If John the Baptist was not Elijah, then Jesus was not the Messiah

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture

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Question: A friend with Jewish sympathies told me that if John the Baptist was not Elijah, then Jesus was not the Messiah. Therefore, we are still waiting for the Messiah. What do you think of this?

Answer: Those assertions are based on a false premise, a category error and a lack of knowledge of the progressive nature of God’s revelation… so they are not true. That’s a lot to unpack, so let’s begin... but we’ll begin with the last point: the progressive nature of God’s revelation.

But before we get into the meat of God’s revelation, let me offer a defense for Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries... the ones who do not think that he was the Messiah… because Jesus went out of his way to keep them from reaching that conclusion! Consider the following passages.

After Jesus healed a man with leprosy, he said. “Don’t tell anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing, as a testimony to them.” (Luke 5:12–14). After the transfiguration, Jesus told his disciples “… Don’t tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” (Matthew 17:9). After he raised Jairus’s daughter from the dead we read “Her parents were astonished, but he ordered them not to tell anyone what had happened.” (Luke 8:56).

When we contrast this with what Jesus revealed to the woman at the well, we see that he downplayed his messiahship when among Messiah-sensitive people like the Jews. But he (mostly through his followers) openly revealed that he was the Messiah to people who were not standing at the ready to place him on David’s throne.

Additionally, he had discussions with his family and his intimate followers about just this issue. He told them that the time had not yet come for that aspect of his ministry (John 7:1-13).

Now, you will hear some people say that Jesus never claimed to be the Jewish Messiah. I ask, haven’t they read John chapter 4 where Jesus revealed this expressly to the Samaritan woman? Jesus and the woman were discussing comparative religions, and she understood that the Messiah would come. Jesus said to her “… I, the one speaking to you—I am he.” (John 4:26).

So, I will not even countenance the notion that Jesus did not claim to be the Messiah. He did so right there! But note this: there wasn’t a Jew in sight... not a whole Jew, anyway. (The Samaritans were considered half breeds by the Jews.) So the challenge turns at this point. Was Jesus wrong about being the Messiah? Was he lying about being the Messiah? Was he a lunatic who thought he was the Messiah? Or is the Bible wrong? If Jesus was not the Messiah, those are the only alternatives.

None of these is acceptable, of course. Our stand is that Jesus was indeed the Messiah. But the Jews of his day were not his primary audience. His messiahship was taught most fully after his death and resurrection... and the fact that this happened after the Jewish influence in the church was the only influence in the church gives skeptics a window for criticism.

Critics say that the timing of the messianic emphasis is suspicious. They say that Christians invented the messiahship of Jesus to give him credibility. But if you believe in the inerrancy of Scripture (like we do here at Mainsail Ministries) — and in the progressive nature of God’s revelation (as do information theorists on any kind of information) — you can see that God did not reveal that truth to humankind until it was too late for the Jews to do anything wrong with that information.

You see, Jesus’ first advent was not about setting up the Davidic kingdom. It was about the atonement. The Davidic Kingdom part 2 will come later. First, the Messiah had to suffer and die.

Again, I am supplying excuses for people, but it was not all the Jews’ fault that they missed their Messiah. Many of them did believe. After all, Christianity was a sect of Judaism! But the “rulers of the Jews” — that is, the nation as an official entity — did not. It was the Jewish officials who handed Jesus over to be killed. But consider the following passage.

“I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers and sisters, so that you may not be conceited: Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in, and in this way all Israel will be saved. As it is written: “The deliverer will come from Zion; he will turn godlessness away from Jacob. And this is my covenant with them when I take away their sins.” As far as the gospel is concerned, they are enemies for your sake; but as far as election is concerned, they are loved on account of the patriarchs, for God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable. Just as you who were at one time disobedient to God have now received mercy as a result of their disobedience, so they too have now become disobedient in order that they too may now receive mercy as a result of God’s mercy to you. For God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.” (Romans 11:25–32, NIV, emphasis mine).

