Malachi Series: Understanding the God of Justice (Mal 2:17-3:6)
Updated: Jun 10
Understanding the God of Justice
You have wearied the Lord with your words. But you say, “How have we wearied him?” Because you say, “Everyone who does evil is good in the Lord’s opinion, and he delights in them,” or “Where is the God of justice?” “I am about to send my messenger, who will clear the way before me. Indeed, the Lord you are seeking will suddenly come to his temple, and the messenger of the covenant, whom you long for, is certainly coming,” says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies. Who can endure the day of his coming? Who can keep standing when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire, like a launderer’s soap. He will act like a refiner and purifier of silver and will cleanse the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then they will offer the Lord a proper offering. The offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in former times and years past. “I will come to you in judgment. I will be quick to testify against those who practice divination; those who commit adultery; those who break promises, and those who exploit workers, widows, and orphans, who refuse to help resident foreigner and in this way show they do not fear me,” says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies.
Malachi 2:17-3:6 (NET)
How can God be just when the righteous commonly suffer and the wicked prosper in the world? Many have struggled with this question. Asaph struggled with this question as he wrote Psalm 73. In verses 12-13, he said,
Take a good look. This is what the wicked are like, those who always have it so easy and get richer and richer. I concluded, “Surely in vain I have kept my motives pure and maintained a pure lifestyle.
Jeremiah also struggled with this. In Jeremiah 12:1, he said:
Lord, you have always been fair whenever I have complained to you. However, I would like to speak with you about the disposition of justice. Why are wicked people successful? Why do all dishonest people have such easy lives?
Habakkuk also struggled with this as he asked God, “How long, Lord, must I cry out for help?” (Hab 1:2) and “Why do you force me to witness injustice?” (Hab 1:3). With Asaph, Jeremiah, and Habakkuk, though they struggled with this question, they maintained their faith in God. However, with the post-exilic Jews in Malachi, it evidently led some to atheism. Malachi 2:17 says,
You have wearied the Lord with your words. But you say, “How have we wearied him?” Because you say, “Everyone who does evil is good in the Lord’s opinion, and he delights in them,” or “Where is the God of justice?”
Some attacked God’s character saying he delighted in the wicked. And, when others said, “Where is the God of justice?” it seems they were doubting whether God even existed. Apparently, they were focusing on the wicked who prospered amongst the Jews and trying to figure out why they were prospering. Malachi 3:5 implies that some of the wealthy Jews were oppressing their workers and the poor in general, including the widows and orphans. It says,
I will come to you in judgment. I will be quick to testify against those who practice divination; those who commit adultery; those who break promises, and those who exploit workers, widows, and orphans, who refuse to help resident foreigner and in this way show they do not fear me,” says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies.
Therefore, the righteous Jews were struggling with God’s justice or existence since justice was delayed. However, the post-exilic Jews may have also been focusing on the pagans around them. At this time, the Jews were under the rule of the Persians who were a wicked people. They also had Samaritan neighbors who were constantly harassing them. They were looking at the wicked in their nation and the wicked nations around them who were prospering while they suffered. The prosperity of the wicked caused them to doubt God’s character and for some to doubt whether he existed. No doubt, some questioned, why hadn’t God answered his promises in Scripture to punish the wicked? In Isaiah 13:11, God said, “I will punish the world for its evil, and wicked people for their sin. I will put an end to the pride of the insolent, I will bring down the arrogance of tyrants.” Evidently, some in the nation were waiting for God to send his messiah to bring justice and make all things right. In Malachi 3:1, God mentions the coming of “the Lord” whom they were seeking and longing for. They wanted the messiah to come and judge their enemies and bless the nation of Israel; however, God’s delay provoked skepticism and atheism.
Certainly, many struggle with these questions today. “Why do the wicked have their own reality TV shows? Why do they get elected to the highest political positions in the land? Why do our spiritual leaders commonly abuse their authority, mistreat their people, and live for money instead of God?” Some have left the church over these realities, while others have become atheists or agnostics like some in Israel.
When considering the post-exilic Jews and their complaints against God, it’s clear that their distrust wearied and angered God. In Malachi 2:17, Malachi said, “You have wearied the Lord with your words.” Though Isaiah 40:28 says God “does not get tired or weary,” at least in a physical sense, sin clearly emotionally wearies him and that’s what the post-exilic Jews were doing as they attacked his character and being. Isaiah 43:24 says, “You did not buy me aromatic reeds; you did not present to me the fat of your sacrifices. Yet you burdened me with your sins; you made me weary with your evil deeds.” However, though wearied, God answered the post-exilic Jews, so they could repent and put their trust in him.
In this study, we’ll consider principles about God’s justice, so we can be confident both in his existence and his righteousness while living in a sinful world and sometimes a sinful church. Apart from understanding God’s justice, we’ll be tempted to sin and turn away from him like many were doing in Israel.
Big Question: According to Malachi 2:17-3:6, what principles can we learn about God’s justice and how can we apply them to our lives?
