By Keith Thompson
With respect to Christ’s incarnation, the Trinitarian position is that the second person in the Triune God-head became a man in the first-century (John 1:1-3, 14; Philippians 2:6-11). Muslims have argued against Christ’s incarnation by asserting that this type of change is not consistent with how God is portrayed in the Old Testament. They will quote Malachi 3:6 in order to try to show that God does not change in this respect. For example in an article containing Sami Zaatari’s debate material he quotes part of Malachi 3:6:
Malachi 3:6:For I am the LORD, I CHANGE NOT
Zaatari therefore concludes that this verse is saying that God’s nature doesn’t change and since he believes the incarnation presupposes a nature change in the being of God he believes this refutes New Testament Christology.
The problem with this argument is that Zaatari is misusing Malachi 3:6 and he does not provide the context of the passage which refutes his misuse. You must start in chapter 1 and there you will see judgments against a disobedient Israel. For example, vv. 6-8 God says they did not honor Him and their sacrifices were inadequate. In v. 10 God says “I have no pleasure in you, says the LORD of hosts, and I will not accept an offering from your hand.” In v. 11 God then makes it known that soon the Gentile nations will worship Him. Then in chapter 2 there is more judgment on Israel’s disobedience. In vv. 14-16 God exhorts Israel not to be faithless to the wives of their youth (Israelite women) by being in union with other women but to instead remain with the wives of their youth and produce godly offspring. In v. 17 we see another judgment: “You have wearied the LORD with your words. But you say, "How have we wearied him?" By 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?" Now, in light of God exhorting Israel back to holiness (2:14-16; also found in 3:15-17 where God promises to save a remnant who obey) as well as God proclaiming that He will be the God of the Gentiles (1:11) we come to the beginning of chapter 3:
1"Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts. 2But 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. 3He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and they will bring offerings in righteousness to the LORD. 4Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the LORD as in the days of old and as in former years. 5"Then I will draw near to you for judgment. I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the LORD of hosts. 6"For I the LORD do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed. 7From the days of your fathers you have turned aside from my statutes and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you, says the LORD of hosts. But you say, 'How shall we return?' (Malachi 3:1-7)
In light of God’s judgments on Israel as well as His covenant mercy, righteousness and love He says in v. 6 “I the LORD do not change.” The context is that God doesn’t change with respect to Him being a God of judgment towards the wicked and merciful to those who return to Him (v. 7). It is in that sense that Malachi stresses the unchangeable character of God. V. 6 isn’t addressing God not changing with respect to anything other than judgment towards the wicked and mercy for those who turn to Him. Hence, by missing the context Zaatari is distorting the meaning of the verse. With respect to an anticipatory misuse of this text Dr. John Gill explains: “he changed not in his divine nature and personality by becoming man; he took that into union with him he had not before, but remained the same he ever was."(1)
The Same Malachi Actually Predicts the Incarnation of God!
If that wasn’t bad enough Malachi actually affirms God’s incarnation through the awaited one (Jesus Christ) further demonstrating that 3:6 isn’t referring to God not changing with respect to an incarnation. In chapter 3 v. 1 it says: “Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts.” With respect to a future where all the Gentile nations will worship God and where a remnant of Israelites will be saved, God says that a messenger will prepare a way for Him (John the Baptist in Luke 3:1-6 preparing the way for Christ in John 1:29-34.) The text then affirms that God will come to His temple which entails God lowering Himself which is what Christ did (Matthew 21:12) as well as God being the one who comes down to “purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver” (v. 3). This is incarnation language.
Hence, even in Malachi itself there is attestation to God literally coming to His people after a messenger prepares the way, going to the temple and purifying/refining the sons of Levi. Therefore, this book in no way supports the idea that if God entered into His creation it would violate Him as not being a God who doesn’t change.
Non-Christian Jewish Rabbi’s, expositors and commentators have likewise noted that the one who will come to His temple, and who is God, is in all actuality the Messiah.
