We are going to study Malachi 4:5-6 from the Preterist's point of view which is consistent with God's Word, "sola scriptura." We need to find out who is "Elijah the prophet" and what is "before the great and terrible day of the Lord" in this context. This is probably the one of most misunderstood interpretation from the futurist's view, especially from the dispensationalism camp.
In Malachi 4:5-6, notice the word "Behold" which God spoke few times in the book of Malachi (2:2; 3:1; 4:1, 5). It means that God exhorted His chosen people to pay attention before the coming events upon them. Before closing the OT canon, God did send many prophets to warn the Israelites to turn to their Lord. Otherwise they will face terrible disasters if they were disobedient.
Elijah the prophet is clearly identified as John the Baptist here. Most dispensationalists and some futurists believe there will be a literal Elijah to come during the Great Tribulation and before the physical, second coming of Christ. Some of them believe John the Baptist was Elijah but he was rejected by the Jews. And then they rejected Christ's alleged bona fide offer of the Davidic kingdom. The kingdom has to be postponed or delayed into the distant future. I disagree with that because no where in the Bible is that mentioned. They realize that a true analysis of biblical text related to the timing of prophetic events endangers their eschatological position. The Bible, not current events or "newspaper exegesis", must be our interpreting guide. The Preterist's view has the solution. I believe God was right on schedule and nothing can thwart His purpose. God does not have "Plan A" and "Plan B.
Now, we are going to look into John the Baptist's background. In Luke 1:5-25, this context is about the announcement of John the Baptist from the angel. Notice in verses 16 and 17, "…And he shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elias", and then quoted from Malachi 4:5-6. It is clearly not a literal Elijah. The Jews and the disciples were expecting a literal Elijah and an earthly kingdom to arrive. They were hoping to have a powerful messiah to conquer the Roman Empire and rule over the Gentiles on the earth.
In Matthew 3, this context is about John the Baptist's ministry. Notice in verse 2, John was preaching, "Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand." Not many Christians, even Jews, understand the correct concept of the kingdom of God. The Jewish people of Christ's day were looking for this Messianic or Davidic kingdom to be established on the earth. This is the same problem with the dispensationalist's view on millennium (1,000 years) when Jesus will come again. If Jesus comes back and reigns on earth, He can no longer be our High Priest at the right hand of God in the Heavenly Sanctuary (Heb. 8:1-4).
Jesus also sent His disciples to preach the Kingdom of God is at hand (Matt. 10:5-7). John the Baptist, Jesus and the apostles repeatedly identified their contemporary generation of Jews as "the kingdom of God is at hand" that was to come "in the latter days" of the Jewish nation (Dan. 10:14 and 12:1-13). Join all this to the numerous immanency statements (Rom. 13:11-12; 16:20; 1 Cor. 10:11; Heb. 1:2; 2:5; 3:7-4:11; 8:13; 9:8-10; 10:25, 36-39; James 5:7-9; 1 Peter 4:7, 17; 1 John 2:17-18; Rev. 1:1-3; 22:6, 7, 10, 12, 20) which prove beyond a shadow of doubt they spoke of themselves being in "the Last Days" of the Jewish nation. Even Jewish non-Christians and liberal theologians can see the immanency written all over the NT writings. It seems like Christians (futurists) are the only ones who cannot see it.
Jesus began to speak to the multitudes about John the Baptist in Matt. 11:7-19. Notice Jesus said in verse 14, "If you care to accept it, he himself is Elijah, who was to come." Later, after the transfiguration of Jesus, the disciples asked Him, saying, "Why then do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?" (Mat.17:10). Jesus answered, "Elijah is coming and will restore all things; but I say unto you, that Elijah already came, and they did not recognize him." Then the disciples understood that He had spoken to them about John the Baptist (Matt. 17:11-13). If Jesus said, "Elijah is to come" then it means there will be a coming of Elijah in the future, but He did not say that. Remember Jesus is the Son of God and the Prophet. The reason why the Jews were confused is because they thought there will be a literal Elijah who is to come. Read in John 1:19-34 about the Jewish leaders who were questioning John the Baptist if he is the Christ or Elijah (Mal 4:5-6) or the Prophet (Deut 18:15). John answered "no" to all of those questions. You might say, "But John said he is not Elijah." Yes, he is Elijah-like but not a literal Elijah. John the Baptist was sent by God from the Old Testament prophecies in Isaiah 40:3 and also in Malachi 3:1 as Jesus said.
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