God’s Justice Was Revealed at Christ’s First Coming and in His Continual Sanctification of His People
“I am about to send my messenger, who will clear the way before me. Indeed, the Lord you are seeking will suddenly come to his temple, and the messenger of the covenant, whom you long for, is certainly coming,” says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies. Who can endure the day of his coming? Who can keep standing when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire, like a launderer’s soap. He will act like a refiner and purifier of silver and will cleanse the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then they will offer the Lord a proper offering. The offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in former times and years past.
When answering the question, “Where is the God of justice?” God pointed to the first coming of Christ. In Malachi 3:1, he said, “I am about to send my messenger, who will clear the way before me.” When God said this, he was referring to an earlier prophecy in Isaiah 40:3-5 about a voice crying out for preparations to be made for the coming of the messiah. It says:
A voice cries out, “In the wilderness clear a way for the Lord; build a level road through the rift valley for our God. Every valley must be elevated, and every mountain and hill leveled. The rough terrain will become a level plain, the rugged landscape a wide valley. The splendor of the Lord will be revealed, and all people will see it at the same time. For the Lord has decreed it.”
Both Isaiah’s and Malachi’s prophecies reflect the ancient practice of preparations for a coming king. When a king was going to visit a city, he would send a messenger before him to tell the people to prepare for his coming. In response, the people would go out to the roads to remove the debris (rocks, branches, trash, etc.) to make it easier for the king to visit. The post-exilic Jews were familiar with this prophecy. In fact, as mentioned, when they were questioning, “Where is the God of justice?” they may have been referring to the prophecies about the coming messiah who would bring justice. Therefore, God was encouraging them. The messiah was, in fact, going to come and bring justice. He was called the “messenger of the covenant” (3:1). This meant that he would fulfill the promise to Eve that her seed would defeat the devil and his works (Gen 3:15; cf. 1 John 3:8). He would fulfill God’s promise to Abraham that his seed would be a blessing to all nations (Gen 22:18). He would fulfill the Davidic covenant in that he would build the temple and have an everlasting reign on David’s throne (2 Sam 7:12-16). He would perfectly fulfill the Mosaic covenant in that he was born under the law and never broke it, and he would be the perfect lamb that would be slain for Israel and the nations of the world (Gal 4:4, Matt 5:17, John 1:29, Rev 13:18). In addition, he would initiate the New Covenant with his blood on the cross and send the Holy Spirit to indwell his people (cf. Matt 28:26, John 14:26, 1 Cor 11:25). He would fulfill all the covenants and ultimately bring justice on the earth; however, the post-exilic Jews who desired his coming were not yet ready for him. They needed to prepare spiritually, and God would send a different messenger to help them prepare for the coming King.
John the Baptist or Elijah
Who was this messenger? Malachi 4:5-6 gives us more information about him. In it, God says,
Look, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the Lord arrives. He will encourage fathers and their children to return to me, so that I will not come and strike the earth with judgment.”
God promised to send Elijah before the coming of the messiah. How was this fulfilled? As with many Old Testament prophecies, this seems to have a dual fulfillment (cf. 2 Sam 7:12-16). In Matthew 17:10-13, Christ said that John the Baptist fulfilled this role:
The disciples asked him, “Why then do the experts in the law say that Elijah must come first?” He answered, “Elijah does indeed come first and will restore all things. And I tell you that Elijah has already come. Yet they did not recognize him, but did to him whatever they wanted. In the same way, the Son of Man will suffer at their hands.” Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them about John the Baptist.
Even the angel who prophesied to Zechariah, John’s father, said this in Luke 1:17:
And he will go as forerunner before the Lord in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers back to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared for him.
With that said, this prophecy also seems to have a later fulfillment at Christ’s second coming. In Revelation 11:6, we see an Elijah-like figure and a Moses-like figure who have power to close up the sky so it doesn’t rain, turn the waters to blood, and strike the earth with a curse, as they prophesy and call people to repent before Christ comes. It says,
These two have the power to close up the sky so that it does not rain during the time they are prophesying. They have power to turn the waters to blood and to strike the earth with every kind of plague whenever they want.
Since Moses and Elijah met with Christ at the Mount of Transfiguration (Matt 17), many Bible students believe these two figures will again serve Christ in the end times. As people needed to be spiritually prepared for Christ’s first coming, people will need to be spiritually prepared for Christ’s second coming. The near fulfillment in John the Baptist and far fulfillment in Elijah can probably be seen in Christ’s words in Matthew 17:11-12: “Elijah does indeed come first and will restore all things. And I tell you that Elijah has already come.” The future and present tense language Christ used referred to a future coming of Elijah and one that was current as of that time. The future coming will probably be fulfilled by Elijah himself, even John the Baptist fulfilled it in the past.
