Now if you would please take your copies of God’s Holy Word in your hands and turn with me to the prophecy of Malachi. Malachi chapter 2, page 802, in the church Bibles if you’re using one of our church Bibles. Malachi chapter 2, at the seventeenth verse. We’ll be reading through verse 15, of chapter 3. Before we read together, let’s bow our heads as we pray!
O God, all around us there are competing voices clamoring for our attention and we are so easily misled by them. Help us to hear the voice of the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scriptures and showing us Christ and leading us to Him today. And may that voice fill our ears and captivate our hearts and drown our every other that we may know You, to the praise of Your great name. For Jesus’ sake, amen.
Malachi chapter 2, at the seventeenth verse. This is the Word of Almighty God:
“You have wearied the LORD with your words. But you say, ‘How have we wearied him?’ By saying, ‘Everyone who does evil is good in the sight of the LORD, and he delights in them.’ Or by asking, ‘Where is the God of justice?’
Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and they will bring offerings in righteousness to the LORD. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the LORD as in the days of old as in former years.
Then I will draw near to you for judgment. I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the LORD of hosts.
For I the LORD do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed. From the days of your fathers, you have turned aside from my statutes and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you, says the LORD of hosts. But you say, ‘How shall we return?’ Will a man rob God? Yet you are robbing me. But you say, ‘How have we robbed you?’ In your tithes and contributions. You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing me, the whole nation of you. Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. And thereby put me to the test, says the LORD of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need. I will rebuke the devourer for you so that it will not destroy the fruits of your soil, and your vine in the field shall not fail to bear, says the LORD of hosts. Then all nations will call you blessed, for you will be a land of delight, says the LORD of hosts.
Your words have been hard against me, says the LORD. But you say, ‘How have we spoken against you?’ You have said, ‘It is vain to serve God. What is the profit of our keeping his charge or of walking as in mourning before the LORD of hosts? And now we call the arrogant blessed. Evildoers not only prosper but they put God to the test and they escape.’”
Amen, and we give thanks to God for His holy and inerrant Word.
Have you ever so misjudged someone that your whole relationship with them has been skewed and distorted, only to find out later how terribly wrong you were? There is a real sense in which the message of our passage is saying that that is precisely what has taken place between the people of Judah in Malachi’s day and the Lord their God. They have misjudged the Lord. And as a result, not just their relationship to Him, but actually, the whole contours of their lives have been distorted and warped in consequence. We ought to consider it an axiom, a principle of the Christian life, that to get God wrong in our thinking will warp and distort the whole superstructure of our Christian lives from that point onwards. Get God wrong and everything else will go wrong too! And if you’ll look at our passage in verse 17, of chapter 2, and again in verses 13 to 15, in chapter 3, bracketing the whole passage, you will see that that is precisely what is happening to the generation of which Malachi is writing. They misjudge; they actually distort and misrepresent the character of God. They get God wrong and so much else goes wrong by consequence.
Look at verse 17, of chapter 2, with me first of all. They have apparently noticed that wickedness was not immediately punished. The wicked seemed to prosper. Injustice is not given immediate redress in the land. And so they conclude, perhaps with some cynicism in their voices, “Everyone who does evil,” they said, “is good in the sight of the Lord and He delights in them. The one who makes much of himself,” they seem to be saying, “is the one of whom God makes much. Evil is good. God has no concern for righteousness among us any longer. The self-interested is the one who wins the award.” And there’s a version of that very much alive and well in our culture, today isn’t there? Where we reinvent morality to suit the sinful and rebellious preferences of our lives and then we adjust the contours of our doctrine of God in order to validate our sinful behavior. We want to keep God, and so He needs to be adjusted, accommodated, to suit our preferences and tastes. And after all, since God is always on my side, whatever I love must be good with Him, and if what I love is evil, then evil must be good with God.
