Friday, August 12, 2011

Preparing the Way Out of Context

After Jesus sent out the Twelve Apostles on there first mission, He worked alone in Galilee preaching and performing miracles. When John the Baptist heard about this, he sent messengers to ask if Jesus was the prophesied Messiah for which all of the Jews were anxiously waiting. Jesus told them to tell John the Baptist what they had seen Jesus do.

Preparing the Way Out of Context
Context. It is the most useful tool in determining the intended meaning of words in a sentence, or the meaning of a sentence within a .paragraph, or, Biblically speaking, the real meaning of a prophesy. Ripped out of context, a single verse of prophesy can be bent to the will of the quoting authority. Yet if the original context still exists, we can come to the true meaning, as we will in this study.

Matthew 11:7-11 and Luke 7:24-28, in nearly identical wording, record what Jesus began to say after John the Baptist's disciples left. According to Jesus, John the Baptist was a prophet, but not just any prophet. John had a specific purpose. In Matthew 11:10/Luke 7:27 Jesus reveals that purpose:
“[John the Baptist] is the one about whom it is written:
'I will send My messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.'” NIV
Wow! John the Baptist was spoken about in the prophesies! How exciting it must have been for people living in those times, seeing prophesy fulfilled! So if Jesus has identified a specific applicable prophesy, and the specific person attached to that prophesy, it seems that we should be able to look at that prophesy for a match of what happened around the time of Jesus, especially as it pertains to John the Baptist and Jesus. That sounds reasonable, right?

You may remember from a previous study, regarding John the Baptist leading the way for Jesus, that this quote originates from Malachi 3:1. At a length of four brief chapters, Malachi is a small book in the Bible attributed to a prophet by the same name. More importantly, based on both content and structure, the entire book appears to be a contiguous revelation from God through Malachi, with the possible exception of the first five verses. Let us take a closer look into this book.

Malachi 1:1-5 speaks of how God chose Jacob (the Israelites) over Esau (the Edomites). Consequently, God's wrath will forever be against the Edomites, which will prove to the Israelites that God is great.

In Malachi 1:6-14, we find that God is pretty angry with the priests because they are sacrificing crippled and diseased animals to Him. God also reminds us that every place will eventually burn incense and make pure offerings (implicitly animal offerings) to Him because His name will be great among all nations. All nations are to fear God.

Malachi 2:1-9 continues on that theme, with God promising to make the priests despised and humiliated for breaking the covenant that He had made with Levi (Exodus 32:27-29, Numbers 3:5-10), and for not obeying God's Law and showing partiality in the Law's execution. This admonition will come so that the covenant that God had made with Levi can be preserved.

(You caught that, right? God was doing this to preserve the covenant with Levi, or in other words, to preserve the Levitical priesthood! If so, there would be no use for the priest of the order of Melchizedek described in Hebrews 5:5-10, Hebrews 6:19-20, and Hebrews 7)

Now in Malachi 2:10-16, God rebukes the general populous of Judah. In the metaphorical language of marriage, God claims that they are having an adulterous affair with a foreign god while still trying to worship Him. They should stop weeping at the altar over the fact that God no longer accepts their offerings. Their polytheism is the reason God no longer accepts their offerings.

Malachi 2:17 is a “by the way” message from God that He is tired of them complaining that God appears to be pleased with evil-doers, and complaining that there is no justice from Him.

Now, up the line which Jesus (partially) quotes. In Malachi 3:1, God will send a messenger before Him, and then suddenly the God they are seeking will come to His Temple. From the previous context, we remember that the Israelites had been seeking God the altar of the Temple of Jerusalem, and mourning because God had not accept their offerings. God is reassuring them that He will be back there.

Malachi 3:2-4 states that the day when God comes, he will purify the Levites so that God will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness, so that the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem would again be acceptable, just like they had been in the old days. (Line up the bulls and goats!)

Malachi 3:5 says that when God does show up, it will be in judgement of sinners.

