This 12 part expository study of Malachi was preached at Flagstaff Christian Fellowship in 2003. Audio and manuscripts are available for each lesson.
When Marla and I lived in Dallas, we enjoyed going to a place that featured live bluegrass music. One of the bands played a song that went, “You done stomped on my heart and squashed that sucker flat. You kinda, sorta, stomped on my aorta.” The audience would go wild whenever the band got to that line. Apparently a lot of people identified with the words!
Listen to any country music station for a few minutes, and you’ll hear someone singing the blues of unrequited love. While we may chuckle at such songs, anyone who has been hurt in a romance knows that it is a painful experience.
I doubt that Malachi sang country music, but he preached about unrequited love: God’s unrequited love for Israel. We know nothing about this prophet personally. His name means, “My messenger.” He prophesied during or shortly after the ministry of Nehemiah, around 420 B.C. He was the last of God’s prophets for 400 years, until John the Baptist came on the scene as predicted by Malachi (3:1; 4:5). He preached against many of the same sins that Nehemiah did: Corruption of the priesthood (Mal. 1:6-2:9; Neh. 13:7-9); marriage to heathen wives (Mal. 2:10-12; Neh. 13:23-28); social wrongs (Mal. 3:5; Neh. 5:1-13); and the neglect of paying tithes (Mal. 3:8-10; Neh. 13:10-14). But his overall theme, which opens the book, is the indifference of God’s people to His great love for them.
To understand Malachi’s message, we need to see that these people were not openly rebellious against God. They were back in the land after the Babylonian captivity. Some of them may have worked with Nehemiah on rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem. They were offering sacrifices at the rebuilt temple. They were outwardly following the Law of Moses and the prescribed rituals. If you had asked how they were doing spiritually, they would have said, “Fine!”
But that was not God’s evaluation! Through Malachi, God confronts His people with their apathy toward His great love. No less than 47 out of 55 verses are spoken directly by God, the highest percentage in any of the prophetic books. The response of the people is either astonishment or cynicism. In effect, they say, “You’ve got to be kidding! No way!” Malachi reveals their blindness to their own indifference with a series of questions which they ask in response to his indictments:
1:2: “‘I have loved you,’ says the Lord. But you say, ‘How have You loved us?’”
1:6: “‘… O priests who despise My name.’ But you say, ‘How have we despised Your name?’”
1:7: “‘You are presenting defiled food upon My altar.’ But you say, ‘How have we defiled You?’”
2:13-14: “… He no longer regards [your] offering. Yet you say, ‘For what reason?’”
2:17: You have wearied the Lord with your words. Yet you say, ‘How have we wearied Him?’”
3:7: “‘Return to Me, and I will return to you,’ says the Lord of hosts. But you say, ‘How shall we return?’”
3:8: “‘Will a man rob God? Yet you are robbing Me!’ But you say, ‘How have we robbed You?’”
3:13: “‘Your words have been arrogant against Me,’ says the Lord. Yet you say, ‘What have we spoken against You?’”
Israel was like an insensitive wife who is oblivious to the frustration and unhappiness of her husband. If you had asked Israel about her relationship with the Lord, she would have answered, “Everything’s good!” But if you had asked her mate, the Lord, He would have said, “It’s lousy! My wife is oblivious to My love. I could drop out of sight and Israel wouldn’t miss Me!” God’s evaluation of the marriage was the correct one, of course.
After the introduction stating the theme (1:1-5), Malachi falls into two sections: The indifference of the priests to God’s love (1:6-2:9); and, the indifference of the people to God’s love (2:10-4:3; see outline at the end of this message). The book concludes with a warning from God (4:4-6). It is significant that the final word of the Old Testament is, “curse.” Malachi is the only prophetic book to end on a threat of judgment rather than hope. That which began with a blessing in the Garden of Eden ended with the threat of a curse because of sin. But the New Testament reveals God’s gracious solution, the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ to bear the curse of our sins.
With that as an overview of the book, let’s focus on the introduction, where the Lord indicts His people for their indifference to His love for them (1:1-5). It has been observed that the opposite of love is often not hatred; it is apathy. I hope that no one here hates God, but some of you may have grown indifferent towards God. You may be going through all the motions of being “a good Christian.” You go to church, you’re outwardly moral, maybe you even tithe. Like a functional marriage, you have a functional relationship with God, but the passion has leaked out over the years. Perhaps you’ve gone through some difficult trials and you’ve wondered, “If God really loves me, then why is this happening to me? Why do I suffer while people who don’t even believe in Christ prosper?”
Malachi’s audience was there. The Lord tells them, “I have loved you” (the tense of the Hebrew verb means, “I have loved you in the past and I continue to love you”). Their reply is shocking: “How have You loved us?” They were so focused on their problems that they were oblivious to God’s great covenant love towards them. It’s as if God says, “I love you,” and they respond, “Ho hum!” God’s answer (please note: I did not make this up—it is God’s answer) shows us how to overcome our apathy to His love:
To overcome indifference towards God’s love, consider the wonder of His sovereign election of His people.
Before we look at our text, let me say, I realize that the doctrine of God’s sovereign election causes many to struggle. We had a mass exodus here last year over this issue. At least two popular books have been written in the last several years attacking this doctrine, which is often labeled “Calvinism.” But I came to understand the doctrine of election long before I read Calvin or any theologians, simply by wrestling through Paul’s argument in Romans 9. Not only Paul, but also Jesus, plainly taught this doctrine (e.g., John 6:36ff.; Luke 10:21-22). It is all through the Bible.
I have read books and articles attacking this doctrine. In my opinion, the authors invariably try to fit God into their own logic, rather than submitting to what Scripture plainly states. Some dodge it, saying, “It’s just a divisive theological issue that has no practical value.” But God would not have mentioned it so often in Scripture if it were not useful for our growth. This doctrine affects how you view God, man, sin, and salvation. So even though it is difficult, don’t dodge it! Wrestle with it, asking God to give you a submissive heart to understand His Word. Those who deny it invariably pull God down and exalt proud sinners by making man’s “free will” sovereign. God’s Word exalts God and humbles proud sinners by making God sovereign. With submissive hearts, let’s consider how
Our text and its context suggest three reasons that we grow indifferent to God’s love:
“The oracle [lit., “burden”] of the word of the Lord to Israel through Malachi.” Burden (see Zech. 9:1; 12:1) points to a message that weighs heavily on its bearer. It is not to be trifled with or ignored. A man does not play when he has a burden on his back. A man who bears the burden of the word of the Lord means business because he is pleading with souls in light of God’s coming judgment and eternity beyond.
This burden was to Israel, a people familiar with the things of God. Therein lies the danger! They were born into the covenant community. Their whole lives from infancy on were centered on their religion. Perhaps, like me, you were raised in the church. It’s easy for us to shrug our shoulders at the gospel, because we’ve heard it from day one. We hear, “God so loved the world that He gave His only Son,” and we nod, “That’s nice (yawn)! Hey, did you hear about last night’s ball game?” We need to remember the urgency of the message that God has entrusted to us!
This was the perspective of Malachi’s readers. As they looked at their circumstances, things were not going as they expected, so they grew discouraged. They had been back in the land for about 125 years. The temple had been rebuilt for about 100 years. Nehemiah had recently led the people in rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem. But there were only about 100,000 Jews back in the land. They didn’t have an army to protect themselves from hostile neighbors. They were still under the thumb of the Persian king and his appointed governor. Their farms were not producing well because of drought (3:10-11). Many of them were probably thinking, “If this is the Promised Land, I’d hate to see the unpromised land!”
In contrast to their difficult circumstances, they had the messages of the prophets. They all predicted a golden era for Israel when the land would yield abundant produce, the people would dwell securely under the reign of Messiah, and other nations would flock to Jerusalem as the center of the earth (Isa. 49:19-23; 54:1-3; Jer. 23:5-6; Ezek. 25-30; Zech. 8:1-8, 12-15, 20-23). But none of this was happening. Then along comes Malachi and says, “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your lives!” And they say, “Come on! How does God love us?”
Like Israel, we will grow indifferent to God’s great love for us if we focus on our difficult circumstances rather than on God’s purpose for history. If we focus on our problems, they will consume us. If we think about God’s purpose to extend His kingdom over all the earth, and the fact that He has saved us to be a part of that great purpose, we will gain the perspective that we need. That’s why Paul, in spite of his many trials, could joyfully say that he lived by faith in the Son of God who loved him and gave Himself up for him (Gal. 2:20).
So, we grow indifferent when we forget the urgency of God’s message and when we focus on our circumstances rather than on God’s purpose to glorify Himself through the gospel.
I draw this point from the whole book. As I said, these people had not turned defiantly against God. They were worshiping at the temple. They offered sacrifices. They went through all of the rituals prescribed by Moses. But they had drifted into routine religion instead of maintaining a vital personal relationship with a loving God. They followed God’s program, but they had lost touch with His person. Their religious observance blinded them to their true condition, so that when God confronted them through Malachi, they responded, “How has God loved us?”
I say from personal experience, it’s easy to drift into a routine relationship with God, just as it’s easy to become routine in marriage. You have a nice, functional marriage, but the passion of love has leaked out.
Years ago, one morning I had kissed all of the kids good-bye for the day. I turned to Marla and asked, “Did I kiss you yet?” She was busy cleaning up the kitchen from breakfast. She said, “I don’t remember for sure, but I think so.” I probably had kissed her out of habit. That’s a good habit! But when she said that she didn’t remember, I said, “Well, if you don’t remember, then let’s make it memorable!” I gave her a kiss that she would not soon forget! That’s reality, not ritual! I recently heard a guy on the radio say that he likes to make his good-bye kisses with his wife last for at least ten seconds. That’s my kind of guy! We all need to do that with God! Here He tells us how:
I’ve only got a few minutes to take you through some difficult matters. Please submit your heart to God’s Word as I try to explain it here through four statements:
“Was not Esau Jacob’s brother?” declares the Lord. “Yet I have loved Jacob; but I have hated Esau,…” (1:2-3a). He is speaking here of the nations that descended from these brothers, Israel and Edom. In His sovereign plan, God chose Abraham out of all the people on earth. Then God chose Abraham’s son Isaac over his other son, Ishmael. Then God chose Isaac’s son, Jacob, over his elder twin brother, Esau. God determined that the people descended from Jacob, the Jews, would be His chosen people. He loved them in a special way that He did not love other nations (Deut. 4:37; 7:6-8).
You may say, “That’s not fair to everyone who was not born a Jew! That’s not fair to the Arabs, the Chinese, the Indians, or the Europeans!” But as far as I can tell, God didn’t take a Gallup Poll to determine whether we like His plan! He is the Sovereign of the universe, and He is free to act as He determines. If God had consulted first with me, I would have said, “Lord, Your plan isn’t fair and it isn’t practical. How can the Japanese or the Indonesians or the North American Indians get to Jerusalem to worship at the temple? In fact, Lord, they’re probably never going to hear about the Law of Moses or the promise of Messiah way over there.” But for some reason, God didn’t consult with me!
In my opinion, those who fight against the doctrine of election are chafing against God’s right to be God. He is the Potter; we are the clay. If the Potter says, “I love Jacob, but hate Esau,” what is that to the clay? You can soften it by saying that “hate” means “love less” (Gen. 29:30-31; Luke 14:26) if you like, but the fact remains, God chose Jacob and rejected Esau. As Paul points out when he cited this text, God did not base His choice on anything that He foresaw in either man. Rather, God did it so that His purpose according to election might stand (Rom. 9:11).
Those who try to dodge the implication of this say that God chose Israel as a nation for service, not salvation. But in Romans 9, where the Holy Spirit expands on this text, it is clear that Paul is talking about individuals and about eternal salvation (see James White, The Potter’s Freedom [Calvary Press], pp. 203-227). God not only chose Israel as a nation to serve Him; He also chose individuals to save as a display of His sovereign grace and love (Eph. 1:4-6).
If you want to grade on a curve, Esau was a better man than Jacob. Jacob was a deceiver who conned their dad out of the family blessing. Esau got angry about that, but he got over it and later forgave Jacob. But both men were sinners. God chose Jacob and rejected Esau, and as Paul makes clear, God did that before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad. God’s choice wasn’t based on anything in them, but only on His choice.
I know, you’re thinking, “But that’s not fair!” Paul knew that you would think that, and so he deals with that objection in Romans 9:14-18, where he argues that God is free to show mercy to whom He desires and to harden whom He desires. God was perfectly just to condemn all of the fallen angels who sinned without offering them a way of salvation. God would be perfectly just in condemning the entire human race, because we all have sinned. He does not owe mercy to anyone.
I know, you’re still thinking, “But if God only shows mercy to some, and if no one can come to Him unless He shows them mercy, then how can He hold the others accountable?” Again, Paul anticipated your question. He answers it by saying, in effect, “You don’t have a right to ask the Sovereign of the universe that question, so shut up!” (See Rom. 9:19-24.) That’s why I said earlier, those who oppose this doctrine need to submit to God’s Word. It’s not primarily a matter of understanding as much as a matter of submitting to God as Sovereign.
God is saying to Israel, “The reason you’re back in the land after the captivity, but Edom is desolate and forsaken, is that you’re My chosen people. I caused their land to be desolate because I am indignant toward them forever. They may try to rebuild, but I will tear it down.” In other words, there was a great difference between Israel and Edom, and the difference had nothing to do with anything in Israel or Edom. It had to do with God’s sovereign love for Israel and His rejection of the Edomites.
My great-grandmother was a Cherokee Indian. I’ve often thought, “What if I had been born 400 years ago, before the Europeans came to North America?” I never would have heard the gospel! Was God unjust to leave my ancestors without the gospel? Of course not! They were sinners who justly deserved God’s judgment. God did not owe them mercy. The only thing that makes me differ from them or from the person born today in a Muslim country is that God chose to show me grace. If you are indifferent towards God’s love, think about where you would be without it! You’d be lost, without God and without hope in this world!
“The Lord be magnified beyond the border of Israel” (1:5). According to C. F. Keil (who knew Hebrew far better than I ever will), the preposition does not mean “beyond,” but “over or above” (Commentary on the Old Testament [Eerdmans], “The Twelve Minor Prophets,” p. 432). It stands in contrast with verse 4, where Edom is called “the border of wickedness.” God’s people should be bordered with the sounds of His praise. We exist to exalt His name because of His sovereign love toward us who deserved His wrath. Scripture is clear that sometimes God is glorified through His judgment of the wicked, such as Edom, which was destroyed by the Nabatean Arabs sometime before 400 B.C. At other times, God is glorified by pouring out His undeserved favor on a nation, such as Israel.
For reasons I cannot explain, God poured out His grace on America, where in spite of our many horrible sins, the gospel has been widely proclaimed since our nation’s founding. If you know Christ as Savior and Lord, He saved you so that you would proclaim His excellencies among the nations (1 Pet. 2:9-10). His purpose is that His name will be great among the nations (Mal. 1:11).
Suppose that a boy desperately wants to play baseball, but he isn’t good enough to get picked for the team. But one day his big brother is the captain and he picks his younger brother to play on the team, not because he’s the best player, but simply because he loves him.
How will the younger brother respond? He will want to play his best because of his older brother’s loving choice of him. He will know that his brother has a purpose for him on the team, and so he will do all that he can to fulfill that purpose.
If your heart is indifferent to God’s love, consider the wonder that He chose you in love and that He has a purpose for you to fulfill in His great plan of glorifying His name among the nations. Make certain about His calling and choosing you, so that you will not stumble (2 Pet. 1:10). If you are not sure whether He has chosen you, as a sinner cry out to Him for mercy. Come to Jesus for eternal life. He said, “All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out” (John 6:37).
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2003, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation
Pastor Steven J. Cole
Theme: The indifference of Israel toward God’s electing love.
Introduction: The indifference of the nation in the fact of God’s love: “How does God love us?” (1:1-5)
1. The indifference of the priests to God’s love (1:6-2:9).
A. Despising the Lord in the offerings (1:6-14).
B. Disciplined by the Lord for despising their duties (2:1-9).
2. The indifference of the people to God’s love (2:10-4:3).
A. Indifference in marriage (2:10-16).
1) Treachery of marrying foreign wives (2:10-12).
2) Treachery of divorcing their wives (2:13-16).
B. Indifference in morals (2:17-3:6).
1) Perverting right and wrong (2:17).
2) God’s solution: His messenger & His Messiah (3:1-5).
3) God’s standard: His unchanging nature (3:6).
C. Indifference in money (3:7-12).
1) The general indictment and appeal: Return to Me (3:7).
2) The specific indictment and solution: Robbing God (3:8-10).
3) The promised blessing for obedience (3:11-12).
C. Indifference in mentality: “Why serve God?” (Loss of eternal perspective) (3:13-4:3).
1) Two contemporary perspectives (3:13-18):
a) The majority view: “Why serve God?” (3:13-15).
b) The minority view: “It’s worth it to serve God.” (3:16-18).
2) God’s eternal perspective: The Day of the Lord (4:1-3).
a) Judgment on the wicked (4:1).
b) Blessings on the righteous (4:2-3).
Conclusion: God’s final warning and prediction (4:4-6):
*Obey the Law (4:4).
*Elijah to come and restore (4:5-6).
When Jimmy Carter was President, on several occasions he spent the night in the homes of common Americans, picked at random. Suppose that the President and his wife decided to come to your home. The big evening arrives. Crowds line the streets as the presidential limousine pulls up in front of your house, escorted by police motorcycles, squad cars, and Secret Service agents. The President and his wife emerge from the limousine, wave to the crowds and news photographers, and walk to your front door.
You open the door wearing dirty jeans and a torn T-shirt and say, “Oh, hi! I’ve been working out in the garden.” As the President steps into the cluttered living room, you say, “Sorry about the mess, but my wife got engrossed in the soap operas on TV this afternoon and didn’t get around to cleaning. But dinner’s almost ready. She’s heating up the leftovers in the microwave right now. Hope you don’t mind paper plates.”
That’s absurd, isn’t it? Even if you were poor, if you knew that the President was coming to your house, you would look your best. You would clean your house and maybe even put on some fresh paint. You’d put your best dishes on the table and fix your favorite meal. The President deserves more than leftovers.
So does the Lord. He is “a great King” and His “name is feared among the nations” (1:14). Surely nobody would dare to serve God leftovers, would they?
“Yes,” says Malachi, “they would.” The priests of his day were doing just that. The people would bring an unblemished lamb to offer as a sacrifice at the temple. The priests would reason, “It doesn’t make sense to slaughter this perfectly good lamb. After all, it’s just going to be burned on the altar. Let’s sell it for a decent price and substitute a slightly blemished lamb that’s cheaper. Good stewardship demands it.”
Or when the people would bring a less than perfect animal to the temple, the priests would say, “Don’t worry about it. It was sick, so you couldn’t risk eating it. It’s just going up in smoke anyway. Sacrificing it helps you get rid of an animal that you didn’t need and it helps us keep the fires burning on the altar. Everyone wins!” Everyone except God, that is!
Through Malachi, the Lord confronts the priests: “You are despising My name!” But the priests didn’t get it. So the Lord explains, “In that you say, ‘The table of the Lord is to be despised’” (1:7). (The table refers to the altar of sacrifice [Ezek. 41:22].) The priests were not so brazen as to say those specific words. What they had said was something like I said a moment ago. They knew that the Law of Moses had some “obscure” verses (Lev. 22:20-25; Deut. 15:21) about not offering blemished sacrifices to the Lord.
But they were practical men: “Surely it makes better sense to burn the damaged animals and save the good ones, doesn’t it? We’re not rich people. The Lord understands our situation, doesn’t He? Better to offer blemished animals than none at all, isn’t it?” They were trying to make worship more convenient and affordable for the worshipers. But God said, “You are dishonoring Me!”
We live in a day of convenience Christianity. The church is being marketed like a restaurant or store in an attempt to attract more customers. Pastors flock to seminars that share methods on how to attract unchurched people. “Don’t preach against sin, because that threatens people. They want to feel good about themselves. They don’t bring Bibles to church, so don’t get into in-depth Bible study. Give them something positive and uplifting. And, they’re used to watching TV. So use a lot of drama and visuals. Keep the sermon short—15 to 20 minutes maximum. Make it entertaining.” Pastors who use these techniques testify how their church rapidly grew into thousands of attenders.
Through Malachi, the Lord of hosts has something to say to the modern church: “Oh that there were one among you who would shut the doors, that you might not uselessly meet in My name. I am not pleased with you” (paraphrase of 1:10). It would be better to close the doors of the church than to dishonor God when we meet!
At the center of Jewish worship was the offering of sacrifices. The reason people needed to offer sacrifices was that they were sinners approaching a holy God, and He had ordained sacrifices as the way of approaching Him. To offer blemished sacrifices pulled down the holiness of God by saying, in effect, “God isn’t perfectly holy. We don’t need to offer a perfect substitute for our sins.” And, it lifted up sinners by saying, “We’re not all that bad. A slightly blemished sacrifice is good enough for us to come before God.”
The core message that the church should proclaim is the gospel. The gospel is about sinners who need a Savior in order to be reconciled to a holy God and escape His judgment. If we modify message to appeal to consumers we are, in effect, offering blemished sacrifices. The modern “gospel” often is pitched as a way to personal fulfillment and happiness: “Jesus will help you succeed in business, have a happy family, and even lose weight! Try Him, you’ll be a satisfied customer!” But what about sin and repentance? What about God’s holiness? What about faith in a Savior who is without sin, who offered Himself in the place of sinners?
God makes it plain that His purpose is to make His name great or revered among the nations (1:11 [twice], 14). As His people, our purpose should be to promote God’s glory among the nations by proclaiming Jesus as God’s perfect sacrifice for sinners. Malachi says,
To promote God’s glory among the nations, we must honor Him by giving Him the best of our lives.
I could preach many sermons on this point alone, but I must be brief here. If we are not clear about what God is doing in this world, then we will not be on target with our lives. In a nutshell, God’s purpose is to promote His glory, and He wants to use His people to do that. To explore this theme, I commend to you the difficult, but rewarding, God’s Passion for His Glory [Crossway Books], by John Piper, which contains Jonathan Edwards’ essay, “The End for Which God Created the World.” In another book (A Hunger for God [Crossway Books], pp. 179-180), Piper summarizes the biblical argument like this:
God elects his people before the foundation of the world for his glory (Ephesians 1:6). He creates humankind for his glory (Isaiah 43:7). He chooses Israel for his glory (Isaiah 49:3). He delivers them from Egypt for his glory (Psalm 106:7-8). He restores them after exile for his glory (Isaiah 48:9-11). He sends his Son to confirm his trustworthiness and so the Gentiles will glorify him for his mercy (Romans 15:8-9). He puts his Son to death to display the glory of his vindicated righteousness (Romans 3:25-26). He commands his people to do all things for his glory (1 Corinthians 10:31). He will send his Son a second time to receive the glory due him (2 Thessalonians 1:9-10). And in the end he will fill the earth with the knowledge of his glory (Habakkuk 2:14).
