We talk a lot about messianic prophesies in the Old Testament, as we should. What often gets missed is that they weren’t just looking for the Messiah. They were looking for two other people mentioned in the Old Testament and you see this reflected in the Gospels.
“About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”).
When some of those standing there heard this, they said, “He’s calling Elijah.”
Immediately one of them ran and got a sponge. He filled it with wine vinegar, put it on a staff, and offered it to Jesus to drink. The rest said, “Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to save him.”
That last line is key. They actually thought it was possible for Elijah to come and save him. They thought it was possible because they were expecting this to happen. More on that in a moment.
19 Now this was John’s testimony when the Jewish leaders[c] in Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was. 20 He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, “I am not the Messiah.”
21 They asked him, “Then who are you? Are you Elijah?”
He said, “I am not.”
“Are you the Prophet?”
He answered, “No.”
Again we see the expectation that Elijah would show up and now we also see the expectation of the coming of the Prophet. The Prophet question comes after him already clarifying he was not the Messiah. To those coming to John the Prophet and the Messiah are not one and the same. This is the one to come mentioned in Deuteronomy 18 who was to be a prophet like Moses. Ultimately we come to understand this was talking about the Messiah, Jesus.
Mark 9:11-13 – coming down off of the mount of transfiguration where Jesus met with Moses and Elijah we get this,
“And they asked him, “Why do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?”
12 Jesus replied, “To be sure, Elijah does come first, and restores all things. Why then is it written that the Son of Man must suffer much and be rejected? 13 But I tell you, Elijah has come, and they have done to him everything they wished, just as it is written about him.”
Now we see directly what was being taught in the first century by the teachers of the Law – that before the Messiah comes, Elijah will come first. Jesus tells us that the Elijah was to come was John the Baptist,
“7 As John’s disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind? 8 If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces. 9 Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is the one about whom it is written:
“‘I will send my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way before you.’
11 Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. 12 From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been subjected to violence, and violent people have been raiding it. 13 For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John. 14 And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come. 15 Whoever has ears, let them hear. – Matt 11:7-15
We even see this when Peter confesses that Jesus is the Christ/Messiah,
“27 Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, “Who do people say I am?”
28 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.”
29 “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”
Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.” – Mark 8:27-29
Again, some people are saying that Jesus is Elijah come back to life. At one point after John the Baptist was killed by Herod Antipas, Herod even believed Jesus was John come back to life. There in Mark 6 we see that Jesus didn’t start his Galilean ministry until after John was executed by Herod.
Why would people speculate Elijah might come to help Jesus on the cross or that John or Jesus was Elijah or the Prophet? They speculted these things because they fully expected the Messiah, Elijah and the Prophet to come and usher in the day of the Lord due to what Malachi tells us first in Malachi 3,
“I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the Lord Almighty.
2 But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. 3 He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the Lord will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness, 4 and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the Lord, as in days gone by, as in former years.
5 “So I will come to put you on trial. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive the foreigners among you of justice, but do not fear me,” says the Lord Almighty.” – Malachi 3:1-5
Malachi clarifies in chapter 4 exactly who this messenger will be,
“Remember the law of my servant Moses, the decrees and laws I gave him at Horeb for all Israel.
5 “See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. 6 He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction.” – Malachi 4:4-6
Here we see Moses and Elijah pared together, as we see in the transfiguration. Moses and Elijah did represent the Law and the Prophets. They also had a lot in common. Both were to have figures in their likeness appear to usher in the messianic age (Deuteronomy 18 and Malachi 3,4). This is also why we see in Jewish tradition that may or may not have happened yet in Jesus’ day an extra cup of wine and a chair for Elijah at the Passover meal because Elijah was a symbol of liberation for the oppressed. Because Elijah was a symbol of liberation for oppressed people the people at the cross wonder if he will show up to help Jesus who is undergoing severe oppression in his death, not to mention Eloi (my God) sounds similar to Elian (Elijah).
So yes, they were expecting the Messiah but they understood that at least one other (Elijah and possibly the Prophet, who turned out to also be the messiah) would show up first.