Elijah Coming First?

In the prophetic book of Malachi, God declares that the Old Testament prophet Elijah will come before the Day of the Lord:

"1 For, behold, the day cometh, that shall burn as an oven; and all the proud, yea, and all that do wickedly, shall be stubble: and the day that cometh shall burn them up, saith the LORD of hosts, that it shall leave them neither root nor branch. 2 But unto you that fear my name shall the Sun of righteousness arise with healing in his wings; and ye shall go forth, and grow up as calves of the stall. 3 And ye shall tread down the wicked; for they shall be ashes under the soles of your feet in the day that I shall do this, saith the LORD of hosts. 4 Remember ye the law of Moses my servant, which I commanded unto him in Horeb for all Israel, with the statutes and judgments. 5 Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD: 6 And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse." (Malachi 4:1-6)

The question that needs to be answered is what does great and dreadful Day of the Lord refer to? The disciples of Jesus had come down from the Mount of Transfiguration where they saw Elijah (Elias in the King James Bible) and Moses speaking with Jesus:

"9 And as they came down from the mountain, Jesus charged them, saying, Tell the vision to no man, until the Son of man be risen again from the dead. 10 And his disciples asked Him, saying, Why then say the scribes that Elias must first come? 11 And Jesus answered and said unto them, Elias truly shall first come, and restore all things. 12 But I say unto you, That Elias is come already, and they knew him not, but have done unto him whatsoever they listed. Likewise shall also the Son of man suffer of them. 13 Then the disciples understood that he spake unto them of John the Baptist." (Matthew 17:9-13)

The disciples' question was a reference to the passage in Malachi. In response Jesus said that Elijah will (future tense) come and has come (past tense). A "type" of Elijah had come in the form of John the Baptist but Jesus also said that Elijah will come again. It is interesting that the prophet Elijah is one of only two persons in the Bible who never died but was taken directly up to heaven (2 Kings 2:1-11). Enoch was the other one (Genesis 5:19-24).

Every year during the Passover seder, Jews around the world leave an empty chair at their tables for Elijah with the expectation that he will come before the Messiah. Elijah will come before the second advent of Jesus the Messiah which correlates with the "great and dreadful day of the Lord." Before the second coming of Jesus, the dreadful Tribulation Period will devastate the world. Then the great appearance of Jesus will lead to the establishment of His messianic kingdom upon the earth.

Thus, when does the day of the Lord begin? Those who believe that the Rapture will take place before the Tribulation starts say that the Rapture of the Church begins the day of the Lord. If true then Elijah would have to come before that event. If Elijah is one of the two Witnesses God sends to Jerusalem to perform miracles, it may be that he will begin that 3 and one half year ministry before the Tribulation begins. This of course is at odds with the doctrine of Imminency which states that there are no prophetic signs that need to precede the Rapture.

Others say that the day of the Lord begins when God starts punishing the earth with supernatural judgments later in the Tribulation Period. Elijah could still be one of the Witnesses and appears after the Antichrist has risen to power.

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