Rev. Hanko is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Lynden, Washington. Previous article in this series: November 1, 2006, p. 57.
The Fourth Disputation: Chapter 2:17-3:6 (cont.)
In the first part of chapter 3 we come to the heart of Malachi’s prophecy. Here the Word of God through Malachi becomes not just a word of rebuke and judgment but the gospel of God’s grace. Here is the prophecy of Christ’s coming that lies at the heart of all that Malachi says, for it is His coming that delivers Israel, both priests and people, from their sins and provides both redemption and cleansing.
All this is in answer to Israel’s question: “Where is the God of judgment?” In sending Christ as the messenger of the covenant, God reveals Himself as the God of judgment, but also as the one who brings salvation through judgment as He had earlier promised to do through Isaiah: “Zion shall be redeemed with judgment, and her converts with righteousness.”
This is always the way that salvation comes. Salvation comes through judgment first of all because God’s judgments against sin must be executed, and the salvation of God’s people is possible only because those judgments are executed on Christ as the representative of His own, rather than on them. But salvation also comes through judgment because the cross brings God’s judgments on the unbelieving and unrepentant world. Jesus Himself announced this in John 12:31: “Now is the judgment of this world.” Because God pours out His wrath against sin at the cross in all its fury, those who are not in Christ and protected by Him come under the wrath and judgment of God and are condemned and destroyed by it.
3:1. Behold, I will send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me: and the Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his temple, even the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in: behold, he shall come, saith the LORD of hosts.
In this passage, which speaks of salvation through Christ, it must be understood that He, Christ, is the Messenger of the covenant of whom the text speaks. However, the text speaks not only of Him but of another messenger who prepares His way, whom we know from the New Testament to be John the Baptist. In fact, verse 1 is quoted in the New Testament especially in reference to John the Baptist.
Let us note that John, like Malachi (Mal. 1:1), bears the same name and office as Christ. They are each God’s messenger. That is true because every priest and prophet is sent by God and brings the same divine message concerning salvation in Christ, but it is true also because every messenger of God speaks by the Spirit of Christ. We read of this in I Peter 1:10, 11: “Of which salvation the prophets have inquired and searched diligently, who prophesied of the grace that should come unto you: searching what, or what manner of time the Spirit of Christ which was in them did signify, when it testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ, and the glory that should follow.”
John, as the first messenger of which the text speaks, prepares the way for the Messenger of the covenant. John did this by preaching repentance and by speaking of Him who would follow—by announcing Him as the Lamb of God. He preached and prepared the way also by his appearance and by the fact that he did his work in the wilderness, all of which were a testimony against the formalism and disobedience that characterized Israel. He even prepared the way by his baptizing, which pointed to the work that Christ, the Messenger of the covenant, would do to cleanse God’s people from their sins.
The verse shows us, too, that the one whose way he prepared would be able to save because He would be God Himself come in the flesh. The Messenger of the covenant is also called here the Lord. The name, of course, is not the same as the name LORD in capitals. The first name means “Sovereign Owner and Master,” while the second is the name Jehovah. Nevertheless, even the use of the name “Lord” here identifies Christ as God, for this Lord is called “the Lord whom ye seek.” He is, in other words, the God of judgment, whose coming the Jews had doubted and questioned.
Only as the God of judgment, the one who is equal to the Father, fully and completely God, is He able to do what no mere man can do: suffer the judgments of God and finish them, and so bring in everlasting righteousness. Only He can cleanse the sons of Levi, whom even the Word of God through Malachi did not turn from wickedness.
When Malachi predicts that He would come to His temple, he is not so much speaking of the building, usually referred to as Herod’s temple, to which Jesus did come and which He cleansed twice, but is rather speaking of the true temple, Christ’s own body, the church, for whom and to whom He would come in order that it might be redeemed and delivered. Jesus Himself made that clear at the time of the first cleansing of the temple. When He said, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John. 2:19), He was, John 2:21 says, speaking “of the temple of his body.”
