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In the Spirit of Elijah

Understanding John the Baptist in Light of Biblical Theology

by Mark Horne

Copyright © 1997, All rights reserved.

Anyone who has read Geerhardus Vos’ Biblical Theology cannot help but recognize its immense value to those wanting to better understand Scripture. Nevertheless, we would dishonor Vos if we did not seek to go beyond him once he has placed us farther than we could ever travel on our own.

Specifically, I think we can discover more information about the significance of John the Baptist–information that might also give us further understanding of the meaning of the baptism which he practiced.

Vos leaves us with some real questions. In the Gospels, as he acknowledges, we are explicitly told that John the Baptist is not literally Elijah (John 1:21), but that he fulfills the prophecy that Elijah will precede the Messiah (Mal 4:4-6; Matt 11:14; 17:10-13; Mark 9:11-13; Luke 1:17). But why Elijah and not some other prophet? Why is Elijah singled out as John’s primary prototype? Vos gives some account for this, saying that Elijah is tied to repentance, but this, in my opinion, does not go far enough. Something makes Elijah unique among prophets to be the type of John the Baptist and to foreshadow his role in preparing the way for Jesus.

John the Baptist as the Final Moses

Let’s start with some seemingly random observations about John the Baptist. Notice that John confronts a king (Matt 14:3; Mark 6:17; Luke 3:19) and stays in the region of the Jordan (Matt 3:5; Luke 3:3) in the wilderness (Mark 1:4) across from the Promised Land (John 1:28; 10:40).

Now a few of these details do remind us of Elijah. He too confronted an evil king (1 Kin 17:1; 21:17-19) and spent a lot of time outside of Israel proper (1 Kin 17:3, 9). But he also did more. He called down plagues on the Land (1 Kin 17:1), called down fire on his sacrifice (1 Kin 18:38), was fed by angels in the wilderness (1 Kin 19:4-7), and met God at Mt. Sinai (1 Kin 19:8-14).

I don’t think it is too hard for people who know their Bibles at all to begin thinking about Moses when they notice these things. Moses confronted Pharaoh and called down plagues on Egypt. Also, he’s the first person in the Bible to call down fire from Heaven onto an altar (Lev 9:24).

So far, this has been pretty sparse, but I do think that Elijah stands out among Old Testament prophets as a new Moses. No one else I know of was met by God at Mt. Sinai. It is a unique marker in the Bible. Incidentally, both Moses and Elijah end their careers by ascending-Moses up a mountain to die and Elijah in a fiery chariot. In both cases, this happened across the Jordan from Jericho (Deut 34:1; 2 Kin 2:4-8).

There is more to the connection between Moses and Elijah and John, however, when we consider their successors.

Jesus the Greater Joshua

Elisha accompanied Elijah when he crossed the Jordan from Jericho (2 Kin 2:4-8; 15). When he ascended into Heaven, Elisha was granted a “double portion” of his spirit (2 Kin 2:9-11). Elisha then walked through the Jordan on dry ground (2 Kin 2:14)

Centuries earlier Joshua walked through the Jordan on dry ground, leading the Israelites into the promised land to conquer Jericho (Josh 3:14-17; 6). Just as Elisha was Elijah’s successor, Joshua was Moses’ successor. Furthermore, before Moses had ascended to his death, he laid his hands on Joshua so that he “was filled with the spirit of wisdom” (Deut 34:9; Num 27:18-23). Moses also prophetically gave Joshua his new name, which had originally been Hoshea (Num 13:16).

The similarities between Elisha and Joshua also show interesting redemptive-historical contrasts. Elisha, too, marched through parted waters to Jericho. But he miraculously healed the water there so it was fit to drink (2 Kin 2:19-22).

Now in the Gospels, Jesus goes to the Jordan to be baptized by John, and there the Spirit comes upon Him visibly (Matt 3:13-17). Like Moses and Elijah before him, John says that he must become lesser as Jesus becomes greater (John 3:26-30). Just as Joshua entered the Promised Land, leaving Moses behind, and just as Elisha re-entered the Promised Land with a double-portion of the Spirit, so Jesus as the true successor to Moses and all the prophets begins His ministry after being baptized by John (see Matt 11:7-15). Jesus is the true Joshua, going into Israel conquering and to conquer–though here we see an even greater transition from wrath to grace since Jesus conquests were over demons and disease by His word and Spirit, not over people by fire and sword as was done by the first Joshua.

Baptism as ReEntry

The association between John and Moses, Jesus and Joshua will help us understand the meaning of John’s baptism. The Israelites originally entered the land by a baptism in the Jordan and into Joshua (Josh 3:14-17; compare 1 Cor 10:2 & note Josh 5:1-12). The significance of John’s choice of the Jordan River as a place to baptize should not be minimized. It was not a convenient place from which to reach people. The journey to the Jordan-border of the Holy Land must have had some sort of meaning. Why else was John a desert dweller?

People coming to be baptized by John in the Jordan were re-entering Israel. Confessing that they had failed as covenant-keepers, they were getting a second chance before the Day of the Lord.

Copyright © 1997, All rights reserved.


  1. How old was Elijah when he ascended into heaven?

    Comment by Sherri — January 7, 2010 @ 4:01 pm

  2. Elijah was 65 when he entered back into heaven the first time was as Enoch they are actually the same person and so is John the baptist because in Malachi THE LORD clearly states that he is sending Elijah back down from heaven to prepare the way for THE MESSIAH.

    Comment by Joshua — June 17, 2010 @ 4:47 am

  3. Greetings

    I’m Vusi, wish to receive your mail, I am christian who want to grow in the knowledge of the kingdom of God. Could you help me with literature, I want to know more about the spirit of Elijah and other topics.

    Vusi Hlebela

    Comment by Vusi Hlebela — August 13, 2010 @ 7:44 am

  4. What I understand by spirit of Elijah is thus: when the professy about the birth of John the babtise was made, Luke 1 vs 17. the bible also said he shall turn the heart of fathers to children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the lord. you should also read about ( the contest on mount carmel ) 1st king 18:20-46. According these verses what I understood as the spirit of Elijah are: 1. ability to settle controvesy when the children of God are brought before two opinion.
    2. The Spirit of Elijah bring repentance. (To make ready a people prepare for the Lord)
    3 The spirit of Elijah brings Unity. (… Shall turn the heart of fathers to children)
    4. The spirit of Elijah is the Spirit of prayer or intercession. James 5:17-18. like to talk about the power of Elijah but space is small.

    Comment by Omesie chukwuma — February 20, 2011 @ 12:56 am

  5. The bible does not talk of any such reincarnation. the fact that Elijah’s name was brought back so much especially as pertaining to John the baptist is because they had a similar if not the same spirit. the spirit of INTENSE love of God and man. so much so that they are able to connect almost effortlessley with both. also, both had the charisma and influence to return the lords people to their first love. the spirit of repentance..

    Comment by and the child shall lead them.. — July 4, 2011 @ 10:50 pm

  6. Thanks very much – this 1997 article is filled with superb insights!

    Comment by Ashley Butler — May 7, 2014 @ 10:05 am

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