In the previous edition of Essentials, Simon Flinders invited us to reconsider in what ways we should — and should not — interpret the messianic content of Genesis 3:15. We can avoid a simplistic approach, where the answer to every question is Jesus, and use responsible biblical theology to plot an equally-exciting trajectory concerning God's plans for his world and for his victory over Satan.

Similar caution should be applied to the third chapter of the last book of the Old Testament. And similarly-exciting results can be found…

The Problem

Malachi 3:1 has long been considered a messianic proof text. To his people who had resettled in Judah after returning from exile, Yahweh Sabaoth announces:

See, 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. (NIV)

What do you understand these words to promise?

Centuries of Christians have seen here an announcement of Jesus' coming. The title 'messenger of the covenant' occurs nowhere else in the Bible, so it is open to many interpretations. The words 'messenger' and 'angel' are interchangeable, so it is common to consider this to be another description of 'the Angel of the Lord'. And, just as that Angel is often identified as divine, so too in this verse does the Hebrew parallelism equate this 'messenger/Angel' with the 'Lord' himself.

Indeed Jesus himself cites this verse (Matt. 11:10 // Luke 7:27; cf. Mark 1:2). We have been taught to think that this offers final confirmation that Malachi 3:1 clearly predicts the sending of John the Baptist and of Jesus. Moreover, the Coming One is affirmed as both 'Angel' and 'Lord'. We are encouraged to rejoice that we have solved the enigma of the 'Angel of the Lord' and reaped further proof of the divinity of Christ.

The trouble is that, if we pursue this line, we end up being irresponsible in our exegesis of Malachi. It also puts us at odds with NT commentators, who consistently deny that Malachi makes any prediction of the Messiah.

Digging Deeper

This famous verse belongs to one of Malachi's question-and-answer oracles (2:17–3:5). The impatient are asking, 'Where is the God of justice?'. The answer which begins in 3:1 is simple: '"I am coming", says Yahweh.' Yahweh Sabaoth, the Lord of hosts, is attributed as the one who answers; this is seen clearly in both the first and last verses of 3:1–5.

The message of Malachi 3:1 really is that simple: Yahweh will send a prophetic messenger, before he himself comes to set things aright.

If we try and squeeze the Messiah into the verse as well, we do damage to the text. Such damage — or at least a degree of confusion — can be seen in exegetes both old and new. In trying to pair this verse with Jesus' use of it, Calvin allows the Son to be speaking this OT prediction. Yet he cannot permit the title 'Yahweh Sabaoth' to denote anyone other than the Father, so Calvin introduces a change of speaker for the last few words. Luther attributes the entire speech to Christ, but breaches one of his own interpretive rules in doing so.

Similar inconsistencies are seen in modern interpreters, as they try to explain how the Father ('the Lord of hosts') is predicting the advent of the Son ('the Lord, the messenger of the covenant').

I suggest that there are four reasons why we are regularly tempted to try and force a reference here to Jesus:

(1) Evangelical enthusiasm to show the christological value of the OT encourages us to find Jesus wherever possible. The fact that Jesus applies the verse to himself certainly endorses this quest.

(2) The language of 'Lord' and 'messenger/Angel' is sufficiently vague that it seems open to a christological interpretation. Many would want 'the Angel of Yahweh' in the opening books of the OT and the 'Lord' of other passages like Psalm 110:1 to refer to the Son. We simply don't know what to do with the phrase 'the messenger of the covenant', but it sounds right to think of the Son as such a 'messenger' rather than the Father.

(3) We fail to recognise that each time Malachi 3:1 is cited in the NT it is conflated with Exodus 23:20. The language of the two passages influence each other and make interpretation more complicated.

(4) Calvin and Luther simply don't like the idea that God would speak of himself in this third-person way. Why would the Lord of hosts say 'the Lord will come' rather than the obvious 'I will come'? Many modern exegetes are equally uncomfortable with this. But we must simply recognise that biblical figures can and do speak in this way! Lamech speaks to his own wives as 'wives of Lamech' (Gen. 4:23). Jesus prays, 'glorify your Son ... Jesus Christ' (John 17:1–3). Indeed, we automatically take every reference to 'the Son of Man' as Jesus' way of talking about himself in the third person.

A Christological Solution

Once we recognise that one can speak about oneself in this way, the text is clear. 'I will send my messenger and he will prepare the way before me.' God promises that he himself is coming to judge and refine and restore his people.

We should not lament that this reading has somehow squeezed the Messiah out of the verse. Rather, we should rejoice that Jesus appropriates this promise for himself. He is not merely some messianic messenger sent to do the work of Yahweh Sabaoth (although he is that). Rather he is the fulfilment of God's promise to come himself and renew the people of God!

To understand and adopt and promote this interpretation is ultimately to bring even greater honour to the person and work of Jesus: the fullness of God visiting his people and restoring true worship.

Are there other OT passages where we have opted for an easy answer, perhaps settling for imprecise exegesis and inadvertently selling short the full implications of the incarnation?

For a more detailed discussion of the exegetical issues involved, and the ways these are treated by Old and New Testament scholars, see Andrew's article, 'Is the Messiah Announced in Malachi 3:1?', Tyndale Bulletin 57/2 (2006): 215–228.

Andrew Malone is a postgraduate student and lecturer
at the recently re-badged Ridley Melbourne