And do notice how they go on. They don’t stop there! In verse 17, “Where is the God of justice?” Don’t misunderstand the question! This is not some plaintiff cry asking for divine intervention in the midst of a crisis. No, this is rather a cynically asked, rhetorical question that is intended to have the effect of saying, “God is an absentee landlord! He has checked out! He doesn’t care! Where is He? You can live as you please. He is morally indifferent.” That’s what they were arguing. And of course, the great cry between our expressions of confusion when we say something like this, “Where are You? Is this just? What is happening?” Sometimes believers, gripped by some tragedy that is impenetrable and mysterious and dark, can find themselves asking, “Why?” perhaps even with anger. The great difference between that sort of cry and the cry of the people to whom Malachi is writing is the audience. If you were to scan through the book of Psalms you will find over and over again the psalmist giving voice to precisely that complaint, but he directs it to the Lord. He brings his complaints to God who never, never turns away His hurting and confused children when they ask the “Why” question.
But that is not what’s happening in our text. No, they’re not asking God, “Why,” they’re complaining about God to one another. When we no longer turn to the Lord with our confusion, but away from Him in bitterness and denial, when we stop seeking help from Him, and instead begin to complain about Him to others, we’ve ceased to express what Saint Anselm famously defined the Christian faith as, “faith seeking understanding” and we’ve begun instead to express unbelief that is looking only for personal vindication.
And if you’ll look at the other end of the passage, the other bookend to Malachi’s message in verses 13 to 15, of chapter 3, you’ll see the complaints continue. “Your words,” they say to God, God says to them rather, “Your words have been hard against me, says the LORD. But you say, ‘How have we spoken against you?’” And here’s what they’ve said. “It is vain to serve God. What is the profit of keeping His charge or walking as in mourning before the LORD of hosts? And now we call the arrogant blessed. Evildoers not only prosper but they put God to the test and they escape.’” This is the way people were talking on the streets of Jerusalem about God. “There’s no point serving Him. No profit in doing what He says.” They even characterize life on God’s terms as a relentlessly morbid, sorrowful experience. “What is the profit of our keeping His charge or walking as in mourning before the LORD of hosts?” That’s what they think God wants from them! “To live on God’s terms is a total downer,” they would say. “People who live like this are a bunch of misery guts. Who wants to live like that?” So once again they call the arrogant blessed, evildoers prosper, they test God with impunity without apparent consequence.
And so you get the real sense, don’t you? From verse 17, of chapter 2, in verses 13 to 15, of chapter 3, that Judah is in a state of moral collapse, moral freefall, where they invert God’s priorities almost completely calling evil good and good evil. And behind it all, giving plausibility to it all, validating and justifying it all, is their distortion of the character of God! They warp the truth about Him, they misjudge and miscall Him, and they find, therefore, their reimagined God far more conducive to their rebellious lifestyles and habits.
But in the material between those two bookends Malachi not only corrects the error but provides us with a wonderful picture, a positive vision of God that will be health-giving to our souls. One of our classic strategies in our sinful, rebellious hearts is to do precisely what the people are doing here. We want to have God in some sense; and, we want to have our sin. And so we make God small enough to accommodate our rebellion. But Malachi shows us that far from providing the blessed life that we’re looking for, that is the pathway to disaster. But to make God big and ourselves small, to see Him in His glory and grandeur and grace, that is the path to the blessed life. It’s like a Class A narcotic that delivers an instant high, but then over time begins to ravage the body and destroy us. The people of Judah have distorted God like a chemical toxin in their system. It had begun to ravage the life of the community and warp their relationships, and brought moral collapse. But Malachi offers instead an antidote that will be gloriously health-giving.
So look with me please at chapter 3, verses 1 to 12! The material between those two bookends of the peoples’ complaints. Here is a positive vision of the character of God. Now when I tell you there are five things I want you to see here, promise me not to panic! Five things about the character of God, I’m going to move pretty quickly, but I’d encourage you to go back and linger a little longer over each of them this afternoon. What a wonderful way to spend the Sabbath Day, meditating on the character of God!
