NT Eschatology—Background Part 04
In this last stop of our very brief Old Testament eschatological expedition of poetic imagery, we come to the book of Malachi. It’s here that a fascinating picture comes to us. The fourth chapter states:
Malachi 4 (adapted): Look, the day is coming, burning like an oven. All the arrogant ones and all those doing evil will become straw. The coming day will burn them, says Yahweh of heavenly forces, leaving them neither root nor branch.
But the sun of righteousness will rise on those revering my name; healing will be in its wings so that you will go forth and jump about like calves in the stall.
You will crush the wicked; they will be like dust beneath the soles of your feet on the day that I am preparing, says Yahweh of heavenly forces.
Remember the Instruction from Moses, my servant, to whom I gave Instruction and rules for all Israel at Horeb.
Look, I’m sending Elijah the prophet to you, before the great and terrifying day of Yahweh arrives. Turn the hearts of the parents to the children and the hearts of the children to their parents. Otherwise, I’ll come and strike the land with a curse.
The importance of this passage is so profound and yet it is mostly overlooked. This is the passage that bridges the Old Testament with the New Testament. As can be seen, this passage has all of the symbols of apocalyptic (poetic) language: judgment day, burning like a furnace, the arrogant and wicked consumed, etc. As we saw previously, this language is typical of the desolation of a nation. But which nation? It’s referring to Israel as can be seen in verse 4 (see also Malachi 1.1).
While we could chase a lot of rabbits in this passage, I want us to focus on the last paragraph. Yahweh promised that Elijah would come before the “great and terrifying day” arrives. Now, some people have supposed this passage refers to the “end of time.” But we’ve been given a clue that points to a more ancient fulfillment. Elijah.
With this image of Elijah coming before the “great and terrifying day of Yahweh,” let’s look at a couple of passages in the Gospels. Our first passage is found in Luke, the first chapter.
Luke 1.11-17 (adapted): An angel from the Lord appeared to Zechariah, standing to the right of the altar of incense. When he saw the angel, Zechariah was startled and overcome with fear.
The angel said, “Don’t be afraid, Zechariah. Your prayers have been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will give birth to your son and you must name him John. He’ll be a joy and delight to you, and many people will rejoice at his birth, for he’ll be great in the Lord’s eyes. He mustn’t drink wine and liquor. He’ll be filled with the Holy Spirit even before his birth. He’ll bring many Israelites back to the Lord their God. He’ll go forth before the Lord, equipped with the spirit and power of Elijah. He’ll turn the hearts of fathers back to their children, and he’ll turn the disobedient to righteous patterns of thinking. He’ll make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
Did you notice that? the angel told Zechariah that his child John would “turn the hearts of the fathers to their children.” This is a direct quote from Malachi 4. The angel is saying that John was “Elijah” who was promised in Malachi. To look a little further in this amazing symbol, this poetic image, let’s look at Matthew 17.
Matthew 17.10-13: The disciples asked, “Then why do the legal experts say that Elijah must first come?”
Jesus responded, “Elijah does come first and will restore all things. In fact, I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they didn’t know him. But they did to him whatever they wanted. In the same way the Human One is also going to suffer at their hands.” Then the disciples realized he was telling them about John the Baptist.
Not only did the angel say that John would be “Elijah,” but Jesus also recognized this. Now notice the disciples’ question again, “Why do the legal experts say Elijah must first come?” That is, Elijah’s supposed to come before something else. What is that? That something is also a someone. In Malachi, the statement is that Yahweh will return to the people of Israel before the “great and terrible day.” But before that happens, Elijah has to come and prepare them for Yahweh’s return.
The implication of Jesus’ response to the disciples’ question is, simply, John is “Elijah,” then Jesus must be the Messiah (at the very least) and in some mystical way, Yahweh. Jesus even used the Messianic phrase, “Human One” (or “Son of Man”), taken directly from Daniel 7, pointing, again, to the possibility that he is the long awaited Messiah and, therefore, John was “Elijah.” And the disciples got it.
Now do we see why Malachi is a bridge passage? It referred to things that would bridge the Old Testament story with the New Testament story. It spoke of something that would happen to Israel, within her lifetime, in the “natural” realm. When we open the New Testament, we see the fulfillment of that prediction in John the Baptist.
But what about the “great and terrifying day?”
This question will be in a future post as we start looking at some of the New Testament passages. Click here for the next post in this series.
In The Love of the Three in One,
Br. Jack+, LC