In his 12 years of life, Malachi Joseph Russell never met a stranger. He never saw someone that triggered shyness in him or dissuaded him for speaking life into their souls.
But that’s what messengers do.
In fact, the name Malachi, in its Hebrew origin, literally means, “Messenger of God.” And the young son of Roger and Kim Russell lived up to his name every chance he got—even until cancer caused him to draw his last breath.
“We named him Malachi after the prophet Malachi in the Old Testament, and his name means, ‘my messenger,’” Kim said. “We named him Malachi so that he would be a messenger of the Lord and he would share the gospel and advance the kingdom here on earth.”
It’s similar to how parents named their children in ancient Hebrew/Jewish culture. The names weren’t just names. They were labels that the parents hoped and prayed their children would embody.
“When he was born, we were praying really hard for the ‘my messenger’ part, because, (Malachi) was just a bundle of energy,” Russell said.
“Full throttle all the time,” added Kim. “And so, I’d always pray, ‘Lord, take all this energy and just fan the flame of evangelism in his life with it,’ because, I mean, he was so inquisitive, so curious. He just asked a lot of questions and would talk to anybody. It just seemed like a natural thing.”
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Malachi in the Lion’s Den
Right before Malachi received his diagnosis, he made an appearance on stage. It wasn’t a big stage like, Broadway. Rather, it was a small production put on by their church, Sherwood Baptist, that depicted the story of Daniel in the lion’s den. It gave the Russells perhaps their earliest inklings of the big message God had put inside their son.
“I remember when everything first comes out and he’s diagnosed, one of the first statements he says is, ‘There’s no better place to be than in the fire,’” Roger said. “That’s because of a play that they put on at the church that he was a part of. It was a truth that he had read in the Word, and now he’s able to carry that on to the next step.”
Malachi’s “fire” for the gospel showed up in the midst of his personal lion’s den of cancer, and it started with what seemed to be a generic pain in his leg. Malachi loved sports, particularly soccer. He played for his middle school team, and it was during the season when he first started coming home and complaining about leg pains.
“I’m thinking growing pains,” Russell said. “He could have pulled something. So, we just told him to take some ibuprofen and go to bed.”
Things shifted, though, when the family took a day trip to celebrate Mother’s Day, and Malachi’s pain seemed to be specifically frustrating for him. It changed his gait, the way he ran. And it prompted the family to take him to get an X-ray. While there, all the regular “pain” questions were being asked. But one stuck out.
“As we went to leave, they asked him one more question,” Russell said. “They said, ‘When was the last time you had a normal bowel movement?’”
Malachi casually responded, “It’s been a week or two.” That proved to be the first major red flag that something serious could be happening in his body. Malachi went from doing backflips on a trampoline on Sunday, to getting X-rays and an appointment for an MRI by Wednesday. And Roger knew something was amiss when, after the MRI, the doctor called him away from the family to talk.
“I thought, ‘He isn’t talking to me in front of my kids, so, it had to be something,’” Roger said. “I went down to the office and sat down, and he just looked at me and said there’s two to three small masses in the base of his spine, and we need you to take him to Atlanta today.”
The urgency was striking. And the phone call Roger had to make to his wife was one of the most difficult things he ever had to do, although the severity of Malachi’s health didn’t hit Kim as hard in the beginning.
“To be honest, I think the Lord was protecting my heart,” Kim said. “Because I don’t think I really understood the severity of it. I don’t think my heart immediately went to, ‘Oh gosh. This is going to be terrible.’”
The Russells got Malachi to Atlanta on a Thursday, and he was on the operating table less than 48 hours later. A group of about 30 members from Sherwood accompanied the family in the waiting room—something that Roger was grateful for once he got the post-op report.
“I remember the doctor looking at me and saying, ‘I got everything that I could get. But I tried to protect the chance that he may walk,’” Roger said.
Then the doctor’s next words dropped on him like a hammer.
“He just said, ‘The likelihood of this being cancer is pretty high.’”
Kim recalls a time when Malachi and the family were headed to his oldest brother’s soccer state championship game when Malachi made a bold proclamation.
“I’m ready to die,” he said.
“It was just out of the blue while he was sitting in the back seat of the car,” Kim said. “I remember thinking I was a little embarrassed in front of my best friend’s daughter, and I said to him, ‘Buddy, what?’”
Malachi made it more emphatic. “I’m ready to see Jesus,” he said.
“His mind and his heart were always in another place,” Kim said. “And that was years before cancer.”
