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Who did Jesus say that John was?
Thank you for your biblical question about who Jesus said John was.
Jesus spoke to a crowd of people and told them, concerning John "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 11:13-14). Jesus here, is clearly saying that John the Baptist is Elijah.
However, a deeper question from this, is why would Jesus say this?
In the book of Malachi, the last book of the Old Testament, God says "Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers..." (Malachi 4:5-6).
Elijah did not die, but was taken into heaven on a chariot of fire (2 Kings 2:11). Taken with passages such as those in Malachi, the common belief is that Elijah would physically return, and he would return before the Messiah came.
During his ministry, John the Baptist was asked directly by priests and Levites regarding who he is. And they asked him, "What then? Are you Elijah?" He said, "I am not." "Are you the Prophet?" And he answered, "No." (John 1:21). This seems confusing: Jesus says that John is Elijah, but John says he isn't. Who is right?
The coming of Elijah before the Messiah was not a physical one, but a spiritual one. In Luke 1, Gabriel - the same angel that tells Mary of her pregnancy - goes to Zachariah, the husband of Elizabeth, Mary's cousin, to tell him that he is going to be a father. The angel declares that John "will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared." (Luke 1:16-17).
When John denied he was Elijah, it was to people who wanted to see the physical return of Elijah. John however, was encouraging people to believe in the spiritual coming of Elijah, ready for the coming of the Messiah.
What is more important though, is not who Jesus said John was, but who John said Jesus is! John said of Jesus: "After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptised you with water, but he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit" (Mark 1:7-8). In these verses, John recognises his place: even though people are travelling from miles around to hear him, he knows that Jesus is greater. In fact, Jesus is so much greater that John isn't even worthy to bow before him, to touch his shoe laces! Likewise, Jesus' ministry will be greater, not baptising with water, but with the Holy Spirit!
When Jesus goes the the river Jordan to be baptised, John shouts out "Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!" (John 1:29). While John is a priest, and before him have been prophets, Jesus is greater: it is through him that the sin of the world can be forgiven!
Jesus forgave our sin through his death on the cross, taking the punishment for our sin. He then rose from the dead to show his power over death itself. This free gift of forgiveness is available to everyone who accepts Jesus as Lord and Saviour.
If you have never accepted Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour, I encourage you to do so today. May you have the same response as John: that Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world and that through him you can have everlasting life.
So in summary, Jesus said that John was Elijah, but not in a physical form, but 'coming in the spirit of Elijah'. John rejected the claim publicly that he was Elijah in the flesh, but he affirmed that Jesus is greater than he is. If you have never accepted Jesus as your Lord and Saviour, I encourage you to do so today.
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