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A critical truth regarding John the Baptist and Malachi's prophecy often goes overlooked. If we miss this, we will fail to properly understand John's mission and the judgment.

This post examines that connection and how it affects our overall understanding of Scripture.

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Welcome to the 14th post in my series of rethinking Christian eschatology. Because these posts build upon each other, if you've not already done so, I invite you to read the previous posts in this series before continuing here.

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Malachi Prophesied Around 425 B.C.

Shortly before GOD’s 420-year period of silence foretold by Amos (see Amos 8:11-12), the Israelite prophet Malachi prophesied.

Here is an excerpt:

2:17 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?”

3:1 “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.
2 “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 launderers’ soap.
3 He will sit as a refiner and a purifier of silver;
He will purify the sons of Levi,
And purge them as gold and silver,
That they may offer to the Lord
An offering in righteousness.

4 “Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem
Will be pleasant to the Lord,
As in the days of old,
As in former years.
5 And I will come near you for judgment;
I will be a swift witness
Against sorcerers,
Against adulterers,
Against perjurers,
Against those who exploit wage earners and widows and orphans,
And against those who turn away an alien—
Because they do not fear Me,”
Says the Lord of hosts.

16 Then those who feared the Lord spoke to one another,
And the Lord listened and heard them;
So a book of remembrance was written before Him
For those who fear the Lord
And who meditate on His name.

17 “They shall be Mine,” says the Lord of hosts,
“On the day that I make them My jewels.
And I will spare them
As a man spares his own son who serves him.”

18 Then you shall again discern
Between the righteous and the wicked,
Between one who serves God
And one who does not serve Him.

4:1 “For behold, the day is coming,
Burning like an oven,
And all the proud, yes, all who do wickedly will be stubble.
And the day which is coming shall burn them up,”
Says the Lord of hosts,
That will leave them neither root nor branch.
2 But to you who fear My name
The Sun of Righteousness shall arise
With healing in His wings;
And you shall go out
And grow fat like stall-fed calves.
3 You shall trample the wicked,
For they shall be ashes under the soles of your feet
On the day that I do this,”
Says the Lord of hosts.

4 “Remember the Law of Moses, My servant,
Which I commanded him in Horeb for all Israel,
With the statutes and judgments.
5 Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet
Before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord.
6 And he will turn
The hearts of the fathers to the children,
And the hearts of the children to their fathers,
Lest I come and strike the earth with a curse.”
(Mal. 2:17-3:5, 16-4:6 NKJV)

Key Takeaways from Malachi's Prophecy

Let’s briefly recap what we just read:

  1. GOD would send “His messenger” to prepare the way before Him. This messenger, referred to as “Elijah,” would come before the great and dreadful day of judgment to call the Jews to repentance. If he were unsuccessful, GOD would strike the land with a curse.

  2. After this messenger, the LORD whom the Jews sought would come suddenly to the temple.

  3. This coming of the LORD would be:

    • Like a refiner’s fire, as a refiner and purifier of silver.

    • To purify the Levites, GOD’s priests.

    • To provide righteous men who would bring righteous offerings to the LORD.

  4. On this day of judgment, GOD would:

    • Spare those who feared Him.

    • Make a noticeable distinction between the righteous and wicked.

    • Burn the evildoers like a furnace, setting them on fire and leaving no root or branch to them.

    • Cause the righteous to trample the wicked underfoot.

  5. GOD called Israel to remember the Law of Moses.

How Malachi's Prophecy Relates to the Song of Moses

In Malachi's prophecy, GOD called Israel to remember the Law for at least two big reasons:

  1. Wholehearted repentance and obedience to the Law would delay the day of judgment prophesied by Malachi (and Moses).

  2. The Law contained the warnings of the curses which would come upon Israel if they didn’t repent. GOD wanted them to remember these.

Thus, Malachi’s prophecy relates directly to the prophecy of Moses regarding the end of Israel.

Notice how Malachi’s prophecy about the pending judgment day upon the wicked of Israel aligns perfectly with the Song of Moses:

2 “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 launderers’ soap.
3 He will sit as a refiner and a purifier of silver;
He will purify the sons of Levi,
And purge them as gold and silver,
That they may offer to the Lord
An offering in righteousness.

5 And I will come near you for judgment;
I will be a swift witness
Against sorcerers,
Against adulterers,
Against perjurers,
Against those who exploit wage earners and widows and orphans,
And against those who turn away an alien—
Because they do not fear Me,”
Says the Lord of hosts.

17 “They shall be Mine,” says the Lord of hosts,
“On the day that I make them My jewels.
And I will spare them
As a man spares his own son who serves him.”

18 Then you shall again discern
Between the righteous and the wicked,
Between one who serves God
And one who does not serve Him.