- A God Who Renews
You’ll see the first of those five things about God in verses 1 to 4, of chapter 3. “Our God,” Malachi says, “is a renewing God.” A God who renews. In verse 5 he is going to speak about judgment. The people were asking, “Where is the God of justice?” and he’s going to answer that complaint. “God is coming to judge.” But isn’t it instructive, wonderfully instructive, comforting, to see that before he speaks about judgment he first speaks about renewing grace? This is what God is like! Patient with us, not willing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. Before he speaks about wrath, he starts with renewal. Before he offers a word of judgment promised, he tells us about a Gospel priority. There is a Gospel priority in the heart of our God. And so Malachi starts with the renewing God. Not the judgment of God, but the renewing God. Verse 1, “Behold, I send my messenger and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts.” Jesus quotes this verse in Matthew 11 at verse 10 and says it was fulfilled, the messenger who would come before the Lord was fulfilled in the person of John the Baptist, which means of course that the Lord, this glorious messenger of the covenant who will return suddenly to His temple, the one who Malachi’s original readers would have immediately identified as Yahweh Himself, the Lord God, this one is none other than the Lord Jesus Christ.
And His coming will meet with a mixed reception. Look at the passage. “Not everyone will welcome his appearing. Who can endure the day of his coming and who can stand when he appears?” Malachi asks. “He will be like a refiner’s fire and fullers’ soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver.” Those who prefer impurities, those who would rather live with sin-soiled garments, they will find His coming a day of reckoning not to be welcomed, Malachi says. But look at verses 3 and 4. “He will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver and they will bring offerings in righteousness to the Lord. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord, as in the days of old, as in former years.” Jesus is going to bring for others cleansing and renewal, so that the broken mess of Judah’s bankruptcy and moral decline that we saw in chapter 1, was expressed in debased worship will be undone, and the people of God revived and restored by the grace of Jesus Christ. His mission is that He came to deal with our sin, to make sinners into saints.
Look to the Coming of Christ
And you know, that pattern here is vital for us to see clearly. Malachi’s first answer to the question about the justice of God, about whether God loves goodness at all, or perhaps whether He doesn’t indulge sin, after all, Malachi’s first response is to point to the coming of Jesus Christ, His work, what He will do. To say, “He’s coming! He’s coming! Look there! Look to Him!” That is always the first and best response when people want to know where God is, and how He will deal with our sense of injustice. We need to point people, and we ourselves need to look to Jesus Christ. My old systematics professor used to love to say that “there is in God no un-Christlikeness at all.” There’s nothing un-Christlike in God! That is to say, God is known in His Son, Jesus Christ. If you wonder what God loves, look at the devotion of Christ to the holiness God requires. If you wonder if God is good, look at the gentleness and generosity of Jesus. If you wonder if God is just, look at the cross where the justice of God exacted from His Son full payment for your sin and for mine. None who look at Christ and see Him clearly in His perfect obedience, His loving self-sacrifice, can continue to accuse God of not caring about beauty or truth or goodness or righteousness as the people of Malachi’s day were doing. “Look at Jesus!” Malachi says. The great answer of God to the sin of the world is His Son, our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, in whom God has purchased renewal, cleansing, transformation. He is a renewing God.
- The Judging God
Then secondly, Malachi says He is the judging God. Look at verse 5; “Then I will draw near to you for judgment. I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, adulterers, those who swear falsely, those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner and do not fear me.” The God who came in Christ in mercy at the cross will come again one day soon in Christ in judgment. And all who said, “God is an absentee landlord, He’s checked out; He doesn’t care how we live. Where is the God of justice?” They will know on that day that they had all along misunderstood His apparent absence. It wasn’t moral indifference. No, it was forbearance, it was patience. He’d been giving us opportunity all this time for repentance. 2 Peter 3:10, we quoted it already, “The Lord is not slow to fulfill His promise as some count slowness. He is patient toward you, not willing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief and then the heavens will pass away with a roar and the heavenly bodies burned up and dissolved and the earth and the works that are done in it will be exposed.” There is a judgment to come! The God of justice will appear and accounts will be settled. Whatever you may think that you know or see here and now, Malachi is saying to us, “Flee the wrath to come! Flee to the only safe refuge, the Lord Jesus Christ, the messenger of the covenant who came to His temple, who gave Himself for sinners to renew and to provide pardon.”
