The last book of the Old Testament was written just over 400 years before Christ’s birth. Malachi might be the prophet’s name, or, as some say, a title: Malachi means ‘My Messenger’, and the crux of the prophesy concerns the two most significant messengers in history. Chapter 3 begins, “Behold, I am going to send My messenger”.
Whether or not Malachi is the author, the prophesy is a compact message of rebuke, warning and promise. It encapsulates the messianic message, containing elements of Jesus’ work on earth and coming in judgement.
The first two chapters describe God’s love for Israel on the one hand, but her unfaithfulness on the other, focusing on the priests and the people generally.
In this study, we will look at chapters 3 and 4, the message of salvation and judgement. As we shall see, the prophet foretells of both salvation and judgement occurring at one time, not spread out over thousands of years.
Malachi 3:1 – “Behold, I am going to send My messenger, and he will clear the way before Me. And the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to His temple; and the messenger of the covenant, in whom you delight, behold, He is coming,” says the Lord of hosts.
Two people are spoken of here. ‘My messenger’, and the messenger of the covenant.
The first is Elijah, mentioned again in chapter 4, verse 5. He is to clear (or, prepare) the way before the Lord. Jesus quotes this verse in relation to John the Baptist:
Matthew 11:10-14 – “This is the one about whom it is written, ‘Behold, I send My Messenger ahead of You, who will prepare Your way before You.’… John himself is Elijah, who was to come.”
The second person is none other than the Lord, Jesus Christ Himself. He is “The Lord, whom you seek”, and “the messenger of the covenant”. A messenger? Yes, the messenger, or angel, of the covenant:
Luke 4:18-21 – “(Quoting Isaiah) The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He anointed Me to preach the Gospel to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, to proclaim the favourable year of the Lord.”… “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
The Lord was to appear suddenly in the temple. Could this have referred to the first time, as an infant when He was presented as Holy to the Lord (Luke2:22ff), or when Jesus visited the temple as a twelve year old (Luke 2:41-49)? Or perhaps when He entered Jerusalem, after weeping over it with these words:
Luke 19:42-44 – “If you had known in this day, even you, the things which make for peace! But now they have been hidden from your eyes. (43) For the days will come upon you when your enemies will throw up a barricade against you, and surround you and hem you in on every side, (44) and they will level you to the ground and your children within you, and they will not leave in you one stone upon another, because you did not recognize the time of your visitation.”
Then He entered the temple and drove out those who were selling. This was, in fact, a most significant and moving appearance in the doomed temple.
Perhaps Malachi refers to His appearance in the real, heavenly temple:
Hebrews 9ff – (11) But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things to come, He entered through the greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this creation… (15) For this reason He is the mediator of a new covenant.
That is, was His appearance in the temple just before His death, or shortly afterwards, at His ascension?
Whenever it is that Malachi refers to, they were all at around the same time as the messenger proclaimed in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord.” From the perspective of the prophet, the events virtually coincided. The sense of the verse clearly shows this.
“Behold, He is coming,” refers to Jesus’ coming as a messenger of the covenant, within a very short time of His earthly ministry.
Now we look at the next verses, describing the nature of His coming:
Malachi 3:2-4 – But who can endure the day of His coming? And who is able to stand when He appears? For He is like a refiner’s fire and like fuller’s soap. (3) He will sit as a smelter and purifier of silver, and will purify the sons of Levi (i.e. the priests) and refine them like gold and silver, so that they may present to the Lord offerings in righteousness. (4) Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.
When is the refining to occur? In our future, or around the time when Christ first came? According to Malachi, it was at ‘His coming’ which was heralded by Elijah, John the Baptist. Compare with Zechariah’s prophesy:
Zechariah 13:7-9 – Awake, O sword, against My Shepherd… Strike the Shepherd that the sheep may be scattered… And I will bring the third part through the fire, refine them as silver is refined, and test them as gold is tested. They will call on My name, and I will answer them; I will say, ‘They are My people,’ and they will say, ‘The Lord is my God.’
The refining and testing comes within the context of the striking of the Shepherd, and the scattering of the sheep.
