Some claim that Elijah will appear before the return of Jesus Christ and that he may even still be alive. How do you explain the passage in Matthew 17:11 in which Jesus is quoted as saying that Elijah will come and restore all things?


In the context of Matthew 17, Peter, James and John accompany Jesus to a high mountain, and then, in verse 9, Jesus says, “‘Tell the vision to no one until the Son of Man is risen from the dead.'” In this vision they witness Jesus being transfigured and appearing in His glorified state. Along with Jesus, Moses and Elijah also appear. In the parallel account of Mark 9, these disciples wonder at the instruction from Jesus when He spoke of His resurrection: “So they kept this word to themselves, questioning what the rising from the dead meant” (verse 10).

Their curiosity led to the question we find recorded in Matthew 17:10: “And His disciples asked Him, saying, ‘Why then do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?'” The scribes, along with the rest of the religious leadership of that time, did not understand how the Messiah would first appear. Not understanding the scriptures, they were only looking for the establishment of Israel’s kingdom and the destruction of their enemies. Following the resurrection of Jesus, even His disciples asked: “‘Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel'” (Acts 1:6)?

Not unlike some people today, the scribes of Jesus’ day narrowly focused on the prophecy found in Malachi 4. The last two verses of this chapter state: “‘Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet Before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD, And he will turn The hearts of the fathers to the children, And the hearts of the children to their fathers, Lest I come and strike the earth with a curse'” (verses 5 and 6).

This sweeping prophecy will culminate in the establishing of the Kingdom of God on the earth. However, God has been preparing for this event through His carefully prepared plan–a great master plan that was established even before the creation itself (Compare 1 Corinthians 2:7 and Titus 1:2).

Continuing in Matthew 17, Jesus explained, “‘but I say to you that Elijah has come already, and they did not know him but did to him whatever they wished. Likewise the Son of Man is also about to suffer at their hands.’ Then the disciples understood that He spoke of John the Baptist” (verses 12-13).

John the Baptist was uniquely commissioned in this Elijah-like role: “Now his father Zacharias was filled with the Holy Spirit, and prophesied, saying…” (Luke 1:67); Then, in verse 76, John’s father makes this statement: “‘And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Highest; for you will go before the face of the Lord to prepare His ways.'”

During his short ministry, John the Baptist drew the attention of the Jews and they sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to question him. John 1:19 records their question: “…’Who are you?'” John answered that he was not the Christ, nor Elijah nor the Prophet. What he emphasized is recorded verse 23: “He said: ‘I am The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.'”

Is what John said in contradiction with what Jesus said of him, that “Elijah has come already?” Not at all. John knew who he was and the work he was to do. He knew that he was not the Messiah nor the Prophet. He also knew that he was not Elijah. Perhaps what he did not understand was that his work was an Elijah-like commission–in the manner that Malachi chapter 4 speaks of. However, Jesus Christ did know this and revealed it to His disciples as recorded in Matthew 17. Also note what an angel of God testified to Zacharias concerning John the Baptist: “He will also 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 a people prepared for the Lord.” (Luke 1:17). The angel did not say that John would be Elijah, but that he would have that kind of role to fulfill.

Even John did not know who the Messiah was until he baptized Jesus: “‘I did not know Him, but He who sent me to baptize with water said to me, “Upon whom you see the Spirit descending, and remaining on Him, this is He who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” And I have seen and testified that this is the Son of God'” (John 1:33-34). What John did know and do was to fulfill the work that God gave to him. Jesus said of John: “‘Assuredly, I say to you, among those born of women there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist'” (Matthew 11:11).

John the Baptist preached repentance from sins, and he and his disciples baptized many. However, Jesus’ disciples baptized more than John (see John 4:1-2). Indeed, John’s work prepared the way for what Jesus accomplished. Yet the greater work was done by Jesus in ways far beyond preaching and baptizing.

Clearly, the Bible speaks of a future time when some will come “in the spirit and power of Elijah.” The most direct prophecy of that event is found in Malachi 4. Note the time setting depicted in verse 5: “‘Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet Before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD.'” The specific work to be done then will be much the same as what John the Baptist did. “‘And he will turn The hearts of the fathers to the children, And the hearts of the children to their fathers, Lest I come and strike the earth with a curse [utter destruction]'” (Malachi 4:6). The way in which this will be done is for both fathers and children to turn to the law of God (see verse 4).

