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Need for Just Leaders
Spring Quarter: Justice and The Prophets
Unit 1: God Requires Justice
Sunday school lesson for the week of March 29, 2020
By Dr. Hal Brady
Lesson Scriptures: Malachi 2:1-9; 3:5,6
Key Verse: Malachi 2:2
- Describe the conduct of the Judean priesthood of the late fifth century BC.
- Explain why God held the priesthood to a high standard.
- Create a plan to improve one aspect of his or her own priestly ministry (I Peter 2:5).
In the late 1940s, Billy Graham’s ministry was becoming well known. Graham realized that he needed to hold himself and his ministry to an extremely high standard of conduct for the sake of the gospel message he proclaimed. In 1948, Graham and his staff created what they called the “modesto manifesto.” They pledged themselves to follow the highest standards of conduct in every area of their lives.
As a young minister, along with a friend, I drove to Birmingham, Alabama to attend a Billy Graham Crusade. In addition, I sat on the 13th
row in the First United Methodist Church of that city and heard Dr. Graham introduced himself by saying, “I am an evangelist,” and he was, through and through.
When Dr. Graham died in 2018, tributes to him poured in, acclaiming his integrity. Even those who didn’t agree with his theology acknowledged Dr. Graham was a man of integrity who practiced what he preached. He was a consistent model of faithfulness to Christ.
In the days of the prophet Malachi, the leaders of God’s people took the completely opposite approach. What we might call “Malachi’s Manifesto” exposed the corruption of these leaders and called attention to what God has always desired.
There is general consensus that the book of Malachi comes from the time after the Babylonian exile. The issues addressed by Malachi are similar to those facing God’s people in this time of Nehemiah in the fifth century BC. With permission from King Artaxerxes of Persia, Nehemiah had traveled from Persia to Judah around 445 BC to rebuild Jerusalem’s walls.
Some of the issues addressed by both Nehemiah and Malachi include mixed marriages, the failure to tithe, and corrupt priests. Consequently, these similarities point to a date for Malachi that is post-exile. Therefore, the setting of the book of Malachi is an era after the exile in Babylon ends in 538 BC.
Adding to the conclusion that Malachi is post-exile is the use of the title “governor” (Malachi 1:8). This was Nehemiah’s official title (Nehemiah 5:14). Before the exile, Judah had kings, not governors. So, based on these and other facts, scholars conclude that Malachi is chronologically the last of the prophets, of about 430 BC.
Failing the Call
Where our lesson begins today, Malachi has already said a great deal about the poor quality of leadership demonstrated by the “priests.” When the prophet first mentioned the priests, he described them as despising the Lord’s name (Malachi 1:6). Indeed, the sharpness of the final words of judgment are fully appreciated only when read in close conjunction with the initial accusation: the priests who despise God (1:6) will themselves be despised (2:9).
When the prophet first mentions the priests, he describes them as despising the Lord’s name (Malachi 1:6). The priests are abusing their sacred office by offering defective unacceptable sacrifices (1:7, 8).
As we recall, God has made it clear in the Law of Moses that only the best is to be brought to him in worship. In the case of animals, only those unblemished are to be brought (example: Leviticus 1:3, 10:3-1). But instead of finding delight in the privilege of preparing such offerings, these priests look on their work as a “burden” (Malachi 1:13). The warning about to be given is an invitation to hear God anew and to repent. Verse 2:1 begins the transition from problem to solution – or consequences for allowing the problem to continue.
In Verse 2 of our text, the Lord sends a solemn warning to the delinquent priests. Their ministry is intended to bring “honor” to the Lord’s name. He is the one they are to serve, and the work they do is to be understood as a privilege.
However, if the priests are unwilling to “resolve” to take seriously what the Lord says, then the Lord will “send a curse on them” and even “curse their blessing.” (Compare Deuteronomy 11:26-28; 20:26). In other words, their “blessings,” the privilege of the priesthood, would be turned into curses.
Another possible interpretation here is that God will curse the harvest so that the crops will not produce as they should. Since the Law of Moses commands that a tithe of the harvest be given to the Levites (Numbers 18:21), a poor crop means a reduced provision for them. We remind ourselves here that all priests were Levites but not all Levites were priests.
Verse 3 points out that the sinful behavior of a person or group often has consequences for their “descendants.” God declared this to be so in his instructions that accompanied the second commandment (Exodus 20;4,5).
The Lord’s rebuke is depicted in a most shocking manner. Normally, the “dung” of animals that are sacrificed, along with the contents of their intestines, is to be taken outside the camp of the Israelites and burned (Exodus 29:14; Leviticus 4:11, 12). To have dung on one’s face is to be massively dishonored. The language is probably not to be taken as literal but rather as a way of vividly describing how repulsed the Lord is by the priests’ conduct.
It seems the delinquent priests have forgotten, either through carelessness or intent, the roots of their sacred office and heritage. The priestly “covenant” goes back to Jacob’s son “Levi,” some of whose descendants are assigned the priesthood (Numbers 3:5-13).
However, anytime a role is inherited instead of earned by merit, the danger is increased that a person will simply go through the motions. And those who are of the Levitical priesthood are not immune to this hazard.
Then follows a beautiful description of the ideal minister (vv.5-7) – an ideal so grossly violated by the priests (v.8). Life and all that makes life worthwhile, “peace” – here the prophet is speaking not only of quietness of the soul but also of the welfare of every kind. Those were the things that God promised and gave in the “Covenant.” And to this, the true priests responded with “fear,” reverence and humble awe (v.5).
