The Refining Fire
Malachi links the third and fourth messengers in a special relationship. The third prepares the way for the fourth. The fourth is the Messiah Himself and the mediator of the New Covenant.
The last part of Mal. 3:1 says, “the messenger of the covenant, in whom you delight, behold He is coming.” Both the people and the priests were desirous of the Messiah’s coming. The thought was delightful, but only because they did not truly understand His mission. The prophet then foretells the mission of both the third and fourth messenger.
Their Need of Refinement
When Elijah went to Zarephath during the drought (1 Kings 17:9), he manifested the ministry of refinement. Zarephath means “refinery.” Mal. 3:2, 3 says,
2 But who can endure the day of His coming? And who can stand when He appears? For He is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap. 3 And He will sit as a smelter and purifier of silver, and He will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, so that they may present to the Lord offerings in righteousness.
The implication is that the majority cannot endure His coming and cannot “stand when He appears.” In other words, they will not like what they see and hear. They will disagree with Him and will oppose Him. Why? Because He will come “as a smelter.” He will apply “heat” to them, because this is how gold and silver are refined.
The priests, of course, did not think that there was anything wrong with their teaching or their practices. But the prophet had already told them that God was not pleased with them (1:10). He had already criticized the priests for profaning and defiling the altar (1:12). He had informed them that their sacrifices were unacceptable to God (1:13). He had already told the priests that they were not keeping the ways of God (2:9).
The result was that “He no longer regards the offering or accepts it with favor from your hand” (2:13).
So the divine solution, Malachi says, is for the messengers of God to refine them as one would purify silver and gold, in order that their sacrifices might become acceptable again.
Apart from their refinement, those priests would remain unqualified to minister to God, and their sacrifices would remain unacceptable.
Yet Malachi implies that most of these priests will reject these messengers and thereby remain disqualified as priests of God. Though God had called the tribe of Levi to provide the priests under the Old Covenant, their genealogy was not what disqualified them along with their sacrifices. It was their character and their lawless behavior that overruled their genealogical portfolio.
The Meaning of Levi
In order to understand Malachi’s discussion about the sons of Levi and the priesthood, we must dig deeper into his name and calling. The name Levi means “joiner.” It is from the root word lava, “to adhere, to intertwine, to join.” He was named by his mother Leah, who said, “Now this time my husband will become attached [lava] to me, because I have borne him three sons” (Gen. 29:34).
Levi’s calling was to join God and man together. They were to be Israel’s intercessors between God and the people. But instead, they often failed in their ministry and calling by joining the people with false gods—or, by the traditions of men, with the religious leaders themselves.
The carnally-minded Levites in Malachi’s day sought to make men loyal to themselves, rather than to God. This is a typical problem of the religious spirit of denominationalism, which seeks to give men a relationship with the church (or temple), rather than with God. By this, they force men to have an indirect relationship with God, having access to God only through the consent and approval of the church.
Hence, Levi “joined” men with men, rather than with God, and in this way they violated the terms of their calling. Malachi detected the problem and spoke out against it by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
The Number 46 and 276
The problem is also seen in another way through the revelation of biblical numbers. The numeric value of Levi is 46. The numeric value of Adam (in Greek) is also 46. The number 46 is the biblical number associated with the temple of God, whether earthly or heavenly. In fact, in the New Testament the Greek word naos, “temple” occurs 46 times.
Furthermore, in John 2:19-21 we read,
19 Jesus answered and said to them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” 20 The Jews therefore said, “It took forty-six years to build this temple, and will You raise it up in three days?” 21 But He was speaking of the temple of His body.
Not only is the number 46 associated with the temple in Jesus’ statement, but the entire phrase (underlined) carries a numeric value of 3588 (or 78 x 46). Hence, we see that in addition to the 46 on the surface of the text, buried in the text itself is a hidden emphasis on the number 46 with its connection with Levi and Adam.
The significance of this is compounded by the fact that the number 3588 is also 276 x 13.
The number 276 is built upon 46 x 6. Six is the number of man. (See my book, The Biblical Meaning of Numbers from one to Forty.)
So 276 (46 x 6) expresses the temple in terms of Adam and man in general. This implies problems of the flesh and its carnal thinking, which dominates religion as a whole. Hence, the phrase “the evil one” in 1 John 5:19 carries the numeric value of 276 x 8.
Also, in the parable of the sower, Mark 4:15 says that when the seed is sown by the road, “immediately Satan comes and takes away the word.” This phrase carries a numeric value of 3588 (276 x 13), the same as in the phrase, “It took forty-six years to build this temple.”
Remarkably, the parallel verse in Luke 8:12, “the devil comes and takes away the word” carries a numeric value of 276 x 8. Though Luke uses different wording in the story, both versions carry numeric values divisible by 276.
This suggests that the temple priests, who were supposed to be sowing the word of God in their teachings, were actually in a state of rebellion (13), which allowed Satan to take away the word before it had time to germinate in the hearts of the people.
