Malachi and the Messenger
The linkage in the lectionary of the two passages from Holy Scripture for the First Sunday in Advent is a beautiful demonstration of the relationship between the Testaments and as to how each is to be understood – future hope followed by fulfillment. Just as there were two tablets of the law, so there are two manifestos to the divine mercy. There is a wonderful continuity in Scripture that should not be broken, as one scholar has commented, by the blank page in our Bibles between Malachi and Matthew. There may have been a chronological gap of four centuries between the prophetic message of expectation and the apostolic account of the Messiah’s arrival but the meaning of the Old and New Testaments merges in Jesus Christ. The former presents us with an extended period of preparation for the coming of the Saviour and the latter proclaims the fact of his appearing. Both Testaments contribute to a complete understanding of the Lord Jesus. Each is necessary to the other and any disconnection or division results in a deprivation of knowledge and a diminution of our joy in Christ. The witness to him spreads over both sections of our Bible and the way these fit together is a delightful education in the wisdom and ways of God. There is perfection in the fulfillment of his purposes and promises. The step from the Old Testament to the New is not a long stretch or wild leap but a pleasant walk through the Word of God from anticipation to actualization. In the foretellings of the prophets the depiction of Jesus is prospective and his advent lies ahead. The glad cry of the Gospels is that the awaited Lord is gloriously present. The two Testaments are two lenses that bring the Saviour into full and clear focus. The God given skill in Biblical interpretation lies in discerning what comes to pass because of the coming of Jesus, as related by the New Testament authors, and what necessarily passes away in the writings of the Old Testament. The message is the same but the method of instruction varies. Ceremonial pointers to Jesus, and certain customs observed by God's ancient people, have served their purpose and passed into disuse now that the Reality has replaced the representations of saving truth to be fully revealed in Jesus.
Symbols, shadows, types of his redemptive role, although once relevant and still illustrative to hindsight, are now redundant. Their efficacy to faith was promissory and temporary until the coming of the promised One. "The fathers . . . did not see God in any other way than wrapped up in many folds of figures and ceremonies" says Calvin, and, "Ceremonies . . . have been abrogated, not as to their effect, but only as to their use. It was only the use of them that was abolished, for their meaning was more fully confirmed". In essence Calvin, in referring to Moses, is summing up the point of the whole of the Old Testament witness, "Moses had no other intention than to invite all men to go straight to Christ". And now the New Testament echoes the invitation in bidding us to come to Christ.
John the Baptist combined the messages of "go" and "come" in his unique ministry of proximate forerunner to the Messiah. He prepared the way for the Lord and pointed to the Lamb. He is the messenger alluded to by Malachi. He is the bridge connecting the Testaments. He joins the expectation of Israel to the emergence of Jesus in the opening of his public ministry. Malachi's long-range pronouncement about the forerunner travels over four centuries and terminates in John. And close on the heels of John the "suddenly" of the Lord is fulfilled in Jesus. Malachi compels his listeners to look forward to the future and forecasts the arrival of two eminent figures in quick succession. He brings us to the brink of a new era. The birth narratives of John and Jesus lock the Testaments together as one story, the history of salvation wrought by God through his Son, initially pledged in prophecy and then present as Son of Man.
The passage of time between Malachi and the messenger is not a rupture between the Testaments, but a suggestion that we pause mentally at the momentousness of God's final installment of the one plan of salvation. We have an opportunity to brace ourselves for the breathtaking finale to his mission of mercy. Its as if creation must be warned to steady itself for the sight of God incarnate who, at the appointed hour, when heaven's curtain is rolled back, and a company of angels herald his miraculous arrival in celestial song, arrives surprisingly as a frail human infant asleep in an animal food trough.
The event is stupendous, its humility incredible. The angels attest to the glory which they have gazed upon since their creation. The manger means that God stoops low to elevate fallen man to new creation.
Both Malachi and John viewed the coming of the Lord in a mood of apprehension. "But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? (Mal 3:2). "The axe is already at the root of the trees . . . . His winnowing fork is in his hand" (Matt 3:10, 12). For the prophets the fact of human sin could only mean that judgment must be imminent and loom large in the approach of a holy God. Isaiah declared the gracious day of his advent as also "the day of vengeance of our God" (Isa 61:2). The apprehension of the three was ultimately accurate. God would certainly unleash his wrath against recalcitrant and unrepentant sinners. But Jesus' omission of the day of vengeance in his citing of Isaiah when he preached in the synagogue (Luke 4:
18-19) introduced a sovereignly determined delay, allowing him to bear the wrath on behalf of all who would believe. In Jesus mercy interposed itself and "elongated" the day of opportunity for salvation.
Only the "messenger of the covenant" (Mal 3:1), Jesus himself, could fully explain in detail the purpose of God in his grace, for he was the agent of the covenant of grace, called to make it work. He knew the program. The Old Testament was given to outline the program
The New Testament was written to show that the program has been accomplished. The Old Testament is in the nature of a blueprint and the New is the record of completion. The task of the Bible reader is to pair the matching features and, to borrow the expression, excitedly declare, "This is that!". The outcome is to know assuredly that God keeps his word. He keeps it in ways that are astounding, little and large. History is organized for the salvation of his people. But the Bible does more than enthrall us. It convinces us that God acts in judgment and mercy. We are to flee the judgment and embrace the mercy.
Both have come and are operative in Jesus Christ. The climax of each is yet to come – suddenly! The correspondence and complementarity of the Testaments primarily serve to encourage us with the fact that our God is reliable and that he can be trusted. If his providence can reign through history his power can save our souls, and the course of history is abundant proof that he is willing to do so.