He Is Like a Refiner's Fire

You have wearied the LORD with your words. "How have we wearied him?" you ask. By saying, "All who do evil are good in the eyes of the LORD, and he is pleased with them" or "Where is the God of justice?" "See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come," says the LORD Almighty. But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner's fire or a launderer's soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the LORD will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness, and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the LORD, as in days gone by, as in former years. "So I will come near to you for judgment. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive aliens of justice, but do not fear me," says the LORD Almighty. "I the LORD do not change. So you, O descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed." (NIV)

It does not say in verse 2 that he is like a forest fire, or like an incinerator's fire. It says that he is like a refiner's fire. A forest fire destroys indiscriminately. An incinerator consumes completely. But verse 6 says, "I the LORD do not change; therefore you, O sons of Jacob, are not consumed—you are not destroyed."

A Word of Warning and a Word of Hope

He is a refiner's fire, and that makes all the difference. A refiner's fire does not destroy indiscriminately like a forest fire. A refiner's fire does not consume completely like the fire of an incinerator. A refiner's fire refines. It purifies. It melts down the bar of silver or gold, separates out the impurities that ruin its value, burns them up, and leaves the silver and gold intact. He is like a refiner's fire.

It does say FIRE. And therefore purity and holiness will always be a dreadful thing. There will always be a proper "fear and trembling" in the process of becoming pure. We learn it from the time we are little children: never play with fire! And it's a good lesson! Therefore, Christianity is never a play thing. And the passion for purity is never flippant. He is like fire and fire is serious. You don't fool around with it.

But it does say, he is like a REFINER'S fire. And therefore this is not merely a word of warning, but a tremendous word of hope. The furnace of affliction in the family of God is always for refinement, never for destruction.

Four Questions About This Text 

Now, to unfold this text, let me ask four questions, and point you to their answers in the Scripture in the time we have.

  1. Who is like a refiner's fire?
  2. Why must he be like a refiner's fire?
  3. How can we experience his fire as refining and not consuming?
  4. What is life like in the refiner's fire?

1. Who Is Like a Refiner's Fire?

Verse 3 gives the answer. As I read it, look for three individuals.

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, behold, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts.

Three Individuals Mentioned

The first individual mentioned is "I"—"Behold, I send . . . " This "I" is identified at the end of the verse: "Says the Lord of hosts." The speaker is Jehovah, God the Father.

The second individual mentioned is Jehovah's messenger who prepares the way. "Behold, I send my messenger to prepare the way before me." Who is this? Well the New Testament quotes this very verse to identify John the Baptist, the one who came to prepare the way for Christ (Matthew 11:10; Mark 1:2; Luke 7:27).

But you don't have to read in from the New Testament that this is a kind of prophet whom God would raise up in the last day. It says in Malachi 4:5, "Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes." So the first messenger mentioned in 3:1 that God will send to prepare his way is a kind of Elijah or one like Elijah. That is why Luke 1:17 says that John the Baptist went before Jesus in the Spirit and the power of Elijah.

The third individual mentioned in verse 1 is "the Lord who comes to his temple." "And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight."

The Identity of the Third Individual

This is another messenger, different from the first. Who is this person? Three things point to the divine Son of God and Messiah.

  1. He is called "Lord"—a term that Malachi would not apply to Elijah or John the Baptist. This person is someone greater.
  2. The temple is said to belong to him: He will suddenly come to "HIS temple." Of whom could you say that he is the owner of the temple of God?
  3. This person seems to be almost identical with Jehovah, not only because Jehovah's temple is his temple, but also because he seems to take the place of the word "me" in the first half of the verse. It says, "Behold, I send my messenger [Elijah=John the Baptist] to prepare the way before ME . . . " But then he switches without any difficulty and instead of saying, "And I will suddenly come to my temple," he says, "And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple." It looks as though "me"—Jehovah—is virtually interchangeable with this other person called the Lord, who owns the temple of God.

So I conclude that the messenger of the covenant, the Lord, the owner of the temple of God, is none other than the Son of God, who is with God and is God, and who came into the world and made himself known to us personally in Jesus Christ.

So when verse 2 goes on to say, "But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears, for he is like a refiner's fire," I conclude that it is talking about the Son of God who came to us in Jesus Christ.

2. Why Must He Be Like a Refiner's Fire?

The answer is implied in the word itself. He must be a like a refiner's because we need to be refined.

We Need to Be Refined

We were created in the image of God with the potential to reverence God and trust him and obey him and glorify him, but we were born in iniquity and in sin did our mothers conceive us. We are shot through with the impurity of rebellion and unbelief, and we fall short of God's glory again and again.

You can prove this to yourself in many ways. For example, you can notice how readily your heart inclines to those things that will show your strengths to other people, and how resistant your heart is to communion with God in solitude.

So we are impure by nature and by practice. But God will have no alloys in heaven. "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God." And yet he will have someone in heaven. He will have a redeemed people. His banquet hall will be full. And therefore he must be a refiner's fire. If he were only a forest fire, heaven would be empty. If he were only an incinerating fire, heaven would be empty. And if he were no fire, heaven would be empty.

