I imagine that many of the Old Testament prophets—and New Testament apostles—and those who have both literally and metaphorically left behind their fishing nets to follow Jesus Christ[1]—have felt, at one time or another, like Cassandra, the prophetess of Greek mythology. Cassandra received the gift of prophecy by the god Apollo. But when she broke her promise to him by refusing him, since he couldn’t revoke a divine power, he instead cursed her gift so that despite prophesying truly, people did not believe what she foretold. Though the story of Cassandra was a myth, the stories of the Old Testament prophets, New Testament apostles, and faithful witnesses of Christ since the time of the New Testament are true. Yet all of these saints too often suffered the same fate as Cassandra, that of not being believed despite speaking the truth God had revealed. One such follower of God and proclaimer of his truth was the prophet Malachi, likely a contemporary of the prophets Ezra and Nehemiah in the mid-fifth century BC.[2] Malachi was a man used by the LORD to tell his people what his Messiah would do. Yet not all those to whom he spoke God’s truth heeded his words. Like Cassandra, his truthful warnings fell upon deaf ears.  

Part of his prophecy states, verse 1 of Malachi 3: “1 ‘I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,’ says the Lord Almighty.” The Lord that the people sought was one and the same as the messenger of the covenant whom they desired. This is the promised Messiah. But this is also a prophecy about John the Baptist who was the messenger sent by God to “prepare the way before” him. As the Gospel writers testify, John the Baptist came “preaching in the wilderness of Judea and saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’” And again, “This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah: ‘A voice of one calling in the wilderness, Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’””[3] Concerning John, one commentator observes, “When the Lord comes, it will be to purify (v. 3) and judge (v. 5), but he will mercifully send one before him to prepare his people.”[4] For the entire purpose of John’s mission was to prepare the way for Messiah (in the Hebrew), or the Christ (in the Greek), God’s eternal Son sent to earth in the Person of Jesus.

But the focus in this chapter, as was true in its later historical fulfillment, isn’t John the Baptist but Messiah. Jesus Christ is the promised and desired Messiah who would come to his temple and be a messenger of the covenant. Concerning him Malachi goes on to state beginning with verse 2, “But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver….” The purpose for which Christ was sent by the Father wasn’t to affirm and accept people just as they are. No, his purpose was to refine and purify them. Consequently, who can “endure”—or suffer patiently—“the day of his coming? Who can stand”—or tolerate—“when he appears?” Again, this Messiah was not coming to affirm or maintain the status quo rather he would be “like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap.” He was coming to “remove impurities or unwanted elements” from the soul of humanity. He was coming to “sit as a refiner and purifier of silver” of humanity’s once good heart that had been sullied by the Fall. As one commentator observes, these images refer to the purifying work God, “both its thoroughness and its severity. The heat of the refiner’s fire was intense in order to separate the dross from the molten pure metal. Similarly, the fuller washed clothes using strong lye soap, after which the clothes would be placed on rocks and beaten with sticks.”[5] Such is the process of being made holy as God is holy. Later the apostle Peter picked up upon this image as he declared to Christ’s Church:

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.[6]

Such is Christ’s love for us. He uses whatever means possible to purify and refine our faith in and relationship with him.

Verse 5 in Malachi 3 provides a representative list of some of the tainted behaviors in need of cleansing that Messiah would refine and purify as humanity is placed on “trial,” as it is examined before this Judge who “‘will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive the foreigners among you of justice, but do not fear me,’ says the Lord Almighty.” Those who don’t believe in God, that is, those who don’t fear God, who don’t care what he thinks concerning how they’re behaving, who don’t revere him, are those who are placed on trial. Indeed, apart from Christ we are “all unrighteousness; vile and full of sin” (as the hymn states) and would never be able to stand trial before him whose name is “just and holy.”[7] Our gracious and holy God will put on trial all evildoers whose behavior makes it evident that they don’t fear God, including:

Sorcerers who don’t fear God but rely instead on magical powers they claim to have;

Adulterers who don’t fear God, who rather than loving their neighbor, sleep with their neighbor’s spouse;

Perjurers who don’t fear God but willingly and knowingly speak untruth when giving evidence to a court;

Those who by defrauding laborers of their wages demonstrate that they don’t fear God but take advantage of others instead of following God’s precepts to give to a laborer the wages deserved;[8]

Those who by oppressing the widows and the fatherless demonstrate that they don’t fear God but take advantage of and bring hardship upon powerless women and children;

Those who by depriving the foreigners in their midst demonstrate that they don’t fear God for they, too, take advantage of and bring hardship upon those who are from a country other than their own.

