The Sun of Righteousness will Rise
The closing chapters of the Old Testament are set against the looming ‘Dark Ages’ of Ancient Israel. God had spoken through his prophets and his people had persistently ignored his word and strayed from his ways – even after the exile. The final words of Malachi could not be more ominous. The Old Testament ends with the words, ‘…or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction’ (Mal 4.6).
Yet, strangely and wonderfully, this very same chapter contains some of the brightest and most glorious words found anywhere in the Bible: ‘But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings’ (Mal 4.2). Against the backdrop of the deepest darkness of human sin and failure – with the full force of covenant curse it deserves – the hope of covenant grace shines forth.
It is a verse that has long been recognised as a key component in the promise of Advent that runs throughout the entire Old Testament. In that connection it features in well-known Christmas carols and is sometimes read as one of the lessons associated with the promise of the Christ. There is, however, good reason to see it within larger horizons: those bound up with the ‘Advent’ of the Christ in fullest sense.
From an Old Testament perspective, the idea of the coming of the King Messiah was never narrowly focused on Christ’s ‘coming’ through the incarnation. Although this was very much part of it; it was by no means all it had in view. It ties in with the running theme of ‘the Day of the Lord’, which is also features prominently, especially in the Prophets. Although, to the eyes and ears of the original readers of the Hebrew Bible, this seemed to point to a single day in the purposes of God, it actually was intended to direct them to the climactic epoch in the history of redemption.
Malachi alludes to this bifurcated purpose associated with ‘the day’ as he speaks on the one hand of its saving significance; but on the other, of the judgment it will also usher in. When John the Baptist appeared – to whom Malachi also alludes in this final chapter of his prophecy with the promise of the ‘Elijah’ who must appear as the precursor to the Christ (Mal 4. 5) – even he was perplexed as to how God intended to fulfil this predictive promise.
Like many of his fellow-Jews, he assumed God’s salvation and judgment would be revealed simultaneously on the same ‘day’. He says as much in Matthew’s record of his announcement of Jesus as the Christ as the One who would ‘baptise with the Holy Spirit and with fire’ (Mt 3.11). However, when he observed that there was plenty of evidence of Spirit baptism on and through Jesus and his ministry, but not the baptism of judgment, he began to wonder about his identification as Messiah. So much so that while he was in prison, he sent his own disciples to Jesus to put the question to him directly (Mt 11.3).
The answer, of course, as we see it in the light of God’s completed revelation in the rest of the New Testament, is that Messiah’s advent encompasses the ‘day’ that dawned with the incarnation; but which ends with the ‘day’ of his his ‘second advent’. On that day, he will send his angels to gather his redeemed people from the four corners of the earth to bring them to the place he has prepared for them. However, that day will also mark the final judgment on all who have rejected him. They will be eternally banished to an altogether different place and existence.
How does this tie in with Malachi’s description of Christ’s coming as ‘the sun of righteousness’ that will ‘rise with healing in its wings’? It is the fact that the salvation Jesus came to usher in through his life, death, resurrection and exaltation can only be fully appreciated against the ‘terrible day of the Lord’ that will dawn when he comes as Judge.
We can never appreciate the salvation of Christ – which we can never deserve – unless we see it against the dark light of his judgment: which we most certainly do deserve. Much and all as we recoil from considering the ugliness and shamefulness of our sin and guilt – even as Christians – only as we do so, will the gospel truly thrill us, as it ought.
As we pause in the lull between Christmas and New Year, the words of Malachi should give us cause to reflect on the state of our own lives, the state of the church and the present state of the world in a way that gives comfort and brings true hope. If we are honest as we consider these three different, but related spheres, what we see can seem utterly depressing. We are not what we ought to be, the church is in constant turmoil here on earth and the nations of the world are careering onwards towards their own self-made ruin. There is no hope if we only ‘see’ what is visible to our human eye.
However, as we live and look in the light of Christ, the Sun of Righteousness, then we begin to see things in their true light. As we see the world around us – including family members, friends and neighbours – in their dark and lost condition, we will appreciate what it means for us to have been entrusted with the good news of light, life and salvation. We will be spurred on, in face of the impending judgment, to reason with those who are lost, to persuade them to look to Christ. And, for ourselves as those who know and love him, we will revel in the healing that he alone can give!