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The word repentance means a “change of mind,” but in the biblical vocabulary this entails much more than mere intellectual assent to a different proposition than was held to before. If sincere, it represents an entire turning, and it includes what we would call the heart.
“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord: And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse” (Mal. 4:5-6).
Summary of the Text
We know on the authority of the Lord Jesus that this passage is talking about His ministry. We know this because Jesus identified “Elijah the prophet” in this text with the ministry of John the Baptist (Matt. 11:14). Before the great day of the Lord, Elijah will come and in his ministry of repentance (turning the people back to God), he will also have the effect of turning people back to one another—particularly the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to the fathers.
In this chapter of Malachi, the day is coming when the wicked will be consumed like dry grass in an oven (v. 1). But for those who fear God, the Sun of righteousness will arise, and there will be healing in His wings (v. 2). The result will be that the godly will tread down the wicked (v. 3). The godly (members of the new covenant, remember) are charged to remember the law of Moses, given at Horeb for all Israel (v. 4). Elijah is coming before this great day (v. 5), and he will be the basis of reconciliation between fathers and their children, and children and their fathers (v. 6).
A Turned Heart, A Given Heart
In Proverbs 23:26, Solomon pleads with his son. He says, “My son, give me thine heart, and let thine eyes observe my ways.” In our text, the reconciliation is described as a turning of hearts, and here we have the giving of the heart. The parallelism in this proverb shows us that the giving of the heart involves imitation (willingness to observe the father’s ways). Fighting the natural impulse of imitation is what drives estrangement, and surrendering that fight is what constitutes the reconciliation.
When a father asks for this—“give me your heart”—what is he pleading for? He is asking his children to imitate him. This is what children do naturally (Eph. 5:1; cf. 1 Cor. 4:16; 1 Cor. 11:1), unless that natural impulse has been continuously insulted. If a father says, “Give me your heart,” what will he say if the question comes back, “Why?”
Two Kinds of Authority
There are two kinds of authority that a father may have. He always has at least one of them, simply by virtue of being the father, but he may or may not have the other. Think of it in this way.
There is the authority of having a checkbook and checking account. You own it. Your name is in the upper left hand corner. You are the authorized signatory on the account. You have the full authority to write checks from that account. No one questions it. That is one kind of authority. The second kind of authority is what comes from having a good bit of money in that same account. Applying our illustration, the former authority is simply positional authority. The second kind of authority is what we call a moral authority. The former argues, “I am your father.”The latter simply knows, “I am your father.”
Too many fathers want to be able to write checks simply because they own the checkbook, and not because they have made any deposits in it.
What They Need Protection From
We have already learned that a man’s basic marching orders call him to provide and to protect (Gen. 2:15). Since we are imitating God the Father, we should see that before providing “the bacon,” a man must first provide himself. And because we are living in the kind of world where protection is needed, a man’s first impulse to protect should be informed by the realization that he is the first one his family might need protection from. Eve certainly needed protection from the serpent, but prior to that, she needed protection from her abdicating protector.
Remember that when St. George fails to fight the dragon, in that instance, St. George has become the dragon.
When this work is accomplished, we see that the healing is done on both sides of the divide. Fathers who have been harsh, distant, demanding, or abdicating are given a heart of repentance, and they turn (with that heart of repentance) back to their children. But if the children have been provoked to anger (Eph. 6:4), if the children have been embittered because their father had not been mindful of their frame (Ps. 103:13-14), the Spirit of God moves in them, and they are able to lay that bitterness down. They are able to forgive. If someone has wronged you, being bitter about it is simply saving a souvenir from that special occasion. But if you hated the play, then why would you save the ticket stubs for your scrapbook?
Healing in His Wings
The call to repentance is the entryway into grace. We are called to surrender our pride, and to come into His grace, in which we are invited to stand (Rom. 5:2).
Returning to the point of the text, we assume that the fathers and the children in it are not where they ought to have been. When the healing of God comes, it is healing where there was sickness. There is restoration where there was ruin. There is reconciliation where there was estrangement. This is what the gospel does. This is why Jesus came.
This is why it is no good despairing—it is entirely beside the point to say that it is “too late for you.” If the preacher declares that Jesus came for those who are all messed up, is it a refutation to say that this cannot mean you—because you are all messed up? Jesus came for those who are sick, not for those who are healthy. He came for the sinners, not for the righteous (Mark 2:17). Don’t argue that this can’t mean you, for you are sick and sinful.
We preach a message of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:18). And if we are reconciled to God (Rom. 5:1), then it follows that other kinds of reconciliation will fall into place (1 John 1:7).