We live in a day when very few fear God’s judgment. The “god” of most Americans is a feeble, tolerant old man, who would never send anyone, except the very worst, to hell. This American “god” grades on the curve, and it’s a very lenient curve. Unless you’re a terrorist, mass murderer, serial rapist, or habitual child molester, you have nothing to fear come judgment day.
This attitude was reflected in a letter to the editor of our local newspaper last week (Arizona Daily Sun [10/26/03], p. A-6) regarding the recent death of the well know local liberal protester, Bruce Green. The author commended the departed man for his respect and willingness to listen without anger to those with whom he disagreed. Those are certainly commendable qualities. Then she said, “He is in a much better place now, a place where there is no anger, bitterness, resentment or hatred—only love. God bless you, Bruce. Save me a seat. It would be my pleasure to sit next to you.”
That’s the popular theology of our day—if you’re a “good” person, it doesn’t matter what you may believe about God or Jesus Christ. Don’t worry about your sins. God understands and will overlook them. Some day we’ll all be together in heaven, in spite of our many faults.
It is vitally important that we base our view of God and His future judgment on His revelation in His Word, not on the common notions of popular culture. If we join our culture in thinking that God’s judgment is nothing to fear when, in fact, we are in danger of coming under that judgment, we would be in for a horrible shock on that day. On the other hand, if in fact we will be delivered from that judgment according to God’s promise in Christ, we would be putting ourselves through needless misery to live in fear of that day. Our text shows us that…
The coming day of judgment should bring great fear to all that scoff at God, but great comfort to all that fear His name.
In the context, these verses (there is no chapter break in the Hebrew Bible) continue to address the problem that was raised in 2:17 and again in 3:13-15 of the prosperity of the wicked and the suffering of the righteous. The skeptics looked at the seeming prosperity of the wicked and concluded that there is no benefit in serving God. They said that the arrogant seemed to be blessed and to get away with their evil deeds. There did not appear to be a God of justice, and so it is a waste of time to live according to His righteous standards.
To counter this scoffing, Malachi showed that God especially remembers those who fear His name; in fact, they are His special treasure (3:16-18). There is a huge difference between those who serve God and those who do not. That difference will be unveiled at the coming day that God has prepared, a day that will consume the wicked like a furnace. But those who fear God need not fear that coming awful day, because for them it will be a day of great comfort and triumph. So our text is written to disturb the comfortable and to comfort the disturbed.
“Behold” should arrest our attention. “Wake up, pay attention to what is about to be said!” Malachi makes two points about this coming day:
Verse 1 states twice, “The day is coming….” Verse 3 underscores that God is preparing that day. Twice it is emphasized that this warning comes from none other than the Lord of hosts, who rules over the entire universe, both physical and spiritual. As the apostle Paul told his skeptical audience on Mars Hill, God “has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead” (Acts 17:31). If the Lord of hosts has fixed that day, you can count on it: It is certainly coming!
Malachi mentions this coming day four times in the closing verses of his prophecy (3:17; 4:1, 3, 5). Walter Kaiser points out (Malachi: God’s Unchanging Love [Baker], p. 102) that this “day of the Lord” was both “near” and “at hand” for each of five Old Testament prophets working in four separate centuries: Obadiah (15) and Joel (1:15; 2:1) in the ninth century; Isaiah (13:6) in the eighth; Zephaniah (1:7, 14) in the seventh; and Ezekiel (30:3) in the sixth. Each of these prophets saw fulfillments in specific events of his own times, and yet each of these prophecies has a still yet unfulfilled future nuance. Thus Kaiser concludes that “the day of the Lord” encompasses a number of successive judgment events throughout history, all of which depict some aspect of the final climatic fulfillment at the culmination of history. In other words, there have been a number of precursor days of the Lord (such as the destruction of Jerusalem under Nebuchadnezzar and again under Titus) that point ahead to the final great and terrible day of the Lord at the end of history (Mal. 4:5).
The irony is that the very people who need to fear this coming day of judgment are usually the ones who scoff at it. Peter (2 Pet. 3:3-4) pointed this out, that in the last days mockers will come, who will say, “Where is the promise of His coming?” The Book of Revelation (18) makes the same point, that the world will be reveling in luxurious splendor and sensuality, oblivious of impending judgment, right up to the end. But then, in one hour, judgment will fall and all of proud Babylon’s splendor will be laid waste.
So the biblical warning is clear: Just because judgment is delayed does not mean that it will not happen. God has fixed the day! It is coming with certainty or else God is lying!
Those who should fear this coming day are described as the arrogant, evildoers, and the wicked (4:1, 3). “Arrogant” is a relatively rare word in Hebrew, but is the same word used in Malachi 3:15. It has the idea of “a sense of self-importance, which often is exaggerated to include defiance and even rebelliousness” (Theological Word Book of the Old Testament, ed. by R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer, and Bruce K. Waltke [Moody Press], 1:239). The words “evildoer” (4:1) and “wicked” (4:3) come from the same Hebrew root word and point to evil thoughts, words, and deeds that are contrary to God’s character and hostile to others (ibid., 2:863).
