There was a prophecy that God would send Elijah or Ellas to turn the hearts of the people (Malachi 4:5). When John appeared the Jews asked him if he was Elias, and he answered that he was not (John 1521). They evidently expected that the literal Elijah, who is represented as ascending to heaven without dying (II Kings 2:11), would be sent to earth. John knew he was not that He regarded himself as a humble messenger, a mere voice, with no distinction but that of preparing the way. The character of his preaching, however, shows that, like other messengers from God, he underestimated his dignity. When Christ spoke of him he settled the question definitely in the passage you refer to. John, he said, was the Elias to whom the prophecy referred.