Presented at Trinity Fellowship on 9/22/97
4:1 “For behold, the day is coming, burning like a furnace; and all the arrogant and every evildoer will be chaff, and the day that is coming will set them ablaze,” says the Lord of hosts, “So that it will leave them neither root nor branch. 2 But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings, and you will go forth and skip about like calves from the stall. 3 And you will tread down the wicked, for they shall be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day that I am preparing,” says the Lord of Hosts. 4 “Remember the Law of Moses my servant, even the statutes and ordinances which I commanded him in Horeb for all Israel. 5 Behold, I am going to send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord. 6 And he will restore the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the land with a curse.”
In Malachi we have seen a portrait of our own generation and a stirring call to return to the God of our fathers. We have seen in Malachi a people bored with worship, shallow and hypocritical in devotion, unfaithful in service and covenant, stingy in tithes and offerings, and yet still incapable of understanding why things were not working out between them and the Lord. We have seen God’s solution to this problem: repentance. We have seen how to bring people to repentance: for the faithful remnant to rise up, stop playing the game, stop going through the motions, and find one another. We have seen that while God uses this response on the part of the faithful, the ultimate solution is his own action: He will send the Messiah. We have seen that when he does send the Messiah, we will experience his coming in one of two ways. For he is like a refiner’s fire, and he will purify the sons of Levi. The dross is burned up, while the true saints are purified for service and joy. This prophecy appeared at the beginning of chapter three, and it is reiterated in the final discourse of the book, here in chapter four in the words we have read today. In order to understand them we have to understand first their context and then the contrast they lay out for us.
First is the immediate context in the argument of the book of Malachi itself. Our passage today flows directly from the words we ended with last week in 3:18. “So you will again distinguish between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves God and one who does not serve him.” As we all know, the Bible was inspired by the Holy Spirit, but the chapter and verse divisions sometimes seem to have been inspired by the Devil. They did not exist in the original manuscripts but were added for convenience by later scribes, who did not always get the real breaks right. This is certainly one of those occasions. In a time when people were asking why they should bother serving God because the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper, one of the results of that apostasy was 3:16. “Then those who feared the Lord spoke to one another.” And one of the results of that speaking is a reaffirmation of the real differentiation between the righteous and the wicked, which is found not so much in their outward prosperity as in their relationship with God, as we saw last week. That difference becomes obvious here and now when the faithful find one another. But the ultimate and final statement of it is eschatological and will be revealed when God acts in judgment and redemption.
We also need to see this prophetic utterance in its larger context as a part of the whole Bible—what we might call its canonical context. To hear it with full understanding we have to share the prophetic perspective of the Old Testament writers. Why do I say this? Well, 4:1 sounds like it is talking about what we call the Second Coming and the end of the age. The imagery reminds us of the casting of the wicked into the Lake of Fire. But Luke makes it clear in Luke 1:17 that verses 5 and 6 were fulfilled in what we call the First Coming of Christ, through the ministry of John the Baptist. Indeed, this is why our Jewish neighbors do not accept Jesus as being their Messiah, because the destruction of the wicked has obviously not happened yet, and of course there can be no world peace—which is also supposed to be what Messiah will bring in—without it. Our “two Comings” nonsense just sounds like a rationalization to them, our way of weaseling out of the fact that Jesus can only be said to have fulfilled about half of the Messianic prophecies at best. How do we respond to that? On the face of it, it sounds like a pretty strong argument.
The Christian response is that God designated Jesus as the true Messiah by saying so twice (at the Baptism and the Transfiguration) and, most importantly, by raising him from the dead. The resurrection proves that Jesus is the Messiah, and our understanding of how he fulfills Old Testament prophecy just has to adjust itself to that inescapable fact. All you have to do is stand with Thomas the Doubter in the Upper Room or with Paul the Opposer on the Damascus Road to realize that this is an even stronger argument. It remains then to see if the Old Testament can be read in a way that is consistent with it. If it cannot, then even the Resurrection proves nothing; it just becomes a strange event we cannot explain. But if it can . . . then our faith is not in vain.
Undeniably, the Old Testament prophets did not clearly teach two Advents of Christ. Neither did they explicitly deny them. Their vision has been usefully compared to that of a man looking over a long distance in the mountains. He might have a very clear line of sight that sees two distant peaks almost as one, while having no view of the valley between them. It is a very good analogy, because it explains why the prophets tended to see everything together. So Isaiah 53 has that classic description of Christ’s sacrificial death in which he bore our griefs and carried our sorrows and the Lord laid on him the iniquity of us all—and it also has him being allotted a portion with the great and dividing the booty with the strong, something which we in hindsight know does not happen until later. In Isaiah 49:6, his salvation will reach to the ends of the earth, something that did not happen in Jesus’ lifetime and is only finally beginning to be fulfilled today. Isaiah 42:1-4 looks to the establishment of justice in the earth, and Malachi 4:1 to the final destruction of the wicked. Readers had no reason not to expect all these things to take place when Messiah appeared. That is why, even at the very Ascension of Christ back to heaven, the disciples were asking if he was going to finish the job right then. The Resurrection and Jesus’ subsequent explanation that it is not quite as simple as that can be absorbed by the Old Testament texts, even if they would not have led us to expect it, any more than they led the disciples to. The disciples themselves did not expect the Valley between the Peaks until they found themselves in it. But, then, if you have done much hiking in the mountains, you would not expect them to.