Ultimately, God told the discouraged Jews to not give up hope in God’s justice, even though the world was in disarray. Justice would come soon through the messiah who would go to the temple and begin to cleanse people like a metal refiner (3:1-4). Around 400 years later, in fulfillment of this prophecy, Christ did come to the earth. As a baby, he was taken to the temple where Simeon and the prophetess Anna spoke blessings over him (Luke 2:22-38, Mal 3:1). He went there as a child during Passover and the religious teachers marveled at his questions and answers (Lk 2). He also went there as an adult to throw out the money changers who were cheating God’s people (John 2:12-16, Matt 21:12). He also contended with the religious leaders of Israel throughout his ministry to cleanse them from sin. He called them blind guides, hypocrites, whitewashed tombs, and snakes (Matt 23:16, 27, 33). He declared that they were outside God’s kingdom and keeping others from entering (Matt 23:13, 16). As Malachi 3:3 said, the messiah came to “purify the sons of Levi,” referring to the priests who were rebuked earlier in Malachi for offering improper sacrifices, not teaching the law, and causing people to fall away from God (Mal 1:6-2:9). As mentioned, in fulfillment of this prophecy, the narrators of the Gospels continually pointed to Christ’s confrontations with the religious leaders of the day, including the Pharisees and the Sadducees. Many of the Sadducees were priests, including the high priests who descended from Levi (Matt 21:15-16). Some repented of their sins, while others eventually put Christ to death. However, after Christ’s resurrection and the Spirit’s coming at Pentecost, even more turned to Christ. Acts 6:7 says, “The word of God continued to spread, the number of disciples in Jerusalem increased greatly, and a large group of priests became obedient to the faith.”
Malachi described Christ’s work in two parts: In the first part, Christ would not come for judgment but “like a refiner’s fire, like a launderer’s soap” (3:2). A metal refiner and laundryman don’t destroy or judge, they cleanse and purify. The metal does not have to fear the fire, but the infirmities in it does. Also, the shirt doesn’t need to fear the soap, but the dirt on the shirt does. Likewise, the messiah who would bring justice came first to cleanse his people. He said in Matthew 16:18, that he was going to build a church. This church would include both Jews and Gentiles (cf. Eph 2:11-22). They would be a people who repented of their sins and put their trust in Christ’s life, death, and resurrection for their sins. He would cleanse them at salvation, as he defeated sin and set them apart to be holy, but he would also cleanse them throughout their lives as he sanctified them. And one day, he would fully cleanse them at his second coming, as they receive glorified bodies. In this season, God is cleansing a people for himself, so he can use them for his purposes.
In Malachi 3:3-4, when God describes the messiah’s coming as a refiner, he describes the process of his work:
He will act like a refiner and purifier of silver and will cleanse the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then they will offer the Lord a proper offering. The offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in former times and years past.
When it says, “he will act” or “he will sit” (ESV), this seems to reflect how the messiah’s sanctifying work is a delicate and purposeful process. From what we know about metal refiners, they would put the metal in the fire until it liquefies. As it liquefies, the impurities would rise to the top and the metallurgist would scrape them from the top. He would continue this process until all the impurities were gone, and he could see his face in the liquid metal. No doubt, God is doing the same with us (cf. Rom 8:28-29). In his first coming, Christ came to satisfy the righteous demands of God the Judge. He died for the sins of the world so that whosoever would believe in him would have eternal life (John 3:16). However, he didn’t die so believers could continue in sin; he died to deliver them from sin. He purifies us.
Interpretation Question: How is the messiah currently cleansing his church (which consists of Jews and Gentiles), and how will he cleanse it at his coming?
1. The messiah cleansed his church through his death, as he delivered them from both the penalty and power of sin.
Romans 6:5-8 says,
For if we have become united with him in the likeness of his death, we will certainly also be united in the likeness of his resurrection. We know that our old man was crucified with him so that the body of sin would no longer dominate us, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. (For someone who has died has been freed from sin.) Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.
Because God sees us as dying with Christ, we no longer have to pay the penalty for our sins as Christ paid it. However, Christ also broke the power of sin over us on the cross, so we would no longer be enslaved to it. Certainly, we still have to battle sin, but the victory has been won; therefore, we should fight from that vantage point. Christ broke the power of sin over our lives, so we no longer need to be slaves. Consequently, Paul said this in Romans 6:11-14,
So you too consider yourselves dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its desires, and do not present your members to sin as instruments to be used for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who are alive from the dead and your members to God as instruments to be used for righteousness. For sin will have no mastery over you, because you are not under law but under grace.
The person caught in lust and falling to it must think of himself differently. The one addicted to alcohol or drugs must think of himself differently. This means if he falls, the battle is not over because he has already won in Christ. He should get up, not accept the condemnation of the devil, his flesh, or others, and fight for the victory that is his. Christ cleansed his people at the cross, but we must choose to accept it and walk in.
2. The messiah cleanses his church through the work of the Holy Spirit.
In John 14:15-17, Christ said this: “If you love me, you will obey my commandments. Then I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you forever—the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot accept…” He promised to send the disciples the Holy Spirit to help them and be with them forever. The purpose of the Holy Spirit is to make believers holy and sanctify them. Romans 8:12-14 says this:
So then, brothers and sisters, we are under obligation, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh (for if you live according to the flesh, you will die), but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are the sons of God.
The Holy Spirit, who is in all true believers, helps them put to death the misdeeds of the body. How? He convicts us when we are not walking right with God, and he empowers us to get free. We should not resist his work for this is how the messiah cleanses his people.
3. The messiah cleanses his church through the teaching of his Word.
Ephesians 5:25-27 says,
Husbands, love your wives just as Christ loved the church and gave himself for her to sanctify her by cleansing her with the washing of the water by the word, so that he may present the church to himself as glorious—not having a stain or wrinkle, or any such blemish, but holy and blameless.
