Editor: Here is an excerpt from an article on http://ptgbook.com that addresses the importance of knowing who the Elijah to come is. I too agree that Mr. Armstrong cetainly was that Elijah and yet how important is that knowledge? This post covers that subject well.
I have noticed on the Internet that a number of Church of God groups are concerned about the Elijah question. The question itself is fairly simply to state. “Was Herbert W. Armstrong the Elijah to come?” A number of groups say emphatically, “Yes”. Not only do they say that Mr. Armstrong was the Elijah to come, several of them emphasize the importance of knowing and believing that he was the Elijah. I believe I heard one minister on an audio recording say that knowing that Mr. Armstrong was the Elijah to come is the most important thing for a Philadelphian to know. That is a heavy statement. I have also heard a leader of another group harshly criticize those who do not take a position one way or another. He seemed to feel they were “fence sitters” or cowards for not taking a definite position on this question. What struck me was that he raised his voice in anger when he spoke about this in a way that he did not do in any other part of his sermon. I got the impression he was more emotionally “charged up” about the Elijah issue than any other issue he talked about (his sermon was not about Elijah or about Mr. Armstrong). I think one minister has said that rejecting Mr. Armstrong’s Elijah role was the cause for division in the Church. He didn’t explain why several groups that accept Mr. Armstrong as the Elijah to come are themselves divided between themselves.
Why is this important, and what does the Bible say about the Elijah to come? And what does this have to do with the subject of practicing what we preach?
I will cover certain key scriptures about the Elijah to come, but this is not intended to be an exhaustive study of the subject. The reader can do his own study if he wants further detail. But I want to give an overview, then cover a particular point that I think is relevant.
Malachi 4:5-6 states: “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.” These are the last two verses of the Old Testament, and they show that God will send someone He calls “Elijah” before the Day of the Lord.
The angel Gabriel told Zacharias that John the Baptist would fulfill an Elijah role. “But the angel said to him, ‘Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your prayer is heard; and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth. For he will be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink. He will also be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. He will also 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 a people prepared for the Lord’ ” (Luke 1:13-17).
When John the Baptist was fulfilling his ministry, the priests and Levites asked him if he was Elijah. “Now this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, ‘I am not the Christ.’ And they asked him, ‘What then? Are you Elijah?’ He said, ‘I am not.’ ‘Are you the Prophet?’ And he answered, ‘No’ ” (John 1:19-21). Verse 24 adds that the priests and Levites who questioned John were sent by the Pharisees.
Later Jesus spoke to the crowds about John the Baptist. “Assuredly, I say to you, among those born of women there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist; but he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force. For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to receive it, he is Elijah who is to come” (Matthew 11:11-14).
Also, after the transfiguration, Jesus’ disciples asked Him about Elijah. “Now as they came down from the mountain, Jesus commanded them, saying, ‘Tell the vision to no one until the Son of Man is risen from the dead.’ And His disciples asked Him, saying, ‘Why then do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?’ Jesus answered and said to them, ‘Indeed, Elijah is coming first and will restore all things. But I say to you that Elijah has come already, and they did not know him but did to him whatever they wished. Likewise the Son of Man is also about to suffer at their hands.’ Then the disciples understood that He spoke to them of John the Baptist” (Matthew 17:9-13). See also Mark 9:9-13.
Since Jesus said that Elijah is yet to restore all things, we know there was to be a future fulfillment of the Elijah role after John the Baptist. Many believe, because of all the truths that Mr. Armstrong restored, that he was the Elijah to come. I think Mr. Armstrong himself believed this and implied it in his speaking and writing, though I have not heard him directly state it.
Was Mr. Armstrong the Elijah to come and restore all things?
I think that he was. However, that is not the key question. I think the key question is, is it really vital that we know this one way or another? In other words, is it true, as one minister put it, that recognizing Mr. Armstrong as the Elijah is the most important thing for a Philadelphian to know?
Let’s take another look at the verses that cover the Elijah to come with this question in mind.
Malachi 4 shows the importance of the Elijah to come. The work that Elijah does, the work God does in sending him, is vitally important, because unless Elijah turns the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers, God would strike the earth with a curse. The Church has understood this curse to mean utter destruction. So what God does in sending Elijah, and the work that Elijah himself does, are both vitally important. But does this verse say that it is vitally important that God’s people recognize that this man holds the title of the Elijah? Is there a special command here to follow the Elijah? Is there any emphasis on the importance of recognizing him as the Elijah? If there is, I don’t see it. Where is the emphasis in the Old Testament? Compare these two verses with the other things emphasized in the Old Testament, such as fearing God, obeying every commandment of God, putting our trust in God, not following other gods, keeping the Sabbath, being faithful in tithes and offerings, blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience, etc.
Is there any emphasis in the New Testament on recognizing the Elijah to come? Is there any instruction or commandment from Christ or the apostles to the Church regarding this issue, either on the importance of recognizing and obeying the Elijah, or instructions in how to recognize him when he comes?