So our aim as God’s people should be to glorify God by loving Him above all, by loving one another (the two Great Commandments), and by proclaiming the gospel among the nations (the Great Commission) so that all peoples will glorify His great name.
This message applied to the whole nation, but it was especially aimed at the priests, the spiritual leaders. Those of us who lead the church especially need to ponder these things. When the Lord confronted them through Malachi, they didn’t get it: “How have we despised Your name?” (1:6). “How have we defiled You?” (1:7). They looked at all their activities: they were busy offering sacrifices and leading the people in worship. What was the problem?
The problem was that they were not doing what they did with a God-ward focus. They were not offering their sacrifices to please the Lord. They were not focused on magnifying His name. In fact, they were bored with the whole thing (1:13). Their attitude reflected their arrogance and lack of reverence for God. They were going through the motions of worship, but their hearts were not seeking to exalt and glorify God as He deserves.
It’s really easy to lead in worship or preach sermons or teach Sunday School or serve the Lord in any capacity with wrong motives. If our hidden motive is to have people think highly of us, our hearts are not right before God. When I preach, if I succumb to the temptation to dodge hard truth so as not to offend anyone, I dishonor God, who inspired His Word. My attitude in all ministry should always be, “Lord, this is an offering to please You and to magnify Your name!” Any other focus dishonors God, whether I am aware of it or not.
So, God’s purpose is to glorify His name among the nations. As His people, and especially as leaders, we are often blind to how we dishonor Him. Thus the crucial question becomes, “What does it mean to honor the Lord with our lives?”
Our text reveals four aspects of this:
Salvation is a free gift. You cannot earn it or pay for it. You can only accept it freely. But it cost God the life of His beloved Son. Once you accept such a precious gift, it demands everything you have in response. When you recognize that you are not your own, you were bought with a price, and that all that you have has been freely given to you by God, how can you hold back anything from Him?
But these priests in Malachi’s day were giving God the leftovers. They had no use for a blind, lame, or sick animal, so they’d give it to God on the altar (1:8). But God tells them that He would rather that they close the doors of the temple than to have them offer these cheap sacrifices to Him (1:10)!
Giving God what you really don’t need anyway is not giving at all. I’m not suggesting that you should stop giving your extra junk to the church garage sale for missions! But I am saying that if you only give God stuff that you no longer need, you haven’t given at all. If you aren’t pinched because you gave, you didn’t really give. If you only serve when it’s convenient and you don’t have anything better to do, you aren’t really serving. The religious leaders in Jesus’ day threw a lot of money into the temple treasury. But along came a poor widow who put in two small copper coins. Jesus said that she put in more than all of the rest combined. Why? Because they gave out of their surplus, but she gave “all that she had to live on” (Luke 21:3-4).
Your gift reveals your estimate of the one to whom you offer it. Mary of Bethany knew this when she broke her expensive alabaster vial of ointment and poured it on the Lord’s feet. The indignant, practical-minded disciples murmured, “Why this waste? This perfume could have been sold for a lot of money that could have been given to the poor!” But the Lord commended Mary and rebuked the disciples (John 12:1-8). G. Campbell Morgan observes, “Sacrilege is centered in offering God something which costs nothing, because you think God is worth nothing” (Wherein Have We Robbed God? [Revell], p. 50). We only honor God when we give Him our best in terms of cost. With David, we should resolve, “I will not offer burnt offerings to the Lord my God which cost me nothing” (2 Sam. 24:24).
The Lord only wants unblemished lambs on His altar. If it’s a reject, it isn’t good enough for the Lord. As He sarcastically asks, “Would you give these blind, sick, and lame sheep to your governor? Would he be pleased with you?” If you wouldn’t give such cheap junk to your governor, do you think that you honor the Lord when you give it to Him?
Again, it’s better that your junk gets recycled for missions than to clutter up your garage! But there’s a misdirected mindset that we need to confront: “If something is worn out or useless to me, I’ll give it to the church or to missions.” So the Lord’s servants limp along with outdated computers and broken-down junk, while the Lord’s people fill their homes with the good stuff!
The classic story here (and I think it is true) is that of a missionary who received from some dear old saint a shipment of used clothing and other hand-me-downs. Included in the box was a jar full of used tea bags that the old lady had faithfully dried out and sent for the missionary’s use! Used tea bags! Why not send a case of new ones? If you hear about a missionary who needs a new computer, don’t give him your old, outdated one. Buy him a new one! We don’t need to be extravagant, but if it’s for the Lord, shouldn’t we give the best?
God’s Word was not top priority for these priests or for the people. They had better ways to use unblemished lambs than to put them on God’s altar. God had said that they should honor Him above all else by their worship. This included obeying His commands for the sacrifices. But God’s priority was not their priority. Worshiping God by offering unblemished sacrifices just wasn’t all that important to them. By showing contempt for that which God valued, they were showing contempt for God Himself.
Our Lord’s command to seek first His kingdom and righteousness (Matt. 6:33) does not apply only to pastors, missionaries, and other “full time” Christian workers. It applies to every follower of Jesus. I wrestle with this constantly, and so should you: Am I valuing with my life what God values? Do my priorities—the way I spend my time, money, and efforts—reflect the things that matter most to God? Am I seeking first God’s kingdom and righteousness in my personal life, my business, my family, and my spare time activities? Am I seeking to honor God above all else that crowds in for attention?
I’ll say from personal experience, the only way to keep your priorities in line is to be consistently in God’s Word. It confronts wrong attitudes and values. It gets you back on course when you start to drift. It confronts you when you are valuing things over God Himself. It reminds us that our aim should be to glorify Him.
Here we’re talking about motive—why you do what you do. In 1:14, the Lord says, “But cursed be the swindler who has a male in his flock and vows it, but sacrifices a blemished animal to the Lord, …” This guy wants to look good in public, so he makes a grandstand vow to give the best to the Lord. But when it comes time to give, he slips in an inferior animal and keeps the best for himself. He wasn’t really offering his sacrifice to the living God, who sees the motives of the heart. He was doing it to be seen by men.
Ananias and Sapphira fell into this trap in the early church. They wanted the church to think that they were giving the total amount from the sale of their land, but they kept back part of it for themselves. As Peter pointed out just before God struck them dead, they were not lying to men, but to God. If we serve the Lord or give to the Lord’s work out of the hidden motive of gaining recognition from men, we fail to honor God.
Andrew Fuller, an 18th century pastor and friend of William Carey, was once soliciting funds for foreign missions. A good friend said to him, “Very well, Andrew, seeing it is you, I’ll give $500.” Fuller responded, “No, I cannot take the money since you give it seeing me.” His friend saw the point and said, “You are right, Andrew. Here is $1,000, seeing it is for the Lord Jesus.”
So our aim should be to promote God’s glory among the nations. To do that, we must honor Him with the very best of our lives, not with the leftovers. But, as we’ve seen, it’s easy to deceive ourselves and think that we’re honoring God, when actually we’re despising Him.
With that in mind, so that we don’t fool ourselves, I devised a short test based on this passage. There are five questions:
If you heard that John MacArthur would be sitting in on your Sunday School class, would you prepare any differently? If Chuck Swindoll had been sitting next to you during worship, would you have sung more enthusiastically or dropped more into the offering plate? The point is, Jesus is watching all that you do. He listens to every sermon I preach. We must serve as unto Him.
In 1:9, Malachi sarcastically tells the people to entreat God’s favor. Then he adds, “With such an offering on your part, will He receive any of you kindly?” The implied answer is, “No!” If we play games with God by giving Him the leftovers, how can we sincerely ask Him to bless our lives?
These priests were going through the motions, keeping the fires burning on the temple altar. But God says that it was useless (1:10). He would rather that they close the doors than to go on playing their religious games.
It’s easy to have all sorts of activities and programs in a local church, but to lose sight of the reason why we do these things. It is not to attract people. Who cares how many people attend your church if they are just giving God the leftovers of worldly lives? God looks on our hearts, not on activities or programs. He is looking for those who worship Him in spirit and in truth.
These priests were tired of the routine (1:13). Offer another animal, go through the motions one more time, put in your shift at the temple to get your paycheck and go home. They were bored with worship because they had lost sight of the greatness and majesty of God, “the Lord of hosts” (used 7 times in these verses), which means that He commands all the armies of heaven and all of the galaxies in the universe!
If you’re bored with worship or with serving the Lord, you’ve lost sight of the glory and majesty of God. Rituals and routines can be pretty boring, but the living God is definitely not boring! Whenever in the Bible someone got a glimpse of God, I assure you, they were not glancing at their watch to find out how much longer the service would last! I realize that not every worship service will give you a glimpse of God! Not every quiet time will be glorious. But if you’re consistently bored with worship, you probably need a fresh glimpse of the greatness of God.
You may be thinking, “Hey, I’m not a pastor or missionary! I’m just a layman.” But if God’s aim is that His name will be great among the nations, and you are His blood-bought servant, shouldn’t His aim be your aim? Shouldn’t pleasing Him be your daily desire (see 1:8, 9, 10)? Shouldn’t His kingdom and glory be your passion?
Comedian Rodney Dangerfield is famous for his line, “I don’t get no respect.” But he stole that line from the Lord! God says to His people, “If I am a father, where is My honor? If I am a master, where is My respect?” Don’t give God the leftovers. Give Him the best you’ve got! His name will be great among the nations. Make sure that He is great in your daily life!
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2003, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation
We live in a day of crisis in church leadership. The Episcopal Church has voted to install a practicing homosexual bishop. The Roman Catholic Church has been in the news frequently because of their extensive cover-ups of priests who have molested children. But it hits much closer to home, in that a local missions leader, who formerly had served as an elder here, went to prison this year for molesting young girls.
The statistics on sexual sin among pastors are staggering. In 1988, Leadership [Winter, p. 12] conducted a survey among pastors. They asked, “Since you’ve been in local church ministry, have you ever done anything with someone (not your spouse) that you feel was sexually inappropriate?” Almost one in four (23%) answered yes! They asked, “Have you ever had sexual intercourse with someone other than your spouse since you’ve been in local-church ministry?” Almost one in eight (12%) answered yes! They asked the same questions among those who are not pastors and found that the incidences of immorality were almost double (45% & 23%)! They also found (p. 24) that 20 percent of pastors viewed sexually oriented media at least once a month (this was before the internet)!
Is it any wonder that the American church lacks God’s blessing? It is crucial for us to understand and implement the biblical requirements for spiritual leadership in our churches. God may call some of you young men into pastoral ministry. You should be diligent to develop these qualities in your lives now. It is vitally important that every Christian know what to look for in a pastor. Apart from the matter of moral purity, there are many men in pastoral ministry who do not meet the biblical requirements for spiritual leadership. If you place yourself and your family under such leadership, it could be spiritually devastating.
People join churches for flimsy reasons. Sometimes they join a church because they like the feeling they get when they attend there. They find the music entertaining and uplifting. Maybe they like the pastor’s personality or sense of humor. Or they like the youth activities that are available. Often, they join because their best friends go there. But strangely, they never consider what the pastor is teaching or where he is leading them spiritually.
Malachi 2:1-9 tells you what to look for in spiritual leaders. These verses were aimed at the spiritually lax priests. In the Old Testament, the priests were to be the spiritual leaders of God’s people. In the church age, Jesus has fulfilled and superceded the Levitical priesthood. He is our High Priest and all believers are priests under Him (Heb. 7& 8; 1 Pet. 2:9). God now has entrusted leadership in the local church to elders who are to shepherd His flock. Among the elders, some are to focus on preaching and teaching God’s Word (1 Tim. 5:17). They are called pastor-teachers and their responsibility is to equip God’s saints for the work of ministry (Greek, Eph. 4:11-12). In that role, they carry on the work that these priests should have been doing in Malachi’s day. To sum up, the prophet shows us:
A spiritual leader must honor God by walking with Him and teaching His truth or he will incur God’s discipline.
Our text is an Old Testament treatment of 1 Timothy 4:16, “Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching,” coupled with James 3:1: “Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment.”
The primary requirement for a pastor-teacher is not that a man be a gifted communicator, but rather that he walks closely with the Lord. John Calvin said that it would be better for the preacher to break his neck going into the pulpit, if he does not take pains to be the first to follow God (cited by J. I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness [Crossway Books], p. 76).
Here God contrasts the priests of Malachi’s day with the Levitical priests who had walked with God in peace and uprightness (2:6). The phrase “to walk with” God is used only of Enoch (Gen. 5:22, 24) and Noah (Gen. 6:9), although God commanded Abraham, “Walk before Me, and be blameless” (Gen. 17:1). To walk with God implies close, intimate fellowship with God and obedience to His commandments or ways (Mal. 2:9).
Walking with God is connected with honoring Him. When God confronted Eli the priest because he did not confront his evil sons, God said, “I did indeed say that your house and the house of your father should walk before Me forever.” But the Lord continues, “Far be it from Me—for those who honor Me I will honor, and those who despise Me will be lightly esteemed” (1 Sam. 2:30). Our text reveals five aspects of walking with God:
When Malachi mentions Levi, he is not referring to the man, but to the line of priests that descended from him. Although there is no specific text where God instituted a covenant with the Levitical priests (Mal. 2:4, 5, 8), several passages presuppose such a covenant (Jer. 33:20-21; Neh. 13:29). God chose the tribe of Levi for ministry in the sanctuary and thus put them in a special covenant relationship with Him.
Because the Levites sided with Moses in the incident of the golden calf, Moses pronounced a blessing on them and said that they would teach God’s ordinances to Israel (Exod. 32:25-29; 33:8-11). Later (Num. 25:1-15) Israel was led into idolatry by joining themselves to Moabite women. Just as the nation was bowing in repentance, an Israelite man brazenly took a Midianite woman into his tent in the sight of all the people. Out of zeal for God’s honor, Phinehas, a grandson of Aaron, took a spear, went into the tent, and executed this immoral couple. God was pleased and said, “Behold, I give him My covenant of peace; and it shall be for him and his descendants after him, a covenant of perpetual priesthood, because he was jealous for his God and made atonement for the sons of Israel” (Num. 25:12-13).
Applied to New Testament church leaders, a man who leads in the church must be in a genuine covenant of life and peace with God. Being a Christian is not just a matter of “making a decision to accept Christ.” It is a matter of God imparting new life to a man who was dead in his sins (Eph. 2:1-3). With that new life is relationship of peace with God through the blood of Christ (Rom. 5:1). This New Covenant relationship of life and peace with God is foundational to walking with God.
This is implicit in the term. The select men of whom this term is used (Enoch, Noah, and Abraham) knew God closely, as friend to friend. There is a vast difference between knowledge about God and knowing God personally. There is a huge difference between a religious man, who keeps all sorts of rules and rituals, and a man who walks closely with the living God. Those who lead God’s people must be careful to maintain communion with God and not fall into the trap of religious activity.
God says that He gave this covenant of life and peace to the priests “as an object of reverence; so he revered me, and stood in awe of My name” (2:5). I think that we over-emphasize God’s love to the neglect of fearing Him. There is a biblical balance, of course, but I don’t see us over-emphasizing the fear of God to the neglect of His love. Scripture says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding” (Prov. 9:10). “The fear of the Lord is to hate evil” (Prov. 8:13a). “Do not let your heart envy sinners, but live in the fear of the Lord always” (Prov. 23:17).
There is an appropriate place for humor in the pulpit, but there is never an appropriate time to make light of sin or to joke about God. A spiritual leader must be sober in all things (2 Tim. 4:5). While that does not mean that he should be devoid of a sense of humor, it does mean that he should convey a dead seriousness when it comes to the eternal destiny of souls. Jesus said, “Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28). God is not to be trifled with!
God exhorts these priests to take it to heart to give honor to His name (2:2). As we saw last week, they were despising God by offering blemished sacrifices on the altar. The Hebrew word for “honor” (or, “glory”) comes from a word meaning “heavy” or “weighty.” When used of persons it has the connotation of someone being weighty or impressive, and thus worthy of respect. God is worthy of all honor and glory since He is the most weighty, awesome Being in the universe. Again Malachi repeats the title, “the Lord of hosts” (2:2, 4, 7, 8), which refers to the fact that God commands all the armies of heaven and He directs all of the galaxies in the universe. Our aim as His people should be to make His glory known to all people. Our lives and our teaching should honor His name (= all that He is), and we should be careful not to do anything that would dishonor our great God and Savior.
Thus walking with God is based on a covenant relationship with Him in life and peace. It implies close communion with Him. It results in a growing reverence for Him and a passion to honor His name.
God warns these priests that they need to listen and take it to heart to give honor to His name. To drive it home, He repeats the warning about not taking it to heart (2:2). The word “listen” is often synonymous with the word “obey,” but it alerts us to the fact that we will not obey God unless we first hear what His Word tells us. That’s why Jesus often said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear,” and, “Take care how you listen” (Luke 8:8, 18). Our sin causes us to ignore His warnings and go on doing what we want to do, even though it will ultimately cause us much grief and sorrow. Those who lead God’s flock must be in His Word, applying it to their own hearts first.
These things elaborate on Paul’s word, “Pay close attention to yourself” (1 Tim. 4:16). Honor God by walking with Him. But also he told Timothy to pay close attention to his teaching.
Sound teaching must flow out of a godly life. As the Puritan pastor Richard Baxter put it, “Is that man likely to do much good, or fit to be a minister of Christ, that will speak for Him an hour, and by his life will preach against Him all the week beside?” (A Puritan Golden Treasury, compiled by I. D. E. Thomas [Banner of Truth], p. 191.) God drives home to these disobedient priests that He expected them to give true instruction and turn many back from iniquity (2:6). The priest should preserve knowledge, so that men would seek instruction from his mouth; “for he is the messenger of the Lord” (2:7). And, he should not show partiality in his teaching (2:9). Note four things:
This is implied in the word “commandment” (2:1, 4), as well as in the statement that the priest was “the messenger of the Lord of hosts” (2:7). God’s commandments are not “helpful hints for happy living,” similar to articles that you might find in Reader’s Digest! God’s standards for right and wrong are not a matter of personal preference. God tells us with authority how we should live, and we violate His commandments to our own peril.
In those days, before modern communication, kings would send out messengers to relay the king’s message to the people. The messenger was not free to make up his own version of the king’s word. If he didn’t like the king’s message, he couldn’t tone it down or tweak it to make it more popular with the people. The job of the messenger was to relay accurately and clearly what the king wanted to be said.
The job of a pastor is faithfully and accurately to explain and apply God’s Word to his hearers. If it’s in the text of Scripture, I am not free to dodge it or modify it, even if I know that it will offend some people.
Although I strongly disagree with some of his theology, I have long admired what I read about the famous theologian, Karl Barth. He was a pastor in Germany just prior to World War II, when Hitler was fanning the flames of anti-Semitism. Sadly, many professing Christians in Germany agreed with Hitler against the Jews.
One Sunday, Barth was preaching on John 3:16. He made the point that Jesus was a Jew, that He had died for all the world, and that the Jews were of the world. Thus anyone who loves Christ would not participate in the widespread ill treatment of the Jews. Many in Barth’s congregation walked out in disgust before he finished his sermon. One wrote a scathing letter denouncing his sermon. Barth’s reply was a single sentence: “It was in the text.”
That’s how you should evaluate any sermon: Did it come out of the text of Scripture? If it accurately explained and applied the text in its context, then even if it stomped on your toes, it was a good sermon, because it was God’s Word through His messenger. I always try to tell you when there is room to differ over a difficult text or a doctrine where godly men differ. Jim Elliot said it well when he wrote at age 22, “Forbid, Lord, that any of those to whom I minister should be so foolish as to take my word as though it were Thine; or so daring as to set aside Thy word as though it were mine” (Shadow of the Almighty, Elisabeth Elliot [Zondervan], p. 120).
“The lips of a priest should preserve knowledge” (2:7), which refers to the knowledge of God and His will as revealed in His Word. “Preserve” has the idea of storing up or treasuring in the mind the principles of God’s Word and the knowledge of Him.
In a society where copies of God’s Word were rare and expensive, it was especially important for the priests to preserve and pass on to the people the knowledge of God and His ways. But it is also important in our day, when only one in five Protestants read their Bibles daily. After sleeping and working, the thing that Americans do most is to watch TV! While I hope that is not true of any of you, you cannot resist picking up the ways of the world that barrage you daily unless you saturate your mind with God’s truth. If a pastor does not teach the knowledge of God and His ways through the Word, you should find another pastor.
“He turned many back from iniquity” (2:6). God’s Word is clear that our major problem is not low self-esteem or a poor environment. Our major problem is our sinful rebellion against the Lord of hosts. Any pastor who does not help people deal biblically with their sin is not honoring God by teaching His truth.
That’s one good reason for teaching straight through a book of the Bible instead of giving topical messages. If I preach topical messages, you may think that I’m singling out your particular problem. But if I’m working through a book of the Bible, and it confronts a specific sin, then “it was in the text”!
For example, to alert you about upcoming attractions, in Malachi we will deal next week with the sin of marrying unbelievers and then with the sin of divorce. Later, we’ll get into the sin of robbing God by not giving faithfully to His work. I wouldn’t choose these topics if I wanted to win popularity contests! But, they’re in the text, and if I am a faithful pastor, I will not dodge them. Martin Luther said, “Always preach in such a way that if the people listening do not come to hate their sin, they will instead hate you” (in David Larsen, The Company of the Preachers [Kregel], p. 157).
God rebukes these disobedient priests for “showing partiality in the instruction” (2:9). Micah (3:11) confronted the same problem: “Her leaders pronounce judgment for a bribe, her priests instruct for a price, and her prophets divine for money.” In other words, for a price they would tell people whatever they wanted to hear, not what they needed to hear.
A man who teaches God’s truth will not soften the message to cater to the influential or wealthy in the congregation. That is one reason that I purpose not to know who gives what in this church. But even if I knew that you were the largest donor in the church and that you would be offended by what I say, if it is in the biblical text that I’m preaching on, I’m still going to confront your sin. Not to do so would be unfaithful to God. If I’m unfaithful to God, I cannot expect His blessing on my life or ministry.
