Sermon preached on Malachi 3:1-6 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 12/04/2011 in Novato, CA.
“The Lord, Whom You Seek, Will Suddenly Come”
We’ve just recently wrapped up the Thanksgiving holiday and now we are full swing in the Christmas season. Well, Thanksgiving of course, reminds us to be thankful. And the Christmas season commemorates the advent of Christ into this world to save us. And these two different holidays are closely situated next to each other on our calendars. We talk about them marking out the holiday season. And yet we can see good reason for these two holidays to be so close to each other. For when we have Thanksgiving, how can we not also think about the coming of Jesus. We have so many things we thank God for at Thanksgiving. And yet what is the greatest thing we should thank God for? It’s Jesus. We should be thankful chiefly for Jesus. We should thank God for salvation. We should be thankful for the advent of Christ into this world to live and die and rise again for us. And so as we resume our study through Malachi today we find that we have a perfect passage for the advent season. This is a passage about the coming of Jesus Christ. Well, as we study it today, in this time between Thanksgiving and Christmas, let us think of how thankful we are because Christ has come!
So then, remember with me the context of our passage. Last week we looked particularly at chapter 2, verse 17. That’s when we saw Israel asking a question. They asked, “Where is the God of justice?” We discussed how they asked it arrogantly, with the wrong spirit. And yet the question still stood. With all God’s good promises to come to his people and restore them, where was he? With all the troubles they were facing, where was he? They had accused God of indifference and of injustice in their question. And so God does not let the question go unanswered. Our verses today are the answer to that question. Where is the God of justice? Verse 1. Behold he is coming! But first, he will send a messenger. Someone to prepare the way. Isaiah 40 also predicted this – preparing the way for the Lord. Who is that? Well, the New Testament tells us. It was John the Baptist. Matthew 11:10 specifically quotes verse 1 here and says this forerunner was John the Baptist. The New Testament then also shows us that the prophecies about God coming to his people are fulfilled in Jesus. Jesus is God coming to his people – the Messiah who also God incarnate. The advent of the Messiah is the advent of God.
And so the people when they hear this probably would have got very excited. Some of them probably remembered Isaiah’s prophecy which had indeed talked about God coming to the people but first sending a forerunner. God was saying here that he had not forgotten about his promise. It would indeed come to pass. Surely this would have sparked some joy, and some thanksgiving at the reiterated promise.
And yet the prophecy takes a surprising turn at verse 2. God is coming. The Day of the Lord is coming. But who can endure the day of his coming? The prophet Amos had discussed this somewhat too. You see the people were complaining that he hadn’t come yet. They assumed that his coming would be a great day for them. A pleasant day. Malachi challenges that assumption. Malachi chooses to emphasize two aspects of God’s coming today. First, he says that God’s coming would be for refinement and purification. Second, he says that God’s coming would be for judgment. For those who are to be true followers of God, there is going to be a turning back to God in repentance and faith – coming in the form of a refiner’s fire. For those who are not, they will taste of God’s judgment and wrath. This is what God would do when he comes. In other words, this is what Jesus would do when he comes.
So let’s spend some time thinking about these two aspects of Christ’s coming. His refining and purification, and then his judgment. First, we’ll consider his refining and purification. This is verses 2-4. Verse 2 first connects the difficulty of standing when Christ comes with this task of refining and purification. The imagery is that of a refiner’s fire and a launderer’ soap. The imagery of a refiner’s fire is that of melting away impurities. As I understand, what you would do is heat up a metal you want to refine and purify. Say you heat up some silver. The silver would melt before the impurities would melt. So, when the silver becomes a liquid, solid metal impurities would float to the top. That’s called the dross – the solid impurities that come out of the melted silver. A refiner would then whisk away this dross and throw it out. What is left is the purified silver. The idea is you are getting rid of the bad stuff. The launderer’s soap is a similar image. They didn’t use the kind of laundry detergent we have today. This soap was basically a kind of bleach. It would bleach the garments to make them white. To remove the stains. You’d have at the end a garment purified by the bleach, hopefully free of stain.