Yet all of these evildoers—and all who act in ways that are similarly cruel and uncaring and unkind towards God’s image-bearers—will be put on trial and be judged by the Messiah, by the Christ, the Son of God sent by the Father to establish God’s Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.[9]

The view of those who don’t fear God is further elaborated upon beginning with verse 13 as the LORD says to them, “13 You have spoken arrogantly against me…. Yet you ask, ‘What have we said against you?’ 14 You have said, ‘It is futile to serve God. What do we gain by carrying out his requirements and going about like mourners before the Lord Almighty? 15 But now we call the arrogant blessed. Certainly evildoers prosper, and even when they put God to the test, they get away with it.’” Again, those who don’t fear God, those who don’t care about who he is and therefore don’t seek to follow his rule consider it “futile to serve God.” They don’t see the point in carrying out the requirements of the Lord Almighty. Whereas God blesses the poor in spirit and those who mourn,[10] they bless the arrogant; whereas God blesses the humble in heart and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,[11] they place their bets on “evildoers” who, in their opinion, “prosper and even when they put God to the test, they get away with it.” As one commentator puts it, “In their unbelief, [these evildoers] call blessed those whom the godly know to be cursed…—but it is they who will be called blessed if they repent.”[12] These faithless ones are so mistaken yet God, in his compassion and mercy, has told them about the judgment to come in order that they might repent; in order that they might turn to him who is Maker and LORD and mend their wicked ways. Yet thus far, they’ve fared no better than those who didn’t believe the words of the mythical Cassandra.

Yet unlike those to whom Cassandra prophesied, not all who hear God’s Word—whether from a prophet, apostle, or follower of Christ—will fail to respond to its truth. For there will always be a remnant, “a small minority of people who will remain faithful to God and so be saved.” Those who fear God and believe his Word are noted beginning with verse 16: “Then those who feared the Lord talked with each other, and the Lord listened and heard. A scroll of remembrance was written in his presence concerning those who feared the Lord and honored his name.” Whereas the effect of God’s Word upon some was like water off a duck’s back, the effect of God’s Word upon others was that they believed and feared and honored him. As they spoke with one another—no doubt to seek “mutual encouragement in fellowship” as noted by one commentator[13]— they believed him, desired to know him, and aspired to do as he commanded. Consequently, the LORD remembered these who feared him. He acted on behalf of those who honored his name.

As the LORD Almighty, el-Shaddai, goes on to state, verse 17, “On the day when I act…they will be my treasured possession. I will spare them, just as a father has compassion and spares his son who serves him.” Those who fear the LORD, those who seek to please him, will be adopted by him and become recipients of his compassion rather than of his wrath. Thus does Malachi present a marked contrast between those who fear God and those who don’t. As summarized in verse 18, “And you will again see the distinction between the righteous and the wicked, between those who serve God and those who do not.”

As we turn to our New Testament passage from Luke 3, we’re presented with the fulfillment of Malachi’s words for in these verses, John the Baptist, the foretold messenger of the LORD, has arrived to prepare the way for Christ, the Messiah. As this section opens, John is telling those around him that Jesus is indeed God’s promised Messiah—and it’s worth noting that as John the Baptist declared Jesus to be the promised Messiah, so did Jesus declare John to be the messenger promised in Malachi 3:1.[14] Now as the messenger sent to prepare the way for Christ Jesus, as stated in verse 3, John had been “preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” When asked by the crowd what they should do, he answered them, verse 11, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.” In other words, demonstrate your faith in God, who is all good and generous beyond imagination, by your own good behavior and generous deeds.

Therefore, to the tax collectors who asked what they should do, he applied it to them personally saying, “Don’t collect any more than you are required to” (as they likely were doing) (verse 13).

To the soldiers who asked the same question, he again applied it to them personally, saying, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay” (again, as they likely had done) (verse 14).

Consequently, because of John’s teaching, verse 15, “The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah” (emphasis added) for John’s words had convicted them. They sensed the truth and authority in what he proclaimed.

