A Promise of Salvation
American Journal of Biblical Theology,
Does God deserve your praise and worship, or does He simply deserve your attendance at worship services? Does God deserve all that He has given to your stewardship, or does He simply deserve a little tip on occasion? Does God deserve all of your heart and mind, or does He simply deserve an infrequent, short, and self-serving prayer? It the Temple a place where God is LORD, or is it a gathering place that intentionally meets our social needs?
These questions may cause us to evaluate our interaction with four important practices in Christian faith: worship, stewardship, prayer, and fellowship. Note that anything that we give an authority greater than the LORD is an idol, and our answers to these questions may reveal that we have been practicing a form of idolatry as we worship and serve the church rather than the LORD. We go to church. We give to the church. We listen to others pray at church. The church is where we seek our social needs, and for many this includes their need to influence others in order to elevate their own sense of worth. Many of our churches are cyclically embroiled in turmoil as a minority of its self-centered and vocal members sow seeds of discord when their selfish desires overwhelm unconditional, agape, love. We have even replaced the LORD as the leader of our churches with our own as decisions are made by a few people rather than by seeking the LORD through the Spirit who can lead the congregation.
How did we get to this point? How did the church become more important to us than the LORD?
Malachi is writing during a time when the ancient community of Israel is attempting to re-establish itself as a people. Its history and culture work together to make this a daunting enterprise as they struggled with these same questions, just as we do today. As they are rebuilding Jerusalem many are asking this same question: “how did we get to this point?” In the first two chapters, Malachi described many of the sins of the people that brought them here.
Sometimes the more important questions are “where are we now,” “where are we going,” and “how do we get there.” Malachi has been answering the first question, noting the poor current spiritual condition of the people. In Chapter three, Malachi starts on the second question, “Where are we going?”
Malachi 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.
The Hebrew word that is rendered “my messenger” is Malachi. The writer of this prophecy who uses the same word to refer to himself, is now referring to a future time when the LORD will send another messenger to “prepare the way” before Him. The preparation that this phrase describes refers specifically to the work that is done to prepare a community for the imminent arrival of a conquering king. We might even consider the tremendous amount of work that is necessary to prepare the way for the coming of an important figure such as a president or the Pope.
Malachi announces that there will be one who will prepare the way for the Messiah, the coming king. Then, once the way has been prepared by this special prophet, the LORD will come. It is rather evident that the messenger would come almost 400 years, or 14 generations after the writing of this prophecy when John the Baptist identified Himself as the one who would “prepare the way” for the LORD, and did so by preaching a gospel of faith and repentance, proclaiming that the LORD is coming, and then pointing out the LORD when he identified Jesus as the Christ.
The future of Israel, as well as the future of all mankind hinges on their response to this prophecy. Malachi assures the Israelites that the Messiah whom they seek is, indeed, coming, but the nature of His coming will be unexpected. He will come to His temple, but not the one that the Israelites are looking for.
Malachi 3:2-4. 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: 3And he shall sit as a refiner and purifier of silver: and he shall purify the sons of Levi, and purge them as gold and silver, that they may offer unto the LORD an offering in righteousness. 4Then shall the offering of Judah and Jerusalem be pleasant unto the, as in the days of old, and as in former years.
Continuing with the “coming conqueror” metaphor, Malachi describes this king in terms of great power. When a conqueror would enter the city, the parade would be witnessed by the conquered people who would bow humbly, showing their submission to the new king. Malachi describes a king with such power that no person can stand with him when he appears. He has no equal.
The Israelites are expecting a military king who will destroy their enemies. Malachi describes a quite different king, one who will exercise his authority, not over Israel’s enemies, but over Israel itself. Up to this point Malachi has been describing many of the sins that have separated the nation from the LORD. When this king comes, he will be addressing the sin problem as his work will be to cleanse the nation of its sin-nature through a process of separation and refining. This king will separate those who have faith in God from those who do not, and in the process of separation, the LORD will impart his righteousness on those who trust in him. In this way, the offering that is brought to the LORD, unlike the false offerings given by the ancient Israelites, will be given in a right context. When one gives to the LORD, whether it be gifts of praise, prayer, worship, work, or substance, when it is given out of love for the LORD, it is pleasing to Him. The LORD will literally separate out those who give to Him out of love from those Israelites who give to Him out of law.
Furthermore, the idea of a refiner includes the purification of that which is previously impure. More than come and separate, the Messiah will come and provide the means by which those who have been impure, who have lacked faith in God, can be made pure. An opportunity will be given to all whereby they may be cleansed of their sin, and be made like pure silver or pure gold.