When does Paul say the refining is to come?
1 Corinthians 3:12-15 – Now if any man builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, (13) each man’s work will become evident; for the day will show it because it is to be revealed with fire, and the fire itself will test the quality of each man’s work… (15) If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.
The refiner’s fire was still in Paul’s future! Now, what event was like a refiner’s fire, in the context of the striking of the Shepherd and yet in Paul’s future? Surely, it was not very far off in the future!
Is the refiner’s fire the same as the judgement fire of 2 Peter 3:10? Remember, it is a fire of testing. The word ‘judgement’ (in 2 Peter 3:7) does not denote passing sentence, but separation, as in judging between the wicked and righteous. Whatever is worthless is burned up. Whatever is good is refined. John the Baptist announced Jesus’ arrival as with a winnowing fork, the judgement tool (see our study, Use the Fork, Jesus), and said that the worthless chaff would be burned with unquenchable fire (Matthew 3:12). Winnowing occurs after the harvest, not thousands of years before.
This is cleared up in Malachi’s next verses:
Malachi 3:5-6 – “Then I will draw near to you for judgement; and I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers and against the adulterers and against those who swear falsely, and against those who oppress the wage earner in his wages, the widow and the orphan, and those who turn aside the alien and do not fear Me,” says the Lord of hosts. (6) For I, the Lord, do not change; therefore you, O sons of Jacob, are not consumed.”
(Note: Literal translation: “And I will draw near…”, implying that the drawing near is not necessarily subsequent to His coming.) The refiner’s fire is definitely one of judgement, for those who are worthy of it. But for the sons of Jacob, the true sons of Jacob, the fire will do no more than purify them and show their righteousness.
Romans 5:3-4ff – … knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; (4) and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope.
The verses from 7 to 15 reiterate and expand God’s accusations against Israel, and call her to repentance. Again, the promise is there: if they repent, they will be called blessed.
In verses 16 to 18, a book of remembrance is written before the Lord “for those who fear the Lord and who esteem His name.”
Malachi 3:17,18 – “They will be Mine,” says the Lord of hosts, “on the day that I prepare My own possession, and I will spare them as a man spares his own son who serves him.” (18) So you will again distinguish between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves God and one who does not serve Him.
The judgement and salvation of God, determined by a book of remembrance, when the refiner’s fire of purification and judgement comes, when His messenger of the covenant appears in the temple. (See Daniel 12:1; 7:10; Revelation 20:12ff; 21:27)
The next chapter again reiterates the judgement and salvation:
Malachi 4:1-4 – “For behold, the day is coming, burning like a furnace; and all the arrogant and every evildoer will be chaff … (2) But for you who fear My name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings.”
Clearly, what is being described here is the same judgement as foretold by the apostles, and yet these events would be heralded by John the Baptist!
Malachi 4:5-6 – “Behold, I am going to send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord. (6) He will restore the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers, so that I will not come and smite the land with a curse.” (Revelation 22:3 – The new Jerusalem, the new Covenant, would no longer have any curse.)
Note that the word ‘before’ (“send Elijah… before the coming…”) does not mean before in time, but in the presence of, as in ‘bow down before’, or ‘they will appear before God’. It implies concurrence. From the perspective of the time of Malachi’s writing, Elijah’s coming, the Lord’s appearing in the temple, the refining fire, and the judgement are all to occur at the same time.
Conclusion: Malachi’s prophesy includes elements which were fulfilled in the time of the New Testament (Elijah’s appearance, Jesus’ appearance in the temple) and elements which were yet to occur when the apostles had written (the refiner’s fire, the judgement). And yet the apostles always used terms like, ‘at hand’ and ‘soon’. They occur virtually at the same time in the prophesy.
Our problem is that the apostles wrote during that time, in the midst of that time, after the beginning of the New Covenant but before the end of the Old Covenant which had to be cleared away for the New to fully take effect (Hebrews 8:13; 9:8). Some things were in the past, others in the future.
Just as the prophets saw everything as more or less concurrent, because everything was for them yet in the future, it is not difficult for us today to do the same thing, since everything from our perspective is in our past.