God tells these priests that He will send a curse on them, by cursing their blessing (2:2), cursing their offspring (or seed; 2:3), and by cursing their ministry (2:3, 9). God’s discipline is actually an expression of His love (Prov. 3:12), but it can be pretty severe!
By cursing their blessings, the Lord is referring either to taking away their material blessings, such as food, covering, and possessions; or, to making these otherwise good things to be a curse. If you are obedient to the Lord, possessions, health, and a peaceful life are blessings from God to be enjoyed thankfully. But if you disregard God, those same things can be a curse because they become the source of your contentment, rather than God Himself.
Cursing their offspring (lit., “seed”) may refer to God’s curse on their crops or to His judgment on their children (both are mentioned in Deut. 28:18). God brought judgment on Eli’s wicked sons and on their descendants, because he would not rebuke them (1 Sam. 2:31-34). So Eli’s tolerance toward his sons, which he would have said was love, was really hatred. If he had loved them, he would have honored God by confronting their sins. Sadly, many pastor’s children go astray because their fathers have not honored God by living and teaching His truth in the home.
God gets pretty graphic by saying that He will spread refuse or dung on the faces of the priests and cause them to be despised and abased in front of all the people. These proud priests were trying to keep up their image as important and influential men. But God will expose them for what they are, defiled and unclean. Whenever a pastor’s sin gets exposed publicly, you know that he didn’t just suddenly fall. God is exposing in public what has been going on behind the scenes for a long time. “Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment” (James 3:1)!
A. W. Tozer wrote, “Save me from the curse of compromise, of imitation, of professionalism. Save me from the error of judging a church by its size, its popularity or the amount of its yearly offering. Help me to remember that I am a prophet—not a promoter, not a religious manager, but a prophet” (“The Prayer of a Minor Prophet”). That is the essence of spiritual leadership, to honor God by walking with Him and teaching His truth. “Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching” (1 Tim. 4:16)!
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2003, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation
P. T. Barnum made a fortune based on his philosophy, “There is a sucker born every minute.” Con artists have always thrived on schemes to bilk unsuspecting people out of their money. Sometimes they have to invent new tricks and find new people, but they manage to do a thriving business.
Our enemy, Satan, has a con game that he has used for centuries. He never changes it, but it still works like a charm. He uses it to wreak havoc among God’s people and to thwart God’s work. The scheme is so simple that you would think that even the most naïve of God’s people would have caught on by now, but they haven’t. What is Satan’s ingenious con game? To get God’s people to marry unbelievers.
I have seen spiritually vibrant young people throw their lives away by marrying unbelievers. Usually, it seems to be Christian young women who marry unbelieving men, although occasionally the pattern is reversed. When you ask why they are doing this, you hear rationalizations, such as:
“I love him, and love is what matters the most.”
“He promises to go to church with me and the children.”
“If I break up with him, he won’t have anyone to lead him to Christ. Besides, I’m sure that he’s going to become a Christian.”
“I’ve prayed about it and feel a peace that this is God’s will.”
I want you to hear me loud and clear: It is never God’s will for a Christian to marry a non-Christian! Period!! No exceptions!! You should no more pray about marrying a non-Christian than you should pray about whether it is God’s will for you to commit adultery or murder your neighbor. God has made it abundantly plain that it is sin for His children to marry an unbeliever. It is never God’s will for you to sin!
Someone may be thinking, “But I know of cases where a believer married an unbeliever and everything has turned out fine. The unbeliever came to faith in Christ and today they have a fine Christian family.” Yes, God is often gracious in using even our sins for good when we repent. I’ve heard of people who tried to commit suicide, but God spared their lives and saved them. But that should not encourage us to sin that grace may abound!
For a believer to marry an unbeliever is to sin grievously against God and God’s people.
That is the message of Malachi 2:10-12. As we saw last week, the priests had failed to live and teach God’s truth, causing many to stumble. From the contemporaneous books of Ezra (9, 10) and Nehemiah (13:23-29) we learn that one of the ways the priests had set a bad example and thus had led the people astray was in this sin of marrying foreign women who did not follow the Lord. In fact, they were even divorcing their Jewish wives to marry these foreign women (Mal. 2:13-16). Through the prophet, the Lord warns His people against the sins of marrying unbelievers and divorce.
Our text unfolds four aspects of this sin:
“Father” may refer to Abraham (Calvin), but probably it refers to God, who is the Father of the Jewish nation as His chosen people (1:6). He created and formed the nation (Isa. 43:1), not only in the sense that He created all people, but also in the sense that Israel was to be a special people for His possession. He entered into a covenant with the fathers of the nation, singling them out from all others on earth. As their all-wise heavenly Father, God has the right to tell His people whom they can and cannot marry.
If you know Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, you are not your own. You have been bought with the blood of Christ. You are only free to marry as the Lord directs in His Word. As I’ll show in a moment, He does not leave room for doubt. His will is always that you marry a believer, not an unbeliever.
God is holy, meaning that He is totally separate from sin. He calls His people to be holy also (Lev. 19:2; 1 Pet. 1:16; plus many others). Here the Lord charges Judah with profaning the covenant (2:10) and the sanctuary (2:11), literally, “the holy thing.” This probably refers to the people themselves. God had said that He would dwell among them and they would be His people (Lev. 26:11-12). By marrying those who worshiped foreign gods, the Jews had defiled themselves as God’s dwelling place.
You may think that marrying an unbeliever is unwise, or perhaps a minor sin. But God calls it an abomination (2:11). That Hebrew word is used elsewhere to refer to idolatry, witchcraft, sacrificing children to idols, and to homosexuality (Deut. 13:14; 18:9-12; Lev. 18:22). It is not a gray area!
To underscore how grievous this sin is to the Lord, I want to take you on a quick tour through the biblical witness against it. The principle runs throughout the Bible: God wants His people to be separate from unbelievers in life’s important relationships. Throughout history Satan has used marriage to unbelievers to turn the Lord’s people from devotion to Him.
In Genesis 6, however you interpret “sons of God,” the point is the same. Satan used wrongful marriage to corrupt the human race, leading to the judgment of the flood. In Genesis 24:1-4, Abraham made his servant swear by the Lord that he would not take a wife for Isaac from the Canaanites. Two generations later, the godless Esau married two unbelieving wives. It is emphasized repeatedly (Gen. 26:34-35; 27:46; 28:8) that these women brought grief to Isaac and Rebekah. Later (Gen. 34) Jacob’s daughter, Dinah, got involved with a Canaanite man. His people invited Jacob’s sons to intermarry with them and live among them (Gen. 34:9). Later, Jacob’s son, Judah, married a Canaanite woman and began to live like a Canaanite (Gen. 38).
If Israel had continued to intermarry with the Canaanites, it would have sabotaged God’s plan to make a great nation out of Abraham’s descendants and to bless all nations through them. So God sovereignly had Joseph sold into slavery in Egypt, resulting in the whole family of Jacob moving there, where they eventually became slaves for 400 years. This drastic treatment solidified the people as a separate nation and prevented them from intermarriage with the heathen.
Later, through Moses, God warned the people not to intermarry with the people of the land (Exod. 34:12-16; Deut. 7:1-5). One of the most formidable enemies that Moses had to face was Balaam, who counseled Balak, king of Moab, against Israel. God prevented Balaam from cursing Israel. But Balaam counseled Balak with an insidious plan: Corrupt the people whom you cannot curse. Get them to marry your Moabite women. The plan inflicted much damage, until Phinehas took bold action to stop the plague on Israel (Num. 25:1-9).
Throughout Israel’s history, marriage to heathen women created problems. Samson’s ministry was nullified through his involvement with Philistine women (Judges 16:4-22). Solomon’s idolatrous foreign wives turned his heart away from the Lord (1 Kings 11:1-8). The wicked Jezebel, a foreign idolater, established Baal worship during the reign of her weak Jewish husband, Ahab (1 Kings 16:29-22:40).
Jehoshaphat, who was otherwise a godly king, nearly ruined the nation by joining his son in marriage to Athaliah, daughter of Ahab and Jezebel (1 Chron. 18:1). The terrible effects of this sin did not come to the surface during Jehoshaphat’s lifetime. His son, Jehoram, who married Athaliah, slaughtered all of his brothers and turned the nation to idolatry. God struck him with disease and he died after eight years in office. His son Ahaziah became king and lasted one year before being murdered.
Then the wicked Athaliah made her move. She slaughtered all her own grandsons (except one, who was hidden) and ruled in wickedness for six years. The Davidic line, from which Christ would be born, came within a hair’s breadth, humanly speaking, of being annihilated because of Jehoshaphat’s sin of marrying his son to an unbelieving woman (1 Chron. 17:1-23:15)!
After the captivity, when Ezra heard that some of the returned remnant had married women of the land, he tore his garment, pulled some of the hair from his head and beard, and sat down appalled. This was followed by a time of national mourning and repentance (Ezra 9 & 10). Just a few years later, Nehemiah discovered that some Jews had married Canaanite women. He contended with them, pronounced a curse on them, struck some of them, and pulled out their hair, calling their actions “a great evil” (Neh. 13:23-29)! One of the priests had married the daughter of Sanballat, one of Nehemiah’s chief enemies in the project of rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem. Malachi’s ministry fits into Nehemiah’s time or shortly after.
The New Testament is equally clear: “Do not be bound together with unbelievers; for what partnership have righteousness and lawlessness, or what fellowship has light with darkness? Or what harmony has Christ with Belial, or what has a believer in common with an unbeliever? Or what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God” (2 Cor. 6:14-16a).
When Paul gave instructions for those in Corinth who were married to unbelievers (1 Cor. 7:12-16), he was not endorsing entering such a marriage. Rather, he was giving counsel to those who had become believers after marriage, but whose spouses had not. In 1 Corinthians 7:39 the apostle gives a clear word concerning entering a new marriage: “A wife is bound as long as her husband lives; but if her husband is dead, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord” (emphasis mine).
My point is, there is a principle that runs throughout the Bible: God wants His people to be set apart unto Him. This especially applies to the major life decision of whom you marry. It never is His will for His people to join in marriage to unbelievers.
Thus for a believer to marry an unbeliever is to sin grievously against the God who made His people, who calls them to be holy.
“Judah has profaned the sanctuary of the Lord which He loves” (2:11). Remember the theme of Malachi, “I have loved you,” says the Lord (1:2). It is because of His love that God sets forth such strong standards of holiness for His people. Sin always causes damage. Holiness brings great joy.
We often forget that God’s motive behind all of His actions toward us is, He loves us! We’re like rebellious children, who don’t want to eat nutritious food or brush our teeth. So we run away from home, where we can eat all the junk food we want and never brush our teeth. After the first few days of this “freedom,” we defiantly say, “See, I’m still healthy, my teeth haven’t rotted and fallen out like my mother said, and I’m having a great time! My mother was wrong!” Just wait!
Satan always tempts you with the promise of immediate gratification and the lie that God really doesn’t love you or He wouldn’t keep you from all this pleasure. Here’s how this works: You know that God doesn’t want you to marry an unbeliever, but then the most adorable hunk asks you out. You hesitate, but then rationalize, “What can one date hurt?” Besides, your phone hasn’t been ringing with Christian guys asking you out. So you say yes, you’ll go out to dinner. You plan to witness to him, but the opportunity just doesn’t come up.
You’re pleasantly surprised that he isn’t a rude, crude pagan, as you’d been led to think all unbelievers would be. He’s a decent, caring, sensible young man. So you go out again and again. Then, there’s a polite goodnight kiss at the door. Your feelings for him are growing stronger. The kisses become more passionate, and they feel good. You feel loved and special. Soon, your physical involvement has gone too far and your conscience bothers you. But you brush it aside, thinking, “He’s going to become a Christian and we’ll get married. It will all work out.”
At the start of this subtle drift away from God was your rejection of God’s love, as expressed in His commandment for your holiness. As a Christian, you need to make an up-front surrender of your life to God, trusting that He loves you and knows what is best for you. That includes His commandment for you not to marry an unbeliever. If you don’t want to go to the altar with an unbeliever, don’t accept that first date. As Garrison Keillor has the pastor in Lake Wobegon say to young couples, “If you don’t want to go to Minneapolis, don’t get on the train!”
God’s love is not incompatible with His discipline. In fact, it stems from it: “Whom the Lord loves, He disciplines” (Heb. 12:6). If I love my child, when he does wrong I will correct him strongly enough to deter him from taking that course of action again.
In verse 12, there is a difficult phrase, translated, “everyone who awakes and answers” (NASB), “being awake and aware” (New KJV), or “whoever he is” (NIV). It is probably a Hebrew idiom meaning “everyone.” So the verse means, “Whoever sins by marrying an unbeliever, whether he does it defiantly or ignorantly, may he and his posterity be cut off from the covenant people of God.” God often lets us experience the natural consequences of our sins. The man who marries outside the faith is, in effect, thumbing his nose at God and God’s covenant people. So, God declares that he and his descendants will be cut off from God’s covenant people.
It’s the principle of sowing and reaping. If you sow corn, you don’t reap peaches. If you marry an unbeliever, generally, you won’t have children who are committed to the Lord. They will see your half-hearted commitment, seen in your disobedience in marrying an unbeliever. They will also see the pleasure-oriented, materialistic lifestyle of the unbelieving parent. They will conclude, “Why commit myself fully to the Lord?”
Thank God, there are exceptions, especially when the believing parent repents. But no one should disobey God and hope for their case to be the exception! If the believing partner thinks that he (or she) can disobey God and then “bring his offering” to take care of things, Malachi says, “Think twice!” Such offerings will be of no value. God looks for obedience, not sacrifice. Your children will suffer for your disobedience.
This leads to the other part of Malachi’s message. For a believer to marry an unbeliever is not only to sin against God. Also,
We never sin in private. Our actions are interwoven with the fabric of society. If we defile our part of the fabric, the whole fabric is affected. Malachi states that God’s people are one (2:10). To sin against God by marrying an unbeliever is to sin against our brothers and sisters in God’s family. It’s as if we’re all in the same boat and you think that you have a right to bore a hole in your part of the boat. “What’s it matter to you how I live in my part of the boat?” you ask. It matters a great deal, of course! There are three ways that you hurt other believers if you marry an unbeliever:
Malachi asks, “Why do we deal treacherously each against his brother so as to profane the covenant of our fathers?” (2:10). The Hebrew word “treachery” is related to their word for “garment” or covering. The idea is that treachery involves deceit or cover-up. To marry foreign women covered up Israel’s covenant relationship with God. When one Jew saw his neighbor act as if there were no such relationship, he would be tempted to act in a similar manner.
That’s why I maintain that for a believer to marry an unbeliever should be a church discipline matter. If a believer marries an unbeliever and there are no consequences of being put out of the fellowship, then lonely believers in the church will think, “She seems to be happy, but I’m still lonely. No Christian guys are available. Maybe I’ll date some non-Christians like she did.” “A little leaven leavens the whole lump” (1 Cor. 5:6).
“Judah … has married the daughter of a foreign god” (2:11). The Jews had a saying, “He that marries a heathen woman is as if he made himself son-in-law to an idol” (cited by E. B. Pusey, The Minor Prophets [Baker], p. 482, in Barnes’ Notes). You may be thinking, “I would never marry a pagan idolater. Even though he isn’t especially religious, my fiancé is a decent man. He doesn’t set up statutes and bow down before them!”
But if he doesn’t follow the Lord Jesus Christ, then he follows other gods. It may be the god of self or money or status. But he is not following the living and true God. By joining yourself to him in marriage, you link God’s people by marriage covenant to an idolater, no matter how nice a guy he may be.
This is the implication of verse 12. These people thought that they could disobey God on this most important matter and then cover it up with a few sacrifices and go merrily on their way. But Proverbs 15:8 says, “The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to the Lord.” You cannot rebel against God in an area as important as this and then go on about life among God’s people as if nothing happened, expecting God to ignore it.
What does commitment to God mean if it does not affect life’s most significant human relationship? Apart from your relationship to Jesus Christ, nothing else matters as much as your choice of a marriage partner. If you go to church and sing, “Oh, how I love Jesus,” but go out the door and marry an unbeliever, it tells others that commitment to Christ doesn’t make a bit of difference as to how you live. You’ve greatly damaged your witness for Christ to your family and friends.
If you, as a Christian, have already married an unbeliever, then you need to sincerely repent before the Lord, grieving over the fact that you sinned against Him and His people. The true sacrifice to God is a broken and contrite heart (Ps. 51:17). Then you should follow the guidelines of 1 Corinthians 7:12-16. Paul instructs believers in mixed marriages not to initiate divorce. There is the possibility that your mate and children will come to faith in Christ through your presence. You must seek to demonstrate Christ in the home by your life, not by your sermons (see 1 Pet. 3:1-6)! You will probably reap some of the seed that you’ve sown by marrying outside of the will of God. When those seeds sprout, you need to submit to the Lord’s discipline, being careful to acknowledge that His ways are right.
If you are currently involved in a romantic relationship with an unbeliever, break it off immediately, before you get entangled further! You have stepped into spiritual quicksand. Don’t linger and think about how good the warm mud feels between your toes! Marriage is difficult enough when both partners are committed to Christ and God’s Word. You are only heading for a life of pain if you marry an unbeliever who is living for self. You may say, “But if I break it off, how will he hear about Christ?” Line up a Christian to share the gospel with him, but break off your relationship!
If you know a Christian who is dating an unbeliever, share this message with her or him. If you care about this person, about the Lord, and about His people, you can’t remain silent! Parents, impress on your children the importance of marrying only a person who loves and follows Jesus Christ. Pray for your children’s future mates, that they would be godly young people. Don’t fall for Satan’s age-old con game. Too much is at stake!
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2003, All Rights Reserved.
Over the past 30 years America has experienced an epidemic of divorce. Probably every person here has a family member or close friend who has gone through divorce. Many of you grew up in Christian homes where your parents split up. In fact, many of you have been divorced. It used to be that evangelical Christians, while not exempt, at least had a better track record than the general public. But that no longer seems to be the case.
Even some well-known pastors and Christian leaders have gone through divorces. A 1981 survey showed that ministers ranked third among the professions in the number of divorces granted each year, behind medical doctors and police (Leadership [Fall, 1981], p. 119). I have seen many pastors go through divorce.
I have no desire to heap guilt or condemnation on those who have already been traumatized by divorce. If you sinned in your marriage (inevitably both sides sin in divorce situations), I trust that you have confessed your sin to the Lord and sought the forgiveness of those you sinned against. We cannot undo the past. But we can learn from our mistakes and grow as we walk in daily repentance. So I don’t want to add to anyone’s pain. But I do want to call us back to God’s standard of lifelong marriage and give some biblical principles that can help all of us avoid divorce.
This problem affected both the priests and the people in Malachi’s day. In our text, the prophet unfolds God’s perspective on marriage and divorce and gives us some principles for cultivating our marriage relationships so that we can not merely avoid divorce, but also have satisfying marriages that glorify God.
It is significant that our text addresses men. In fact, most biblical texts on marriage and family are addressed to men, not to the women. The Bible allows no refuge for passive men who do not take an active role in their marriages and in rearing children. Since our text addresses the men, so will I. It says:
To avoid divorce, develop God’s perspective on marriage and cultivate your relationship with your wife.
Due to time constraints, we must save the second half of that statement for next week. This week, we will focus on God’s perspective, which we must develop and maintain in our marriages.
To avoid divorce, develop God’s perspective on marriage.
Divorce, like all sins, always starts in the mind. Today, our society is far more permissive towards divorce than it was 50 years ago, and this has flooded into the church. When Adlai Stevenson ran against Dwight Eisenhower for president in 1956, it was a big deal that Stevenson had been divorced. But when Ronald Reagan ran against Jimmy Carter in 1980, Reagan’s divorce was hardly mentioned. It was Reagan who as governor of California signed the nation’s first no-fault divorce law in 1969. Now all 50 states have such laws. It is now easier to get out of a marriage than it is to get out of a car-lease contract! So we need God’s perspective.
If you get married, you will have marriage problems. If you say, “I’m married, but I don’t have any problems,” you really have problems, because you’re out of touch with reality! Any time two sinners with different backgrounds and ways of thinking, come together in a relationship as close as marriage, you’ve got problems! There are ungodly and godly ways of dealing with those problems. Our text reveals two ways that God views our marriage problems:
These guys were trading in their older Jewish wives for newer Canaanite models. Then they stopped by the temple to do their religious thing. For some strange reason, their crops were failing. So they were covering the altar of the Lord with tears, weeping, and groaning, because the Lord did not regard their offerings (2:13). But they didn’t make the connection! They ask, “Why doesn’t God notice all the nice offerings that we bring to Him?”
This sounds incredible, but I find that guys still do the same thing. They go to church and look very spiritual. If someone asks how they’re doing with the Lord, they say, “Just great, thanks!” But at home, things aren’t so great. They’re at odds with their wives. They aren’t leading their families in the things of God. If you press them, they will blame their wives for the tensions in the home. Meanwhile, things aren’t going so well at work. But they don’t make the connection. They cry out, “Lord, why aren’t You blessing my career?” He says, “I’ll give you a hint: How is your relationship with your wife?”
Jesus said, “If you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering” (Matt. 5:23-24). Peter applies this principle to marriage when he says [1 Pet. 3:7, New Living Translation], “You husbands must give honor to your wives. Treat her with understanding as you live together. She may be weaker than you are, but she is your equal partner in God’s gift of new life. If you don’t treat her as you should, your prayers will not be heard.”
So if your prayers are not being answered, both Peter and Malachi say, “How are you doing with your wife?” If you say, “Things are fine between me and God, but my wife is a problem,” God says, “Everything is not fine between you and Me! Get things right with your wife!”
Twice the Lord warns these men, “Take heed then to your spirit and let no one deal treacherously against the wife of your youth” (2:15, 16). Divorce (and the marriage problems that lead to it) is a problem of the spirit, or heart. When the Pharisees (who also took a loose view of divorce) asked Jesus why Moses allowed divorce, He replied, “Because of the hardness of your heart, Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way” (Matt. 19:8). Divorce is an indicator that at least one person, and almost always two, has a hard heart.
