While the book of Malachi is unique, rich, and rewarding, it’s promises of future purification can be difficult to square with the coming of Christ. Each of the Gospels reference the coming of John the Baptist and Jesus as the fulfillment of Malachi’s promises, yet the restoration of the sons of Levi (3:3), and the preservation of the Lord’s “covenant with Levi” (2:4) appears to be left undone. The difficulty is resolved through Christ’s atoning work as he purifies his elect and transforms them into priests to the Lord. Through a brief biblical theological study of Malachi’s fulfillment in the NT, this article seeks to prove that the priestly work of Christ fulfills God’s promises of purification in Malachi.
The Filth of the Priesthood
Malachi is a prophetic disputation which acts largely as an indictment against the priesthood for their impurity in almost every way. The people have already been exiled and restored to the land yet have returned to impurity as a dog returns to his vomit, dwelling in the land yet still living an exilic existence (Hag 1:6ff, Zech 2:6-7). They must purify themselves and return to the Torah (Mal 4:4), yet they are unable. Ultimately, the only hope is for God to act on their behalf by purifying the sons of Levi so that they can again offer righteous sacrifices to the Lord (Mal 3:1-4).
The Failure of the People
The Gospels identify John the Baptist as both Elijah the prophet (Luke 1:17 cf. Mal 4:5) and “my messenger” (Mark 1:2 cf. Mal 3:1a). Furthermore, the one for whom John the Baptist came to prepare the way for was the Lord Jesus (John 3:28), who should be identified with the Lord and the messenger of the covenant from Malachi 3:1b, who comes in order to purify the sons of Levi (Mal 3:2-4). The difficulty with this reading is that Malachi indicates that if Elijah the prophet fails to bring restoration, the Lord’s promise to purify the sons of Levi may not come to pass (Mal 4:6). This causes a difficulty in understand how this could fit with the death of Christ.
Thankfully, this conundrum came to the mind of the disciples after the transfiguration when they ask, “Then why do the scribes say that first Elijah must come?” (Mat 17:10). Jesus confirms the validity of their question by paraphrasing Malachi saying, “Elijah will restore all things.” Note that this statement is Jesus’ interpretation of the idiomatic promise that Elijah will “turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers” (Mal 4:5 cf. Mal 1:6, 2:10). Jesus then provides further explanation, “I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but did to him whatever they please. So also the Son of Man will certainly suffer at their hands.” Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them of John the Baptist.
Jesus has already clarified that John the Baptist has been rejected (Mat 11:10), and his answer here further suggests that the curse in Malachi 4 is coming into effect, most evidently in his death upon the cross. This could also mean that the purification of the sons of Levi in Malachi 3 is also in jeopardy. Immediately after this exchange though, Jesus begins a practically uninterrupted series of family restorations, or teachings using familial terminology through Matthew 19 starting with a relationship between demon oppressed child to his father (Mat 17:14-21). These theme of family restorations tips the reader off to a possible hope found in the ministry of Jesus. Even though John the Baptist failed to bring restoration like was promised because of Israel’s hardness of heart, Christ is, at least in some capacity, will bring about the reconciliation and restoration attributed to the messenger and Elijah the prophet (Mal 3:1, 4:5).
The Fulfillment in Jesus
While God has promised to bring about the ban on his people if John the Baptist is rejected, he still fulfills the promised purification of the sons of Levi through the priestly work of Christ on the cross. Those who are wicked will still experience the ban, but those who trust in the Lord are made to be priests of God and Christ, even if they are not biological descendants of Levi. The work of regeneration and sanctification is the application of the work of Christ upon his people and this work is the fulfillment of Malachi’s promise that the messenger, who is also the Lord, will purify the sons of Levi
Only after examining both the Gospels and the Epistles while considering the OT revelation will one understand the priestly work of Christ in purifying his people and transforming them into priests. First it is necessary to consider Christ’s purity. Malachi rebuked the priests and the people of Israel for offering polluted sacrifices because God required an unblemished sacrifice (Mal 1:7-14 cf. Lev 22:22). Christ was a sacrifice “without blemish” (Heb 9:14, 1 Tim 6:13-14, 1 Pet 1:19) and his perfection was allowed him to purify his people through his onetime sacrifice (Eph 5:25-17, Heb 10:1). Jesus’ active and passive obedience are vital to understanding his fulfillment of Malachi 3, since his righteous life needed to be imputed to an unrighteous people that they might become pure (2 Cor 5:21). In the cross, a double imputation takes place where Christ imputes his righteousness to his people while their sin is imputed to him. Christ’s passive obedience purifies his people as he remits their sins, bears the penalty for that sin, and reconciles them to God. This work of Christ parallels nicely with the work of the messenger of the covenant and the Lord in Malachi 3. By his sacrifice on the cross, Jesus has purified his people and made them into priests. The work of regeneration and sanctification is the application of the work of Christ upon his people and this work is the fulfillment of Malachi’s promise that the messenger, who is also the Lord, will purify the sons of Levi. Regeneration and sanctification purify God’s elect and make them into priests to the Lord by the work of Christ on the cross, thought the Spirit. Hebrews makes clear that there will be no more levitical priesthood (Heb 7:11-28), but rather, the promises make in Malachi are fulfilled in the people who have become purified (Heb 10:14, 22) and are now a “holy priesthood” who “offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Pet 2:5-6, 9 cf. John 17:19, Rom 12:1, Rev 1:6, 5:10, 20:6) and who are “priests of the gospel” (Rom 15:16 cf. Isa 66:20).