What the Prophet Malachi Teaches Us about the Eucharist

One of the biggest differences between Catholics and most Protestants lies in our divergent understandings of the Eucharist. For the majority of our separated brethren, the Eucharist is just a memorial service, but we Catholics believe that it is a real participation in Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. Unfortunately, the scriptural data on this point is scarce and often indecisive, so it can be tough to pin down which side of this dispute the Bible supports.

However, we’re not entirely out of luck. There are a handful of key passages that clearly tip the scales in favor of the Catholic view, and a few of them actually come from the Old Testament. For instance, take this passage from the prophet Malachi:

“For from the rising of the sun to its setting my name is great among the nations, and in every place incense is offered to my name, and a pure offering; for my name is great among the nations, says the Lord of hosts.” (Malachi 1:11)

Admittedly, on the surface, it is difficult to see what this verse has to do with the Eucharist. In fact, it is tough to see what Malachi was referring to at all. However, if we dig a bit deeper, we find that this is actually an important prophecy of the Mass. Despite its apparent obscurity, this verse highlights some particular truths about the Eucharistic sacrifice that make the prophet’s meaning unmistakable once we finally see it.

Pagans or Jews?

To begin, let’s take a brief look at the context of these words. In the first chapter of his book, Malachi reprimands the Jews of his day for offering impure sacrifices to God, and in this verse, he contrasts those sacrifices with a “pure offering” that he says is offered “in every place.”

But what exactly was he talking about? What was this “pure offering”? At first, we might guess that Malachi was trying to humble his fellow Jews by pointing out that pagans were offering better sacrifices than they were, but that theory doesn’t hold up. Malachi was a faithful Jew, so he would not have endorsed sacrifices offered by anybody except the people of Israel.

Next, we might think that he was simply castigating the Jews in Jerusalem and saying that their brethren elsewhere in the world offered better sacrifices than they did. However, that doesn’t work either. The Old Testament restricts sacrifice to the temple in Jerusalem (Deuteronomy 12:5-14), so Malachi couldn’t have been talking about any sort of Jewish sacrifices that may have been offered elsewhere in the world.

A Single Sacrifice

So what could he have been referring to? The key, I would suggest, is to look closely at the exact wording he used. First, he didn’t say that pure offerings (plural) were being given to God throughout the world. Rather, he said that a pure offering (singular) was being given, and that is significant. He wasn’t talking about multiple sacrifices like the ancient Jews and pagans offered. No, he was talking about a single sacrifice that was offered throughout the entire world.

That may sound a bit nonsensical, but bear with me. We only need to look at one more detail in the prophet’s words, and then everything will fall into place. Most English Bibles translate this verse as if the verbs were in the present tense, which implies that Malachi was talking about a “pure offering” that was already being given in his own day, but in Hebrew, the grammar is not quite so clear.

Past or Present?

To begin, this verse doesn’t actually have any verbs. It literally says, “my name great among the nations” and “in every place incense offered to my name.” We simply have to insert the verb “to be” in the appropriate places. We do this mentally when we read the verse in Hebrew, and we literally put the words into the text when we translate the passage into English.

Significantly, this allows us to take those verbs as whatever tense we want (at least from a purely grammatical point of view). The text itself doesn’t actually tell us if Malachi was talking about his own day or giving a prophecy about the future. To figure that out, we have to look at the context of the passage, and as we already saw, this verse doesn’t make much sense if it refers to Malachi’s own day. There was no present offering that he could have been writing about, so we have to take it as a prophecy of the future. As a result, we should actually translate his words like this:

“For from the rising of the sun to its setting my name will be great among the nations, and in every place incense will be offered to my name, and a pure offering; for my name will be great among the nations, says the Lord of hosts.” (Malachi 1:11)

A Prophecy of the Mass

Once we do that, everything falls into place, just like I promised it would. The early Church took this verse as a prophecy of the Mass, and for good reason. The Mass is the re-presentation of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. Every time we celebrate it, that sacrifice is made present to us again (hence the term “re-presentation”), and we participate in it and offer it up to the Father with Jesus. In other words, it is not multiple sacrifices. No matter how many Masses we offer, it is always the same sacrifice.

And that is what Malachi was talking about. He was saying that even though the Jews of his day offered impure sacrifices, there would come a day when God’s people would offer him an acceptable sacrifice. It would be one offering, not many, and the only sacrifice that fits this bill is the Mass. As a result, we can be confident that the Eucharist is more than just a memorial service. It is a true sacrifice, a true participation in Jesus’ offering to the Father on the cross, so on this point, the Catholic faith is perfectly in line with the teaching of Scripture.

image: Cappella Bartolini Salimbeni, Firenze by Sailko / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 3.0)


JP Nunez has been a theology nerd since high school. He has master's degrees in both theology and philosophy (with a concentration in bioethics) from Franciscan University of Steubenville, and he spent three years in Catholic University of America's doctoral program in biblical studies before realizing that academia isn't where he wants to be. During his time in Steubenville, he worked for two years as an intern at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology, where his responsibilities included answering theological questions and helping to format and edit their Journey Through Scripture Bible studies. He blogs at JP Nunez: Understanding the Faith Through Scripture.

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