As we study God’s Word individually and corporately, Christ convicts, corrects, challenges, and teaches us so we can become more holy. The more we are in God’s Word, the more the messiah can refine us and make his image in us. He does this through the work of the Holy Spirit which he sent to believers.
4. The messiah cleanses his church through trials.
Hebrews 12:6-7 and 11 says:
For the Lord disciplines the one he loves and chastises every son he accepts. Endure your suffering as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is there that a father does not discipline?... Now all discipline seems painful at the time, not joyful. But later it produces the fruit of peace and righteousness for those trained by it.
This text reminds us that God is in control of all trials using them for the good of the saints. They are painful but purposeful. They may feel out of control and for our harm, but they are under the control of our sovereign God who uses them to sanctify us. We also must remember they only produce fruit in our lives if we allow ourselves to be trained by them (Heb 12:11). When a child is disciplined by his parents, he can respond appropriately to the discipline or get mad at his parents and rebel. We have the same choice. We must choose to learn patience in the waiting season, love when dealing with someone difficult, joy when our circumstances are depressing, and discipline when we feel lazy or apathetic. If we allow ourselves to be trained through hardship, God will make us more into the image of his Son and prepare us for greater usefulness. James 1:4 says, “And let endurance have its perfect effect, so that you will be perfect and complete, not deficient in anything.” As we faithfully endure trials without complaining or rebelling, God matures us.
5. The messiah cleanses his church through the passive and active participation of believers in their sanctification.
In Philippians 2:12-13, Paul said this,
So then, my dear friends, just as you have always obeyed, not only in my presence but even more in my absence, continue working out your salvation with awe and reverence, for the one bringing forth in you both the desire and the effort—for the sake of his good pleasure—is God.
When he refers to believers working out our salvation, he is referring to the goal of our salvation which is for us to be like Christ, to be cleansed and sanctified (cf. Rom 8:28-29). God has a role, and we have a role. He works in us to give us the desire and ability to be holy, and we work through his empowerment. This is part of the way Christ cleanses us, as we work with him to make us holy.
The believer’s role in our sanctification is both passive and active. For example, the believer’s passive role is seen in verses like Romans 12:1: “Therefore I exhort you, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a sacrifice—alive, holy, and pleasing to God—which is your reasonable service.” Many are not growing in Christ simply because they are not willing to “present” themselves to God. In presenting ourselves to God as sacrifices, we are saying, “God, use me for your kingdom in whatever way you deem best, even if it hurts!”, “Lord, your will be done and not my own!”, and “Lord, send me where you want me to go!” This is the passive aspect of our sanctification.
But we also have an active role which is represented by verses like 1 Timothy 4:7 where Paul says to Timothy, “train yourself for godliness.” “Train” can be translated as “exercise.” Just as exercises help a body grow in endurance, flexibility, and strength, spiritual exercises help believers grow in sanctification. These are often called spiritual disciplines. They include Scripture reading, prayer, fasting, attending a Bible-preaching church, and serving others, among other things. Some are not growing because they have very little discipline. Even though we may not be naturally inclined towards discipline, God has given each one of the Holy Spirit to help us do so. In 2 Timothy 1:7, Paul said this to Timothy, “For God did not give us a Spirit of fear but of power and love and self-control” [or “self-discipline” as in the NIV]. As we practice spiritual disciplines, we grow—we allow Christ to cleanse us and make us holy.
6. The messiah cleanses his church through each person’s death and ultimately through the resurrection.
Hebrews 12:23 calls Old Testament believers in heaven “the spirits of the righteous, who have been made perfect.” When we die, God will deliver us from our sin nature and take us to heaven to be with him. We will be perfect but without our bodies. However, at the resurrection, God will complete his work, as our bodies and our spirits will both be perfect. So ultimately, at Christ’s second coming, we will receive resurrected bodies that are perfect and without sin. Philippians 3:20-21 says:
But our citizenship is in heaven—and we also await a savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform these humble bodies of ours into the likeness of his glorious body by means of that power by which he is able to subject all things to himself.
With all this said, when God refers to the coming of the messiah first to purify and then to judge (3:2-3, 5), we must realize that prophesies about the first and second coming are often intermingled in Scripture. As with other OT prophets, Malachi blurs the first and second coming so they cannot be neatly separated. This is why many Jews rejected Christ at his first coming. How could the messiah come on the clouds and yet be born in Bethlehem? How could he be a king and yet be from Galilee—the ghetto? On this side of Christ’s first coming, we can better understand Old Testament prophecies concerning him. At Christ’s first coming, he both judged sin and cleansed people on the cross (cf. 1 Cor 1:2, John 9:39). However, he will ultimately cleanse and judge at his second coming.
