Sermon preached on Malachi 2:1-9 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 10/30/2011 in Novato, CA.
“Turned Many From Sin”
Today is the day known as Reformation Sunday in the church. Every year we’ve held a special Reformation Sunday service in the evening. We will do that again today. Reformation Sunday remembers the Protestant Reformation. On October 31, 1517, reformer Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the door of the church in Wittenberg. He was concerned about the practices of selling indulgences – a perversion of religious worship. He was seeking reform in the church. That incident sparked a series of events that ignited a larger fire. That larger fire became known as the Protestant Reformation. It was a period of tremendous reform in the church. That’s what we’ll have the opportunity to think further about today in our evening service. But it’s also something we have the privilege to think about from this passage today. In God’s good providence, our passage in Malachi today is a passage about God calling the Old Testament worship to reform. Reform starting especially with the leadership in the church. It’s a passage that reminds us our need to be ever reforming, and it shows us a bit of what that kind of reform should look like.
So let’s dig into this passage with that subject in mind. Verse 1 addresses the priests of Israel. Verse 1, “And now, O priests, this commandment is for you.” What command is he referring to? Well, this is where we need to remember the context. Recall with me last week’s passage in Malachi. In the last passage, Malachi had presented a problem. He said that the priests were not honoring God’s name. God said that they had despised his name, by the way they conducted the sacrifices. Their attitude and actions had defiled and despised the offerings. They had defiled the worship, and so they had dishonored God. This passage is still part of that same section in Malachi. Malachi is still dealing with the same matter, of how the priests had failed in their jobs. That’s why verse 2 here says that they need to hear this concern and take it to heart, that they would glorify God’s name. That should be the goal of the priests’ leadership. As the priest lead the people in worship, and as they teach the people, God should be glorified. His name should be honored and revered, their very failure mentioned in the last chapter.
So this command to the priests is for them to properly do their job. And as they do their job properly, they then glorify God’s name in it all. You might recall our sermon on Leviticus 10 a few weeks ago. Remember what Moses told the Levitical priests, right at the start of their ministry. Moses had said in Leviticus 10:3, “By those who come near me I must be regarded as holy; and before all the people I must be glorified.” And so God had given this task, this command, to the Levitical priests. The Levitical Priesthood had been instituted by God, for his worship and for the leading of the people. We see that this is instituted by God in a very wonderful way in this passage. With covenantal language. That’s the language of verses 4 and 5. Verse 4 talks about God’s covenant with Levi. Verse 5 says that this covenant was supposed to be one of life and peace. The covenant language is mentioned again in verse 8.
What’s a little surprising is that we do not have in Scripture an explicit historical record of the Levites entering in such a covenant. There are certainly passages in which God calls them to a special service and status. We just don’t have the explicit language of a covenant in those places. But Malachi is right to observe that relationship as a covenant. Whether there was ever an official covenant ceremony to inaugurate the start of this Levitical covenant, we’re not told. Possibly the consecration of the priesthood in Leviticus 9 might be something like that. But Malachi’s inspired commentary on the priesthood is helpful. It was a covenant. A covenant with God and the Levites. A formal and solemn agreement by which God would govern the service of the Levites. And so with covenants in Scripture, a common feature is that there are certain common parts to a covenant. Covenants, for example, have stipulations and sanctions. The stipulations are those things that the lesser party in the covenant were to do. The sanctions are the blessing and curses held out based on the performance of those stipulations. Blessings for obedience, curses for disobedience.
Well, this passage shows these elements. There are formal requirements that God had mandated the Levites to follow. Those are the stipulations. The book of Leviticus, for example, spells those out carefully. That’s clearly the primary book to spell out the Levites’ service to God in this covenant. There are very specific provisions and instructions there, but also in the whole Torah as well. The main work of the Levites are spelled out here in this passage as well. And then you will also notice in this passage that there are sanctions mentioned as well. There are blessings and curses held out. Blessings which for the Levites include life and peace as it says in verse 5. Blessings which will extend unto the rest of Israel through their service. And yet curses are also mentioned in verse 2. So what I’d like to do now is to flush out further these aspects of this covenant. I’d like to flush out further what the priests were supposed to be doing, per this passage. And then I’d like to compare that with what it said the priests were actually doing. We will then think about the curse that they were being threatened with here.
