In clear terms, Jesus identified John the Baptizer as the prophesied Elijah (Matthew 11:10-15; 17:11-13). Elijah was to urge Israel to “remember the Law of Moses”, and warn them of “the Great and Terrible Day of the Lord” (Malachi 4:5). Elijah was to be a sign of the Day of the Lord.
It is imperative to honor the fact that John was not a prophet sent to warn the globe of an impending end of time. John was a prophet sent to Israel, warning them that failure to obey the Law of Moses would result in God’s judgment on them as a nation. His audience was comprised of those who prided themselves on their genealogical link with Abraham, a link that John assured them meant nothing in face of the impending disaster (Matthew 3:9).
What did John, as Elijah, have to say about that Day? The first part of his message has been tragically misunderstood by many. He said, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2). This has wrongly been applied to the events of Pentecost. However, in scripture, the coming of the kingdom is the time of judgment, (Matthew 16:27-28; 25:31f), and this did not happen on Pentecost! In Isaiah 40, where it predicted the coming of the Voice in the Wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord, the Lord’s coming is the coming in judgment (Isaiah 40:10).
John’s language graphic. In Matthew 3:7, John warned the Pharisees and Sadducees, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath about to come?” The word picture is that of snakes fleeing from a burning field, and conveys the idea that the “fire” was already burning. In other words, the judgment was near! In addition, since there are no Pharisees or Sadducees today, it should be pretty apparent that John’s words have already been fulfilled. In fact, judgment did overtake them!
In verse 10, “Elijah” was even more graphic. He said, “Even now, the axe is laid at the roots.” This is a clear echo of Malachi 4:1 that said the Day of the Lord that would “leave them neither root nor branch.” John voiced this warning to emphasize the nearness of the Great and Terrible Day of the Lord. The image of an axe already held over the roots hardly conveys a message of timelessness, protraction or delay! Judgment was about to fall!
In Matthew 3:12, the Immerser further emphasized the nearness of judgment. He said, “his winnowing fork is already in his hand”, and, “he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” Once again, he echoes Malachi’s prediction of the Day of the Lord (Malachi 4:1). Like the image of the axe at the root, this metaphor powerfully conveys the idea of nearness. There is not one word in Matthew 3 to indicate the John taught that the Day of the Lord, of which he was a sign as Elijah, was not to occur for 2000 years, or longer! Interestingly, Malachi never said the Day was at hand, but John did! Every word he uttered would, and did, indicate to the hearers that the Day of the Lord was near.
The first century presence of John, as Elijah, shows beyond doubt that predictions of a yet future Elijah are false. As a sign of the Great and Terrible Day of the Lord the presence of John, as Elijah, means that the Day of the Lord occured in the first century as well, otherwise his words of imminent judgment were false. However, judgment did fall on Israel in John’s generation, and his role as Elijah was vindicated with the judgment of Israel in A. D. 70. That was the Great and Terrible Day of the Lord he foretold.
John the Baptizer, as Elijah, stands as one of the most significant eschatological figures in the New Testament, and yet, his presence and his message are too commonly ignored, or blithely waved aside. To take his presence seriously however, challenges all doctrines of a future Day of the Lord.