That He is identified not just as God’s messenger, but as the Messenger of the covenant, identifies Him both as the fulfillment of all the promises, the one of whom every other messenger was only a type and forerunner, and also as the one who would by His work bring God’s people into the full enjoyment of their covenant relationship with God and who would establish that covenant on everlasting foundations, so that the relationship between God and His people could never again be interrupted.
But Christ is the Messenger of the covenant not only because He takes away that which separates God and His people, that is, their sin; not only because He, by His Spirit, actually receives them into fellowship with God, but also because He is in His own person the one who unites us to God. He is in one person the one in whom dwells the fullness of the Godhead bodily and the one whose bone and whose flesh we are, so that in Him we live and walk with God and are joined to God. He is Immanuel, God with us.
That He is the one in whom we delight stands in stark contrast to the unbelieving question of Malachi 2:17. When He does come, unbelief is cured, doubt is turned to faith, and disbelief to delight, by His gracious work as God’s Messenger.
This is all promised by Jehovah of hosts, the one whom all things serve and in whose army they march. Nothing, therefore, can prevent the coming of the Messenger of the covenant. Nothing can stand in the way of His work. Nothing can spoil or interrupt His work—not the rise of the Roman empire, not the apostasy of Judah in the days following Malachi’s prophecy, not the rise of Pharisees who would be His bitter enemies, not even the temptations of Satan. All things would serve Him.
3:2. But who may abide the day of his coming? and who shall stand when he appeareth? for he is like a refiner’s fire, and like fullers’ soap:
Christ’s work is presented here under two similar figures. He is compared to a refiner’s fire and to fuller’s soap. A refiner’s fire is the very hot fire of the man who purifies precious metals by burning away the dross and impurity. Fuller’s soap is the soap that is used to bleach and whiten linen and other cloth, and a fuller the man who does that work. The emphasis therefore is on purifying and cleansing.
Christ does the work of fuller’s soap and of fire by His death on the cross, for in dying He removes the guilt of those who were given Him by His Father and legally purifies them. He does that work also through His Spirit when He sanctifies them, for then He through the work of the Spirit removes the dross and corruption of sin in them and delivers them from the power of sin. He does that work finally in the judgment day when He, through death and the resurrection, removes even the presence of sin in His people and welcomes them into everlasting habitations.
In that work not only are His people purified and delivered from the dross of sin, but the wicked world and its ungodliness is also burned up and destroyed by the coming of Christ. In that sense, too, the people of God are purified and cleansed, for they are then delivered from all temptation and from the possibility of sin. This is finished in the judgment day when fire destroys both the world and the wicked, but it begins already at the cross, for as Jesus says: “Now (at the cross) is the judgment of this world” (John 12:31).
The question that is asked about abiding the day of His coming is heard at the end of the world when the final judgment begins to come on the ungodly: “And the kings of the earth, and the great men, and the rich men, and the chief captains, and the mighty men, and every bondman, and every free man, hid themselves in the dens and in the rocks of the mountains; and said to the mountains and rocks, Fall on us, and hide us from the face of him that sitteth on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb: for the great day of his wrath is come; and who shall be able to stand?” (Rev. 6:15-17). Indeed, Revelation 6:17 is quoting Malachi 3:2.
Nonetheless, no one of himself is able to abide the day of Christ’s coming or to stand when He appears. All are sinners and are worthy of being destroyed by the judgment of God. Through the coming of Christ that judgment always comes on the wicked world, whether it be the false church or the secular world. It came on Bethlehem. It came on the whole Jewish nation in the rending of the veil at the time of Christ’s death. It came on Jerusalem through the Romans when the city was destroyed and the nation scattered. It comes today through the preaching of the gospel when under the gospel men and women are hardened in unbelief. It comes finally and forever when this old world is destroyed and the new kingdom of Christ brought in.
That some do stand is not because they are different in themselves, but because they are given to Christ and are hidden in Him when these judgments come. They are in Him by faith, and therein lies the urgency of the gospel. All who hear must believe, for who shall abide the day of His coming otherwise? All who hear must come to Him, for not otherwise can they stand when He appears, whether it be now through the gospel or once more at the end of all things.