Malachi prophesied to the descendants of the exiles who returned to Judea following the decree of King Cyrus (Ezra 1:1-5). Haggai and Zachariah preached to those who had returned, exhorting them to finish the task of building the temple. Even though the returned exiles faced opposition from local authorities (Ezra 4:1-5, 24), they persevered and completed the task. Their descendants, Malachi’s audience, faced little external threat. Although the temple was completed and the people enjoyed a measure of political stability unknown for generations, they lacked fervency for the Lord their God—and their leaders congratulated the people for their lukewarm commitment.
Malachi’s words conclude the Old Testament. He called his audience to “remember the instruction of Moses” (Mal 4:4) and wait upon “the great and awesome Day of the LORD” (Mal 4:5). Malachi’s prophecy surfaces repeatedly in the New Testament, underscoring the prophet’s contribution to the storyline of Scripture.
(1) In Mal 1:2-3a, the prophet spoke the word of the Lord, saying, “‘I have loved you,’ says the LORD. But you ask, ‘How have You loved us?’ ‘Wasn’t Esau Jacob’s brother?’ This is the LORD’s declaration. ‘Even so, I loved Jacob, but I hated Esau.’” In Romans 9, Paul employed the words of the prophet to describe the principle of God’s covenant love upon those whom He has chosen—both Jews and Gentiles. Paul began Romans 9 by lamenting that the Jews of his day were rejecting the gospel even though Jesus was a fellow descendent of Abraham. Paul concluded that those Jews rejecting Jesus were not true Israelites. “Not all who are descended from Israel are Israel,” Paul wrote (Rom 9:6). Paul saw in Mal 1:2-3 a window for viewing God’s electing love in the history of Israel. In Gen 25:21-23, the Lord told Rebekah that her children were struggling in her womb because the older would serve the younger. God had chosen Jacob and overlooked Esau. Malachi interpreted God’s choice of Jacob as an expression of God’s love for him and hatred for Esau. Paul quoted Mal 1:2-3 in Rom 9:13 as a historical precedent for God’s free, electing love. Just as God had chosen Jacob and Esau—even though both were from the same parents—so too God had chosen some Israelites to believe in Christ for salvation.
(2) In Mal 1:14, the prophet spoke the word of the Lord, saying, “For My name will be great among the nations, from the rising of the sun to its setting.” At the outset of Jesus’ ministry, He noted that the nations would welcome His message of the kingdom of God (Luke 4:24-27). After Jesus was resurrected, He commissioned His disciples to go out among the nations making disciples (Matt 28:18-20). When the Lord called Paul on the Damascus road, he told Ananias that He had chosen Paul as a messenger to the Gentiles (Acts 9:15). When the Spirit came upon Cornelius and his household as Peter preached, all became aware that God’s blessing of salvation had been freely given to the nations (Acts 10:44-11:18). In 1 Tim 3:16, Paul offered an early confessional statement of Christianity, saying, “He [Jesus] was manifested in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen by angels, preached among the Gentiles, believed on in the world, taken up in glory.”
(3) In Mal 2:17-3:6, the prophet chastised the descendants of the exiles because they lacked righteous judgment, praised the wicked, and slandered the faithful. The Lord would thus send His messenger to clear the way for His arrival (Mal 3:1). In Mal 4:5, the prophet declared the word of the Lord, saying, “Look, I am going to send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome Day of the LORD comes.” According to Luke’s Gospel, the angel of the Lord who appeared to Zechariah told him that Malachi’s prophecy pointed to his son, John the Baptist. The angel announced, “He will turn many of the sons of Israel to the Lord their God. And he will go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the disobedient to the understanding of the righteous, to make ready for the Lord a prepared people” (Luke 1:16-17). Zechariah later prophesied concerning his son, “And child, you will be called a prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare His ways” (Luke 1:76). To defend His messianic claims, Jesus said that Malachi’s prophecy referred to John the Baptist (Matt 11:2-19//Luke 7:18-35). Mark began his Gospel by introducing John the Baptist as Jesus’ forerunner, in accord with Mal 3:1. After the transfiguration, Peter, James, and John were perplexed about the coming of the Son of Man and asked Jesus why the scribes said that Elijah would return before the Messiah. Jesus replied that Elijah had come, suffering the fate of a true prophet (Mark 9:9-13//Matt 17:10-12). John applied Malachi’s prophecy autobiographically. John replied to his disciples’ concern that Jesus was baptizing more disciples than he was, saying, “No one can receive a single thing unless it’s given to him from heaven. You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah, but I’ve been sent ahead of Him’…He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:27-28, 30).
(4) In Mal 4:1, the prophet announced that there would be a differentiation between the righteous and the wicked, saying, “For indeed the day is coming, burning like a furnace, when all the arrogant and everyone who commits wickedness will become stubble. The coming day will consume them.” Among the many connections between the latter half of the prophecy of Malachi and John the Baptist is John’s point that Messiah would come baptizing with the Holy Spirit and fire (Matt 3:11-12//Mark 1:7-8//Luke 3:16). Jesus employed Malachi’s imagery when describing the separation of those who participate in the kingdom of God and those who suffer in hell (Mark 9:42-49). In 2 Peter, the author echoed Malachi’s announcement, saying, “The present heavens and earth are held in store for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men” (2 Pet 3:7). He adds, “The heavens will be on fire and be dissolved, and the elements will melt with the heat. But based on His promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness will dwell” (2 Pet 3:12b-13). The story of the rich man and Lazarus likewise pointedly differentiated the suffering of the wicked by fire and the eternal peace awaiting the righteous (Luke 16:19-31). Ultimately, all those who deceive, led by the Devil and his false prophet, will be thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur, “and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever” (Rev 20:10), while those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life will enjoy the presence of God (Rev 21:1-4).