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Justifying God in Luke and Malachi

I "attended" The Gospel Coalition's 2011 conference via online stream this past week, and I must say, it was worth it. The theme was preaching Christ from the OT. It was basically a bunch of really good sermons from the OT to teach by example of how to connect from the OT to the NT. D. A. Carson closed it out with a (fascinating!) sermon on Melchizedek, and in his conclusion he made a comment that greatly resonates with me: "I want you to see the NT authors are reading the OT carefully."

The OT quoted in NT

This is an area of great interest for me, one which I hope to continue to study and pursue. There must be a vital link between the text of the OT and the NT. The lesser solutions and explanations that people settle for do great dishonor to the unity of the one Bible God has given to us.

The NT writers read the OT carefully. If we are tempted to think otherwise, it is likely because we do not understand the OT text as much as they did, and did not spend as much time in careful thought as they did. 

That leads me to Luke and Malachi. This past weekend I preached from Luke 7:24-35 where Jesus says that John the Baptist was spoken about in the OT and quotes Malachi 3:1, "Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me." Looking into this OT quotation was a fascinating study, and there is much to say about it. However, I will limit my comments to one point.

I have heard it said before that we should take it as a general principle that when a NT writer quotes from the OT, we should keep in mind the entire OT context and not just the words they cite. Often a fragment is quoted, but the whole context is relevant. 

I wonder if there is a connection in these two passages under the theme of "justifying God". This was something I did not find in the commentaries and thought it a strong enough connection to say it here.

Justifying God in Malachi

The book of Malachi is a series of charges from God against his people. He is bringing his case against them for their covenant unfaithfulness. He particular speaks to the priests who carry out their service in a cold wearied manner. They are clearly far from God, while they claim to represent him.

Jesus quotes from Malachi 3:1. This section this verse appears in starts one verse earlier, Malachi 2:17. As usual, this section begins with a charge from God: "You have wearied me with your words." It follows with their casual, blasé attitude: "How so?" God specifies: they were questioning his justice. Here's what the people were saying:

"Everyone who does evil is good in the sight of the LORD, and he delights in them." Or by asking, "Where is the God of justice?"

They were calling God's justice into question. They were saying he was pleased with unrighteousness. He was not going to come and judge, neither was he coming to save! 

God responds in Malachi 3:1, basically saying: Don't worry, I am coming. I will come and judge you--I will save you if you repent. Don't worry about My justice. I will send my messenger and he will be the first sign of my justice. I will then be justified--shown and declared righteous. The sending of this messenger (whom Jesus identifies with John the Baptist) would be the beginning of God showing he is indeed righteous.

Justifying God in Luke

Jesus quotes this verse in Luke 7:27. Verse 28 he confirms the greatness of John the Baptist, yet shows how incomparably great the age of salvation is over the age of expectation and promise that John was in. After this, Luke inserts an interesting parenthesis. 

Parenthetical remarks are actually quite important. The genre of historical narrative is intended to make a certain point through a thoughtful presentation of events. The narrator himself does not speak directly very often. He is speaking through his presentation of the historical material. But when he does come into the picture and speak directly, it is usually to call attention to something he very much wants us to see. 

Here, Luke even interrupts Jesus, as it were, to make this point! What does he say? (verses 29-30)

When all the people heard this, and the tax collectors too, they declared God just, having been baptized with the baptism of John, but the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected the purpose of God for themselves, not having been baptized by him.

Luke wants us to know what is at stake in the rejecting or accepting of John (and by extension, Jesus). To accept John was to justify God, and to reject John is to reject God's purpose.

(Footnote: We should not think of "purpose" here as an individual will for each person; but the broad purpose / counsel / will of God for the salvation of mankind; "for themselves" goes more properly with the verb anyway!)

To accept John was to declare God is in the right. This on the one hand means repentance. They admit God is right and they are wrong. More than that, it means they declare / show God to be right. They submit to God's plan (i.e. purpose) and by their repentance show that God is truly at work in transforming them.

Anything else is to reject the purpose of God, to think they belong to God without repentance, without submission, to think they and their cold rituals will bring them nearer to God, even though their hearts are far from God. John's message was similar to Malachi's, in Luke 3:8, Don't think you'll be okay with God when he comes just because you're Jewish--you must be repentant or you too will be judged.

They do not outright call God unjust (though even in Malachi, God is probably interpreting their actions / hearts rather than quoting their words verbatim), but by their actions and hearts, they declare that God is wrong. To them, God was wrong to require sons of Abraham to repent--especially the "righteous" ones like themselves; God was wrong for the Messiah to die; God was wrong in his plan of salvation.

In the words of one commentator, Luke here sets down for us "firm canons" of deciding who represents God. Who is the one truly "standing for God" as it were, declaring him just, vindicating his purpose and plan of salvation in the world, and who is stubbornly rejecting? I think it is highly possible Luke inserts his comments at this point to make a connection between the far-from-God leaders of Malachi's day and the Pharisees of his own day. John (and by extension, Jesus) represents God in truth.


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Matt Hauck (郝柏昇)

A once enemy now son, forgiven and freed by Jesus' blood, adopted and called by grace for glory.   (more...)

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