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The coming of God

A sermon on Malachi 2.17-3.2

by Tim Gallant

Congregation of Christ,

Sometimes when we actually get the thing that we seek, it turns out to be not quite what we expected. Those of us who are single may seek to be married, but it is only those who are married who really recognize the full contours of what marriage is. Something similar could be said for parenting and a whole host of other things.

And there are times that we have a picture of something, and we greatly desire it, but when we get it, we wonder why we wanted it.

There is a bit of that in our passage this morning. In Malachi 2:17-3:2, the Lord promises to come as the God of justice. And the first thing we see in these verses is the people's faithless questioning of this coming. It's what they claim to be looking for, what they are seeking. But they are not seeking it in faith. Second, in response we see the Lord's faithful confirmation of this coming. God assures His people that He will come as promised, and He tells them a bit about how His coming will be introduced into history. But then finally, in the face of the anticipation being voiced for this promised coming of the God of justice, we have the Lord's unexpected warning concerning this coming.

1. The Lord promises to come as the God of justice. This promise has been longstanding, but in verse 17 of chapter 2, we learn of the people's faithless questioning of this coming. We read there,

You have wearied the LORD with your words; yet you say, "In what way have we wearied Him?" In that you say, "Everyone who does evil is good in the sight of the LORD, and He delights in them," Or, "Where is the God of justice?"

The words which the prophet puts on the lips of the people here are words of dissatisfaction, of discouragement. The people are saying, "It's as if God really doesn't care about righteousness. It's as if He doesn't mind at all about the wicked. They prosper more than the righteous do. Where is the God of justice? Where is this justice by which He claims to be made known? We don't see it."

Now, sometimes we are prompted to ask questions of God. If you look in the Psalms, you will often hear the psalmist crying out. "Where are you, O God? Will you not deliver me?"

But there is a different spirit to these questions here. The questions of the psalmists are questions prompted by a faith that is under attack. They are the questions of faith wrestling, wrestling with God.

The questions of Malachi 2:17, however, are questions of faith abandoned.

That is why the prophet says, "You have wearied the LORD with your words." The complaints of the people here are tiresome. They are not pleading their case with the Lord, as faith does. They are whining. "It is vain to serve God" [3:14]. It is useless. He doesn't care.

Disputing the goodness and trustworthiness of God.

Congregation, it may be tempting for us to read through Malachi in a thoroughly moralistic fashion. Everything here is works, works, works. You're not doing this good enough; you're not doing that right. But this verse, Malachi 2:17, reminds us what is at the heart of everything. The failure of faithfulness on the part of God's people is always at the very center the failure of faith. The heart of faithfulness is faith itself. And these words of complaint here expose the heart problem of God's people.

The first thing that we need to know about the Lord is that He is trustworthy. And the first thing that we must do in response to the Lord is trust Him.

That was precisely the error of Adam and Eve, right at the beginning. The serpent comes to Eve and undermines her belief that God has their well-being, their best interests, at heart. "You can't eat of every tree? You mean, God is withholding something from you? How could He??"

And then: "God knows that in the day you eat of this tree, you will be like Him." In other words, God is driven by envy, not by love and care for you. Satan's attack is first of all an attack on God's goodness, on His trustworthiness.

And that is what these complaints here in Malachi 2:17 really are. "If God really cared about us, if we could really count on His justice, things would not be as they are." Instead of interpreting reality in the light of God's revealed character, instead of viewing their circumstances through the lens of God's Word, the covenant people are doing the reverse. They hold up God to their circumstances, and they judge Him to be found wanting.

This is a warning for us. The heart of faithlessness, the heart of sin, is unbelief. We see that very clearly in Hebrews 3. Look with me a moment at Hebrews 3:7-19:

Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says: "Today, if you will hear His voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, in the day of trial in the wilderness, where your fathers tested Me, proved Me, and saw My works forty years. Therefore I was angry with that generation, and said, 'They always go astray in their heart, and they have not known My ways.' So I swore in My wrath, 'They shall not enter My rest.'" Beware, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief in departing from the living God; but exhort one another daily, while it is called "Today," lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin. For we have become partakers of Christ if we hold the beginning of our confidence steadfast to the end, while it is said: "Today, if you will hear His voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion." For who, having heard, rebelled? Indeed, was it not all who came out of Egypt, led by Moses? Now with whom was He angry forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose corpses fell in the wilderness? And to whom did He swear that they would not enter His rest, but to those who did not obey? So we see that they could not enter in because of unbelief.

Did you notice how sin and unbelief are intertwined in this passage? The people of Israel who disobeyed did not enter into rest; and the reason they could not enter in was because of unbelief. Unbelief is not merely one sin among many. It is the sin which spawns all unrighteousness and covenant-breaking. Likewise, faith is not one virtue among many. It is the heart of all true obedience; it is the center of all covenant-keeping.

