Elijah is one of two people in the Bible who never died. The other is Enoch. Actually, all we know about Enoch’s end was that he walked with God, and God took him. This was in pre-flood Genesis, during the early generations of man, and not very much is known about him. However from that verse we can draw a logical conclusion that he was raptured, as opposed to having experienced physical death. Something similar happened to the prophet Elijah – when it was his time to go, however, we have a fantastic scene described to us in 2 Kings 2:11 in which he is picked up by a chariot of fire and taken up in a whirlwind. This occurred in around 850 BC.
The prophet Malachi foresaw that Elijah would return to Israel before the Messiah came, as he wrote in Malachi 4:5. Interestingly, the prophet Isaiah also wrote about a person who would be coming as the forerunner of the Christ in Isaiah 40:1-5. This caused the Jews to rightfully expect the return of the prophet Elijah – the prophet who never died – before the coming of the Messiah.
Jesus’s disciples asked him about this in Matthew 17:9-13 and the answer that Jesus gave can be a source of confusion for new Bible students. He did confirm that Elijah does come back before the Messiah in this passage, but seems to identify John the Baptist as being Elijah, or somehow fulfilling the prophecy of Elijah coming before the Messiah. In fact John the Baptist identified himself as the fulfillment of the Isaiah prophecy in John 1:22-23. However in the previous verse, John 1:21, he also confirmed that he was not Elijah.
We get a little more clarity on the issue from Luke’s gospel, which tells us the story of the angel who visited Mary’s cousin Elizabeth bearing news about her pregnancy (with the baby who would become John the Baptist). In Luke 1:13-17 we learn that he would go forward in the spirit and power of Elijah to make straight the path of the Lord. Not as Elijah himself.
So what about Elijah coming back before the Messiah comes, then? He still is! You see, it was not understood from the Old Testament scriptures that there would be two different comings of Christ (also known as two advents). During the first advent, his disciples thought that Jesus was going to set the promised kingdom up at that time. It was only after his death and resurrection, and subsequent empowering by the Holy Spirit, when they came to understand about the first and second advents. The first time Jesus came, it was as a humble and suffering servant. He was God’s lamb, the sacrifice for Man’s sin. The second time he comes, it will be as a vengeful God and conquering king, to take possession of the earth and setup his kingdom.
This makes Malachi’s prophecy a yet-to-be-fulfilled one. Elijah will return during the tribulation period, as one of the two witnesses to Israel described in the book of Revelation. The identity of the other witness is a topic of debate. (Some people do think it will be Enoch, as he is the other guy who apparently never died, but that argument doesn’t really hold water because after the rapture occurs there will be millions who never actually died. Moses and Zerubbabel are the other two most likely candidates; Moses representing the law, and Zerubbabel being the recipient of special prophetic commissions in the books of Haggai and Zechariah which seem to fit the bill as one of the tribulation witnesses).
These two witnesses are very powerful and can call down fire from God, as Elijah did on several occasions the last time he was here. However, when God is through with them he allows them to be murdered and their bodies left in the streets to be mocked at, for three days. Then they are both raised from the dead, and rise up to heaven in sight of the mockers. So Elijah will have made straight the path of the Lord before his second coming. We church-age Christians, of course, will be watching all this from the mezzanine.