However, John wasn’t the Messiah. As though reading their thoughts, he answered them, verse 16, “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” As one scholar explains, “In the rabbinic schools a student did not pay his teacher. He was required to perform services, but not the loosing of the sandal, which was considered too menial. [Therefore it’s evident that] John took a lowly place.”[15] Another states, “John announces the nearness of the kingdom, but the Coming One will arrive with the power of God to inaugurate messianic rule.”[16] Ahhh. John’s baptism was but with water that cleanses the exterior. But Jesus the Christ, Jesus the Messiah who, because he is God in the flesh John felt unworthy of even untying the straps of his sandals, he would baptize the inside of his image-bearers with the Holy Spirit and fire. This inner cleansing began, of course, when after rising from death and ascending to heaven, Jesus sent his Holy Spirit to those believers at the Jewish harvest celebration known as Pentecost which is recorded in the second chapter of the Book of Acts. The Holy Spirit, being holy, makes all he touches similarly holy, without sin. For his fire not only cleanses, it also burns off all impurities. And yet, as one scholar observes, “Whether being baptized ‘with the Holy Spirit and with fire’ will be positive (involving the coming of the purifying fire of the Spirit at Pentecost…) or negative (involving the divine judgment of fire…) depends on the response of the individual person.”[17] This is just what Malachi proclaimed as well. As stated by another, “Those who repent and trust in him will receive the blessing of the Holy Spirit…, while the unrepentant receive the judgment of eternal fire….”[18] The choice is ours. Will we believe God’s Word and act accordingly, seeking to please and be like him or will we, like those who heard Cassandra, disregard his Word and continue in our own godless ways?

Although I know that we like to believe that Jesus—God’s Messiah, the Christ, foretold by the LORD through Malachi and other prophets—automatically accepts and embraces everything we do these verses make clear that this isn’t what the Scriptures teach. For Christ Jesus, being our Maker, Savior, and LORD, wants more for us than we want for ourselves. We’re content to go our own small, petty, and sinful ways. However, he knows that our own fallen ways will lead to our harm and that his way is ultimately best for us for he, having made us, knows best how we can flourish.

Concerning Messiah Jesus, Christ Jesus, John went on to state, verse 17, “His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” A winnowing fork was an instrument used to throw air through the grain, the wheat, in order to separate it from the chaff, the indigestible seed casing that, being waste material, was burned. As Messiah, Jesus will similarly gather the wheat, those who accept, believe, and receive him as God’s Messiah and are thereby received into his Father’s house; from the chaff, those who don’t accept, believe, and receive him and are thereby burned up with unquenchable fire.

Yet frightening as this judgment will be, note how Luke states in verse 18, “And with many other words John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them.” Words that might be viewed as being discouraging if ignored, John viewed as being an exhortation, as an emphatic urge to do something, a call to arms, if believed; words that might be viewed as disheartening, John viewed as good news, as being pleasing and welcome and desired. For to receive a warning is good news.

If a “check engine” light in our cars causes us to take our car to a mechanic;

And a tornado warning allows us to safely take cover;

If a “put on your seat belt” announcement on a turbulent flight, causes us to strap in for safety;

If a smoke alarm wakes us to the possible danger of a fire,

how much more should God’s Word proclaimed by his prophets and apostles be believed and cause us to take heed? For to be told about an impending danger and about what we can to do to avoid it is something to be embraced; it’s something to rejoice over. And this is precisely what John the Baptist, the promised messenger who prepared the way before the LORD, proclaimed. More importantly this is what the promised Messiah, Jesus the Christ, came to proclaim and accomplish. For God in Christ—and the prophets who came before him pointing to him—and the apostles who came after him proclaiming him—and all whose eyes the Holy Spirit has opened to believe in and receive him, understand the importance of God’s truth. All of these understand the grace, the unmerited gift, that is to be found in his warnings and the joy of deliverance, of rescue from their sin and the judgment it deserves.

Dear sisters and brothers, the first time that Lord Jesus came, he came to save; but the second time he returns, he will come to judge the world with righteousness. At that time he’ll separate the chaff—the wicked, the ungodly, the faithless, the unbelieving—from the godly. As declared in part of our Advent reading earlier, “As we light this second Advent candle, we remember how the prophets of Israel kept alive the vision of the coming Messiah, or Christ. Their vision was fulfilled when Jesus came, and God said, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’”[19] Will we listen to God’s chosen Son and so enter into the joy of his salvation or will we follow the path to destruction? My prayer is that we like the Old Testament prophets, the New Testament apostles, and all followers of our gracious and precious Savior and Lord Jesus, will ever, like John the Baptist, “with many other words…exhort the people and proclaim the good news to them” that their eyes might be opened to the truth that Jesus indeed is God’s promised Messiah, the Christ, his chosen Son sent to us by our Father in heaven to take away our sins by placing them upon himself in order that we might receive his Holy Spirit and thereby be made holy as he is holy, loving as he is loving, just as he is just; and that by proclaiming this good news in word and deed, others might believe by his Spirit the truth that God has revealed in order that they, like us, might receive the grace of warning and the joy of deliverance that our wonderful Christ Jesus so abundantly and generously provides.