Malachi 3:5-6. And I will come near to you to judgment; and I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, and against the adulterers, and against false swearers, and against those that oppress the hireling in his wages, the widow, and the fatherless, and that turn aside the stranger from his right, and fear not me, saith the LORD of hosts. 6For I am the LORD, I change not; therefore ye sons of Jacob are not consumed.
An important part of the refining process is the separation and removal of the dross, the impurities that cannot be included in the final product. There are those, both within Israel and without, who because of their rebellion against God, are not subject to being refined. These are those who will carry their rebellion to the grave, and be separated from the LORD for eternity, experiencing in death the same separation from God that they desired during their lives.
Malachi describes these as people who are characterized by sinful lifestyles with no interest in repentance. It is important to note that he is describing them as sorcerers, adulterers, liars, and abusers. This is who they are. It is their basic, unchanging, nature. If taken out of context one could argue that a person who loves the LORD, yet sins, can lose their salvation. For example, if a Christian commits adultery, he/she has committed an act of sin. However, that sin is an event in the Christian’s life, and though the consequences of the act are significant, it is still not what defines the Christian. God made a covenant with those who place their faith and trust in Him that their sin will no longer condemn them. Because of this, those who place that faith and trust in God, metaphorically described herein as “sons of Jacob,” will not be destroyed.
These words are great news to a people who are struggling with their assumed identity as “Children of God,” when they know in the deep recesses of their hearts that they are egregiously sinful and have failed in every way to keep the Law. Though they go through the motions of religion, they only do so hoping that it might make some difference.
Malachi 3:7. Even from the days of your fathers ye are gone away from mine ordinances, and have not kept them. Return unto me, and I will return unto you, saith the LORD of hosts. But ye said, Wherein shall we return?
Even the religious leaders who tout their own righteousness fully know their hypocrisy. Some of the people will be open to learning how they can please the LORD, and Malachi states the simple formula: repent and turn to the LORD. Malachi notes that Israel has wandered far from the LORD even from the early days of your “fathers,” a reference to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but also to Moses and Joshua. Though it was the faith of Abraham that defines righteousness, there was not a lot of faith in Israel prior to the Exodus from Egypt that took place about 14 generations after his death. True faith in God returned in Moses and Joshua, but the decline in faith became dramatic following Joshua’s death.
To return to God is to return to him in faith, a faith like that of Abraham, Moses, and Joshua. Faith in God is not a one-way, but a two-way relationship. God promises that when one turns to Him in faith, He will return to them. Faith in God is a relationship, now a religious work. This is what makes the promise of God different from every other faith or religion in the world, including the religion of works that had become the nature of Israel. Only God speaks through the Holy Spirit to reveal His love and His purpose, and all who place their faith and trust in Him will find a relationship with Him through this means.
However, it is still evident that, even given these facts, the Israelites do not fully understand a need to repent. They are immersed in a religion of works, and have no concept of a relationship with God. They think that they are finding righteousness in their works, so Malachi’s message is simple and to the point: Those works that you refer to fall far short of righteousness.
Malachi 1:8. Will a man rob God? Yet ye have robbed me. But ye say, Wherein have we robbed thee? In tithes and offerings. 9Ye are cursed with a curse: for ye have robbed me, even this whole nation. 10Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be meat in mine house, and prove me now herewith, saith the LORD of hosts, if I will not open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it.
This is, arguably, the most well-known passage in the little book of Malachi, and it is likely the only passage in Malachi that many people remember.
One of the important concepts of a life of faith is giving back to God, out of our love for Him. When one truly loves the LORD, it is their desire, and as much as possible their practice, to give generously with a cheerful and joyous heart. This is the giving that the LORD desires. When one gives this way, the gifts are truly sacrificial, or they are not offerings at all. Consequently one who loves the LORD brings their best to Him.
The Mosaic Law describes sacrifices in great detail. However, the Israelites (as most today) misunderstood the purpose of the Law. The Law exposes sin by describing the type of behavior that is godly. The Law states that the righteous will bring their best and first to Him. Since the Israelites are not giving from the heart out of faith, their relationship is not with the LORD, it is with the Law. So, they bring sacrifices because the Law states that they should. However, because they are not giving from the heart, they are bringing blemished sacrifices. The ministries that the LORD intended for the Temple are not taking place because the people are not giving their tithes to the Temple. The Levites are forced to find work because there are not enough funds coming into the Temple to support them. By keeping the tithes for themselves, and by bringing only their “leftovers” to the Temple, they are literally robbing God.
The main purpose of this passage is not to condemn the people as thieves, but to illustrate that their giving is hypocritical, and is not pleasing to the LORD. This passage is still relevant today when we observe that many, if most churches are not supported by a tithe of its membership. A few people may provide appropriate tithes to the church, but because most do not, their pastors are often under-supported, and the work and ministry that the church should be engaged in is not taking place when their budgets serve only to pay a pastor and maintain the church facilities and internal activities. We now have an entire generation of pastors facing their retirement years with nothing to support them as their churches paid them the very minimum that they would accept.
This sin against the LORD is as real today as it was in Malachi’s time. Those who think they are doing so well, are in fact robbing God by keeping from Him the gifts and tithes that He deserves so that His work can be accomplished through the church. When a church divests itself of that work, it becomes nothing more than a social club with a Christian theme, and the pastor is nothing more than their employee, whose ministry is understandably limited to meeting the minimal needs of the congregation.
Malachi makes a profound statement in verse ten: where one of the Ten Commandments states that we are not to put the LORD to a test, the LORD says, “Test me on this.” Just as the LORD makes a promise to those who come to Him in faith, He makes a promise to those who bring their tithes, offerings, and gifts to Him in the appropriate way: He will open up the “windows” or “flood-gates” of heaven with blessings for the giver. Again, this is not a promise that if we write a check for 10% of our goods to the church that the LORD will repay us with blessing when the gift is not given in the proper spirit. Some misuse this passage to preach a theology gospel that teaches certain reward on financial investment. This error is to fall back into the legalism of the Israelites. The blessing is found when the gifts are given out of a genuine love for the LORD, a love that inspires the giving, and is open to the joy that such giving brings. This is the type of gift that the LORD will reward. Consequently, a tithe is not legalistically bound to 10% of one’s income. A tithe is that amount that one understands is that amount that brings joy and the knowledge that it is a sufficient representation of our love for the LORD. If an entire congregation would do this, there is no limit to the work and ministry that the LORD could do, not just through the financial tithes, offerings, and gifts, but through the lives of so many faithful who are giving their lives to Him. This is the church that God intends, and this is the church that He desires. This would, truly, be a blessed church, and a blessed people.
Malachi 3:11-12. And I will rebuke the devourer for your sakes, and he shall not destroy the fruits of your ground; neither shall your vine cast her fruit before the time in the field, saith the LORD of hosts. 12And all nations shall call you blessed: for ye shall be a delightsome land, saith the LORD of hosts.
Malachi describes some of the blessings that would be found by a people who joyfully and generously gave of themselves to the LORD as an expression of their love and faith in Him.
First, He would “rebuke the devourer.” A life lived in faith is one that puts on the full armor of God and is able to withstand the attacks of the evil one because of the protection that faith in God engenders. Satan is powerless against the power of the Holy Spirit, and is so challenged by the Holy Spirit that is part of the life of a faithful believer. Sincere faith stands firmly against temptation, and many of these can lead to destructive consequences that are avoided when those temptations are likewise avoided. In this way satan is unable to “cast her fruit” before her time.
Also, the very nature of the life of a faithful believer who is receiving the full blessings of the LORD does stand out. Jesus stated of those who have faith in Him, “You are the light of the world, a city on a hill cannot be hidden.” The love in the heart of a faithful Christian is evident as it is expressed toward both the LORD and toward others. When one looks upon the life and works of a faithful believer, as well as those of a church that is led by them is noticed by all as they are engaged in a love relationship with those in their community, praying for them and ministering to them when possible.
Malachi 3:13-15. Your words have been stout against me, saith the LORD. Yet ye say, What have we spoken so much against thee? 14Ye have said, It is vain to serve God: and what profit is it that we have kept his ordinance, and that we have walked mournfully before the LORD of hosts? 15And now we call the proud happy; yea, they that work wickedness are set up; yea, they that tempt God are even delivered.
Having illustrated the vanity of their form of religious sacrifice, Malachi turns to the vanity of their worship. Likewise, as with their satisfaction with their vain sacrifices, they are satisfied with their “worship.”
Malachi describes a religious community that has lost its understanding of the meaning of worship. Since their form of worship is not intended to express love and faith in God, it is without power and vain. Consequently, they find that they are only “going through the motions” of religious practice, and not experiencing any of its power. Their questioning is reasonable: what is the point in going through these ordinances when they are meaningless to us? What is the point of expressing mourning over our need of repentance when there is nothing to repent from? The community of Israel is filled with corruption, with reward given to the proud and powerful, and those who work wickedness are lifted us as their leaders.
How much of the worship that we bring to the LORD today is done in vain? Just as righteous giving comes from the heart, the only true form of worship comes from the heart. Today’s church culture is not much different from the days of ancient Israel. Though different Christian groups may organize worship in different ways, most of its members attend as spectators, far more interested in what they “get out” of the worship service than what they “put into” it as a sacrifice of praise and worship to the LORD. Consequently, services are evaluated and criticized, the pastor’s message is picked apart, and people sit in anticipation of the end of the service when they can go about their typical Sunday afternoon activities. This is not worship, and such behavior brings nothing of value to the believer. We “go to church” rather than come to the LORD. The church has replaced the LORD. The ritual has replaced the faith. The church is more important than the LORD: the church has become an idol.
True worship that comes from the heart is expressed in relationship with the LORD, not in relationship to the church. True worship is not predicated on the style of music played, the layout of the sanctuary, the color of the choir robes, or the eloquence of the pastor’s oratory. True worship does not come to be entertained, but to participate with other believers in an expression of love for the LORD and love for each other.
Malachi 3:16-18. Then they that feared the LORD spake often one to another: and the LORD hearkened, and heard it, and a book of remembrance was written before him for them that feared the LORD, and that thought upon his name. 17And they shall be mine, saith the LORD of hosts, in that day when I make up my jewels; and I will spare them, as a man spareth his own son that serveth him. 18Then shall ye return, and discern between the righteous and the wicked, between him that serveth God and him that serveth him not.
Any time we take an honest and open look at ourselves, we will always come away recognizing that we are a fallen people, saved only by the grace of God. The impurity that has always characterized the church, whether it be in ancient Israel or today, is part of the nature of man. However, the good news is that God’s grace is available to all, and that grace covers the sin of those who come to the LORD in faith and trust. Malachi describes a simple truth that endures throughout the age of man: there is always a faithful remnant of believers who remain. They seek out one another and know one another. The LORD is quite aware of this remnant of believers, and these are and will be the recipients of the blessings that the LORD has promised. The metaphor of a “book of remembrance” is similar in concept to the “book of life” that is described in the 20th chapter of the Revelation of John. The book serves as a symbol of something that is written down, something that is never changed, and never forgotten.
The LORD will never forget the promise He has made to the faithful, regardless of any point in human history. Malachi notes that when the LORD comes back to judge the wicked, the faithful will be spared, cared for as a loving father cares for his son.
Finally, in one simple phrase, Malachi identifies the dividing line between those who are lost and those who are saved: those who serve the LORD and those who do not, understanding that the Hebrew word rendered as “serve” refers to a service given in love, not a service forced out of meaningless duty.
Malachi 4:1. For, behold, the day cometh, that shall burn as an oven; and all the proud, yea, and all that do wickedly, shall be stubble: and the day that cometh shall burn them up, saith the LORD of hosts, that it shall leave them neither root nor branch.
One of the faults of man is their belief that nothing is really going to change. Since today is the same as yesterday and the day before, tomorrow is written: it will be the same as today. Without faith there is no future, and without faith in God there is no coming reward, and no vindication for the abuse and martyrdom that the faithful have endured through the years at the hands of wicked men. Malachi speaks a truth that is mirrored in the prophecies of Daniel, Ezekiel, the writer of the Revelation, and most other prophets: the age of man is of a certain, coming to a violent end when the LORD returns to gather the remnant of the faithful and utterly destroy all that remains.
It has been about two thousand and four hundred years since Malachi wrote these words, and it is likely that he, like Paul, never imagined that the LORD would tarry this long. However, with the population doubling every forty years since populations have been recorded, the cataclysmic events described here in brief, and in the Revelation of John at length, is not as far off as we might first assume. It is a simple mathematical calculation to predict the unabated population growth.
If the current population in 2015 is 7 billion people, by the year 2415 there would be about 7,000 billion people (the population doubling 10 times over 400 years). It is rather obvious that this earth will never sustain such a population so there will be events that limit that growth: increasing starvation, pestilence, and war. It will not be long before life on this earth will become almost intolerable, and the biblical prophecies agree that at this time the LORD will intervene, and bring the age of man to an end. Those who have desired to live without God will be rewarded with the desire of their heart: they will live out the range of eternity without God. However, the LORD has quite another plan for those who have put their faith in Him:
Malachi 4:2. But unto you that fear my name shall the Sun of righteousness arise with healing in his wings; and ye shall go forth, and grow up as calves of the stall. 3And ye shall tread down the wicked; for they shall be ashes under the soles of your feet in the day that I shall do this, saith the LORD of hosts.
Having described the significant physical judgment that will come upon the wicked, Malachi, in agreement with the other prophets, notes that the faithful will be saved from that judgment. Using poetic imagery, Malachi describes the LORD first as like the sun that rises, bringing light and heat as it drives out the darkness and cold, and that radiance will bring an ultimate healing, both physically and spiritually. The image of the calf in a stall indicates an environment of peace and safety. The idea is that the LORD, when He comes will bring all of the faithful to Himself and provide for them a place of eternal peace and safety.
The imagery of the trampled ashes is simply an encouraging statement of vindication of the faithful as the wicked will be destroyed, and the faithful will still stand.
Malachi 4:4-6. Remember ye the law of Moses my servant, which I commanded unto him in Horeb for all Israel, with the statutes and judgments. 5Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD: 6And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.
Having described the near-apostate Israel, the plan of salvation, and the coming end of the age, Malachi calls upon the people to return to their roots of which empower respect for the true intent of the Mosaic Law, as they demonstrate their love for the LORD by their heart-led obedience of it. This is the period of Israel that started with the Exodus from Egypt when the obedience of the nation is illustrated by their behavior under the Law of Moses. There is coming a time when the LORD will come to His people and place the Law in their hearts.
Referring to the one who is coming, Malachi uses the name of Elijah the prophet. Many have taken this description literally and missed the point of Malachi’s imagery. Because of this misunderstanding, the Jews believe that it is Elijah who is coming back, not the LORD, YAHWEH. It is a tradition in Jewish families to leave an extra place setting at the dinner table in the event that Elijah would appear. Malachi has been using poetic imagery and plays on Hebrew words throughout the prophecy. The name Elijah is a Hebrew word that literally translates to “My God, YAHWEH.” Just as one can replace the word Malachi with my messenger, one can replace the name of Elijah with my God, YAHWEH.
Understanding this, we find that Malachi is stating that the LORD, YAHWEH is coming prior to the “dreadful Day of the LORD.” He has also stated that the LORD will come back in the Day of the LORD, referring to both a first and second coming. He has already stated that a prophet will be sent to prepare the way for the first coming of the LORD. If we consider the context of the writing, the agreement with other prophets and the known historical narratives, the first coming is that of Jesus, YAHWEH in the flesh. Accepting faith in Jesus is the same thing as accepting faith in YAHWEH because Jesus, according to all the prophecies, is YAHWEH incarnate.
When YAHWEH, often transliterated in the Old Testament as the LORD, came to us as the Messiah, the Christ Child, He fulfilled the prophecies of Malachi as well as those of Ezekiel, Daniel, and others. Jesus came to restore Israel to Himself, proclaiming the original gospel of salvation by faith in God, not by works under the Law. Ezekiel and the Psalmist who wrote the 22nd Psalm both described Jesus’ atoning death on the Cross of Calvary, taking upon Himself the penalty for sin that all people deserve: separation from God. God’s promise to Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Israel, and to every living soul is simple: “place your faith and trust in me and I will forgive you of your sins, bring you to Myself, and provide an eternal home of peace and safety with the LORD.” Salvation is predicated on faith and trust in YAHWEH. Since every “knee will bow” before the LORD at the final judgment, all people will be subject to that judgment. This reveals an important truth: all people will come before the LORD, therefore all systems of religion will succeed in one thing: they will provide you with a path to God. However, there is only one way to God that brings one to Him with forgiveness, and that is through faith in Jesus Christ, the Messiah, YAHWEH. All others will find themselves before God without the mark of faith: the indwelling Holy Spirit. Instead, they will come before Him devoid of the Spirit, characterized by the writer of the Revelation as total depravity, enumerated as the number 6-6-6, the mark of the beast, the mark of satan.
In this short book we have found a synopsis of the depraved state of man, the plan of salvation, the identity of Jesus as the Messiah, and the promise of His second coming in a form of judgment that will bring about the violent end of the age. Malachi’s first readers would have to wait for fourteen generations before the Messiah would come. However, for all of us, the Messiah has come, and is calling all people to come to Him in faith so that they can find eternal fulfillment in Him, as is His desire and purpose.
Let those of us who have turned to God in faith find that faith strengthened by Malachi’s words, and inspire enough love for the LORD to live lives that are characterized by obedience to the promptings of the Holy Spirit as He guides us in holy living, in prayer, and in praise and worship of the LORD. Let us also recognize anew the destiny of those who have rejected faith in God, and seek opportunities to be used of the LORD to bring some of these to a saving faith in God, lest they not be condemned for their unforgiven sin at the final judgment. Let our love for God continue to grow until it overflows, and we express that same unconditional love for others so that we can be a productive part of God’s primary work: to bring the lost people of this world to Himself. Let us do this individually, and together as the Church, as we seek to grow in knowledge of His word, strengthen our faith, and realize the true peace and joy that comes from a life that is immersed in the love of God.