And so this imagery is the imagery of getting to the good stuff. Getting rid of the impurities and the stains and getting to the good things underneath. God’s people have need of this. We need the sin and unbelief and false doctrines refined away, bleached out of our lives. Malachi is saying that when the Christ comes, this is what he would do. Well, did Christ do this? Yes! In fact, we can understand this prophecy as something that finds initial fulfillment at Christ’s first coming. It’s a fulfillment that then has an ongoing effect. And we can see that this prophecy has something that finds its ultimate fulfillment at Christ’s second coming.
So let’s think about that then. How has Christ already refined and purified his people? How is he continuing to do this? How will he do this when he comes again? Well, when Jesus came the first time, we can definitely see how he had a refining and purifying purpose. His forerunner, John the Baptist, started this, and he carried it on. John had a ministry calling people to repentance – turn back to God. Turn from those sins. Jesus began his ministry with the same message – repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand. Think then of how he especially challenged the religious leaders of the time. He looked to purify the Pharisees and scribes for example, and return to sound doctrine and godly living. Malachi here obviously has the concern that this refinement especially happens to the religious leaders. Verse 3 applies it first to the priests. Verse 4 then afterwards brings in people – Judah and Jerusalem will worship rightly. Well, Jesus showed a big concern to call the religious leaders of his day to reform. Many, rejected his call. But some did receive it. You can think of Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea – members of the Jewish ruling council and religious leaders – people Jesus was refining. Or think of the temple cleansing Jesus did. That again was part of his work as a refiner’s fire and a launderer’ soap. He was looking to return the people to proper worship. In a very different way, his purifying power was seen through his miracles. He made lepers clean, raised the dead, healed the sick. That was his power to purify those unclean from a religious perspective, showing his ability to clean the whole man. Of course, this passage in Malachi has a big concern that Jesus would purify the Levitical priesthood – that’s verse 3. How did he do that specifically? Well, the book of Hebrews tells us that he did that by bringing that priesthood to its ultimate fulfillment. The Levitical priesthood looked to a better sacrifice and better high preist to come. Jesus came as the great high priest who offered himself as the perfect sacrifice. Now, because of that sacrifice, God’s people all are a kingdom of priests, able to draw near to God. All of this was how Christ was refining and purifying his people and his priesthood when he came.
But this refining work continues. Jesus continues as a refiner’s fire in our lifes. He does this by his Holy Spirit. The whole point of the Holy Spirit is that Jesus is still with us. He lives inside each believer now. The refiners’ fire is inside each of us. That’s what Peter in 1 Peter chapter 1 can talk about how our trials in life refine our faith right now. Jesus hasn’t left us. The refiner’s fire has not been removed. It continues its refining and purifying process in the lives of believers. This is our Christian sanctification process.
And this refining work then is completed by Jesus at his second coming. Isaiah 1:25 prophesies of the final coming of Christ when he brings a new Jerusalem – a city of righteousness. Isaiah says that will happen when God thoroughly purges away the dross from God’s people. Then they will be a city of righteousness. Well, we know in the book of Revelation that happens at Christ’s return. When the New Jerusalem comes down out of heaven. Then Christ will complete the refinement in each Christian’s heart. Revelation 7:14 talks about this too, using the launderer image – that Christians are those who have washed our robes and made them white in the blood of Jesus. One last passage – Ephesians 5:27 says that Jesus work of refinement on the church is with the goal that he may present the church to himself without spot or wrinkle, that we would be holy and blameless. There its marriage language – what will happen at the day of Christ’s return. We the church will be presented to Christ as his bride. At that point, the refinement process will be complete. We’ll be changed in a twinkling of an eye, made perfect in holiness at that point. The refiner’s fire will be complete.
