The Old Testament prophet Malachi foretold that Elijah the prophet would arrive before the day of the Lord:
“Look, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the LORD arrives” (Mal 4:5).
John the Baptist was a type or pattern of Elijah, but he was not the fulfillment of his ministry as some suppose. Malachi 4:5 relates to the eschatological day of the Lord. Yet, does not Jesus identify this prophecy as already fulfilled in the coming of John the Baptist, thereby rendering any expectation of a future literal coming of Elijah unnecessary? “For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John appeared. And if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah, who is to come” (Matt 11:13–14; cf. 17:10–13).
There are some things to consider: First, since Jesus envisioned his ministry in two phases, redemption and reigning, it makes sense when he says while Elijah has already come (John the Baptist the precursor), Elijah will also come in the future: “He answered, ‘Elijah does indeed come first and will restore all things. And I tell you that Elijah has already come’” (Matt 17:11–12). It is noteworthy Jesus said this after John the Baptist had died, indicating a future aspect of the coming of Elijah.
Second, it is confirmed by Gabriel that John the Baptist does not fulfill the coming of Elijah in a literal sense, but in a typological sense: “And he will go as forerunner before the Lord in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers back to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared for him” (Luke 1:17). Darrell L. Bock observes:
Luke’s ‘like Elijah’ position may serve to clarify Matthew and Mark in that there also continued to exist in Christian circles the hope of Elijah’s return at the end, when God will do his final eschatological work. . .Luke may have feared a misunderstanding that an Elijah identification for John the Baptist would represent a denial of this future Elijah, who is associated in Malachi with the decisive day of the Lord. . . . What Jesus says in Matt 17 and what Luke says here is there is a pattern of ministry like that of Elijah into which John the Baptist fits, without denying that in the end Elijah will return. This dual use of the Elijah motif fits the ‘already-not yet’ tension present in so much of NT eschatology. Luke: 1:1–9:50, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1994), 902.
Third, in John, we are told when the Jewish leaders asked John the Baptist if he were the Elijah to come, John answered in the exclamatory negative: “So they asked him, ‘Then who are you? Are you Elijah?’ He said, ‘I am not!’ ‘Are you the Prophet?’ He answered, ‘No!’” (John 1:21). The only natural way to understand Elijah has already come but has not already come is to view it with Jesus’ two-phase coming: John the Baptist came in the “spirit and power” of Elijah at Christ’s first coming, but the literal fulfillment of Elijah will unfold in proximity to Christ’s second coming as a sign to the day of the Lord (Mal 4:5).
Fourth, a case could be made that one of the two witnesses in Revelation will be Elijah. The powers granted on these witnesses is described as: “These two have the power to close up the sky so that it does not rain during the time they are prophesying” (Rev 11:6). This is the pattern of power Elijah possessed (1 Kings 17:1; Jas 5:17).
Fifth, Elijah is one of the few Old Testament figures who did not experience death: “As they were walking along and talking, suddenly a fiery chariot pulled by fiery horses appeared. They went between Elijah and Elisha, and Elijah went up to heaven in a windstorm” (2 Kings 2:11). This could suggest an aspect of his purpose for coming again.
Sixth, in the Transfiguration, a few of Jesus’ disciples witnessed a preview of Elijah being associated with Christ’s coming in future glory. Significantly, this is the same context Jesus tells his disciples Elijah is coming (Matt 16:27–17:13).
Therefore, given these reasons, it is maintained that John the Baptist functioned in the pattern of ministry like Elijah, yet there is a real, future expectation of Elijah before the day of the Lord. This point is important because on the very same day the rapture takes place, the day of the Lord’s wrath begins to unfold. And since Elijah is a precursor appearing before the day of the Lord, the logical inference is he will appear sometime before the rapture. Accordingly, the prophecy of Elijah establishes Christ’s coming as expectant, not imminent. This point is often missed in pretribulational literature.
Incidentally, there is nothing that requires Elijah’s entire ministry to be completed before the day of the Lord begins. Only that it must commence before the day of the Lord (contra Robert H. Gundry, The Church and the Tribulation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1973), 94.