Isaac ben Judah Abrabanel comments on Malachi 3:1:
Rabbi David Kimchi comments on Malachi 3:1:“Haadon, he is the King Messiah, and he is also the angel of the covenant."(3)
Saʻadiah ben Yosef Gaon comments on Malachi 3:1:“The forerunner of the Messiah b. David will be like his ambassador, and as one who prepareth the people, and cleareth the way, as in what is said, Behold I send."(4)
The First Book of the Bible Teaches that it is in God’s Nature to Become a Man!
In the Hebrew Scriptures we learn that God lowers Himself into His creation and yet this does not affect His unchanging nature. For example, in the very first book of the Bible, Genesis, we see God appearing as a man:
“And the LORD appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day. He lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men stood in front of him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them, and bowed himself to the earth, and said, ‘My lord, if I have found favor in your sight, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree, while I fetch a morsel of bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on--since you have come to your servant.' So they said, 'Do as you have said.' And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, 'Make ready quickly three measures of fine meal, knead it, and make cakes.' And Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. Then he took curds, and milk, and the calf which he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate. They said to him, 'Where is Sarah your wife?' And he said, 'She is in the tent.' The LORD said, 'I will surely return to you in the spring, and Sarah your wife shall have a son.' And Sarah was listening at the tent door behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, 'After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?' The LORD said to Abraham, 'Why did Sarah laugh, and say, "Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?" Is anything too hard for the LORD? At the appointed time I will return to you, in the spring, and Sarah shall have a son.' But Sarah denied, saying, 'I did not laugh'; for she was afraid. He said, 'No, but you did laugh.' Then the men set out from there, and they looked toward Sodom; and Abraham went with them to set them on their way. The LORD said, ‘Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, seeing that Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by him? No, for I have chosen him, that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice; so that the LORD may bring to Abraham what he has promised him.' Then the LORD said, 'Because the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great and their sin is very grave, I will go down to see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry which has come to me; and if not, I will know.' So the men turned from there, and went toward Sodom; but Abraham still stood before the LORD. Then Abraham drew near, and said, 'Wilt thou indeed destroy the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; wilt thou then destroy the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from thee to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from thee! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?' And the LORD said, 'If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will spare the whole place for their sake.' Abraham answered, 'Behold, I have taken upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes. Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking? Wilt thou destroy the whole city for lack of five?' And he said, 'I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there.' Again he spoke to him, and said, 'Suppose forty are found there.' He answered, 'For the sake of forty I will not do it.' Then he said, 'Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak. Suppose thirty are found there.' He answered, 'I will not do it, if I find thirty there.' He said, 'Behold, I have taken upon myself to speak to the Lord. Suppose twenty are found there.' He answered, 'For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it.' Then he said, 'Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak again but this once. Suppose ten are found there.' He answered, 'For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.' And the LORD went his way, when he had finished speaking to Abraham; and Abraham returned to his place” (Genesis 18:1-33)
Contrary to Muslim misuse of Malachi 3:6 we have seen that this verse emphasises God not changing with respect to judgment and mercy as opposed to a denial of an incarnation. We have also seen that Malachi itself strongly attests to an incarnation of God. We also saw that God coming to His temple in the form of Messiah is not just a Christian inference but that Jewish expositors and commentators also affirmed that God would appear as the Messiah. And finally, we have seen that such a concept is not unknown to Scripture. In fact, the very first book of the Old Testament has God taking the form of a man and yet remaining the unchanging God.
1.) John Gill, Complete Commentary, Malachi 3:6
2.) Abarbane, Mashimiah Jeshua fol. 76 Mashmi'a Yeshu'ah, quoted in Edward Bouverie Pusey, The Minor Prophets: with a Commentary, Explanatory and Practical, and Introductions to the Several Books, Vol. 2, [Funk & Wagnalls, 1885 ], p. 486
3.) Kimchi, quoted in Michael L. Brown, Amswering Jewish Objections to Jesus, General and Historical Objections, Vol. 1, [Baker Books, 2000], p. 77
4.) Gaon quoted in Edward Bouverie Pusey, The Minor Prophets: with a Commentary, Explanatory and Practical, and Introductions to the Several Books, Volume 2, [Funk & Wagnalls, 1885 ], p. 486