The Glory of Priestly Success
And now, O priests, this command is for you. 2 If you will not listen, if you will not lay it to heart to give glory to my name, says the LORD of hosts, then I will send the curse upon you and I will curse your blessings; indeed I have already cursed them, because you do not lay it to heart. 3 Behold, I will rebuke your offspring, and spread dung upon your faces, the dung of your offerings, and I will put you out of my presence. 4 So shall you know that I have sent this command to you, that my covenant with Levi may hold, says the LORD of hosts. 5 My covenant with him was a covenant of life and peace, and I gave them to him, that he might fear; and he feared me, he stood in awe of my name. 6 True instruction was in his mouth, and no wrong was found on his lips. He walked with me in peace and uprightness, and he turned many from iniquity. 7 For the lips of a priest should guard knowledge, and men should seek instruction from his mouth, for he is the messenger of the LORD of hosts. 8 But you have turned aside from the way; you have caused many to stumble by your instruction; you have corrupted the covenant of Levi, says the LORD of hosts, 9 and so I make you despised and abased before all the people, inasmuch as you have not kept my ways but have shown partiality in your instruction.
Last week we took time to show that this text is relevant for today. I argued from the book of Hebrews that there is no official priesthood in the church today. Christ has become our high priest. And all Christians are a kingdom of priests to God.
The Failure and Success of Teachers of the Word
But then we saw that the duty of the priests at stake in this text is not sacrificing but teaching. Verse 7: "The lips of a priest should guard knowledge, and men should seek instruction from his mouth for he is the messenger of the LORD of hosts."
This is why the text is so relevant for today: it rebukes and exhorts those of us who are appointed to be the ministers of the Word for the people of God. The ministers of the Word can fail or they can succeed. That's what this text about. And that's what is happening today—failure and success. And that is why the text is so relevant.
Let me give the same brief overview of the text that I gave last week. In verses 2, 8, and 9 Malachi points out five failures of the priests—the pastors, the teachers—of his day. In verses 5, 6, and 7 he describes what success in the ministry of the Word was supposed to look like. And the thing I didn't mention last week was the terrible threats that God gives to these priests if they do not clean up their act.
The Threats Against the Corrupt Leaders
These are found in verses 2, 3, and 9, and it may be well to begin our exposition right here with these threats. We will touch on them briefly and move on, because the reason they are here is simply to make us feel how tremendously important this matter is in God's eyes.
Pastors will not be spared the judgment of God on their sinful failures. In fact James says (3:1), "Let not many of you become teachers, for you know that we who teach shall be judged with greater strictness." Every one of my sermons will be laid on the bench as I stand before the Judge on the last day, and the words of Romans 2:21 will be read, "You who taught others, did you not teach yourself?" Think hard before you envy your pastors at the judgment seat of Christ.
Listen to the intensity now of God's anger in verses 2, 3, and 9. I'll read them together:
If you will not listen, if you will not lay it to heart to give glory to my name, says the LORD of hosts, then I will send the curse upon you and I will curse your blessings; indeed I have already cursed them, because you do not lay it to heart . . . Behold, I will rebuke your offspring, and spread dung upon your faces, the dung of your offerings, and I will put you out of my presence . . . And so I make you despised and abased before all the people, inasmuch as you have not kept my ways but have shown partiality in your instruction.
Four very frightening and ugly threats:
- First, (v. 2) God will curse them.
- Second, God will turn their words which ought to be blessings into curses. In other words their ministry becomes a plague rather than a blessing to God's people.
- Third, (v. 3) God will rebuke their offspring, or the reference may be to their seed in the sense of their crops. The curse will extend far beyond their own private selves.
- Fourth, God will smear the dung of their mangy sacrifices on their own sanctimonious faces. Which means (according to v. 9) he will make them as despised and contemptible as possible among the people.
Five Failures of the Priesthood
Now what has made God so angry? That kind of language is not intended to communicate a cool, dispassionate dealing with disobedience. When you talk about rubbing dung in somebody's face, you are really angry. And there is nothing more terrible that can be conceived than to have the beauty of holiness turn against you with omnipotent power and become the rage of God. Why was God so angry at these teachers of the law?
It was brought on by five failures in the priesthood. We saw two of them last week. I'll mention those again, refer to the other three and finally look at the glory of priestly success.
