There are few Old Testament Bible accounts that captivate one’s imagination more than the story of the prophet Elijah.
Elijah served as the Lord’s mouthpiece in the northern Kingdom of Israel during the reign of wicked King Ahab and Queen Jezebel. The nation was rife with idolatry. The Lord used Elijah to show the folly of worshiping Baal (the rain-god) and Asherah (the moon-goddess and consort of Baal), and hoped thereby to call the people to repentance. At Elijah’s word, there was no rain in Israel for three and a half years, and at his word, rain returned to the land. At Elijah’s word, the Lord sent fire from heaven to consume the waterlogged sacrifice and stones on Mount Carmel. When the Lord’s work for Elijah was complete, the Lord took His faithful servant, body and soul, to heaven.
Elijah is spoken of again, about 500 years before the birth of Jesus, in the closing verses of the Old Testament: “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet Before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD” (Malachi 4:5). The people were watching for the great prophet Elijah to come again before the arrival of the Promised Messiah.
When John the Baptist began baptizing in the Jordan River, the people began to ask, “Are you Elijah?” To which John replied, “I am not” (John 1:21).
Yet, when Jesus speaks about John the Baptist, He says, “And if you are willing to receive it, he is Elijah who is to come” (Matthew 11:14). This seems like a contradiction! How can this be?
The Angel Gabriel helps us as he announces to Zechariah about the baby he and Elizabeth were going to have, “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).
John the Baptist wasn’t the physical return of the great Prophet Elijah, as the people expected. John the Baptist came in the “spirit and power of Elijah.” The spirit and power of Elijah is found in the message that John the Baptist preached. He didn’t call fire from heaven, but came with the fiery message of God’s Law condemning sin and calling sinners to repentance.
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” (Matthew 3:2). Now was the time for the people to repent of their sinful ways and bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And to the repentant sinner, John the Baptist pointed the way to the kingdom of heaven. “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). By the blood of God’s Lamb, the sinner would find full and free cleansing from all sin. The kingdom of heaven had arrived and salvation was to be found in Jesus! This was the spirit and power of Elijah at work, calling sinners to repentance and pointing them to Jesus.
Maybe the ministry of John the Baptist isn’t as captivating as that of the prophet Elijah, but it continues to be just as important for us today. The voice of John the Baptist continues to cry out with the same spirit and power as Elijah’s. By the power of the Word, sinners are called to turn away from their sin and are pointed to Jesus, God’s Lamb, who takes away the sin of the world.
Nathan Pfeiffer is pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Spokane, Washington.