Jesus warned the disciples not to tell anyone of his transfiguration until after his death and resurrection. The disciples then asked him an unusual question. They said, “Then why do the scribes say that first Elijah must come?” (Verse 10) There are several dimensions to this question worth considering. If the scripture was to be fulfilled then first Elijah must come before the day of the Lord.
The scribes were quoting the last words of the prophet Malachi in the Old Testament. This scripture says, “Behold I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the land with a curse.” (Malachi 4:5-6) The scribes were looking for the signs of the Messiah’s coming. One of those signs was that first Elijah must come. Elijah was to prepare the people for the coming of the Lord.
The scribes and Pharisees had asked whether John the Baptist was the Christ, but he confessed saying, “I am not the Christ.” (John 1:20) They then asked whether he was Elijah and again he said, “I am not.” (John 1:21) Now it is interesting for Jesus said of John that he was indeed Elijah who was to come first. However he was not Elijah the prophet of old himself. To think that he was would be to accept reincarnation, which is a false teaching. For we know from scripture that, “it is appointed for men to die once, and after that comes judgment.” (Hebrews 9:27)
So how is it that John the Baptist could be Elijah? This is cleared up in the Luke version. The angel Gabriel appeared to John’s father, Zechariah, and told him that he would have a son. He said of this child, “And he will turn many of the sons of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.” (Luke 1:16-17)
So John could confidently say that he was not Elijah, for he was not Elijah the prophet from old times. However he did come in the spirit and power of Elijah to do the ministry of preparing the way of the Lord. So when we see that first Elijah must come to do the work of preparation, we find that prophecy fulfilled in the work of John the Baptist.
It was interesting too that the scribes and Pharisees had already asked whether Jesus was the Christ. His response was, “So the Jews gathered round him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered them, “I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name, they bear witness to me.” (John 10:24-25) The key here is that the works he was doing bore witness to Jesus that he was the Christ. It was exactly the same with John the Baptist. When you review his works, which were to prepare a people for the coming of the Lord, it is clear that his works testify that he was Elijah who was to come. Not the actual Elijah of old, but the one who comes in the spirit and power of Elijah to prepare the way of the Lord.
Now Jesus also warned the disciples not to mention the transfiguration events until after his resurrection. Why was that? Well prior to the resurrection if the disciples began spreading the word that they had seen Elijah, let alone Moses as well, the scribes and Pharisees would say they were making it up. They would want proof that Elijah had come before they would believe, not that they would believe anyway. How would the disciples be able to substantiate such a claim? In fact it would confuse matters more for John the Baptist was the Elijah who was to come. The scribes were looking for Elijah, not John the Baptist who came in the spirit of Elijah.
But after Jesus death and resurrection the scribes had a much greater sign, which they should not have ignored. They had the proof that Jesus was the Christ and the fulfilment of Jesus word that the only sign they would get was the sign of Jonah. (Matthew 16:4) His death and resurrection was proof that Jesus was the Christ. And yet still they would not believe. However, if Jesus was the Christ, which he was, then they had to also accept that John the Baptist was Elijah who must come first.