God takes Elijah to heaven as one of two people who never died (Enoch is the other). Most religious Jews still believe Elijah will return as a precursor to the messiah. Jewish teachers have always had solid reasons to do so; Malachi 4:5-6 claims this very thing. That passage states, “See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction.”
Years after this prophecy, Jesus is transfigured before his closest disciples’ eyes, and Elijah appears with Christ. Immediately after this miraculous event, Jesus responds with puzzling words to a question about whether Elijah will come as preparation for Jesus’ work as messiah. “To be sure, Elijah comes and will restore all things. But I tell you, Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but have done to him everything they wished. In the same way, the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands.’ Then the disciples understood that he was talking to them about John the Baptist.” Elijah is still alive, but Jesus proclaims that John the Baptist fulfilled Malachi’s prophecy. By implication, Jesus is claiming the prophecy means Elijah is the prototypical persecuted prophet and thus Malachi does not mean Elijah himself will lead the way.
John the Baptist, like Elijah before him, does prepare the way for some Jews to trust in God. At the same time, Jesus suggests that rejecting this new Elijah’s message, specifically the call to repent and believe in Jesus, will result in the total destruction predicted in Malachi. Many of Jesus’ contemporaries held fast to the promises found in Malachi, but Jesus wants his disciples to see God’s fulfillment of this prophecy in positive and negative ways.
The time of the messiah means redemption for the world, but immediate judgement for those who reject John the Baptist like Israel rejected Elijah. Let us then heed the call of this prophesied Elijah when he cries, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29)