The coming of the Messiah had been predicted by prophets speaking in the name of God many times. The last was John the Baptist, but he was last in a long line, some of whom told about the Messiah very clearly, others of whom dropped hints. Some passages of Scripture were interpreted by later readers as referring to the Messiah, though their first application was to something more contemporary. One example is the famous passage from Isaiah 7:14: ‘The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.’ In its context it was a sign given to King Ahaz in about the year 733 BC, and Isaiah went on to say that before the child reached the age of discretion the nation would be devastated. But the language is so extraordinary that later readers saw it as prophesying a much greater event, the coming of the Messiah.
The idea of a future Messiah became established after King David’s experience in 2 Samuel 7, when God promised him that the kingdom of one of his descendants would be established for ever. Initially it was assumed simply that David’s dynasty would always be on the throne, but the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, and subsequent history, put an end to that literal interpretation. So people’s thoughts turned towards a different fulfilment. Prophets like Isaiah gave more details about the coming Messiah (we usually listen to them in the readings of our carol services), and by the time Jesus was born there was a fairly settled idea about who the Messiah would be and what he would do. However, people in Jesus’ day tended to pick and choose those prophecies that spoke of things they wanted to hear, such as a universal reign of peace and prosperity; they did not notice those that spoke of the Messiah’s suffering.
Malachi’s prophecy should have made people sit up and think. It is uncertain when Malachi lived; generally it is assumed that his message was given some time after the return from Exile and the rebuilding of Jerusalem, approximately 450 years before Christ’s birth. Traditionally he was seen as the last of the Old Testament prophets – until John the Baptist came. He looked forward to the coming of the Messiah, but warned that it would not be all joy and happiness. The people were not fit to live in the Messiah’s kingdom; they needed to be refined and purified first, and all the dross and impurities removed.
Malachi spoke of something no other prophet had said: God would send someone to prepare the way for the Messiah, a forerunner. At the end of his little book he called this person ‘Elijah’, and spelt out his task: to restore family relationships (Malachi 4:6 – the state of the family was symptomatic of the state of the nation) lest the coming of the Messiah bring punishment to the nation rather than a blessing.
John the Baptist knew himself to be the fulfilment of that part of Malachi’s prophecy. He was a bridge between the Old and the New Testaments – the last of the prophets preparing for the coming of the Messiah, and the one who announced the Messiah’s arrival. He knew he had the task of bringing people to acknowledge their need of forgiveness, and to obey God from the heart. Without these there could be no place for them in the Messianic kingdom. So his preaching was designed to make people change their ways – and he marked that with baptism, hitherto used as a symbolic cleansing especially for converts to Judaism.
All this was by way of preparation: the real event would be becoming citizens of the Messiah’s everlasting kingdom. That kingdom will be perfect in every way, for all will be in complete harmony with God. And we who love Jesus already belong!
Questions1) What message might a modern day prophet have to proclaim this Advent?
2) Why did both Malachi and John the Baptist have such an emphasis on repentance? How relevant is such a call today?