Like the post-exilic Jews who sought the messiah and delighted in him but were not truly ready to receive him, many of us are not ready for Christ’s return either. Malachi warns us, “Who can stand when he appears?” (3:2). Often, we condemn certain sins that we don’t struggle with like murder or adultery, but don’t condemn smaller sins like pride, anger, cursing, little lies, or illegal downloading. Christ has come and is coming to rid us of all sins to make us a pure and blameless bride. We must ask ourselves, are we allowing him to thoroughly cleanse us in this waiting season before he comes? Are we fleeing all appearance of evil and even judging wrong thoughts and intentions in our hearts (cf. 1 Thess 5:22, Matt 5:27-30)? When he comes, he will ultimately judge every work at the judgment seat of Christ. He will not only judge our actions but our attitudes behind the works. Those who were faithful will be rewarded and those who have not will experience a loss of reward. First Corinthians 3:12-15 says:
If anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, or straw, each builder’s work will be plainly seen, for the Day will make it clear, because it will be revealed by fire. And the fire will test what kind of work each has done. If what someone has built survives, he will receive a reward. If someone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss. He himself will be saved, but only as through fire.
As we look back at his first coming and look forward to his second, we must ask, “Are we ready?” Have we cleared the highways of dirt and debris, anything that hinders our walk with God? Also, are we helping others clear the way by sharing the gospel and God’s Word with them? Our messiah has come and is coming again to bring righteousness and justice.
Application Question: How would you answer someone who struggled with God or doubted his existence because of all the evil in the world? What aspect of the messiah’s cleansing work on believers stood out most and why? What is God’s role in our sanctification and our role? How is God calling you to further participate in that work of cleansing yourself and others (cf. Phil 2:12-13)? How is God calling you to help prepare the way for others to receive Christ, even as John the Baptist did?
God’s Justice Will Be Revealed at Christ’s Second Coming and His Judgment of Sinful People
“I will come to you in judgment. I will be quick to testify against those who practice divination; those who commit adultery; those who break promises, and those who exploit workers, widows, and orphans, who refuse to help resident foreigner and in this way show they do not fear me,” says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies.
As mentioned, though this prophecy intermingles the two comings of Christ, Malachi 3:5-6 seems to mostly reflect the second coming of Christ where he ultimately judges those who do not accept him as Lord and Savior and live lives of sin. In the first coming, Christ primarily came to save and sanctify, but in the second coming, Christ comes to judge. By implication, Christ taught this during his ministry. In Luke 4:17-19, Christ is described as going to a synagogue and reading Isaiah 61:1-2. In Luke 4:18-19, he read this part:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and the regaining of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
After reading this in Luke 4:21, he said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled even as you heard it being read.” What’s most surprising about this is the part he left off. Isaiah 61:2 says, “to announce the year when the Lord will show his favor, the day when our God will seek vengeance, to console all who mourn.” Christ at his first coming didn’t seek vengeance in order to console those who were mourning for justice. That ultimately waits for the second coming.
Also, in Matthew 4:11-12, John the Baptist said this about Christ which describes the work of Christ at his first and second coming:
I baptize you with water, for repentance, but the one coming after me is more powerful than I am—I am not worthy to carry his sandals! He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clean out his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the storehouse, but the chaff he will burn up with inextinguishable fire.
According to John, the messiah would do two things. He would baptize with the Holy Spirit and baptize with fire. Some have thought these were the same things, as when the Holy Spirit fell on the disciples as tongues of fire (Acts 2). However, the context of these verses teaches about two separate works. In verse 12, it first describes the baptism of the Spirit as the wheat being taken from the threshing floor and gathered into the storehouse. At salvation, everyone is baptized by the Spirit and made a part of the body of Christ. First Corinthians 12:13 says, “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body. Whether Jews or Greeks or slaves or free, we were all made to drink of the one Spirit.” The second part of verse 12 describes the baptism by fire as the chaff is taken from the threshing floor and put into the fire. All people on this earth will either be baptized by the Spirit and be saved, as they are made part of the body of Christ, or they will be put into the fire which will happen at the second coming. Malachi 3:5 seems to refer to the baptism of fire, as applied directly to unbelieving Israel. It says,
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 hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.
Several different offenses are mentioned. The participles in the Hebrew indicate that these were continual practices, not one-time failures of the people. (1) At Christ’s coming, he will swiftly judge “who practice divination,” those who rely on demonic powers to get what they desire on the earth instead of God. This was strictly forbidden in the Old Testament. Consider the following verses:
Those nations that you are about to dispossess listen to omen readers and diviners, but the Lord your God has not given you permission to do such things.
A man or a woman who is a medium or a necromancer shall surely be put to death. They shall be stoned with stones; their blood shall be upon them.
Leviticus 20:27 (ESV)
Since we are no longer under the OT law, we are not called to practice capital punishment in our churches as the government bears the sword instead (Rom 13:1-4); however, the consequence of capital punishment for sorcery in Israel shows how strongly God hates this sin. We are also commanded to not practice it in the New Testament. Revelation 21:8 describes those who will not enter the heavenly kingdom but instead go to hell. It says,
But as for the cowards, unbelievers, detestable persons, murderers, the sexually immoral, and those who practice magic spells, idol worshipers, and all those who lie, their place will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur. That is the second death.
We should stay away from witchcraft, astrology, psychics, and the like. It opens the door to the devil in our lives and will bring God’s judgment. Those who continually practice these things are not true followers of God and will incur God’s judgment at the second coming.
