This page is also available in: Español
Written by Ángel Manuel Rodríguez
Who is the Elijah mentioned in Malachi 4:5?In seeking to answer your question, I will comment on the context of the passage, examine how it is interpreted in the Gospels as it refers to Christ, and discuss how it might be fulfilled in the last days.
1. Contextual Considerations: Malachi 4 begins with an announcement of divine judgment and its effects on the fate of the wicked (total extermination) and of those who revere/fear the Lord (victory, salvation, and joy [verses 1-3]). This is followed by a call to “remember [i.e., keep] the law” God gave to Israel on Sinai (verse 4). In this context the coming of Elijah is announced and dated (verse 5): He will come “before the great and dreadful day of the Lord” (verse 5; cf. verses 1-3; Joel 2:31). The prophet’s mission will be to “turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers” (verse 6). A literal reading of the text is possible, but the context suggests the need of the new generation to be as faithful to God’s law and covenant as were their faithful forefathers. In other words, Elijah was to prepare God’s people for the coming of the Lord by calling them to return to the faith of the fathers.
2. Christological Interpretation: The kingdom of God forcefully interrupted human history in the person and ministry of Jesus. He was the Messiah. The Jews argued that He could not be the Messiah because Elijah had not yet come (Matt. 17:10). Affirming His messiahship, Jesus answered that Elijah had already come in the ministry of John the Baptizer (verses 11-13). John denied being the incarnated Elijah (John 1:21), though he came “filled with the Holy Spirit” (Luke 1:15) and “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” (verse 17). Through his ministry John would “bring back . . . to the Lord” many of the people of Israel (verse 16, NIV) in order “to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (verse 17). His prophetic task was to “prepare the way of the Lord” (Matt. 3:3).
3. End-time Interpretation: The partial fulfillment of the prophecy of Malachi in the ministry of John the Baptizer will find its ultimate fulfillment before the coming of Christ. A brief look at the book of Revelation points, first, to the coming of a false Elijah who will cause “fire [to] come down from heaven” (Rev. 13:13; cf. 1 Kings 18:36-38) in order to gather the kings of the earth in preparation for the “battle of that great day of God Almighty” (Rev. 16:14). Second, this false Elijah is not an individual but an apostate movement claiming to have the spirit of Elijah, when in reality deceptive miracles are performed through the power of demonic spirits (Rev. 16:13, 14). Third, the work of a false Elijah points to the end-time mission of the true Elijah as summarized in the messages of the three angels (Rev. 14:6-12). It refers to a movement raised by God to invite His people to come out of Babylon (Rev. 18:4). This movement is called the end-time remnant (Rev. 12:17); they are “faithful followers” of the Lamb (Rev. 17:14, NIV). Fourth, their message, in agreement with Malachi, announces the judgment of God that will bring salvation through the eternal gospel to those who “fear God” (Rev. 14:7), and destruction to the wicked (verses 10, 11). Those who fear the Lord obey/keep God’s commandments (verse 12). They restore the faith of their apostolic fathers as found in the New Testament, calling God’s people to return to Him. Fifth, they are, like Elijah and John the Baptizer, possessed by the power of the Spirit. They listen to what the Spirit said to the church (Rev. 3:14-22), and, empowered by the angel of Revelation 18:1, they will illuminate the earth with God’s glory in a last attempt to prepare the world for the coming of the Lord. They receive the outpouring of the Spirit of the Lord, announced in Joel 2:28, 29, and that will happen “before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord” (Joel 2:31, NIV).
The work of Elijah should be our work.