Let us pray.



[1] Simon (Peter) and his brother Andrew, and James and his brother John did so literally. See Matthew 4:18–22: 18 As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. 19 “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” 20 At once they left their nets and followed him. 21 Going on from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John. They were in a boat with their father Zebedee, preparing their nets. Jesus called them, 22 and immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.; Mark 1:16–20: 16 As Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. 17 “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” 18 At once they left their nets and followed him. 19 When he had gone a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John in a boat, preparing their nets. 20 Without delay he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed him.

[2] Crossway ESV Study Bible introduction to the book of Malachi. See description under “Date.”

[3] Matthew 3:1–3: 1 In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah: “A voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’” The reference is to Isaiah 40:3: A voice of one calling: “In the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” See also Luke 3:3–4: He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 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.’” Mark 1:1–4: 1 The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah,[Or Jesus Christ. Messiah (Hebrew) and Christ (Greek) both mean Anointed One.z the Son of God, as it is written in Isaiah the prophet: “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way”[Mal. 3:1]“a voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’”[Isaiah 40:3] 4 And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

[4] Zondervan NIV Study Bible note on Malachi 3:1.

[5] Crossway ESV Study Bible note on Malachi 3:2–5.

[6] 1 Peter 1:3–7. Emphasis added.

[7] Third stanza of Jesus, Lover of My Soul, written by Charles Wesley: Thou, O Christ, art all I want; More than all in Thee I find; Raise the fallen, cheer the faint, Heal the sick and lead the blind. Just and holy is Thy name, I am all unrighteousness; Vile and full of sin I am, Thou art full of truth and grace.

[8] See Deuteronomy 24:15: Pay them their wages each day before sunset, because they are poor and are counting on it. Otherwise they may cry to the Lord against you, and you will be guilty of sin.; Leviticus 19:13: “‘Do not defraud or rob your neighbor. “‘Do not hold back the wages of a hired worker overnight.; Luke 10:7: Stay there, eating and drinking whatever they give you, for the worker deserves his wages. Do not move around from house to house.; 1 Timothy 5:18: For Scripture says, “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain,”[Deuteronomy 25:4] and “The worker deserves his wages.” [Luke 10:7]

[9] As Jesus taught his disciples to pray in the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” (See Matthew 6:10; Luke 11:2).

[10] Matthew 5:3–4: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

[11] Matthew 5:5–6: Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

[12] Zondervan NIV Study Bible note on Malachi 3:15 (emphasis added). They cross reference Psalm 119:21: You rebuke the arrogant, who are accursed, those who stray from your commands.

[13] Zondervan NIV Study Bible note on Malachi 3:16.

[14] See, e.g., Matthew 11:7–11: 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? 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. 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.; Luke 1:76 (part of Zechariah’s song about his son): 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,….

[15] Reformation ESV Study Bible note on Luke 3:16. Emphasis added.

[16] Crossway ESV Study Bible note on Matthew 3:11 (a parallel recounting). Emphasis added.

[17] Crossway ESV Study Bible note on Luke 3:16.

[18] Crossway ESV Study Bible note on Matthew 3:11 (a parallel recounting). Cross-references provided are Joel 2:28[–32]: 28 “And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. 29 Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days. 30 I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and billows of smoke. 31 The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord. 32 And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved; for on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there will be deliverance, as the Lord has said, even among the survivors whom the Lord calls.; Acts 2:16­–21: 16 No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: 17 “‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. 18 Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy. 19 I will show wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below, blood and fire and billows of smoke. 20 The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord. 21 And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’

[19] As occurred at Jesus’ transfiguration. See Matthew 17:5:  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!”; Mark 9:7: Then a cloud appeared and covered them, and a voice came from the cloud: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!”; Luke 9:35: A voice came from the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.”