The last three verses of the book of Malachi, which end the Old Testament in the order of scripture that is most common to Protestants , have often been of interest to those with a passion for prophecy. Perhaps it is a function of the people I happen to know, but speculation about the identity of Elijah (or the two witnesses, who are often seen, quite reasonably, with Elijah) runs rampant. It is not the intention of this work to contribute to any such speculation in terms of the identity of any of these people, but rather to frame the biblical discussion of the matter of Elijah to properly weed out those speculations that are mere personal whims from those which have the potential for scriptural warrant, given the fact that many people might wish to claim for themselves or others the mantle of Elijah in their ministries .
First, let us examine what the Bible says about the Elijah that is to come, in Malachi 4:4-6: “Remember The Law of Moses, My servant, which I commanded him in Horeb for all Israel, with the statutes and the judgments. Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord. And he will turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the earth with a curse.” There are at least a few elements here that should strike us with interest. The first is that the restoration includes a memory of not only the ten commandments but also the application of more obscure laws and judgments that are to be found in the Torah. This is, as it should be noted, a very demanding standard. Additionally, we will note that the promised Elijah comes before the Day of the Lord, however that is defined. Third, let us note that the command to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers, both in regards to God’s ways as well as personal relations, comes with a very solemn warning to place the earth under the doom of judgment if this is not done. Reconciliation of man to God and other men is of supreme importance to God.
Since we know that John the Baptist fulfilled the role of Elijah before the first coming of Jesus Christ, from the words of Jesus Christ Himself (see Matthew 11:14, 17:13), let us pay some attention to what he did that turned the hearts of the fathers to the children and that restored the knowledge of and awareness of God’s ways. Matthew 3:4-14 gives an intriguing picture of John’s ministry: “Now John himself was clothed in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist; and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then Jerusalem, all Judea, and all the region around the Jordan went out to him and were baptized by him in the Jordan, confessing their sins. But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, and do not think to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children from these stones. And even now the ax is laid to the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather the wheat into the barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire. Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him. And John tried to prevent Him, saying, “I need to be baptized by You, and are you coming to me?””
This particular passage gives a picture of what someone who serves in the manner and role of Elijah that ought to be remembered. For one, John the Baptist (like Elijah) seems to be associated with a rough man who prefers solitude in the wilderness, rather than the soft clothes of being a courtier in king’s palaces (see Matthew 11:8, Luke 7:25). Instead of being a man who flatters those who are influential in the politics of the time, John is portrayed (like Elijah, it should be noted) as being intensely critical of the corrupt and exploitative politics of his day. Rather than delighting in the ability to hobnob with the rich and famous of his time, he was intensely critical of their desire to co-opt or critique his approach. Rather than believing in a racially-based model of salvation where being a descendent of Abraham is key to being a part of God’s people, he reminds us that those who are humble of any people or ancestry can be brought into God’s family through His grace (which is something that is pointed out in numerous psalms as well as the writings of Paul, a train of biblical thought that is ignored by those who are more interested in racist ideology). Likewise, we see in this passage a great deal of humility, refusing to consider his work as being equal to Jesus Christ’s effort, but rather an honest and open appreciation of who he is and his recognition of the need to be forgiven for his own sins.
Let us also note John the Baptist’s approach to dealing with the outcasts of society, considering that he did not focus his ministry on the elites of his time. Luke 3:10-14 gives an example of how John the Baptist was focused on the people and on those who were disrespected and disregarded by the people of his time, and were looked down on by those thought of as particularly religious, even something true of our time by those who hate policemen or soldiers or tax collectors here and now: “So the people asked him, “What shall we do then? He answered and said to them, “He who has two tunics, give to him who has none; and he who has food, let him to do likewise.” Then tax collectors also came to be baptized, and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” So he said to them, “Do not intimidate anyone or accuse falsely, and be content with your wages.”” Here we see the way that John the Baptist served to restore things and reconcile people to God and others. Rather than focusing on gaining an income for himself through his ministry (as is quite common), he points those who listen to him to follow God and show generosity and respect to others.