So let’s think then what the priests should have been doing. Verses 6 and 7 summarize this for us. Verse 6 gives us a description of this proper service by calling back to the forefathers. Verse 7 looks to today what the priests should be doing. Let’s begin in verse 6. After talking about how God formed the covenant with Levi, he says this, “The law of truth was in his mouth, and injustice was not found on his lips. He walked with me in peace and equity, and turned many away from iniquity.” And so verse 6 describes three main things the priests originally did. First, they had a teaching function. The law of truth was in his mouth. So, they taught God’s law. Second, they lived righteously – walking with God in peace and equity. So their life was an example of the things they taught. Third, they had an effective ministry. They turned many away from iniquity. So, they had a ministry that not only called people to repentance, but God used to bring about repentance in people’s lives. This was their ministry. It was a blessed ministry that taught people God’s law, lived it out themselves, and saw much fruit in the people.
Verse 7 then puts that ideal upon the priests of that day. Verse 7, “For the lips of a priest should keep knowledge, and people should seek the law from his mouth; for he is the messenger of the LORD of hosts.” Again in verse 7, we see the teaching function of the priests. They keep knowledge on their lips – in other words the priests are continually teaching people the knowledge and truth of God’s Word; teachers of the law. As verse 7 says, this means the people are to look to them as these teachers. In short, verse 7 says they are messengers of God to the people.
This description of the priests’ service might surprise us at first. We probably tend to think of the Levites service as one of offering sacrifices and leading in worship. We probably don’t think of them as messengers of God. We probably think of prophets being messengers of God, but not the priests. And yet in the Old Testament, it was the priests, not the prophets, who were tasked with the everyday teaching role of God’s Word. The prophets were the means for a new revelation from God to come. But the priests were in charge of teaching the already revealed Word to God’s people. They were in charge of making sure God’s people knew his laws. That was their responsibility per passages like Leviticus 10:11, Deuteronomy 31:9-13, and others. And so notice the focus of their ministry per these verses. The problem in last chapter was presented in how they defiled the sacrifices. That’s what they were doing wrong. But when it comes to God summarizing how they should be serving, he doesn’t focus on the how to administer sacrifices. God focuses on something more fundamental. How they had to be teaching God’s law. How they needed to teach it, to live it out, and to call others to do the same. In the Old Testament, there were certainly many cultic practices to be performed in their worship. But that wasn’t the foundation of their religion. Interesting, at the time of the Protestant Reformation, that was one critique of the reformers on Rome. They had become so sarcedotal as a church, so focused on executing sacraments almost like they were something magical in themselves, all the while missing the sound doctrine and gospel teaching that must undergird all the sacred ordinances of the church. The Old Testament priests needed this reminder. The church at the Reformation needed this reminder. Today we need this reminder. The ministry of the church time and again finds its foundation in the teaching of the Word of God.
For that is what we see the priests failing to do here in this passage. That’s what was behind the problems of last chapter. The reason they defiled the sacrifices is because they weren’t themselves closely following God’s law. And evidently they weren’t working with the people who brought the sacrifices to know and keep God’s law. It was the law that explained what a right kind of sacrifice was and wasn’t. So look then at verse 8. See how the priests of Malachi’s day were measuring up to the standards mentioned in verses 6 and 7. Verse 8, “But you have departed from the way; you have caused many to stumble at the law. You have corrupted the covenant of Levi.” They did the opposite of what the standard was. When compared against the standard, they were the exact opposite. Verse 6 says they should keep in God’s way, based on the law. Verse 8 says they departed from that way. Verse 6 describes how they should be turning people back to the law. Verse 8 says they caused people to stumble at the law. Maybe because they had stopped teaching it, or were teaching it incorrectly. Maybe their own sinful example of living gave people the impression that certain sins were within God’s laws, when they weren’t. But the bottom line is that they weren’t closely keeping God’s laws, and so neither were the people. Verse 9 at the end confirms their divergence from God’s laws. They were showing partiality; something condemned in the law, they were supposed to impartially judge matters based on God’s law, not based on favoritism toward certain influential people.
The grand result of all of this is in verse 8. They had corrupted the covenant of Levi. The word corrupted there in verse 8 is the same one used in last chapter in 1:14 with how they had offered blemished sacrifices. They had blemished the sacrifices and they had blemished the covenant. Their actions reflected a horrible divergence from this covenant God had made with them. Accordingly, the covenant curses were appropriate at this point. That is a major point then of this passage. There is a threatened curse now being held out over them. The summary of this threat is in verse 2. God threatens a curse upon them, upon their blessings, and says that they are already cursed! Interesting it says that they not only will be cursed, but their blessings will be cursed. These blessings could refer to the benefits that Levites would have received as part of their service. They would have life and peace and it would go well with them. Some have suggested that these blessings refer to the blessings the Levites pronounce on the people – that those blessings would be cursed. You know, the blessing when they said, “The Lord bless you and keep you…” that one. So which blessings will be cursed? Well, it doesn’t say explicitly, but surely both. Those good things God would have given them for their faithful service will be cursed. But also those benefits that should be given to the people when they did their priestly service, surely those would be absent and accursed as well.
