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Malachi 2:17-3:5:Refining Fire

May 21, 2023 Speaker: Jeremy Caskey Series: Guest Speakers

Topic: Default Passage: Malachi 2:17– 3:5

Malachi 2:17-3:5: Refining Fire


Our Scripture reading this morning comes from Malachi 2:17-3:5. It says,

17 You have wearied the Lord with your words. But you say, “How have we wearied him?” By saying, “Everyone who does evil is good in the sight of the Lord, and he delights in them.” Or by asking, “Where is the God of justice?”

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; and 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 fullers' soap. 3 He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and they will bring offerings in righteousness to the Lord. 4 Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.

5 “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.

May God bless the reading of his Word.

As J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb, witnessed the first detonation of a nuclear weapon on July 16, 1945, he said, “We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed; a few people cried.  Most people were silent.  I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita; Vishnu”—one of the principle gods of Hinduism—“is trying to persuade the prince that he should do his duty and, to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’  I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.”  A couple of weeks later the bomb was dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, bringing death and judgment to hundreds of thousands of people.  Now I am not here to debate the morality or reasons for such a decision, so much as to observe that the dropping of the bomb could not discriminate who it fell upon, it could not distinguish between guilt and relative innocence.  In other words, it destroyed indiscriminately.

In our text this morning, we see judgment. But not indiscriminate judgment.  Instead, we see specific, laser-focused, judgment by fire, meant for life-giving refinement, not for life-denying destruction.  While Vishnu destroys worlds—at least in a fictional sense, for what is Vishnu except an idol embodied by a demon subject to God—the God of the Bible refines by fire.  Refinement by fire does not destroy an element, so much as it gets rid of the impurities in the element, boiling it down to its essential purity.  To use an analogy, it would be the equivalent of pruning a plant, rather than tearing it up by its roots.

In like fashion, God does not seek to destroy his people. He seeks to purify them, cleanse them, in order to make them fit for service.  Now this can be a rather painful, albeit necessary, process.  But it’s never ultimately destructive.  And this purification is not something we can accomplish for ourselves.  Neither is this something our religious leaders can accomplish for us, but something God must do.  Which brings us to the main idea of our text today.  And that is: Because the priests failed as God’s messengers, God will send his own messenger to both purify and vindicate his people.

Back in ch1, vv1-5, God reminded his people that he had sovereignly elected them to be his. They had returned from Persian exile about 100 years before, still under Persian rule, with their land reduced to a mere fraction of its former glory.  As a result, they had forgotten God’s love, because their sinfulness had caused them to experience God’s judgment.  So, God called them in vv6-14 of ch1 to give him their best, for he is worthy.  Instead, they brought God their worst, offering sacrifices that were blind, lame, and sick.  And so, God cursed the priests in ch2, vv1-9 for allowing this, chastising them for their failure to give honor to God by guarding knowledge and seeking his instruction.  And as the priests had gone, so had gone the people.  One unfaithfulness led to another.  Which led to a practical outworking of unfaithfulness to God in ch 2, vv10-16, manifested in unfaithfulness in marriage.  Unfaithfulness in marriage often begins with a strained relationship with God.  Now the inevitability of this happening is no wonder, for God’s messengers had failed to honor God.  So where does that leave us?  If God’s leaders cannot be faithful and if God’s people cannot be faithful, then who can?  Which brings us to our text today… 

I. God sends his messenger to prepare the way, 2:17-3:2

But before he does…

A. God addresses the people’s complaints regarding injustice, 2:17

They had, in a figurative sense, wearied God with their words.  Meaning that God had come to the point where he must intervene in order to put a stop to their behavior.  But they cannot understand how they have wearied him.  So, God answers them.  You have wearied me by saying, “Everyone who does evil is good in the sight of the LORD, and he delights in them.”  Because God had not immediately judged sin, the people had concluded that God approved of sin, even questioning, “Where is the God of justice?”  As if sinners can sin with impunity.  I want you to notice three characteristics of dissatisfaction: (1) A complaining spirit.  What they say is both whiny and wearisome, complaining to God, dissatisfied with God’s handling of the situation.  (2) A crazy talkativeness.  They’re running their mouths, giving little thought to what they’re saying, making false and foolish accusations against God, accusing him of approving of evil.  (3) A careless questioning, asking where God’s justice lies, when they in fact had repeatedly perverted justice.  Not to mention the fact that they were impatient for justice, thinking they knew better than God as to where and when he should bring retribution. 

