Why did John say he was not Elijah when Jesus said he was?


By BibleAsk Team

The question of why John the Baptist denied being Elijah, despite Jesus affirming that he was, is a fascinating aspect of the biblical narrative that invites exploration into the historical, cultural, and theological contexts of the time. To thoroughly address this topic, we’ll delve into various passages from the New Testament, particularly the Gospel of John.

Contextual Background:

Before examining the specific passages where John’s identity is discussed, it’s important to understand the historical and cultural context of first-century Judaism. The Jewish people were eagerly awaiting the arrival of the Messiah, who they believed would deliver them from oppression and establish God’s kingdom on earth. Additionally, they anticipated the coming of Elijah as a precursor to the Messiah, based on prophecies such as Malachi 4:5-6 (NKJV).

References on John’s Identity:

  1. Jn. 1:19-21 (NKJV): “Now this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, ‘I am not the Christ.’ And they asked him, ‘What then? Are you Elijah?’ He said, ‘I am not.’ ‘Are you the Prophet?’ And he answered, ‘No.'” In this passage, John the Baptist explicitly denies being Elijah when questioned by the priests and Levites sent from Jerusalem.
  2. Matthew 11:13-14 (NKJV): “For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to receive it, he is Elijah who is to come.” Jesus identifies John the Baptist as the fulfillment of the prophecy of Elijah, suggesting a connection between the two figures.

Interpretations and Theological Perspectives:

  1. Literal vs. Spiritual Fulfillment: Bible scholars interpret Jesus’ statement about the baptist being Elijah as a spiritual fulfillment rather than a literal one. They suggest that the baptist came “in the spirit and power of Elijah,” fulfilling the role of Elijah as a forerunner to the Messiah (Luke 1:17, NKJV), rather than being a reincarnation of the Old Testament prophet. For Elijah, in days of apostasy and crisis, (1 Kings 17:1; 18:1–19, 36–40) was a symbol of reformation and loyalty to God. And the nature of the work of the Baptist, as the forerunner of the Messiah, was prophesied in the scriptures (Isaiah 40:1–11; Malachi 3:1; 4:5, 6). Even the scribes recognized that “Elias must first come” before the coming of the Messiah (Matthew 17:10; Mark 9:11, 12). The Baptist’s message was one of reform and repentance (Matthew 3:1–10). The Baptist resembled Elijah, not only in the work he was to do and in the fearlessness with which he was to proclaim truth (1 Kings 21:17–24; Matthew 3:7–10), but even in his manner of life and in his general appearance (Matthew 3:4; 2 Kings 1:8). And both prophets suffered persecution (1 Kings 18:10; 19:2; Matthew 14:10).
  2. The Baptist’s Humility and Role: The Baptist’s denial of being Elijah may stem from his humility and recognition of his distinct role in preparing the way for the Messiah. While he acknowledged the importance of his ministry as the voice crying in the wilderness (Jn. 1:23, NKJV), he may have hesitated to claim the identity of Elijah himself.
  3. Messianic Expectations: The Jewish people’s expectations of Elijah’s return were shaped by their understanding of Malachi’s prophecy, which described Elijah as coming “before the great and dreadful day of the Lord” (Malachi 4:5, NKJV). The Baptist’s ministry, while significant, did not align with their eschatological expectations of Elijah’s role in ushering in the kingdom of God. Prophecies concerning the forerunner of the Messiah were so strikingly fulfilled in the Baptist that the common people and also their leaders recognized the resemblance of the Baptist to Elijah (John 1:19–21). Even after the death of the Baptist, the priests, scribes, and elders did not dare deny that the Baptist was a prophet (Matthew 21:24–27; Mark 11:29–33; Luke 20:3–7).
  4. Jesus’ Perspective: Jesus’ identification of the Baptist as Elijah may reflect His understanding of the spiritual significance of the Baptist’s ministry in preparing the way for His own coming. While the Baptist may not have fulfilled the traditional expectations of Elijah’s return, he nevertheless played a crucial role in preparing the hearts of the people for the arrival of the Messiah.

Practical Implications and Application:

  1. Humility and Service: The Baptist’s humility in denying the identity of Elijah serves as a powerful example of servanthood and selflessness. Like the Baptist, believers are called to humbly fulfill their unique roles in God’s kingdom, without seeking recognition or acclaim for themselves.
  2. Preparation for Christ’s Coming: The Baptist’s ministry of repentance and preparation highlights the importance of spiritual readiness for the coming of Christ. As followers of Jesus, believers are called to prepare their hearts and lives for His return, living in anticipation of the fulfillment of God’s kingdom.


In conclusion, the question of why the Baptist denied being Elijah, despite Jesus identifying him as such, is an aspect of the biblical narrative that reflects the complexity of messianic expectations and the humility of the Baptist’s character. While John the Baptist may not have fulfilled the traditional expectations of the Jews for a worldly conqueror, he came in the spirit of Elijah and his ministry nevertheless played a crucial role in preparing the way for the coming of the Messiah. As believers seek to understand this interaction, they are reminded of the importance of humility, service, and spiritual readiness in preparing for the fulfillment of God’s kingdom and the coming of Christ.

In His service,
BibleAsk Team

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