Third Sunday of Advent, John 1:6-8,19-28
So they asked him [John], “What are you then? Are you Elijah?” And he said, “I am not.”
In this Sunday’s Gospel, its seems quite clear that St. John the Baptist is not Elijah – he even specifically denies it saying, “I am not Elijah”. Hence, we ought to think that John is not Elijah.
However, we may become confused if we consider the Sunday Gospel in relation to the Saturday morning Gospel (Matthew 17:9a,10-13) where Jesus says, “Elijah will indeed come and restore all things; but I tell you that Elijah has already come” … Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them of John the Baptist.
The Savior makes this same point even more explicitly when he says: For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who is to come. He who has ears, let him hear. (Matthew 11:13-15)
So, was or was not John the Baptist Elijah? John denied it, but Jesus seems to affirm it.
Elijah and Advent
Numerous prophesies in the Old Testament indicate that Elijah should come to prepare the way for the Messiah. We will consider two:
Behold I will send you Elias the prophet, before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord. And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers: lest I come, and strike the earth with anathema. (Malachi 4:5-6)
Thus was Elias magnified in his wondrous works. And who can glory like to thee? … Who art registered in the judgments of times to appease the wrath of the Lord, to reconcile the heart of the father to the son, and to restore the tribes of Jacob. (Ecclesiasticus 49:4,10)
First, note that Elias is simply another rendering of the name Elijah. Second, see that Elijah is said to precede the advent (coming) of the Messiah not as a means of condemnation, but rather to provide an opportunity for repentance.
Elijah will come to prepare the way for the Lord, so that we might be found worthy to receive him.
The two comings of Christ
However, it should be clear from the passages in Malachi and in Ecclesiasticus that the advent coming which is spoken of is not the coming of Christ as a Child (i.e. not the incarnation and Christmas), but rather the second coming and the day of judgment. This is why Malachi calls it the great and dreadful day of the Lord and Ecclesiasticus says that Elijah will come to appease the wrath of the Lord.
But we know that there is not only one coming of the Messiah, there is more than just the final judgment. For, first he came as a man (indeed as a Child) so as to redeem us. And if there are two comings of the Christ, we may well expect that there would be two “Elijahs” – and such is the opinion of the Fathers of the Church (namely, of Jerome, Remigius, Chrysostom, and others).
The literal Elijah (who was taken up in the chariot of fire) will come again to prepare and announce the second coming and the day of judgment. But the figurative Elijah (who is John the Baptist) has come already and he prepared and announced the first coming of the Lamb of God as our Redeemer.
This is specified by Holy Scripture when the angel Gabriel announced the conception of John and said of him: And he shall go before him [i.e. the Messiah] in the spirit and power of Elias; that he may turn the hearts of the fathers unto the children, and the incredulous to the wisdom of the just, to prepare unto the Lord a perfect people. (Luke 1:17)
St. John the Baptist is the figurative Elijah, insofar as he prepared for the first coming of the Christ in the power and spirit of Elijah. For we obviously cannot believe that the Baptist was Elijah re-incarnated or any such nonsense – and this is why John himself said, “I am not Elijah”. Rather, it is clear that he was the figurative “Elijah” – and this is why our Savior said that John was Elijah if you are willing to accept it (namely, if you are willing to be converted by his words and prepare the way for my coming into your heart, then St. John the Baptist has been Elijah for you).
Fr. Cornelius a’ Lapide explains
Below, I will reproduce a number of quotations from the excellent Gospel commentaries of Fr. Cornelus a’ Lapide – perhaps the last great biblical scholar before the rise of the modern age and the downfall of Western civilization.
It seems to me that the most important point in understanding this difficulty is this: “For the Scribes did not distinguish between the two Advents of Christ, even as the Jews fail to do so still. [...] Christ therefore, that He might, in His condescension, give a full explanation to the Scribes, concedes that an Elias would be a precursor of both His Advents; but that in the first it would be the typical [i.e. the figurative Elias], in the second the literal and real Elias.”