1. Failure to Hear the Word of God
The first failure is found in verse 2: the failure of the minister of the Word to hear the voice of God. "If you will not listen . . . " This is a failure because you can't herald what you don't hear.
2. Failure to Have a Heart for God's Glory
The second failure is the failure to have a heart for the glory of God. This is mentioned next in verse 2: "If you will not lay it to heart to give glory to my name, says the LORD of hosts . . . " This is the root of the matter. It is the essence of ministerial failure and its opposite (we will see in verse 5) is the essence of ministerial success.
3. Turning Aside from the Ways of God
The third failure of the teachers is that they turned aside from the ways of God. Their lives fell short of the standards of the truth that they were supposed to teach and model. You see this in the first line of verse 8: "You have turned aside from the way . . . " And you see it in verse 9: "I make you despised and abased before all the people, inasmuch as you have not kept my ways . . . "
4. Showing Partiality in Teaching
The fourth failure is that the teachers showed partiality in their teaching. That's the last line of verse 9: "You have not walked in my ways but have shown partiality in your instruction." What does this mean? It means that the priests were treating the Word of God the same way they were treating the sacrifices of God. You give God the sacrifices that will leave you with the most money. And you give the people the teaching that will bring in the most money.
You play to your audience. You say what Daddy Warbucks wants to hear. You step on no toes. You say, "Peace! Peace!" when there is no peace. Or to put it the way Micah 3:11 puts it, "The heads of Jerusalem give judgment for a bribe, its priests teach for hire, its prophets divine for money." When the glory of God no longer satisfies the heart of a preacher, then he will seek his satisfaction elsewhere. And I don't mean by leaving his pulpit; but just by using the Word of God to get gain.
5. Causing Many to Stumble
Which leads to the fifth and final failure of the priesthood, the result of all the others. It's in the middle of verse 8: "You have caused many to stumble."
Are the sins of teachers and leaders more grievous than the sins of others? Yes, they are. Not necessarily because the sin in and of itself is worse, but because its evil is compounded by the weight of public responsibility that should have restrained it. It is more grievous for the priests to sin than for the people to sin, because when the priests sin, they cause many to stumble.
David Neff, one of the editors of Christianity Today, said in this week's issue,
The leader who philanders has broken a trust placed in him by a wide community—trust in his vision, reliability, wisdom, and veracity. And the essence of leadership is that trust. So a leader who violates trust in a fundamental and public manner is ipso facto no longer a leader. (Nov. 20, 1987, p. 20)
A Word to Victims of Priestly Failure
Before we turn to verses 5–7 and the glory of priestly success let me say a word to those of you who have been the victim of priestly failure. I have in mind people who have seen in the Christian ministers so much hypocrisy and expediency and inconsistency and worldliness and partiality and greed and cowardice and pettiness and harshness and insensitivity, that you have stamped a big question mark on the reality of the whole Christian faith or put up a big wall between you and the ministry of the Word.
God has something to say to you in this text. And I think what he is saying goes like this: I hate priestly hypocrisy ten thousand times more than you do. And I intend to smear dung in the face of every pastor who forsakes my glory, departs from my ways, teaches for hire, and causes people to stumble. Vengeance is mine, I will repay says the Lord, don't take it on yourself.
What a tragedy it would be this morning if anyone here is turning away from God and his glory because of the hypocrisy of some of his messengers, when God himself intends to smear dung in the face of those hypocrites because he loves you and will not suffer his glory to be profaned forever. Isn't this text designed this morning not only to warn me, the preacher, against failure, but also you to warn you, the people, against being the victim of that failure?
God is saying this morning to some of you, "Don't let the hypocritical Christian leaders of your past drag you with them to destruction."
The Tree of a Successful Ministry of the Word
Now we turn finally to look at Malachi's vision of the glory of priestly success in verses 5–7.
Let me try to describe the successful ministry of the Word as a tree. It has a deep root, a strong trunk, broad branches, and life-giving fruit. Each of these is in the text.
Let's start with the root of a good preaching or teaching ministry in the church. The root of good preaching is the covenant that God makes with the preacher. Look at verses 4 and 5:
So shall you know that I have sent this command to you, that my covenant with Levi may hold, says the LORD of hosts. My covenant with him was a covenant of life and peace, and I gave them to him, that he might fear; and he feared me, he stood in awe of my name.