And so, obviously, this is supposed to be a positive thing. You want to remove the impurities from the good metal. You want to remove the stains from the garment. This is what Christ has done, is doing, and will do, in our lives. And yet verse 2 here puts a lot of tension on this. Who can endure this? Who can stand under it. You see, the question is raised – when this happens, will there be anything left of us? The people of Malachi’s day assumed they were only righteous people and that God somehow owed them something. But Malachi challenges them – when he comes he will start refining – will there be anything good left when he brings that refiner’s fire to your life.
You see, that brings us to the second purpose Malachi mentions here with regard to Christ’s coming. Not only will he come for refinement, he will also come for judgment. Verse 5, I will come near you for judgment. He says he will be a swift witness against them. That’s courtroom language. Yes, for some God will come as a refiners fire. For others, he will come in judgment. He will condemn them for their unrighteousness. Verse 5 is a sample list. But it’s the simple point that sin deserves judgment. Those characterized by sin will be under judgment. Those identified with sin who have not sought to return to God in repentance, they will be under judgment. Realize how this answers the question in 2:17. Where is the God of justice? He is indeed coming. He will bring justice and judgment. Sin will be ultimately punished. God will bring every work into judgment, including every secret thing. Justice will be served.
Well, this passage clearly finds fulfillment in Christ’s second coming. At that point Revelation 20 says that the Great White Throne Judgment will take place. At that point, this courtroom language finds a very literal interpretation. Those who have not found forgiveness and grace in Jesus will be cast into the eternal lake of fire. Then justice will be served in its finality. No crime will be left unpunished at that point.
And yet this does not mean that God did not draw near for judgment at Christ’s first coming. Yes, Christ did condemn sin in his first coming, but I’m not referring to that right now. I’m talking about the judgment of the cross. You see, when you see the two purposes of Jesus, you have to wonder why the two tasks, refinement and judgment? Why doesn’t everyone just find judgment? Why are some refined when others are judged? For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. All sin deserves God’s wrath and curse. The God of justice must judge that sin to maintain justice. Well, that is what the cross is all about. At Christ’s first coming, God did draw near in judgment as well. There the sins of all God’s people are brought to justice. Christ, in our place, took that punishment. God’s fiery wrath was poured out upon him in our place.
And so who indeed can stand? Who can endure the Lord’s coming? Well, this is why verse 6 is such good news. Verse 6, “For I am the LORD, I do not change; therefore you are not consumed, O sons of Jacob.” When the God of justice comes, we sinners should not arrogantly assume it will be good for us and bad for everyone else. Rather, we must realize who God is. God is a God of justice. And yet God is also a God of grace and mercy. And he is also a God who keeps his promises. Because of this, we have the hope that we will not be consumed. We will not be destroyed in judgment, and we will not be consumed by the refiner’s fire. How? Through what means? Through faith in Christ. Those who respond to God’s call to return to him through Christ are those that are not consumed. That’s why verse 7 goes on to issue a call of repentance.
And yet the reason why God can be a God of justice, and yet not judge us who are sinners is because of Christ. It’s that he stood in our place, that God put his judgment on him for us. That’s why we are not consumed. So then, let us turn to Christ. Let us acknowledge that we need his forgiveness. And let us acknowledge that we need his refinement and purification in our lives. Let us humbly acknowledge then that there is a sobering aspect of his coming. And yet let us also have that soberness give way to joy. Joy that for us this refinement is a great thing. Yes, not always an easy thing. 1 Peter’s talk of refining fire through suffering is a difficult thing when its happening. But we can count it all joy when we see his cleansing hand in our lives. We don’t need the sin and the lies of Satan corrupting our lives. We want righteousness and truth to be our foundation. That’s what Jesus is doing in our lives right now by his Holy Spirit. It’s the fulfillment of this passage that has that happening in our lives. And so in all of this, we see its God’s grace that we are not consumed. Praise be to God.