There is no contradiction between Moses’ permission of divorce (Deut. 24:1-4) and God’s hatred of it (Mal. 2:16). I understand the Bible to allow (not mandate) divorce in cases of unrepentant sexual immorality (Matt. 5:32; 19:9; Deut. 24:1; Jer. 3:6-10); and when an unbeliever deserts a believer (1 Cor. 7:10-16). But God still hates it. Divorce does not glorify Him. People always get hurt, especially the children. Even in cases of sexual infidelity, I believe that God is most glorified when there is genuine repentance and forgiveness, not when there is divorce.
We all need to pay attention to God’s repeated warning here, “Take heed to your spirit.” Just as calluses form naturally on my skin at points of friction, so they form on my spirit at points of friction. If there is friction in my marriage, I am in danger of becoming insensitive towards my wife and towards my own sin. If I am blaming my wife or blaming God for things that are not going well in my life, I am exhibiting signs of a hard heart or spirit. If you want an exercise in self-examination, I commend to you Stuart Scott’s booklet, From Pride to Humility (excerpted from his book, The Exemplary Husband [Focus Publishing]). He shows many specific ways that our pride blinds us to reality.
Our hearts are not only prone to hardness, but also to deceitfulness. “The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9). We all tend to gloss over or excuse our own sin, and then blame others. These men, who were callously dumping their wives, were saying, “How should I know why God isn’t regarding my offerings?” Their sin was deceiving them from perceiving reality.
Proverbs 19:3 says [New Living Translation], “People ruin their lives by their own foolishness and then are angry at the Lord.” These men were abandoning their wives for younger, more attractive models, but were upset with God because their crops were failing! They were probably bitter at their wives, blaming them for being nags or for having a bad attitude. As marriage problems mount, it’s tempting to walk away from the problems and start over with a “clean slate.” Along comes someone new and exciting, who is so understanding of the ordeal that you’ve gone through with your insensitive mate. So you trade in the older model with all the problems for a newer model that doesn’t seem to rattle quite so much. What a relief! What a sense of “peace”! But this is not God’s way! Take heed to your spirit!
So we need to develop God’s perspective on marriage problems. They stand between us and God and they stem from the hardness and deceitfulness of our hearts. But we also need God’s perspective in another area:
Our self-centered, pleasure-oriented society has done away with the idea of a lifelong covenant as the basis of marriage, but we need to recover this truth (2:14):
A covenant is a formal legal agreement or contract entered into in the presence of witnesses, which has certain binding obligations. Marriage, in God’s design, is based on a covenant, not on feelings of romantic love. The excuse, which I’ve often heard, “I don’t love her [or him] anymore” is not valid. God’s reply is, “Learn to love each other as I commanded you.”
In biblical times, most marriages were arranged by the parents, not by those getting married. That did not mean that the couple had nothing to say about it. But it does mean that two people who may not have feelings of romantic love can develop those feelings in the context of a lifelong marriage covenant. The Bible does not say, “Marry your lover.” It does say, “Love the one you’re married to” (Eph. 5:25). Romantic love is built and sustained on the foundation of the commitment of the covenant. That commitment is the glue that holds the marriage together during the inevitable times of stress.
God is the witness of the marriage covenant (2:14). Because God takes that covenant seriously and views it as lifelong, it must be entered into prayerfully and with much godly counsel. If we harbor the thought, “If it doesn’t work out, we will get a divorce,” we do not have God’s perspective!
He says, “I hate divorce” (2:16). He adds that divorce covers a man’s garment with violence or wrong. This phrase stems from a Hebrew custom. When we get engaged, we usually give an engagement ring, but the Hebrews had a different custom. A man would take his robe or outer garment and drape it around his prospective bride as a symbol of the protection and care that he was offering to her as her husband (Ruth 3:9; Ezek. 16:8; Deut. 22:30). Thus “garment” is used as a figure of speech for marriage. To cover his garment with violence means that a man is treating cruelly the woman whom he pledged to protect. God calls it treachery and says that He hates it.
The danger in our day of easy, quick, and common divorce is that we will shrug off or even call good what God hates. In a “Dear Abby” column (9/30/02), a woman wrote,
I am a 39-year-old married woman who has lost all hope. My convictions and emotions are in severe conflict. I’m a deeply devout person, which made the divorce from my first husband extremely traumatic. When I remarried, I made a religious commitment that I would make my second marriage work, and under no circumstances would I ever leave my new husband.
Because of that commitment, I feel I must honor my pledge —even though there is no love, no intimacy and no marriage anymore. My husband has refused me children and provides me nothing but cold, unwanted solitude in our home.
She goes on to say how severely depressed and trapped she feels, since she has no way out. She concludes, “Abby, all I want is to get out of this marriage so I can start over—but my oath is holding me hostage. Please help.”
Abby tells her to speak to her spiritual advisor to relieve her of her “well-intentioned but unrealistic oath.” Abby says, “Ask yourself if a loving God would want you to remain in a loveless marriage that is a marriage in name only.”
Abby subsequently (11/12/02) printed letters from two ordained ministers (one male, one female) assuring this woman that God is love and does not want anyone to live in such a situation. She must forgive herself and love herself. In fact, by staying with her husband, she was doing him a grave disservice, because she is unable to love him. Abby thanks both ministers, agreeing that “we cannot love another person until we first learn to love ourselves.”
I read of a Congressional hearing on the high divorce rate where an “expert” (i.e., psychologist) stated that our high divorce rate actually shows how highly Americans value family life, because it shows that we are unwilling to accept anything less than the best (cited by Jerry Regier, Pastoral Renewal [6/88], p. 13). Go figure!
We could laugh at these examples of convoluted, worldly wisdom, except that they’ve infiltrated the church. I’ve read of well-known Christians who have left their mates with the excuse that God wants them to be happy after all the years of misery they’ve endured in their sour marriages. A conservative Christian wrote,
I hope my wife will never divorce me, because I love her with all my heart. But if one day she feels I am minimizing her or making her feel inferior or in any way standing in the light that she needs to become a person God meant her to be, I hope she’ll be free to throw me out even if she’s one hundred. There is something more important than our staying married, and it has to do with integrity, personhood, and purpose (cited by Francis Schaeffer, The Great Evangelical Disaster [Crossway], pp. 132-133).
Another Christian writer argues that “there can be as much sin involved in trying to perpetuate a dead or meaningless relationship as in accepting the brokenness, offering it to God, and going on from there.” Os Guinness wryly comments, “Disobeying Christ out of faithfulness to Christ! The irony is exquisite!” (ibid. p. 133).
So we must view marriage as a serious covenant before God, because He hates divorce. Also,
Our text reveals three of God’s purposes for marriage:
“She is your companion…” (2:14). I will deal with this more next week, but for now note that when God created Adam, he was in a perfect environment, in perfect fellowship with God. What more could he want? But God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Gen. 2:18), and He created Eve for Adam.
When I was single, I would sometimes hear some super-spiritual advice to the effect that I just needed to be content with being single. If I couldn’t find contentment, something must be wrong with my relationship with God. But I used to go back to Genesis 2 and base my argument in prayer on God’s word, “It is not good for the man to be alone.” While some are gifted to be single (1 Cor. 7:7), there is nothing unspiritual about desiring a lifelong companion. God created us with that desire!
Verse 16 is the only time in Malachi that God is called “the God of Israel.” The reason that designation appears here in the context of God saying that He hates divorce, is that divorce smudges the picture of God’s covenant love for His wife, Israel (see Isa. 54:5-8). In New Testament terms, the church is the bride of Christ, and husbands are exhorted to love their wives just as Christ loved the church and gave Himself for her (Eph. 5:25-33). Christian marriage should reflect the eternal covenant love of Jesus Christ for His chosen bride, the church. The world should be able to look at a Christian husband’s faithful love for his wife and get a glimpse of how God loves those who are in a covenant relationship with Him. Divorce shatters our witness to a world that desperately needs to know of God’s great love.
Commentators acknowledge that verse 15 is the most difficult verse in Malachi to translate. There are several suggested variations. Rather than confuse you with all of the views, I’ll just give you the view that I consider the best. The text should read, “Did He [God] not make [them] one [referring to God’s making Adam and Eve one flesh in marriage] although He had the remnant of the Spirit?” In other words, God had enough creative power to make many wives for Adam if He had thought that best. But He only created one wife and made the two into one flesh in marriage. The text continues, “Why one? He sought a godly offspring.”
So in arguing against divorce (and polygamy), Malachi says, “God didn’t make multiple wives for Adam, although He could have done so. He gave Adam one wife, in part, because it is more difficult to raise godly offspring in a multiple marriage situation.” God’s design for the family always has been one man and one woman who covenant together for life, because that is the best situation for rearing children who follow the Lord.
I admire and respect single parents who work hard to provide for their children. The normal day for many single mothers is enough to make most of us want to go take a nap! As a church, we should help single moms by providing male role models for boys and girls who do not have a father in the home. Yet at the same time I must say that God’s best is for children to be raised in a home where the father and mother provide the security of a committed covenant relationship, demonstrating the love of Christ toward one another.
In 1990, Robertson McQuilkin, the president of Columbia Bible College and Seminary, surprised many in the Christian world when he resigned his position in order to care for his wife, Muriel, who had Alzheimer’s disease. He was in his early sixties and could have served much longer. His wife could no longer communicate in sentences, and even her phrases were often nonsensical. She needed around the clock care. Since she would only grow worse, trusted, lifelong, godly friends urged McQuilkin to put her in an institution and continue his ministry. He wrote of his struggle, but then said,
When the time came, the decision was firm. It took no great calculation. It was a matter of integrity. Had I not promised, 42 years before, “in sickness and in health … till death do us part”?
This was no grim duty to which I was stoically resigned, however. It was only fair. She had, after all, cared for me for almost four decades with marvelous devotion; now it was my turn. And such a partner she was! If I took care of her for 40 years, I would never be out of her debt.
McQuilkin was startled by the public response to his resignation. He heard of husbands and wives renewing their marriage vows, of pastors telling the story to their congregations. It was a mystery to him why it attracted such attention, until an oncologist friend, who lives constantly with dying people, told him, “Almost all women stand by their men; very few men stand by their women.” Robertson concludes,
It is all more than keeping promises and being fair, however. As I watch her brave descent into oblivion, Muriel is the joy of my life. Daily I discern new manifestations of the kind of person she is, the wife I always loved. I also see fresh manifestations of God’s love—the God I long to love more fully (Christianity Today [10/8/90], p. 40).
If the word “divorce” pops into your mind, think about divorcing our godless culture. To avoid divorce in your marriage, develop God’s covenant perspective!
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2003, All Rights Reserved.
As a woman was getting her hair fixed, she listened to the conversation between her beautician and the 19-year-old beautician in the next booth. The younger woman was trying to decide if she should marry her boyfriend, who was contemplating getting a tattoo with her name. The older beautician cautioned her by saying, “Marriage is one thing, but a tattoo is permanent!” (Reader’s Digest [4/99], p. 129.)
There’s the modern mindset for you—we see tattoos as more permanent than marriage! As I said last week, our culture has gone through a major shift over the past 30 years, where divorce is now fairly commonplace, even in Christian circles. If we want our marriages to last for life and be glorifying to Him, as God’s Word commands, then we need to develop God’s perspective on marriage, that He hates divorce and that marriage is a lifelong covenant before Him. We explored those matters last week. This week I want to focus on another principle from our text:
To avoid divorce, cultivate your relationship with your wife.
As I observed last week, our text is addressed to the men, and so I am addressing the men. The Bible does not allow men to be passive in the realm of marriage and family. Chuck Swindoll once was talking with a Christian counselor friend. Chuck asked him, “What is the number one problem you face in counseling?” Without hesitating, the counselor shot back, “Passive males.”
I don’t know if it’s because men feel intimidated in the area of relationships or what. Many men just want peace in their homes, and they think that by yielding to whatever their wives want, they will gain peace. So they avoid dealing with problems. They fall into what Douglas Wilson calls “the nice guy syndrome” (Reforming Marriage [Canon Press], pp. 77-85). They let the home run on auto-pilot, assuming that their wives have it all under control. But they abdicate loving leadership in their marriages and with their children. Their wives grow increasingly frustrated and angry. But the husbands don’t get it. They think, “I work long hours to bring home a good paycheck. I go along with whatever she wants. Why is she upset with me? Why can’t I just have some peace and quiet when I come home from a long day’s work?”
If you leave today with only one thought, men, it should be: your marriage requires deliberate cultivation. As someone has said, “Even if marriages are made in heaven, man has to be responsible for the maintenance” (John Graham, Reader’s Digest [11/79], p. 157).
You don’t walk by a house with a beautiful flower garden and a lush, manicured lawn, and think, “They’re sure lucky to have that kind of yard. I wish my yard would automatically look like that!” A beautiful yard requires deliberate cultivation and effort, not just when you put it in, but also over the long haul. Weeds and bugs take over if you let them. I’ve been battling a fungus in our yard for years, and if I let it go, it spreads. It takes constant work and attention. Your marriage is the same way: it requires constant cultivation and attention. As the spiritual leader in your home, God holds you accountable for cultivating your marriage relationship. Part of the responsibility of leaders is to deal with problems, not to be passive.
Remember, your aim in obeying God in this matter is not so that you will have a happy, peaceful marriage, although God usually gives that blessing when we obey Him. Your aim should be to please and glorify God (1 Cor. 10:31). Our text reveals four ways that a husband needs to cultivate his relationship with his wife:
I emphasized this last week, but it bears repeating because the world is constantly chipping away at this biblical idea of covenant commitment in marriage. One way the enemy worms his way into Christian marriages is when a husband allows rivalry to develop in the marriage. Many Christian marriages are a battleground for the war between the sexes. She has a bad attitude toward men and he rolls his eyes and thinks, “Women! Who can understand them?” Their marriage becomes a football field with husband and wife on opposite sides, and the scoreboard tells you who is winning.
Early on in a marriage the husband needs to emphasize to his wife, “We’re on the same team. I am for you and you are for me. God has put us together to complement one another and build one another in Christ. Let’s solve our problems from this perspective.” Especially when a couple has a misunderstanding or disagreement, it is important verbally to reaffirm mutual covenant commitment. The husband, as the head of the wife, should give her the security of saying, “I love you and my aim is to present you holy and blameless before Christ (Eph. 5:25-27). Now, let’s talk about what is wrong.”
“She is your companion” (2:14). The Hebrew root word has the idea of being knit or joined together, thus pointing to a close relationship (Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, R. Laird Harris, Gleason Archer, & Bruce Waltke [Moody Press], 1:260). As I said last week, when Adam was in the Garden of Eden, in perfect fellowship with God, God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Gen. 2:18), and He created Eve for Adam. Men, your wife should be your best friend on earth.
Friends spend time together. They talk about everything from the superficial to the significant. They share their deepest feelings and hopes and fears. Friends listen to one another and draw out their thoughts (Prov. 20:5). Friends just like being together, even if they aren’t talking. Friends accept one another, while at the same time they have a commitment to help each other grow in Christ.
Friends enjoy doing things together and find separation painful, not pleasant. Although I have to do it occasionally, I dislike going to a conference or on a trip without Marla. I do not enjoy having fun without Marla as much as if she is with me. Someone said, “Chains do not hold a marriage together. It is threads, hundreds of tiny threads, which sew people together through the years” (Simone Signoret, Reader’s Digest [12/87], p. 45). I would argue that it is both chains and threads: the chain of covenant commitment, and the threads of doing things together.
Years ago, when our children were toddlers, I was meeting weekly with some young men that I was seeking to disciple. One day one of these men excitedly told me about a fishing trip to Mexico that he had planned and asked if I would like to go. As he described things, I couldn’t quite picture how the accommodations would be adequate for Marla and the kids. So I asked, “Where will our wives and children stay?” He looked at me like I was crazy and said, “This is just for the guys!” I looked back at him like he was crazy and said, “I would not enjoy myself if Marla and the kids couldn’t come!”
I’m not condemning guys who like to go do things just with the guys. There is freedom in Christ to do that. But for me, Marla is my best friend, and I prefer having her along. And when the kids were still at home, we both liked having them with us. Even when we used to get away for a couple of days without the kids, we would get to the motel, look at each other, and both of us would say, “I miss the kids!” We just like being together.
I cannot give you chapter and verse on this, in that the biblical culture is far removed from our modern culture, but for our family, our annual vacations have been the highlight of our years together. We’ve never spent a lot of money on our vacations, which is why we took up camping. It’s relatively cheap and we avoided the high cost of restaurants by cooking our meals on our camp stove. But the memories that we have of enjoying God’s beautiful creation together bind us together. I am amazed when I learn that some Christian families seldom, if ever, take vacations together!
But it doesn’t have to wait for a vacation. Marla and I often take a hike together. We also like to take a picnic dinner and go to a beautiful spot to watch the sunset. The idea is to spend time together. However you do it, cultivate companionship with your wife!
I think that Malachi chooses the phrase, “the wife of your youth” (2:15) to appeal to the hearts of these insensitive husbands, who were trading in their older wives for younger models. They were familiar with the Scriptures, and immediately would have thought about Proverbs 5:18-19. Solomon is exhorting his son to avoid adultery and to be faithful to his wife: “Let your fountain be blessed, and rejoice in the wife of your youth. As a loving hind and a graceful doe, let her breasts satisfy you at all times; be exhilarated always with her love.” If that kind of graphic language embarrasses you, may I say, you need to become more biblical in your thinking, because God saw fit to put such language in His Word!
Romantic love and sexual attraction in marriage change and deepen over time. That is inevitable as our bodies age and as we go through life’s joys and trials together. The initial phase of romantic love is pretty much spontaneous, which is why we call it falling in love. You don’t have to do much to fall, except to slip and let gravity take over.
But romantic love over the long haul in marriage is not spontaneous. It requires deliberate attention and cultivation. By saying, “the wife of your youth,” Malachi encourages you to think back to the early days when you fell in love with your wife. Think about the many years and memories that you have built together. Appreciate the qualities that attracted you to your wife. Figure out ways to express your love and appreciation to her. That includes telling her, verbally, that you love her.
I heard about a wife who complained to a marriage counselor that her husband never told her that he loved her. He snapped, “I told her that 25 years ago, and I haven’t changed my mind!” Sorry, but that doesn’t cut it, guys! When you were courting your wife, you put some effort and creativity into letting her know that she was special to you. Do the same thing now!
Solomon commands the husband to rejoice in the wife of his youth (Prov. 5:18). Rejoicing is an emotional response. You may ask, “How can God command an emotion? We can’t conjure up emotions, can we?” But the fact is, God commands all sorts of emotions! “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice!” (Phil. 4:4). True joy is an emotion. “Hate evil, you who love the Lord” (Ps. 97:10). Hatred is a strong emotion. “Enter His gates with thanksgiving, and His courts with praise” (Ps. 100:4). True thankfulness and praise are matters of the heart, not just mouthing words. So God commands us to have certain emotions, which means that we can cultivate them if we lack them.
Some men may be thinking, “How do you rejoice in the wife of your youth when all you feel now is anger and bitterness when you think about her?” Again, the Bible commands us to control our thoughts (Phil. 4:8). Some thoughts are evil and need to be put off, whereas other thoughts are righteous and need to be put on (Eph. 4:31-5:2). If your wife is behaving in ungodly ways toward you, you can respond in an ungodly or in a godly manner. Passively retreating from her anger to buy peace, while harboring bitterness in your heart, is not a godly response. Scripture specifically forbids returning evil deed for evil deed or insult for insult (1 Pet. 3:9).
You can determine to deal with her wrong behavior in a biblical manner. When you begin acting in godly ways, controlling your thoughts and seeking to build your wife in Christ, your emotions will eventually follow your thoughts and actions. When you pray faithfully for your wife and deliberately cultivate commitment, companionship, and romance in your marriage, you will begin gradually, but surely, to feel joy towards the wife of your youth.
There is a fourth area that we must cultivate in our marriages:
As I explained last week, “cover your garment with wrong [or, violence]” (2:16) refers to the Hebrew custom of a man showing his intention to marry a woman by draping his outer garment around her shoulders. It pictured the protective care and provision that he was promising her as his wife. To divorce your wife is to yank off that protective covering and leave her exposed and vulnerable to evil forces that would seek to harm her. In New Testament terms, the husband is the head of the wife, and part of that role requires him tenderly to nourish, cherish, and protect her as he does his own body (Eph. 5:28-29).
As Douglas Wilson points out in Reforming Marriage (pp. 23-26), the Bible does not command husbands to be the head of their wives, or say that they ought to be the head. Rather, it states it as an inescapable fact. Husbands may be faithful, diligent, effective leaders in their marriages, or they may be passive, inattentive, and ineffective leaders. But the Bible states that the very nature of the marriage relationship involves the headship of the husband.
Both the fall of the human race into sin and the modern feminist movement have brought mass confusion and imbalance into Christian marriages about this matter of the headship of husbands. I have seen some men who think that the model for being the head is that of a drill sergeant in boot camp. He uses his authority to bark orders and he expects the wife and kids to obey.
I once asked a man whose marriage was in trouble what his understanding of headship was. He replied, “If I tell my wife and kids to paint the house black, they grab a brush and paint it black!” It is not surprising that his marriage subsequently broke up! He knew nothing about tenderly nurturing and protecting his wife. His idea of headship was that it is a privilege for him to use for his own purposes. The biblical idea is that headship is a responsibility before God to be exercised for the edification of those under that protective covering. The Bible forbids lording it over those under your leadership (1 Pet. 5:1-2).
On the other hand, many Christian husbands have abdicated leadership in their homes, often (in their minds) to buy some peace. He wouldn’t dare attempt to lead his wife, because he tried that once and met with stiff resistance. He wouldn’t think of confronting his wife’s sin, because she would really make things difficult at home if he did that! So he contents himself with the thought that he brings home the paycheck and he lets her dominate their relationship and have free reign in running the household. All he asks is for a little peace and quiet after a hard day’s work. If his wife asks for his opinion, he says, “Whatever you want, dear.” He can’t understand why she is so frustrated with him, since he’s such a nice guy! The reason she’s frustrated is that he is not fulfilling his God-given role to lead her and the family in the ways of God.
Both Douglas Wilson’s Reforming Marriage and Stuart Scott’s The Exemplary Husband [Focus Publishing] have excellent sections on biblical leadership in the home. Wilson gives some specific steps on how to turn from passivity to godly leadership in your marriage (pp. 77-85) Scott has two chapters on leadership (pp. 117-142) and another helpful chapter on helping your wife deal with her sin (pp. 205-226). There is a wealth of far more material in these sources than I can develop here. I wish that every Christian husband would read these chapters often and prayerfully, and humbly before God take responsibility for godly leadership in their homes. I have seen marriages break up and others degenerate into unhappy battlegrounds because husbands were not diligent in this important biblical responsibility.
