God Almighty inspires His prophets to give the outlines of His purposes that will culminate in the salvation of mankind, long before they occur. One of such prophecies has to do with the birth of the forerunner of our Lord Jesus Christ, who later came to be known as John the Baptist. Though this prophecy is misunderstood and misapplied in certain quarters, the light thrown on the subject by our Lord Jesus Christ is enough to clear any misconceptions about the issues involved.
The book of Malachi contains one of the prophecies in regard to the subject-matter of this discourse. It states, “Behold, I will send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me: and the Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his temple, even the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in: behold, he shall come, saith the LORD of hosts.” (Malachi 3:1) Isaiah the prophet prophesied about a lone voice in the wilderness whose mission would be to clear away obstacles that lie in the path of the Lord. - Isaiah 40:3-5.
The prophecy about the coming of the forerunner is repeated in the last chapter of the book of Malachi in which God Almighty promised to send “Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD”. (Malachi 4:5, 6) What is clear from the prophecies is that the forerunner will reconcile people to God and herald the coming of the Messiah through whom God Almighty will judge the world and bring iniquity to an end. Naturally, the Jews earnestly looked forward to the fulfillment of the prophecy about the “Elijah” who would prepare the ground for the coming of the Lord.
It is unfortunate that many of the natural Jews are still looking forward to the promised Elijah, and by extension, the Messiah, who would be Jehovah's Chief Judge and the Redeemer of His people. But indisputable facts staring everyone in the face show that the prophecy had fulfilled more than 2000 years ago. It was for the purpose of making this truth bare to mankind that God used Luke, one of the early disciples of Christ, to give a detailed account of the birth of John and of our Saviour Jesus Christ. The record states that Angel Gabriel appeared to Zechariah the priest and disclosed to him that his wife would bear him a son in his old age, “And he shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elias, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” - Luke 1:17. (See also verse 76) When he started his work, John the Baptist left no room for doubt that he was the forerunner of Jesus Christ. - Luke 3:3-6.
During the ministry of John the Baptist, the Jews, who had been expecting the fulfillment of the prophecy on the coming of Elijah, did not understand the meaning of the texts and were therefore curious to know if he was the one being prophesied of. Some of the Jews at that time even thought it was the same Elijah who had been translated that had come back as John the Baptist. He repeatedly debunked this view. - John 1:25-28; Matthew 3:11, 12; John 3:28-30.
Also, after the vision of the transfiguration, the disciples of Jesus Christ asked him, saying, “Why then say the scribes that Elias must first come?” Jesus answered them, “Elias truly shall first come, and restore all things. But I say unto you, That Elias is come already, and they knew him not, but have done unto him whatsoever they listed. Likewise shall also the Son of man suffer of them. Then the disciples understood that he spake unto them of John the Baptist.” (Matthew 17:9-13) This is a clear confirmation by our Lord Jesus Christ himself that the prophecy in regard to Elijah which is to come had fulfilled in John the Baptist.
Also, our Saviour Jesus Christ, while addressing the messengers sent by John the Baptist, told the people openly that the prophecies concerning his forerunner had fulfilled. “And as they departed, Jesus began to say unto the multitudes concerning John, What went ye out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken with the wind? But what went ye out for to see? A man clothed in soft raiment? behold, they that wear soft clothing are in kings' houses. But what went ye out for to see? A prophet? yea, I say unto you, and more than a prophet. For this is he, of whom it is written, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee.” (Matthew 11:7-10) He then added, “For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John. And if ye will receive it, this is Elias, which was for to come. He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.” (Matthew 11:13-15) It is sad to note that despite these clear statements from the Scriptures, many people still habour mistaken beliefs about the promised Messiah.
Some people argue that our Lord Jesus Christ “clearly demonstrated the reality of reincarnation” when he said that John the Baptist was “Elias, which was for to come”. But the Bible does not teach reincarnation, which is the belief that the spirit of a departed person returns to earth at some stage and takes up residence in someone else's body, usually a member of the same family. This would mean that a person comes to the earth more than once, taking on a different human body on each occasion. On the contrary, the Bible shows that people come into this world not through reincarnation but by procreation, in fulfillment of the divine mandate “be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth”. (Genesis 1: 28) The Bible does not say man comes back to earth a number of times after death but that "it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment" (Hebrews 9:27) Though the Bible says John the Baptist shall have the spirit and power of Elijah, that does not mean that he was the reincarnation of Elijah.
When the Holy Scriptures prophesied that Elijah shall come again, it did not mean that the prophet Elijah would reincarnate and be born again to this earth but that another prophet would come having the same characteristics, lifestyle or manner of life as Elijah of old.
John the Baptist is said to be “the Elijah which is to come” because of the similarity of the mission they were to accomplish - their courage, forthrightness, uncompromising attitude, dwelling place, their dress habits, and so on.
The two prophets did reconciliation work to turn people to righteousness so that they would be at peace with God. (1 Kings 17:1; 18:17, 18) The resolute and courageous stand which Elijah took against Baal worship resulted in the contest at Mount Carmel in which, in response to the prayer of Elijah, God Almighty answered by fire, thus proving His supremacy. (1 Kings 18:39) Consequently, the people promptly responded to the order to kill all 450 prophets of baal who were being fed from the Queen's table. Both Elijah and John the Baptist were courageous and forthright personages. They risked death by fearlessly correcting even those in power for their wrong-doing. - 1 Kings 21:20.
Elijah not only rebuked Ahaziah the king for seeking help from the god of Ekron but sent messengers to him stating that he would die from the illness. (2 Kings 1:9-16) Furthermore, Elijah wrote a letter to Jehoram, the successor of Jehoshaphat, king of Judah warning him of the grave consequences of his idolatry, stating that his wives and children would be taken away captive and that he would die of a fearful disease. And these fulfilled. -2 Kings 8:16-24; 2 Chronicles 21.
John the Baptist's also did reconciliation work in that his labours were directed at moral reform - that of preaching to the people so that they would turn from their sinful ways to do the will of God, as it is written, “Then said he to the multitude that came forth to be baptized of him, O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth therefore fruits worthy of repentance.” – Matthew 3:7, 8. See also Luke 3:7-14.
John the Baptist corrected Herod for marrying the wife of his brother Philip and for this reason he was thrown into prison. (Matthew 14:3, 4) Luke's account said John reproved Herod not only for coveting his brother's wife, but “for all the evils which Herod had done”. (Luke 3:19) It was while he was in prison that John was beheaded, following a rash oath Herod made because of the dancing of his wife's daughter. – Matthew 14:3-12.
John was a firm, resolute man - not a reed shaken with the wind. (Matthew 11:7) So also was Elijah, who was so angry at the apostasy of the children of Israel that, he lamented, “… I have been very jealous for the LORD God of hosts: because the children of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thine altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away.” - 1 Kings 19:14.
John the Baptist had an uncompromising zeal in the service of God. He criticized the Jews for presuming to be righteous and secure with God – just because they were children of Abraham. He declared “And think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham.” - Matthew 3:7-9.
Elijah and John the Baptist were unconventional in their appearance or dressing. Elijah was reported to be “an hairy man, and girt with a girdle of leather about his loins.” (2 Kings 1:7, 8) John had a similar appearance in that he “was clothed with camel's hair, and with a girdle of a skin about his loins; and he did eat locusts and wild honey”. (Mark 1:6. Compare Matthew 11:8) Elijah and John the Baptist had rugged constitutions, hardened by long periods of stay in the wilderness.