Let us then comment on the relationship of John the Baptist and the royal elites of his time, in Luke 3:18-20: “And with many other exhortations he preached to the people. But Herod the tetrarch, being rebuked by him concerning Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, and for all the evils which Herod had done, also added this, above all, that he shut John up in prison.” Rather than paling around with the kings and queens of his time, John the Baptist was critical of their sins and in their failure to live and rule in accordance with God’s ways. Rather than being rewarded with fancy peacocks or golden watches or other accoutrements of elite acceptance, John the Baptist was rewarded with imprisonment and eventually death. Yet John the Baptist will surely enter into salvation and has a reputation in the eyes of God and God’s people that will never fail. Let us celebrate John the Baptist and examine that his approach to life and to ministry and to God’s ways, being similar to that of Elijah, is a necessary part of being called by God to do the work of Elijah.
With that said, let us briefly examine why the two witnesses who preach before the return of Jesus Christ are thought of as fulfilling the role of Elijah in a like manner to John the Baptist (we are, of course, here dismissing the fallacious view that either the two witnesses or Elijah were a reincarnation of Elijah in the manner of Eastern religion). There is, of course, not much that is written directly about the two witnesses, which makes it easy for people to speculate according to their own wishes. What the Bible says, though, is clearly suggestive about the parallels between the ministry of the two witnesses and that of Elijah, as may be seen from Revelation 11:3-6: “And I will give power to my two witnesses, and they will prophecy one thousand two hundred and sixty days, clothed in sackcloth. These are the two olive trees and the two lampstands standing before the God of the earth. And if anyone wants to harm them, fire proceeds from their mouth and devours their enemies. And if anyone wants to harm them, he must be killed in this manner. These have power to shut heaven, so that no rain falls in the days of their prophecy; and they have power over waters to turn them to blood, and to strike the earth with all plagues, as often as they desire.”
Here we see that the time limit of the ministry of the two witnesses will mirror the three and a half years of drought during Elijah’s ministry (see Luke 4:25, James 5:17), that they are to wear sackcloth, symbolic of their call to repentance of the earth (rather than a flattering of the corrupt elites of the end times), and that the enemies of the two witnesses will die in order to demonstrate the veracity of their propehtic warning (similar to what happened to the enemies of Jeremiah, even though literal fire did not consume them, see for example Jeremiah 23:29, 20:9, 28:17). Here we see, though, that the two witnesses will preach the judgment of God that precedes restoration, for our reconciliation requires repentance to God and a confession of our sins against other people as well. Such a repentant attitude is precisely the opposite that is accomplished by pandering to corrupt elites and their exploitation of people on the grounds of class or ethnic origin, as occurs regularly in the world today (and throughout history as well). Given the grim end of the two witnesses and the fact that they would be hated throughout the earth for their divine role in bringing judgment to a wicked world (witness Jeremiah’s similar suffering), no one should want to take such a burden upon themselves. Nor should we be quick to consider people as being in the role of Elijah when they do not preach and practice as Elijah did. Rather, let us examine the Bible and look at the consistent approach of prophets throughout the Bible and then, if we have a passion for prophecy, make sure that our interest in prophecy is in accordance with God’s ways and shares its consistent critique of elites and authorities who live contrary to God’s ways, rather than seeking to gain wealth and influence for ourselves by turning a blind eye to their wicked and corrupt ways.
 It should be noted that Catholics, believing the canonicity of the Apocrypha, would have different books in their Bible, and the Jews, with a different order of Law, Prophets, and Writings, would end the Bible at the end of 2 Chronicles, for the sake of completeness. It should also be noted that the speculation about the identity of such matters depends on the people doing such speculations being futurists with a belief in the end-time applicability of these verses. Those with preterist mindsets, for example, would not be so inclined to even think of such matters, given their belief that almost all prophecies even in the NT have a fulfillment that is limited to the first century AD.
 See, for example:
http://www.ccg.org/english/s/p233.html (this is a good example of the sort of writing of one who wishes to present himself as Elijah and debunk others who have been so viewed; in my view the debunking is more successful than the attempt to consider himself Elijah)