Scott develops the idea of the exemplary husband as a shepherd-leader (pp. 120-129). He points out that we are not kings, but lowly under-shepherds, doing the bidding of the Chief Shepherd. Any authority that we exercise must be to accomplish God’s purpose and to care for and build up our wives. He develops eleven qualities of a shepherd, which I only have time to list here, with a brief comment. Each husband should think about how to apply these in his own marriage.
Josephine Lowman wrote (Reader’s Digest [date unknown]):
Building a good marriage and building a good log fire are similar in many ways. You build a fire with paper and kindling, and all at once it goes up in a brilliantly burning blaze. Then the primary blaze burns down and you wonder if the fire will fizzle out and leave you in the dark. You blow on it and fan it for all you are worth. Sometimes smoke billows out and almost chokes you, but if the materials are good and if you invest enough energy and interest in maintaining it, soon the big solid logs catch, and your fire takes on new qualities.
Husbands, our responsibility before God is to keep the fire burning in our marriages. Untended fires soon die down to a heap of coals and then ashes. You have to feed them continually to keep them burning.
Or, to use the gardening metaphor, you have to cultivate constantly or the weeds and bugs take over. Are you constantly cultivating commitment to your marriage covenant; companionship with your wife; romance with the wife of your youth; and, tender responsibility toward the one “under your garment” of protection? If you have not been diligent, God allows U-turns. Pick up one of the books I mentioned and begin this week to cultivate your relationship with your wife!
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2003, All Rights Reserved.
We all wrestle with the difficult age-old questions, “Why do the wicked prosper?” and “Why do the righteous suffer?” It is especially hard when you have done right and you get penalized, while the guy who did wrong got ahead. You were praying and counting on God’s promises, but things did not turn out the way you had expected. It seems as if God did not even hear your prayers. But the guy who scoffs at God is doing great. You begin to wonder, “Why follow God when all I get is trials? If there is a God of justice in heaven, why doesn’t He do something about all the injustice in the world? Is it worth it to follow the Lord?”
Many of the Jewish people in Malachi’s day were struggling with this problem. They were under the thumb of the Medo-Persian Empire, which was godless and yet prosperous. Many Jews had become disappointed with God. He had not done for them what they had hoped. They grumbled, “If He is the God of justice, why do we see all of this injustice in the world?” Some had even slipped into cynical agnosticism, doubting that a just God even exists. Malachi shows them (and us) what to do when evil seems to be winning:
When evil prevails, we must not challenge, but trust in and obey the God who sends His Messiah to judge the earth.
The chapter break is misplaced here, in that 2:17, the peoples’ complaint, goes with 3:1-6, which is God’s answer.
Their disappointment with God as they saw the trials of His people and the prosperity of the wicked had led many of the Jews to think that morals do not matter. They thought, “There’s no correlation between obedience to God and blessing in this life. So we may as well live for all the good times and good things we can get.”
The prophets had predicted a glorious future for Israel. But here they were, back in the land for over 100 years after the captivity, and things were not all that glorious. Israel was still under foreign domination. She was not the center of the earth, with the nations flocking to Jerusalem with their wealth. The old folks were not sitting in the streets watching the children play securely The land was not yielding abundant produce. Just a hundred years before, Zechariah had prophesied that all of these conditions would come about. But here they were, and none of his prophecies about the glory of Israel had materialized. They weren’t even close!
The rebuilt temple was a disappointment to many. It didn’t compare to the former glory of Solomon’s temple (Ezra 3:12-13). Haggai (2:7-9) had prophesied that the latter glory of this temple would be greater than the former temple, but there was no evidence of that yet. Because of these disappointments with God’s promises, many were voicing their skepticism and even daring to question if a God of justice exists. Some even mocked God, saying that He delights in evil people and calls them good!
I hope that you’ve never said such things, but I know that you have thought such things. We all have. Maybe you’re struggling with these issues now. You thought that when you trusted Christ, He would give you an abundant life and relief from some major problems. Instead, you seem to have more problems than you did before! You didn’t use to struggle against sin, but now it’s a daily battle that you often lose. You didn’t use to worry about pleasing God with your use of time and money, but now you feel guilty for squandering those things. In fact, now you feel guilty about things that you didn’t even know were sin before you became a Christian. You’ve prayed a lot, but rather than getting better, your problems seem to grow worse. You wonder, “What difference does it make if I follow the Lord or not? Where is the God of justice?”
Even if you have not verbalized these thoughts, God knows about them. Malachi says that such words weary the Lord! He is using human language to apply to God, since there is a sense in which Almighty God cannot be weary (Isa. 40:28). But there is another sense in which we can try God’s patience (Isa. 7:13) and “wear Him out,” much like a parent gets weary of hearing his child’s constant complaining. So we need to check our thoughts when they run in this direction. We should pay attention to God’s answer to this difficult problem of what to do when evil prevails.
God has a plan to right every wrong and punish all evildoers. That plan centers in His Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will suddenly come into His temple. “But,” Malachi asks, “are you sure that you want Him to come?” “Who can endure the day of His coming? And who can stand when He appears?” (3:2). It’s easy to say, “Won’t it be great when Jesus comes again?” But if our personal and family lives are not right with God, we will be terrified at Jesus’ coming, because He is holy and He will judge everyone.
Although the coming of the Messiah is sudden, it is not without warning:
Malachi is referring here to Isaiah’s prophecy, “A voice is calling, ‘Clear the way for the Lord in the wilderness; make smooth in the desert a highway for our God’” (Isa. 40:3). This was a prophecy of John the Baptist, the forerunner whose ministry God used to prepare the way for Jesus Christ. John’s father prophesied of him while he was yet a baby, “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare His ways; to give to His people the knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins, …” (Luke 1:76-77). Jesus applied Malachi’s prophecy to John (Matt. 11:10).
Malachi (4:5) predicts that Elijah will come before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord. The disciples asked Jesus, “Why then do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?” Jesus answered, “Elijah is coming and will restore all things; but I say to you, that Elijah already came, and they did not recognize him,…” Matthew adds, “Then the disciples understood that He had spoken to them about John the Baptist” (Matt. 17:10-13).
Thus Malachi’s prophecy has a double fulfillment, as many prophecies do. John the Baptist was the messenger who came in the spirit and power of Elijah, to prepare the way for the Lord’s first coming. Before Jesus’ second coming, there will be two witnesses who powerfully bear witness (Rev. 11:1-12). It is likely that one of these witnesses will be Elijah himself.
The imagery of preparing the way before the Lord came from the custom of clearing the road and preparing a town for the visit of the king. Before the king traveled, he sent out messengers who proclaimed his coming. They didn’t have road crews back then to keep the highways in good shape. So when the townspeople heard that the king was coming, they would go out and fill in the ruts and potholes, and clear away rocks and debris. They got everything ready for the coming of their king.
God in His grace does not come upon us unannounced. If He did, He would often find our lives in shambles. We get sloppy about sin. There are potholes and ruts, with rocks strewn all over the place. So He graciously sends His messenger to proclaim, “The Lord is coming! Get ready! Fill in the potholes of sin! Clear out the rocks of self-centeredness and pride. Repent and bring forth fruit in keeping with repentance” (see Matt. 3:2, 8). Although I am a far, far lesser voice than John the Baptist or Elijah, I hope that you will listen when I tell you, “Prepare yourself! Get ready! The King is coming!” As 1 John 3:3 tells us, “Everyone who has this hope fixed on Him purifies himself, just as He is pure.”
But after the warning of God’s messengers,
When Malachi says (3:1), “The Lord whom you seek” and “the messenger of the covenant, in whom you delight,” he is using irony. In effect, he is saying, “You’re asking, ‘Where is the God of justice? We want to see Him.’ So, you’re looking for Him? Let me tell you, He is coming. In fact, He is coming suddenly! But you need to ask, ‘Can I endure the day of His coming? Can I stand when He appears?’ Because when He comes, He is going to clean house on Israel and He is going to judge all the wicked. So if you really seek Him, you’d better get ready to meet Him!”
You may wonder, “How can the Lord’s coming be sudden when it has been announced by His messenger?” Let me answer with an illustration. Some of you recall when Mount St. Helens blew its top in 1980. Geologists knew that something was brewing. They could see the bulge on the side of the mountain and they could measure the increasingly threatening tremors. They warned the local residents to get out of there.
But did they leave? Some did, but others didn’t. There was one old man named Harry Truman who had lived there for decades. When the newscasters interviewed him, he said that the mountain had been there for centuries. He didn’t believe that it would blow up, so he wasn’t going to move. But suddenly, one morning the mountain exploded. Harry Truman and others like him who had ignored the warnings perished. Destruction came on them suddenly.
You are hearing me say now, “The Lord is coming back suddenly to judge the earth. None who ignore this warning will escape!” Do you say to yourself, “Yeah, sure! I know that Jesus is coming, but He hasn’t come for almost 2,000 years. There’s no sense getting all worked up about it. I’ve got time before I need to repent.” But remember, “The Lord of glory always comes as a thief in the night to those who sleep in their sins” (Schmieder, cited by C. F. Keil, Commentary on the Old Testament, Minor Prophets [Eerdmans], p. 458).
Malachi shows us who this coming Messiah is and what He will do, first with regard to His true people, and then with those who claim to be His people, but practice wickedness.
Sometimes critics say that the Bible never claims that Jesus Christ is God. That is utter nonsense! Verse 1 is about as strong a statement on the deity of Christ as anyone could write. The speaker here is “the Lord of hosts,” who says that He is sending His messenger (John the Baptist) “before Me.” Whom did John go before? Jesus! Jesus is one with Me, that is, God!
He is also called here, “the messenger of the covenant.” This phrase occurs only here, but it refers to Jesus, by whose blood the eternal covenant of salvation was ratified and mediated to His people (Heb. 13:20). He is called “the Lord, whom you seek,” who was also identified in 2:17 as “the God of justice.” The Hebrew word for “Lord” is Adon. When used with the article, as it is here, it always refers to God (A. R. Fausset, A Commentary Critical, Experimental, and Practical on the Old and New Testaments, with Robert Jamieson and David Brown [Eerdmans], pp. 720-721; Walter Kaiser, Malachi, God’s Unchanging Love [Baker], p. 81). (See Exod. 23:17; 34:23; Isa. 1:24; 3:1; 10:16, 33; Dan. 9:17). Also, the text says that the Lord will come into His temple. The temple belongs only to God, not to any man.
Yet at the same time, this messenger who is the Lord is distinguished from the speaker, the Lord of hosts. The language is similar to Psalm 110:1, “The Lord [Yahweh] says to my Lord [Adonai], ‘Sit at My right hand until I make Your enemies a footstool for Your feet.’” Jesus used this psalm to confound His enemies (Matt. 22:42-45). The Messiah is clearly David’s son, and yet David calls Him “Lord.” How can this be?
This is the mystery of the Trinity: God is one God and yet He exists eternally in three persons, each of whom is fully God and yet distinct in personhood. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are eternally God, and yet the Father can send the Son and the Son can send the Spirit. Each is a distinct Person, not just a different manifestation of God. Yet they are not three gods, but one God. In our text, the point is that the messenger of the covenant (Messiah) who comes suddenly into His temple is God.
Note that there is a difference in God’s judgment here. With some, the Lord acts as a refiner’s fire and a fuller’s soap. The intent of both of these treatments was to purify, not to destroy. But with others, the Lord will draw near for judgment, bear swift witness against them, and (as implied in 3:6 and stated in 4:1) consume them. The difference between the two groups is that the former is the object of God’s unchanging covenant love (3:6, 1:2), whereas the latter is not. The former are Jews who truly believe in God, but need to be cleansed of their sins. The latter are Jews by birth, Jews outwardly, but they do not fear God and so they ought to fear His judgment (see Rom. 2:28-29; 9:6-8).
As with many Old Testament prophecies, these verses blend together the two comings of Jesus Christ. He came the first time to seek and to save the lost by offering Himself as the perfect and final sacrifice of God for sinners (Heb. 10:1-18). He will come the second time to deal out retribution to those who do not know God and who do not obey the gospel (2 Thess. 1:8).
All whom He saves, He purifies so that they may present to Him “offerings in righteousness,” that is, the true worship of yielding our lives as living sacrifices to Him (Rom. 12:1-2). We offer to Him the sacrifice of praise and thankfulness, along with doing good and sharing (Heb. 13:15-16).
The purifying process is often painful, as the analogy of fire implies. The Oriental silversmith would heat the silver until the impurities, the dross, bubbled to the surface. He would keep skimming it off until he could see his face clearly reflected in it. Even so, the Lord uses the fires of affliction to produce purity in His people, so that His image is reflected in us (Heb. 12:3-11).
But with others, the purpose of the fire is not to purify, but to destroy (3:5, 6; 4:1). These people wanted God to judge Israel’s pagan neighbors, but they refused to judge their own sins. God gives a representative list of sins, each of which was a breaking of His law and a cause for judgment. “Sorcerers” refers to those who use any sort of occult practices. “Adulterers,” of course, refers to those who are unfaithful to their marriage vows. “Those who swear falsely” covers everything from bending the truth in our personal relationships to perjury under oath in court. “Those who oppress the wage earner, the widow, and the orphan” and “those who turn aside the alien” refer to the wealthy and powerful who take advantage of those weaker than they are. At the bottom of all of these sins is, they do not fear God.
It is of utmost importance that you know for certain that you are in the group that the Lord purifies and refines, not in the group that He consumes in judgment! How can you know? First, is your trust in Jesus Christ and His death on the cross as your only hope for forgiveness of your sins? If it is, then, second, you know that God has changed your heart. You are submitting to the Lord in trials, trusting that He will work these things together for good (Rom. 8:28). You strive to be holy because you fear God (2 Cor. 7:1). You offer to the Lord sacrifices of praise that come out of the gratitude of a heart that He has cleansed. To sum up,
God’s promise to send His Messiah is His answer to those who struggle with the problem of the prosperity of the wicked and the suffering of the righteous. He will judge the wicked. The trials of the righteous are His purifying fires, designed to develop His holiness in them for His glory and their good.
But, the remarkable thing about God’s answer is that He did not send His Messiah in the lifetimes of the people in Malachi’s day! It would be over 400 years before John the Baptist began crying out in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord”! Meanwhile, the Jews had to endure four long centuries without a true prophet. They had to endure the oppressive rule of the wicked Antiochus Epiphanes, as well as the Roman occupation. Since Messiah’s first coming, God’s people have endured 20 long centuries of trials, while they watch the wicked prosper. Mockers say, “Where is the promise of His coming?” (2 Pet. 3:4). How should we then live in this evil world? Three brief words of encouragement:
If you find yourself doubting whether God loves you or whether He really will punish the wicked, get alone in His presence. Read Psalm 73, where the author was struggling with the same issue, until he went into the sanctuary of God. There he realized, “My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Ps. 73:26). Read Hebrews 12, which assures us that God’s discipline stems from His love for us as His children. His aim is that we might share His holiness and enjoy the peaceful fruit of righteousness (Heb. 12:10-11). Trust Him!
The people in Malachi’s day were saying, “Everyone who does evil is good in the sight of the Lord, and He delights in them” (2:17). In other words, morals do not matter, because God doesn’t immediately zap the wicked; in fact, they seem to prosper. We live in a day when even the church is joining the culture in abandoning God’s moral absolutes. But our holy God does not change (3:6)! His moral standards do not shift with the winds of the times. If His Word calls something sin, then it still is sin! When someone breaks God’s moral standards and seems to be doing just fine, don’t be deceived. God is not mocked. Whatever a man sows, he will reap (Gal. 6:7-8).
These people wanted God to zap the prosperous, wicked pagans, but Malachi adroitly shows that by pointing their finger at others, they had three fingers pointing back at themselves! The fact is, we all deserve God’s judgment. If He has shown us mercy, it is the epitome of self-centeredness to say, “Now that I’m saved, God, You can judge all the pagans out there!” It’s as if I had been in a shipwreck and was drowning with many others. God came along and pulled me into the lifeboat. I no sooner get in than I say, “Let’s head for shore. Why are we sitting out here in these waves? I’m cold and want to get dried off. Let’s go!”
When you see evil prevailing and you long for that “new heavens and new earth, in which righteousness dwells” (2 Pet. 3:13), remember God’s reason for delaying judgment: “The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9). Ask God to give you His heart of compassion for sinners, so that He can use you to reach out to them with the good news of Messiah’s first coming and the warning of His second coming. When evil prevails, don’t challenge God. Trust Him and obey His Word. In His time, His promise to send His Messiah to judge the earth will be fulfilled.
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2003, All Rights Reserved.
[A gavel bangs several times.]
BAILIFF: Order in the court! Court is now in session! The case today is: “Malachi versus the People of God.”
The charges: The plaintiff maintains that the defendant is guilty of robbing God.
JUDGE: As presiding judge, I must tell those of you on the jury that these are weighty charges. If guilty, the defendant faces serious consequences that will affect both him and his descendants for many years. So please hear the case carefully. We want no miscarriage of justice. The prosecuting attorney may call his witnesses.
PROSECUTING ATTORNEY: Thank you, Your Honor. My first witness is this gentleman from a remote region in Central Asia. He does not speak English, and so the following has been translated. Sir, you claim that these people have robbed you. Can you explain?
ASIAN MAN: Yes. My people have no Bible in our language and no missionaries in our area. For centuries, we have lived and died without hearing the good news about Jesus Christ, the Savior. But these people have had the Bible and the gospel in their culture for centuries. They have plenty of money, not only for basic needs, but also for many frivolous toys and luxuries. Yet they have not given sacrificially so that my people might hear about the Savior. We have been robbed!
PROSECUTING ATTORNEY: Thank you, sir. My next witness, Your Honor, is this orphan from Africa. Her parents both died of AIDS. I found her living on the streets and scavenging for food in the garbage. Can you tell the court how these people have robbed you?
AFRICAN GIRL: I have not actually seen any of these people before today. All I have known is a hard life, trying to survive and to compete for food with the other children on the streets. Before I came here, I had no idea that anyone lives as these people do! I hear that they just go to the store and buy all the food that they need! I hear that the stores and restaurants here throw away much better food than we find in Africa. I wonder if I could move to America so that I could look for food in the dumpsters here?
PROSECUTING ATTORNEY: Thank you, honey! Your Honor, my last witness cannot speak, at least not verbally. It is this human baby in this jar of formaldehyde. I could have brought in millions of them, but this one will have to do. If it could talk, it would say that it was robbed by the defendant, because if God’s people had given more to the pro-life cause, this child might not have died. Counseling centers and homes for unwed mothers might have been established to help pregnant young women keep their babies. So much more could have been done, if only more funds were available. The money is there, Your Honor. It’s just that these people have spent it on themselves, with little regard for God’s perspective. This baby was robbed of life! I rest my case.
JUDGE: The defense attorney may now speak.
DEFENSE ATTORNEY: Thank you, Your Honor. I’m sure that you and the jury will quickly see how silly these charges are! I ask you to consider several lines of evidence.
In the first place, my client is an upstanding, law-abiding, church-going citizen who would never dream of robbing anyone! He has never personally seen any of these victims and has never been near them or their property. Yet here he is being charged with robbing people he has never seen or met! It’s ridiculous!
Second, my client has worked hard to earn every cent that he has. He has never been on welfare. He has earned the right to spend his money as he pleases!
Third, my client never used his possessions or wealth to hurt anyone. He only asks for some peace and quiet, so that he can enjoy the benefits of his lifetime of hard work. He has just followed the American dream of the good life and of having enough to enjoy his retirement years. He certainly did not intend to harm these people who live on the other side of the earth!
Finally, my client was not aware that he was breaking any law. He is charged with robbing God, but we have only heard from these human witnesses. To bring God into the case is unconstitutional. We have a separation between church and state in this country. Besides, my client believes in God. He is a good church member and has often volunteered his time, not to mention his many years of tithing. This extremist prophet has framed my good client! I ask the jury to find him not guilty!
[The jury exits to consider the case.]
Could it really be that decent, law-abiding, religious folks are guilty of robbing God? Isn’t the prophet going overboard to level such charges against people whose lives are centered on their religion? Might their reaction (3:8) be justified: “How have we robbed God?”
And, yet, the charges stand. They are repeated in one form or another four times in verses 8 and 9, so that we can’t miss them. God charged the whole nation with robbing Him. And yet they were blind to the charges. If these religious Jews were guilty of the charges, but also blind to them, then perhaps we should seriously consider whether we, too, may be guilty, but blind, to the same charges. God is saying,
If we have robbed God, we must return to Him and give obediently to His kingdom purposes.
Consider, first, the charge:
First God gives a general charge of disobedience and then He narrows it to the specific charge of disobedient giving.
These people were living just as their fathers and grandfathers before them had lived, as culturally believing Jews. That was the problem. Their ancestors claimed to be followers of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but their religion was largely outward and cultural, not inward and heartfelt. Over the years, such religion gradually picks up elements of the culture, blending them in with the prescribed customs and rituals. This is called syncretism. God charges them and their ancestors of turning aside from His statutes and not keeping them. But they are dumbfounded by the charges.
It’s a wonderful thing to come from a long line of Christians. A Christian upbringing spares you much of the devastation that comes from a pagan background. But a Christian upbringing has its dangers. It is easy for the reality of a daily walk with God to leak out over the generations, where it becomes ritualistic and mechanical. Legalism creeps in, where families have rigid standards, but they aren’t necessarily biblical standards. Hypocrisy is another danger. Parents preach one thing, but the way that they relate to each other and to the children does not reflect the fruit of the Spirit. Gradually, a family drifts into a form of religion without the reality of knowing God, living by faith, and obeying His Word.
When these Jews protested the general charge of disobedience, God got specific:
This is called, “Going from preaching to meddling”! It’s easy to say in general, “I obey God.” So the Lord says, “Let’s get specific: How is your giving?” Ouch!
Giving is one of the most fail-proof litmus tests of your relationship to God. On more than one occasion, Jesus linked a person’s giving to eternal life. When Zaccheus, the wealthy tax collector, got right with God, his first recorded words were, “Behold, Lord, half of my possessions I will give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will give back four times as much” (Luke 19:8). His salvation immediately touched his pocketbook. Jesus confirmed this formerly greedy man’s conversion by saying, “Today salvation has come to this house” (Luke 19:9).
