In Malachi 4:5 we have the last word God speaks to Israel before Christ’s incarnation. Malachi presents an eschatologically significant matter that dispensationalists and other evangelicals have debated for years. That brief reference reads: “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord” (Mal 4:5).
The significance of this reference to Elijah is two-fold. First, in antiquity Jews widely anticipate that literal Elijah will appear before the end. The great Talmudic scholar John Lightfoot notes: “It would be an infinite task to produce all the passages out of the Jewish writings which one might concerning the expected coming of Elias.”1 The DJBP notes that “out of this model of ideal prophet evolved speculations about an eschatological prophet (Mal 4:5) who would serve as a restorer of the social order (Mal 4:6). By the Tannaitic period the eschatological Elijah was thus imagined as the ultimate arbiter of unsettled legal and ritual questions.”2 Consequently, the Jews deem Elijah “the loftiest prophet of the OT,” so that “no OT hero fills a larger place in Jewish tradition.”3 The New Testament mentions no other Old Testament prophet as many times as Elijah (thirty).
Second, the Gospels even allude to Elijah and this very reference several times in conjunction with Christ’s ministry. Due to Malachi 4:5 the first century Jews hold that Elijah will come before the great Day of the Lord (Mt 17:10–12; Mk 9:11–12). Consequently, during John Baptist’s ministry many think he is Elijah (Jn 1:21–25), because he preaches in the spirit and power of Elijah (Lk 1:17). When John denies he is Elijah, many surmise Jesus might be (Mt 16:13–14; Mk 8:27–28; Lk 9:7–8, 18–19). As Christ is dying some mistakenly believe he is calling for Elijah from the cross (Mt 27:47–49; Mk 15:35–36). In a literal sense Elijah does come during Christ’s ministry, for he appears with Moses when the Lord transfigures before them (Mt 17:3–4; Mk 9:4–5; Lk 9:30–33). Two of these references note that this event brings Malachi 4 to the minds of the three disciples who witness it (Mt 17:11–13; Mk 9:12–13).
Tomorrow I will consider: The Fulfillment of Malachi 4:5. Be there or be a trapezoid (which is worse than being a square).
1. John Lightfoot, A Commentary on the New Testament, 2:243.
2. Jacob Neusner, Dictionary of Judaism in the Biblical Period, 189.
3. J. Strachan, “Elijah,” Dictionary of the Bible, 1:687, 691. See: Sirach 48:1ff.
4. There is no footnote #4. Caught you!