Sermon preached on Malachi 4 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 1/1/2012 in Novato, CA.
“Great and Dreadful Day of the LORD”
It’s a common thing I’ve heard in my life – people don’t generally like fire and brimstone preaching. Some preachers are labeled that by people, and I think I’ve only heard that label used negatively by people – as a critique of someone’s preaching. Now, sometimes that comment is made for understandable reasons – the person is responding to a preacher who has had an imbalance in their preaching. That preacher seems to always be preaching about fire and brimstone in a way that appears to miss the balance of Scripture and especially the central focus of God’s grace and salvation in Christ. Biblical preaching should convey the balance of topics of Scripture and should not over-emphasize one topic at the detriment of another. Rather, the amount of attention and importance we place on a doctrine in our preaching should reflect the importance and air time given it in the Scriptures. And so, if that’s all a person is saying when they are critiquing someone as a fire and brimstone preacher, then I can appreciate their concern.
And yet, more often than not, it seems that people today make this comment because preaching about fire and brimstone is just not popular. People don’t want to hear about it. They don’t want to think about a final day of judgment. They don’t want to think about God sending people to hell. Some would prefer we rarely talk about things like hell and a judgment day. Others would prefer we never talk about it. Too many in the Christian church today don’t want to believe that God actually has wrath or that he’ll bring judgment. They want to focus on God’s grace and love, and get rid of God’s wrath and judgment altogether. Well, you can do that, if you are going to be a church that invents your own god. If you make a god of your own creation and devising, then you can throw out the wrath of God. But that’s not what we do here. We don’t invent God. God has revealed himself to us in his Holy Word. That’s how we know about him. He has revealed himself as a God of love and grace, but also as a God of justice. Justice that will bring forth his righteous wrath in a final day of judgment. Judgment that will include fire and brimstone. The Bible may not talk about this fiery judgment on every page, but it does talk about it quite a bit. This judgment is something that Hebrews 6 says is part of the element principles of our Christian faith. Scripture talks about it. This passage talks about it. We have to talk about it. About this great and dreadful day of the LORD.
And so there are plenty of passages like this in the Bible. They are meant to warn and awaken people. But they are also meant to encourage God’s people who face oppression from the godless people in society. We’ll see both here today. Let’s begin by looking at how Malachi describes this coming day of judgment. Then we’ll see how he calls us to respond in light of this coming day. We’ll then think further about that response in light of the New Testament and the coming of Christ.
And so this description of the coming day of judgment begins in verse 1. It begins by getting our attention. Behold! Look! This day is coming! The tension raised in the book of Malachi is about when justice would be served. In chapter 2, the question was if the God of justice would be coming to bring justice. In chapter 3, the concern was that the proud and wicked seemed to prosper over the righteous. In light of these questions and concerns, God responds by getting our attention – Behold, the day is indeed coming. That’s verse 1. Don’t miss then either the word “behold,” or the word “coming”. That day will come, and we should be on the alert for it!
The Bible is so very clear on this. There will indeed be a final day of judgment. There is no doubt about it. There is so much in a scripture about this. It’s constantly referred to as a day. A day of judgment. In other words, a single point at the end, that will end it all. Human history as we know it will be brought to an end. The dead will be judged. The people of God brought into eternal blessing, and the wicked brought into eternal damnation. So much Scripture on this “day.” Old Testament and New Testament are abundantly united in passage after passage about this coming day. In the Old Testament, this is something the prophets especially drive home. Ezekiel 7:10, Joel 2:1, Zephaniah 1:14, are just a few of those passages in the Old Testament; ones that specifically use even this same language of a “day” of judgment. In the New Testament, 2 Peter 3:7 is just one example among many of again the “day” language with regards to the final judgment. The day is coming, and it will be great and dreadful, as it says here in verse 5.
The dreadful aspect is that it will be a fiery judgment for the wicked. Verse 1 – it will be the fire of an oven that reaches the wicked. Verse 1 goes on to call the wicked stubble. Stubble here is that which is left after you go through the grain harvest. You go through and pick out all the grain. What’s left sticking out of the grown is the stubble. The grain is the good stuff. The stubble is the left over refuse. The wicked here are called the stubble and it says in verse 1 that they’ll be burned up like trash on that coming day. The stubble imagery continues when it says that this will leave them neither root nor branch. In other words, that stubble will not have opportunity to regrow or produce any fruit. They’ll be destroyed and left with nothing.
Of course, it may be helpful here to complement this passage’s teaching with the other texts of Scripture that use this fiery language. Don’t be mistaken by thinking this fiery destruction is something that will destroy the wicked in some way that the wicked are completely annihilated. It’s not that the wicked will go through this fiery punishment and then cease to exist. No, other passages on this final day of judgment tell us that this will be an eternal punishment; eternal conscience punishment. As Isaiah 66:24 says, this will be a fire that will not be quenched. Jesus confirms this unquenchable fire in Mark 9, quoting Isaiah. Other passages talk about final judgment being a judgment of fire; this includes 2 Peter 3:7, Revelation chapters 14 and 19, Isaiah 34, and Matthew 3:12 for starters. Other passages use other imagery to talk about how this horrible judgment will be ongoing – like that of an undying worm and the language of everlasting torment.
