Sermon preached on Malachi 3:1-6 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 12/13/2015 in Novato, CA.
“But Who Can Endure the Day of His Coming?”
Christmas is about God coming to man. It’s about God coming to man in the person of his only begotten son, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. This passage has long been recognized as a prophecy about that event. And so it has long been a favorite Old Testament passage about Christmas. We see that reflected, for example, in Handel’s Messiah. These verses make up three movements in scene 2 of Part 1 of Handel’s Messiah. That’s the part of Handel’s Messiah that is dealing with the coming of Christ and his birth. In other words, it’s the part that’s about what we celebrate at Christmas.
And so Malachi chapter 3 is a fitting passage to consider today. And as we study this passage, we are reminded that God’s coming to us in his Son is something that was to be greatly desired. This passage reminds us of that. But we also see here that there is something of God’s coming to us that is startling and surprising and surely even shocking to some. And so we will think about those two ideas as we reflect back on that first Christmas today: the great desire for God’s coming, but also the startling nature of it. And yet whenever I think of these things regarding Jesus’ first coming, I can’t help but apply them to his second coming as well. We rightly so have a great desire for his second coming; but when that happens, it will startle many. Let’s then think about these themes from today’s passage with regard to both the first and second comings of Christ.
And so let’s think first about how God’s coming to us in Jesus is something to be greatly desired. At the time of our passage, this was already an expectation. There was quite a lot of prophecy already given to God’s people that spoke of God coming to his people, and it typically was connected with the coming of the Messiah in some way. Of course, we know how all that fits together. Jesus as the Messiah is God come in the flesh to mankind. And so at the time of this passage, the people had messianic hopes that in some way or another God would come to them. We see that hope mentioned here in Malachi.
We see it referenced in passing in verse 1. It says “the LORD whom you seek.” And referring to the messiah, it says “even the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight.” There’s this language of seeking and delighting, and it’s put in the context of wanting God to come in his Messiah. And that’s what verse 1 announces. At the end there, it says, “Behold he is coming!” And so not only do we see the desire for God to come in his messiah, but this passage assured them that in fact he is coming!
And so flash forward to the start of the New Testament, and we see that continued desire for the coming of the Lord. Think of the songs that start out Luke’s gospel. Mary’s song; the song by Zechariah who was John the Baptist’s father. Even the angel’s song at Jesus’ birth. These were songs that expressed the excitement that the Lord was finally coming to his people! And then remember people like Simeon and Anna the prophetess who were at the temple when Jesus was first there as a baby. Simeon and Anna had clearly been seeking the coming of the Lord. Or remember even the Magi, how they had been somehow been on the lookout for him. Or I remember what we see in John’s gospel. Like how when Philip first met Jesus, he went in great excitement and told his brother Nathaniel that they had found the promised Christ. Or similarly when Jesus in John’s gospel speaks to that Samaritan women at the well, it was clear that even the Samaritans were eagerly desiring the coming of the Messiah.
And so in this passage we see a desire for the Lord’s coming to his people. That’s a desire that continued on into the start of the New Testament even. And as we celebrate Christmas each year, it’s a desire we can appreciate. In a sense, many people rehearse that same desire during the Christmas season. If you use an advent calendar, that’s what you are doing. You are counting down the days until Christmas arrives. If you use an advent candle at home, it’s the same idea. This is the reason so many kids have trouble sleeping the night before Christmas, because they are so filled with desire and expectation to finally celebrate Christmas. Of course, we know, that a big part of why kids are so excited is because they can’t wait to open their Christmas presents. And yet that only further makes the point. Because we rightly recognize that God coming to us in Jesus is the greatest gift of all. And so there is something to desire greatly in the coming of Jesus. And so when people celebrate Christmas like that, it becomes an analogy of the kind of eager anticipation people had back then, so longing for the Lord to come to them. That was a right desire. And of course, we should certainly have that desire about him coming again to us.
Though I might add that this passage puts a little spin on this idea for us, if we look at the previous verse. The verse right before our passage, really is the context for this passage. And the verse right before actually describes a complaint by some of the people at that time. In verse 17 of chapter 3, we see that some of the people had been complaining of all the injustices that were going on. Part of that complaint was expressed in these words, “Where is the God of justice?” And so there you have a desire for God to come and bring justice for his people. That leads naturally into our passage which tells them basically the good news that indeed God is on his way.