Contrast that with the tragic account of the rich young ruler. He seemed like such an eager potential convert. He came running (not walking) to Jesus and asked, “Good Teacher, what should I do to inherit eternal life?” What a witnessing opportunity! So Jesus said, “That’s easy. Just invite Me into your heart by faith.”
No, that’s not what Jesus said. He knew that the man had an idol. So He said, “One thing you lack: go and sell all you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” But the man went away grieved, unwilling to obey Jesus’ words. Jesus didn’t run after him and say, “How about ten percent?” Rather, He said to the disciples, “How hard it will be for those who are wealthy to enter the kingdom of God!” (Mark 10:17-23).
In Luke 16:10-11, Jesus states that our stewardship of money is a test of how we will do with more important responsibilities: “He who is faithful in a very little thing is faithful also in much; and he who is unrighteous in a very little thing is unrighteous also in much. Therefore if you have not been faithful in the use of unrighteous wealth, who will entrust the true riches to you?” In the context, the “very little thing” is the money that God has entrusted to us! The “much” or “true riches” are the souls of people. Our use of money is God’s test of whether He can entrust souls to our care!
You can impress other Christians by your extensive Bible knowledge, your fervent prayers, or your many years of service in the church. But God does not look at any of those things to test your faithfulness. Rather, He looks at how you manage the money that He has entrusted to you. Are you greedy or generous? Do you have integrity in money matters? Are your priorities and motives for earning, spending, saving, and giving in line with His Word?
So, to evaluate God’s charge that we have robbed Him, we have to examine our stewardship of money. Maybe you’re thinking, “Whew, I’m off the hook, because I give ten percent to the Lord’s work!” Well, maybe, but probably not!
It may shock you to learn that ten percent is not the biblical standard for giving (for a longer treatment, see John MacArthur, Whose Money Is It, Anyway? [Word], pp. 97-113). Abraham once gave Melchizedek ten percent of his spoils from a single battle, but there is no indication that he regularly gave ten percent. Jacob promised to give God ten percent if God would do what Jacob wanted Him to do, but that is hardly a biblical model for giving! The Law of Moses actually prescribed several tithes that would have amounted to somewhere between 20-25 percent (Lev. 27:30-33; Num. 18:20-21; Deut. 12:17-18; 14:22, 28, 29). But in Israel, the tithe functioned more like an involuntary tax than as a freewill offering.
Many preachers (especially Baptists!) use Malachi 3:10 to teach “storehouse tithing.” One Baptist commentator says, “So-called storehouse tithing does have a sound basis in this verse.” The idea is that the church is the storehouse where you are supposed to give ten percent of your income. Anything that you give to other Christian organizations should be over and above that ten percent that goes to the local church.
I wish that I could promote that idea, because I’m sure that our church income would go up substantially if everyone did that! Frankly, we could use the money, both for ongoing budget expenses and to meet our need for more property and facilities. But that application stretches this text beyond credulity. The storehouse refers to the storage rooms at the temple, where the people brought the first fruits of their harvest. The priests who served at the temple used this produce for their needs. I’m sad to say that the storehouse was not the local church and the tithe is not the New Testament standard for giving!
It is significant that tithing is never mentioned in any instructions to the church, although much is said about giving. If the church is supposed to give ten percent, it seems strange that Paul did not mention this when he wrote to predominately Gentile churches, which would not be familiar with the Law of Moses.
People get nervous when you take away that ten percent figure. Somehow, it’s comfortable and simple to give ten percent. But the problem with tithing is that people get the notion that once they’ve paid God ten percent, they’re free to squander the rest on themselves. But I think that God would charge such people, however sincere they may be, with robbing Him.
You may wonder, “If I don’t tithe, then how do I determine how much I’m supposed to give?” The New Testament principle is that God owns it all. We just manage it for Him. The New Testament standard is, give generously and cheerfully “as God has prospered you,” out of gratitude for His indescribable gift of salvation (1 Cor. 16:2; 2 Cor. 8 & 9; Acts 11:29). For those who are very poor, ten percent may represent generous, sacrificial giving. For those who have ample salaries, ten percent may be robbing God.
I think that John Piper’s teaching is sound, that Christians ought to live with a wartime mentality, gladly making personal sacrifices in order to advance Christ’s cause. If we expect missionaries to live sacrificially for the sake of the gospel, shouldn’t we hold ourselves to the same standard? If we live in relative luxury while people perish because there aren’t enough funds to get the gospel to them, are we not guilty of robbing God?
Before we look at God’s remedy for how to turn from this crime, please notice the mandatory sentence:
All crime is dumb, but robbing God is really dumb, because God knows that you are guilty and you can’t escape His sentence.
“You are cursed with a curse … the whole nation of you!” To rob God is to shoot yourself in the foot, and it doesn’t just hurt you. It also hurts all of God’s people. By withholding their tithes and offerings, the people forced the priests and Levites to work for their own support. That meant that they had to neglect the temple, causing worship to suffer. The inadequate worship adversely affected the Jewish families that came there to worship.
Not only that, but when the people refused to trust God by giving, God allowed the devourer to attack their crops (3:11). That may refer to locusts or other insects, or to hail or drought. God, who controls all of His creation, can either block harmful forces from our lives or turn them loose to wreak havoc. God does not delight in sending plagues on His people. But every parent knows that if you do not discipline your children when they disobey, you are not acting in love towards them. As God’s children, we need to learn that sin has negative consequences. Obedience opens the windows of heaven to pour out God’s blessings (we will look at this in our next study).
When God’s people obey Him with their giving, the nations will see how God blesses His people and they will be drawn to the delightful land. The world isn’t drawn to disobedient Christians who are under God’s discipline. They are drawn to obedient believers who know the joy of God’s delightful blessings. Our generous giving to the cause of world missions directly blesses those who hear the gospel and come to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
I cannot say whether or not you are robbing God. It is a matter for each of us, myself included, to examine individually, prayerfully and continually. I find that it’s easy to slip into a worldly mindset with regard to giving. But if you are guilty of robbing God, He gives the remedy here:
God does not say, “Return to keeping My law,” although the people needed to obey His law. Rather, He says, “Return to Me.” When we have sinned, the root need is always relational, not just for outward conformity to a rule or law. The motive for obedience, whether in morals or giving or whatever area, should always be love for the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.
How would my wife feel at Christmas if I gave her a present and when she said, “Thank you,” I replied, “I was just doing my duty as your husband”? Even if it were a really nice gift, my loveless motive would kill the joy of the gift! If my relationship with her is right, then the gift will not be a duty, but a delight!
If you’re not giving generously, systematically, and sacrificially to the Lord out of love and gratitude to Him, then you need to return to Him. Get your relationship right and giving becomes a joy and delight. Notice, also, God’s abundant, gracious love. Even though Israel had sinned against Him for centuries, He promises that if they would return to Him, He would return to them (3:7). Like the father of the prodigal son, God is ready to run to us with His gracious forgiveness and restoration, when we return to Him.
As Jesus said, “If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love; just as I have kept My Father’s commandments, and abide in His love…. You are My friends if you do what I command you” (John 15:10, 14). In other words, you cannot be living in disobedience to God and truly say, “I love Jesus” or, “I’m under grace.” That would be like me saying, “I love Marla,” all the while that I was committing adultery against her! Love for my wife is inextricably bound up with obedience to my marriage vows.
“Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse.” I presume that they were giving something. They just weren’t giving what the Lord required. They weren’t obeying completely. They were like folks who salve their conscience by dropping a few bucks in the offering plate every once in a while. But they weren’t being faithful stewards of all that God had entrusted to them.
Partial obedience isn’t really obedience; it’s just convenience. If I got audited on my income taxes, I wouldn’t fare well if I told the agent, “I pay most of my taxes, except when it’s inconvenient.” If my kids only obeyed me when it was convenient for them, I wouldn’t call that obedience!
Although for many Christians, giving ten percent would be a huge increase, tithing is really not all that difficult. You have to budget and be disciplined to do it, but it can become a routine matter. But if God requires that we give as He has prospered us, and that we seek first His kingdom and righteousness by laying up treasures in heaven (Matt. 6:19-33), that’s a different matter! It means that I constantly must examine my heart motives and my stewardship of all that God has entrusted to me. I need to judge myself in this area not by the standards of our culture, but by God’s Word. We all should ponder often Paul’s words to Timothy:
Instruct those who are rich in this present world not to be conceited or to fix their hope on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly supplies us with all things to enjoy. Instruct them to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is life indeed (1 Tim. 6:17-19).
The jury files back in after deliberating your case. What would the verdict be? Are you guilty of robbing God? I’ll leave you to wrestle with that before the Lord, not just this week, but as a recurring battle as you seek to be a faithful steward of all that He has graciously entrusted to you for His kingdom purposes.
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2003, All Rights Reserved.
Writer Oscar Schisgall tells of how, as a young man, he went into a park to think through an important personal issue. He had been engaged for four years, but didn’t dare to marry. He had no steady source of income. Besides, he and his fiancée had dreamed of living in Europe. How could they move so far away with no certainty of income?
Just then he looked up and saw a squirrel leap from one tree to another. He seemed to be aiming at a branch so high that the jump looked like suicide. He missed that branch, but landed safely on a lower branch, and then made his way up the tree.
An old man sitting on the bench said, “Funny, I’ve seen hundreds of ’em jump like that, especially when there are dogs around and they can’t come down to the ground. A lot of ’em miss, but I’ve never seen any hurt in trying.” Then he chuckled. “I guess they’ve got to risk it if they don’t want to spend their lives in one tree.” Schisgall thought, “A squirrel takes a chance—have I less nerve than a squirrel?”
He and his fiancée married and sailed for Europe. As he worked hard at writing, the money began to come in, providing for their needs. He said that since then, whenever he has had to choose between risking a new venture or hanging back, he can hear the little old man on the park bench say, “They got to risk it if they don’t want to spend their lives in one tree” (Parables, Etc., 6/82).
I wonder if some of you, spiritually speaking, are confined to one safe tree. You’ve been there for some time and have not jumped out in faith to be where God wants you to be. Your experience with the Lord is somewhat comfortable, but, frankly, somewhat stagnant. To you, the Lord issues a dare: “I dare you to trust Me by giving to My kingdom as you should. Go ahead, jump, and see if I don’t catch you and hold you up.” That’s God’s dare to His people in Malachi 3:10-12:
God’s dare: If we will give properly, He will bless abundantly.
God challenges us to prove that He means what He says. He is waiting to do business with us, whenever we’re ready. He promises to open the windows of heaven and pour out blessing until we can’t contain it all. The only delay is on our part. As soon as we trust Him by taking the jump, He will show us that there are many more trees to enjoy than we had ever imagined. God says, “I dare you to obey Me by giving properly.” The question is, are you willing to take God up on His dare? Note, first:
Normally, God does not invite His people to test Him. In fact, Scripture contains some strong rebukes in situations where God’s people have put Him to the test. In Malachi 3:15, God rebukes the “doers of wickedness” who put Him to the test. In Psalm 95:8-11, which refers to the generation that died in the wilderness, God warns His people not to imitate them. He says, “your fathers tested Me, they tried Me, though they had seen My work. For forty years I loathed that generation….” It sounds like risky business to put God to the test!
But here, God throws down the challenge. He dares us to test Him to see whether or not His promise is true. When God dares us to test Him, we would be sinning to refuse (see Isa. 7:10-16).
Of course, when God tells you to do something, it is not risky in the ultimate sense, because you know that He will sustain you. But from our perspective, it still seems risky at first.
God is saying, “You begin to give to Me first, and I’ll pour out the blessings in response.” “Uh, listen, Lord, how about if You bless me first, and then I’ll give as You want me to give?” No, it doesn’t work that way. It’s like Peter walking on the water. You’ve got to get out of the boat and take that first step. Peter couldn’t keep one foot in the boat while he tested the water with his other foot, to see if it would hold him up. It was all or nothing.
God asks us to give to Him up-front, off the top. Each of us should determine by faith and prayer a pre-planned amount that God wants us to give on a systematic, regular basis. As I said in our last study, the New Testament standard for giving is not ten percent, but “as the Lord has prospered you” (1 Cor. 16:2). That means that as we earn more, we ought to give proportionately more to the Lord’s work. The principle of giving God the first fruits means that we shouldn’t buy everything we think we need, and then give God the leftovers. Rather, we trust Him by giving off the top of the paycheck.
That’s risky, isn’t it? What if I give at the start of the month and I have some unforeseen problem, so that I come up short at the end of the month?
I read about a man who was having trouble with this concept. He had been taught tithing, so he told his pastor, “I don’t see how I can give ten percent to the church when I can’t even keep on top of our bills.”
The pastor replied, “John, if I promise to make up the difference in your bills if you should fall short, do you think you could try giving that much for just one month?”
John thought about it for a moment and then replied, “Sure, if you promise to make up any shortage, I will try giving ten percent for one month.”
“What do you think of that?” mused the pastor. “You say you’d be willing to trust a mere man like me, who possesses so little materially, but you couldn’t trust your Heavenly Father, who owns the whole universe!” John began giving regularly off the top each month, and God always met his needs.
Up-front giving is risky because it requires faith. God’s dare exposes our lack of faith. Malachi was preaching to comfortable, cultural believers, but they weren’t living on the cutting edge of trusting God. Not only that, but they were grumbling against God because their circumstances weren’t as pleasant as they had hoped. The many promises about a glorious future for Israel had not come true. Israel was still under foreign domination. The crops weren’t all that great. So they were grumbling. Whenever we grumble about our circumstances, we’re really grumbling against the God who ordains and controls our circumstances. They were blaming God for not blessing them, but God puts the blame where it belongs: “You haven’t trusted Me by giving as you should. Test Me by bringing the whole tithe into the storehouse, and see if I don’t bless you until you can’t hold any more.”
So if you’re holding back on giving until the Lord blesses you, you’ve got it backwards. Give generously, by faith, off the top, and God will bless you. We are called to walk by faith. Giving what you can comfortably afford after you’ve bought everything you think you need isn’t giving by faith.
God could have said, “Test Me now in this: Serve Me by teaching Sunday School.” Teaching Sunday School is a vital ministry, but for most of us there’s not a lot of risk in doing it. God could have said, “Test Me now in this: Read your Bible every day.” That’s a good thing to do, and I hope you do it, but reading my Bible every day isn’t risky. But when God says, “Test Me now in this: Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse.” Yikes! That’s risky!
You can’t fake it with giving. It really is the bottom line! God knows that our hearts follow our treasure. Invest a chunk of your treasure in the stock market and your heart will be in the daily stock report. Give God your treasure and your heart will be in the things of God. There’s no such thing as truly giving God your heart without also giving Him your treasure. If your heart is too much in the world, it’s probably an indication that your treasure is too much in the world. Put your treasure in God’s kingdom and watch your heart follow!
So God’s dare is, “Test Me now in this: Give generously, up-front by faith, and I will bless you.” But don’t overlook the fact that the dare hinges on a condition:
Some promises in the Bible are unconditional. They depend totally on God and His faithfulness to His Word. But other promises are conditional, and our text is such a promise. We must fulfill the condition, “give properly,” for God to fulfill the blessing. The text reveals three aspects of proper giving:
Verse 10 shows that God is concerned about His house, the temple. He wanted the people to give so that the priests could be supported so that proper worship could be carried on at the temple. God’s house was where He manifested His glory at the mercy seat. Worshiping God at His temple was the ultimate priority for God’s people.
Today, the church is God’s house, His temple (Eph. 2:19-22; 1 Pet. 2:5). Christ loved the church and gave Himself for her (Eph. 5:25). He said, “I will build My church…” (Matt. 16:18). His purpose in our day is to be glorified in and through His church, by saving His elect and building them together into a holy dwelling place of God in the Spirit (Eph. 1-3). So the church is not just a nice extra, a spoke in the wheel of life. Christ and His church ought to be the hub for the believer. Everything should revolve around the church, because building the church is what God is doing in the world. You will give properly only when you make Christ and His church your priority.
I heard about a man who complained that the church was always asking for money. Obviously, he did not see the priority of what God is doing through the church. His friend said to him, “I know how you feel. But a while back, something happened that changed my thinking.
“A baby was born into our family. We discovered that he needed a lot of things—clothes, food, medical attention, and many other things. As the little boy grew, we kept having to pour out money for him. The older he got, the more it cost! Teenaged boys consume a lot of food!
“But last year, in his junior year of high school, he was killed in an auto accident. Since the funeral, he has not cost us one penny. Which way do you think we would want it?”
If our priority is life, we will spare no expense to preserve it. If one of my kids faced a life-threatening condition and it cost me a million dollars to get the proper medical care, I’d go into debt for the rest of my life to provide it.
If our priority is to see lost people receive eternal life through Christ, shouldn’t we give all that we can to help His church carry out that mission? If we spend more on entertainment, our pets, and other non-essentials than we give to fulfill the Great Commission, our priorities are not right. We’re not seeking first His kingdom.
As I said in our last study, God picks money as the litmus test of our faithfulness. He says, “Do you want My blessing?” “Oh, yes, Lord! I pray constantly for Your blessing.” “Fine! Bring the whole tithe into My storehouse. Then I will know that you are faithful to Me, and I will pour out My blessing.” These folks were probably token givers, dropping a bit in the collection box to salve their consciences. But they didn’t have God’s perspective on money.
Last time we saw that when Jesus said, “He who is faithful in a very little thing is faithful also in much” (Luke 16:10), the “very little thing” refers to money. “Much” refers to eternal riches, to the souls of people. The person who has a lot of money in his portfolio is not truly rich in God’s sight. The truly rich person is the one who manages the very little thing (money) that God entrusts to him in such a way that God’s kingdom is advanced.
The point is, you’ll never give properly if you view money and material possessions as the world does, as the really big thing in life. You’ll greedily hang on to all that you can get. You’ll build bigger and bigger barns to hold it all, but you won’t be rich toward God (Luke 12:15-21). But if you adopt God’s perspective, you’ll see money as the means of laying up treasures in heaven, by giving to reach lost people with the gospel. Proper giving means adopting God’s priorities and His perspective toward money.
God says, “Test Me now in this….” Don’t wait until you’re out of college and have a comfortable income. Don’t wait until you strike it rich. Don’t wait until the kids are out of the nest and you are financially secure. Don’t wait until you get through the current crunch, and then you’ll apply this. “Test Me now!”
If you’re in debt, with credit cards maxed out, you need to curtail your spending and work out a plan to get out of debt. But part of your budget should include giving. Even if you’re below the poverty line, you can figure out ways to give if you really want to.
Years ago, I read about a church in Thailand of 400 members where every member tithes. As I said, ten percent is not God’s standard, but rather how He has prospered you. But in their case, ten percent represents sacrificial giving. These people were receiving a weekly wage of 20 cents, plus their rice!
Because of their faithfulness, they were able to support their own pastor. They had sent two missionary families to spread the gospel in another area. They give substantially to help the poor and the sick, because they relate to their need. By the way, every person in this church has leprosy! But, they give!
Procrastination is the foe of obedient giving. It’s always easier to think about obeying God tomorrow than actually obeying Him today. It’s like the farmer whose pastor visited him to see if he could help support the Lord’s work. The pastor asked, “If you had two farms, would you be willing to give one to the Lord?” The farmer said, “Of course! I only wish I were in a position to do so.”
The pastor then asked, “If you had $10,000, would you give $5,000 to the Lord’s work?” The farmer exclaimed, “I’d love to be able to give like that!”
Then the pastor sprung his trap: “If you had two pigs, would you give one to the church?” The farmer was taken aback for a moment, but then blurted out, “That’s not fair! You know I’ve got two pigs!” (“Our Daily Bread,” Fall, 1980)
We wrongly think that we will be less anxious if we get our nest egg in place first. Then we will be in a position to give. But the Lord said that we will increase anxiety if we live like that. The only secure investment is one where moths and rust cannot destroy, and thieves cannot break in and steal (Matt. 6:19). To overcome financial anxiety, start laying up treasures in heaven now.
So, God’s dare is, “Test Me!” The condition is, Give properly.
God promises to bless us more than we can handle if we will obey Him by giving properly to His work. You think, “Wow, I’ve always wanted to be rich! If I give to God, then He will bless me so that I can get that new car and …” Wait a minute! God promises three blessings, but wealth is not one of them.
This is not a promise of wealth, but of adequate provision. The unbiblical “health and wealth” teaching preys on greed: “Give and you’ll get rich,” or, more accurately, “Give to my ministry and you’ll get rich!” But the motive is wrong. God never blesses greed.
God’s promise is rather, “If you will open the bottom of the funnel by giving generously, I’ll pour it in the top of the funnel so that you will not suffer lack. But if you greedily close up the bottom of the funnel, I’ll quit pouring it in the top.” Paul elaborates on this principle (2 Cor. 9:8): “And God is able to make all grace abound to you, that always having all sufficiency in everything, you may have an abundance for every good deed.” As has often been said, “You can’t out-give God.” If you give generously, God will take care of your basic needs.
“All the nations will call you blessed, …” Israel was to be a blessing to the nations (Gen. 12:1-3). When God’s people give generously to his cause, then the nations will hear the gospel and in turn bless those who gave to bring the good news to them. What greater joy can there be than to meet someone in heaven who says, “Thank you so much for giving to the cause of missions, so that I heard about Jesus Christ”? What better way to invest your money than in the souls of people for whom Christ died?
“You shall be called a delightful land.” In a delightful land, people live delightful lives. This may ultimately refer to the millennium, but to whatever degree God’s people obey Him by giving generously to His work, the land is delightful. The sins stemming from greed are diminished. Needs are met. People find Christ. Love is demonstrated. Obedience in giving opens the floodgates of God’s blessing in other areas.
A man who set the example by taking up God’s dare was George Muller, who is famous for founding an orphanage in Bristol, England, in the 19th Century. While Muller cared very much for the orphaned children, his deeper motive in opening the orphanage was to prove the faithfulness of God to a skeptical world. He determined never to make the financial needs of his work known, except to the Lord in prayer. Each year he published a journal after the fact, describing how God had answered prayer by meeting the needs of the children in the previous year. Although there were times of severe testing, the children never missed a meal.
What many do not know is that Muller not only received millions of pounds in answer to prayer; he also gave away millions to God’s work from funds that came in for his personal support. If he had wanted, Muller could have lived lavishly, but he kept his lifestyle simple and gave everything else away. I once calculated that from 1831-1885, Muller gave 86 percent of his personal income to the Lord’s work! He said, “My aim was never how much I could obtain, but rather how much I could give” (Arthur T. Pierson, George Muller of Bristol [Revell], p. 299). He would pray the money in so that he could give it out as the Lord led.
