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Jesus was identifying the prophecy about Elijah's coming contained in Malachi 4:5 as having been fulfilled by the ministry of John the Baptist, to whom God had given the mission of spiritually preparing Israel for the imminent appearance of Jesus, the Messiah. (When the angel Gabriel announced John's coming birth to John's father Zacharias, Gabriel also said that John would be like Elijah (Luke 1:17).) John called Israel to repentance in the same way that Elijah had appealed to the northern kingdom of Israel to repent from its worship of idols in the Old Testament (1 Kings 17 - 2 Kings 2).
John the Baptist is the Elijah who is to come. "As John’s disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind? F not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces. Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written: “‘I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you. Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been subjected to violence,[d] and violent people have been raiding it. For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come. Whoever has ears, let them hear" (Matthew 11:7-15). "As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus instructed them, “Don’t tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” The disciples asked him, “Why then do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?" Jesus replied, “To be sure, Elijah comes and will restore all things. But I tell you, Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but have done to him everything they wished. In the same way the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands.” Then the disciples understood that he was talking to them about John the Baptist" (Matthew 17:9-13).
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