did shut the sky by his prayers so it did not rain (1 Kings 17 & James 5), and Moses struck the waters and they turned to blood.

Some people assume that it is because Elijah did not die that he is able to return, and that this might be a further fulfillment of Malachi 4:5, in this case Elijah returning in the flesh as opposed to John the Baptist coming in the spirit and power of Elijah. This is also the reason why some people assume that Moses never died, because they assume that the reason Elijah is able to come back is because he never tasted physical death. Others speculate that perhaps the second witness is Enoch, the other person in the Bible who never tasted death.

However, I am not convinced that having never died is a prerequisite for being one of these witnesses. Although they didn’t die physically, their Earthly lives did end.

Furthermore, it seems that if John the Baptist could fulfill Malachi 4:5 by coming in the spirit and power of Elijah, it is not necessary that these two witnesses be the literal reincarnations or reappearances of Elijah and Moses; they could be people who come in the spirit and power of those men.

Conclusion

In summary: John the Baptist was Elijah in that he came in fulfillment of Malachi 3:1 & 4:5, and he came in the spirit and power of Elijah, but he was not a reincarnation of Elijah himself.