This presented a great dilemma for the people of Israel. They immediately asked, “If this Jesus is the Messiah, then were is Elijah?” They earnestly expected the Messiah at that time, so they were also waiting for Elijah. They believed he would come straight down from heaven, right out of the sky, and the Messiah would come soon after, in a similar manner.
So when Jesus proclaimed himself as the Son of God, the Jewish people became puzzled. If there had come no Elijah, then there could be no Messiah. And no one had told them that Elijah had come. The disciples of Jesus were also confused. When they went out to preach the gospel, people persistently denied that Jesus could be the Son of God because the disciples were unable to prove that Elijah had come. They confronted this problem everywhere they went.
The disciples of Jesus were not educated in the Old Testament. Many learned people rebuked them when they went out to preach, asking, “Do you not know the Old Testament? Do you not know the Mosaic Law?” The disciples were embarrassed when they were attacked through the verses of the Law and the prophets. One day they came back to Jesus and put the question to him:
‘. . . 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. So also the Son of man will suffer at their hands’ Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them of John the Baptist.’ (Matt. 17:10-13)
According to Jesus, John the Baptist was Elijah.
This was the truth. We have determined the truth according to the words of Jesus Christ. But the disciples of Jesus could not convince the elders and chief priests and scribes of this fact. To those men, the idea was simply ridiculous. The only authority that supported such a notion was the word of Jesus of Nazareth. That is why the testimony of John the Baptist was so crucial. But alas, John himself denied that he was Elijah when he was asked! His denial made Jesus seem to be a liar.
Read the Bible: ‘And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ . . . And they asked him, ‘What then? Are you Elijah?’
He said, ‘I am not.’ Are you the prophet?’ And he answered, ‘No’. (John 1:19-21)
John himself said, “I am not Elijah.” But Jesus had said, “He is Elijah.”
John made it almost impossible for the people to know that Elijah had come. But Jesus declared the truth anyway. He said,
‘ . . . if you are willing to accept it, he [John the Baptist] is Elijah who is to come’ (Matt. 11:14)
Jesus knew that most people could not accept the truth. Instead they questioned the motivation of Jesus. In order for Jesus to seem like the Messiah, Elijah had to come first, so the people thought he was lying for the purpose of his own self-aggrandizement. The Son of God became more and more misunderstood by the people.
This was such a grave situation. In those days, the influence of John the Baptist was felt in every corner of Israel. But Jesus Christ was an obscure and ambiguous figure in his society. Nobody was in a position to take Jesus’ words as the truth. This failure of John was the major cause of the crucifixion of Jesus.
John the Baptist had already seen the Spirit of God descending upon the head of Jesus Christ at the Jordan. At that time he testified:
‘I saw the Spirit descend as a dove from heaven, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him; but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit’ And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.’ (John 1:32-34)
(from the book: God’s Will and the World by Reverend Dr. Sun Myung Moon)