4:1 “For behold, the day is coming,
Burning like an oven,
And all the proud, yes, all who do wickedly will be stubble.
And the day which is coming shall burn them up,”
Says the Lord of hosts,
“That will leave them neither root nor branch.

3 You shall trample the wicked,
For they shall be ashes under the soles of your feet
On the day that I do this,”
Says the Lord of hosts.
(Mal. 3:2-3, 5, 17-18, 4:1, 3 NKJV)

Here's the Song of Moses:

22 For a fire will be kindled by my wrath,
one that burns down to the realm of the dead below.
It will devour the earth and its harvests
and set afire the foundations of the mountains.
23 “I will heap calamities on them
and spend my arrows against them.

34 “Have I not kept this in reserve
and sealed it in my vaults?
35 It is mine to avenge; I will repay.
In due time their foot will slip;
their day of disaster is near
and their doom rushes upon them.”
36 The Lord will vindicate his people
and relent concerning his servants
when he sees their strength is gone
and no one is left, slave or free.

40 I lift my hand to heaven and solemnly swear:
As surely as I live forever,
41 when I sharpen my flashing sword
and my hand grasps it in judgment,
I will take vengeance on my adversaries
and repay those who hate me.
42 I will make my arrows drunk with blood,
while my sword devours flesh:
the blood of the slain and the captives,
the heads of the enemy leaders.”
43 Rejoice, you nations, with his people,
for he will avenge the blood of his servants;
he will take vengeance on his enemies
and make atonement for his land and people.
(Deut. 32:22-23, 34-36, 40-43 NIV)

Malachi and Moses were talking about the same events.

Elijah to Come Before the Judgment

Malachi prophesied that, before this day of judgment would come, GOD would send an “Elijah” to prepare the way.

3:1 “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.

4:5 Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet
Before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord.
6 And he will turn
The hearts of the fathers to the children,
And the hearts of the children to their fathers,
Lest I come and strike the earth with a curse.”
(Mal. 3:1; 4:5-6 NKJV)

Most Bible students are familiar with the fact that John the Baptist came to prepare the way for Jesus.

But look at the nature of the LORD's coming that is under discussion here. Look at the very next statement in the text:

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.
2 “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 launderers’ soap.
3 He will sit as a refiner and a purifier of silver...
(Mal. 3:1b-3a NKJV)

The messenger—this Elijah—came to prepare not the first coming of Jesus but His second, the coming in judgment upon the temple and upon Israel!

This truth is incredibly important and almost always overlooked.

This Elijah = John the Baptist

420 years after Malachi’s prophecy, GOD broke His silence with Israel with the announcement that a barren, older woman was going to have a son, evoking memories of Abraham and Sarah.

GOD sent the angel to the Levite priest, Zechariah, while he was in the temple fulfilling his ministerial duties:

8 Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, 9 he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. 10 And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside.

11 Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. 12 When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. 13 But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John. 14 He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, 15 for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born. 16 He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. 17 And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
(Luke 1:8-17 NIV)

The angel practically quoted Mal. 4:5-6 as he explained John the Baptist’s future mission to Zechariah.

Looking to be certain, Zechariah asked for a sign this would come true.

So GOD made him mute until John’s birth.

Eight days after John’s birth, as soon as Zechariah wrote that he was to be called “John,” Zechariah was able to talk.

In this context, we read:

67 [John the Baptist’s] father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied:

68 “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel,
because he has come to his people and redeemed them.
69 He has raised up a horn of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David
70 (as he said through his holy prophets of long ago),
71 salvation from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us—
72 to show mercy to our ancestors
and to remember his holy covenant,
73 the oath he swore to our father Abraham:
74 to rescue us from the hand of our enemies,
and to enable us to serve him without fear
75 in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
76 And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High;
for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him,
77 to give his people the knowledge of salvation
through the forgiveness of their sins,
78 because of the tender mercy of our God,
by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
79 to shine on those living in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace.”
80 And the child grew and became strong in spirit; and he lived in the wilderness until he appeared publicly to Israel.
(Luke 1:67-80 NIV)

Inspired by the Holy Spirit, Zechariah quoted part of Mal. 3:1 and also referenced the rising sun of Mal. 4:2.

So John grew up and lived in the wilderness, until he was about 30 years old, when...

1 In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene— 2 during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3 He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 4 As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet:

“A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.
5 Every valley shall be filled in,
every mountain and hill made low.
The crooked roads shall become straight,
the rough ways smooth.
6 And all people will see God’s salvation.’”
(Luke 3:1-6 NIV)

Per Luke 3:4, John began carrying out the long-foretold mission of Mal. 3:1, to prepare the way for the LORD.