This is why these questions weary God. They are tiresome, because they represent a fundamental heart problem. They spring out of disbelief.

This faithlessness was not unique to Malachi's day. After Jesus' first coming, the doubting questions popped up again. Recall what Peter writes. There are those who ask, "Where is the promise of His coming? For since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation" [2 Peter 3:4].

It is now two thousand years since Christ walked the earth. Two thousand years of injustice, two thousand years of turmoil, two thousand years of the suffering of the faithful. And people say: "If there is a righteous God, if there is a good God, if there is a God who requires an accounting from evil men, things would not have carried on this way all this time." There are scholars who say: "Oh, Jesus and the apostles thought the second coming was going to occur within their own lifetimes. Obviously, it didn't happen. Obviously, it will never happen."

That is unbelief. To ignore the goodness of God in the past, to ignore His revelation in His Word, and then to deduce a hopeless future.

That was what the children of Israel did in the wilderness. After watching God perform marvelous signs before their eyes, so that they could be released from bondage in Egypt, after crossing through the Red Sea on dry ground, they kept asking: "Has God brought us out here to die? Why didn't you leave us in Egypt?"

Let it not be so among us, congregation. The certainty of Christ's return in glory is fortified by the fact that He has fulfilled His first promise. He came once; He will certainly come again. We have a righteous judge who will deliver us and usher us into the new creation, the new heavens and the new earth.

2. So the question that we find in Malachi 2:17 is faithless; it is sinful. But nonetheless, the people are asking a question that demands an answer. "Where is the God of justice?" We find promises in Scripture that God Himself is coming. This is indeed the hope of His people. For example, Psalm 96:13: "For He is coming, for He is coming to judge the earth. He shall judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with His truth."

Where then is this coming that has been promised? Will we indeed see righteousness and truth established in the earth, as He has said?

Well, as the passage in 2 Peter says, the Lord is not slack concerning His promise; He will do what He has said. In the first verse of Malachi 3, we are given the Lord's faithful confirmation of this coming. We read there:

Behold, I send My messenger, and he will prepare the way before Me. And the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to His temple, even the Messenger of the covenant, in whom you delight. Behold, He is coming, says the LORD of hosts.

The Lord, whom you seek. The Messenger in whom you delight. He is coming.

There are some interesting features to this promise. First, there is going to be a forerunner. "Behold, I send My messenger, and he will prepare the way before Me." Somewhat more literally, "he will clear the way." He comes to remove obstacles.

This forerunner is referred to literally as malachi, translated "My messenger." So there is probably something of an allusion here to the prophet Malachi, the writer of this book. The prophets were agents of the Lord, bringing God's word to His people, so that the obstacles would be removed, so that God could come in blessing to His people.

But more primarily, the messenger here is John the Baptizer. He is sent to clear the way for Christ the Lord. Several times in the Gospels [e.g. Matthew 11:10], this verse is directly cited with reference to John. It is in the context of John's ministry that the Christ "will suddenly come to His temple," as verse 1 here says.

Like the herald of a king, John will come to announce the arrival of God. He will announce that yes, the God of justice has arrived.

And then: "the Lord, whom you seek will suddenly come to His temple." We see that in John 2:13-22, where one of the very first acts of Jesus' ministry is to burst into the temple and make a whip and drive out the religious businessmen. This, He says, is "My Father's house," and therefore, implicitly, My house. He will come suddenly to His temple.

"Destroy this temple," He adds, "and in three days I will raise it up." He blends the language so well. He is talking on one hand about the temple in Jerusalem, and on the other, about the temple of His body. The temple He comes to suddenly is both.

So when we find in Malachi 3:1 that the Lord "will suddenly come to His temple" - this is a prophecy, not only of a visitation upon the priestly order in the temple of Jerusalem. It is also a prophecy of the enfleshment of God. This, mysteriously, is the Lord whom you seek. When the God of justice comes as promised, He comes as a messenger, He comes into a human body, a bodily temple.

Both of these temples, the temple in Jerusalem and the temple of Christ's body, will be destroyed. Both, in their own glorified way, will be raised anew in the resurrected Christ. His physical body will be the glorified body of the new creation. And His temple will be the Church - also the glorified body of the new creation, where the people of God will meet with the God of justice face to face.

All of this indicates that there is something strong to be said regarding this phrase in the latter part of verse 1: "Even the Messenger of the covenant, in whom you delight." He is the Messenger of the covenant. His work is a covenantal work. But He is more than a low-level herald with something to say.

He is the Messenger, the Sent One, who in Himself bears the covenant, the new covenant.

This language picks up on Exodus 23:20-23. There, we find God promising Moses that He will send His "Angel" before the people "to keep you in the way and to bring you into the place which I have prepared." In Hebrew, "angel" and "messenger" are the same word.