Levi was the son of Jacob from whom all the priests came, and this text tells us that there is a covenant between God and these ministers of the Word. The terms of the covenant go like this:
From God's side there comes
- the divine call to the office,
- and the promise of life and peace,
- and the initiative to go ahead and give them the life and peace they need to do their ministry.
From man's side the covenant requires that the preacher
- fear God,
- and stand in awe of his name.
You can see this requirement clearly in verse 5: "My covenant with him was covenant of life and peace, and I gave them to him [note God's initiative!], that he might fear [God's aim!]; and he feared me, and stood in awe of my name."
This is the root of all success in the ministry of the Word without of exception. Do you see the explicit contrast between the success of verse 5 and the failure of verse 2? In verse 2 the teachers "will not lay it to heart to give glory to my name, says the LORD of hosts." And in verse 5 the teachers "feared and stood in awe of my name." When the root is bad, everything will be bad.
A deep root has been planted for the ministry of the Word when a man trembles in the presence of God, stands in awe of his name, and has a heart for his glory. There is absolutely no spiritual success without this root.
Next let's look at the trunk of this tree. What is the trunk of the ministry of the Word?
The trunk is a strong commitment to defend and proclaim the truth of God's Word. You can see this in two sentences, one in verse 6 and one in verse 7. Verse 6 says, "True instruction was in his mouth." Then verse 7 says, "The lips of a priest should guard knowledge [that's where I get the idea of defending the truth, protecting it from distortion and misuse]—he should guard knowledge—and men should seek instruction from his mouth, for he is the messenger of the LORD of hosts." That last phrase is where I get the idea of proclamation as well as defense. He is not just a lawyer defending his case; he is also a herald with message from God.
The last phrase is most important: the true minister of the Word has a Word from God; he is the messenger of the Lord. What makes the trunk of this tree of the ministry of the Word strong is that the Word is not man's word; it is God's. Unlike the failure of verse 2 the true minister of the Word listens to God. And unlike the failure of verse 9 the true minister of the Word refuses to adjust the message to show partiality to the rich and powerful; true instruction is found in his mouth and he guards the knowledge from all distortion and misuse.
So the root is reverence for the glory of God and the trunk is faithfulness to the Word of God. Now what are the branches of the ministry of the Word?
The branches are the piety and the holiness of the preacher. Another way to say it would be that the branches are the preacher's personal life of devotion to God (that's what I mean by piety) and the preacher's private and public life of holiness to the Lord. There is no successful ministry of the Word without piety and righteousness.
The middle part of verse 6 makes this plain: "No wrong was found on his lips. He walked with me in peace and uprightness." A minister of the Word simply must walk with God. That's what I mean by piety and personal devotion—walking in communion with God. It's just the opposite of the failure in verse 8: "You have turned aside from the way," and in the middle of verse 9: "You have not kept my ways."
The true minister of the Word walks with God. And as he walks, he pursues peace and stands upright in all his dealings. He is transparent and straightforward and faithful in all his dealings. His lips are pure and peaceable—no foul talk, no false talk, no malice. Just purity and grace and truth—even if it hurts or offends.
So the root of the tree is reverence for the glory of God and the trunk is faithfulness to the Word of God. And the branches are piety and holiness in the presence of God.
Which brings us finally to the fruit of this tree of the ministry of the Word.
If you have been following me in verse 6, I'm sure you have this figured out already. The fruit is that many people are saved. The last phrase of verse 6: "He turned many from iniquity." You've seen the contrast all the way along, haven't you, between the success portrayed in verses 5–7 and the failures of the priests in Malachi's day. This last contrast may be the clearest of all. "He turned many from iniquity" is just the opposite of the second phrase in verse 8: "You have caused many to stumble by your instruction." The ministry can destroy and the ministry can save.
When your ministry is rooted in the glory of God and your trunk is strong with the Word of God and your branches display the righteousness of God, then the fruit of your life is going to be the salvation of God for the sake of sinners.
Would you commit yourself to pray everyday with me that the glory of God and the Word of God and the righteousness of God would so fill this church that people would turn away from sin, and receive the SALVATION OF GOD right here in this room and all over this city?