Presented at Trinity Fellowship on 6/8/97
Malachi 2:17 You have wearied the Lord with your words. Yet you say, “How have we wearied Him?” In that you say, “Everyone who does evil is good in the sight of the Lord, and he delights in them,” or “Where is the God of justice?” 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. 2 “But who can endure the day of his coming? And who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fuller’s soap. 3 And he will sit as a smelter and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi 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. 5 For then I will draw near to you for judgment, 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,” say the Lord of Hosts. 6 “For I, the Lord, do not change; therefore you, oh sons of Jacob, are not consumed.”
The passage we study today is familiar as a messianic prophecy fulfilled by John the Baptist and the Lord Jesus Christ, and as part of the libretto for Handel’s great commentary on that fulfillment, “The Messiah.” Not only does it give us a proof text by which to identify the Lord’s true Messiah, it also tells us something important and wonderful about the nature of his ministry and its effects.
Let’s begin with a brief review of the historical setting to these prophecies. Jerusalem fell and the Southern Kingdom was deported to captivity in Babylon in 587 BC. The first wave of returns to the Land was permitted by Cyrus in 536. The temple was rebuilt by 525, with the expectation that God would respond to the people’s faithfulness in rebuilding it by sending the Messiah. But nothing happened. By 425 BC, the time of Malachi, Judah had responded to the disappointment of their false expectations with a wave of cynicism. They were still going through the motions of Jahweh worship, but their hearts were not in it. The result was a neglect of God’s Word and a contempt for his majesty, expressed in boredom with worship and cheap offerings, as we have seen in the first two chapters.
This theme of Malachi comes to its climax in 2:17, as Malachi brings out the logical conclusions of the people’s attitudes, if not what they were actually saying in their hearts. What good does it do to serve God, to obey his commandments? He treats the evil just as well as the righteous. In fact, he is unfair not to have responded to our wonderful service with greater blessings! They were in that mode that would be described so well by Peter in the New Testament: Generation after generation paces through the world without change, so where is the sign of his coming? Their expectations for the Messiah were completely self-serving. If God had sent Him they would not have received him very well unless he fit their preconceived notions and fulfilled their self centered desires. (Oh—that is what did happen when he did come!) Seeing this, we can feel the impact of Malachi’s message in 3:1-2 (across what must be one of the most unfortunate chapter breaks in the whole Bible). Do you really want to see God’s Messiah? Do you really want to see his justice? You have no idea what you are asking for! Oh, he is coming all right! But do you really think you are ready for that? Surprise! Surely there is a lesson here for us as we now serve that Messiah: it is dangerous to pray for God’s blessing unless you are seeking his will. Those who find the latter will get the former. If you seek his will you will get his blessing. But if you seek his blessing apart from his will, you may find that blessing a curse when it actually comes.
Oh, the Messiah is coming all right. The one you seek will suddenly come to his temple—but who can abide the day of his coming and who shall stand when he appears? If you think you are ready you are sadly mistaken. What would it take to be ready? The answer is suggested by another passage made familiar by Handel’s music, one that the Jews of Malachi’s day would have known. “A voice is calling, ‘Clear the way for the Lord in the wilderness; make smooth in the desert a highway for our God. Let every valley be lifted up and every mountain and hill be made low, and let the rough ground become plain and the rugged terrain a broad valley. Then the glory of the Lord will be revealed and all people shall see it together” (Isaiah 40:3-5). Mark says that John the Baptist was the fulfillment of this prophecy (Mark 1:1-4). What does this mean?