Well then, let us see that one of the specific things God wants to be refining in his people is their worship. If you haven’t caught it yet so far in Malachi, this is a major theme. The priests had been leading the people improperly in their worship. The people themselves were culpable when they brought their blemished and sickly animals as something to offer to God. The people in last chapter are seen as mourning over how ineffective their worship seems. They blame God for it, but God shows that the problem lies in them. The next issue addressed in this chapter is that the people were robbing God by not giving their tithes – again, something that was supposed to be an act of worship by the people. And so Malachi 3 addresses this problem of worship. The most central thing described in this passage is that God will refine the worship. Verse 3 – right offerings will again be made, through the spiritual leaders of the people. Verse 4, the people as a whole, will rightly worship God again. That was something God was doing in his peoples’ lives through the sending of Jesus.
That’s what the temple cleansing represented, to say the least. But we’ve talked today how Christ’s refining firing is an already thing, an ongoing thing, and a not yet thing. His refining work has been accomplished, is being accomplished, and has not yet been accomplished. This means that right now we can and should look for this to be happening in our worship service. We should see this passage as a call for us to look at our worship service and see how God would continue to be refining our worship. That means there likely are things in our worship that need to be removed – impurities and stains that need removal. That requires biblical reflection to consider what those things are.
Oh, that we would have Christ’s zeal for this. That zeal that he showed as he overturned the money changers in the temple. The zeal that said that the temple was to be a house of prayer, not a place for so many other worldly things. Just think of the ways we can have the wrong mind here. The very fact that God had to come here shows us what worship is about. It’s other-worldly; more so it’s heavenly. It’s engaging with the God whose throne is in heaven. The God who is above all. Yes, we worship on earth. Yes, we use physical, material, things to help us – hymnals, printed Bibles, microphones, etc. But chiefly it’s a spiritual experience that goes beyond the things of this world. Let us have a zeal for what we do here. May we look to set aside our normal cares. Our careers, even our worldly recreations, when we come here. Let us look to really worship God with all that we are.
That means let us be ever on guard of the things that can derail us in this right worship. We can miss the reverence for God by thinking too lowly of this time. We can miss the purpose of this, thinking that you come to be entertained or socialized, rather than the obligation to assemble and worship the God who has drawn near to you. We can become so focused on what God should be giving you, instead of looking how you can give of all that you have to him, as an act of worship.
And so in other words, it’s so easy to go through the motions on Sundays. That was such a problem for the people at Malachi’s day. We have to be so on guard against this. Surely, this is a temptation that churches can have, and our church can have. Don’t let the fact that we meet weekly and due the same kinds of things each week, turn this into something ordinary. Something you just do as your routine. Examine your heart with worship. Keep reminding yourselves of the holiness of worship, of the reverence in worship, of the order we should have in worship, and of the power of worship. Keep asking how you can each week offer your entire self as an offering to God afresh this week. Set God’s glory as your chief aim for this time.
As I urge us to do this, be encouraged. Christ is the refiner’s fire. Christ is the launderer’s soap. He’s the one who brings about refining and cleansing. This does not mean we should not try to reform our worship. No, it’s the reason why we try to reform our worship. But it’s also another reason to worship. Thank the Lord for his refining work in our lives and in our church.
In our Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, that is something we thank him for. And even more general, we thank him that Christ has come. And Christ is coming. Think of the people in Malachi’s day. How eager they were for the Messiah to come. How many missed it when he did. How many did not thank God because of that. But for those who did recognize Jesus, they thanked God. Like Anna the prophetess in Luke 2. She was waiting for Malachi 3:1 to be fulfilled. She was at the temple when it was fulfilled. Malachi 3:1 said that suddenly God would come to his temple. Well there he was. Little baby Jesus was at the temple. So what did Anna do when she saw Jesus in the temple? Luke 2:38, “She gave thanks to the Lord.”
As we sit between Thanksgiving and Christmas, thank the Lord especially that Malachi chapter 3 has been fulfilled. Behold, the Lord has come to his temple. He has come to his people. In the midst of it all, we have endured his coming because Christ suffered for us. He now lovingly refines us as his people. This is the greatest foundation for our thanksgiving. It’s what we do in our worship – we thank God for coming to us in Jesus. Coming to save us. Thank you, Lord Jesus, thank you! Amen.
Copyright © 2011 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.