So at the root of wickedness or evil in God’s sight is human self-reliance and self-centeredness. The person who thinks that he is good enough in himself to get into heaven is arrogant in God’s sight. He does not understand how absolutely holy God is, nor how utterly corrupt his own heart is. He establishes himself as his own standard of righteousness and arrogantly thinks that his good deeds will commend him to God on the day of judgment. But God, who sees the heart, is not impressed! He describes them as chaff and that day as burning like a furnace. It will be so hot as to leave them neither root nor branch. In other words, no one will recover from this scorching heat.
Our paper showed last week a picture of a car in Crestline, California (where we used to live), that had been burned in the terrible fires there. The fire was so hot that the aluminum rims had melted into streams of liquid! Whether there will be literal flames in hell or whether God uses symbolic language to make a point, it ought to be clear that you don’t want to go through the blaze of God’s judgment! It will be thorough and completely devastating.
We need to be careful here not to fall into the error of annihilationism. Some modern evangelical theologians, most notably Clark Pinnock and John Stott, recoil at the idea of God tormenting people in flames forever and ever. They teach that the wicked will suffer in hell for an appropriate time, but then will cease to exist.
While that idea is emotionally appealing, Jesus mentioned eternal punishment in the same sentence that He mentioned eternal life (Matt. 25:46). If eternal life is forever, then eternal punishment must be forever. Revelation 20:10, 15 makes it clear that the devil, the beast, and the false prophet will be thrown into the lake of fire, where they will be tormented day and night forever and ever. If anyone’s name is not found written in the book of life, he will also be thrown into the lake of fire. “Day and night forever and ever” sounds like a long, long time! Jesus described hell as a place “where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:48). As difficult as the doctrine of eternal punishment may be, we cannot change it into the more comfortable idea of annihilationism without contradicting Jesus Himself.
Another common error that we need to avoid is universalism. This is the idea that somehow in the end, everyone will be saved. There are variations of this teaching. Some say that sinners may go through a time of punishment in hell, but that ultimately they will be saved. Others teach that because Christ died for all, all will be saved (based on a faulty interpretation of Rom. 5:18-19). Universalism goes back to the earliest days of Christianity. It probably originated with the early Gnostics, and was taught by some of the early church fathers, most notably Clement of Alexandria and his student, Origen, whose teachings were later condemned as heresy (D. B. Eller, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. by Walter Elwell [Baker], p. 1128).
Universalists make the mistake of putting God’s love above His justice and holiness. They would have to interpret our text as God’s purging with a view to restoration (as in Mal. 3:2-3). But the words, “it will leave them with neither root nor branch” (4:1) indicate that recovery will be impossible. The arrogant wicked who do not repent will suffer God’s eternal punishment. Those who scoff at God should be fearful, although they seldom are.
The purpose of these verses is to comfort the Lord’s people, especially those who were being persecuted because of their stand for God. As in 3:16, they are identified as those who fear the Lord and esteem His name. God’s name means all that He is in His glorious attributes. Two thoughts here:
It is ironic that often those who should fear God’s judgment scoff at the idea, whereas those who need not fear His judgment do worry about it. Perhaps it is because God has given His true people a tender conscience, along with a higher view of His holiness and justice. We know and believe that it is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God for judgment. The enemy of our souls comes along and uses this healthy fear of God to produce in us an unhealthy anxiety about standing before Him someday. He accuses us of all of our sins, which we must admit are true. The only way to overcome his accusations is through the blood of the Lamb (Rev. 12:11). Cling to the cross and you do not need to fear judgment.
The Bible is abundantly clear that we are justified (= “declared righteous”) through faith alone in Christ alone (Rom. 3:21-31). In the act of justification, God takes our sin and places it upon His Son, who paid the awful penalty for it on the cross. He takes the righteousness of His Son and places it around us, so that we stand before God with the perfect righteousness of Jesus, not with any righteousness of our own. Along with the free gift of justification, God makes us a new creation in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17). Rather than scoffing at God and living in accordance with our proud wisdom, we submit to God and His wisdom. We live in the reverential fear of God, and yet, because of His abundant grace, we no longer fear His judgment on the last day, since Christ bore that for us.
This is illustrated by a technique used by those fighting forest fires: They light a backfire along a break in the path of the advancing fire. The idea is that when the fire gets to where the backfire has burned, there will not be anything left to burn, and so the fire will die out. God judged our sins in Jesus on the cross. The fires of judgment burned Him. If we are in Him by faith, the fire will not harm us. It has nothing left to burn, since Jesus bore that Himself.