When Paul warns the Corinthian church of deception, he compares it to the serpent’s deception in the garden. He says in 2 Cor. 11:3, “I am afraid, lest as the serpent deceived Eve,” which is 276 x 19. From these examples we see that the number 276 hidden in the text supports the text itself and adds new dimensions to its interpretation.
The number 276 is broader than 46 itself. The number 46 speaks specifically of the temple, while 276 shows how the lies of Satan and the fleshly traditions of men deceive people and snatch away the true understanding of the word and revelation of God.
Perhaps the most significant passage of all is found in the story of Paul’s journey to Rome. The ship encountered a storm which ultimately wrecked the ship on Melita. Acts 27:37 says,
37 And all of us in the ship were two hundred and seventy-six persons.
This story is a historical allegory of the tribulation from the cross (Jerusalem) to the Kingdom (Melita = “honey isle”). Acts 27:37 has a numeric value of 276 x 11. Not only does the number 276 appear on the surface of the text, but it is also hidden in the mathematics of the Greek text itself.
The 276 souls aboard the ship represent “all flesh,” for we see this in Gen. 6:12, where “all flesh” has a numeric value of 276 x 2. Earlier, in Acts 27:30 we read of “the sailors” which is 276 x 10.
Elsewhere, Heb. 12:9 speaks of “the flesh,” which has a numeric value of 276 x 6.
In Rom. 8:5 Paul speaks of “those who are according to the flesh,” which is 276 x 3.
In John 9:34 the Pharisees became angry with the blind man that Jesus healed, telling him, “You were born entirely in sin.” This phrase carries a numeric value of 276 x 6.
While these passages all portray the failings of the flesh, the parable of Paul’s shipwreck also speaks of the salvation of all. No one died in that shipwreck, for “they all were brought safely to land” (Acts 27:44). A more literal rendering of this is “they were all saved thoroughly” (diasozo).
Hence, in spite of the flesh being weak and rebellious, in spite of our bodies resembling Herod’s temple rather than the true Temple of God, in spite of all the traditions of men that obscure or contradict the word, God’s New Covenant promise is to intervene in order to be the savior of all.
The Refining Fire
John came as a heralding messenger to prepare the way for Jesus, the Messenger of the New Covenant. John’s message was about the coming fire of God. His was “the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make ready the way of the Lord,’ (Luke 3:4) so that “all flesh shall see the salvation [Yeshua] of God” (Luke 3:6).
Yeshua means “salvation,” so John was prophesying that all flesh would come to see (recognize) Jesus as the rightful King of Creation. But in order to accomplish that purpose, the Holy Spirit needed to spark repentance in the hearts of the people. So we read in Luke 3:16, 17,
16 John answered and said to them all, “As for me, I baptize you with water; but One is coming who is mightier than I, and I am not fit to untie the thong of His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. 17 And His winnowing fork is in His hand to thoroughly clear His threshing floor, and to gather the wheat into His barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
The purpose of the Holy Spirit is not only to empower believers with gifts of the Spirit, but it is to “burn up the chaff” within each believer and purify them of their traditions of men. We see this in Jer. 23:28,
28 “The prophet who has a dream may relate his dream, but let him who has My word speak My word in truth. What does straw [teben, “chaff, straw”] have in common with grain?” declares the Lord.
This reference to chaff is immediately followed by a reference to the fire which burns it:
29 “Is not My word like fire?” declares the Lord, “and like a hammer which shatters the rock?”
The entire chapter shows the conflict between the dreams, visions, and revelations of the false prophets and the true word of God. Verse 16 and 21 says,
16 Thus says the Lord of hosts, “Do not listen to the words of the prophets who are prophesying to you. They are leading you into futility; they speak a vision of their own imagination, not from the mouth of the Lord. 21 I did not send these prophets, but they ran. I did not speak to them, but they prophesied.”
This, then, is how we should understand “chaff” that the Holy Spirit burns with unquenchable fire. The fire is unquenchable, not because it burns forever, but because no man can stop it. The work of the Holy Spirit will continue to burn in spite of men’s opposition until all flesh sees the Salvation of God.
The New Temple
Specifically, Jeremiah’s message was that Jerusalem ought to submit to the King of Babylon, because God had given the city into the hands of Nebuchadnezzar (Jer. 27:6). He told the people that the city would be treated like Shiloh, which was the place that God forsook some centuries earlier on account of the sins of Eli and his sons (Jer. 7:12, 14; 26:6).
When God forsook Shiloh, the grandson of Eli was born prematurely, and they named him prophetically: Ichabod, “the glory has departed” (1 Sam. 4:21). The Ark of God was taken by the Philistines, and when it was returned, it never went back to Shiloh. It went instead to Jerusalem, where God saw fit to place His name.
There it remained until the time of Jeremiah, who issued the divine decree that the glory would leave Jerusalem as Shiloh—never again to return. Ezekiel bore witness to the departure of God’s glory to the Mount of Olives (Ezekiel 11:23). It remained there until Jesus ascended from that spot, taking the glory back to heaven with Him (Acts 1:9, 12). Ten days later, the glory returned to inhabit a new temple not built with dead stones, but of “living stones” (1 Peter 2:5; Eph. 2:20-22; 1 Cor. 3:16).
