Summary: Elijah had already appeared, and they did not know it. Jesus had identified him.
Luke 1:5-25 Announcing Elijah’s Return
12/5/04 D. Marion Clark
Halfway through the books of the Bible that present the story of the kings of Israel, a prophet suddenly appears – Elijah the Tishbite. He announces to the wicked king Ahab, “As the Lord the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word” (1 Kings 17:1). And then he goes into hiding. He doesn’t appear in public for three years, when again he appears before Ahab, this time with a challenge. (By the way, there has been no rain.) He challenges Ahab to gather the 850 prophets of Baal and Asherah, and to meet him at Mt. Carmel. There he and those prophets will go on public trial to see whose god is the true God – Baal, the ancient god of the Canaanites, or Yahweh, the God who formed the nation Israel.
The test went like this. The prophets would offer a sacrifice to Baal and Elijah to Yahweh. As Elijah said, “The God who answers by fire, he is God.” After spending almost a full day praying, ritualistic dancing, even cutting themselves, they failed to produce a spark. When Elijah’s turn came, he had the audacity of drenching his sacrifice with water. Then, here is what happened:
And at the time of the offering of the oblation, Elijah the prophet came near and said, “O LORD, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, and that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your word. 37 Answer me, O LORD, answer me, that this people may know that you, O LORD, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.” 38 Then the fire of the LORD fell and consumed the burnt offering and the wood and the stones and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench (1 Kings 18:36-38).
Now that’s power! Elijah also prayed and produced a heavy rain storm. That is not all that Elijah did. While in hiding, he lived with a widow and her son. He saw that her jar of flour and jug of oil miraculously remained filled for three years. He even raised her son to life after he had died of an illness. He was a bold prophet, one who appeared three times before Ahab at the threat of his life. But the event that most captured the imagination of the Jewish people was his being taken up into heaven. Again, listen to it described:
And as they still went on and talked, behold, chariots of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them. And Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven. 12 And Elisha saw it and he cried, “My father, my father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” And he saw him no more (2 Kings 2:11-12).
Only one other man in the history of mankind is recorded in Scripture as not dying. His name was Enoch. All that is said of him is that, “Enoch walked with God, and he was not, for God took him” (Genesis 5:24). There is nothing like what happened to Elijah, carried away in a chariot of fire by horses of fire!
Other than a reference to a letter that Elijah wrote to King Jehoram of Judah in 2 Chronicles, there is no more mention of him until we get to the last two verses of the last book of the Old Testament, Malachi. Here is what is said:
“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. 6 And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction” (4:5-6).
Since then, the Jews looked for the return of Elijah. The rabbis and the writers of apocalyptic books (books about the Final Judgment) taught that Elijah would return to announce and present the Messiah. He would prepare the hearts of the people to receive the “Anointed One.” And even now, each year as they celebrate the Passover, they set aside a chair for Elijah and open the door to welcome him in.
When Jesus came, some speculated that he was Elijah. Or if he were not, then perhaps his presence meant the coming of Elijah. Listen to this scene at the cross:
And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 35 And some of the bystanders hearing it said, “Behold, he is calling Elijah.” 36 And someone ran and filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a reed and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down” (Mark 15:34-36).