(2) “Those who commit adultery” refers to those who cheat on their spouses and those who cheat with them. In context, it also probably referred to the Jewish men who were divorcing their Jewish wives just to marry pagan women (cf. Mal 2:10-16). They were ultimately committing adultery before God who only recognizes divorce when the other partner commits adultery. Matthew 5:31-32 says,
It was said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife must give her a legal document.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
(3) “Those who break promises” refers to those who practice lying or breaking their oaths before God (cf. Ex 20:7, 16).
(4) “Those who exploit workers, widows, and orphans” referred to those who mistreated the most vulnerable in society. With widows and orphans when their male protector and provider died or left them (for whatever reason), it impoverished them. They were commonly looked down upon and oppressed in society. However, God promised to be their protector and instituted laws to provide for them in Jewish society (cf. Lev. 19:13; Deut. 24:14–15). To attack them was to attack God. Exodus 22:22-24 says:
You must not afflict any widow or orphan. If you afflict them in any way and they cry to me, I will surely hear their cry, and my anger will burn and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives will be widows and your children will be fatherless.
(5) Those “who refuse to help resident foreigner” referred to mistreating resident foreigners in their society. God also taught the Israelites to not mistreat foreigners based on the fact that they previously were foreigners in Egypt and were mistreated. Exodus 22:21 says, “You must not wrong a resident foreigner nor oppress him, for you were foreigners in the land of Egypt.” God loves the widow, the orphan, and the foreigner who are commonly mistreated (cf. Lev 19:9-10).
Those who habitually practice such sins proved that they did not truly “fear” God and thus worship him (3:5; cf. Prov 8:13). They were not truly saved. Similar challenges are given to the church in the New Testament. First Corinthians 6:9-11 says,
Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! The sexually immoral, idolaters, adulterers, passive homosexual partners, practicing homosexuals, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, the verbally abusive, and swindlers will not inherit the kingdom of God. Some of you once lived this way. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.
It's not that those who at times fall into these sins are not saved, but those who habitually practice them without repentance may prove that they have never been born again. True salvation changes our lives and our relationship to sin. Second Corinthians 5:17 says, “So then, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; what is old has passed away—look, what is new has come!” First John 3:9 says it this way: “Everyone who has been fathered by God does not practice Sin, because God’s seed resides in him, and thus he is not able to sin, because he has been fathered by God.” Again, it is not that Christians don’t sin. They do and often repeatedly. However, they don’t make a “practice” of sin like the world. When they sin, they repent and try to get right with God and others. This proves that they have been born again, “fathered by God.” This is the same argument Malachi made by using Hebrew participles which refer to a continual practice of sorcery, adultery, lying, and oppressing the vulnerable in society. Their continual practice of sin would ultimately prove they were not truly saved—that they did not fear God—and consequently they would experience Christ’s judgment at his return. When Christ comes, he will separate the wheat from the chaff. The chaff will go into the fire and the wheat will go into the barn (Matt 4:11-12).
Therefore, as an application from this coming judgment, we must confirm that we are truly saved. As mentioned, Christ comes to refine those who are his: they accept him as Lord and Savior and follow him throughout their lives. Through abiding in God’s Word, fellowship with the saints, obeying God, and persevering through trials, they are being purified—made to look more like Christ. However, there are many in the church (and throughout the world) who reject Christ or who have not truly made him their savior. One day there will be a judgment, and therefore, we must confirm that we are saved. First Corinthians 13:5 says it this way: “Put yourselves to the test to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves! Or do you not recognize regarding yourselves that Jesus Christ is in you—unless, indeed, you fail the test!”
Do we pass the test? Do we profess Christ as our Lord and Savior? Are we faithfully following him? Are we repenting of sin or continually living sinful lives? Christ said in the last days many will come to him saying, “Lord, Lord” and he will reply, “Depart from me you evildoers, I never knew you” (Matt 7:23 paraphrase). Do we truly know Christ? He is coming soon to judge.
Application Question: How can a person have assurance of salvation (cf. 1 John 5:13, 2 Pet 1:10)? What are evidences of true faith? Why does a habitual practice of sin, without repentance, prove that one is not truly born again (cf. 1 John 3:9, 1 Cor 6:9-11, Matt 7:23)?
God’s Justice Is Revealed in His Immutability—His Unchangeability
Since, I, the Lord, do not go back on my promises, you, sons of Jacob, have not perished.
After telling the post-exilic Jews who doubted God’s character and possibly existence that his justice would be manifest in the coming messiah—his purification ministry and his ultimate judgment—God says that he does go back on his promises and therefore they had not perished. It can also be translated, “For I the Lord do not change,” as in the ESV. God’s unchangeableness is called by theologians the immutability of God. We can take great comfort in God’s immutability because God is not like us in our fickleness. Even great saints like David have moments of extreme failure. David, though a man of God’s heart, fell into adultery and committed murder. We are always changing based on our circumstances, age, and relationships. However, God, in his character and being, does not change. He will always be perfectly loving, just, holy, merciful, and wise. Therefore, though the post-exilic Jews doubted God’s justice and may have feared when they heard about the messiah’s coming judgment, they needed to remember they could trust that God would be just because he doesn’t change and that he was committed to them as a nation because of his past promises. God made promises to Abraham that his children would be multiplied, possess the promised land, and be a blessing to the earth. Through the prophets, God confirmed these promises many times to his descendants. Consider Jeremiah 33:23-26 where it seems that again some Jews were questioning God’s promises while they were in captivity in Babylon:
The Lord’s message came to Jeremiah another time: “You have surely noticed what these people are saying, haven’t you? They are saying, ‘The Lord has rejected the two families of Israel and Judah that he chose.’ So they have little regard that my people will ever again be a nation. But I, the Lord, make the following promise: I have made a covenant governing the coming of day and night. I have established the fixed laws governing heaven and earth. Just as surely as I have done this, so surely will I never reject the descendants of Jacob. Nor will I ever refuse to choose one of my servant David’s descendants to rule over the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Indeed, I will restore them and show mercy to them.