To understand Isaiah’s words you have to know something about ancient royal processions. When the king was going to visit a provincial town, he would send messengers ahead of his entourage to command the people to fix up the roads, fill in all the potholes, etc., so that they would be ready for his arrival when he came into town. John the Baptist is that messenger for the coming Messiah, the King of Israel. Because this king is so great, not just an earthly ruler but the Monarch of Heaven and Earth, what would be an appropriate response? Not just to fix the potholes (a reasonable preparation for the approach of a Nebuchadnezzar or a Cyrus or a Caesar), but to knock down any mountains and fill in any valleys that might impede his progress—that’s how you would show you really wanted this kind of King to come. Well, how would you do this? It wouldn’t be literally possible of course; the prophet is looking for a spiritual response of a magnitude corresponding to his physical and earthly imagery. Judah thought she had fulfilled it by rebuilding the temple. But the preparation God was looking for was the repair of the highways leading into their hearts. That is why when He was really coming at last, John the Baptist came first, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” John understood, as the people of Malachi’s day did not, what the preparation was that God was really asking for through Isaiah. That is why he came proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. Do you see? To this day that is the preparation for receiving God’s Messiah and his blessing: repentance. That is why the old Anglican prayer book begins the Communion service with this invitation: “All ye who do earnestly and truly repent of your sins . . .” These are the one who are invited, the ones who are ready to receive the One who is coming, the ones prepared to meet with Him—in His Word, at His Table, when He comes again.
This passage not only tells us that Messiah is coming and how to prepare for it (not like the Jews were!), it also tells us something important about his mission. We know from Scripture in general that it is multifold: to glorify God, to do the will of the Father, to restore lost and broken creation, to call out a people for his name, to redeem them and bring them to glory: all related to the overarching purpose of bringing glory to God. Not every facet of it can be displayed in every prophecy, of course. Here the focus is on one that is probably thought about too little: Purification. “For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fuller’s soap. And he will sit as a smelter and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver so that they may present to the Lord offerings in righteousness” (vss. 2-3).
What is the nature of that purification? It is separation from all that is evil, all that is dirt and dross. When the Messiah comes to his people, certain things have got to go. They prepare for this by repentance, for this is what repentance prepares for. The repentance does not cause or equal the purification. That is a mistake we often make. Repentance puts us in the position to receive the purification, which is itself the work of Christ. It is he who separates the grain from the chaff, the wheat from the tares, the sheep from the goats, the dross from the silver and gold, in our personal individual lives and in the church. Who can endure this? Not the unrepentant! No one can endure it apart from grace, and repentance puts us in the position to be the recipients of that grace.
In one sense this separation is eschatological. It will not be completed until the last day. But the experience of that separation here and now is an integral part of the Christian life. The Christian’s path of repentance and faith is by its very nature already divergent from the world. We need to understand at the outset that without a willingness to be different from the world, we have no willingness to be saved. He shall purify the sons of Levi.
What is the instrument of that purification? Fire. It is a fire that burns up wood, hay, and stubble and leaves gold, silver, and precious stones behind. It melts down the mettle of our lives so that the dross can be skimmed off. This is drastic; it is radical. We just want the silver to be polished a little. But what good does it do to polish the silver when it is unrefined and full of impurities? No, this ore does not need to be polished; it needs to be smelted. He will purify the sons of Levi. Do you understand? We frustrate the very purpose of redemption when Christians are just a little more honest, a little less lustful, a little less greedy, a little less selfish than the world. We want the silver polished up; the Lord intends to smelt it down. Who shall abide the day of his coming? Only the repentant and the dependant on grace. He shall purify the sons of Levi.
What, finally, is the end of purification? Think for a moment of the ancient practice of smelting ore, purifying silver. You melt the ore and the impurities, being lighter, float to the top of the pot to be skimmed off as dross. You keep heating it and more keeps bubbling up. How did the silversmith know when this process was complete? It was complete when suddenly the pot of metal took on the qualities of a mirror and the smelter could look into it and see a perfect image of his own face looking back. Do you see what this metaphor is saying? The end of purification is Christlikeness. It is to be like Him. It is to be holy and blameless before Him in love, reflecting the image of His face back to Him and then to the world. Thus Christ is glorified. And that is what salvation is all about. “For whom He foreknew He predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son” (Rom. 8:29). Are we becoming conformed? He will purify the sons of Levi.
Why is there so much lukewarm, half-hearted, ineffective, compromised Christianity around us? We are far too easily satisfied! We set our sights too low. We let the world define our standards and set our agenda, for we are satisfied to be just a little better than they are. But when the Messiah comes to his temple, the temple of our hearts, that will not be enough. Prepare ye the way! Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand! For the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple . . . and he shall purify the sons of Levi. And blessed will be they who hunger and thirst after righteousness—for they shall be filled.
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams