Malachi is the latest Old Testament prophet. Haggai and Zechariah preached during the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem after the Babylonian exile. In Malachi the temple is finished, and the worship there has already become wearisome to the people (1:13). The situation of divorce and intermarriage with unbelievers (2:10, 11), the withholding of tithes (3:8), and the oppression of the poor (3:5)—all these are like the situation in Nehemiah's time (13:1–3; 23f.; 10:32–39; 5:1–5). So the probable date for Malachi is around 450 BC.
Malachi's Day and Our Day
There are some significant similarities between Malachi's day and our own. It was a day of waiting for God to fulfill his promises. Haggai had said that the latter splendor of the temple would be greater than the former, and that treasures from all the nations would fill it. Take courage, you build more than you see! (Habakkuk 2:4–9.) Zechariah had said that their king would come to them (9:9), a new fountain of forgiveness would be opened (13:1), a spirit of prayer would descend on the people for repentance (12:10–14), many nations would join the Lord, and God would be in their midst (2:11). Now the temple is finished; time has passed. Some of the great men and women of faith who gave their all to rebuild the temple are dead and gone, and the Lord has not come to his temple. The hope that fires a people to be pure and take risks and venture great things with God is fading. Just like today, it was not easy to press on with lively expectant faith, when the Lord's coming delays year after year.
The great temptation for Israel in the Old Testament and for the church of Christ today is to forget that we are pilgrims not natives in this world. The temptation is to let the Lord's delay make us settle into the world and become passive as we wait; to forget that we are aliens and exiles, sojourners, strangers on the earth, seeking another homeland, desiring and yearning for a better country (Hebrews 11:13–16). The great threat to the church in America is not that we are persecuted and homeless and driven about like refugees; but that we are so much at home here. We have let the Lord's delay put us to sleep: no sense of urgency, no earnest expectation, no heart-wrenching cry: "Come, Lord Jesus!" No passionate mission strategy to penetrate the un-evangelized peoples who must be reached before he comes. And inevitably, when the urgent zeal for the name of God fades, so does the moral power to be pure. And where there was once Master-God, there returns master-mammon and master-sex. So it was in Malachi's day, and so it is today.
But we don't want it to be that way. God has touched so many of you recently to make you long for freedom and power in the Spirit. Many of you have been praying with me in the secret of your closet: "God, forgive us for our complacency toward the lost, forgive us for the smallness of our vision, forgive us for the weakness of our spiritual lives. Move, O God, touch us with light and fire! Tune our hearts to sing your praise! Let us know the thrill of dying to ourselves and living unto righteousness. Let us know the soaring of soul that comes with decreasing that Christ might increase. Give us such an encounter with the living Lord that every doubt is banished, and joyful confidence and unabashed boldness drive us into mission at work and around the world." I believe that more and more of you are beginning to cry out to God like that. And we need help as we move toward this breakthrough at Bethlehem.
Malachi and Christmas
So let's look at Malachi's word to his day and ours. And I have not forgotten it is a Christmas word. If you want to put the message of Malachi to us today in one sentence, here it is: The purpose of Christmas is to purify a priestly people who live and leap for the glory of God's name. To unfold that message I ask four questions: 1) Is Christmas in view in Malachi? 2) Is the purpose of Christmas to purify a priestly people? 3) What does God aim to purify us of? 4) What is the essence of Christmas purity?
First, we ask, Is Christmas in view in Malachi? The answer is yes and no. No, in the sense that Malachi was not given the details we now know about the first coming of Jesus separated by about 2,000 years from his second coming. He did not know that the work of Messiah to save and purify his people and to judge the world would happen in two separate comings. Peter (1 Peter 1:10–12) tells us that the prophets searched and enquired about the times when predicting the sufferings and later glories of Christ; but it was simply revealed to them that they were serving another generation and must be content to paint with broad strokes, and leave the details to be filled in by history.
But the broad strokes are true, and they do include Christmas, the first coming of Jesus. For example, notice 2:17ff. First, we see here the situation in Jerusalem which I described earlier. "You have wearied the Lord with your words. Yet you say, 'How have we wearied him?' By saying, 'Everyone who does evil is good in the sight of the Lord, and he delights in them.' Or by asking, 'Where is the God of justice?'" God has drifted so far out of their lives that whether a person is evil or good doesn't matter; the God of justice has delayed his coming so long he is unreal.
Then notice Malachi's response in 3:1, "Behold, I send my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight (irony!); behold, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts." There seem to be three persons coming in this verse. First, the messenger to prepare the way of God: "I send my messenger to prepare the way before me." Second, God himself; the messenger is preparing his way. "The Lord whom you seek" refers back to the seeking of verse 17 where they ask, "Where is the God of justice?" So God himself is coming to his temple, just like Haggai 2:7 promised. Third, there is the "messenger of the covenant." On the one hand, this person seems to be the same as the Lord who comes to his temple. But on the other hand, he is spoken of in the third person by God: "He is coming, says the Lord." So he seems to be distinct from God.
The first person is identified for us in 4:5, 6. The messenger who prepares the way of the Lord is called Elijah: "Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. And he will turn 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 Luke 1:16, 17, an angel told Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, "[John] will turn many of the sons of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children." He identifies John the Baptist with the expected Elijah of Malachi 4. And Jesus confirms for us (in Matthew 11:10) that the first messenger of Malachi 3:1 is the same as the forerunner of Malachi 4:5 and is indeed John the Baptist. He says concerning John, "This is he of whom it is written, 'Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, who shall prepare thy way before thee.'" So he explicitly relates Malachi 3:1 to John the Baptist, and then in Matthew 17:12f., he says that John is the Elijah to come: "I tell you, Elijah has already come, and they did not know him but did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man will suffer at their hands.' Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them of John the Baptist." Therefore, the fulfillment of the forerunner in Malachi 3:1 is John the Baptist.
Now, of course, John the Baptist came to prepare the way of the Messiah. He said in John 3:28, "I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him." And Jesus himself claimed to be that Messiah. For when John asked in Matthew 11:3, "Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?"—Jesus answered, "Look at the signs and don't take offense at me." In other words, "I am the Messiah of which Malachi spoke. But the fulfillment of his prophecy is happening differently than you expect. The judgment and the glorious kingdom will not come immediately; I am here to give my life as a ransom this time. I will come again in the clouds with great glory. Don't take offense at my humble coming, John. I am he. Christmas is not the whole story. But it is the beginning of the great day of the Lord." So Jesus is the Lord who comes to his temple in Malachi 3:1.
From the standpoint of the New Testament we can see why "the Lord" and the "messenger of the covenant" seem distinct on the one hand, and seem identical on the other. The reason, I think, is that Jesus the Messiah is God. "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God" (John 1:1, 14). As Isaiah prophesied, "For unto us a child is born . . . And his name will be called . . . Mighty God" (9:6). It is not surprising, then, that the coming of Messiah should sometimes be spoken of as the coming of God.
So in answer to our first question, Is Christmas in view in Malachi?—the answer is yes. Malachi is prophesying the coming of a forerunner and a messenger of the covenant whom John the Baptist and Jesus claim to fulfill. To be sure, his prophecy is couched in terms which embrace both the first and second coming of Jesus. But that means his prophecy began to be fulfilled at the first Christmas and that we stand in the middle of his prophecy because we stand between the first and second coming of Christ.
Christmas and a Purified Priestly People
The second question is: Is the purpose of Christmas to purify a priestly people? Notice 3:2–4, "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 fullers' soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, till they present right offerings to the Lord." At the end of this age when Christ returns, the final act of purification will take place; all impurities in the hearts of God's people will be done away with.
But that promise of purity has begun to be fulfilled in the first coming of Christ. Hebrews 1:3 says, "When [Christ] had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high." And Titus 2:14 says that Christ "gave himself for us to redeem us from all iniquity and to purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds." In a word, Christ came to make us clean. Christmas is for purity. 1 John 3:8 puts it like this: "The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil." That means our sin. Messiah has come not only to ransom us from the punishment of sin but also to give us power not to sin. He came to make us pure and zealous for good deeds. Christ came at Christmas to build a bridge across the chasm of sin to eternal life, but the name of the bridge is purity. The only way to eternal life is along the path of sanctification. Romans 6:22 puts it like this: "Now that you have been set free from sin and have been slaves of God, the return you get is sanctification and its end, eternal life."
So the purifying of Malachi 3 began with the coming of Christ. Now when it says in verse 3 that the sons of Levi will be purified, it does not mean God is indifferent to the purity of the whole people, but that all judgment begins at the house of God. If the priestly tribe is impure, all the people will be impure. If they are cleansed, the people will turn. But there is another truth here. God had said to all Israel in Exodus 19:6 that they were a "kingdom of priests." And in the New Testament, Peter teaches us that the church of Christ is a "holy priesthood" (1 Peter 2:5) or a "royal priesthood" (2:9). All Christians are sons of Levi. And, therefore, the purification promised in Malachi 3:3 has begun in Jesus Christ and extends to all his people, his "holy priesthood." The purpose of Christmas is to purify a priestly people.
What We are Purified Of
The third question is, What does God aim to purify us of? Of course, the answer is sin. But Malachi helps us get serious about becoming pure by being specific. Two kinds of impurity get special treatment in this book: marital unfaithfulness and the love of money. Christmas has to do with your marriage. Christ came to keep it pure and to give you the will and the power to keep your vows as long as you live. But in Malachi's day, just like today, the people of God took their eyes off the coming of God, settled down into the world, and soaked up the mind and heart of their age, including its attitude toward marital unfaithfulness and divorce. In 2:14, the people ask why God does not regard their offerings, and Malachi answers, "Because the Lord was witness to the covenant between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is the your companion and your wife by covenant . . . So take heed to yourselves, and let none be faithless to the wife of his youth. For I hate divorce, says the Lord, the God of Israel" (2:14–16).
The purpose of Christmas is to purify us from the sin of divorce. Yes, I do believe that includes forgiveness if that act stains your past, and if you hate it like God hates it. But the good news I want to emphasize is just as important: Christmas is the power to keep us from divorce. Jesus Christ came into the world to make himself available to families. Every divorce involving Christians is owing to a breakdown in the couple's orientation on Christ. Some of you are just asking for your marriage to collapse because you are not working to build a triangle of spiritual communion with Christ. And husbands, God lays the heavier responsibility on you. It is not up to your wife to gather you to her side for prayer and spiritual conversation. You are to take the lead and gather her to your side and seek God with her as a fellow-heir of grace. May I suggest that some of you husbands get alone today and pray and seek what you should do this year to make your Christmas celebration spiritual with Christ at the center.
The Messiah is called the "messenger of the covenant" (Malachi 3:1). In the context of Malachi I think that means: Husbands and wives, cultivate with all your heart the covenant relationship between you and Jesus, and the covenant of your marriage will endure.
Christmas also has to do with your money and your possessions. The purpose of Christmas is to purify us from the love of money. The impurity of greed had gripped the people in Malachi's day. They aren't willing to tithe, and the sheep they bring to sacrifice are sick or lame. For example, 3:8–10, "Will man rob God? Yet you are robbing me. But you say, 'How are we robbing thee?' In your tithes and offerings. You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing me; the whole nation of you. Bring the full tithes into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house." But not only were they failing to tithe. God said in 1:8, "When you offer blind animals in sacrifice, is that no evil? And when you offer those that are lame or sick, is that no evil? Present that to your governor. Will he be pleased with you or show you favor?"
The reason people bring blind goats to the house of God and don't even tithe is twofold: 1) they love the pleasures and comforts money can buy more than they love to advance the gospel, and 2) they believe that if they maintain possession and control, they will be able to make a more promising future for themselves than God can if they give up possession and trust his sovereign grace. In a word: their love is directed toward the world, and their faith is directed toward themselves. And the purpose of Christmas is to purify us from that kind of idolatry.
The Essence of Christmas Purity
Which leads us to the final question, What is the essence of Christmas purity? Christmas purity is not essentially the removal of sin, but the restoration of righteousness. Christ never takes away from his people one thing which he does not replace with something better. Dennis Smith said a great thing at the Pastor's Prayer and Study Group yesterday morning: "If you lose your wallet on the way to collect a million dollars, you don't get angry." Every sin you forsake out of love to Christ is replaced with a deeper and purer joy. The aim of God at Christmas is to make the goodies of the world lose all their attraction in comparison to the surpassing glory of the divine Name. The essence of Christmas purity is not what you stand against, but what you stand in awe of, the glorious name of God.
Listen to what God says in Malachi 1:11, "From the rising of the sun to its setting my name is great among the nations, and in every place incense is (to be) offered to my name, and a pure offering; for my name is great among the nations, says the Lord of hosts." Verse 14: "For I am a great King, says the Lord of hosts, and my name is feared among the nations." In 2:5 God gave his life and peace to Levi, "and he feared me, and he stood in awe of my name." And in 3:16 a book of remembrance is written for those "who feared the Lord and thought on (or esteemed) his name."
The purpose of Christmas is to purify a priestly people who live for the glory of God's name. But not just live, also leap: God says in 4:2, "But for you who fear my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in his wings. You shall go forth leaping like calves from the stall." When you open your eyes to the glory of the name of the mighty God and set yourself to love him above all else, you will go forth leaping with the freedom of a newborn calf. Free from the love of money; free from marital faithlessness; free to lift your hands in praise to the Savior; free to discover the thrill of godliness and love; free to decrease that Christ might increase and that God might be all in all.