God designed things so that the critical mass of Jews would be blind to Jesus’ messiahship. But look at God’s purposes here: he did this so that “all Israel” will be saved — and don’t miss this: God allowed the Jews to hand Jesus over to be killed because he had a better result in view. His death would ensure that all the Jews — make that all humankind (1 Timothy 2:3-5) — will be saved.

This is an example of the progressive nature of God’s revelation. Events occur in sequence, and to interpret them correctly, we must understand the sequential context of their antecedents — and God knows this. So, to advance his purposes in a changing world, God deals with different people differently through time. The natural result of this is that his people are better informed through time.

So, the fact that I know that Jesus was the Messiah is not a function of my intelligence or insight. It is a function of time. I was born after God revealed that data… so I could make a well-informed critical assessment. That was not the case for the Jews in Jesus’ time. They had the Old Testament, their history and their culture… and they did not have the indwelling Holy Spirit (John 16:7).

My point here is, when it comes to whether or not Jesus was the Messiah, it doesn’t matter what anybody said about Elijah. The Elijah thing is a red herring. Jesus said he was the Messiah; the Bible teaches that he was and the progressive nature of God’s revelation shows that it is appropriate for people to have different knowledge about the same entity... while still advancing God’s purposes.

Now, it is true that there is a difference between what Jesus said about John the Baptist and what the Baptist said about himself. However, this is not enough data to overthrow the New Testament’s cumulative case for Jesus being the Messiah. That being said, we still need to reconcile these differences. Let’s look at the passages that are supposedly in conflict.

“Now this was John’s testimony when the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was. He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, “I am not the Messiah.” They asked him, “Then who are you? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” He answered, “No.” Finally they said, “Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’ ” (John 1:19–23, NIV, emphasis mine)

In the above passage, when the Jewish officials asked John to account for himself, he knew what they were after, so he said, “I am not the Messiah.” Then they asked him if he were Elijah. He said, “I am not.” That’s pretty definitive. John’s understanding of himself (and of his mission) was that he was not the Messiah and not Elijah.

Let me interject here. Even if there were some credible (logical) scriptural formula to support the assertion in your question, this direct statement from John the Baptist would trump it. Things don’t get any clearer than his clear assertions, and the challenge you are enquiring about — even if it existed — would have been cobbled from biblical notions here and there. Such collections and assertions may be valid, but they do not have the epistemological weight to topple one of the clearest statements in the Bible.

But didn’t Jesus say that John the Baptist was Elijah… and don’t Jesus' words have more weight than anyone else’s? Let’s look at those words and see.

“As John’s disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces. Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written: “ ‘I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been subjected to violence, and violent people have been raiding it. For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come.” (Matthew 11:7–14, NIV, emphasis mine).

The key to understanding what Jesus was saying about John is in the last phrase, “… And if you are willing to accept it…” This qualifier tells us to stop thinking literally. Jesus wasn’t talking about the person of Elijah… the historical guy who was carried up into heaven. He was talking about the spirit of Elijah… and here is why there is no contradiction.

What John the Baptist affirmed was that he was not the person of Elijah. What Jesus affirmed — hinted at, actually — was that John was the spirit of Elijah, not the person. There is no contradiction because each assertion has two different entities in view.

That’s the “category error” I spoke about in my opening. Jesus and John were speaking of different categories of a person: Jesus was talking about the spirit of Elijah, not his person, and John was speaking of the person of Elijah, not his spirit. Spirits and bodies are two different categories, and when a person sets them up as equal, they are committing a “category error” … which is an error in logic.

The challenge you cited is based on the false premise that Jesus and John were talking about the same entity. But they were not — so the challenge is illogical. And, since illogical questions carry no valid propositional content, we cannot answer them as they stand.

I pray that these observations have helped you. God bless you.


(Mainsail Ministries articles often have a preamble where I discuss the thinking that went into them. These are called Monday Musings — and if you haven’t read the one associated with this article — consider doing so at the following link: 20211025 If John the Baptist is not Elijah, then Jesus cannot be the Messiah.).

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