Although the people imagined that they were looking forward to the coming of the Messiah, the reality would be far different. His arrival would cause great changes to take place. The day of his coming does not refer to the first or to the second comings of Jesus but to both and also to the period in between them. Malachi says that the arrival of the Messenger will result in three effects: purification of the sons of Levi, acceptable worship, and acts of judgement. As is often the case with Old Testament prophecy, we should recognise that divine predictions are given within the limitations of Old Testament circumstances and may contain elements that go far beyond a literal interpretation.
When the Messiah comes he will get rid of the dross and the dirt that marked the lives of the people. A refiner burned the dross out of a metal and soap was used for taking dirty marks of clothes. In particular, the priests would be purified and would be qualified to worship before God. They would only offer suitable sacrifices, which would make the offerings of the people acceptable, as they had been before they began to give to God the worst of their animals. If the people refused to repent and change their ways and begin to live according to God’s law, they would be judged (v. 5).
Jesus will do this throughout the period covered by his two comings. When he came first, he came to Israel. He taught them about the covenants and called them to repentance. It was predicted of him by John that he would baptise with the Spirit and with fire, and on the Day of Pentecost he sent the purifying Spirit to the people of Israel as they gathered in Jerusalem for the Jewish feast. The mission of Jesus to bless the literal Israel continued for many years until they experienced his judgement when Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans. So the fulfilment of this prediction was not found in the people of Israel. Therefore, the fulfilment must be found in the spiritual Israel, God’s people from the nations.
Jesus purifies each person who trusts in him. The process begins with regeneration when the Spirit creates spiritual life in an impure heart. It continues throughout the believer’s life through the divine work of sanctification, which can include times of affliction that are used to burn off the remaining dross in the believer’s life. It will be completed by Jesus when he presents each of his people faultless and pure in the presence of God.
Jesus is also creating a community who worship God as he desires. As Paul wrote to the Philippians, believers worship by the Spirit of God and rejoice in Christ Jesus. Instead of the earthly city of Jerusalem being the location of worship, it now takes place in the heavenly Jerusalem. This worship created by Jesus is marked by unity and permanence. Instead of being performed by a special class of people, all God’s children are priests who offer up spiritual sacrifices.
In addition, the coming of the Messenger means that we are living in the period in which the judgement will take place. At present, the work of purification is proceeding, the worship of God is being restored, and we are waiting for the final judgement to take place. When that time will be, we cannot say, except to note that it will come swiftly. Initially the swiftness may be connected to literal Israel’s refusal to benefit from the presence of the Messiah when Jesus sent the Spirit as the Spirit of fire. Yet, as Peter says, we are hastening the day of God when the final judgement will occur.
The reasons for divine judgement are stated in verse 5. They must have been practised in the days of Malachi and were the causes of divine blessing being withheld. Yet it is also obvious that these practices are common in our society: witchcraft, immorality, indifference to truth, financial oppression, lack of care of the needy, including widows, children and refugees. God takes note of these things, and when a society is guilty of them he will withhold his temporal blessings from them.
The lesson is, the Messenger has come, but are we listening to him?