In Exodus, we soon discover that this Angel whom God sends is in fact the Lord Himself. His task in Exodus is to lead the covenant people into the land of promise, into the new creation that God is giving them.

When Christ comes as the "Angel of the covenant," He is indeed the Lord Himself. This unfolds the mystery of the Trinity, that the Deliverer who is sent by God is Himself God. And as He did so long before, way back in Exodus, He comes again, in connection with a new covenant, to establish His people in a new creation. A dramatic new turning point in history occurs when the God of justice comes as promised.

3. In all this, we are led to see that when Jesus comes as the God of justice, He does indeed come in response to His people's anticipation. But they do not fully realize what they are anticipating. In verse 2, we find the Lord's unexpected warning concerning His coming:

But who can endure the day of His coming? And who can stand when He appears? For He is like a refiner's fire and like fuller's soap.

The One sought, the One desired, is not a mere figure who will set things right on the people's own terms. His coming is a coming of judgment, a coming that pierces through hypocrisy and covenant-breaking. Although these people seek Him, God warns that His day will not be a day easy to endure. They will be standing before the righteous God, and His judgment will cut through the covenant like fire. He will shake the house of Israel.

This was the case with the Angel of the Lord in Exodus chapter 23, as well. In Exodus 23:21, God warned:

Beware of Him and obey His voice; do not provoke Him, for He will not pardon your transgressions; for My name is in Him.

Don't kid yourself about this Messenger of the covenant, God is saying. My name is in Him. He is the bearer of the covenant, and He will maintain it. There is no room for complacency when Christ comes.

This is a familiar concept in the prophets. As Amos put it so clearly in his own prophecy [Amos 5:18-20]:

Woe to you who desire the day of the LORD! For what good is the day of the LORD to you? It will be darkness, and not light. It will be as though a man fled from a lion, and a bear met him; or as though he went into the house, leaned his hand on the wall, and a serpent bit him. Is not the day of the LORD darkness, and not light? Is it not very dark, with no brightness in it?

You want the day of the Lord? You seek the God of justice? Well, wait till you see what His coming means! You will find it is not so cozy and comfortable as you imagine!

Now, it is true that in one respect these words are thoroughly surprising. The day of the Lord is all darkness and no light? But come, there are numerous prophecies which show that the day of the Lord will be a time when wrongs are righted, and when God's people are delivered. That prophecy from Psalm 96 that we quoted earlier is just one of a number of passages which speak of a day when God will come in deliverance and justice and bring joy and prosperity to His people.

But Malachi 3 and Amos 5 remind us that deliverance is through justice. The arrival of a new covenant and a new creation is not a smooth, uneventful transition. The new creation comes through judgment upon the old. When Noah emerged into a brand new world, it was by way of death and destruction wrought by a flood upon the old creation.

And so it will be here. You seek Me, you desire My coming, God says, but beware. The new order which I will bring with Me isn't simply your automatic blessing, your destined possession because you happen to be a child of Judah. I am coming as Judge; I am carrying out a defining work, a work in which many will perish. As Simeon prophesied, this One will be for the rising and falling of many in Israel, exposing the thoughts of many hearts [Lk. 2:34-35].

That is the way new creation works. It judges the old creation.

That's the way it was in Noah's day too. The sons of Seth intermarried with the line of Cain and lost their identity, and all but Noah's family perished in the flood.

"Beware, then," says the Lord, "for when I come, I am coming as witness, I am coming near you for judgment. Are you really ready to stand before Me?"

Congregation, that was precisely the result when Christ came, wasn't it? John the Evangelist says that Christ came to His own, but His own received Him not [Jn 1:11]. They were His own, they belonged to God's covenant, but they did not listen to the messenger John the Baptizer whom He sent before Him, and when He Himself arrived they could not recognize Him. As a result, they were cut off. The sons of the kingdom were cast out [Matt. 8:12]. To their own loss, they could not stand before Him.

What can we say, people of God? We have been inducted into this new creation. But the Lord is coming as Judge once more. So we may rightly ask: Who can endure the day of His coming? Who can stand when He appears?

The answer then will be the same as the answer John gave in John 1:12: those who believe in Christ's name. He is coming for the faithful, and the heart of faithfulness is faith. We rejoice to see the day of the Lord, not because we are adequate, and certainly not because we are Jewish, or Dutch, or Scottish or anything else. We rejoice to see the day of the Lord, because we wholly place our trust in the God of justice revealed in Jesus Christ, who is for us Saviour and Redeemer.

We seek that day. Do we really know what we seek? No. We see only such a small part of what is to come. But we know that when we see Him, we will be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is [1 Jn. 3:2]. That is the yearning of our hearts, and we seek it in faith.


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