Does that sound familiar?  How often have you heard or even expressed this tired refrain, blaming God for injustice the world over, while taking little to no personal responsibility?  We would like to blame anything and everything other than ourselves for the troubles we see.  It’s the environment.  If we could change the environment around us, then all would be well.  But that denies our own sinfulness, our own culpability in the matter.  Well then, let’s blame the other person.  If we could change the other person, then all would be well.  But again, that denies our own sinfulness, our own culpability yet again.  Well then, it must be God.  We ask what they asked, “Where is the God of justice?”  It must be God.  He’s to blame.  Again, denying our part in the problem.  The problem is not the environment.  It’s not the other person, though sinful they may be.  It’s certainly not God.  It’s us.  We—even the church—can weary God with our words, all the while our hearts remaining far from him. 

Do we need the same wisdom and rebuke that God gave them? —The rebuke that Gandalf gave Frodo in The Fellowship of the Ring, when Frodo wished that his uncle, Bilbo, had killed the creature Gollum when he had the chance?  And Gandalf said, “Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life.  Can you give it to them?  Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement.  For even the very wise cannot see all ends.”  We simply do not have the equipment, in and of ourselves to truly assess the problem, especially if we remain unwilling to admit that we are the problem.  Where is the God of justice?  Keep reading.

B. God will bring justice in his own way, and in his own time, 3:1-2a

He will send his messenger to prepare the way before him.  Now this verse finds fulfillment in two people: John the Baptist, who clears away obstacles of unbelief, preparing the way for Jesus Christ, the second messenger, identified here as the messenger of the covenant.  One commentator says, “that whenever a messenger of God appears in the Old Testament, the covenant between the Lord and Israel is always the issue.”  And he cites a myriad of Old Testament texts to prove it. In this case, God comes to seal the covenant he made with Adam promising to crush the head of Satan through his offspring, the covenant made with Abraham promising vindication for God’s people and blessing to all the nations of the earth through his offspring, the covenant made with David that he would establish his throne forever through his offspring, and the new covenant made with his people, wherein he would put his law within their hearts, forgiving iniquity and remembering sin no more through His offspring.  All of these find fulfillment in God’s son, Jesus Christ. 

It says in v1 that God’s people sought this deliverance.  But as much as they sought it, they were not ready for it.  Which brings us to v2, “But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?”  A day will come when the longsuffering of God will be exhausted.  In his word he reveals to us his nature in Exodus 34, saying, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” And what was Moses’ reaction when he heard God describe his own character, his own nature?  He quickly bowed his head toward the earth and worshiped.  That is the only proper response. 

Is that your response?  Or do you live your life as if you—on your own—can endure the day of his coming?  Do you think you can stand—quite on your own—when he appears?  Are you strong enough to endure—to stand against—the wrath of God against sin?  Do you not comprehend your desperate condition?  You perhaps know there is a problem, but have you sought solutions in things that never truly deliver?  Who can endure?  Who can stand?  No one can endure his coming; no one can stand at his appearance on their own.  Sin must be dealt with first.  But who is equal to such a task?  You?  Me?  We’ve already determined that we are part of the problem.  And so, we must look elsewhere.

II. God purifies and vindicates his people, 3:2b-5

A. God purifies his people, 2b-4

“For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fuller’s soap.  He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver.”  Just as gold and silver are impure in their natural state, so are we.  And as fire burns up all the dross and impurities in these precious metals, so too will God refine and purify by fire, by adversity.  Because left to ourselves, we have no more ability to refine and purify ourselves than gold or silver can on their own.  Yet, the base elements must be removed.  But it’s not as if there’s a level of purity in each of us, that if we just apply the appropriate amount of heat, then the impurity will be burned up and we will be left pure in and of ourselves.  No, no.  The Bible tells us that in and of ourselves, even our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment, that none are righteous.  If God were to apply this refining heat strictly to us, our natures would have to be boiled down to nothing, completely evaporated, completed obliterated. 

