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Return to a just God
Sunday school lesson for the week of August 30, 2015
By Dr. Hal Brady
Lesson scripture: Malachi 3:1-10
Indications are that Malachi prophesied somewhere between 430 B.C. and 420 B.C. Clearly, the prophecy occurred after the rebuilding of the “Temple” in 516 B.C. which, according to Malachi, had become corrupt.
After only a few generations, the returned remnant had lost the spiritual vitality of their fore-parents and both the priests and the people had backslidden. Thus, Malachi lashes out against their ritual and ethical misdeeds. Violating the Torah stipulations, the priests were offering animals for sacrifice that were blind, lame or sick (read Lev. 22; 21-25). To offer less than a perfect sacrifice was to profane God’s name (Lev. 22: 32). Priests were also to instruct the people, but priests had misled the worshipers, causing them to stumble.
In addition to the problematic priests, God’s people themselves had been faithless to one another. They had ignored the covenant prohibitions against marrying foreign women and had sought to hide their infidelity. Divorce had become a joke and was way too easy for them. These people of God had oppressed the marginal and had robbed God by their failure to tithe their offerings. They had even questioned God’s justice.
In describing the people’s backslidden ways, one scholar speaks of their “religious decline, their social debasement, their moral defection and their material dissipation.”
So, as we can see, Malachi rebuked Israel’s social and moral decay. He warned this backslidden remnant that unless there is purity in God’s people there will be a purging by God’s own hand. Thus, Malachi calls for repentance and stresses the absolute necessity of sincerity and purity as prerequisites for serving God.
The Book of Malachi
As we are aware, Malachi is both the final prophetic book in the Old Testament and also the final book in the Old Testament. Scholars inform us that as the final word in the Old Testament, the prophetic books point directly to the ministry of Jesus.
Malachi 3 speaks of a messenger who will come to prepare the way for the Lord’s coming. For the Gospel writers, this messenger is understood to be John the Baptist. And these writers illustrated his role primarily by quoting from Isaiah 40:3, “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness.”
Scholars also point out that Mark 1:2 clearly refers to Malachi 3:1 when it says, “see, I am sending my messenger.” Therefore, the language and theme of Malachi 3 resonate with the beginning of the Gospels.
Then Matthew 7:12, which is another part of today’s background scripture, and the key verse, also makes the connection. This passage points out that love of one’s neighbor sums up the Law and the Prophets, and is necessary to prepare for God’s presence.
The Fire that Cleanses and Purifies
Regardless of his specific identity, the messenger comes to remind the people of their covenant with the Lord. His coming will prepare for God’s coming into the Temple. Thus, the messenger’s arrival is aimed at purifying the people of their uncleanness. God is holy and will not stand for what is unholy.
The messenger’s cleansing work will first be directed toward the priests who serve in the Temple. The priests are descendants of Levi (3:3). In addition to the criticisms of the priests previously mentioned, another issue seems to be that the priests have more respect for the Persian governor sent to oversee the territory than for God. Their priority is not correct.
So the messenger comes as “a refiner’s fire…” (3:3). The language about fire in Malachi 3:1-10 speaks of radical change that is good but brings discomfort. Although the image of fire in the Bible is often taken as a reference to judgment and punishment, this is clearly not the case here. Note that the fire is a “refiner’s fire.” It is meant to purify, as ancient people used fire to purify precious metals like gold and silver. Malachi states specifically that this fire is for the purpose of purifying “the descendants of Levi,” those charged with carrying out the service of the Temple in Jerusalem.
Now, the specific identification of the purpose of God’s fire has significant implications for us. As scholars explain, it suggests that we should read most of the Bible’s promises of God’s presence as fire that judges and purges as promises for us, not for those who are outside the church. Therefore, the most common promise of judgment is a promise for those in relationship with God.
Why should this be so? First, God has expectations of us that He doesn’t have of everyone. That is, because we gave responsibility for carrying out God’s work and for sharing the good news. We belong to God and God needs us to be prepared for service.
Second, God’s refining fire is aimed at us simply because we are in relationship with God and that relationship is to be taken very seriously. Malachi points out that the priests who were supposed to be most attentive to their relationship with God had in fact taken that relationship for granted. You remember, they offered inferior offerings while at the same time they gave greater attention to secular offerings (1:8). Because God cares so deeply about His relationship with us, he will not tolerate half-hearted commitments and insincere service on our part.
Before moving on, it should be noted that God’s refining or purging fire is mentioned in both the Old and New Testaments. When John the Baptist described the ministry of Jesus he said “he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Matthew 3:11). Therefore, we are told that Malachi anticipates this role Jesus will have in our lives and in the world when he promises “the messenger of the covenant” will come (3:1).
The Human Response to the Unchanging God
Malachi 3:1-10 emphasizes the human response to God. More than once the prophet calls on God’s people to return or repent, to come back to God.
So what does it mean to be in relationship with God? Where does this relationship begin? For sure, our salvation is initiated by God’s grace and not our actions.
What exactly is Malachi talking about here? First and foremost, Malachi makes the point that God does not change. God continues to reach out and seek us in grace. The problem, however, is always our desire or ability to perceive God’s grace.
Malachi states in verse 6, “For I the Lord do not change: therefore you, o children of Jacob, have not perished.” If God did change, if God were irrational or given to emotional highs and lows, then surely God would not have allowed the unfaithful people to survive. But unless we turn toward God, unless we are aware of the precious nature of the relationship we have with God, we will not experience God’s marvelous kindness and mercy.
So, when God says in verse 7, “Return to me, and I will return to you,” that is not a conditional arrangement where God’s grace depends on human response. Rather, this is the recognition that unless humans turn to God he/she will not experience the love and mercy God is extending.
Giving Our Best
The human response God requires of us can be summed up in the words of the old hymn, “Give of your Best to the Master.” The following words make up the second verse:
“Give of your best to the Master,
Give Him first place in your heart.
Give Him first place in your service;
Consecrate every part.
Give, and to you will be given;
God His beloved Son gave.
Gratefully seeking to serve Him,
Give Him the best that you have.”
Malachi’s call is for us to specifically give God the best we have in terms of our offering. He speaks of our giving the full tithe of the produce of the land as a thanksgiving for God’s goodness. Any less offering than that will be considered as “robbing God.”
But notice that just prior to his call to give a proper offering, Malachi says that God will come to judge oppressive acts, such as the mistreatment of hired workers and the casting aside of the needs of the widow and the orphan. Evidently, sacrifice and gifts on the altar are meaningless if they are not accompanied by justice.
Thus, we understand that Malachi has both types of actions side by side in his proclamation. He makes the point that both justice and the tithe are signs of giving our best to God.
Dr. Hal Brady is a retired pastor who continues to present the Good News of Jesus Christ and offer encouragement in a fresh and vital way though Hal Brady Ministries.
- Why do you think that more church persons don’t tithe in the church today? Please be specific.
- Identify types of situations to which you are most likely to contribute.