On Mtt 11:14 — “‘And if ye will receive it, this is Elias, &c.’ That is if ye wish to receive John, and to believe him, as ye ought to do. Whence the Syriac translates by the imperative—If ye wish, receive ye. For he shall be Elias unto you, because he being endowed with the spirit and power of Elias, shall convert you to God and Christ, in the same way that Elias shall convert your children and descendants at the end of the world by a like zeal and purity of life to the same Christ. Thus S. Jerome says, ‘John is Elias which is for to come, not because the same soul was in both, as the heretics think, but because they had the same grace of the Holy Spirit. John was girded as Elias was. Like Elias he lived in the desert. He suffered from Herodias as Elias did from Jezebel. And as Elias shall be the precursor of the Second Advent, so was John of the Lord when He came in the flesh to save us.’
“There is a reference to Mal. iv. 5, ‘Behold I will send you Elijah the prophet.’ The Jews even to this day are eagerly expecting Elias from this prophecy of Malachi, that he may shew Christ unto them, and explain all the doubtful matters of the Law; and therefore they hold him in great account. This was why Christ compared and equaled John to him.”
On Mtt 17:12-13 (after the Transfiguration) — “‘But I say unto you, &c.’ Christ passes at once from the literal to the mystical Elias, i.e., John the Baptist: for concerning John, the angel Gabriel had foretold to his father Zacharias, in S. Luke: ‘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.’ (i. 17.)
“Falsely do the Calvinists refer all these things to the first Advent of Christ, and explain both mentions of Elias—viz., in verses 11 and 12—to mean John the Baptist. For they think that Elias, whom Malachi predicted shall come as the precursor of Christ (iv. 5), is John the Baptist, and that there is no other who shall come with Enoch before Christ’s second Advent. I have refuted this error at length on Malachi iv. 5.
“For it was Christ’s intention in this place only to explain that saying of the scribes, derived from Malachi, ‘Elias shall come, and shall show you Christ,’—that what Malachi had spoken of Christ’s second Advent might be applied mystically to His first. For the Scribes did not distinguish between the two Advents of Christ, even as the Jews fail to do so still. For they deny that Christ has come, and are expecting Him as still about to come, because Elias has not yet appeared to point Him out. Christ therefore, that He might, in His condescension, give a full explanation to the Scribes, concedes that an Elias would be a precursor of both His Advents; but that in the first it would be the typical, in the second the literal and real Elias. And He means to say that it was not because Elias had not yet come that the Jews persisted in not believing Him to be the Messiah, but because they were perverse and obstinate in their wickedness. For that Elias, who had, been promised before Christ’s first Advent, namely John the Baptist, had already come, and had already pointed out Christ to the Scribes, that He was the Messiah; and they would not believe him. Therefore Christ adds, and they knew him not, i.e., they refused to recognize him, as the precursor of Christ. And they did unto him whatsoever they listed, i.e., when he reproved their vices, they hated and persecuted him, and delivered him up to Herod, who sought his life.
“Then understood, &c. Viz., that John the Baptist was the mystical Elias, and the forerunner of Christ.”
Finally, on John 1:21 (where John denies that he is Elijah) — “‘And they asked him, &c.’ When John denied that he was the Christ, the messengers asked him if he were Elias. For him God took away, that he might be the forerunner of Christ. And of him they were then in expectation, according to the words of Malachi (iv. 5), ‘Behold, I send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the Lord come,’ meaning the day of judgment, when Christ shall return to be the judge of all. But the Scribes did not understand this. They thought that there would be but one advent of Christ, and that a glorious one, the precursor of which would be Elias. Thus the Jews think even now that Christ has not yet come, but is about to come with Elias. And yet they ought to have known from the same Malachi (iii. 1) that there would be another precursor of Christ’s first coming in the flesh, even John the Baptist. ‘For I,’ saith the Lord, ‘do send My messenger, and he shall prepare My way before My face.’”