Jeremiah’s message was considered treasonous, and he was imprisoned for the sake of the truth. The false prophets, led by Hananiah, opposed the word in Jer. 28:2, 3, saying,
2 Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, “I have broken the yoke of the king of Babylon. 3 Within two years I am going to bring back to this place all the vessels of the Lord’s house, which Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon took away from this place and carried to Babylon.”
When the vessels were not returned during those two years, Hananiah’s prophecy was proven to be false. Jerusalem truly had been forsaken “like Shiloh.”
In the first century, John came with a call to repentance in order to prepare the way for the Messenger of the New Covenant. The failure of earthly Jerusalem meant that God was about to build a new temple in which to place His name. That temple was made of living stones—people—built upon the foundation of Christ, the apostles, and prophets.
This was the temple that Jesus referred to in John 2:19, saying, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” It was the temple of His own body (2:21) and the body of Christ. The religious leaders of that time could not believe that God would actually destroy the earthly temple in Jerusalem and replace it with an entirely new structure outside of the old city. Yet it happened. The only difference is that the glory of God came to inhabit this new temple at the start of its construction, whereas Solomon’s temple was glorified when his temple was completed.
In our time, the traditions of men have once again arisen to teach that the living-stones temple will be replaced by another physical temple that is to be rebuilt in Jerusalem. They say that Christ (the glory of God) will inhabit that temple, and that it will again be the center of the Kingdom of God in the Age to come.
In other words, many prophets today are like those in the time of Jeremiah. They receive dreams, visions, and many revelations about God’s glory returning to old Jerusalem. It seems that men have always had trouble believing the true prophecy of Jeremiah. Instead, they side with Hananiah.
But what is the chaff in comparison to the word of God? The word is a fire coming from the Holy Spirit, which will burn up these vain imaginations with unquenchable fire. If men should succeed in building a temple in Jerusalem, the glory of God will not inhabit the place. If God had intended to inhabit a temple in Jerusalem, He certainly would have glorified the second temple built by Zerubbabel after the Babylonian captivity, for its construction was certainly commanded by God (Hag. 1:14).
The Curse on Jerusalem
Haggai seemed to think that the temple in his day would be glorified on the eighth day of Tabernacles, for he prophesied on the previous day, “I will fill this house with glory” (Hag. 2:1, 7). Yet history shows that this did not happen, for his prophecy was to be fulfilled in another way. He spoke of the New Covenant temple that was yet to be constructed.
The earthly Jerusalem, along with any temple within its perimeter, is under a divine curse, as we read in Jer. 26:6,
6 then I will make this house like Shiloh, and this city I will make a curse to all the nations of the earth.
Jeremiah repeats this twice (24:9; 25:18) in relation to Jerusalem, and other times in relation to the captives of Judah who were to be scattered among the nations. This is to be seen in contrast to being a blessing to all nations. Being a curse means that they will not fulfill the calling of Abraham.
The only way for this curse to be removed is through the blood of Jesus and the New Covenant, which each one must invoke in order to be true children of Abraham (Gal. 3:26, 29). Those who do not do so will remain under the curse until every knee bows and every tongue confesses allegiance to Jesus Christ, as Isaiah 45:23-25 says. Paul affirms this in Phil. 2:9-11.
Even so, as far the earthly city is concerned (and any earthly temple that may yet be built in that location), it remains under the divine curse. It will not be the capital of the Kingdom, nor will the glory of God return there as so many seem to think.
If the glory could have returned there, surely this would have occurred in Haggai’s time. But this did not happen.
The Sons of Levi
Mal. 3:3 says that Christ, the Messenger of the Covenant, will come to “purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver.” The prophecy is spoken in Old Covenant terms, but it should be interpreted through a New Covenant understanding.
Christ did not come through Levi but through Judah. We read in Heb. 7:12-15,
12 For when the priesthood is changed, of necessity there takes place a change of law also. 13 For the one concerning whom these things are spoken belongs to another tribe, from which no one has officiated at the altar. 14 For it is evident that our Lord was descended from Judah, a tribe with reference to which Moses spoke nothing concerning priests. 15 And this is clearer still, if another priest arises according to the likeness of Melchizedek.
The Levitical priests disqualified themselves from the priesthood by their corruption and by their rejection of the law in favor of the traditions of men. Hence, they were replaced by a new order—that of Melchizedek, led by its High Priest, Jesus Christ, who, like David, was of Judah.
This Melchizedek Order is the priesthood that governs the New Covenant. When the Old Covenant was broken (Heb. 8:9), its overseers and caretakers were replaced by a new order of priests, one that had no genealogical requirement.
Hence, the prophecy about refining the sons of Levi in order that they could make acceptable sacrifices no longer applies to Levi, but to Melchizedek. The acceptable sacrifice is Jesus Christ Himself, whom the Levitical order rejected. The refining fire is the baptism of the Holy Spirit that was prophesied by John and implemented by Jesus Christ. No one is refined by this fire without acknowledging Jesus.