From 1870 on, Muller personally contributed enough annually to the China Inland Mission to largely support the entire staff of 33 missionaries (Roger Steer, George Muller: Delighted in God! [Harold Shaw Publishers], p. 224)! Appropriately, Roger Steer’s biography of George Muller is subtitled, “Delighted in God!” Muller had a delightful life because he took God at His dare by giving properly. People from around the world to this day call him a blessed man.
How about you? Are you going to stay in the same “spiritual tree” all your life, afraid to trust God, making up excuses why you can’t give as He wants you to? God says, “I dare you to give!” Go for it—now!
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2003, All Rights Reserved.
Do you ever get discouraged in serving God, to the point that you feel like quitting? Many pastors do. I read recently that 1,500 pastors a month in the United States are leaving the ministry. Some leave because of moral failure, but many leave because of spiritual burnout or discouragement because of opposition or contention in their congregations.
Several recent surveys revealed that 85 percent of pastors said that they are weary of dealing with problem people. Seventy percent said that they felt that God had called them to pastoral ministry before their ministry began, but after three years of ministry, only 50 percent still felt called (from an email sent out on January 30, 2003, by the late Bill Bright and the Global Pastors Network).
At our men’s retreat last weekend, I was chatting with our speaker, Dennis Ahern, who is the West Coast Regional Director for CB International. He said that while there are many short-term mission workers, few are accepting the call to be career missionaries, and even of those, many are serving only one term. Apparently, many pastors and missionaries need to think through the question, “Why serve God?”
I encounter many in the local church who have served God, sometimes for many years, but they feel burned out and they are not involved in serving any longer. In some cases, they drop out of church altogether, claiming that they can worship God better by avoiding the church. In other cases, they may attend church, but that’s all that they do. If you ask them to serve, they say, in effect, “No thanks! Been there, done that!” In many cases, they were criticized or attacked for their efforts. Often, they feel unappreciated and used. But whatever the reason, they are not serving. Our text speaks to all such burned out workers, answering the question, “Why serve God?”
The people in Malachi’s day had grown indifferent to God’s great love. The theme of Malachi is, “I have loved you,” says the Lord. But the callused response of the people was, “How have You loved us?” (1:2). The prophet seeks to show them that the problem was not on God’s part. It never is. The problem was their sinfully selfish, temporal perspective. They needed to see things from God’s eternal perspective and serve Him by faith.
Behind their wrong attitude was the age-old subject that we covered in 2:17: Why do the wicked prosper and the godly suffer? You may wonder, Why bring it up again so soon? The answer is, this problem doesn’t get put to rest once and for all. It keeps creeping back into our thinking. God knows that we wrestle with it, and so He graciously addresses the subject repeatedly, so that we will maintain His perspective when we are tempted to think that it is vain to serve Him. The prophet shows us:
We should serve God because He notices and cares deeply for all who serve Him.
There are two groups in our text. Group A (3:13-15) is the group to Avoid. This group grumbled against God, complaining that there is no reward for serving Him; you may as well be an arrogant, wicked person who tests God and escapes. Group B (3:16-18) is the group to Be in. These people feared God and esteemed His name. They encouraged one another to continue serving God in spite of the seeming prosperity of the wicked and suffering of the righteous. God takes special notice of them and promises that He will spare them in the day of judgment because they are His special treasure.
This group spoke arrogantly or harshly against the Lord, but when the prophet confronts them, they ask, “What have we spoken against You?” As verses 14-15 show, they weren’t directly shaking their fists at God. Rather, they were complaining to one another, but God was eavesdropping! He always does, of course! He notices all that we think or say. But these people were not God-oriented, and so they spoke brazenly to one another, voicing their common complaints as if God were deaf or non-existent.
Their complaint was, “It is vain to serve God; and what profit is it that we have kept His charge, and that we have walked in mourning before the Lord of hosts?” (3:14). They went even farther, probably in sarcastic mockery. They called the arrogant blessed, and said that wicked people are not only built up, but also they test God and escape (3:15). There are four characteristics of this group to avoid:
Whenever we grumble about our circumstances or the wrong treatment that we have received, we are really elevating ourselves above God. We are saying, in effect, “God, I could run this universe better than You are running it! I’m just trying to serve You, and all I get is unfair treatment and trouble. But the guy who arrogantly defies You is living a happy life. I’d fix this problem if I were in charge!” What arrogance, to think that somehow I’d do a better job of running the universe than the Lord of hosts!
One of the most prevalent sins of the Israelites in the wilderness was their spirit of grumbling and complaining against God. They rather would have returned to slavery in Egypt than to trust God and endure hardship in the wilderness! He had delivered them from bondage in a dramatic and miraculous way through the Red Sea. From there, they went three days into the wilderness, found no water, and began to grumble (Exod. 15:22-27).
Later they grumbled about the boring manna that God faithfully supplied every day, and so the Lord graciously provided quail (Numbers 11). They grumbled at the report of the spies about the giants in the land, and talked about appointing a leader to return to Egypt (Numbers 14). God was displeased with their grumbling. That entire generation, except for Joshua and Caleb, who trusted God, died in the wilderness (Num. 14:26-38).
Whenever we grumble about our circumstances, we are impugning the character of God and exalting ourselves above Him. We’re saying, “God doesn’t really love us, or He wouldn’t let us be in this difficult place.” And, we’re saying, “I know better than God what is good for me.” John Calvin observes, “But in the service of God the chief thing is this— that men deny themselves and give themselves up to be ruled by God, and never raise a clamor when he humbles them” (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker reprint], on Malachi 3:13, pp. 595-596). As Paul exhorts us from his prison cell, “Do all things without grumbling or disputing; that you may prove yourselves to be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world” (Phil. 2:15).
They ask, “What profit is it that we have kept His charge …?” (3:14). What’s in it for us? The Hebrew word translated “profit” was a technical term for a weaver cutting a piece of cloth free from the loom. The idea here is that these people expected their “cut” or percentage, much as a gangster would demand his cut for his dirty work (Walter Kaiser, Malachi, God’s Unchanging Love [Baker], p. 98). They were grumbling that God hadn’t given them their fair share.
Be careful here! The flesh is inclined to self-pity, self-focus, and self-centeredness, and the world feeds this. If there’s nothing in it for you, why do it? If the church isn’t meeting your needs, bail out. You deserve some happiness. You can’t worry about the needs of others! God understands. Your needs come first!
We need to be careful about how we present the gospel. If we approach it as, “Come to Jesus and He will meet all your needs,” we aren’t giving the full picture. It’s true, of course, that Jesus satisfies the deepest longings of every heart that trusts in Him. But He is not Aladdin’s Genie, waiting to grant our every wish. While following Christ brings us deep and lasting joy, the path to that joy is daily self-denial and the cross (Luke 9:23-24), which are not immediately pleasant experiences!
I always chuckle when I read about the time Peter said to Jesus, “Behold, we have left everything and followed You.” Jesus affirmed that whatever they had given up to follow Him, they would receive a hundred times as much in this present age. Then, while I’m sure the disciples were nodding in approval, Jesus added almost offhandedly, “along with persecutions; and in the age to come, eternal life” (Mark 10:28-30).
What’s in it for you, if you serve the Lord? He gives abundant blessings, both in this life and in eternity. But don’t forget the persecutions! “All who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12). Self-centered people don’t last long in serving God.
They asked, “What profit is it that … we have walked in mourning before the Lord of hosts?” (3:14). Outwardly, they went through the motions of fasting and humbling themselves before God. But they were not doing these things out of a heart of love and devotion for God. Inwardly they were thinking, “This religion stuff is a drag! We want some fun out of life!”
Motivation is everything when it comes to obeying and serving God. I read about an elderly Christian lady who was a shut-in. She had two daughters, both Christians, who came by to clean and help out. Both made everything shine, but the first daughter left the impression that her task was an awful burden. The second daughter was cheery and made her mother feel loved. Both daughters did the same task, but the first did it out of duty alone. The second did it out of love for her mother. Her motive made all the difference.
Jesus rebuked the church at Ephesus. They were doing many good things. They had persevered and endured for Christ’s sake. But they had left their first love for Him (Rev. 2:1-4). When Jesus restored Peter to service after his fall, He asked three times, “Do you love Me?” With that as a foundation, He said, “Tend My sheep” (John 21:15-17). Paul said, “… the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me, and delivered Himself up for me” (Gal. 2:20). Love for the Lord Jesus, who gave Himself on the cross for me, should be the motive behind everything that I do for Him.
So this group to avoid was sitting in judgment on God, they had a self-centered attitude, and they had lost the motivation of love as the basis for holy living and service.
While saying that it is vain to serve God, they were calling the arrogant blessed. From all that they could see, there was no reward for following God, and there were many rewards for defying God and seeking your own prosperity.
Whenever we start thinking that way, we have lost God’s eternal perspective and adopted the world’s temporal perspective. Asaph wrote about this in Psalm 73. He contrasted the prosperity of the wicked with his own trials and concluded that he was following God in vain. This was troublesome in his sight until he went into the sanctuary of God. There he considered the end of the wicked and the reward of the righteous. I encourage you to meditate on that Psalm whenever you’re tempted in this manner.
Also, read Paul’s great resurrection chapter, 1 Corinthians 15. He states (15:19), “If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied.” Why serve Christ if this life is all there is? Rather, “eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (15:32). But, if Christ is risen and if we will be raised from the dead also, Paul’s conclusion is, “Be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord” (15:58). So avoid Group A. But there’s a second group:
This is the group to Be in! They were probably the minority group, numbers-wise. But God always has a faithful remnant that serves Him in spite of many difficulties. Note that Group B, those who serve God, are called righteous, whereas Group A are called wicked (3:18). That is not to say that serving God earns the label of “righteous.” We can do nothing to commend ourselves to God. Our righteousness is in the Lord Jesus Christ, whose righteousness is imputed to us as a gift of God’s grace through faith (Rom. 3:21-26). But serving God is a distinguishing mark of the righteous person, whereas not serving God marks the wicked, who live for themselves. There are two, and only two, groups here. Either you have not trusted in Christ and you live for yourself, or you have been justified by faith in Christ and now you live to serve Him. Make sure that you’re in Group B, not in Group A! Three characteristics mark Group B:
Twice verse 16 emphasizes that these people feared God, and it further adds that they esteemed His name. “Esteem” (KJV = “thought upon”) means to meditate, to regard, and thus to set value on something. Isaiah (13:17) uses the word to describe the Medes, who “will not value silver” when they invade Babylon. In other words, they would not be bought off with silver, because they did not value it above victory. (See also, Isa. 53:3.)
In our text, this group valued the Lord and His character (“name”) above the majority opinion. They didn’t go with the prevailing flow of their day, because they looked to God in His majesty, and they feared Him and valued Him above everything else.
In my opinion, the Christian world today needs a revived emphasis on the proper fear of God. We rightly emphasize God’s love, because “God is love” (1 John 4:8). But we are out of balance if we emphasize God’s love to the neglect of the fear that is due to His holy name.
I wish that many of God’s people today, who view God as their Good Buddy, would read John Bunyan’s excellent “Treatise on the Fear of God” (The Works of John Bunyan [Baker], 1:437-491). He writes, “When God comes to bring a soul news of mercy and salvation, even that visit, that presence of God, is fearful” (p. 438). In God’s presence, he says, “even our best things, our comeliness, our sanctity and righteousness, all do immediately turn to corruption and polluted rags” (p. 439). The proper fear of God causes us to hate evil and turn from it (Prov. 3:7; 8:13; 16:6). Too many pastors today fear what people think of them more than they fear what God thinks of them! Fearing God gives us the courage to confront sin, even if people don’t like us for doing so.
“Then those who feared the Lord spoke to one another” (3:16). “Then” refers to verse 15. when the wicked called the arrogant blessed. Group B had to counter the evil talk of Group A. They had to be as bold for God as Group A was bold for evil. They did it by getting together and talking. We are not told specifically what they said, but they probably encouraged one another by saying, “Don’t listen to these scoffers. Don’t give up serving the Lord! He will reward all that serve Him and He will judge the wicked scoffers.”
The point is, we need fellowship with like-minded believers in order to stand firm against the wrong ideas that come at us from the world, the flesh, and the devil. If all you do is attend church and leave, but you don’t fellowship with other Christians during the week, you will struggle to maintain a godly perspective in the face of the evil around us. That’s why Hebrews 10:24-25 commands us to think about how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, and not to forsake assembling together, but to encourage “one another, and all the more as you see the day drawing near.”
Group B fears God and encourages one another. Finally,
“The Lord gave attention and heard it, and a book of remembrance was written before Him…” (3:16). The Hebrew word translated “gave attention” means to prick up the ears, as an animal does when it hears something. The word “heard” means to bend over so as not to miss a word. The picture is that of a parent, eavesdropping on the conversation between his children (Charles Simeon, Expository Outlines on the Whole Bible [Zondervan], 10:620-621). The book of remembrance probably refers to the record book that Persian kings kept with the names and favorable deeds of those who had helped the king (Esther 6:1-2).
God hears and remembers everything said by everyone at all times, of course. But these human pictures applied to God remind us that He is not forgetful of His children when they take a stand for Him or when they pay a price to serve Him (Heb. 6:10).
God promises that they will be His on the day that He prepares His own possession, or treasure. He will spare them when He judges the earth, as a man spares his own son who serves him. So God is assuring His people that He hears and takes notice of that which the world overlooks or despises. The world notices the powerful, rich, and famous. God notices those who fear Him and serve Him out of love. They are His special treasure. And so we should not despair at the seeming prosperity of the wicked or at our own trials. When God judges the earth, the line between the righteous and the wicked, between the one who serves God and the one who does not, will be clear (3:18).
Years ago, an elderly missionary couple who had served for years in Africa, was returning to New York City to retire. They were feeling discouraged, defeated, and afraid. Their health was broken and they had no retirement pension. When they got to the wharf to board the ship, they discovered that they were booked on the same boat as President Theodore Roosevelt, who was returning from a big game hunt. No one paid any attention to this old couple, but they watched the fanfare as the President arrived. A band was playing and the crowd was waving and straining for a glimpse of the great man.
As the ship crossed the Atlantic, the old man grew more and more depressed. He said to his wife, “Something is wrong. Why should we have given our lives in faithful service for God in Africa all these years, and yet no one cares for us? This man comes back from a hunting expedition, and everyone throngs to see him. It doesn’t seem fair!” His wife tried to comfort him, but he couldn’t shake his depression.
As the boat docked in America, more bands were playing and more crowds had turned out to greet the President. Many dignitaries were there, and the papers carried the story on the front page. But no one noticed the missionaries. They slipped off the boat and went to hunt for a cheap apartment and for jobs.
That night, the man’s spirit broke. He felt that God had abandoned them. He complained to his wife, “We don’t have anyone to help us and no where to go. Why hasn’t God met our needs?” His wife wisely replied, “Why don’t you go in the bedroom and talk to the Lord about the whole thing?”
Some time later, he came out of the bedroom, but his face was different. He was happy now. His wife asked what happened. He said, “I went in and told the Lord the whole thing. I told Him that it’s not fair. I told Him how I was bitter because the President received this tremendous homecoming, but no one met us as we returned home. And you know, as I finished, it seemed as though the Lord put His hand on my shoulder and said simply, ‘My child, you’re not home yet.’” Why serve God? Because He notices and cares for all who serve Him!
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2003, All Rights Reserved.
We live in a day when very few fear God’s judgment. The “god” of most Americans is a feeble, tolerant old man, who would never send anyone, except the very worst, to hell. This American “god” grades on the curve, and it’s a very lenient curve. Unless you’re a terrorist, mass murderer, serial rapist, or habitual child molester, you have nothing to fear come judgment day.
This attitude was reflected in a letter to the editor of our local newspaper last week (Arizona Daily Sun [10/26/03], p. A-6) regarding the recent death of the well know local liberal protester, Bruce Green. The author commended the departed man for his respect and willingness to listen without anger to those with whom he disagreed. Those are certainly commendable qualities. Then she said, “He is in a much better place now, a place where there is no anger, bitterness, resentment or hatred—only love. God bless you, Bruce. Save me a seat. It would be my pleasure to sit next to you.”
That’s the popular theology of our day—if you’re a “good” person, it doesn’t matter what you may believe about God or Jesus Christ. Don’t worry about your sins. God understands and will overlook them. Some day we’ll all be together in heaven, in spite of our many faults.
It is vitally important that we base our view of God and His future judgment on His revelation in His Word, not on the common notions of popular culture. If we join our culture in thinking that God’s judgment is nothing to fear when, in fact, we are in danger of coming under that judgment, we would be in for a horrible shock on that day. On the other hand, if in fact we will be delivered from that judgment according to God’s promise in Christ, we would be putting ourselves through needless misery to live in fear of that day. Our text shows us that…
The coming day of judgment should bring great fear to all that scoff at God, but great comfort to all that fear His name.
In the context, these verses (there is no chapter break in the Hebrew Bible) continue to address the problem that was raised in 2:17 and again in 3:13-15 of the prosperity of the wicked and the suffering of the righteous. The skeptics looked at the seeming prosperity of the wicked and concluded that there is no benefit in serving God. They said that the arrogant seemed to be blessed and to get away with their evil deeds. There did not appear to be a God of justice, and so it is a waste of time to live according to His righteous standards.
To counter this scoffing, Malachi showed that God especially remembers those who fear His name; in fact, they are His special treasure (3:16-18). There is a huge difference between those who serve God and those who do not. That difference will be unveiled at the coming day that God has prepared, a day that will consume the wicked like a furnace. But those who fear God need not fear that coming awful day, because for them it will be a day of great comfort and triumph. So our text is written to disturb the comfortable and to comfort the disturbed.
“Behold” should arrest our attention. “Wake up, pay attention to what is about to be said!” Malachi makes two points about this coming day:
Verse 1 states twice, “The day is coming….” Verse 3 underscores that God is preparing that day. Twice it is emphasized that this warning comes from none other than the Lord of hosts, who rules over the entire universe, both physical and spiritual. As the apostle Paul told his skeptical audience on Mars Hill, God “has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead” (Acts 17:31). If the Lord of hosts has fixed that day, you can count on it: It is certainly coming!
Malachi mentions this coming day four times in the closing verses of his prophecy (3:17; 4:1, 3, 5). Walter Kaiser points out (Malachi: God’s Unchanging Love [Baker], p. 102) that this “day of the Lord” was both “near” and “at hand” for each of five Old Testament prophets working in four separate centuries: Obadiah (15) and Joel (1:15; 2:1) in the ninth century; Isaiah (13:6) in the eighth; Zephaniah (1:7, 14) in the seventh; and Ezekiel (30:3) in the sixth. Each of these prophets saw fulfillments in specific events of his own times, and yet each of these prophecies has a still yet unfulfilled future nuance. Thus Kaiser concludes that “the day of the Lord” encompasses a number of successive judgment events throughout history, all of which depict some aspect of the final climatic fulfillment at the culmination of history. In other words, there have been a number of precursor days of the Lord (such as the destruction of Jerusalem under Nebuchadnezzar and again under Titus) that point ahead to the final great and terrible day of the Lord at the end of history (Mal. 4:5).
The irony is that the very people who need to fear this coming day of judgment are usually the ones who scoff at it. Peter (2 Pet. 3:3-4) pointed this out, that in the last days mockers will come, who will say, “Where is the promise of His coming?” The Book of Revelation (18) makes the same point, that the world will be reveling in luxurious splendor and sensuality, oblivious of impending judgment, right up to the end. But then, in one hour, judgment will fall and all of proud Babylon’s splendor will be laid waste.
So the biblical warning is clear: Just because judgment is delayed does not mean that it will not happen. God has fixed the day! It is coming with certainty or else God is lying!
Those who should fear this coming day are described as the arrogant, evildoers, and the wicked (4:1, 3). “Arrogant” is a relatively rare word in Hebrew, but is the same word used in Malachi 3:15. It has the idea of “a sense of self-importance, which often is exaggerated to include defiance and even rebelliousness” (Theological Word Book of the Old Testament, ed. by R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer, and Bruce K. Waltke [Moody Press], 1:239). The words “evildoer” (4:1) and “wicked” (4:3) come from the same Hebrew root word and point to evil thoughts, words, and deeds that are contrary to God’s character and hostile to others (ibid., 2:863).
So at the root of wickedness or evil in God’s sight is human self-reliance and self-centeredness. The person who thinks that he is good enough in himself to get into heaven is arrogant in God’s sight. He does not understand how absolutely holy God is, nor how utterly corrupt his own heart is. He establishes himself as his own standard of righteousness and arrogantly thinks that his good deeds will commend him to God on the day of judgment. But God, who sees the heart, is not impressed! He describes them as chaff and that day as burning like a furnace. It will be so hot as to leave them neither root nor branch. In other words, no one will recover from this scorching heat.
Our paper showed last week a picture of a car in Crestline, California (where we used to live), that had been burned in the terrible fires there. The fire was so hot that the aluminum rims had melted into streams of liquid! Whether there will be literal flames in hell or whether God uses symbolic language to make a point, it ought to be clear that you don’t want to go through the blaze of God’s judgment! It will be thorough and completely devastating.
We need to be careful here not to fall into the error of annihilationism. Some modern evangelical theologians, most notably Clark Pinnock and John Stott, recoil at the idea of God tormenting people in flames forever and ever. They teach that the wicked will suffer in hell for an appropriate time, but then will cease to exist.
While that idea is emotionally appealing, Jesus mentioned eternal punishment in the same sentence that He mentioned eternal life (Matt. 25:46). If eternal life is forever, then eternal punishment must be forever. Revelation 20:10, 15 makes it clear that the devil, the beast, and the false prophet will be thrown into the lake of fire, where they will be tormented day and night forever and ever. If anyone’s name is not found written in the book of life, he will also be thrown into the lake of fire. “Day and night forever and ever” sounds like a long, long time! Jesus described hell as a place “where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:48). As difficult as the doctrine of eternal punishment may be, we cannot change it into the more comfortable idea of annihilationism without contradicting Jesus Himself.