Let’s look at the four occasions when the subject of Elijah came up in the gospel accounts:
1. The angel Gabriel told Zacharias that John would come in the spirit and power of Elijah. This specifically refers to John, not Mr. Armstrong. In any case, although this information was revealed to Zacharias and to us, it did not seem that recognition that John fulfilled that role was essential for John’s ministry. The fact that the Jews asked John about it and John denied that he was the Elijah shows that the Jews and the people John preached to did not recognize him as Elijah, yet that did not prevent John the Baptist from being 100 percent successful in his mission. He got the job done whether anyone knew he was the Elijah or not. He succeeded in preparing the way for the Lord at His first coming. (Luke 1:5-20).
2. The priests and Levites sent by the Pharisees asked John if he was Elijah and John said he was not. I do not know if John himself did not recognize that he was fulfilling that role, because of his humility perhaps, or if John was thinking in terms of the yet future Elijah in our time to restore all things. He must have at least known that he was one that would come in the spirit and power of Elijah because his father Zacharias must have told him what Gabriel said. In any case, I want to point something else out. Who raised the subject? Who was concerned about it? It wasn’t John. It wasn’t the crowds. It wasn’t even John’s disciples and those who repented and were baptized at his teaching. It was the Pharisees or the priests and Levites. It was the ruling authorities, the religious leaders of the day, who were concerned about what title John held. (John 1:19-28).
3. In the account of the occasion when John sent his disciples to Jesus to ask if He was the Messiah to come, afterwards Jesus spoke to the crowds and said that John was the Elijah. But there is no mention here of a future Elijah to come in our time. (Luke 7:18-28, Matthew 11:2-15, especially verses 14-15).
4. After the transfiguration, when Jesus’ disciples asked Him about Elijah to come, Jesus said that Elijah will come and will, future tense, restore all things. Then He affirmed again that John was a fulfillment of Elijah. So here we have a clear indication that there is yet another fulfillment of the Elijah prophecy after John the Baptist, before the Day of the Lord, in our time. Yet even here, who raised the subject? Did Jesus teach this to His disciples because of its importance? No. His disciples asked the question and Jesus answered their question. Why were the disciples curious? They heard the scribes say that Elijah must come first. Again, it was the religious authorities, the scribes and Pharisees, that seemed the most concerned about the issue. (Matthew 17:9-13, Mark 9:7-13).
Where is the emphasis in the New Testament on recognizing who the Elijah is and following him? The only time Jesus spoke about a future fulfillment of the Elijah role after John the Baptist was when His disciples asked him about the teachings of the scribes. Jesus didn’t bring the subject up. He didn’t talk about it in the sermon on the mount or the Olivet prophecy or any of his parables or teachings to His disciples, except to answer that one question. If this is so vital to the Church today, wouldn’t God place more emphasis on it in the Bible? Mr. Armstrong himself said he thought the Bible was primarily written for the Philadelphia era of the Church. Until the printing press, the Bible was never widely available as it is in our day. During most of the first century, it was not even complete. The Bible is for us today, and if recognizing the identity of the Elijah in our time is of such vital importance for God’s people, I would think that God would teach us the importance of doing so and give us instructions for recognizing who it is.
I don’t find the Elijah to come mentioned by name in Acts, or any of the epistles, or in Revelation. Even in the messages to the seven churches, even in the messages to Philadelphia and Laodicea, Christ says nothing about the Elijah to come. How can recognizing who holds the title of “the Elijah” be the most important thing for a Philadelphian to know?
The impression is clear that the Elijah issue was more important to the priests, Levites, scribes, and Pharisees than it was to Jesus Christ or John the Baptist.
Let’s look at this from a practical point of view. Did the work God did through Mr. Armstrong ever depend for its success on whether or not Mr. Armstrong’s readers and listeners knew he fulfilled the role of Elijah as described in the last two verses of Malachi and as described by Jesus’ answer to his disciples question? Obviously not. Mr. Armstrong’s work of restoring truth to the Church of God and the raising up of the Philadelphia era of the Church was well under way and going strong long before even Mr. Armstrong thought of himself as a possible fulfillment of the Elijah prophecy.
Mr. Armstrong believed God’s word and God opened his mind to understand the Bible, and as Mr. Armstrong learned new truths he powerfully preached those truths to the public over radio and in print. Those God was calling listened, checked up in the Bible, and believed God’s word, and God added them to the Church. They became members of the Church of God during the Philadelphia era of the Church, and they in turn sacrificed to support the preaching of the truth to others who had not heard it yet. The Philadelphia era of the Church was growing and doing a powerful work BEFORE anyone thought of Mr. Armstrong as the Elijah. Mr. Armstrong himself was a true Philadelphian and a leader of the Philadelphian era of the Church for many years without knowing the identity of the Elijah to come. So how can this be the most important truth a Philadelphian can know?
Yet with some in the Church, it seems like an important issue today. Why? And what does this have to do with practicing what we preach when we preach the gospel to the world?
The idea that it is vitally important that we recognize that Mr. Armstrong was the Elijah to restore all things does not stand in isolation. It is part of much bigger issue. That issue is, can the Church of God lawfully change any of Mr. Armstrong’s doctrines?