And so, he sends a substitute in order that we might be refined and purified vicariously, through the suffering of another.  And we’ll get to who that is in a moment.  But let me just say this, that only after this substitute suffers, and we realize that we bring nothing pure and refined in and of ourselves to the table, confessing our utter bankruptcy and hopelessness, does God then declare us righteous.  And once he makes that declaration, affirming our imputed—or credited—righteousness, only then does he continue the lifelong process of purification and refinement in us.  Yes, God ultimately substitutes another to suffer in your place, but you remain in a world of suffering.  And you remain there for a reason.  Through trial and adversity, we can, in a sense, become like our substitute.  Through trial and adversity, our faith can be tested.

1 Peter 1:6-7 says, “In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.”  In other words, understanding our place as creatures and not masters of our own fate, produces a right view of ourselves and a right view of God, resulting in worship: giving credit where credit is due.  And that often comes in struggle, in enduring hard things, until God refines and purifies us.  In one sense, that purification came through Jesus’ death, wherein he justified his people before God.  But ultimately this refinement comes at the end of the age at his second coming, wherein we will be sanctified, or be made holy, and then glorified in the next life, completely cleansed of sin.  Hasten the day, LORD.  Until then, or until he calls us home, we are in the process of being purified.  If you feel that purification is a lonely, scary business, know that God will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged. Spurgeon once said, “The Refiner is never far from the mouth of the furnace when His gold is in the fire.”  Thanks be to God for that.  If you’re feeling the flames of affliction licking about you, threatening to consume you, know that God watches over you, that he will not leave you nor forsake you.  He knows the right time to pull you from the furnace of affliction when he purifies you.

But not only will God purify his people, but he will purify the leaders of his people as well.  Particularly, it says in this passage that he purifies the sons of Levi, those priests mentioned in chapters 1 and 2 who offered impure sacrifices and had failed to lead God’s people in the way that they should go.  And in so doing he purifies their worship as well.  Again, can we do this in and of ourselves?  God’s people failed in this, time and again, despite God’s longsuffering, despite God’s repeated warnings, and even despite God’s judgment.  He chastened his people, sending them into exile after horrific Holocaust-level suffering in Jeremiah, and still they returned to their old impure ways by Malachi’s day, proving time and again that in and of themselves, in and of ourselves, we cannot even rightly worship God apart from his intervention.  So, God's son, Jesus Christ came and offered the perfect, pure sacrifice of himself, and succeeded—where these priests failed—in leading God’s people in the way that they should go, offering pure worship.  Only then can we see vv3-4 realized where, “they” —where we— “will bring offerings in righteousness to the LORD.  Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the LORD as in the days of old and as in former years.” 

Where the LORD had been wearied by the people’s complaints in ch2, v17, he will now be pleased with the offering.  Because God himself, through his son, Jesus Christ, will become that offering.  And what we offer in return as a result is nothing more than, “a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” We come in our brokenness and contrition in gratitude for his mercy.  We present our bodies as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God, which is our spiritual worship, not conformed to this world, but transformed by the renewal of our minds, that by testing”—same idea here—“we may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect, Romans 12:1-2 says.  God’s people must be refined, purified, transformed, perfected.  That means that we live differently than we did before we were saved. Only then will we see the justice his people longed for...

B. God vindicates his people, 5

He will draw near for judgment, it says, as a swift witness against sorcerers, adulterers, those who swear falsely, and those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow, the fatherless, and those who thrust aside the sojourner, all those who do not fear the LORD.  So, despite the people’s questioning and complaining regarding the delay of God’s justice, God says he will judge swiftly.  Perhaps not by our standards, but certainly by his.  I think he’s proven time and again that his timing is better than your timing.  He may not come when you want him, but he’s right on time, as I used to sing in the gospel choir I was a part of.  And he will judge particular sins and particular sinners. 

First, he judges those who make a habit of practicing witchcraft, consulting with spiritists and the dead.  And while this seems far-fetched in our time and place, I have had conversations with several who do this very thing.  No, it wasn’t my trip to India recently, but right here in the U. S. of A.  Because, the further we get from a Christian consensus, the more other spirits will move in, as we see in Matthew 12, where the spirit finds a house empty, and put in order, “then it goes and brings with it seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there, and the last state of that person is worse than the first. So also, will it be with this evil generation.”  Have you seen this?  Have you experienced this?  If not yet, then soon.

