Remember the law of my servant Moses, the statutes and rules that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel. Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. (Mal 4:4-5)
Moses and Elijah are very significant in the scriptures, especially where they occur together. From the mouth of two or three witnesses a thing is firmly established. Moses and Elijah represent the twin Old Testament witnesses to Christ in the Law and the Prophets. They appear on the mount of transfiguration as witness of Christ's glory. And they occur again in prophetic language in Revelation 11 as the "Two witnesses" which represents the Church's own prophetic witness to Christ in the world.
Here again in Malachi chapter 4, Moses and Elijah are mentioned. Here it is interesting though, that although the prophet is looking back to Moses, the reference to Elijah is of one yet to come, one who will prepare the way for the coming of the Lord. This is thus not the historic Elijah that Malachi is referring too, but a coming ministry characterised by the spirit of Elijah — a prophetic ministry that prepares the way for the Lord.
When the disciples asked Jesus, "Why do they say that Elijah must come first?", it was because of this prophecy. Jesus revealed that John the baptist was the predicted messenger who would go ahead of the Lord's appearing. However when John was asked if he was the Elijah to come, he replied "No". Also Jesus said a curious thing about Elijah - "Elijah does come, and he will restore all things." As well as showing the fulfilment in John, Jesus adds yet another layer of prophetic expectation to the Elijah ministry — the restoration of all things.
The cross was surely the most significant event in history, and the Bible is God's inspired word. Yet in God's inspired word at this most significant of events we have recorded a seemingly insignificant detail, something which seems to be a mistake. When Jesus breathed his last words from the cross, those who were there thought that he was calling forth Elijah. And so the crowds became accidental prophets of God's ultimate purpose through the cross. To call forth the ultimate fulfilment of Elijah's ministry. Not a person, but a community. A prophetic people who will fulfil God's kingdom plan to restore all things under the feet of Christ and so prepare the way for his triumphal return. These are indeed the days of Elijah! Elijah's ministry is a type and a foreshadow of our own. As the scriptures say: "Elijah was a man with a nature like ours!" (Jas 5:17)
Malachi, like Habakkuk, was a prophet who realised that he stood "in the midst of the years", between two ages. He looked back to the covenant with Moses and all the promised blessing that were there for those who walked in God's ways, but he saw it in the light of God's ultimate purpose that was yet to come — the coming of Jesus!
These prophets are an inspiration to us, who also, like them, stand in the "midst of the years" between Christ's first and second coming. We can look back to all that Jesus accomplished for us, and all the blessings that are ours in the New Covenant. But we should always do this in the revelation of what is yet to come - the restoration of all things and Christ's second coming. We are not just in Christ to get blessed, but to be a part of his mission for this world. Kingdom men and women will not just be content to have heard of God's fame in the past, nor just to be convinced of the glory in the future, but seek to lay hold of it for today!