This should cause us all pause. It should strike us a great and dreadful day. This should spark in us all a beginning sense of the fear of God. And yet this is why our generation today needs to hear this. It seems there is so little fear of God in our culture. People want to invent a god today of their own choosing. One for which they would never need to have any sort of fear. But that’s not a Biblical picture of the one true God. The God of justice will come and bring a terrible judgment on the wicked. But who are the ones saved from this judgment? As we know, it’s those who have found salvation in Jesus Christ. We’ll talk more of that in a moment. But notice here that the ones who are saved are described in a different way. As those who fear God. This is not a contradiction, of course, it’s a complement. Those who are in Christ, are also those who fear God. The teaching of the judgment day should tell us that there is a God who does have justice and righteous wrath as part of his qualities. Christians are those who by God’s grace have recognized this. Our fear of God begins by acknowledging we have deserved this. This fear of God then, recognizes how just it would be for God to bring this judgment on sin.
And so then with all the immorality today in our nation, how much our society needs to be awakened to this God of justice. So much wickedness going on in our society: rampant sexual immorality, adultery, unbiblical divorce, abortion, atheism, idolatry in the form of greed and love of money; the list could go on and on. In our country, I think if anything we need more fire and brimstone preaching, not less. We need our country awakened to the reality of sin in our lives. To understand that sin has consequences. Consequence that often come here and now in the form of damaged relationships and destroyed lives. But consequences that will certainly come in eternity in the form of God’s unrelenting wrath toward sin.
And yet, we would not want to leave the people just with fire and brimstone. You see there is an alternative course held out to us. As much as the Bible talks about that final day being one of fire and brimstone, it also says it’s a day of healing and help as well. A day of healing and help for those who fear God. For those who have found salvation in God through his Messiah. Verse 2 here expresses this good healing. The sun of righteousness will rise with healing in his wings. Some English translations have taken this a Messianic reference, capitalizing Sun of Righteousness. The Hebrew grammar wouldn’t demand that translation, and arguably leans away from it. Certainly the Messiah brings this healing about, don’t get me wrong. But the imagery here is that of a sun that rises and shines forth healing rays of righteousness to those who fear God. Those familiar with the Superman comics know that Superman gets his alien superpowers from sun. The rays of the sun, in the Superman comics, provide him healing and strengthening power. That’s the kind of imagery her being used with regards to righteous. On the dawn of the day of the Lord, God’s people will have righteousness shine forth on them. Righteousness that will bring healing and new strength to God’s people. They’ll be made prosperous and strong like well fed calves that go galloping out, full of energy. Surely all this hints at how God’s people will be perfected in their righteousness on that final day – when their sanctification will be complete.
But even more clear here, is the concept of reversal. The complaint raised here in Malachi is that the wicked seem to prosper and God’s people seem to suffer. Malachi 3:15, for example. That will be clearly reversed on the final day of judgment. The wicked are destroyed, the God fearers are healed from their afflictions. But verse 3 takes the reversal one step further – the God-fearers will trample down the wicked as ashes under their feet. Jesus predicted this reversal too – blessed are the poor; woe to the rich; the first would be last, and the last first. We saw that in Mary’s Song from Luke 1 at our Christmas Eve service too. The wicked who’ve tended to prosper in this life will have that reversed at the final judgment. The people of God who’ve tended to find affliction in this life will have that reversed at the final day of judgment.
Malachi tells us what response God’s people should have to this coming day. “Remember.” Verse 4. Remember the Law given through Moses. Remember how it was given at Mount Horeb aka Mount Sinai. Remember all those statutes and ordinances. Remember the covenant God had made with them. In the same way, Elijah is promised to come back before the day. Elijah represents the prophets of the old covenant. Prophets who called the people to do the same thing – remember the covenant. Return to following God. Repent and return to the terms of God’s covenant. That’s what the people should do in light of the announcement of this final day of judgment. That’s what the people had been failing to do. After being exiled because they didn’t keep the law, they were back from exile, again, not keeping the law. Malachi calls them to return to the old covenant law in light of this coming day of judgment.
And so the response commended to this coming day is one of repentance. Turn back to God and find salvation instead of judgment. That was the message back then. That response is still commended to us today in light of the coming day of judgment. And yet more can be said to us. The very mention of Moses and Elijah draws us to think of more. Moses and Elijah point us forward to Christ. If they were to prepare for the coming day of the Lord through returning to the teachings of Moses and Elijah, then they ultimately must be drawn to look forward to the coming Messiah. Let’s think about this starting with Moses. Moses introduces a contrast here. John 1:17 says this. “For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” When you hear the call to remember the law of Moses here, you should remember as well how time and again God’s people have struggled to keep the law. Yes, we should remember the law. We should affirm that the law is good and just. But we should also confess how we fall short of the law. We don’t remember to keep all the commands of God properly. Remembering Moses and the law should remind us of our need for grace and the gospel. The bible says that has come in Christ. Remember the demands of the law, and then find grace in that with Christ.