Here, though, Luke quoted from Isa. 40:3-5, which says:

1 Comfort, comfort my people,
says your God.
2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and proclaim to her
that her hard service has been completed,
that her sin has been paid for,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.

3 A voice of one calling:
“In the wilderness prepare
the way for the Lord;
make straight in the desert
a highway for our God.
4 Every valley shall be raised up,
every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
the rugged places a plain.
5 And the glory of the Lord will be revealed,
and all people will see it together.
For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
(Isa. 40:1-5 NIV)

By implication, Luke connected Isa. 40 with Mal. 3-4, informing us that Isaiah here was speaking of the same time period and events as Malachi.

So the payback of Isa. 40:2 was the same judgment as Mal. 4, which, as we saw, GOD connected to the prophecy of Moses through the call the remember the Law.

Note: We find this tight interconnectedness throughout the Scriptures, which is an amazing testimony to the sole divine authorship of their messages, penned by multiple men, often hundreds of years apart.

John’s Popularity Attracted Jewish Religious Leaders

As John preached repentance and baptized people, his following grew. So much so that the Pharisees and other religious leaders got wind of what was happening and they decided to check it out for themselves.

7 But when [John] saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. 9 And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 10 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.

11 “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
(Matt. 3:7-12 NIV)

John dropped some really important truths in this text—truths which are commonly overlooked.

Don’t miss this.

First, with regard to the phrase “the coming wrath” in v.7, the Greek word translated “coming” in the NIV is “melló,” which means “about to.” This word indicates a nearness. Therefore, this sentence is more accurately translated:

“Who warned you to flee from the wrath about to come?”

Second, in vv.10, 12, note that John said that the ax was already at the root of the tree and that Jesus was already holding the winnowing fork. Both of these phrases communicate present and imminent activity. And Jesus hadn't even begun His public ministry at this point.

Third, note that John described two separate baptisms in vv.11-12. John wasn't describing a single baptism of both the Holy Spirit and fire, but two separate baptisms—one for the righteous, whom Jesus would gather into the barn, and a separate baptism for the wicked who would be burned up with unquenchable fire. I have previously written about these two baptisms in more detail here. (Recall that the Greek word transliterated as baptism simply means immersion.)

Fourth, the ax laid to the root of the tree was a reference to Mal. 4:1, which says:

“For behold, the day is coming,
Burning like an oven,
And all the proud, yes, all who do wickedly will be stubble.
And the day which is coming shall burn them up,”
Says the Lord of hosts,
“That will leave them neither root nor branch.
(Mal. 4:1 NKJV)

This is the main takeaway from this text: There was a high sense of urgency in John’s message to the religious leaders. He was discussing events that would occur in the near future.

And remember, we have already connected John’s mission with the prophecies of Malachi, Isa. 40 and the Song of Moses from Deut. 32, each of which describe a day of judgment upon the wicked of Israel.

Jesus Affirmed John’s Purpose

Eventually, John was arrested and put in prison.

During this time, Jesus plainly affirmed John was the Elijah foretold by Malachi:

2 When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples 3 to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”

4 Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: 5 The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. 6 Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.”

7 As John’s disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind? 8 If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces. 9 Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is the one about whom it is written:

“‘I will send my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way before you.’

11 Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. 12 From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been subjected to violence, and violent people have been raiding it. 13 For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John. 14 And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come. 15 Whoever has ears, let them hear.
(Matt. 11:2-15 NIV)

Sadly, King Herod had John beheaded.

After this, Jesus again plainly stated John’s mission:

1 After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. 2 There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. 3 Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.

4 Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.”

5 While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”

6 When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified. 7 But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” 8 When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.

9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus instructed them, “Don’t tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

10 The disciples asked him, “Why then do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?”

11 Jesus replied, “To be sure, Elijah comes and will restore all things. 12 But I tell you, Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but have done to him everything they wished. In the same way the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands.” 13 Then the disciples understood that he was talking to them about John the Baptist.
(Matt. 17:1-13 NIV)

Concluding Observations

John’s mission was to turn the hearts of the fathers towards the children and the children towards the fathers, or else GOD would strike the land with a curse (see Mal. 4:6).

John was both successful and unsuccessful in his mission, depending on which aspect we consider.

He succeeded in turning many to GOD in repentance, baptizing huge crowds of followers, many of whom eventually transitioned to following Jesus.

And yet he could not persuade the wicked and the rebellious religious leaders and other hard-hearted Jews to turn from their ways. As a result, John died a martyr.

And just a few decades later, GOD did strike the land with a curse, just as Malachi prophesied.


Continue to the next post, where we look at the first of Jesus’ teachings regarding “the end.”

Got comments or questions? Drop them below.

Tim Harris
Author: Tim Harris

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