“Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and that day that is coming will set them on fire,” says the Lord Almighty. “Not a root or a branch will be left to them. But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings. And you will go out and leap like calves released from the stall. Then you will trample down the wicked; they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day when I do these things,” says the Lord Almighty.
“Remember the law of my servant Moses, the decrees and laws I gave him at Horeb for all Israel.
“See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers; or else I will come and strike the land with a curse.”
This prophecy is the final chapter in the Old Testament. The prophecy itself is found in the first three verses, then a command, and finally a sign. The sign in verses five and six would indicate that the fulfillment of the prophecy was imminent.
The sign is pretty simple. It is the “second coming” of Elijah. If you can figure out when that happened or is going to happen then you have a good idea of when this prophecy would be fulfilled.
There really is no need to speculate about when this sign would happen as the Bible spells it out pretty clearly. Luke tells us that John the Baptist would “go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous – to make read a people prepared for the Lord.” (Luke 1:17) Luke very nearly quotes Malachi, making it obvious that John the Baptist is the second coming of Elijah and the sign of the imminent fulfillment of the prophecy.
If that wasn’t enough Jesus himself claims that John the Baptist “is the Elijah who was to come.” (Matthew 11:14) What’s more Jesus tells his disciples after the transfiguration that “Elijah has already come and they did not recognize him.” (Matthew 17:12) Part of the reason they did not recognize John as Elijah may be because he denied it himself. We find in John 1 the religious leaders asking John if he was the Messiah, Elijah, or a Prophet. John denied all three. It is curious that he denied being Elijah despite the fact that he was. It reminds me of Jesus’ early ministry when he would heal people and then ask them not to tell anyone, as if the time wasn’t right for him to be revealed.
So if John the Baptist was the second coming of Elijah, fulfilling the sign of Malachi 4, what does that mean for the prophecy? It means the day that would burn like a furnace would be fulfilled shortly afterward. It means the day that would consume the arrogant and evildoers in fire wasn’t far off.
Who were these arrogant evildoers? Jesus makes his feelings perfectly clear on that matter as well. He uses a Pharisee as an example of arrogance in one of his parables (Luke 18:9-14). Jesus goes even further in Matthew 23 going into great detail his feelings about these evil religious leaders. Can there be any doubt that a generation of Israelites being called arrogant evildoers immediately after the sign of Elijah is the same arrogant evildoers prophesied by Malachi?
But where is the judgment of fire promised by Malachi? Fire is common in apocalyptic language, but it does not necessary indicate physical fire. Fire indicates judgment and cleansing. This can be seen even in the previous chapter where the Judge comes and purifies his people just like silver is refined in a fire. Physically the nation of Israel was judged in AD 70 when millions of Jews were slaughtered at the hands of the Romans.
The great thing about the judgment of Israel is that it was like a refiner’s fire. The promise of judgment in Malachi was accompanied by a promise of salvation. The sun of righteousness would come with healing in his wings. Can this be a reference to anything but Jesus himself who brought physical healing to Israel as a sign of the spiritual healing that would soon take place? Jesus died and rose again and ascended to heaven with the promise of his return and with that return he would bring salvation to those waiting for him (Hebrews 9:28). Is it any coincidence then that Jesus’ return occurs at the same time as the judgment of the wicked religious leaders?
Malachi 4 has been fulfilled entirely. The prophecy of judgment/salvation was fulfilled at the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 and the incorporation of the new covenant. All this was preceded by the sign of Elijah in the form of John the Baptist.