Malachi’s heart always seemed to be centered on God, even before he officially secured his salvation. Russell tells the story of a video where Malachi is walking behind his mom in a field of flowers and, completely unprovoked, said, “I love God.”
“God was always on his mind,” Roger said.
Kim remembers exactly when Malachi gave his life to Jesus. It was October 1, 2014, but he’d been talking about it long before, and Roger and Kim just wanted to make sure their son’s talk was authentic.
“When Malachi started talking about wanting to get saved, we just wanted to make sure he knew what he was doing,” Kim said. “We’re not into this, ‘Oh, that’s so sweet. Let’s get baptized.’ No. I want you to know you’re a rotten sinner. Malachi had started asking questions. He was saying all the right things, but we still were just wanting to see some evidence of repentance.”
But the delay was getting under the young man’s skin.
“We were at home one night and had gone to bed,” Kim said, “and he said to us, ‘Why won’t you let me get saved?’ He was almost mad.”
“He was mad,” Roger added. But that bit of righteous indignation on Malachi’s part was enough to let his parents know that he was ready. He accepted Christ in the living room of their home that night. When it happened, he was so elated about it that he stood in front of a plaque hanging on a wall in the living room that had the names of God written on it. He wanted his picture taken in front of it.
“He was just grinning,” Kim said. “He was like, ‘Finally, you let me get saved.’”
Making the Moments Count
About 48 hours after surgery it was confirmed. Malachi had cancer.
“They sent what they took out of him from surgery to pathology, and they did research because it was a very rare type of cancer,” said Kim.
It was so rare, in fact, that the last study this set of doctors had done for it was over in Europe, and Roger remembers them telling him that there were just 80 cases of it. And of those cases, Roger remembers that the average life span after diagnosis was 17 months.
Telling Malachi this, plus getting him prepared for physical therapy, radiation and chemotherapy was an unenviable task. You never know how a child will take such news. For Malachi, it was as if the knowledge of his condition poured gasoline on an already on-fire heart for Jesus.
“Every day, Monday through Friday, when we would go for radiation, Malachi would have to be transported by ambulance,” Kim said. “And every day, we had two new people that we spent about four hours with. Malachi shared the gospel every day to those new people. He would lay in the back of that stretcher in the ambulance, and would ask, ‘So where are you from? What do you do? If you die tonight, would you spend eternity in heaven or hell?’”
Kim would take advantage of these moments, sharing them on her Facebook page and asking people to pray for the salvation of those who heard the gospel from Malachi.
“The Lord put so many people in our path,” she said. “And, so while it was a terrible experience, we just took it as if we were on mission, and that the Lord was strategically placing us with people that we would never have met otherwise. We did not want to miss or waste the opportunity that He had given us.”
Meanwhile, Malachi never gave up trying to fight for his life. And that fight was catalytic for his mom and dad’s own spiritual growth.
“Malachi chose how to walk it out,” Roger said. “As parents, you can encourage your kids to do something. But in that situation, he had to make a decision. And he chose how he was going to walk it out. It hurt, because as an adult, it’s convicting to watch your 11-year old who’s hair is disappearing. He can’t get up and walk. He can’t do so much for himself, but he’s choosing joy.”
Kim said: “It was very convicting for me. I just thought, ‘I’m a pansy.’ This boy is a fighter. He’s just got this grit, and he’s like, ‘We’re doing this. We’re walking 15 steps today,’ and then he would walk 30 the next day.”
And Malachi was not shy about letting people know where his grit came from.
“He would look at his physical therapist and he’d say, ‘The Lord is going to help me walk today, We’re going to do this in the strength of the Lord,’” remembers Kim.
Malachi had a list of 17 people. One person for each month he was expected to live. They were his ones. During his battle with cancer, he’d heard about the Who’s Your One movement (a challenge to pick one person in your circle of influence to pray for and share the gospel with), and he took it as a challenge.
“To be honest, we really didn’t know (about the list) until after the fact,” Russell said. “It wasn’t one of those things he carried around like a badge. But he heard the challenge and, gosh, for him, he just took it seriously because he saw the finish line in front of him. He knew 17 months. He knew what was going on in his body. He knew everything that was happening. He just literally went through the list of people he knew that needed Jesus and wrote them down.”
The most powerful part of that story, though, is some of those 17 one’s accepted Jesus after Malachi went to meet him.
Once, when asked about his rationale for so aggressively sharing Jesus with people, instead of being sullen about his condition and fate, Malachi’s answer sounded like that of an old man of seasoned spiritual wisdom, instead of the words of a 12-year old kid.
