And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” And he answered, “No.” So they said to him, “Who are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.”
(Now they had been sent from the Pharisees.) They asked him, “Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” John answered them, “I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know, even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie” (John 1:19–27, ESV).
“Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who 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 suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John, and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come” (Matthew 11:11–14, ESV)
Throughout this series, I have spoken of men and women of God who shared in the “Elijah spirit.” The first to earn this status was his protegé, Elisha, who received a double portion of Elijah’s spirit when he was taken into heaven. Elisha would continue Elijah’s prophetic ministry after him. While the Old Testament speaks of many prophets after them, none shared Elisha’s close association with Elijah.
Then, John the Baptist came. In the last book written in the Old Testament, Malachi prophesied that Elijah would return “before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes” (Malachi 4:5). This inspired a spirit of expectancy among the Jewish people. By Jesus’ time, they were eagerly awaiting the coming of Elijah, since they though that would signal the coming of a Messiah who would put the Romans in their place. So, when John the Baptist rose to prominence, the logical question in their minds was, “Are you Elijah? Are you the Prophet? Are you the Messiah? Who are you?”
John the Baptist denied that he was Elijah. Yet, Jesus said he was. This seems like a contradiction, but it is really two sides of the truth. The two men were essentially answering different questions about John the Baptist’s connection with Elijah.
John was essentially saying, “No, I have never been taken into heaven in a whirlwind by chariots of fire and angels. I have not descended miraculously from heaven. I am an ordinary man, who was born about 30 years ago by natural means to normal parents.” The religious leaders were wondering if John the Baptist was Elijah according to their expectations. “No,” he said, “I’m not what you are expecting.”
In Jesus’ mind, though, John the Baptist walked in the Elijah spirit more than any man who ever lived. As far as He was concerned, John the Baptist fulfilled that prophecy exactly as God intended. He was the forerunner, sent to proclaim the coming of the “great and awesome day of the Lord.”
How did John the Baptist manifest the Elijah spirit? More specifically, how can we, like John, manifest that spirit?
First, John the Baptist preached a message of repentance. Much as Elijah called the people of Israel back to the worship of the true God and away from idols, John the Baptist called the people of his day to obey the revealed will of God in all areas of their lives (Luke 3:7–14). This is also the message that we are called to proclaim. The Gospel of salvation is a message that calls people to turn from an old life of sin to a new, abundant life.
Second, John the Baptist pointed people to Jesus, just like Elijah pointed people to worship the one true God. Neither man sought his own glory. In fact, at the height of John’s popularity, he would tell his disciples, “[Jesus] must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). Likewise, we are called to point people to Jesus—not to our denomination or organization, to another man, to a system of thought, or to ourselves.
Third, both men were engaged in spiritual warfare against the forces of wickedness. Both took their lumps for the kingdom of God because they took a stand against the kingdoms of this world. Elijah’s shining moment was the battle on Mount Carmel, but he spent most of his career taking a stand against an idolatrous king and queen. John the Baptist would lose his head because he had the boldness to say that even the earthly king was subject to the demands of God Almighty.
The man or woman of God in 2018 must be bold to take a stand against the world’s system. Sadly, I think most American Christians are as devoted to a political party or ideology as they are to Jesus. We will overlook, and even justify, the sins of our favorite politician. Instead, we should be bold to look to Jesus as the answer to our world’s problems.
Elijah is considered one of the greatest prophets of the Old Testament. Though his story appears in the New Testament, John the Baptist was the last great prophet of the Old Covenant. He stood as the forerunner of Christ’s ministry. Today, as we follow Christ, we have the legacy of Elijah and John the Baptist.
Luke 1:15 tells us that John the Baptist was “filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb.” When we speak of the “Elijah spirit,” it is simply the spirit that empowered Elijah to accomplish his ministry. That spirit is, in fact, the Holy Spirit of God who empowered Elijah and Elisha, filled John the Baptist, and fills and dwells in all who have received Jesus Christ as Lord. The Christian already has the Holy Spirit—the “Elijah spirit”—dwelling within him or her. Are we ready to walk in that Spirit? Are we ready to let every person we meet, and indeed every angel and demon, see that the spirit of God is at work in us?
Copyright © 2017 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.