In nomine Iesu I offer you peace,
In Malachi, the last book of the Old Testament, it says, "Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers." (Mal. 4:5-6). The great and terrible day referred to is the day when the Lord comes, and this prophecy shows that before the Messiah can come, Elijah must first come again.
Elijah was one of the great prophets of Israel who lived 900 years before the coming of Jesus, and had ascended into heaven on a chariot of fire. The Israelites' longing for the Messiah was indicated by their expectation for the arrival of the historical prophet Elijah. This was because the Old Testament did not clearly foretell when the Messiah would come, but did clearly indicate that Elijah would come before him.
It was under these very circumstances that Jesus appeared, proclaiming himself as the Messiah. He told the Jewish people that he was the Son of God-the very people who thought that he was simply a man from Nazareth. They had not yet heard any news of Elijah's coming" so they asked "how could it be possible that Jesus of Nazareth is the Son of God!"
Thus, when Jesus' disciples went out among the people of Israel, testifying to Jesus, the people asked, "If your master is the Messiah, then where is the Elijah who is to come first?" So, Jesus disciples asked him, 'then why do the scribes say that first Elijah must come?' He replied, 'Elijah does come, and he is to restore all things; but I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not know him, but did to him whatever they pleased.' Then they understood that he was speaking to them of. John the Baptist." (Matt. 17:10-13).
Jesus understood the meaning of the scribes asking this important question and indicated that John the Baptist was the second coming of Elijah. Jesus' own disciples could easily believe this, but the Israelites in general could not so easily believe it. John the Baptist did not come directly from heaven and he himself even denied he was Elijah (John 1:21). Jesus knew that the people would not easily accept this, saying, "If you willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come" (Matt. 11: 14).
Jesus said that John the Baptist was the Elijah whom the people had been long awaiting, but when John himself denied this, whom would the people of Israel believe? Naturally, it would depend on how these two were viewed by the people of that time.
How did Jesus appear to the people? Jesus was known only as the son of a humble carpenter and was not even well schooled. Yet Jesus proclaimed himself the lord of the Sabbath (Matt. 12:8 ), held himself as the one who was higher than the Law (Matt. 5:17), and became the friend of tax collectors, prostitutes and sinners, even eating and drinking with them (Matt. 11: 19). He equated himself with God (John 14:9) and told the people they had to love him more than anyone else (Matt. 10:37). Thus the Jewish leaders went so far as to claim that Jesus was possessed by Beelzebul, the prince of demons (Matt. 12:24).
On the other hand, how did John the Baptist appear to the people at that time? He was the son of a prominent family and the people knew of him even from the time of his conception and birth. When he was older, he lived on locusts and honey in the wilderness, thus, in their eyes, he led an exemplary life as a man of faith. In fact, John was held in such high regard that many came to ask him if he were the Messiah (Luke 3:15, John 1:20 ).
Under these circumstances, the people of Israel believed more in John the Baptist, who asserted he was not Elijah, than in Jesus, who told them that John the Baptist was the one. The people decided that Jesus' view of John the Baptist as the Elijah was untrustworthy, thinking Jesus said this only to make his own claims about himself believable.
Then, why did Jesus say John the Baptist was Elijah? As Luke 1:17 says, John the Baptist came with the mission of Elijah. The people of Israel, who believed the words of the Old Testament literally, assumed that the same Elijah would actually come down from heaven. But, to be precise, God sent John with the mission of Elijah.
John the Baptist himself said he came to "make straight the way of the Lord" (John 1:23) And that he was not even worthy to carry his sandals (Matt. 3: 11). Being a man of such a unique and important mission, John, by his own wisdom, should have known that he himself was Elijah.
Peace and God Bless.