“The Lord has given me so many chances to share the gospel, and I’m going to take every chance I can,” Roger recalled him saying. “The world needs Jesus, and I want to step my game up because this cancer can kill me, and I want to tell as many people as I can.”
“Malachi was just so bold,” Kim said. “I think it was kind of one of the gifts of cancer. It brought an awareness of life and death. You get a cancer diagnosis, and it’s like, what do you have to lose?”
Eventually, Malachi’s cancer spread to his brain. It left him bound to wheelchair, even after some progress in physical therapy. It also affected his short-term memory.
There were moments when Malachi would flatline—like the time his brother, Elim was reading him a book and Malachi stopped breathing right after Elim finished reading.
“His heart would stop, and then he just came back,” Kim said. He did that more than a half dozen times in a 24-hour span. The Russells took it as a sign that the end was near, as in a matter of hours instead of days. But God had other plans. Malachi’s body kept fighting for him in a way that astounded his parents.
“The Lord sustained him for about 10 days,” Kim said. “It was very frustrating, if I’m just being really honest, because it was torture on us. He was in the living room and Roger and I were on the couch, and we were like, ‘Lord, what are you doing? Why are you dragging this out?’”
All of the family was present—waiting for the inevitable. Roger’s brother was among that number.
“He was there a lot, and he would just sit quietly at the table and just kind of watch,” Kim said. “He would watch the church members come in and out of our home, and he would watch people come and pray with us and bring food. One time he said, ‘These people are here more than I’m here.’”
After Malachi died, Roger’s brother gave his life to Jesus.
“He saw everything,” Kim said. “After Malachi went to heaven, Roger’s brother surrendered his life to Christ. What we thought was dragging it out was actually God drawing Roger’s brother to salvation.”
When Malachi died, it didn’t look or feel like a strain. In some ways, for the Russells, it was actually a relief.
“The first time he stopped breathing, I just remember begging him to breathe,” Kim said. “But it was hard on his body. He was turning blue. He was gone, and he would just gasp for air and come back. He wasn’t really coherent. Our prayers shifted from, ‘Lord sustain him,’ to cheering him on to the finish line.”
When Malachi took his last breath, the irony wasn’t lost on the Russells that Jesus came to get their son in the same living room where Malachi gave his life to Jesus.
“It was just the most holy moment we’d ever been a part of, and it was a relief,” Kim said. “It was gratitude as a reaction and as our response to the Lord. I just remember saying we watched our son take his last breath. He’s obtained the goal of his salvation.”
He also reached the goal of making sure his life, sickness and death weren’t in vain. Remember those 17 ones that Malachi listed? On the day of his celebration of life service, that number grew tremendously. As far as Russell is concerned, only one word can describe such an aftermath—fruit.
“I remember reading the book of Malachi (in the Bible), and at the end of Malachi, it says that they’re going to rise with healing and righteousness, and they’re going to leap like calves from the stalls,” Russell said. “And I thought, ‘There it is. I’m going to get to see Malachi leap like a young calf from the stall. That’s not it though.”
Actually, it was 100 “young calves” that leaped up at his school into salvation during that homegoing day, Russell said.
“It’s not always just how you want it to be,” he said. “We get so caught up in trying to interpret how things are, but what a celebration to see the other side of it. Where 100-plus kids now have leaped into salvation. Scripture is so rich, and God’s so faithful. You just keep your hands to the plow. And as my wife said, sometimes you don’t get to see that fruit, but it’s going to be there.”
Engraved in Malachi’s tombstone was his favorite verse, John 15:5. In it, Jesus says: “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me will bear much fruit. Apart from me, you can do nothing.”
Following the verse, the word, “Testify” with an exclamation point is written. It’s perhaps the most succinct way the Russells could’ve summarized their son’s life.
“Many times Malachi would say, ‘I don’t know why you’re giving me cancer, God, but you did,’” Russell recalled. “He would say, ‘I’m going to give You glory through it, and if you choose to take my life with it, it’s your will.’”
Malachi’s testimony is sure—a life well lived, no matter how brief, with a trail of salvation’s fruit left behind. Testify, indeed, he did.
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Malachi’s life showed just how powerful a person’s witness can be for Jesus. There was nothing complicated about the way he shared Jesus. It was practical and fitting for any person he encountered, regardless of age. Perhaps Malachi’s story has inspired you to be bolder in sharing Jesus. If so, you can download Practical Tips for Evangelism to find simple ways to share the gospel with whomever God puts in your path, just as Malachi did.