Why was John the Baptist mistaken for Elijah?

John the Baptist preaches to a crowd

Do you ever wonder about John the Baptist? Why did he dress in camel’s hair? What made him decide to live in the wilderness? Why was he mistaken for the prophet Elijah? The gospels make it clear that John was the appointed messenger to prepare the way for Jesus Christ. But why was his life so strange? It turns out, he was simply committing to his God-given mission, and he didn’t want anyone to miss the Messiah when he arrived.

God chose John the Baptist

John the Baptist was chosen by God to prepare the people for the ministry of Jesus. His purpose was clear, as the apostle John recorded in his gospel:

6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. 8 He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.

John 1:6–8 (ESV)

The prophet Isaiah received a message from God about John in Isaiah 40:

A voice cries:

3 In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

4 Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.

5 And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

Isaiah 40:3–5, ESV

All four gospels reference this passage from Isaiah (Matthew 3:3, Mark 1:3, Luke 3:1–6, John 1:23).

John was transparent about who he was, but some people thought he was the Christ (Luke 3:15). He responded to these claims with the famous words comparing his own baptism of water to baptism by Jesus with the Holy Spirit and fire (Matthew 3:11, Luke 3:16, John 1:33). He continually used his ministry to point to Jesus. John was so passionate about preparing people for Jesus that his own disciples left him to follow the Master once he showed up. John himself pointed Jesus out to them (John 1:35–37).

Why Elijah?

John the Baptist was also mistaken1 for Elijah the Tishbite (John 1:21). But why Elijah? Whenever we read Scripture, it’s important to understand the context. John preached to a Jewish culture, and Jewish people knew the Scriptures, which for them was what we call the Old Testament. In the first chapter of 2 Kings, King Ahaziah recognized the prophet Elijah simply by a description of his clothing: a garment of hair, with a belt of leather about his waist. (2 Kings 1:8, ESV) Elijah was well-known for his appearance, and John’s audience likely would have understood the reference, though many people still failed to see John the Baptist for who he was during his ministry.

John the Baptist dressed in the same unique way as Elijah the Tishbite because he knew his calling: to “go before [Jesus] in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts” (Luke 1:17, ESV) of God’s people back to Him.

The last words from God before the birth of Jesus are recorded in Malachi 4:5–6, declaring that God will send Elijah the prophet to “turn the hearts” of His people. (It’s interesting that he’s referred to as the prophet here rather than the Tishbite, suggesting that the actual person of Elijah was not prophesied to prepare the way for Jesus.) These words are echoed by an angel in Luke 1:16–17 when John’s father, Zechariah, receives the news that he will have a son.

John knew the calling on his life (Luke 1:67–79) and did everything he could to ensure that people didn’t miss who he was, and more importantly, who Jesus is. Malachi prophesied that God would send Elijah to prepare the way of the Lord, then 400 years later the angel Gabriel told Zechariah that his son would fulfill this prophecy. On either side of the intertestamental period between the Old and New Testaments is John the Baptist—first, his prophecy, then his appearance!

If it isn’t already clear who John the Baptist was, consider Jesus’ words to Peter, James, and John following His transfiguration:

9 And as they were coming down the mountain, Jesus commanded them, Tell no one the vision, until the Son of Man is raised from the dead. 10 And the disciples asked him, Then why do the scribes say that first Elijah must come? 11 He answered, Elijah does come, and he will restore all things. 12 But I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man will certainly suffer at their hands. 13 Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them of John the Baptist.

Matthew 17:9–13, ESV

Matthew’s gospel records Jesus revealing John’s identity even before the transfiguration. In Matthew 11:7–15, John (from prison) sends his disciples to ask Jesus, Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else? (v. 3)2 Jesus tells them to report what they see and hear Jesus doing. After John’s disciples leave, Jesus tells the crowd that John the Baptist is the one prophesied in Malachi 3:13 and that among those born of women no one greater than John the Baptist has appeared (v. 11). Verse 14 is the key verse for our purposes, though: And if you’re willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who is to come.

Embrace your calling

The life of John the Baptist is a great example of what God can accomplish through someone who embraces his or her calling. John lived in the wilderness (Luke 1:80) and dressed like Elijah the Tishbite because he knew that Isaiah and Malachi prophesied that he would prepare the people for “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29, ESV)

Are you and I willing to go to such lengths for the sake of God’s mission?

  1. It’s a bit confusing to read John the Baptist deny being Elijah early on, only to find out later that John actually was the Elijah who is to come (Matthew 11:14). As Occam’s razor suggests, the simplest explanation is likely the correct one: John was not literally the prophet Elijah. Many people of the time might have expected the return of the actual Elijah (Mark 8:28), since he was taken to heaven without dying (2 Kings 2:11). 

  2. This is a curious question coming from John the Baptist, who knew Jesus well. William Barclay, in The Gospel of Matthew, Vol. 2, suggests three possible reasons for John’s inquiry: (1) It was for the benefit of John’s disciples. (2) John was growing impatient, expecting the Christ to be working faster. (3) As an outdoorsman imprisoned underground, John simply sought a fresh reassurance of his hope. I personally think reasons 1 and 3 make the most sense, and I’ll add a fourth possibility: (4) Knowing Jesus would likely be around a crowd when his disciples arrive, John asked the question already on the minds of many people—so that Jesus could answer it publicly. 

  3. I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come, says the Lord Almighty. (NIV