A Time of Testing and Sifting
1, 2. (a) What conditions existed among God’s people in the fifth century B.C.E.? (b) Why should Malachi’s prophecy be of interest to us?
“WHERE is the God of justice?” Those who raised that challenging question back in the fifth century B.C.E. also contended: “It is of no value to serve God.” Religious and moral decay among God’s own people, the Jews, had provoked skepticism about divine justice. But the eyes of the true God, who does not sleep, were upon them. And he commissioned the Hebrew prophet Malachi to put them on notice that a cleansing work, a time of testing and sifting, lay ahead. They would know where “the God of justice” was when he came suddenly for judgment!—Malachi 2:17; 3:1, 14, 15.
2 Malachi’s prophecy should be of more than historical interest to us. Why? Because it evidently has a fulfillment in our day. (Romans 15:4) Yes, Jehovah’s people today have been passing through a time of testing and sifting! How so? A close look at Malachi’s prophecy will help us to answer.
3. What was involved in the ancient refining process?
3 But, first, why does Jehovah expose his people to testing and sifting? As “the examiner of hearts,” he has purposed to refine his organized people. (Proverbs 17:3; Psalm 66:10) In Bible times the refining process involved heating a metal to the melting point and then skimming off the impurities, or dross. We read: “The refiner watches the operation, either standing or sitting, with the greatest earnestness, until . . . the [liquid] metal has the appearance of a highly-polished mirror, reflecting every object around it; even the refiner, as he looks upon the mass of metal, may see himself as in a looking-glass, and thus he can form a very correct judgment respecting the purity of the metal. If he is satisfied, the fire is withdrawn, and the metal removed from the furnace; but if not considered pure, more lead is added and the process repeated.” (Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature, by J. McClintock and J. Strong) Such refined gold or silver was more valuable.—Compare Revelation 3:18.
4. Why does Jehovah allow testing and sifting among his people?
4 Jehovah allows testing and sifting so as to refine, or purify, his people, helping them to reflect more accurately his image. (Ephesians 5:1) In the refining process, he skims off the dross by clearing away unclean teachings and practices. (Isaiah 1:25) He also sifts out from among his people those who refuse to submit to the refining process and who “cause stumbling and persons who are doing lawlessness.” This clears the way for “the sons of the kingdom,” the spiritual Israelites, to shine with brightness so that an earthly class can also be gathered and cleave to them organizationally for survival.—Matthew 13:38, 41, 43; Philippians 2:15.
5, 6. (a) Who, particularly, were responsible for the low spiritual level of the Israelites in Malachi’s day? Why? (b) What bad effect did this have on the Israelites in general?
5 Malachi prophesied after 443 B.C.E., almost a century after the Jewish exiles returned from Babylon. More than 70 years had passed since the inauguration of the temple rebuilt by Zerubbabel. The spiritual condition of the Israelites had deteriorated to a low level. Who, particularly, were responsible? The priests! How so? They were “despising” Jehovah’s name by accepting sick and lame sacrifices. (Malachi 1:6-8) They “caused many to stumble in the law” by failing to instruct the people and by showing partiality in judgment.—Malachi 2:6-9; James 3:1.
6 As a result, Israelites in general began to question the value of serving God, even refusing to pay the tithe required by law. (Malachi 3:6-10, 14, 15; Leviticus 27:30) So far had they fallen from their devotion to God’s Law that some had “dealt treacherously” with their wives, evidently by divorcing them in order to marry pagan women. Why, such detestable practices as sorcery, adultery, lying, and fraud were now prevalent among God’s people!—Malachi 2:10-16; 3:5.
7, 8. What was the prophet Malachi’s commission?
7 Malachi’s commission was clear. In a forthright manner he exposed the negligent priests, and he made the people aware of their true spiritual state. Yet, he indicated that the God of merciful love was ready to forgive. “Return to me, and I will return to you,” Jehovah pleaded. (Malachi 3:7) Malachi foretold that “the true Lord” was coming to his temple for judgment. The priests were in need of cleansing in order to “become to Jehovah people presenting a gift offering in righteousness.” (Malachi 3:1-3) In addition, the people were put on notice that “the true Lord” would become “a speedy witness” against those who persisted in detestable practices.—Malachi 3:5.
8 Malachi was true to his commission; he sounded the warning. What he said was of benefit to the priests and the people in his day. However, several centuries passed before his prophecy saw some of its features come true in a first fulfillment.