- The Unchanging God
The renewing God, the judging God, now look at verse 6, the unchanging God, thirdly. “For I the LORD do not change! Therefore, O children of Jacob, you are not consumed.” They had accused God of that, hadn’t they, of abdicating responsibility to do justice amidst the wickedness of the age. “He’s changed,” they said. “He has defected from His promises. We are sinning with impunity and nothing is happening. Evil is good! The arrogant is blessed! God no longer cares.” But it is not that He no longer cares. No, Malachi says the fact that you are not consumed in the wrath of God against all your many provocations, that is not evidence of moral indifference. No, that is evidence that He is immutable and unchanging. A solid rock in whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. Who keeps His covenant even when we do not. Who said He was slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. What a refuge the doctrine of the divine immutability is or ought to be to us! He isn’t given, you see, to flights of caprice or fits of anger. He never loses patience with us! He never gets bored with us! God will never get bored with you! He is constant and sure. There is an unassailable stability to our God that makes Him alone a safe hiding place in whom we may all take refuge. So Malachi is saying, “Cling to the rock of the immutable God when the waves of changing circumstances begin to pound down upon you, and crises crash over you, and the shifting tides of moral and cultural change begin to pull at you. Say to Him, ‘Thou changest not! Thy compassions they fail not! As Thou hast been, Thou forever wilt be! Great is Thy faithfulness! I can depend upon You. I can hide under the shelter of the great Rock that is my God. He is a hiding place to me because He is the same yesterday, today, and forever.’”
- The Accepting God
The renewing God, the judging God, the unchanging God, fourthly, He is the accepting God. Look at verse 7; “For the days of your fathers you have turned aside from my statutes and have not kept them. Return to me and I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts.” Sometimes when we become aware of our sin we are overcome with shame and we feel not unlike the prodigal son. You remember the prodigal son in Jesus’ parable, Luke 15? He has wounded his father dreadfully, he spent his entire inheritance on wild living, and when he has sunk all the way down into the gutter both morally in his degradation and economically in his bankruptcy, Jesus says he came to himself and resolved to return home. But he is so ashamed. He believes there is no possibility of acceptance with the father as his son. “I’m unworthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired men.” That’s the best he can hope for, he thinks. But Jesus said while he was still a long way off, barely at the edges of the family property, the father saw his son and ran to his son and kissed him and clothed him and celebrated over him and said, “Rejoice, for this son of mine who was dead is alive again, who was lost is found again!” Some of you have wandered away to a far country. Come home! Come home! God, our Father, delights to welcome, to accept, to receive home returning prodigals. Come home! “Return to Me and I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts.”
- A Generous God
He is a renewing God, a judging God, an unchanging God, and accepting God, and finally, Malachi says He is a generous God. Look at verses 8 to 12; God has called them to repentance, to return to Him, but they say, “How shall we return?” Actually, the Hebrew there is probably better translated, “For what reason ought we to return? For what cause? What cause have we? What grounds is there in our lives that might possibly require us to return?” You get the point! They don’t see it. They are so lost in their sin, they don’t know they are lost. And so Jesus does for them, the Lord here through Malachi does for them what Jesus does in John 4. You remember the woman at the well, she begins to try to obfuscate, get Jesus embroiled in a nice theological discussion so He doesn’t deal with the real issue, and He just cuts through it all and puts His finger on her besetting sin. In her case, it was her adultery. And so the Lord does the same here. He cuts through it all and puts His finger on their besetting sin. In this case, they were, look at the text, they were robbing God in their tithes and contributions. You will know that in the Mosaic Law the tithes and contributions were required in order for the maintenance and support of the Levitical ministry. The priesthood serving in the temple were provided for through the giving of God’s people. And in the New Testament similarly in passages like 1 Corinthians 16, at verse 2, the principle of systematically planned giving for the maintenance and advancement of the work of the Gospel continues. Of course, now it is no longer focused on a temple, but on the ministry of the local church. It’s informed no longer by a strict legal requirement of a mere tenth, but rather by a principle of radical generosity and sacrifice. And common to both testaments the pattern of giving God required of His people was not discretionary, it was not guided by the individualistic preferences of the giver, but rather was to be shaped by a deep devotion to the priority of God’s church as the center of His plan for the salvation of sinners and the glory of His name in the world. So the Old Testament tithe is a helpful rule of thumb for a New Testament believer. It’s a good place to start, but the real principle is radical sacrificial generosity.