We also find this description of what Jesus Christ did as Peter preached at Jerusalem: “‘To you first, God, having raised up His Servant Jesus, sent Him to bless you, in turning away every one of you from your iniquities’ ” (Acts 3:26). In verse 24 of this same chapter in Acts, Peter says: “‘Yes, and all the prophets, from Samuel and those who follow, as many as have spoken, have also foretold these days.'” Peter had already shown that Moses had, as well, spoken of God raising up a Prophet like him (verse 22).

Acts 3:21 speaks of Jesus Christ in this way: “‘whom heaven must receive until the times of restoration of all things, which God has spoken by the mouth of all His holy prophets since the world began.'” This was not an exclusive message from either Elijah or John the Baptist. Rather, the message of restoration of all things points to the establishment of God’s Kingdom on this earth. This is the same message that Jesus commissioned the Church to proclaim: “‘And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come'”(Matthew 24:14). What will end is the corrupt rule of Satan’s government. What will be restored is God’s government.

Since the time of John the Baptist, the Church of God has been carrying out an Elijah-like role in teaching the way of life that God instructs all to follow. Beyond that first generation of the Church, only in recent times has the work of the Church arisen to such a level that it impacted people all over the earth. That occurred during the lifetime of Herbert W. Armstrong as God empowered him to preach the gospel powerfully through the mass media of print, radio and television. Indeed, many heard that message and–like what happened in the time of John the Baptist–they repented and turned their hearts to obeying God.

Not unlike the first generation of the Church of God, the Worldwide Church of God (founded by Mr. Armstrong) has been overthrown through deceptive teachings from false ministers. As a consequence, we now find the people of God straying from the truth that they once believed. However, some have remained faithful to their calling to carry on the work of the Church.

Scripture shows that at the time of the end, there must yet arise a powerful witness of warning to both the modern nations of Israel and Judah, as well as to the entire world (This will be before the work of the two witnesses!). That work will have dramatic impact in the coming years. Note what Jesus said in this regard: “‘Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and kill you, and you will be hated by all nations for My name’s sake'” (Matthew 24:9). Jesus gave this answer as a direct response to His disciples. He was speaking prophetically about His future disciples! Much like John the Baptist was called upon to do, the Church of God will face the task of proclaiming the intervention of One Who will bring peace–this time forcibly! The Elijah message at the beginning centered on this thought: “‘If the LORD is God, follow Him'” (1 Kings 18:21). That is what Malachi prophesied, it is what John the Baptist proclaimed, it is what Jesus taught and commissioned His followers to teach–it is the message that will carry on being proclaimed into the Kingdom of God!

Revelation 11 shows that two prophets will arise just before Christ returns. They will be imbued with power from God, much like Moses and Aaron, to work powerful signs before the whole world. It is interesting to note that in the vision seen by Peter, James and John, it was Moses and Elijah who appeared (Compare Matthew 17). They are dead and buried, but the two witnesses of God are different individuals–they will prophesy during the time when modern Israel and Judah will be punished, and many of them who escape death will become captives scattered and sold all over the world. These two people will contend with the great false religious leader then alive as well as the government leaders of the revived Roman Empire. Not only will they proclaim God’s soon coming punishment of the earth, but they will have power from God to bring about awesome miracles to withstand Satan’s evil influence and to wake up any who might repent. Verse 7 indicates that they will “finish their testimony.” Exactly what that testimony is can be understood from the prophecies found in Zechariah 4. In verse 14, the two olive trees mentioned earlier in the chapter are identified as “‘These are the two anointed ones, who stand beside the Lord of the whole earth.'” In verse 7, we find the message that will be proclaimed: “‘And he shall bring forth the capstone With shouts of ‘Grace, grace to it!””

That “capstone” is Jesus Christ. He is the stone that the builders rejected (Compare Luke 20:17; Ephesians 2:20; 1 Peter 2:6-8) Jesus Christ is the One Who will restore the earth (Compare Isaiah 49:8). That restoration will involve this physical world which will have come to the brink of extinction. That restoration will also be the establishment of God’s Kingdom and the teaching of God’s ways in order that mankind may truly become the sons and daughters of God and inherent eternal life and peace forever more (Compare Romans 8:18-22).

Elijah will be with Jesus Christ and the others who attain the first resurrection. Elijah, like all the faithful men and women living in past generations, is in the grave–he is dead. But Jesus Christ has already led the way for us. He has been resurrected and He is alive and at the right hand of God. He has promised to return to this earth. Then and only then will we see the restoration of all things as the great master plan of God continues to its completion. Finally, as Revelation chapters 21 and 22 show, the Father and His Son, Jesus Christ, will dwell in the midst of their family. “‘And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away'” (Revelation 21:4).

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