This does not mean that we do not look to repent. No, just remember Elijah then. This passage tells us that Elijah would come before that great and awesome Day of the Lord. Jesus in the New Testament says that John the Baptist fulfilled that spiritually through his preaching. John came to prepare the way of the Lord. Well, his preparation involved calling people to repent and return to God’s laws. Jesus himself took up that same call. So we see that we still have a demand to turn back from sin and look to follow God’s holy laws. That call for obedience is still there.
But the point is that Moses and Elijah’s call for repentance and obedience must also have in view grace. Grace that comes in the Messiah. In Jesus Christ. Grace secured by the cross when he tasted judgment in our place. That’s why in Matthew 27:45, we see at the cross the land grew dark for three hours. That’s one of the Old Testament images of the final day of judgment – darkness falling upon the land. In Christ’s first coming, he bore God’s wrath for sin on the cross. He did that so that all who repent and turn to him in faith, can be given grace and forgiveness. This is the good news we refer to as the gospel. And so the call for repentance and obedience represented by Moses and Elijah must also have room for the grace represented by Christ. And how sweet that grace is!
Surely that’s why both Moses and Elijah literally returned before the cross. They both returned on that mount of transfiguration when they appeared there with Jesus and spoke with him. Moses and Elijah both lead the way to Jesus Christ. And so we need the law. We need the call to repentance. But we especially need the call to trust in the grace of Jesus Christ. That’s how we’ll be saved on the day of judgment. And that’s why we will need the sun of righteousness to rise on that day. To pour forth the warmth of God’s righteousness into our hearts to complete the work of godliness in our lives. Because up to that day our repentance will not yield perfect righteousness. Rather, the just shall live by faith. We shall live by faith in God’s grace until that great and wonderful day of the Lord. Then we will be healed. Then the promised reversal will take place. Then our salvation will be complete!
And so it’s no surprise then that the New Testament equates the great and terrible day of the LORD with the day of Christ. Many passages in the New Testament talk about the day of Christ: 2 Thessalonians 2:2, Philippians 1:6, 1:10, 2:16, 2 Corinithians 1:14 to name just a few. The New Testament talks about the coming day of Christ. It’s the day of Christ’s return. This is synonymous with the day of the LORD, the one referenced so many times in the Old Testament including here in Malachi. Matthew 24:29-30 is one such passage that makes this connection for us. It uses an Old Testament passage of the final day of judgment, and says that’s the same day as when Christ will return. And so my point is simply this. The final day of judgment is one and the same as the day of Christ. And so everything we have in this passage for today again draws us to look to Jesus Christ. Moses and Elijah draw us to look to Christ. The day of the Lord draws us to look to the Lord of that day: Christ. It’s his coming day. He will usher in this mighty day of reversals. He will usher in this mighty day of judgment for some and healing for others. He will bring this age of human history to a close by his coming. This is the day of Christ!
But you see, that is how we are to respond then. We repent and believe in Christ. We confess our sins and commit to live a life that reveres God and looks to obey his laws. But in all of this, we acknowledge our need for grace, past, present, and future. Grace in Christ for our past life of sin. Grace in the present and future to grow us and perfect us in righteousness, even as we have our struggles to do that in this life. We look with Moses and Elijah upon the Lord of all – Jesus Christ. This coming day is ultimately his day! But if we belong to him, it will not catch us as a thief in the night. No, it will be a day of the greatest healing and joy.
Trinity Presbyterian Church, behold he is coming! The day of Christ is coming. As we start out in 2012, we are reminded again of the coming day of judgment. We can literally say about Judgment Day – the bible guarantees it! Some of you might have caught my reference there. As we leave 2011 behind and come into 2012 we might recall the events of this year. Events that saw a false prophet declare that judgment day would come in 2011. Two different dates even in 2011. Dates that have come and gone. This false prophet had said that the bible guaranteed it. And yet, he was wrong; wrong at least about the dates. The bible actually has told us very clearly that no man would know the day or the hour. And yet the Bible does guarantee a final day of judgment. God’s Word says that right here in Malachi chapter 4. The great and dreadful day of the Lord is coming. The day of Christ is coming.
And so as we head into this new year, I thought this a fitting passage to consider today. Just because false prophets have yet again predicted a day that came and went, we must not lose sight of the fact that the day is coming. It will come unexpectedly. But Scripture says we must be alert and vigilant for his coming. It’s my exhortation then again today to be prepared. Do not be taken by surprise. Instead, we become prepared by faith and repentance in Christ. Trust in his grace and seek to follow him, and you will be prepared. He will make sure you are prepared for that day. Today’s passage is a wakeup call for us and for the world, that the Judgment Day is still coming. 2012 could be the year, I do not know. But I know that it will come. As we put off the baggage of false prophesies from 2011 that caused ridicule to Christians from the world, become renewed today in the reality of Christ’s coming. It will happen. Let us look forward to that great and joyous day for us. Amen!
Copyright (c) 2012 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.