Who is the End-Time Elijah?


by Doug Ward

The Old Testament in our Christian Bibles concludes with a famous prophecy. In Malachi 4:5-6, God proclaims,


``Behold, I will send you Elijah 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 smite the earth with a curse'' (KJV).


This prophecy has great import for Christians. The Gospels make clear that Mal. 4:5-6, along with the related predictions in Mal. 3:1 and Isa. 40:3-5, found fulfillment in John the Baptist, who had a special mission to prepare the way for the coming of the Messiah (Luke 1:13-17; 3:1-18). Jesus Himself affirmed that John played such a role (Matt. 11:10, 14; 17:10-13).

The Scriptures also imply, however, that the fulfillment of Malachi's prophecy is not yet complete. Indeed, Jesus stated that a future Elijah ``truly shall first come, and restore all things'' (Matt. 17:11). In his sermon recorded in Acts 3:12-26, Peter likewise indicated that ``the times of restitution of all things'', which had begun with Jesus' first coming, would not be complete until His return (v. 21). In particular, prophecies about a restoration and glorious future for Israel still await total fulfillment, and the ``great and dreadful day of the Lord'' mentioned in Mal. 4:5 still lies in the future.

These considerations raise some interesting questions: How can we recognize an end-time Elijah? In general, what constitutes the fulfillment of a prophecy like the one in Malachi 4:5-6? What implications does this prophecy have for us today? In the present article, I will explore these questions and propose some possible answers.


Building Models

Scholars in every academic discipline develop models to summarize the patterns that they discover in the course of their research.  A model, in this sense, is a simple description of some phenomenon that is intended to accurately capture its essential features.  After a model is formulated, it is checked against available data and, if necessary, modified or replaced as more information becomes available.  For example, Newton's laws of motion have proven for over three hundred years to be a very effective model for describing and predicting the motion of most objects, from automobiles to space ships and planets.  However, it was discovered a little  over a century ago that Newton's laws do not do a good job of describing the motion of objects  that travel at very high speeds-e.g., subatomic particles.  As a result, Newtonian mechanics has been superseded by a more accurate model, Einstein's theory of special relativity. 

In the sciences, models are generally based on numerical data obtained from experiments. Theological models, on the other hand, rely on the evidence of God's revelation to mankind contained in the scriptures, as well as on the ways that God's people have understood those scriptures through the centuries. In particular, an effective model of prophetic fulfillment must be consistent with what we know about how God has worked in history to carry out His promises and His plan. If such a model does a good job of explaining prophecies whose fulfillment is a matter of fairly general agreement, then we might be able to apply the model to draw some reasonable conclusions about more controversial prophecies.


Discrete Duality or Continuous Unity?

Malachi 4:5-6 is one of a number of Biblical prophecies whose fulfillment seems to involve two events separated by some long interval of time: John the Baptist was sent to prepare the way for Christ's first coming, and the arrival of another prophet ``in the spirit and power of Elijah" will precede the Day of the Lord at His second coming. Some other familiar examples are Isa. 9:6-7, which Christians apply to the birth of the Messiah and to His return to rule the whole world in peace; Isa. 7:14, which refers to a son of Isaiah and also points forward to the Virgin Birth of Messiah; and Isa. 61:1-3, which describes elements of Jesus' earthly ministry (see Luke 4:16-21) along with things He will accomplish when He returns. These prophecies might be pictured by a timeline marked with two distinct dots to designate the two times of their fulfillment. Such a timeline represents what could be called the duality model of prophetic fulfillment.

Notice that all of the prophecies mentioned above relate to the Promise of the Messiah and the unfolding of God's plan of salvation. Old Testament scholar Walter C. Kaiser, building on the previous work of nineteenth-century theologian Willis J. Beecher [1], has championed an alternative model for the fulfillment of prophecies of this sort (see e.g. [2, chapter 4], [3]). Pointing out that God has worked continually throughout history to carry out His purpose, Kaiser forcefully argues that the fulfillment of these prophecies can best be described as a continual process that often extends from the times of the prophets themselves through Christ's first coming and onward to the time of His return. This model, which I will call here the continuum model, can be pictured by drawing a line that connects the dots of the duality model. The continuum model emphasizes the essential unity of God's plan for mankind by representing the main fulfillments of a particular prophecy as part of a single process rather than as two or more disconnected events.

There is a great deal of scriptural evidence in favor of this model. Consider first the concept of the Day of the Lord, which is mentioned often in biblical prophecy. Some prophecies about the Day of the Lord refer to a great time of judgment that has not yet occurred, while in other passages the prophets say that the Day of the Lord is near at hand in their own times. In the ninth century B.C., Joel (Joel 1:15; 2:1) and Obadiah (Obadiah 15) proclaim that the Day of the Lord is near. In the eighth century, Isaiah makes a similar announcement in a prophecy against Babylon (Isa. 13:6); while Zephaniah (Zeph. 1:7,14) in the seventh century B.C. and Ezekiel (Ezek. 7:7; 30:3) in the sixth century also assert the proximity of the Day of the Lord. The evidence points to the conclusion that the Day of the Lord is not one or two events but a continuous series of interventions by God in human affairs. Each of the preliminary events in this series can be considered as a sort of ``down payment'' pointing to the certainty of the climactic Day of the Lord at the time of Christ's return.

