The question here is that Luke talks about John the Baptist being the fulfillment of Malachi 3:1, but back in Malachi the messenger goes before God.
“… And many of the children of Israel shall he [John the Baptist] turn to the Lord their God. And he shall go before HIM in the spirit and power of Elias…” (Luke 1:16-17).
“I will send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before ME.” (Malachi 3:1)
While not a direct quote, the angel’s words in Luke are clearly based on Malachi.
Is there a problem?
But is there really any problem here? If we look at the Luke 1 verse, it is based on Malachi 3:1 as above, plus Malachi 4:6
5 Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. 6 He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse. (Malachi 4:5-6, NRSV).
Which in Luke is set together with the allusion to Malachi 3:1:
11 Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. 12 When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. 13 But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. 14 You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, 15 for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. 16 He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. 17 With the spirit and power of Elijah [from Malachi 4:6] he will go before him [from Malachi 3:1], to turn the hearts of parents to their children [from Malachi 4:6], and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” (Luke 1:11-17, NRSV)
So is that a problem? Yes, it’s clear from comparing both the sources in Malachi 3:1 and Malachi 4:6 that the angel’s prophecy relates to the as yet un-conceived John, who would go before the Lord God of Israel. But there is no mention in the angel’s words to John’s father Zechariah concerning his probable niece Mary, nor her son, and it would be another six months before the angel reappeared to make a similar announcement to Mary that she also would conceive.
But how did John “go before” God? Although Luke doesn’t spell it out the implication, and the way the text is read by most commentators (on this Trinitarians and non-Trinitarians agree) is that the ministry of John goes before the ministry of Jesus, and that this following ministry of Jesus manifested the Lord God of Israel, Yahweh, in a far greater way than John’s preparatory ministry.
So is Jesus God?
The above parallel is clearly there between what Malachi says about the coming Elijah and what the angel says about John the Baptist. But all the same isn’t it strange to have to go to Malachi 3:1 in order to attempt to prove that Jesus was Yahweh, Lord God of Israel, if that is what the Bible really teaches?
The Bible never says that Jesus is God. In fact the teaching of Jesus himself is that he is “a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God.” (John 8:40, NRSV). All that Malachi 3:1 is telling us is the same as Jesus himself told Philip “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). This is a very basic New Testament teaching – that Jesus of Nazareth reveals, shows, manifests, represents, his Father. Without understanding this teaching a large number of New Testament passages about the Christ representing, revealing, showing God become statements about Jesus being God disguised in a human form. That is a heretical idea even by orthodox Trinitarian credal statements.
- There are articles on those better known verses about Jesus manifesting his Father already on BibleQ.net – please use the search function to check for them.
- “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” : Did Jesus claim to be God to Philip?
- Does Philippians 2:5-11 mean that Jesus had the nature of God?
- What does “God was revealed in the flesh” mean? (1 Timothy 3:16)
- Does the New Testament call Jesus “God”?
Was Jesus there in Malachi’s day?
Some of the interest this verse comes from an “Arian” perspective. Arianism is the form of Christology best known today in the form taught by Jehovah’s Witnesses, although it is also found in some other smaller groups. The particular attraction of the Malachi 3:1 connection is that it occurs before Jesus’ birth and therefore is used to attempt to support the Arian teaching that Jesus supposedly pre-existed in heaven before his birth as a separate Person, including Jesus being active as the archangel Michael, or the angel that appeared in the fiery furnace with Daniel’s friends. The following is taken from the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ own Bible:
“Look! I am sending my messenger, and he will clear up a way before me. And suddenly the true Lord, whom you are seeking, will come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant will come, in whom you take delight. Look! He will certainly come,” says Jehovah of armies. (Malachi 3:1, New World Translation)
That translation is more or less accurate and in line with both the Hebrew text and with scholarly versions (such as the ESV or NRSV generally used on this website). The only slightly odd change is the insertion of ‘true’, “true Lord”, where the Hebrew text only has Adon, lord. Perhaps this “true Lord” addition is mean to suggest that the pre-existent Jesus is standing beside Yahweh of Hosts as Malachi speaks during the Persian period.
The problem with reading that as proof of Jesus, either as the Jehovah’s Witness visualize the pre-existent Michael, or some rather literal interpretations of the Trinity visualize the pre-existent God the Son, actually being present during the events after Ezra’s return from Babylon and already existing as a Person in heaven as Malachi wrote, is that Malachi doesn’t distinguish the Elijah prophet (John the Baptist) from the one who follows him in terms of who exists when. In other words Malachi does distinguish the coming Elijah messenger as not already pre-existing during the Persian empire, but the second reconciler-messenger does pre-exist in the Persian period.
A baby who already was?
Likewise the same for Luke. There is no hint in Luke’s account of the angel’s prophecy that anyone – neither the angel, nor Zechariah, nor the writer Luke himself – say anything to suggest that (as everyone naturally accepts) the baby conceived to Elisabeth would be a new baby with no previous existence, but (as both Arians and Trinitarians teach) that the baby conceived to Mary would be a vessel for a being who already pre-existed in heaven.
All the Luke record of the angel’s Malachi prophecy records is that John would fulfill the prophecy as follows:
17 With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” (Luke 1:17, NRSV)
Which is what John did.