Therefore, the Israelites could trust in God’s justice, even while in trials, because he is immutable. He doesn’t change. Also, his immutability meant that though he would purify and judge Israel, he would save a remnant. Before Christ comes, there will be national purging of Israel through various trials during the tribulation period. Jeremiah calls this the time of Jacob’s trouble right before they repent and worship Christ as their king. Jeremiah 30:6-9 says,
Ask yourselves this and consider it carefully: Have you ever seen a man give birth to a baby? Why then do I see all these strong men grabbing their stomachs in pain like a woman giving birth? And why do their faces turn so deathly pale? Alas, what a terrible time of trouble it is! There has never been any like it. It is a time of trouble for the descendants of Jacob, but some of them will be rescued out of it. When the time for them to be rescued comes,” says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies, “I will rescue you from foreign subjugation. I will deliver you from captivity. Foreigners will then no longer subjugate them. But they will be subject to the Lord their God and to the Davidic ruler whom I will raise up as king over them.
Christ seems to refer to this time period in Matthew 24 (vs. 3, 7-8, 15-22, 29-30) as he similarly describes it as a time of birth pains. He says,
As he was sitting on the Mount of Olives, his disciples came to him privately and said, “Tell us, when will these things happen? And what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”
For nation will rise up in arms against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. And there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these things are the beginning of birth pains.
So when you see the abomination of desolation—spoken about by Daniel the prophet—standing in the holy place (let the reader understand), then those in Judea must flee to the mountains. The one on the roof must not come down to take anything out of his house, and the one in the field must not turn back to get his cloak. Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing their babies in those days! Pray that your flight may not be in winter or on a Sabbath. For then there will be great suffering unlike anything that has happened from the beginning of the world until now, or ever will happen. And if those days had not been cut short, no one would be saved. But for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short.
Immediately after the suffering of those days, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of heaven will be shaken. Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and all the tribes of the earth will mourn. They will see the Son of Man arriving on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.
Though this has applications to believers during the end times, right before Christ comes, it seems to have particular application to Israel. That’s why Christ mentioned the abomination of desolation in the temple referred to in Daniel 9:27 and 11:31. Since this will lead to a great persecution of the Jews, he told those in Judea to flee. God will purify Israel, as well as believers who are alive during the end times, through trials (cf. Rev 12:13, 17). Then after purifying Israel, Christ will return to be their king (cf. Zech 12-14). Romans 11:26-27 says, “And so all Israel will be saved, as it is written: ‘The Deliverer will come out of Zion; he will remove ungodliness from Jacob. And this is my covenant with them, when I take away their sins.”
God’s unchangeableness was meant to comfort the post-exilic Jews in the suffering they were experiencing. They could trust that God was just, and it would be proved through the coming messiah and his fulfilling God’s promises to Israel. The messiah would die for them 400 years after this prophecy, cleanse the repentant of sin as he is doing now with believing Jews within the church and in a special way with the nation right before the final judgment, and then Christ will return to bring ultimate judgment on the earth, including judging unbelieving Israel. It was because of God’s unchangeableness, his immutability, that Israel was not consumed. He may have seemed distant and unconcerned with their struggles, but he would ultimately bring justice through Christ and complete his promises to them.
This is God’s answer to, “Where is the God of justice?” In God’s patience, he is seeking to save the lost during these days (2 Pet 3:9-10). However, his justice will not be withheld forever. It came when Christ died on the cross for sins; it is present as God purifies his people now, and it will ultimately be seen when Christ returns to the earth to judge the lost and restore Israel and the nations to himself (cf. Zech 14:16, Rev 21:24). Though God’s justice may seem to be absent when the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer, it is, however, present and active, and will ultimately be displayed in the end times.
Certainly, we may also at times struggle, like post-exilic Israel and many prophets, with what seems like a lack of justice in the world. However, we can also take comfort in the fact that God doesn’t change. The God that judged the earth through a worldwide flood because of sin and saved the righteous—Noah and his family—through the flood is the same God who is judging the wicked and delivering the righteous today. The God who judged Egypt for their oppression of Israel and set Israel free through many great miraculous works is doing the same today with his people. He also at times lets his people suffer at the hands of the wicked as he did with Job, Christ, and many of the prophets and apostles for a greater purpose. God does not change. His immutability means we can trust his offer of eternal salvation based on our faith in Christ (John 3:16). Because he does not change, we can trust his promises. And one of his greatest promises is that his Son, Jesus Christ, will return to bring justice and make all things right. We must desire it as Israel did and not give up hope as we continue to wait.
Application Question: What does God being immutable mean? How should God’s immutability comfort and challenge us as believers?