In addition, the true priest faithfully expounded the will of God, and he could do this because in peace and uprightness he walked with God.
A minister friend was moving from a smaller church to a larger church and asked me what advice I could give him. I replied, “the most important thing you can do is keep up your devotional life.” I think that’s the most important thing that any of us can do.
As I mentioned, the priest could faithfully expound the will of God because he sought to live in that will. Consequently, “knowledge and law,” true direction, could be sought from him by the perplexed (v.7). And because of the priest’s earnest instruction of them in the will of God “he turned many away from iniquity (v.6) for he was nothing less than God’s “messenger” (the same word as “angel”). Through the true priest is a veritable angel of God.
Before moving on, note that there are three important responsibilities for priests that are highlighted in verse 6. First, they are to give true instruction faithfully (Deuteronomy 33:10). This involves communicating God’s requirements to the people.
Second, the priest’s daily walk is to be consistent with his faith profession. The faithful priest exhibits high moral character.
Third, the faithful priest is dedicated to helping others. The priest is to set the kind of example that drives others to follow and imitate his righteous lifestyle.
However, as we have observed, the priests in Malachi’s day neglect and even abuse the divinely given role they are called to fulfill: every priest is the Lord’s “messenger.” The task of keeping “the covenant with Levi '' means nothing to these delinquent priests (compare Jeremiah 2:8). So whether the issue is one of mere negligence or of active rebellion, the result is the same: “many people stumble.”
The ninth verse makes clear that the problem is not just one of negligence, if it were, the verse could have stopped with the phrase “you have not followed my ways.” The phrase “but have shown partiality in matters of the law” points to conscious, intentional disregard of God’s ways. To be partial in applying the law is abhorrent to God and there are frequent warnings against doing so within the Law of Moses (example: Leviticus 19:15; Deuteronomy 16:19).
Renewing the Call
At this point, we see that God does not merely state a problem and stop there. He goes on to state the solution, which begins in Malachi 3:1 (not in today’s text). God’s “messenger” will “prepare the way” before him. And John the Baptist will fulfill Malachi’s prophecy (Matthew 11:10).
However, Malachi goes on to speak of a second messenger’s coming, actions, and results. The refining and purifying mentioned fit Jesus’ work in raising up in his church those who will faithfully serve him (Malachi 3:3,4). Though judgment will be brought against all individuals who have violated the covenant, the Levites are still called out specifically (3:3). As teachers, theirs is the greater accountability.
Verse 5 elaborates on the judgment and “trial” to be carried out by the second messenger.
The two groups singled out for purification and judgment are the sons of Levi (3:3) and those persons who disregard the fundamental commands of the Decalogue (adulterers, false swearers, exploiters of the weak, the widow, the orphan, the alien, and the paid laborer).
Ultimately such disregard for these people in need and for the principles found in the Law of Moses can be traced to a lack of reverence for the lawgiver, the Lord himself (compare Deuteronomy 31:12, 13; Isaiah 1:2). The “fear” of the Lord has always been “the beginning of knowledge” (Proverbs 1:7) and the lack of such fear leads to certain ruin (example, James 5:1-6).
Philip Yancey, the writer, said that he used to believe that Christianity solved problems and made life easier. “But increasingly,” he said, I believe my faith complicates life in ways it should be complicated.” Then he said, “as a Christian, I cannot not care about the environment, about homelessness and poverty, about racism and religious persecution, about injustices and violence. God does not give me that option.”
Verse 6 states that God can change his mind (example, Jonah 3:10), but he does not change his character (James 1:17). God’s standards of right and wrong always hold true. He will be consistent in carrying out judgment on those who violate these standards, as he has made very clear throughout Scripture.
Then comes the hopeful word in 6b, “So you, the descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed.” These descendants of Jacob, referring to the Israelites, who have not been destroyed by God’s wrath – yet (compare Hosea 11:8,9). God is merciful because of his promises – and his unchanging character means he will keep those promises.
Malachi’s words should serve as sobering warnings to leaders in the church. Dangers multiply when we become casual about doing God’s ministry or work.
God forbid! But those who earn wages by serving the church or a parachurch ministry can come to see what they do merely as a source of income. They forget that theirs is a ministry done in service to God and for his glory. Therefore, certain words and actions become simply what is expected on a job description. It’s a slippery slope indeed.
One source of possible help may be for the leader to meet with a group of peers for support, guidance, and accountability. Numerous church leaders have found this invaluable and essential to effective life and ministry.
At any rate, speaking honestly to one another is much better than hearing the harsh criticism of the priests in Malachi’s day.
Resources for this lesson
- How can churches do a better job of holding their leaders accountable?
- What are some good ways your church can acknowledge its leaders who are doing the opposite of Malachi 2:8?
- In what ways can you use Malachi 3:5 as a source of comfort or encouragement in the face of today’s negative headlines?
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 (halbradyministries.com).
- “2019-2020 Standard Lesson NIV Commentary, Uniform Series, International Bible Lessons for Christan Teaching,” pages 261-268.
- “The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume VII,” pages 857-863; 867-870..
- “The Abingdon Bible Commentary,” by David Downey, J.E. McFadyen, pages 834-836.