The Gospel for today seems to present us with an interesting conundrum: Is Jesus saying that John the Baptist was Elijah reincarnated? But we don’t believe in reincarnation, right?
Since the early Church, the method of understanding these things has been through typology, a theory of explaining how God fulfills Old Testament prophecies in the New Testament in unexpected and creative ways. In fact, Jesus himself seems to use typology in today’s passage from Matthew. The disciples are referring to, among other scripture, Malachi, where we are told, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes.” Jesus says this prophecy was about John. So, to follow Jesus here, we must understand the fulfillment in a non-literal way: John is the new Elijah.
While it may seem an unsatisfying solution at first, the fact remains that God has chosen to fulfill His promise in this way. We must remember that Jesus seemed an unsatisfying fulfillment of Messianic prophecy: the Jews were not expecting the Messiah to be a poor man who died at the hands of Israel’s enemy. They expected a king in the literal and temporal fashion of a new David, who would throw off the Romans and re-establish the Kingdom of Israel. Through typology, we understand that Jesus is the new David, conquering an unexpected enemy and establishing an even greater Kingdom.