And yet then you get to verse 2 of our passage. Verse 2 begins to show us that when the Lord did finally come to his people, there would be something startling about it. For in verse 2 it asks this about his coming, “But who can endure the day of His coming?” The idea is this. The people are so excited about his coming, but when he finally gets here, are you sure you will be so happy about it? People are even complaining about him not being her yet, but are you sure you will really want him to come? Malachi startles us with the revelation that when God comes he will bring two responses. I will summarize it like this. To the enemies of God, he will bring judgment. That’s verse 5. But even to those who are God’s people, he will bring a refiners fire to purge them clean, to remove all the things that shouldn’t be there. That’s verses 2 and 3. The implication is that there is no one righteous, no not one. That even the most righteous humans on earth will still need to endure the refining fire of God.
Think about that refining a little more. Remember when Jesus came, a very literal example of this is when he went to the temple on Palm Sunday. He came in and cleaned house, so to speak. In great zeal he denounced what the Jews had been doing with the temple, turning into more of a marketplace than a house of prayer. And so remember that Jesus is called a messenger of the covenant in verse 1. That’s what the prophets were in general. They came speaking to the people with regard to the covenant. Their common message was that the people were violating the covenant. I think of even the language that the prophet Jeremiah used — that the people had broken the covenant and were in need of a new one. And so when Jesus finally came, he continued on that message. He taught the people and explained all the ways that they were not keeping the covenant. He called them to repent of such sins and return to the Lord in righteousness. This is all part of the purification that Jesus brought to his people. Of course this is ultimately a good thing for God’s people. It’s good for God to ultimately remove their sins and impurities. It’s a cleansing process. But nonetheless this does confront God’s people, that if they thought that it was everyone else who were the wicked ones, then they needed to be awoken to the sin in their own lives. They needed to recognize that God would start by purging and cleansing in his own house. As ultimately joyful it is that God would do this among his people, the actual process of such purging and cleansing may in fact may not be that easy to go through.
And so then think a little bit about that judgment that is mentioned here in verse 6. It says that God will be a swift witness against all the sorcerers, and adulterers, and perjurers, and those who exploit the widows and the orphans and the aliens. This isn’t talking about fatherly chastisement. This isn’t talking about a refining and purging. It’s talking about God’s wrath being poured out upon those who are God’s enemies. And I remember when Jesus came that he directed some of this against people who probably didn’t expect to have it directed against them. Think of a chapter like Matthew 23 where Jesus issues woe after woe to the scribes and Pharisees. Those woes were words of curse and judgment upon them for their religious hypocrisy.
And it’s this idea that fits well with this passage from Malachi. We mentioned the verse that precedes this passage where some of God’s people were complaining against God, essentially demanding he come and bring judgment. And the startling thing is that he announces that he is coming, but essentially warning them that some of them might find themselves in the judgment. And even those who do not, should be greatly humbled because they are in need of major refining and purification.
And so this is a bit startling. Going back to the Christmas analogy, of how kids are so excited about Christmas, this is almost like having all that anticipation for Christmas only to wake up and go to the tree and find that all you have is coal waiting for you. Or worse, that instead of opening presents you have to undergo parental discipline for some really bad thing that you did and your parents had finally found out. All your great desire for Christmas suddenly would change its tone under such circumstances. And so the point here is that yes, on the one hand, the people back then should be excited about God coming in his Messiah. But on the other hand, they should recognize what his coming entails. Yes, it involves bringing judgment on the wicked, but that means you better do some soul searching yourself. And even for those who do belong to God’s people, they should expect God to do some serious housecleaning when he arrives.
Looking ahead then again to Christ, we think of how wonderfully he brought these two ministries together. Jesus came to bring refining to some, and judgment to others. And yet why should any endure the day of his coming? Ultimately, every human is a sinner deserving of judgment. Why should some, by the grace of God, experience purification and cleansing, while others receive judgment? Don’t both groups deserve judgment? Well, that is what the cross is all about. On the cross, Jesus would go and receive the judgment in the place of those whom he would refine with his refiner’s fire. That’s how Jesus can offer to us purification and refinement from our sins, instead of judgment and condemnation. If he paid for your sins on the cross, then there no longer remains a judgment for us. And that’s what the gospel is so wonderfully about. If we repent of our sins and turn to Christ in faith, then all our guilt has been answered by the cross. Then on the cross, Jesus already paid for our sins, he already bore the judgment they deserved. Praise be to God.
And so here is the application of this second point. Looking back at Jesus’ coming to this world, there are two aspects of his coming: either for refining or for judgment. There is no sense in which he came to a people that didn’t need either. No one back then at Jesus’ birth could stand there waiting with open arms and say, “Finally, you’ve come to save righteous me from all these wicked people!” In the same way, when Jesus comes back, none of us will be able to act like that toward Jesus. And so this is still so applicable for us today. As you seek to relate to Jesus today, realize you will relate to him in only one of these two ways. You will either know his refiners fire in your life, or you will know his judgment. Or let me put it another way, if you haven’t begun to know the refiners fire of Jesus in your life, then you are under his judgment. If that is you, then his first coming will have only served to further condemn you in this way, and his second coming will finish the job.