Applications from the Second Coming
As we consider God’s answer to the disgruntled Jews who claimed God wasn’t just, we must be challenged by the fact that God’s response was Christ’s coming and God’s immutability. Christ came to pay the penalty for sin in his first coming and to begin to purify a people who follow him (the church). However, in the second, God will consummate this work. He will purify a people through the tribulation period and ultimately bring judgment. Since God is just and doesn’t change, we can trust his promise to return. In fact, Malachi 3:1 says Christ will come “suddenly.” In the New Testament, he said to come like a thief in the night (1 Thess 5:2, 2 Pet 3:10, Rev 16:15). Therefore, we must always be ready.
Application Question: How should we respond to the promise of Christ’s second coming?
1. Because Christ is returning soon, we must faithfully use our gifts to serve God and others.
In the parable of the talents in Matthew 25:19-23, Christ describes his return and rewarding of those who faithfully used their gifts in his absence. For those who were unfaithful, he will call them wicked and lazy servants and judge them, but for those who were faithful, he will tell them “Well done” and reward them. Are we being faithful stewards of our gifts, including our time, talents, and relationships?
2. Because Christ is returning soon, we must regularly gather with believers to worship, pray, and practice the Lord’s Supper to encourage one another to be faithful in these last days.
Consider the following verses:
And let us take thought of how to spur one another on to love and good works, not abandoning our own meetings, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging each other, and even more so because you see the day drawing near.
For the culmination of all things is near. So be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of prayer.
1 Peter 4:7
For every time you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
1 Corinthians 11:26
Because the Lord is coming, we should regularly gather together to encourage one another, pray, worship, and celebrate him.
3. Because Christ is returning soon, we must strive to be holy by getting rid of sin in our lives.
In 1 John 3:2-3 (ESV), John said this to the Ephesians:
Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.
Also, in the context of Christ returning to judge and renew the earth (2 Pt 3:3-4), Peter said this:
Since all these things are to melt away in this manner, what sort of people must we be, conducting our lives in holiness and godliness, while waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God?... Therefore, dear friends, since you are waiting for these things, strive to be found at peace, without spot or blemish, when you come into his presence.
2 Peter 3:11-12, 14
Because Christ is coming soon, we should aim to be holy and righteous in both our actions and attitudes upon his return.
4. Because Christ is returning soon, we must faithfully share God’s Word to win the lost and disciple believers.
In the context of talking about Christ’s coming, Peter said this in 2 Peter 3:9: “The Lord is not slow concerning his promise, as some regard slowness, but is being patient toward you, because he does not wish for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.” God delays Christ’s coming to judge because he desires that none should perish. Therefore, we must faithfully share the gospel so many will be saved.
In addition, Paul said this to Timothy who was pastoring the church of Ephesus:
I solemnly charge you before God and Christ Jesus, who is going to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: Preach the message, be ready whether it is convenient or not, reprove, rebuke, exhort with complete patience and instruction.
2 Timothy 4:1-2
Since Christ is coming soon, we must make disciples by faithfully teaching God’s Word.
5. Because Christ is returning soon, we must eagerly and patiently long for it.
Consider the following verses:
Finally the crown of righteousness is reserved for me. The Lord, the righteous Judge, will award it to me in that day—and not to me only, but also to all who have set their affection on his appearing.
2 Timothy 4:8
But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.
Philippians 3:20-21 (NIV)
In considering our need to be eager for Christ’s coming, Wayne Grudem’s comments are challenging:
Do Christians in fact eagerly long for Christ’s return? The more Christians are caught up in enjoying the good things of this life, and the more they neglect genuine Christian fellowship and their personal relationship with Christ, the less they will long for his return. On the other hand, many Christians who are experiencing suffering or persecution, or who are more elderly and infirm, and those whose daily walk with Christ is vital and deep, will have a more intense longing for his return. To some extent, then, the degree to which we actually long for Christ’s return is a measure of the spiritual condition of our own lives at the moment.
Christ is coming soon! Are we eagerly awaiting and preparing for it? When he comes, he will bring the justice we all ultimately long for within the earth and with his people. The answer to the question of “Where is the God of justice?” is he has come to die for the sins of the world; he is here purifying a righteous remnant, and he is at the same time coming soon to judge. We must make sure we are part of this righteous remnant whom he has saved and is purifying lest we experience his judgment at his return.
Application Question: What stood out most in the study and why? How is God calling you to grow in your desire for his coming and apply his coming to your life?
• Pray for God to purify our church (and the church) through the study and preaching of God’s Word and obedience to it.
• Pray for God to enable us to prepare the way for his Son’s coming by getting rid of our sin, preaching the gospel to unbelievers, and challenging believers to grow in holiness, even as John the Baptist did.
• Pray for God to bring the fullness of the Gentiles to himself in salvation and then turn the nation of Israel back to himself and that their return would lead to the blessing of all nations (cf. Is 62:6-7, Rom 11:12, 15, 25-26). In Romans 11:12 and 15, Paul said,
Now if their [Israel’s] transgression means riches for the world and their defeat means riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their full restoration bring? … For if their rejection is the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead?
• Pray for God to send his Son to judge, restore, and rule on the earth.