Here’s an obscure prophecy about Jesus that probably affects you more than you know:
“Behold, I am going to send my messenger, and he will clear the way before me. And the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant, in whom you delight, behold, he is coming,” says the Lord of hosts. (Malachi 3:1)
For the Jewish exiles who had returned to Jerusalem and rebuilt the temple, this would have been an exciting prophecy. “The Lord is coming to his temple!” But when was this prophecy fulfilled? This is the $64,000 question!
Who’s it about?
Two people are mentioned in the prophecy: The messenger who clears the way is John the Baptist (see Matthew 11:10), and the messenger of the covenant or the Lord who follows him is Jesus.
According to the prophet, the latter follows the former suddenly, like a two-punch combination. First one, then the other. And this is what we see in the gospels; first John then Jesus.
Did Jesus go to the temple?
Many times. You probably know Jesus went to the temple to overturn tables and drive out cattle. But did you also know that Jesus made it his habit to teach in the temple courts?
Now during the day he was teaching in the temple… and all the people would get up early in the morning to come to him in the temple to listen to him. (Luke 21:37-38)
Jesus, the messenger of the new covenant, wanted the Jews to hear him so he went where they congregated:
I have spoken openly to the world; I always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jews come together; and I spoke nothing in secret. (John 18:20)
By coming to the temple to preach the good news, Jesus fulfilled the words of the prophet. The End.
Mr. Preterist speaks
“No, you’ve missed something there, Paul. Malachi 3 speaks of Jesus coming to the temple in judgment. This prophecy is about AD70 when Jesus came to judge the Jews and burn their temple.”
That’s a serious accusation. We’d better take a closer look.
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 fullers’ soap. He will sit as a smelter and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, so that they may present to the Lord offerings in righteousness. (Malachi 3:2-3)
Some believe this refers to the Roman destruction of the temple, but the “Who can stand” phrase comes from the Psalms:
If you, Lord, kept a record of sins, Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, so that we can, with reverence, serve you. (Psalm 130:3-4, NIV)
No one can stand before a holy and righteous God. All of us fall short of the lofty standard and we all need the forgiveness that Christ freely offers. The problem was the religious leaders didn’t see it. They thought they could stand on their own moral performance, which is why Jesus was often so hard on them. He pummeled them with the law so that their boasting mouths might be silenced. He was tough on them so they might see their need for grace.
What about the fire and soap?
The refiner’s fire and fuller’s soap is not a reference to Romans burning Jerusalem, but Jesus dividing the pure from the dross and cleansing the sinner. The prophet said “he will purify the sons of Levi,” and he did this by offering himself on the cross:
(Jesus) gave himself for us to redeem us from every lawless deed, and to purify for himself a people for his own possession, zealous for good deeds. (Titus 2:14)
“But Malachi 3:5 says the Lord will draw near for judgment.”
And judgment is what happened whenever people encountered the Lord: Some believed him, others rejected him. That’s judgment.
He who believes in him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, (John 3:18)
Judgment is not merely something that happens in the distant future. Judgment Day is a future manifestation of a present reality.
For judgment I came into this world. (John 9:39)
Jesus wasn’t saying, “I’m here to judge y’all,” for he also said “I pass judgment on no one” (John 8:15). But judgment is what happens when we respond to Jesus Christ. We judge, we decide, whether Jesus is who he says he is.
No Romans needed
Put it altogether and we see that Malachi’s prophecy of the Lord coming to the temple to refine, cleanse and judge was fulfilled during Christ’s time on earth. Jesus went to the temple because he wanted the sons of Levi (the priests) to hear the good news of the kingdom. Sadly, many of them rejected his message which is why, on his last visit, he pronounced the woeful consequences of their choice (see Matthew 23).
But his mission to purify the sons of Levi was not a failure. We have this idea that the priests all hated Jesus, but the fact is he won many:
The word of God kept on spreading; and the number of the disciples continued to increase greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were becoming obedient to the faith. (Act 6:7)
As a result of the Lord coming to the temple many sons of Levi became followers of Christ. (Sidebar: One of the sons of Levi became instrumental in releasing the Apostle Paul into ministry. His name was Barnabas (Acts 4:36).)
Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years. (Malachi 3:4)
Judah and Jerusalem were not made pleasing to the Lord on account of a Roman massacre. They were made pleasing by Jesus. Before Jesus came along, Jerusalem was the center of self-righteous religion. It was a hotbed of hypocrisy. But Jesus turned it into the birthplace of his church and ground zero for his gospel.
Why does this matter? It matters because there are some who use the words of Malachi to rewrite history and blame God for the massacre of the Jews in AD70. This is bad news because if God judged the same Jews that Jesus forgave then the Father and Son are a house divided. It means the gospel of Jesus is not as good as you think it is.
But the good news is that Jesus fulfilled Malachi’s prophecy by loving the sons of Levi. He did not slaughter them with Roman swords but he went to the cross for them and for us.
This is the version of history recorded in scripture. This is the good news story worth telling.
Adapted from chapter 31 of Paul Ellis’s forthcoming book AD70 and the End of the World.