And so this brings us to our third point for today. What should become clear by this point is that our only hope is to receive Jesus as the refiners fire and not as the judgment of God’s wrath. And so in our third point I refer us back to verse 1. It mentions there a messenger that would be sent ahead of the Lord. We know from the New Testament that this ultimately refers to John the Baptist (Matthew 11:10). John himself preached a message of repentance before Jesus came. And of course, even Malachi, in this passage, is doing something similar. Malachi himself, as he utters these words, has a similar effect. He is calling people to prepare for the Lord’s coming. The idea is that you want to endure the day of Christ’s coming. You don’t want to be destroyed in judgment when he comes. So, in God’s grace, he sent John as a messenger ahead of Jesus’ coming. And he actually sent other messengers too like Malachi. And in fact when Jesus came, it was only his first coming, not his final coming. So, that Jesus’ first coming becomes a sort of message in advance of his final coming. And even now, Jesus himself has sent his church full of messengers out into the world to yet call people to repent ahead of his final coming. And that is even what I have the privilege to do for you today. I call you each to be ready for the final coming of our Lord.
For on that day, when he comes, he will again have this twofold function. He will come to complete the purification of his people while at the same time come to bring a final judgment upon his enemies. And so as this Christmas approaches, we not only look back to the first coming of Christ, but we look forward to the final coming of Christ. What is our relationship with Christ? Will he come to complete the refining process in us, or will he come in swift and terrible judgment against us. Malachi’s message today would have caused many among God’s people to ask this same question of themselves. It should have caused some soul searching and examination among them.
And that is my hope for us today. As we reflect back on the first coming of Christ, I want to make sure we are all ready for his second coming. The Bible talks about the importance of spiritual examination. We talk about this whenever we partake of the Lord’s Supper. And it’s certainly fitting to do all the time, particularly when we study God’s word. In the words of 2 Corinthians 13:5, “Examine yourselves as to whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves.” It says we should look to see if Christ is in you.
What does that examination look like? Well, in light of today’s passage, we should recognize the refining fire of Christ in your life. You can look for this in your faith. 1 Peter 1 talks about how one of the things we need purified is our faith. We need Jesus working through his Word and Spirit to be removing those things from your faith that are not biblical so that you can all the more trust in Christ to save you from your sins. And so look for your faith to be growing like that. Another way you can see Christ’s refining fire is in your repentance. Are you seeking to repent of your sins and grow in godliness? Do you find fruit of God’s Spirit taking place in your thoughts, words, and deeds? When some of the Pharisees came to John to be baptized, he told them that they should bear fruit in keeping with their repentance. Do you see that fruit coming forth from your heart, reflecting that Christ the refiner’s fire is living within you? In other words, do you see evidence that you have a living faith, one in which Christ’s refining fire is at work within you?
Of course, if you do this examination and find that you do not have a real faith in Christ, the good news is that there is yet time to be saved. Repent of your sins. Turn in faith to Jesus. Be saved from the wrath of God to come!
And so in closing we return to that powerful question in verse 2. “But who can endure the day of his coming?” The answer is only his chosen ones, and only then by his grace. And you are one of those if you have come to a saving faith in Jesus Christ.
And so I have had the joy of being another messenger of these truths today. Let us then, as those who’ve come into a saving relationship with Jesus, really seek then his purification and refining. Yes, it can be difficult. It is humbling to know that God says there are things about you that need to change. You know, sometimes you hear from Christians that God accepts you just the way you are. That’s unfortunately a slogan that is so prone to being misunderstood. It is true that God receives sinners by grace through faith, with all their failings and shortcomings. But God’s plan for your life is something more than that. God doesn’t just receive us how we are and leave us like that. No, God saves sinners with a plan to refine them and purify them and to purge out from them all the things that shouldn’t be there. Again, that can be difficult at times. It means that in this life, there will be surely things that God is calling you to give up, filthy language, sexual immorality, gossiping, bad thoughts, lies, etc, etc. The refining process can seem difficult at times. But it is ultimately an expression of God’s love for us. It is ultimately a good thing. It’s like verse 6. “Therefore you are not consumed.” God’s people may find the refining hard at times, but it will not utterly consume us. We will endure the day of his coming. We will endure his refiner’s fire and his launderer’s soap. Not because of our own ability. But in his faithfulness to his redeeming grace.
Let us then celebrate again the first coming of Christ, as we await eagerly his second coming. Amen.
Copyright © 2015 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.