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When Jesus Christ explained that the prophecy of Elijah had already been fulfilled by John the Baptist, the Jewish religious leaders of the time did not receive his explanation well.
They knew that the Book of Malachi didn’t say anything about Elijah’s return happening in some mysterious, unrecognizable way. Neither did it say that some other man would be born hundreds of years later, and that this man somehow would represent the return of Elijah.
Instead, Malachi clearly said that Elijah himself would return—not a difficult concept to visualize. The rabbis knew that Elijah had ascended into heaven in a chariot of fire, as reported in the Old Testament, and that he would come back visibly, physically and in the flesh. How could they possibly miss anything as obvious as a prophet of God coming down from out of the sky in a chariot of fire?
As far as the Jewish clerical establishment could see, none of these prophecies had been fulfilled. Elijah had not returned, and there certainly was no visible evidence that the Messiah had come. In what way, they asked, could John the Baptist have been the return of Elijah? Certainly not literally.
This apparent contradiction can be resolved by a statement made at the beginning of the Gospel of Luke in the New Testament, which explains that John went “… on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah.” -Luke 1:17.
Christ obviously wanted to teach his followers to recognize something beyond the physical—that a “return” could represent the qualities of a person rather than simply the actual person himself.
The man named Elijah—who had lived eight hundred years earlier—had not literally, physically returned from heaven in the flesh as just about everyone expected. Instead, the fulfillment of the “return of Elijah from heaven” prophecy had nothing to do with Elijah’s physical body. The same “spirit and power” of God that had animated Elijah eight hundred years earlier had returned to also speak through John the Baptist. The reality of Elijah’s return was the appearance of yet another totally separate and distinct Prophet of God. (Yes, Jesus did refer to John as a Prophet.)
This is the true meaning of “the return.”
John the Baptist, speaking of Jesus, said:
I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance: but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and [with] fire: Whose fan [is] in his hand, and he will thoroughly purge his floor, and gather his wheat into the garner; but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire. – Matthew 1:11.
Malachi said that the Christ’s enemies “shall be stubble (chaff): and the day that cometh shall burn them up… ” And here John the Baptist said that Jesus “will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
We know that none of these prophecies came true in any kind of literal, physical, visible way. The return of Elijah prophecy truly had been fulfilled unexpectedly, in a way that some people could not see and in a way that could not be objectively verified. This was not the way the rabbis expected these prophecies to be fulfilled, and certainly not an explanation they were willing to accept. Is it any wonder that these Jewish clerics found it impossible to even seriously consider the possibility that John the Baptist was the return of Elijah?
Even today, two thousand years later, the Jewish people still await the second coming of Elijah. And every year at the Passover meal, Jewish mothers, in a time-honored tradition, still set an extra place at the table for Elijah, hoping that this will be the year when he finally returns to join them.
According to Jesus, Elijah did return. But his “spirit and power” returned, and not his fleshly body.
This reveals the hidden, true meaning of the return of all the prophets. In all of recorded history, not one of God’s messengers has ever literally, visibly come down from heaven in the flesh.
The Baha’i writings explain this inner reality of return:
… a return is indeed referred to in the Holy Scriptures, but by this is meant the return of the qualities, conditions, effects, perfections, and inner realities of the lights which recur in every dispensation. The reference is not to specific, individual souls and identities. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 183.
The Baha’i teachings also say:
In the Holy Books and Sacred Scriptures there is mention of a “return”, but the ignorant have failed to grasp its meanings … For what the Prophets of God meant by “return” is not the return of the essence but of the attributes; it is not the return of the Manifestation Himself but of His perfections. In the Gospel it is said that John (the Baptist) is Elijah. By these words is not meant the return of the rational soul and personality of Elijah in the body of John, but rather that the perfections and attributes of Elijah became plain and manifest in him. – Abdu’l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, newly revised edition, p. 333.
Ask yourself: if you had lived 2000 years ago, do you think you would have been one of the few who had sufficient insight to recognize John the Baptist as the fulfillment of the “return of Elijah” prophecy? Chances are, like the disciples of Jesus, you may not have understood how this prophecy had been fulfilled until after it had been explained to you.
So why is the example of the “return of Elijah” prophecy important? Today we have the exact same circumstances that we had two thousand years ago. Today most Christians are expecting to see Jesus Christ literally, visibly return from heaven.
Baha’u’llah, the prophet and founder of the Baha’i Faith, unmistakably claims to fulfill the “return of Christ from heaven” prophecies. Is Baha’u’llah truly the Promised One? Has history repeated itself? Did Baha’u’llah also come down from heaven? Yes! In exactly the same way that John the Baptist came down from heaven two thousand years ago.