The reason for this stumbling is due largely to the failure of Bible commentators to comprehend that it is both possible and reasonable for an ancient prophet, who lived nearly one thousand years before the time of Christ, to be sent with such a remarkable power as that described by Malachi and possessed by Elijah. It has been the popular interpretation to say that this prophecy was fulfilled in the coming of John the Baptist as an Elias, with power to turn the hearts of fathers to children and children to fathers. One reason for this interpretation is the failure to understand the words of the angel to Zacharias, in relation to John, which are as follows:
"And he shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elias, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the Lord." (Luke 1:17.)
It is true that John came in the spirit and power of Elias, but not to fulfill the promise made by Malachi, which is shown in the context to be something designed to take place in the last days and shortly preceding the great and dreadful day of the Lord when Christ should make his second advent on the earth. Neither should it appear unreasonable to one who has faith in the scriptures to believe that an ancient prophet could be sent to the earth in later times. There is a very vivid account recorded by the writers of the Gospels of the appearance of Moses and Elias to Peter, James, and John while they were with Christ on the Mount of Transfiguration. Now if Moses and Elias could appear, hundreds of years after they lived on the earth, to these disciples, is it not just as reasonable to believe that they could be sent again with a message of salvation and with authority to men on the earth in our own times?
When the Savior and his disciples came down from the Mount of Transfiguration, the Lord charged them that they were to tell no man of this manifestation until after he came forth from the dead. However, they were anxious to know something about the coming of Elias, and in answer to their inquiry the Lord said to them:
"Elias truly shall first come, and restore all things.
"But I say unto you, that Elias is come already, and they knew him not, but have done unto him whatsoever they listed ..." (Matt. 17:11-12.)
Then the disciples knew that the Master spoke of John. The Savior made it very clear that John the Baptist came as an Elias, or to prepare the way before him, but he also made it clear that there was yet to come at some future time another Elias with the power to restore all things. John did not restore all things during his brief ministry, important though it was. His work was that of preparation for the ministry of Jesus Christ, and in this respect he was an Elias.
The name Elias is more than a proper name; it is also a title. An Elias is one who goes before one greater than himself to prepare the way for the greater who is to follow. In this calling John served, but not as the restorer of all things. It is apparent that the restoration of all things was not a purpose to be accomplished during the meridian of time when Christ was in his ministry. This great work was reserved for the last days. Let us consider this point for a moment.
Just before the ascension of our Lord, the disciples put to him this question: "Lord, wilt thou at this time restore again the kingdom to Israel?" He answered them: "It is not for you to know the times or the seasons, which the Father hath put in his own power." (Acts 1:6-7.) This answer has but one meaning, which is, that the restoration was not for their day.
Later this truth became very clear to these disciples. It was shortly after this occurrence when Peter admonished some of the Jews who were instrumental in the death of the Lord; he told them they should repent and be converted, that their sins might be blotted out, "when the times of refreshing shall come from the presence of the Lord; And he shall send Jesus Christ, which before was preached unto you; Whom the heaven must receive until the times of restitution of all things, which God hath spoken by the mouth of all his holy prophets since the world began." (Acts 3:19-21.)
Paul also, when writing to the Ephesian saints, told them that in the dispensation of the fulness of times, the Father was to gather in one all things in Christ, "both which are in heaven, and which are on earth." (Eph. 1:10.)
The disciples knew that the time of restitution was not to come until the time approached for the second coming of Jesus Christ, and it was to be in that day that Elijah was to bring back to the earth his priesthood and restore to men the power to seal on earth and in heaven, so that mankind might have means of escape from the destruction which awaited the wicked in that great and dreadful day of the Lord. This great and dreadful day can be no other time but the coming of Jesus Christ to establish his kingdom in power among the righteous on the earth and to cleanse the earth from all iniquity. It will not be a day of fear and to cause dread in the hearts of the righteous, but it will be a great day of fear and terror to the ungodly. This we have learned from the words of our Savior himself, as he taught his disciples.
We have a much clearer interpretation of the words of Malachi given by the Nephite prophet Moroni, who appeared to Joseph Smith September 21, 1823. This is the way the angel quoted them:
"Behold, I will reveal unto you the Priesthood, by the hand of Elijah the prophet, before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord.
"And he shall plant in the hearts of the children the promises made to the fathers, and the hearts of the children shall turn to their fathers.
"If it were not so, the whole earth would be utterly wasted at his coming." (D&C 2:1-3.)
Moroni informed Joseph Smith that this prediction was about to be fulfilled. The fulfillment came some twelve years later, on April 3, 1836. On this day Elijah appeared to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery in the Kirtland Temple and there conferred upon them his priesthood, which is the power to bind, or seal, on earth and in heaven. The keys of this priesthood were held by Elijah, to whom the Lord gave power over the elements as well as over men, with the authority to seal for time and eternity on the righteous all the ordinances pertaining to the fullness of salvation. The Prophet Joseph Smith said that Elijah was the last prophet that held the keys of this priesthood; he was to come and restore this authority in the last dispensation in order that all the ordinances of the gospel may be attained to in righteousness, and without this authority, the ordinances would not be in righteousness.
Therefore, the restoration of this authority is the leaven that saves the earth from being utterly wasted at the coming of Jesus Christ. When we get this truth firmly and clearly fixed in our minds, it is easy to see that there would be only confusion and disaster should Christ come and the power of sealing not be here. The Lord does not recognize any ordinance or ceremony, even though it be made or performed in his name, unless it is in accordance with his will and done by one who is recognized as his authorized servant. It was for that reason that he sent from his presence holy messengers to Joseph Smith and others, to restore that which had been taken from the earth, even the fullness of the gospel, and the fullness and the keys of priesthood. In this day of restoration it was necessary not only for Elijah to come with the sealing power to make valid all the ordinances and ceremonies of the gospel, but it was also necessary that the ancient prophets who held keys of dispensations should come from the days of Adam to Peter, James, and John, and restore their authority in this the dispensation of the fulness of times. This is positively stated by Peter and Paul in their instructions to the saints of the church of Jesus Christ of former days. But we have been considering here only the coming of Elijah with the keys of sealing, placing the stamp of approval on all that is done in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, so that it is recognized in the heavens and before the throne of God.
The most important accomplishment through the restoration of this authority held by Elijah is the planting in the hearts of the children the promises made to the fathers that the ordinances should be performed for the fathers in the temples of the Lord by which salvation in the kingdom of God may come to all the fathers who are worthy of salvation. This is to come to pass by the vicarious work being done for them by their children. Elijah brought to pass the restoration of the power by which husbands and wives may be sealed for eternity as well as for time, for marriage was first instituted before death came into the world, and according to the purpose of the Lord it is intended to be eternal.