Secondly, he judges adultery, defined in scripture as indecent and disgusting sexual conduct, where a person has sexual relations with someone other than his or her spouse.  While adultery is relatively acceptable in our time and place, did you know it was one of 16 capital offenses, punishable by death in Israel, according to Leviticus 20.  In fact we saw in the previous chapter that those found faithless in this area were condemned as those covering their garments with violence, deeply damaging their character, and nullifying the covenantal relationship between God and their spouse.  The New Testament is equally clear that those guilty of unrepentant adultery do not inherit the kingdom of God. Therefore, repent before judgment comes swiftly upon you.

Thirdly, he judges those who swear falsely, those who commit perjury, those who break oaths, who fail to act on their word.  Particularly, God condemns those who use false information to defraud or harm others.  This can be oh so subtle.  We omit, we misdirect, and mislead, we wander away from the truth, wandering in darkness, as we cloak our sin like a Klingon Bird of Prey in Star Trek, trying to sneak one past God, as if that’s possible.  Revelation 21:8 says their portion—along with the sorcerers and sexually immoral—will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.  Therefore, repent before judgment comes swiftly upon you.

Fourthly, he judges those who oppress the hired worker.  Meaning, God would have us compensate fairly those in our employ.  Now, we, as Americans, love a discount, cutting costs, saving a buck.  And sometimes, our love of discount has greed at its root.  It comes on the backs of those unfairly compensated, who live in economically depressed conditions.  Now I’m not sure of the ins and outs of what constitutes fair trade—my money has been managed for 25 years by my much smarter wife whom I trust implicitly to do the righteous thing here—but to the best of my knowledge, and to the best of my ability, I need to ensure I do my part in avoiding greed and oppression.  We, as the richest people in the world, need to pay special attention to this rebuke.  Because while few of us might be so bold as to flagrantly and directly oppress hired workers, we subtlety and indirectly oppress others in our desire to get as much as we can for as little as possible.  So, ask yourself, am I as generous to others as God has been to me?  Do I, in humility, count others as more significant than myself?  Do I look not only to my own interests but also to the interests of others? Typically, this is a sin of selfishness, where the me-monster surfaces and it’s all about me: what can I get, how am I doing?  And we inadvertently oppress because we’re thinking about ourselves.  Therefore, we should repent before judgment comes swiftly upon us.

Fifthly, he judges those who do not take care of the needy: the widow, the orphan, and the sojourner, or refugee.  In other words, he condemns those who do not care for the vulnerable.  We tend to scratch the backs of those who scratch ours, but what do we do for those who do little to nothing for us?  How do we care for those who cannot return the favor?  God cares about that.  We hear a lot these days about social justice.  Often, social justice—as our culture defines it—is about helping those who can help themselves.  But God’s primary concern regarding social justice is to ensure help for those who cannot help themselves: the child in the womb, the handicapped adult who cleans your office, the grandparent in the elderly care home.  At its heart, all these sins show a contempt for, or lack of acknowledgement, of God’s existence, and God’s right to rule and reign.  Verse 5 ends by saying that judgment comes upon those who do not fear God. 

Romans 3 tells us that outside of a work of God, none is righteous, none seek for God, and no fear of God is before our eyes.  But now the righteousness of God has been manifested, through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation—as an atoning sacrifice—by his blood, to be received by faith.  What a contrast this is with Vishnu, who destroys worlds to impress a mere prince to do his duty.  What a silly, manmade idea.  The true God does not need to impress you or persuade you to do your duty.  And even if he did, he would not destroy worlds to do so.  He did your duty for you.  Where manmade religion says ‘do,’ God says, ‘done.’  It is finished.  And once it is finished, and we see that we can only live by that finished work, he then refines, he purifies.  He sends his son to accomplish what we could not.    

Where these priests failed, where we continue to fail, Jesus—this messenger of the covenant—succeeds.  Jesus saves his people by his death on the cross.  And then, he calls his people to take up their cross and follow him.  God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit are in the process of refining God’s people, even by fire.  But he does not destroy indiscriminately as Vishnu does, as the bomb does.  Instead, God individually tailors his means of purification in order to vindicate his people.  But if you refuse him, destruction awaits.  Are you grieved by various trials?  Perhaps that’s part of the process of purification.  But vindication follows purification, wherein all things will be set right.  Until then, would you submit to this refinement and submit your body as a living sacrifice to the praise of his glory?