Why God Won't Abandon Impure People Like Us

But how do we know heaven will not be empty? Or to put it another way, how do we know that God will not simply abandon impure people like us? We don't deserve salvation? Why are we not simply consumed? Why does Christ come as a refiner's fire and not a forest fire?

Verse 6 gives the answer? "For I the Lord do not change; therefore, you, O sons of Jacob, are not consumed." But by itself that doesn't make sense. What if God were changelessly bent on being a forest fire? What if he were changeless in unrelenting wrath? What sort of changelessness is it that guarantees that we are not consumed?

It is covenant-keeping changelessness. According to verse 1 the Lord comes as "the messenger of the covenant." The reason Jesus is a refiner's fire and not a forest fire is because God made a covenant. And Jesus is the emissary of that covenant. He confirms it and seals it with his blood. So his blood is called in Hebrews 13:20, "the blood of the everlasting covenant."

The book of Malachi began with a statement of how the covenant began. "'I have loved you,' says the Lord. But you say, 'How hast thou loved us?' 'Is not Esau Jacob's brother?' says the LORD. 'Yet I have loved Jacob!'" (1:2). This is what never changes—the free and sovereign choice of God to save sinners. "'I have loved you,' says the Lord . . . 'And I the Lord do not change. Therefore you are not consumed.'" Therefore, Jesus is a refiner's fire and not a forest fire.

3. How Can We Experience His Fire as Refining and Not Consuming?

Verse 5 makes it clear that when God comes, not everyone will be refined. Some will be consumed.

Then I will draw near to you for judgment; I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hireling in his wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the LORD of hosts.

This is not the work of refinement, but the final judgment of condemnation. It is ever clearer in 4:1,

For behold, the day comes burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up, says the LORD of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch.

So when the Lord comes, some are refined and some are consumed. How can we be sure to experience the fire of God as refining and not consuming?

What the Answer Cannot Be

Notice very clearly what the answer cannot be! The answer cannot be: get rid of your own sin. If you got rid of your own sin, you would need no refining. Refining is for sinners! You can't answer the question, How do I qualify to get refined? by saying, Get rid of your sin! That's what refining does—it starts to burn up your sin? But how, then, does a sinner qualify to have his sin burned up? If it takes the merciful fire of God to destroy the rebellion of sin, what can a man do to have that mercy?

The Answer of the Whole Bible

And the answer of the whole Bible is: trust in the purifying mercy God! Or to put it the way Malachi puts it again and again: fear God—which means mainly fear to dishonor him with unbelief. Fear the irreverence of distrust. Fear the impulse to jump out of the refining fire of mercy into the forest fire of judgment because it looks cooler. Trust the goodness of God. Believe that his ways are the ways to infinite joy. Don't doubt his expertise as a Refiner.

He knows the time for joy, and, truly,
Will send it when He sees it meet;
When He has tried and purged thee duly,
And finds thee free from all deceit.
He comes to thee all unaware,
And makes thee own his loving care.

The way to experience the fire of Christ as refining and not consuming is to trust his promise to bring us through the fire to endless joy. Salvation is by grace through faith in the purifying mercy of God.

4. What Is Life Like in the Refiner's Fire?

The most important thing to say is that it is a life of confidence in God. And the foundation of our confidence is this promise: The furnace of affliction in the family of God is always for refinement, never for destruction. "I the Lord do not change; therefore you are not consumed, O sons of Jacob!" Which simply means that life in the refiner's fire is a life of trust in the unchanging, purifying love of God.

And perhaps the next most important thing to say is that there is no painless path to heaven. Why? Because Jesus said, "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God." And it is no more possible to become pure painlessly than it is to be burned painlessly. Purity comes through the refining fire. And the fire has two forms: one is the fire of affliction and the other is the fire of intentional self-denial.

The Fire of Affliction

We see the first fire, for example, in

  • 1 Peter 1:6–7, "Now for a little while you may have to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold, which though perishable is tested by fire, may redound to praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ."
  • James 1:2–4,"Count it all joy, my brethren when you meet various trials, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing."
  • Hebrews 12:5–10, 14, "My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord . . . for the Lord disciplines him whom he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives . . . If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children . . . he disciplines us for our good that we may share his holiness . . . Pursue holiness without which no one will see the Lord."

The Fire of Intentional Self-Denial

And the other form of purifying fire is the fire of intentional self-denial. We see it for example in

  • Matthew 5:29–30, "If your right eye causes you to sin pluck it out . . . and if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away."
  • 1 Corinthians 9:27, "I pommel my body and subdue it."
  • Romans 8:13, "If by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body you will live."

Unshakable Trust in God's Purifying Fire

What is life like in the refiner's fire?

More than anything else it is the unshakable trust that all the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness.

And on the path to purity and heaven the other truth is this: no pain, no gain.

Both things are true: the Lord is like a refiner's fire; and a refiner's fire is a fire.

©2014 Desiring God Foundation. Used by Permission.

Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in physical form, in its entirety or in unaltered excerpts, as long as you do not charge a fee. For posting online, please use only unaltered excerpts (not the content in its entirety) and provide a hyperlink to this page. For videos, please embed from the original source. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Desiring God.

Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By John Piper. ©2014 Desiring God Foundation. Website: desiringGod.org