By Dr Kenneth L. Gentr Jr
I return once again to Malachi’s famous prophecy in Mal. 4:5. Having established its significance and meaning, I would now like to respond to dispensationalism’s objection to the proper interpretation.
Dispensational objections sometimes approach desperation. Some commentators even forsake their literalism and allow that John does fulfill the passage. Pentecost writes: “The prophecy is interpreted by the Lord as being fulfilled, not in literal Elijah, but in one who comes in Elijah’s spirit and power.”1 The Prophecy Study Bible (p. 1131) explains at Matthew 11:14: “Jesus’ statement that John was ‘Elijah who is to come’ indicates the ministry predicted by Malachi 4:5–6.”
Others focus on (and misinterpret) a reference similar to Matthew 17. In a critique of postmillennialist Boettner, dispensationalist Hoyt writes: “When citing a prophecy from Malachi 4:5 and the New Testament reference to it, Boettner erred in ignoring part of the text in Matthew (11:14). Christ said that John the Baptist would have stood for Elijah if they would receive him. But they did not, which must mean that Elijah is yet to come. The reason Christ could make reference to John the Baptist as he did was that John the Baptist came in the spirit and power of Elijah (Lk 1:17). It therefore seems obvious that there was a principle in relation to Elijah which was also true of John the Baptist, and the reference made by Christ was by way of application and not interpretation.”2 In short, John could have been Elijah, but is not, due to Israel’s sin.
But Matthew 17 is unambiguously clear. In Matthew 11 Christ is rebuking the spiritual obstinacy (11:16ff) of the crowds that come to hear him (11:7). He urges them to hear and understand (11:15). He does not fear that they will derail prophetic fulfillment by their unbelief. When he says, “He who has ears to hear” (11:15), he does not imply that his views of John may be invalid; rather he alludes to the spiritual dullness of those who reject his teaching (Mt 13:9, 43; Mk 4:9; Lk 8:8; 14:35). The reason why John comes in the “spirit and power of Elijah” (Lk 1:17), and why Israel should receive him as “Elijah who was to come” (Mt 11:14), is because he fulfills the Elijah prophecy.
Neither may John the Baptist’s denial of being Elijah (Jn 1:21) undercut his fulfilling the prophecy.3 He is merely denying that he is the actual corporeal return of Elijah from heaven, which first century Jews widely anticipate. In the Talmud we read: “But when God shall bring [Elijah] to life in the body, he shall send him to Israel before the day of judgment.”4
Notes1. J. D. Pentecost, Things to Come, 312 (emph. mine).
2. Herman Hoyt, “A Dispensational Response,” in Clouse, Meaning of the Millennium, 147–148.
3. John F. Walvoord, Prophecy Knowledge Handbook, 339.
4. See sampling of Talmudic references in: John Lightfoot, Commentary on the New Testament, 2:243–247.