Q. I’m pretty sure I know what they mean when they ask John the Baptist at the beginning of the gospel of John,“Are you the Christ?” I kind of know what they mean when they ask, “Are you Elijah?” (although I don’t know if they were thinking actual reincarnation, or just a similar spirit, or whether they would have thought of those as two different things). But I don’t know what they are referring to when they ask, “Are you the Prophet?” Was there a particular prophet they were expecting whose coming was predicted by earlier prophets? And why does John the Baptist say no to this question? It seems like he is at least “a” prophet, right?
“The Prophet” who is asked about here is the one foretold by Moses in Deuteronomy: “The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your fellow Israelites.” Later in the gospel of John, the people wonder whether Jesus himself might be this Prophet: “After the people saw the sign Jesus performed, they began to say, ‘Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.’” This was one version of the deliverer figure, along with the Christ or Messiah, that the Jews were expecting in the time of Jesus.
The expectation about Elijah came from a prophecy of Malachi: “See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the LORD comes.” John the Baptist’s father Zechariah explained in his song of rejoicing over his son’s birth that he would fulfill this prophecy: “And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah.” It was accepted that the “spirit” of a prophet might come to rest on successor. Right after Elijah himself dies, the narrative in Samuel-Kings reports: “When [Elisha] struck the water, it divided to the right and to the left, and he crossed over. The company of the prophets from Jericho, who were watching, said, ‘The spirit of Elijah is resting on Elisha.’” I think it was in this sense that Jesus could say about John, “If you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come.”
From episodes such as the one you’re asking about, as well as the episode reported in Matthew, Mark, and Luke in which Jesus is associated with John the Baptist (presumably raised from the dead after Herod had executed him), Elijah, or another one of the prophets, it appears that the Jews in Jesus’ time were expecting a figure who would come and turn around the fortunes of the nation, fulfilling the prophecies made in the Old Testament about the Christ or Messiah; Elijah; and “the Prophet.” These figures seem not always to have been clearly distinguished from one another in the popular imagination, as a given person might be regarded as potentially embodying any of them. But there was an important distinction between one of these figures and the other two.
John the Baptist, as we have seen, was definitively identified by both Jesus and his father Zechariah as the “Elijah” who was to come. For his part, the apostle Peter identified Jesus both as the Messiah and as the Prophet when he spoke at the temple after the healing of the lame man there. So while all three of these figures were popularly identified with one another, i.e. regarded almost as if they were one and the same person, it was John the Baptist who fulfilled the prophecies about Elijah, while Jesus fulfilled those about the Messiah (the anointed one) and the Prophet (the successor to Moses).