Now this was John's testimony when the Jews of Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was. He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, “I am not the Christ.” They asked him, “Then who are you? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” He answered, “No” (John 19-21).
When the Jewish religious leaders questioned John the Baptist about his identity, he told them he was not the Messiah (the Christ), Elijah, or “the Prophet.” These were three figures mentioned in the Scriptures who the Jews believed would be revealed in the end time: the longed for Messiah (Isaiah 11:1-10, etc.), a second “Elijah” (Malachi 4:5-6), and a great prophet “like Moses” (Deuteronomy 18:15). From our perspective as Christians today, we know the Messiah was, of course, Jesus.
We also know that just as Elijah was a forerunner of his successor Elisha, John the Baptist was a forerunner of Jesus (Isaiah 40:3, John 3:30); and in that way and others, John fulfilled the role of a second Elijah (Matthew 11:7–14, Luke 1:17). But the prophecy of the second Elijah could also be applied to Jesus himself, who did many of the same signs as Elijah in his ministry (2 Kings 2:11, etc.).
But that leaves the expected “Prophet.” Was that individual a second Jeremiah or other Old Testament prophet, as many of the Jews of Christ’s time thought? Or could the prophecy relate to some modern day spiritual leader, as some religious groups have claimed – or even the prophet Mohammed, as many Muslims claim?
There was certainly confusion as to the identity of “the prophet” in the time of Jesus. The Jews knew that Moses had told their ancestors “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your fellow Israelites. You must listen to him” (Deuteronomy 18:15). But some thought that prophet would be synonymous with the Messiah, while others thought he would be a different individual. Some understood the words “God will raise up” a prophet to mean that God would resurrect one of the Old Testament prophets such as Isaiah or Jeremiah, which is why we read in Matthew’s Gospel that when Jesus asked his disciples who people thought he was, they replied, “…Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets” (Matthew 16:14).
However, the New Testament clearly shows that the prophet spoken of by Moses was not one of the individuals active in Old Testament times (much less some more recent or modern individual), but Jesus Christ himself. Jesus plainly stated that Moses wrote about him: “If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me” (John 5:46). The disciple Philip told Nathaniel: “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law ..” (John 1:45).
If we believe what the Scriptures say regarding the eventual appearance of another prophet like Moses, we must also believe what the Bible says in telling us who that prophet was. In his great Pentecost sermon the apostle Peter confirmed that the prophet was Christ himself:
“… that he may send the Messiah, who has been appointed for you—even Jesus. Heaven must receive him until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets. For Moses said, ‘The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you must listen to everything he tells you. Anyone who does not listen to him will be completely cut off from their people’”(Acts 3:20-23).
So the New Testament makes it clear that the prophet to come was neither one of the Old Testament prophets nor any individual after the time of Jesus. The Messiah, the Elijah, and the Prophet like Moses are all clearly identified in the New Testament. In some ways, Jesus Christ fulfilled the promised roles of all these individuals, though we have seen that John the Baptist did fulfill at least a partial role as a second Elijah.
Interestingly, in the transfiguration of Jesus before his chief disciples (Matthew 17:1–8, Mark 9:2–8, Luke 9:28–36), Jesus appeared in a glorified state along with Elijah and Moses. The vision of these three individuals is not coincidental and reflects the Jewish expectation and longing for the Messiah, a second Elijah, and the Prophet like Moses. When we understand this, we realize that the transfiguration revealed Jesus not only as being with Elijah and Moses, but also as a manifestation of the Messiah, the Elijah, and the Prophet like Moses.