The First-Century Fulfillment
9. In fulfillment of Malachi’s prophecy, who was the “messenger”? Why do you so answer?
9 Speaking from his lofty throne in heaven, the Great Judge says: “Look! I am sending my messenger, and he must clear up a way before me.” (Malachi 3:1a) Who was that “messenger”? Bible writer Mark combines the prophecies of Malachi 3:1 and Isaiah 40:3 and applies both of them to John the Baptizer. (Mark 1:1-4) Jesus Christ, too, later identified John as that “messenger.” (Matthew 11:10-14) So it was that in the spring of 29 C.E., John the Baptizer began his work as a “messenger,” a forerunner. He was to prepare the way for the coming of Jehovah in judgment by getting the Israelites ready for the coming of God’s Chief Representative, Jesus Christ.
10. How did John the Baptizer serve “to get ready for Jehovah a prepared people”? (Luke 1:17)
10 John’s being sent ahead of time was an expression of God’s loving-kindness toward the Jews. In a covenant relationship with Jehovah, they needed to repent of their sins against the Law. John set religious matters straight and exposed religious hypocrisy. (Matthew 3:1-3, 7-12) He aroused honesthearted Jews to expect the Christ that they might follow Him.—John 1:35-37.
11. How can we identify “the true Lord” that would come to the temple suddenly?
11 Malachi’s prophecy continues: “‘And suddenly there will come to His temple the true Lord, whom you people are seeking, and the messenger of the covenant in whom you are delighting. Look! He will certainly come,’ Jehovah of armies has said.” (Malachi 3:1b) Who was “the true Lord” that would come to his temple “suddenly,” or unexpectedly? The Hebrew expression used is ha·’A·dhohnʹ. The use of the definite article ha (“the”) before the title ‘A·dhohnʹ (“Lord; Master”) limits the application of this title exclusively to Jehovah God. Indeed, it was to “His temple” that Jehovah would come.—Habakkuk 2:20; Psalm 11:4.
12. Who is “the messenger of the covenant,” and of what “covenant” is he “the messenger”?
12 After having mentioned one messenger, Malachi indicated that “the true Lord” would come to “His temple” accompanied by another, a different, messenger, “the messenger of the covenant.” Who would this be? Well, in view of how things worked out, it is reasonable to conclude that “the messenger of the covenant” is Jesus Christ, whom John the Baptizer introduced to his disciples as “the Lamb of God.” (John 1:29-34) Of what “covenant” is the Messiah “the messenger”? The evidence of Luke 1:69-75 and Acts 3:12, 19-26 suggests that it is the Abrahamic covenant, on the basis of which the Jews were the first ones to be given the opportunity to become Kingdom heirs.
13. In what sense would “the true Lord” Jehovah come to the temple?
13 “The true Lord” Jehovah did not come personally to the literal temple in Jerusalem. (1 Kings 8:27) He came representatively, that is, by means of his “messenger of the covenant,” Jesus Christ, who came in Jehovah’s name and with the backing of God’s holy spirit.*
14. (a) Why was Jesus’ cleansing of the temple in 30 C.E. evidently just a token of what was to come? (b) How and when was the temple cleansed in fulfillment of Malachi 3:1?
14 In the spring of 30 C.E., Jesus came to Jehovah’s temple in Jerusalem and drove out those who were making it “a house of merchandise.” (John 2:13-16) But this was only a token of what was to come in fulfillment of Malachi’s prophecy. Following this incident, John, as “the messenger,” continued baptizing and directing his disciples to Jesus. (John 3:23-30) However, on Nisan 9, 33 C.E., Jesus made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, presenting himself as King. (Matthew 21:1-9; Zechariah 9:9) John had finished his work, having been beheaded by Herod about a year before. So when Jesus came to the temple on Nisan 10, he came officially as “the messenger of the covenant,” the judicial representative of “the true Lord” Jehovah, in fulfillment of Malachi 3:1. Jesus cleansed the temple, throwing out those commercializing it, overturning the tables of the money changers. He kept saying: “Is it not written [at Isaiah 56:7], ‘[Jehovah’s] house will be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a cave of robbers.”—Mark 11:15-18.
