At least some portion of the people of Israel were expecting the return of Elijah, as the herald of the messiah and the messianic age Because Jesus quotes from the third chapter of Malachi (of course, there were no chapter or verse divisions in His day) in regards to God’s pre-revelation-of-the-Lord-and-messenger-of-the-covenant/messiah forerunner, it was quite natural for Jesus to continue on to the fourth chapter of Malachi and make the reference that connected John to Elijah. As Malachi comes to a close, we can read “Look, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the Lord arrives” (4:5). That great and terrible day, which Israel looked to as the day of the establishment of God’s kingdom, by the exaltation of His covenant people over all nations, would certainly have been a great day for Israel and a terrible day for everyone else (and especially for any nation in the unfortunate position of ruling over Israel. This great and terrible day, as was expected by a great number of God’s people, would most likely be brought to pass through the triumphant use of military force, that would drive the enemies of God and His people from the land, while executing terrible wrath and punishment on those evildoers in the process.
It seems that it was God Himself that created this expectation of Elijah’s return before the messiah appeared, and Jesus makes it clear that this promise of God had been fulfilled in John the Baptist. So what do we know about Elijah? When we think of Elijah, what is the thing that springs most quickly to mind? Is it not his famous showdown on Mount Carmel with the prophets of Baal? Perhaps it is the fire falling on the groups of men that we seeking him, as recorded in the first chapter of the second book of the Kings. Either way, Elijah becomes associated with the falling of fire, and Jesus’ disciples desire to call down fire on possible adversaries reminds us of this popular Elijah-esque imagery. This collective thinking about Elijah may have been true for Jesus’ fellow citizens as well.
In the Mount Carmel story, Elijah mocked those who opposed the God of Israel. There, Elijah asked his God to answer with fire from the heavens to consume the sacrifice and prove the Lord’s superiority to all other supposed gods. There, Elijah commanded that the people seize the prophets of Baal---seize the enemies of God---and he had them executed. This is most likely what the people were expecting the pre-messiah Elijah to do as well. A sizable number of the people may have wanted this Elijah to mock those who oppressed God’s people. These people, in all likelihood, would have wanted this Elijah to call down fire from heaven to prove Israel and it’s God’s power. The people would have wanted this Elijah to begin stirring up the people to seize and execute the enemies of God (the Romans, representative of all Gentiles) that were polluting their land and continuing their exile from God’s long-standing promises to them.
John the Baptist, however, did none of these things. He actually called the people to repent from such ideas, saying that the Creator God of Israel did not need to act in this way in order to usher in and put His kingdom in place, but that the kingdom of heaven itself was already at hand (Matthew 3:2). We find Jesus picking up on this theme as well (4:17). Jesus said that “All the prophets and the law prophesied until John appeared” (11:13), so essentially it was John’s appearance on the scene of history that effectively brought the time of looking forward to the kingdom to an end. When John began speaking forth about the kingdom, the kingdom was being made manifest, as the good news of God’s coming messiah and king would have been part and parcel of John’s kingdom message. Even during John’s lifetime however, during the time that he was preaching his message of the kingdom, men were rising up in Israel in their ongoing attempt to force God’s hand and establish His kingdom by revolutionary overthrow. That is, at least partly why Jesus said “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and forceful people lay hold of it” (11:12).
Just as John was a different type of Elijah than the one that was being looked for by many within Israel, so Jesus was a different type of messenger of the covenant, yes, a different type of messiah than the people had been trained to expect. So it is understandable why Jesus would round out His discourse about John (and Himself) by saying “The one who has ears had better listen!” (11:15) With any attempt to sincerely and faithfully endeavor to contextually understand the life and message of Jesus, that warning about listening ears continues to stand.