Another common error that we need to avoid is universalism. This is the idea that somehow in the end, everyone will be saved. There are variations of this teaching. Some say that sinners may go through a time of punishment in hell, but that ultimately they will be saved. Others teach that because Christ died for all, all will be saved (based on a faulty interpretation of Rom. 5:18-19). Universalism goes back to the earliest days of Christianity. It probably originated with the early Gnostics, and was taught by some of the early church fathers, most notably Clement of Alexandria and his student, Origen, whose teachings were later condemned as heresy (D. B. Eller, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. by Walter Elwell [Baker], p. 1128).
Universalists make the mistake of putting God’s love above His justice and holiness. They would have to interpret our text as God’s purging with a view to restoration (as in Mal. 3:2-3). But the words, “it will leave them with neither root nor branch” (4:1) indicate that recovery will be impossible. The arrogant wicked who do not repent will suffer God’s eternal punishment. Those who scoff at God should be fearful, although they seldom are.
The purpose of these verses is to comfort the Lord’s people, especially those who were being persecuted because of their stand for God. As in 3:16, they are identified as those who fear the Lord and esteem His name. God’s name means all that He is in His glorious attributes. Two thoughts here:
It is ironic that often those who should fear God’s judgment scoff at the idea, whereas those who need not fear His judgment do worry about it. Perhaps it is because God has given His true people a tender conscience, along with a higher view of His holiness and justice. We know and believe that it is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God for judgment. The enemy of our souls comes along and uses this healthy fear of God to produce in us an unhealthy anxiety about standing before Him someday. He accuses us of all of our sins, which we must admit are true. The only way to overcome his accusations is through the blood of the Lamb (Rev. 12:11). Cling to the cross and you do not need to fear judgment.
The Bible is abundantly clear that we are justified (= “declared righteous”) through faith alone in Christ alone (Rom. 3:21-31). In the act of justification, God takes our sin and places it upon His Son, who paid the awful penalty for it on the cross. He takes the righteousness of His Son and places it around us, so that we stand before God with the perfect righteousness of Jesus, not with any righteousness of our own. Along with the free gift of justification, God makes us a new creation in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17). Rather than scoffing at God and living in accordance with our proud wisdom, we submit to God and His wisdom. We live in the reverential fear of God, and yet, because of His abundant grace, we no longer fear His judgment on the last day, since Christ bore that for us.
This is illustrated by a technique used by those fighting forest fires: They light a backfire along a break in the path of the advancing fire. The idea is that when the fire gets to where the backfire has burned, there will not be anything left to burn, and so the fire will die out. God judged our sins in Jesus on the cross. The fires of judgment burned Him. If we are in Him by faith, the fire will not harm us. It has nothing left to burn, since Jesus bore that Himself.
Some scholars do not interpret this as a reference to Jesus, but rather to the conditions that will exist in the millennium. But I think it is a reference to Jesus Christ. Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist, seemed to pick up the language of this verse when he prophesied that John would prepare the Lord’s ways, “to give His people the knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, with which the Sunrise from on high shall visit us, to shine upon those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:77-79). Because of the link between John the Baptist in Malachi 3:1 & 4:5, and because of Zecharias’ similar language about the Sunrise from on high, I believe that our text is messianic. It has at least five implications:
These verses refer to the blessings of our salvation that begin at the moment we trust in Jesus, but grow brighter and brighter until that glorious moment when He comes again and we shall be caught up to be always with the Lord. Outside of Christ, the world lives in spiritual darkness, blinded to the truth of God’s Word (Acts 26:18). Only Christ can open blind eyes. By His power, God delivered us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son (Col. 1:13). Jesus made the bold claim, “I am the light of the world; he who follows Me shall not walk in the darkness, but shall have the light of life” (John 8:12). When Jesus Christ shines into your darkness, suddenly you see. As Charles Wesley put it, “Long my imprisoned spirit lay, fast bound in sin and nature’s night. Thine eye diffused a quickening ray; I woke, the dungeon flamed with light.”
The darkness of the evil one’s domain brings spiritual sickness and death to the human race. The warm rays of the sun of righteousness bring restoration and healing. (“Wings” is poetic language for the rays of the sun.) One of the devil’s lies is to get us to think that sin brings satisfaction, whereas righteousness is restrictive. But the truth is, sin always brings disease and death, whereas righteousness heals and restores.
Have you ever had the flu, where your bones ache? If it’s gloomy and damp outside, it only seems to add to your misery. But then the sun breaks through the clouds and you find a chair in the sunlight streaming through a window. Those warm rays of the sun feel so good on your aching bones! That is an earthly illustration of the spiritual truth of the gospel. When you repent of your sins and begin to live in the warm rays of God’s righteousness, He brings healing from the wounds of sin in your life.
I think that we who live in Arizona, where the sun shines over 300 days a year, don’t appreciate how wonderful the sunlight is. When Marla and I traveled in Eastern Europe, we learned that sunshine in the winter there is a rare thing. Studies have shown that people who live in the extreme north suffer from what is called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). They get depressed because they live in the dark for months during the long, cold winters. When the first rays of the sun appear over the horizon, they throw a party! The sunlight brings them hope.
Outside of Jesus Christ and the salvation that He brings, there is no hope. One of the most depressing phrases in the Bible is Paul’s description of unbelievers, that they have “no hope and [are] without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12). But when the sun of righteousness rises in your heart, He brings the wonderful hope of eternal life!
“You will go forth and skip about like calves from the stall.” Perhaps many of you who are city-borne and bred have not seen this, although I have. After being cooped up in a stall, calves will literally jump as if for joy. Part of this for the believer is the great joy of being freed from the bondage of sin and judgment. The angel announced the birth of Christ to the shepherds by saying, “I bring you good news of a great joy” (Luke 2:10). There is simply no greater joy than the news that God has sent a Savior to set us free from the penalty and power of sin, so that we may dwell with Him in the glory of His presence forever!
So, the sun of righteousness brings light where there was darkness; healing where there was disease; hope where there was despair; and, joy where there was sadness. Finally,
“You will tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under your feet….” In this evil world, God permits the wicked often to triumph over the godly. There are many injustices, where the innocent suffer and their tormentors often literally get away with murder. But when the sun of righteousness rises in that final day that God is preparing, all wrongs will be righted. Perfect justice will prevail. Every sinner will be judged according to his works, and the righteous will rejoice.
You may wonder, “I thought that vengeance is wrong. How can the righteous rejoice over treading the wicked underfoot like ashes?” While personal vengeance is wrong, it is not wrong to long for the day when God will exercise His perfect justice. In Revelation 6:9-11, John looks into heaven and sees the souls of those who have been slain because of their testimony for Christ. They cry out, asking God how long it will be until He avenges their blood. God tells them to rest for a bit longer, until the number of martyrs is complete. Then, in Revelation 18, when wicked Babylon has finally fallen, the angel proclaims, “Rejoice over her, O heaven, and you saints and apostles and prophets, because God has pronounced judgment for you against her” (18:20). God’s final answer to the problem of the prosperity of the wicked and the unjust suffering of the righteous is the coming day of judgment. His promise of that day should bring great comfort to all of God’s elect.
A ninth-grade civics teacher had to issue one student an F. The boy reacted as though the teacher had caught him by surprise, by asking, “How come?”
“You didn’t pass a single test,” the teacher explained. “You never turned in one homework assignment. You would not participate in classroom work.”
The boy stood there in silence for a moment, then exclaimed, “And you mean you flunked me for that?” (Reader’s Digest [4/79], p. 64.)
Don’t be caught off guard when God’s day of judgment hits! If you’re comfortable in your sins, and your notion of God is that He would never judge anyone, I hope that you are disturbed enough to flee to Jesus Christ. Unless you are in Him, the blaze of that day will leave you with neither root nor branch. If you are in Him, looking ahead to that coming day should be a source of great comfort. The sun of righteousness will right every wrong and give you eternal peace and joy.
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2003, All Rights Reserved.
A boy once asked his father, “Dad, how do wars begin?” “Well, take the First World War,” said his father. “That got started when Germany invaded Belgium.” Immediately his wife interrupted, “Tell the boy the truth. It began because somebody was murdered.” The husband drew himself up with an air of superiority and snapped back, “”Are you answering the question, or am I?”
Turning her back on him in a huff, the wife walked out of the room and slammed the door as hard as she could. When the dishes stopped rattling in the cupboard, an uneasy silence followed, broken at length by the son. “Dad, you don’t have to tell me any more. I know now!”
It is not news that American families are fracturing at an alarming rate. Only 34 percent of all children born in America will live with both biological parents through age eighteen. Seventy percent of African-American babies and 19 percent of white babies in the United States are born out of wedlock. Most will never know their fathers, let alone experience their love (source, James Dobson newsletter, March, 2002).
If those statistics were only “out there,” it would be alarming enough. But evangelical Christians don’t fare much better than the world when it comes to fractured families. At a recent pastors and wives conference that Marla and I attended, the speaker said that he grew up in an evangelical family, but his parents’ faith never quite connected with the way that they related to one another in the home. That’s tragic, in light of the fact that the second great commandment is to love one another! What good is our faith if it doesn’t result in daily loving relationships in our families?
Malachi’s parting shot tells us how to have reconciled families. It is significant that this is also God’s parting shot to His people for 400 years. Malachi was the last of the Old Testament prophets. After him, there was no fresh word from the Lord for four long centuries, until John the Baptist began preaching in the wilderness. In His parting shot, God speaks to His people about reconciled families. It is not a minor subject: God indicates that the only alternative to reconciled families is His curse upon the land! Our families are the building blocks of our churches and of our entire society. If our families fracture en masse, we will have a fractured nation. It’s vital that we all follow God’s directives on how to have reconciled families.
Many commentators interpret “fathers” in verse 6 to refer to the Jewish patriarchs, and “children” to refer to the disobedient people of Malachi’s day. I reject that interpretation for two reasons. First, in 2:10-16, we have already seen that the people in Malachi’s day were intermarrying with unbelievers and experiencing fractured families. Second, Malachi here does not just refer to the children being reconciled to their fathers, but also the fathers to the children. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob didn’t need to be reconciled to the people of Malachi’s day. So I interpret it in the normal sense, to refer to literal fathers and children being reconciled.
There is a progression here: First, there was personal alienation from God due to neglecting His Word (4:4). Next, there was family alienation (4:6a). If that were not corrected, the final step would be national deterioration (4:6b). God’s remedy for the nation was to send Elijah the prophet to call the people to repentance before the day of judgment (4:5). God only sends judgment if we reject His offer of mercy. These people were indifferent to God’s great love (1:2). So they needed first to get right with God by obedience to His Word and then to get right with one another. These are the two great commandments that sum up all of the Law and Prophets. Malachi is saying,
The key to reconciled families is that we obey God’s Word.
That may strike you as an overly simplistic answer to complex problems. You may protest, “That answer ignores my abusive father and all of the emotional pain that I have suffered as a result!” You may say, “That answer glosses over the poor communication that causes friction between my spouse and me!” “That answer doesn’t help me deal with my rebellious teenager.”
I grant that it’s not always easy to get to the root of these problems and it’s not easy to apply the solution. But I contend that virtually all of our relational problems in our families stem from disobedience to God’s Word on the part of at least one, and almost always more than one, family member. If we obeyed God’s Word, we would love Him fervently, and we would love one another as we do in fact love ourselves. We would treat others as we wish to be treated. Since God’s Word is sufficient to equip us for all of life and godliness (2 Pet. 1:3; 2 Tim. 3:16-17), we do not need to go to therapists to get in touch with our feelings and to learn to cope with our rage. We need to go deeper with God through His Word!
Let’s look then at the root cause of fractured families:
Sin always results in alienation, both toward God and toward one another. When Adam and Eve sinned, they hid from God and they suffered distance in their own relationship. Adam began to blame Eve (and God) for his problems (Gen. 3:12). Sin leads to guilt; guilt not properly dealt with leads to blame; blame leads to anger and alienation. Pride causes us to justify ourselves and to attack the other person.
This is a basic pattern that applies to all relationships. One party wrongs the other party. That party retaliates with anger or resentment or some way to “even the score.” Instead of humbling themselves before God, asking His forgiveness, and then asking forgiveness of the other party, both sides begin blaming each other. The increasing blame and anger create further distance and alienation. At the bottom of the whole cycle is the root sin of pride.
What is the solution? God says (4:4), “Remember the law of Moses My servant, even the statues and ordinances which I commanded him in Horeb for all Israel.” “Remember” is used 14 times in Deuteronomy with regard to the law. It means not only to recall what the law says, but also to obey it (Craig Blaising, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, ed. by John Walvoord and Roy Zuck [Victor Books], 1:1587). Note that, contrary to liberal critics, Malachi believed that God inspired Moses to write the first five books of the Old Testament! John Calvin observed, “God makes himself here the author of the law, that all the godly might reverently receive it as coming from him” (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker reprint], on the Minor Prophets, p. 625). There is a threefold progression:
Forgetting assumes prior knowledge! Some may need to back up a step and learn God’s Word in the first place! I am appalled at how many Christians have never even read through their Bibles once, let alone repeatedly. I have read through the Bible many times, and each time I find many things that I forgot from the last time. My brain leaks! So God says, “Remember My law!” If we forget it, we won’t obey it.
As the Lord accused this people (3:7), “From the days of your fathers you have turned aside from My statutes and have not kept them.” As we’ve seen, every time Malachi confronted them they protested, “What do you mean? How can you say these mean things about us?” They were disobeying God, but because they had forgotten His Word, they didn’t even know that they were disobeying! They were blaming God because things weren’t going well for them, but it never occurred to them that the problem might lie with them, not with God.
Proverbs 19:3 (New Living Translation) says, “People ruin their lives by their own foolishness and then are angry at the Lord.” I encounter this all the time. People come for counsel because they are having severe family problems. I don’t have to listen long before I can see that they are violating God’s Word in many ways. But, invariably, they moan, “Why is God allowing this to happen to me?” Like the people of Malachi’s day, they are blind to their own disobedience because they have forgotten God’s Word.
God never divorces the spiritual from the relational, although we often do. We’re prone to say, “Things are fine between the Lord and me, but that wife of mine! Those kids of mine! Those parents of mine!” But God connects our relationship with Him and our relationship with others. The apostle John bluntly says, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 John 4:20; see also, Matt. 5:23-24).
When fathers turn away from obedience to God’s Word, the result will always be alienation between them and their children. Scripture is clear that fathers should not be angry and harsh with their children (Eph. 6:4; Col. 3:21). The fruit of the Spirit includes love, patience, kindness, gentleness, and self-control, whereas the deeds of the flesh include strife and outbursts of anger (Gal. 5:19-23). “The anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God” (James 1:20). There are many more such verses—it’s not as if the Bible rarely mentions this!
Yet so many professing Christian fathers are perpetually angry with their children. They sound like a drill sergeant, yelling and barking orders at their kids. When they correct them, they sound like they’re correcting their dog. They don’t bring their anger under the control of the Holy Spirit, and they never humble themselves before their kids to ask forgiveness when they sin. They don’t demonstrate to their kids the gracious love of Jesus. Then when the kids hit their teen years and rebel, the dad shakes his head and says, “After all that I’ve done for that kid, I just don’t understand why he’s giving us all this trouble!” When we forget and disobey God’s Word, we will experience family alienation.
How do we reverse the process and experience reconciliation in our families?
The entire Bible is a manual of relationships: How to be rightly related to God and to your fellow man (the two great commandments). It explains why we are alienated from God (our sin), and how we can be reconciled to God through faith in the shed blood of Jesus Christ. It tells us how to maintain a close walk with God through daily faith, obedience, and repentance. It explains why we are alienated from one another (same reason: our sin) and how to be reconciled to one another through following God’s commandments in all our relationships. To reverse the cycle…
You can’t obey it if you don’t remember what it says. You can’t remember what it says if you haven’t diligently studied it in the first place. But we can’t use our lack of knowledge or our short memories as a valid excuse for disobedience. Much could be said here, but I limit myself to two observations:
That sounds so obvious as to be ridiculous, but it is not. Many Christians disobey God’s Word all over the place, often through ignorance. But when they start reaping the consequences of their disobedience, they blame God or they blame others. But at the root of their problems is the fact that they never learned God’s Word in the first place.
Dorothy Sayers (referred to on a tape by Dr. Haddon Robinson) pointed out that there are two kinds of laws: man-made laws, and natural laws. A man-made law, for example, would be a city’s parking ordinances. A natural law would be, “If you put your hand in the fire, you will get burned.” Natural laws are not affected by man. The city council could pass a resolution that said, “You can now put your hand into the fire and not be burned.” I wouldn’t advise you to test that city law!
Sayers points out that the law of God is like the natural law. You don’t break it without it turning around and breaking you. It has built-in consequences. The human race can get together and agree that it’s okay now to engage in premarital sex, adultery, homosexuality, and abortion. We can decide that anger is not a sin; it’s just a natural human emotion. But our opinions and resolutions do not alter the law of God. He has ordained that if we sow to the flesh, we will reap from the flesh destruction (Gal. 6:8). If a man sticks his hand into the fire and then complains, “I didn’t know that it would burn me,” his ignorance doesn’t alter the fact that he got burned. The fire burns everyone, even those who are ignorant of its characteristics. Sin destroys people and relationships, even when those sinning don’t realize that they are sinning.
So if you want to remember God’s Word, you must apply yourself to learn what it says. Read it over and over. Memorize key verses that tell you how to love others. You will only remember and obey what you already know.
I’ve heard many complain that they just can’t remember what the Bible says. They say, “I’ve just got a bad memory.” But that is seldom the case. Unless you’re suffering from a brain disease, like Alzheimer’s, you can remember the things that are important to you. The key is to regard the information as important.
Marla and I often chuckle over the different things that we each remember. I once heard her talking with one of our daughters about the color of the table settings at a wedding reception. As far as I can recall, they must have had table settings, or we couldn’t have eaten there, and I would have remembered that! Or, sometimes we will talk about someone new that we met at church. She will ask me, “What was she wearing?” I’ll say, “I know she was clothed, but beyond that, I can’t remember!” The details weren’t important to me, so I forgot.
A main reason we forget God’s Word is that we don’t regard it as crucial for our survival. You’ve got to come to the place where you see that this Book holds the answers to life’s most important issues. It tells you how to know God and walk with Him, and how to love your neighbor, including the neighbors who live under the same roof as you do. Remember God’s Word!
Both Moses and Elijah are mentioned in our text. Moses wrote the law, the first five books of the Old Testament. Elijah symbolizes the prophets, although he did not write any prophetic books. “The law and the prophets” was a common way of referring to the entire Old Testament (Luke 24:27, 32).
As I said in our study of Malachi 3:1, there is a double fulfillment of this prophecy about Elijah. John the Baptist came in the spirit and power of Elijah as the forerunner of Christ in His first coming (Luke 1:17; Matt. 17:10-13). Before Christ’s second coming, another will come, probably Elijah himself, to give people one last chance to repent before judgment (Matt. 17:11; Rev. 11:3-6). The application for us is that we need to obey all of God’s Word, especially as it relates to our family relationships. Note two things:
God didn’t give Moses some helpful hints for happy living. He commanded Moses statutes and ordinances for all Israel. God’s moral and relational commandments are not just for the Old Testament era. Living under grace does not mean living without commandments. Believers under grace are given all sorts of commandments, including the oft-repeated command to love one another. If you are not acting in love toward your family members, including your church family, you are sinning! Obedience to God’s commandments is not legalism. Legalism is when a person tries to earn acceptance with God or status from others by outward behavior. Obedience to God’s commands should stem from the heart because of His grace and love toward us. But the point is, loving one another is not just a nice thing to do when you feel like doing it. It is God’s commandment.
God doesn’t say, “Behold, I am going to send a therapist to help you work through your rage toward your emotionally abusive father!” He promised to send Elijah the prophet. Elijah was probably the most confrontational prophet in the Old Testament. So was John the Baptist, who called his audience a brood of vipers.
If God’s Word steps on your toes, welcome to the club! That’s what it is designed to do. We wouldn’t budge from our selfish, sinful ways if it didn’t clobber us once in a while. The Jews didn’t like the confrontational way that Malachi ended his prophecy, talking about a curse on the land if they didn’t obey. So in the Hebrew Bible, verse 5 is repeated after verse 6, and in the Septuagint, verse 4 is repeated after verse 6. In fact, they did the same thing at the endings of Isaiah, Lamentations, and Ecclesiastes.
But the Lord knew that our proud, stubborn hearts need some direct confrontation as the parting shot to remember. We need an occasional Elijah to get in our face so that we will deal with our sins and be ready for the coming great and terrible day of the Lord. That’s one of the great benefits of reading the Bible consistently: it is profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness (2 Tim. 3:16). It will hit you with your sins.
You may be thinking, “I thought that God is love. Confronting me sounds judgmental.” But what can be more loving than to shout a warning at someone heading toward destruction? God’s warnings through His Word stem from His love. We will experience His love personally and in our families if we submit to His Word by correcting our sinful behavior.
The hearts of fathers will be restored to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers. One mark of true conversion is when the bitterness of past alienation between fathers and children is healed and their hearts are reunited in love.
Maybe you’re wondering, “Steve, why are you mentioning fathers, but not mothers?” The answer is, the text mentions fathers. We can easily extend everything I’ve said to mothers. If they obey God’s Word by dealing with their sin, they will be reconciled to their children. But I mention fathers because so many American men, even Christian men, are relationally passive in their homes. They leave the spiritual training of their children to their wives. They put in excessive time on the job, rationalizing it by saying that they are showing their love by providing for their families. But if you are an absent, passive father, or if you are not relating to your family in God’s love, you are not providing what they need most.
When you begin to obey God by judging your anger, by demonstrating the fruit of the Spirit towards your family, and by setting an example of walking with God, He will bring healing into your home. It won’t happen all at once, but it will begin. If you have been sinning against your wife and children by not loving them, first ask God’s forgiveness. Then ask your family’s forgiveness, and begin to obey God by walking in love, just as Christ loved you and gave Himself up on the cross (Eph. 5:2).
Former First Lady, Barbara Bush, spoke these words several years ago at a college commencement:
As important as your obligation as a doctor, a lawyer, or a business leader will be, you are a human being first, and those human connections with spouses, with children, with friends are the most important investments you will ever make. At the end of your life, you will never regret not having passed one more test, winning one more verdict, closing one more deal. You will regret time not spent with a husband, a child, a friend or a parent. Our success as a society depends not on what happens in the White House but on what happens inside your house. (Reader’s Digest [1/91], pp. 157-158.)
What should happen inside your house and mine is that we obey God’s Word so that our hearts turn toward one another in love. The alternative is that God will come and smite the land with a curse.
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2003, All Rights Reserved.