But the point is, both in Malachi’s day as well as in our own, God calls us to planned, purposeful, sacrificial generosity through the local church that His name might be honored and glorified. But God’s people in Malachi’s day were failing to be faithful to their obligations to do precisely that. They were, God says, robbing God! And brothers and sisters, so are we, so are we when we neglect to give in a planned, sacrificial manner through the local church. Year-end generosity notwithstanding, if I might be particularly concrete about our own circumstances, if every household here were to use a tithe as the baseline pattern for their own giving, we would not be $600,000 dollars behind our budget, which is where we are today. There would be a surplus if everyone in the church gave a tenth on a consistent basis. There would be a surplus! There would be an abundance! The Lord would provide not only for the church but also for you.
And do notice in the text there were consequences for that particular failure. Look at verse 9; “You are cursed with a curse for you are robbing me, the whole nation of you.” Here’s the point! We ought not to think that we can enjoy the divine blessing if we are unprepared to give generously and sacrificially and consistently for the fulfillment of the divine mission. We ought not to expect the divine blessing if we will not give purposely and generously and sacrificially to the divine mission which centers on the local church. And so, verse 10, “Bring the full tithe into the storehouse that there may be food in my house and thereby put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts. See if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need. I will rebuke the devourer for you so that it will not destroy the fruits of your soil and your vine in the field shall not fail to bear, says the Lord of hosts. And all nations will call you blessed for you will be a land of delight, says the Lord of hosts.” God blesses the generosity of His people. You can’t out-give God! You can’t be more sacrificial or generous than He! Those who trust Him and take Him at His word, and plan to give, find an abundance of grace from Him providing for them. So that as Paul says, “My God shall supply all your need according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” All your need!
So God is a renewing God, He is a judging God, He is an unchanging God, He is an accepting God who welcomes returning sinners back, and He is a generous God, who gives to us more than we can ever give to Him.
Let me close with this little story that I think helps make Malachi’s point rather well. In 1812 there was a remarkable revival in the little Presbyterian church in the remote village of Kilmory on the Island of Arran off the west coast of Scotland. And at one prayer meeting one of the young men whose heart was full of joy in believing, deeply aware of the average believer’s many untapped riches in Christ, was heard praying. “Lord,” he said, “pity the people of Kilmory who are content with tatties and sour milk when they might have their soul satisfied with fatness.” Tatties are potatoes. Content with tatties and sour milk. Content with life at such a low ebb when there’s so much more in Jesus if only we would trust Him and live on His terms. If only we would take His Word at face value and rest the weight of our lives upon it. There is soul satisfaction there. God is no one’s debtor. He is no one’s debtor. “Those who honor me,” He says, “I will honor.”
And so the question our passage asks us is, “Will we, in our waywardness, return to Him and see Him return to us and welcome us like the father welcomes the prodigal? Will we trust His promises to provide and give generously and sacrificially or will we rob God? Will we adjust Him and accommodate Him to our moral preferences to validate our rebel lifestyles or will we bow before His Lordship knowing that He has done all for us in His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, in whom we see clearly displayed the righteousness of God, nor moral indifference but divine action to renew us and make us His? If we will not return to Him, the sobering word of Malachi 3 is that God who is renewing and accepting and generous is also a God of judgment and we are, therefore, to flee the wrath to come while there is yet still time. May the Lord bless to us the ministry of His Word. Let us pray together!
O our Father, we bow before You knowing that we have, many of us, strayed far, who have wandered off to a far country, and spent our inheritance on wild living, and we are now morally and spiritually bankrupt. Would You help us to come to ourselves and to come back to You and to discover that You always keep Your Word, “Return to Me and I will return to you.” That there is renewal for us in Jesus and generosity flowing to us in Your grace. Meet with us, have mercy on us, help us to begin to trust You and take Your Word at face value and rest the whole weight of our lives upon it. For the glory of Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
©2016 First Presbyterian Church.
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