In John chapter 1, the Pharisees confront John the Baptist and ask him if he is the prophet Elijah, who was prophesied to return before the coming of the Messiah. However, John denies being Elijah, while Jesus declares in Matthew 17 that John is Elijah. How do we reconcile this apparent contradiction?
Well, it’s important to remember that there are two prophecies in the Old Testament being used in relation to John and Elijah: Malachi 4:5 and Isaiah 40:3.
Malachi’s prophecy says, “Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes”. Isaiah’s prophecy says, “A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”
There is no reference to Malachi’s prophecy in the Gospel of John, while all three of the synoptics use it. What is also interesting is that John is the only Gospel that has John the Baptist saying the words of Isaiah, while in the synoptics, it is the authors who say it.
The Gospel of John may then just be telling us what John the Baptist said, but not what Jesus or the apostles believed. It is important to differentiate between the prescriptive – what is being prescribed as biblical truth and doctrine - verses the descriptive – what is being described in a historical narrative. It is possible that, although John knew he was fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah, he did not know he was fulfilling the prophecy of Malachi.
When he is thrown in prison, he sends his followers to ask Jesus if he is the Messiah (Luke 7:19). Clearly, John was in error about Jesus’ lordship whilst he was in prison. Given that he could make such a mistake, it is easily possible he was simply mistaken when he said he wasn’t Elijah and the Gospel writers are merely recording what he said, not prescribing the doctrine that John was not Elijah.
As D. A Carson says, “The Synoptic Gospels report that Jesus identified John the Baptist with the promised Elijah, but they never suggest that John the Baptist himself made that connection. Here he refuses to make it – a refusal which, when placed beside the synoptic evidence, suggests that he did not detect as much significance in his own ministry as Jesus did.” (The Gospel According to John, 1991, pg. 143)
Another explanation could be that John’s denial of being Elijah is simply a humble refusal of being as great a prophet, so that the people could focus on Jesus and not him as the messianic forerunner.
He even says in John 3:30, that Jesus must increase, while he must decrease. John’s willingness to step down after the arrival of Jesus shows his humility, which suggests that John, although acknowledging his role as the new Elijah, believed himself to be unworthy of the title of Elijah and so rejected it when the emissaries questioned him.
As Alexander J. Burke Jr says, “It is because of his deep humility that John refuses the role of Elijah… John’s Gospel seeks to confine the Baptist’s role to that of witness and to establish his great humility. It would not have been in John’s nature to identify himself with such a great figure of Jewish tradition as Elijah.” (John the Baptist: Prophet and Disciple, 2006, pg. 132)
John appears to be distancing himself from the prophets of old, so that people would focus on Jesus and not this new prophetic figure. John’s denial of being Elijah is likely a denial of what the Jews believed Elijah would be like. The Jews expected that it would literally be Elijah himself back from heaven, but this is not implied by the text. John met the spiritual characteristics of Elijah and satisfied the prophesy that Elijah would come before the messiah "to restore all things". John the Baptist came in the spirit and power of Elijah, to the point that it could be said that Elijah had come.
Jesus himself says about John’s role, “If you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah.” (Matthew 11:14). In other words, identifying John as Elijah is not predicated upon him being the actual man Elijah, but upon the people’s response to his role as a messianic forerunner. To those who were willing to believe in Jesus, John the Baptist functioned as Elijah, because they believed that Jesus was the Christ. To the religious leaders who rejected Jesus, John the Baptist did not perform this function.
This is why a future day yet remains for the return of Elijah. Upon Jesus’ second coming, the nation of Israel shall repent at Elijah’s calling and accept Jesus as their Messiah. This will also fulfil Paul’s promise in Romans 11:26 – “And in this way all Israel will be saved.”
So to conclude: John denies being Elijah for several possible reasons:
Kerusso Apologetics: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCrQomNYP7r7J-u1IZJkF-Tg