For example, the prophet Joel graphically describes a locust plague that constitutes the Day of the Lord in his time (Joel 1-2). He issues a call for repentance (1:13-14; 2:12-14) that is heeded by the people and results in blessings from God (2:18-27). Joel then looks ahead to a future Day of the Lord, a time when God's Spirit would be poured out (2:28-32) and a great battle would be followed by peace and prosperity (3:1-21). Note in particular that a continuum model fits very well with Joel's prophecy about the coming of the Holy Spirit. This prophecy began to be fulfilled on the Day of Pentecost following Christ's resurrection, as Peter explained in Acts 2:16-21. Since that time, God has continued to pour out His Spirit, and many Christians hope for especially great manifestations of the Spirit as the final Day of the Lord approaches.

The kingdom of God, one of the major themes of the teaching of Jesus, is a second important concept for which a continuum model is very appropriate. On one hand, the gospels describe the kingdom of God (or ``kingdom of heaven'' in Matthew's account) as Jesus' eternal rule over the whole earth after His return (e.g., Luke 1:32-33; 22:18, 28-30; Matt. 25). However, the kingdom was also extant, in the person of the King Himself, during Jesus' earthly ministry (Mark 1:14-15; Luke 10:9; 11:20; 17:20-21); and the parables of the mustard seed and leaven (Matt. 13:31-33) portray the kingdom as an entity that would have a small beginning but would gradually grow to fill the world. To take into account all that Jesus said about it, the kingdom of God should be broadly defined as the rulership of God. As more people come under God's authority by accepting Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, that kingdom grows. Finally, in the world to come, it will cover the earth (Zech. 14:9). 1

It is interesting to take another look at Isa. 9:6-7, one of the prophecies mentioned earlier, in light of this broad definition of the kingdom of God. One can think of the fulfillment of Isa. 9:7a (``Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end.'') as proceeding steadily during the present age and then coming into full fruition in the age to come. Similarly, the ministry of Jesus pictured in Isa. 61:1-2 continues to be carried out today through the Church as His Kingdom advances.

A third concept that is well-represented by a continuum model is the idea of antichrist. Near the end of the first century A.D., the apostle John mentioned that there were already ``many antichrists'' and that more would come in the future (I John 2:18; 4:3). With this in mind, let us contemplate the possible scope of Gen. 3:14-15, a passage traditionally considered to be the very first Messianic prophecy in the Bible (see [3], pp. 37-41). Here God passes judgment on the serpent, who we know as Satan the devil, the father of all antichrists (Rev. 12:9; 2 Cor. 11:3, 14; John 8:44). This prophecy foretells that enmity would exist between ``the seed of Eve'' and ``the seed of the serpent.'' Furthermore, the serpent would inflict temporary damage (a ``bruised heel'') upon a male descendant of Eve, but that male descendant would bring about the defeat (a ``crushed head'') of the serpent.

The crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, which give victory over sin and death, constitute a major fulfillment of this prophecy. But leading up to those great events, servants of God throughout history have prevailed over the opposition of servants of Satan. Think of Moses and Pharaoh, David and Goliath, and Elijah and Jezebel, for example. In a sense, we participate in this process today in our own struggles against sin, as we look forward to its final stage as described in Rev. 19-22. The apostle Paul made reference to future fulfillment of Gen. 3:15 when he wrote in Romans 16:20, ``And the God of peace shall bruise Satan under your feet shortly.'' A continuum model effectively captures the full magnitude of this prophecy's implications.


Back to Elijah

Now let us return to our starting point, the prophecy of Malachi 4:5-6. We have already seen that this prophecy applies to John the Baptist, and that a future Elijah is expected before the final Day of the Lord. Perhaps this Elijah will be one of the ``two witnesses'' of Rev. 11, since these two prophets will have an Elijah-like power to prevent rainfall (Rev. 11:6).

Could these two fulfillments of the prophecy be part of a single larger process? There are strong arguments in favor of such an interpretation. First, the Day of the Lord can be viewed as the culmination of a series of divine interventions in human affairs, as was mentioned above. Furthermore, Elijah himself was the first in a continuing line of prophets commissioned to call God's people to return to their Father in the midst of a corrupt age. Elijah's ``spirit and power'' were passed on to his successor Elisha (2 Kings 2:9-15), and more prophets followed after them. John the Baptist, who gave a forceful call to repent and follow the coming Messiah (Luke 3:1-18), fit right into this line of prophets. It seems reasonable, then, to view as part of the overall work of Elijah any effort that leads people toward a closer relationship with the God of Israel. When people of all ages draw closer to God, the hearts of the ``fathers'' and the ``children'' are thereby united as well.

We do not know who the final Elijah will be, or when that individual will arrive on the scene, but there is much to be done in the meantime. In our families, congregations, and communities, we can participate in the work of Elijah by directing each other toward God and promoting and restoring His ways.



1.   Willis J. Beecher, The Prophets and the Promise, T.Y. Crowell & Co., New York, 1905.

2.   Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., The Uses of the Old Testament in the New, Moody Press, Chicago, 1985.  


3.   Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., The Messiah in the Old Testament , Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1995.                

4.    Brad Young, Paul the Jewish Theologian, Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, Massachusetts, 1997.                                       



1 Such an understanding of the kingdom of God is consistent with Jewish tradition. In the early rabbinic literature, one who accepts the authority of the one true God in his life is said to be taking upon himself ``the yoke of the kingdom'' (see e.g. [4], pp. 118-123). This concept of the kingdom can also be found in the Book of Jubilees, an intertestamental work from the second century B.C. In Jubilees 12:19, Abraham affirms his belief in the one true God by saying, “Thy kingdom I have chosen.''

Issue 9


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