Was Jesus then not the Messiah? Were the Old Testament prophets confused? Say rather that they taught clearly an important truth: the unity of Messiah’s work. When Christ returns as he promised it will be to finish what he began the first time; the two phases of his Coming are intimately connected, though not in time as the Old Testament people might have assumed. It is not as if God’s mercy to the Gentiles, expressed in their ingathering during the Church Age, is absent from the Old Testament. It is there from the beginning in the Abrahamic Covenant, in God’s promise that through him all the nations of the earth would be blessed. With hindsight, we can now see the whole truth, the Peaks and the Valley, and look at it as one single two-stage Coming, if you will. The prophets were not wrong, but we now know more about it than they did. We have the prophetic word made more sure, as Peter said.
What does this all mean to us? It means that we have the prophetic word made more sure. It means that because Christ has come two thousand years ago, the Second Coming has already been set in motion. It should boost both our confidence that it will happen and our anticipation of it. When Jesus reappears it will be like the resolving of a chord—as if we have been living for two thousand years in a suspended fourth. [During this paragraph, Dr. Williams walks over to the piano and plays the triad C-F-G, resolving to C-E-G.] It means we should be about the business of the Great Commission because this chord needs to be resolved. Because verses 5 and 6 have already been fulfilled, we know that the rest of the prophecy will be too. It is inevitable. Have confidence in this, and lift up your heads, for your redemption draweth nigh!
Part of the resolution of this chord of history, the restoration of full harmony to the universe, is the restoration of a proper differentiation between the righteous and the wicked. That is the primary thrust of our passage today. No one will ever be able to say again that it makes no difference which you are or how you live. The world will never be right until this happens. The difference is determined by their response to the coming of God’s Messiah. Will it be unbelief or faith, rejection or acceptance, rebellion or obedience? We are given three pictures of the difference: destruction versus healing, defeat versus victory, and curse versus restoration.
The first picture is destruction versus healing. “For behold, the day is coming, burning like a furnace; and all the arrogant and every evildoer will be chaff, and the day that is coming will set them ablaze,” says the Lord of hosts, “So that it will leave them neither root nor branch. But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings, and you will go forth and skip about like calves from the stall” (4:1-2). Note that both verse 1 and verse two are pictures of sunrise. The same Sun will either burn you up or bring healing; the difference is whether those on whom it rises “fear my name.”
The second picture is defeat versus victory, in verse 3. “’And you will tread down the wicked, for they shall be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day that I am preparing,’ says the Lord of Hosts.” Everything that the wicked have lived for is reduced to ashes; they themselves are reduced to ashes. Those who once road roughshod over the laws of God and men are now themselves trampled under foot. Only the believers are left standing. The meek have inherited the earth.
Finally we have curse versus restoration in verses 5 and 6. “Behold, I am going to send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord. And he will restore the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the land with a curse.” The “fathers” in verse 6 are Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, especially Abraham, the Man of Faith. The promise, therefore, is that the Forerunner will inspire faith like theirs, and that this faith will cause us to follow the Messiah and receive the blessings of the kingdom rather than being smitten by the curse.
Having our hearts turned back to the fathers—coming to be people who have the faith of Abraham—is itself part of the blessing that comes from receiving God’s Messiah. This raises an interesting question. Those of you from Christian homes: are you as faithful to God as your parents were? Do you read your Bible every day as faithfully as they did? Do you tithe as faithfully as they did? Do you consider God’s will in your decisions like they did? I happen to know that in many cases the answer would not be yes. But let me tell you something. Having your hearts turned back to the fathers is not just a means to receiving God’s blessing; it is itself part of the blessing. Let the text have its way with you in this regard, and I promise that you will see what I mean.
If you did not have a Christian home, this applies to you too; for you also have an earthly father to look back to who was a man of faith: Abraham! For in Romans 4:11, Paul calls him “the father of all who believe.” Let us all, those with Christian parents and those without, look to him as our great example of faith. For this gives us an even more interesting set of questions to ask ourselves. Would we leave everything we knew for an unknown land? Would we sacrifice our dearest possession? That is faith! That is the note on which the Old Testament closes: the note of readiness for the coming of Christ, the One who preeminently deserves that kind of faith and trust and obedience.
Part of putting the world right is making it forever pointless to ask the question whether it matters that you are righteous or wicked, that you serve the Lord or do not. The fact that people feel seriously the need to ask it now is an index of how messed up our fallen world is. But there is coming a time when the answer to it will be made plain. And in the life of the faithful, in the life of the church even here and now, foretastes of that day may be seen. We see them in the difference that faith makes, in the love and joy and purpose and peace it brings to those who are in Christ. We have seen Malachi longing for that day and being granted the foresight to prophesy about it; we have seen the faithful remnant of his day speaking to one another and anticipating it. Should we who have known the One they only longed for have any less faith than they? May it never be so! Trust God’s Messiah, our Lord Jesus. Love him. Be faithful to him. For faith is what finally determines the effect that the rising of the Sun will have on you. May we be those who are granted to find the healing in its wings.
Here endeth the Series on Malachi.
Dr. Donald T. Williams