The Coming of Elijah
John A. Tvedtnes
Under the date of 3 April 1836 (Passover that year), Joseph Smith wrote, “After this vision had closed, another great and glorious vision burst upon us; for Elijah the prophet, who was taken to heaven without tasting death, stood before us, and said: Behold, the time has fully come, which was spoken of by the mouth of Malachi-testifying that he [Elijah] should be sent, before the great and dreadful day of the Lord come” (D&C 110:13-14).
During the Passover meal, Jews leave a vacant place at the table, along with a cup of wine, for the prophet Elijah, who is expected to come and anoint the Messiah. Modern Christians, however, read the accounts of the transfiguration of Christ-in which he identified John the Baptist with Elias, the Greek form of Elijah-as evidence that John was the one spoken of in Malachi 4:5-6. This seems not to have been the understanding of some of the earliest Christians. The second-century AD Christian philospher Justin, in his discussion of Malachi’s prophecy with the Jewish philosopher Trypho, said,
“If therefore Scripture compels you to admit that two advents of Christ were predicted to take place,-one in which He would appear suffering, and dishonoured, and without comeliness; but the other in which He would come glorious, and Judge of all, as has been made manifest in many of the fore-cited passages,-shall we not suppose that the word of God has proclaimed that Elijah shall be the precursor of the great and terrible day, that is, of His second advent? . . . And accordingly, our Lord in His teaching . . . proclaimed that this very thing would take place, saying that Elijah would also come. And we know that this shall take place when our Lord Jesus Christ shall come in glory from heaven; whose first manifestation the Spirit of God who was in Elijah preceded as herald in [the person of] John, a prophet among your nation.” (Dialogue with Trypho 49)[i]
Justin’s understanding of two forerunners of Christ’s two advents, each possessing the same spirit, is paralleled by the Lord’s words to Joseph Smith in D&C 27:6-7, when he speaks of “Elias, to whom I have committed the keys of bringing to pass the restoration of all things spoken by the mouth of all the holy prophets since the world began, concerning the last days; And also John the son of Zacharias, which Zacharias he (Elias) visited and gave promise that he should have a son, and his name should be John, and he should be filled with the spirit of Elias.”[ii] Elias is the New Testament (Greek) form of the Old Testament (Hebrew) name Elijah,[iii] and came to be used to denote a forerunner.
[i] Ibid., 1:219. Note also the words of Hippolytus (ca. AD 200), who wrote that Christ “is to be manifested again at the end of the world as Judge. It is a matter of course that His forerunners must appear first, as He says by Malachi and the angel, ‘I will send to you Elias [Elijah] the Tishbite before the day of the Lord, the great and notable day, comes; and he shall turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, lest I come and smite the earth utterly.’ These, then, shall come and proclaim the manifestation of Christ that is to be from heaven; and they shall also perform signs and wonders, in order that men may be put to shame and turned to repentance for their surpassing wickedness and impiety” (Treatise on Christ and Anti-Christ 46, in ibid., 5:214).
[ii] Luke 1:17 indicates that John was to go before Christ “in the spirit and power of Elias, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” See also the discussion in Matthew 17:10-13.
[iii] The J was formerly pronounced Y in English, as it still is in related tongues such as German. In names found in English Bibles, J denotes Hebrew Y (Old Testament) and Greek I (New Testament).