Some scholars do not interpret this as a reference to Jesus, but rather to the conditions that will exist in the millennium. But I think it is a reference to Jesus Christ. Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist, seemed to pick up the language of this verse when he prophesied that John would prepare the Lord’s ways, “to give His people the knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, with which the Sunrise from on high shall visit us, to shine upon those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:77-79). Because of the link between John the Baptist in Malachi 3:1 & 4:5, and because of Zecharias’ similar language about the Sunrise from on high, I believe that our text is messianic. It has at least five implications:
These verses refer to the blessings of our salvation that begin at the moment we trust in Jesus, but grow brighter and brighter until that glorious moment when He comes again and we shall be caught up to be always with the Lord. Outside of Christ, the world lives in spiritual darkness, blinded to the truth of God’s Word (Acts 26:18). Only Christ can open blind eyes. By His power, God delivered us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son (Col. 1:13). Jesus made the bold claim, “I am the light of the world; he who follows Me shall not walk in the darkness, but shall have the light of life” (John 8:12). When Jesus Christ shines into your darkness, suddenly you see. As Charles Wesley put it, “Long my imprisoned spirit lay, fast bound in sin and nature’s night. Thine eye diffused a quickening ray; I woke, the dungeon flamed with light.”
The darkness of the evil one’s domain brings spiritual sickness and death to the human race. The warm rays of the sun of righteousness bring restoration and healing. (“Wings” is poetic language for the rays of the sun.) One of the devil’s lies is to get us to think that sin brings satisfaction, whereas righteousness is restrictive. But the truth is, sin always brings disease and death, whereas righteousness heals and restores.
Have you ever had the flu, where your bones ache? If it’s gloomy and damp outside, it only seems to add to your misery. But then the sun breaks through the clouds and you find a chair in the sunlight streaming through a window. Those warm rays of the sun feel so good on your aching bones! That is an earthly illustration of the spiritual truth of the gospel. When you repent of your sins and begin to live in the warm rays of God’s righteousness, He brings healing from the wounds of sin in your life.
I think that we who live in Arizona, where the sun shines over 300 days a year, don’t appreciate how wonderful the sunlight is. When Marla and I traveled in Eastern Europe, we learned that sunshine in the winter there is a rare thing. Studies have shown that people who live in the extreme north suffer from what is called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). They get depressed because they live in the dark for months during the long, cold winters. When the first rays of the sun appear over the horizon, they throw a party! The sunlight brings them hope.
Outside of Jesus Christ and the salvation that He brings, there is no hope. One of the most depressing phrases in the Bible is Paul’s description of unbelievers, that they have “no hope and [are] without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12). But when the sun of righteousness rises in your heart, He brings the wonderful hope of eternal life!
“You will go forth and skip about like calves from the stall.” Perhaps many of you who are city-borne and bred have not seen this, although I have. After being cooped up in a stall, calves will literally jump as if for joy. Part of this for the believer is the great joy of being freed from the bondage of sin and judgment. The angel announced the birth of Christ to the shepherds by saying, “I bring you good news of a great joy” (Luke 2:10). There is simply no greater joy than the news that God has sent a Savior to set us free from the penalty and power of sin, so that we may dwell with Him in the glory of His presence forever!
So, the sun of righteousness brings light where there was darkness; healing where there was disease; hope where there was despair; and, joy where there was sadness. Finally,
“You will tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under your feet….” In this evil world, God permits the wicked often to triumph over the godly. There are many injustices, where the innocent suffer and their tormentors often literally get away with murder. But when the sun of righteousness rises in that final day that God is preparing, all wrongs will be righted. Perfect justice will prevail. Every sinner will be judged according to his works, and the righteous will rejoice.
You may wonder, “I thought that vengeance is wrong. How can the righteous rejoice over treading the wicked underfoot like ashes?” While personal vengeance is wrong, it is not wrong to long for the day when God will exercise His perfect justice. In Revelation 6:9-11, John looks into heaven and sees the souls of those who have been slain because of their testimony for Christ. They cry out, asking God how long it will be until He avenges their blood. God tells them to rest for a bit longer, until the number of martyrs is complete. Then, in Revelation 18, when wicked Babylon has finally fallen, the angel proclaims, “Rejoice over her, O heaven, and you saints and apostles and prophets, because God has pronounced judgment for you against her” (18:20). God’s final answer to the problem of the prosperity of the wicked and the unjust suffering of the righteous is the coming day of judgment. His promise of that day should bring great comfort to all of God’s elect.
A ninth-grade civics teacher had to issue one student an F. The boy reacted as though the teacher had caught him by surprise, by asking, “How come?”
“You didn’t pass a single test,” the teacher explained. “You never turned in one homework assignment. You would not participate in classroom work.”
The boy stood there in silence for a moment, then exclaimed, “And you mean you flunked me for that?” (Reader’s Digest [4/79], p. 64.)
Don’t be caught off guard when God’s day of judgment hits! If you’re comfortable in your sins, and your notion of God is that He would never judge anyone, I hope that you are disturbed enough to flee to Jesus Christ. Unless you are in Him, the blaze of that day will leave you with neither root nor branch. If you are in Him, looking ahead to that coming day should be a source of great comfort. The sun of righteousness will right every wrong and give you eternal peace and joy.
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2003, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation