The Curse of Priestly Failure

"And now this admonition is for you, O priests. If you do not listen, and if you do not set your heart to honor my name," says the LORD Almighty, "I will send a curse upon you, and I will curse your blessings. Yes, I have already cursed them, because you have not set your heart to honor me. Because of you I will rebuke your descendants; I will spread on your faces the offal from your festival sacrifices, and you will be carried off with it. And you will know that I have sent you this admonition so that my covenant with Levi may continue," says the LORD Almighty. "My covenant was with him, a covenant of life and peace, and I gave them to him; this called for reverence and he revered me and stood in awe of my name. True instruction was in his mouth and nothing false was found on his lips. He walked with me in peace and uprightness, and turned many from sin. For the lips of a priest ought to preserve knowledge, and from his mouth men should seek instruction—because he is the messenger of the LORD Almighty. But you have turned from the way and by your teaching have caused many to stumble; you have violated the covenant with Levi," says the LORD Almighty. "So I have caused you to be despised and humiliated before all the people, because you have not followed my ways but have shown partiality in matters of the law." (NIV)

Last week we looked at the curse of careless worship. And Malachi drove his word against the priests in the temple. Verse 6: "If I am a master, where is my fear? says the LORD of hosts to you, O priests, who despise my name."

But the sense you get as you read last week's text is that not just the priests but the people too were being careless in worship. For example, in 1:14 the Lord says, "Cursed be the cheat who has a male in his flock, and vows it, and yet sacrifices to the Lord what is blemished." This is not just a priestly problem. All over Israel people loved profit, and so brought the worthless leftovers of their business to God.

How This Word to the Priests Relates to Us 

In today's text Malachi focuses directly on the priests. Verse 1: "And now, O priests, this command is for you."

The Obsoleteness of the Priesthood

Before we get into the text, let's ask what relevance this has for us. Who are the priests today? Or are there any? The New Testament never uses the term priest to describe a pastor or elder in the church. There is no official priesthood in the New Testament church. The reason for this is very clear: Jesus Christ himself has become a permanent priest for us and the Old Testament priesthood is now obsolete. Hebrews 7:23–25,

The priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office; but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues for ever. Consequently he is able for all time to save those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.

Christ is now the one and only priest between us and God. The reason for this is that his sacrifice was final and his life is indestructible (7:16).

When Christ appeared as a high priest . . . he entered once for all into the Holy Place, taking not the blood of goats and calves but his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. (Hebrews 9:11–12)

So the Old Testament priesthood is replaced once and for all by the priestly ministry of Jesus—the offering of himself as the final sacrifice for sin, and the interceding for us today in heaven. There is no official priesthood in the New Testament church.

Minimizing the Once-for-All Sacrifice of Christ

Therefore wherever you find today an emphasis on the priesthood of the clergy, there you also find minimizing of the once-for-allness of the sacrifice of Christ. For example, in the Roman Catholic Church the official priesthood is extremely important because the mass is a real sacrifice. The bread and cup are really transubstantiated into the body and blood of Christ and are offered up to God for the forgiveness of sins. This repeated sacrifice in the church necessitated an official priesthood to administer the sacrifices just like the Old Testament had an official priesthood to offer the animal sacrifices.

But both the mass and the clerical priesthood minimize and distort the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ on Calvary. The truth is lost or minimized that there are no more sacrifices for sin; the death of Christ once for all is sufficient to forgive all who believe; and that's why there is no more official priesthood in the New Testament; the priestly offering of sacrifices is done. Christ ended it.

The Whole Church as a Holy Priesthood

Instead, Peter calls the whole church a "holy priesthood" (1 Peter 2:5) and a "royal priesthood" (1 Peter 2:9); and John says that Christ made the whole church a kingdom, priests to his God and Father (Revelation 1:6). This means that Christ has opened the way for all of us to come directly to God through him. We do not need any human mediator. We can walk with Christ—our high priest—right into the Holiest Place where God dwells and find grace to help in time of need (Hebrews 4:16).

So there is no official priesthood in the New Testament church. No church leaders are called priests because of their office in the church. But this raises the question: Were there other duties that priests had in the Old Testament besides offering sacrifices for the sake of the people—duties that may indeed be continued in the New Testament?

The Priestly Duty of Teaching and Guiding

The answer is a clear yes. Notice Malachi 2:7, "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."

In other words the priests were teachers. This part of their ministry is continued in the church of the New Testament. Ephesians 4:11 says that Christ gave to the church some pastors and teachers to equip the saints for the work of the ministry. First Timothy says that there are to be overseers who are able in teaching (3:2), and that some elders in the church are to labor in preaching and teaching (5:17; cf. Titus 1:9).

So this part of the priests' duties in Israel is continued in the elders of the New Testament church—they are responsible to teach and guide the church. But they are never called "priests," because that would imply too much likeness to the Old Testament office. Pastors do not offer sacrifices for the forgiveness of sins—not in the mass or any other way. We do not offer people Jesus Christ in the mass, we point people to the finished, all-sufficient work of the cross and directly to the living, interceding Jesus Christ, by the Word of God. We are teachers and preachers above all else.

So my conclusion is that Malachi 2:1–9 is very relevant for us today because the priestly failure that Malachi talks about has to do especially with their duties as teachers and moral examples for the people. The failure he warns against would be just as much failure today!

Four Reasons to Care About Pastoral Ministry

But now the question rises: Why should you (who are not pastors) be interested in two messages on the failures and successes of the pastoral ministry. There are at least four reasons.

  1. I will die someday, and this congregation will have to call another preaching pastor. Most churches are very unprepared to do this because they have not been taught the biblical vision of the pastoral ministry.
  2. You should be praying daily for the pastoral leadership of the church. But you can't pray with confidence and power if you don't know what the Bible teaches about the pitfalls and purposes of the pastoral ministry.
  3. You should hold your pastors accountable to fulfill the biblical vision of pastoral ministry. This is not inconsistent with a submissive spirit toward the leadership of the church which Hebrews 13:17 commands. It means that the church and not the clergy is the final court of appeal in matters of order and discipline (Matthew 18:17; 1 Corinthians 5:4). But you can't hold leadership accountable to do their duty if you do not know the biblical teaching of what that duty is.
  4. It is a great encouragement to a pastor when the people respond to his ministry with understanding—when there is a deeply shared common vision of why he does what he does. But that kind of deep, joyful responsiveness is simply not possible except where the people learn what the biblical vision of the pastoral calling is.

So I hope we have laid a foundation now for this week's and next week's messages—that is, a foundation for why this text about Old Testament priests is relevant for pastors today and why even non-pastors should care about what it teaches.

The Prevalence of Sexual Failure Among Pastors

Of course I have left out what might be the most obvious reason why a text dealing with pastoral failure is relevant today, namely, that there is so much of it, especially sexual failure.

I was reading this week an essay by Erroll Hulse, a Baptist pastor in Liverpool, England in which he said,

It is a morbid and depressing fact that when it comes to adultery, there are too many casualties among pastors. Ministers are just as vulnerable as others. No area, no country, no denomination is immune. The damage done in each case is irreparable: the breakdown, as far as ministry is concerned, final. This is a distasteful subject, but we cannot shirk it. The matter demands faithful treatment. Let him who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. (The Preacher and Preaching, ed. Samuel Logan, pp. 75–76)

And just this week I was on the phone with another pastor in the BGC who had preached recently for a colleague. During the series of meetings they took a walk together and discussed this issue with great earnestness. Only a few weeks after my friend returned to his own church he received that word that his pastor friend was forced to resign over an affair with a woman in the church—even though he had looked him right in the eye and never confessed it.

The Greater Danger of Doctrinal Defection

And what we see today in the moral collapse of the ministry is not the worst priestly failure. Far more devastating for the church long term is the doctrinal defection of thousands of pastors away from the authority and sufficiency of Scripture and away from biblical truth.

When the Great Awakening in New England was over back in the 1740s, there were pastors who reacted against the Calvinistic basis of this great revival and turned to Arminianism. And then, led by Charles Chauncy, a Boston Congregationalist, they moved to Unitarianism and Universalism.

And you can feel to this day, 200 years later, the icy effects of that doctrinal departure on the state of the church in New England. Would that Charles Chauncy had only committed adultery! And would that this were our only problem today! Don't be misled! The pastoral scandals of our day are not the greatest danger to the church. The great danger is the minimizing of deep spiritual commitment to doctrinal, biblical truth.

When God predicted the ruin of his people Israel in the book of Amos, he said that the famine that would destroy was a famine of the Word of God:

Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord God, when I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD. They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, to seek the word of the LORD, but they shall not find it.

That's the most devastating priestly failure, and that's the one Malachi is most concerned with. So let's turn to the text and see how Malachi treats this issue of priestly failure.

Failure Contrasted with Success 

What Malachi does in 2:1–9 is contrast the failure of the priests in his day with the successes of the early priests in Israel's history. In verses 2, 8, and 9 Malachi mentions five failures. And in verses 5, 6, and 7 he describes what a successful priesthood looks like.

I think that all we will have time for this morning is to look at two of the deepest priestly failures—the two mentioned in verse 2. And then next Sunday we move straight into the other verses and round out the picture of the true minister of the Word.

Verses 1–2:

And now, O priests, this command is for you. 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.

Two Deep Priestly Failures in Malachi 

Two priestly failures are mentioned here. First, the failure to listen to God, and second the failure to have a heart burden for the glory of God.

1. Failure to Listen to God

"If you will not listen . . . I will send the curse upon you." One great danger to the pastoral ministry is that the voice of God in Scripture may be drowned out by other voices. One of the most frightening things in the ministry is the possibility that one day we may wake up and read the sacred page and hear nothing from God.

Why is this so terrible? Because the last line of verse 7 says the minister of the Word is "the messenger of the Lord of hosts." There is a difference between a lecture on the meaning of ancient texts and a message from the Lord of hosts. God has appointed preachers in the church not simply to lead discussions, not simply to explain problems, not simply analyze texts, but to herald a message to his people. And you can't herald what you don't hear.

I heard W. A. Criswell of First Baptist Dallas quote the laymen of his church one time. They said, "Pastor, we know what the editorialists say, and we know what the commentators say, and we know what the economists and politicians say. What we want to know from you is, DOES GOD HAVE ANYTHING TO SAY?!"

"If you will not listen . . . says the Lord of hosts, then I will send a curse upon you."

2. Failure to Have a Burden for God's Glory

The second priestly failure in verse 2 is the failure to have a heart burden for the glory of God. "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."

Note very carefully the wording here. The issue is not merely whether the glory of God is the explicit unifying theme of the minister's doctrine and preaching, but whether there lies on his heart a burden to see God glorified. "If you will not lay it to heart [put it on your heart] to give glory to my name . . . "

The congregation must ask, Is it not only a part of his theology but also the passion of his soul? Does the glory of God come before the approval and praise of his people? Does it come before professional advancement? Does it come before financial reward and material comfort? Does he come back to it again and again, like the needle of a compass toward the magnet of truth, or like a weather vane in a heavenward wind? Does it come out in private as well as in public, in praying as well as preaching, in playing as well as studying?

What could be more crucial in calling a pastor, or praying for a pastor, or holding a pastor accountable than that he "lay it to heart—that it weigh on his heart—to give glory to the name of God"?

And so I close with this admonition: desire that kind of pastor, love the Word of God and the glory of his name, and pray for that kind of pastor until you have that kind of pastor, to the glory of our great God and Savior. Amen.