Central to this question of will Elijah return is a prophecy given by Malachi. Elijah was a prophet who lived during the final days of the judges, just before the first King Saul was installed over the twelve tribes of Israel. He lived roughly seven hundred years before Malachi, yet Malachi prophesies that Elijah will return. The prophecy is from Malachi 4:5-61 and represents the very last words in the Old Testament:

Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome 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 strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.

The attention that this question gathers in broader “end times” discussions is rather significant. For example, David Jeremiah asks if Elijah returns during the Tribulation in his blog. He says, “Elijah will return according to Malachi’s prophecy” (note the future tense) and goes on to speculate that Elijah will be one of the two witnesses from Revelation 11 and asserting that “most scholars believe one of the two witnesses will be Elijah.”

Will Elijah return? Does Scripture concur with David Jeremiah and “most scholars?”

How Scripture answers "Will Elijah return?"

Elijah has already come5…and it was John the Baptist3,4. This is made clear by both an angel of God4 and Jesus Himself3,5 in a straightforward and perfect example of Scripture interpreting Scripture.

In his blog linked above, David Jeremiah never mentions these passages3,4,5. He doesn’t bother to reconcile for his readers why Elijah is yet to come when Jesus has already confirmed for us3,4,5 that he came and it was John the Baptist. Surely a committed Bible student and teacher like David Jeremiah knows about these passages? Why would he choose to ignore them? Instead, he speculates and conjures vague and misguided explanations from unrelated texts. It’s as if Jesus3 was speaking directly to David Jeremiah when, after He confirms that the Malachi prophecy1 was about John the Baptist, says, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” (Matthew 11:15)

Answer built on scripture-blocks below

Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts.
Behold, I send my messenger to prepare the way before me. And the Lord you seek will suddenly come to his temple, and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight is coming, says the Lord of hosts.

Malachi’s prophecy to those that returned from Babylonian/Persian captivity around 450 BC. God, through Malachi, responds to the post-captive priests with a series of “But you say” statements, to which God responds in condemnation summed up in 2:8-9, “But you have turned aside from the way. You have caused many to stumble by your instruction. You have corrupted the covenant of Levi, says the Lord of hosts, and so I make you despised and abased before all the people, inasmuch as you do not keep my ways but show partiality in your instruction.”

The first sentence of this verse is interpreted by Jesus to be referring to John the Baptist (Matthew 11:10, Mark 1:2, Luke 7:27).

Scripture-block application to this question

God, through Malachi, says there would be a “messenger” who would “prepare the way”.

Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome 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 strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.
Pay attention! I [God] will send Elijah the prophet to you before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes.  He will cause parents to love their children and the children to love their parents in order to redeem the land from My judgment of destruction.

Malachi’s prophecy to those that returned from Babylonian/Persian captivity around 450 BC. God, through Malachi, responds to the post-captive priests with a series of “But you say” statements, to which God responds in condemnation summed up in 2:8-9, “But you have turned aside from the way. You have caused many to stumble by your instruction. You have corrupted the covenant of Levi, says the Lord of hosts, and so I make you despised and abased before all the people, inasmuch as you do not keep my ways but show partiality in your instruction.”

Jesus does not quote this verse, but explicitly states in the Gospels that John the Baptist was the “Elijah who is to come” (Matthew 11:14, Mark 9:11, Luke 1:17).

Scripture-block application to this question

God promises to send Elijah who will bring repentance, averting God’s judgment.

For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John, and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come.
All the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John [the Baptist] came, and if you are willing to acknowledge it, he is Elijah who is to come.
John the Baptist has been put in prison by Herod (vs 2). Facing imminent execution, he asks his followers to go and ask Jesus if He is really the Messiah.  When approached by them, Jesus praises the work and mission of John the Baptist in announcing His coming.

Luke also records this exchange (Luke 7:18-35).

Scripture-block application to this question

Jesus confirms that John the Baptist was the Elijah that was to come.

And he will turn many of the children 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.
He will turn many of the children of Israel to God and he will go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah in order to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, in order to prepare the people for the Lord’s coming.

An angel of God has appeared to Zechariah while he is performing his duties in the temple and tells him about the son that his wife Elizabeth will bear that they will call his name John (vs 13).

Scripture-block application to this question

God’s angel foretells John the Baptist by directly quoting Malachi2 and the effect that his coming would have on the people. The angel clarifies the prophecy isn’t a reincarnation but rather “in the spirit and power of Elijah.” In other words, John the Baptist will be “another Elijah” – sharing a similar look, style, purpose, etc.

And they asked him, Why do the scribes say that first Elijah must come? And he said to them, Elijah does come first to restore all things. And how is it written of the Son of Man that he should suffer many things and be treated with contempt? But I tell you that Elijah has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written of him.
They [Peter, James, and John] asked Him [Jesus] why the Scribes said that Elijah must come. Jesus replied that he had already come to “restore all things” and like it had been written that the Son of Man would suffer and be treated with contempt, so it has been with Elijah as well.
Jesus has taken Peter, James, and John to a high mountain where they witness His transfiguration (vs 2-3) and Elijah and Moses talking with Him (vs 4).

Mark’s account parallels with Matthew (17:1-13) and Luke (9:28-36).

Scripture-block application to this question

Jesus confirms at His transfiguration that Elijah has already come.

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Elijah

Elijah has returned…