All of this is not going to just automatically happen. According to Malachi 3:6-7, God does not change, so if the Israelites will obey His decrees and return to Him, then He will return to them.

How are the Israelites to return to God? In Malachi 3:8-12 God gets them started down the right path by telling them to stop stealing... from God. God has cursed the whole nation because they have not been giving all of the appropriate offerings and tithes which are owed to Him. If only they would give what the Law directs them to give, then God would “throw open the floodgates” of blessings from Heaven (including keeping their crops pest- and rot-free) and make it so that all nations consider their nation blessed.

Then, in Malachi 3:13-18, God provides reassurance for those who are weary of following God's Law without receiving any benefit for their good behavior, while the wicked prosper without punishment. God knows who they are and will spare His loyal followers and bless them. They will again see a distinction the wicked and the righteous. (“Again,” as in like it had been before.)

The message in Malachi 4:1-3 explains that distinction a little more. The day when God shows up, He will consume the wicked like a fire and will help the righteous people trample the wicked ones down.

Malachi 4:4 is a brief reminder to obey God's Law.

Wrapping it all up, in Malachi 4:5-6 God implicitly identifies the messenger from Malachi 3:1 as Elijah. Elijah will turn peoples hearts towards their own families, or else God will strike the land with a curse.

OK, now a quick and concise recap. As you read this, think of whether or not this is applies to Jesus' Salvation and the New Testament story:
God will forever demonstrate His wrath against the Edomites to show the Israelites His great power. God is angry with the priests for sacrificing defective animals, for not fully obeying God's Law, and for showing partiality. God will rebuke the priests with humiliation in order that the Levitical priesthood can be purged of impurity, and then the priesthood promised to the Levites could be continued by righteous Levites.

God is angry with the Israelites for trying to worship idols and God, for saying that God is withholding justice and rewarding the wicked, and for not giving all of the tithes and offerings which they should be giving. If they correct these sins and obey God's Law, then God will return to them. At that time, God will accept their offerings just like He did before and richly bless them. There will come a time when all nations burn incense and make offerings to God.

The day when God returns to the Temple in Jerusalem, He will come with punishment for those who persist as evil-doers, and He will help those who are righteous to take down these wicked people. God will send a messenger, Elijah, ahead of God's re-appearance. Elijah will turn people's hearts to their own families, or else when God returns He will strike the entire land with a curse.
That is the full prophetic context of John the Baptist, at least according to Jesus. At best, you could gleam some loose parallels with the Gospels. John the Baptist did warn about about the coming divine Judgement, which to him seemed imminent, but he is not recorded as saying anything which would turn the hearts of fathers to their own children, nor children's hearts to their fathers. Jesus said you must be ready to forsake your entire family in preference to Him, and Jesus did not appear with a Judgement Day, although He too preached it was imminent. Malachi's prophesy speaks of earthly and temporal reward and judgement, whereas Christianity holds that Jesus' message was about compensation in the afterlife. Far from preserving the covenant God had made with the Levites, Jesus terminates that promise. As opposed to perpetuating the system of burning incense and animal offerings, Jesus supersedes it all. These, and many more incongruous points of this prophesy, are an ill fit.

Is it really any wonder why the Jews expected something other than what Jesus was offering? No, not when you look at the context.


  1. What popped to mind when I was reading your Malachi summary was how the whole book favours the establishment: Keep the Levites in the priesthood & give them your money so they can do so... geez!

    And you're right. John the Baptist does not match the promised prophet.

  2. Yeah, I think this was a prophesy born of the nostalgia of the day, longing for a time when God would again be in the Temple, accepting offerings and doling out judgements, and the priests got their fair share. Ah, the good old days... :-)

    Because the prophetic events of Malachi had not happened yet and was still expected (Matthew 17:10), Christianity was forced to wedge this prophesy into its story despite it not aligning much at all, seizing on John the Baptist's popularity to identify him as Elijah.