15. As a class, how did the Jewish religious leaders respond to the refining process, but what was true of some priests?
15 Notice was thus served upon Israel’s religious leaders that their hour had come. As a class, they refused to accept Jehovah’s “messenger of the covenant.” They did not ‘put up with the day of his coming,’ for they refused to submit humbly to the refining process of the Great Refiner. (Malachi 3:2, 3) They deserved to be sifted out as worthy of destruction. Evidently, though, there were some “sons of Levi” with good hearts, for not long after Jesus’ death “a great crowd of [Levite] priests began to be obedient to the faith.”—Acts 6:7.
16. How and when did a “great and fear-inspiring day of Jehovah” overtake that Jewish nation?
16 On Nisan 11, the day after he cleansed the temple, Jesus forcefully exposed the religious hypocrites and foretold the destruction of the temple and the Jewish system of things. (Matthew, chapters 23, 24) Indeed, “the God of justice” came as “a speedy witness” upon that Jewish nation 37 years later in 70 C.E., when a “great and fear-inspiring day of Jehovah” overtook them. (Malachi 2:17; 3:5; 4:5, 6) At that time, Israel collectively, as a treelike organization that failed to produce fine fruit, was “cut down and thrown into the fire” by means of destruction at the hands of the Romans. (Luke 3:3-14) All of this ‘because they did not discern the time of their being inspected.’—Luke 19:44.
17. What indicates that Malachi’s prophecy would find a further fulfillment in modern times?
17 But what of a second, or modern-day, fulfillment of Malachi’s prophecy? In the first century, the initial fulfillment followed Jesus’ being anointed with holy spirit to become the King-Designate of God’s Kingdom. Logically, there should be a further fulfillment of the prophecy after Jesus Christ was enthroned in the heavens in 1914. The prophecy itself indicated that it would find fulfillment “before the coming of the great and fear-inspiring day of Jehovah.” (Malachi 4:5) While a “day of Jehovah” came upon the Jewish system in 70 C.E., the Scriptures point forward to a future “day of Jehovah” during this time of Christ’s “presence.”—Matthew 24:3; 2 Thessalonians 2:1, 2; 2 Peter 3:10-13.
18. In 1922, how were God’s people made aware that they were in a time of judgment?
18 As early as 1922, Jehovah’s people were made aware that they were in a time of judgment in fulfillment of Malachi’s prophecy. The Watchtower of September 1 said: “But Malachi’s prophecy looks beyond the partial fulfillment at our Lord’s first advent, and forward to the time when Messiah should come in glory and strength, and when he should judge amongst his people . . . Now, once again, the time of judgment has come; again his professed people are tried as by fire, and the true-hearted sons of Levi are being gathered together for service.”
19. In the modern-day fulfillment, in what way was a “messenger” sent ahead of time?
19 As indicated at Malachi 3:1, a special messenger was sent ahead of time. This proved to be, not one individual, but a class serving like John the Baptizer. Since 1881 this class has used what is now the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society in a remarkable Bible educational work. This resulted in restoring many basic truths to the hearts of Bible lovers. Some of these clarifications are: Man does not possess an immortal soul, but he is a soul; there is no burning hell; Jesus Christ would not return in the flesh; Jehovah is one God, not a Trinity. Indeed, it was a work that ‘cleared up a way before Jehovah’ for his judgment work.
20. (a) When, evidently, did Jehovah come to the temple? (b) What questions does this raise?
20 Suddenly, Jehovah, as “the true Lord,” came to his spiritual temple. When? The pattern was set in the first-century fulfillment. Back there Jesus came and cleansed the temple three and a half years after he was anointed as King at the Jordan. True to that pattern, since Jesus was enthroned as King in the autumn of 1914, it seems reasonable that three and a half years later he would be expected to accompany “the true Lord” Jehovah to the spiritual temple. According to the prophecy, what was to happen from that time onward? Testing and sifting. But this raises some important questions: What evidences are there of this cleansing? Does it continue down to the present time? And how does all of this affect you personally? Let us see.
Can You Recall?
□ Why does Jehovah allow his people to go through testing and sifting?
□ How did John the Baptizer serve as a “messenger,” a forerunner?
□ In the first century, how did Jesus come to the temple as “the messenger of the covenant”?
□ How do we know that Malachi’s prophecy would have a modern-day fulfillment?
[Picture on page 13]
As a messenger, John the Baptizer prepared the people for the coming “messenger of the covenant”