NKJV - 11 Jesus answered and said to them, "Indeed, Elijah is coming first and will restore all things.
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Jesus said this in responding to a question from the apostles, in reference to the prophecy contained in Malachi 4:5-6 (the last two verses in the Old Testament). (“See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction.”) Because of this prophecy, the religious leaders of Jesus' day believed that the prophet Elijah (a major Old Testament prophet (1 Kings 17 through 2 Kings 2), who had not died, but had been taken by God directly to heaven in a chariot of fire) would literally return to earth prior to the appearance of the Messiah whom Israel was waiting for God to send, and would turn Israel to God in preparation for the Messiah's coming, just as he had worked in Old Testament times to turn Israel away from idolatry, and to return it to the worship of God. Jesus clarified this by indicating that Malachi had not been speaking of Elijah literally, but that the prophecy had been fulfilled by the appearance and ministry of John the Baptist (whose coming had also been foretold by the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 40:3), and whose role in preparing the people for the imminent appearance of the Messiah had been more immediately foretold by the angel Gabriel (Luke 1:16-17) and by John's father Zechariah (Luke 1:76-79)). Jesus' reference to "restore all things" pertained to the preceding prophecies, as far as preaching repentance and baptism for the forgiveness of sins (as John did), as part of the spiritual preparation of Israel for the Messiah's coming. However, as the religious authorities and the people misinterpreted the term, Elijah's appearance was to mark a return of Israel to the former earthly power and prestige that it had experienced under David and Solomon (prior to its division and eventual exile), in conjunction with the Messiah's expected deliverance of Israel from its subjugation to the Romans. (The Messiah will, indeed, appear with such power and glory, but it will be at His second coming, rather than His first, when He appeared as a suffering servant, as also foretold in passages such as Isaiah 53, but which the people of Jesus' day misinterpreted or chose to ignore.)
John the Baptist came in the spirit of Elijah to prepare Israel for Jesus the Messiah. He was of the Aaronic line, a prophet of the Most High, and his baptism extended priestly privileges in prayer to the common people independently of the Temple rules and regulations. Before Christ comes again, the two witnesses will exercise miraculous spiritual power in the manner of Elijah and either Moses or Enoch. In this sense Elijah will be coming a second time much more completely than the first time when no miracles were recorded. Some believe Elijah will be literally on earth at this time in his physical body, and so literally fulfill the prophecy. This would be true if these words "or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction" refer to Christ in his second coming. However, the literal meaning seems to suggest that Yahweh (or the Father) will come, not necessarily Christ.
Elijah must come first, because Malachi 4:5-6 states he is sent before the great and terrible Day of the Lord and God does nothing unless He sends prophets first (Amos 3:7). Jewish rabbis teach Elijah comes before Messiah for the above reasons. Jewish tradition is to have a chair and cup for Elijah at their Seder (Passover meal) to honor him. Elijah restores all things by having received the spiritual gift of discernment and is able to refute all false teaching. Doctrines on soteriology, eschatology, the meaning of parables and the biblical meaning of "perfect", laws on marriage, divorce, and remarriage, creation, sanctification, baptism - all doctrinal controversies will be restored to the original apostolic teaching. Because Elijah is one who was predetermined for election he cannot be deceived by false teaching (Matthew 24:24).
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