We see some of this threatened curse described in verse 3 and you see some of the holistic nature of it. Verse 3 begins by talking of the effects of this curse coming upon the Levites’ descendents. Remember, the Levitical Priesthood was something passed down to the offspring, made specifically with the tribe of Levi and especially to the descendant of Aaron. The priests current breaking of the covenant would find curse on them and the future generations of priests. Then in verse 3 the description of the curse becomes a bit graphic. It talks about refuse being put on their faces. It says this is the refuse that comes from the sacrifices at their sacred feasts; and then they would be taken out with that refuse. Let me paraphrase. The refuse refers either to fecal matter or the contents of the stomach of these animals. Either way, gross inside stuff. The stuff that the law required to be taken out of the sacrificed animal and then burned outside the camp. It was burned outside the camp because it was considered unclean. And so verse 3 imagines the priests becoming unclean with this stuff and taken along with it to outside the camp. In other words, they’d become disqualified for their priestly service. Instead of being holy before the Lord to do this holy priestly ministry, they’d be cast out as unclean. So, this is simply a graphic way to describe how God would disqualify them for priestly service. He’d make them no longer able to do this work, but instead be shamed with uncleanness compared to their prior position of privilege.
This is the threatened curse, in summary. Removed from the blessings of this great ministry, and shamed in uncleanness. And yet verse 2 also says there’s a way in which they’ve already been cursed. Already they’d begun to taste of this. Well, that’s what we see described in the final verse, verse 9. Already, God has made them contemptible and base before the people. In other words, he’s already humbled them as a ministry before the people. Already the people have stopped having for them the sort of regard they should have. I’m sure a part of this is due to God not blessing their ministry. They do their ministry outwardly before men, but with God’s curse upon it. The ministry of an unconverted priest is a cursed ministry not a blessed one. Thus, you’d expect that the people do not get the sorts of benefits from that ministry that they’d normally get. That would lower the people’s perspective of their priests. Think even today how we see that. For example, think of the low perspective of the televangelist; those so called ministers that most people can see right through as just looking for money. They are not usually held in very high esteem. There may have been something akin to that going on here with the priests of Malachi’s day. But the point here is that this was part of God’s curse upon them already. Already the people had begun to hold them and their so called ministry in low esteem.
And so there is great tension here over the future of the priesthood. Will it continue? When the priests and their offspring are already under curse and under the threat of future curse? Well, verse 4 gives hope. Look there. It describes in verse 4 that the curses coming upon them will not only make them recognize God’s involvement in this, but with the hope that the covenant of Levi would continue. Verse 4 gives a subtle hope that the priesthood will go on. That’s a hope flushed out further in Malachi 3. The first four verses of chapter 3 describe how one day the priesthood would be purified. It would happen through God coming to his people. He would come as a refiner’s fire. As he came, he would purify the Levites and the priesthood. That’s the hope of verse 4 here flushed out and explained.
Well, in the light of the New Testament, we know that the hope of verse 4 and the hope of chapter 3 find their fulfillment with the coming of Jesus Christ. The advent of the Christ is God coming to his people. He came and brought the blessing of life and peace. Where the Levites brought curse and cursed service, Christ brought a perfect and blessed priestly service. Not only through his perfect unblemished sacrifice as we talked about last week. But think of what the priests are supposed to do here. They were supposed to be teachers of the Word, who lived it out themselves, and called others to do the same. That’s what Jesus did in the best way.
Just think of his faithful ministry of the Word. He did it in light of this problem. In light of the problem that Israel’s religious leaders had failed in that task. Many of the religious leaders at that time talked a lot about righteousness and had an outward appearance of righteousness, but were not truly walking in righteousness according to Jesus. So what did he do? He filled their gap. Think of when Jesus fed the five thousand. Mark 6:4 says that he was there teaching with that many people because he saw the multitude and had compassion on them. Why? Because they were like sheep without a shepherd. He saw that they needed the Word taught to them, that the shepherds like the priest hadn’t been doing their job, so he took over. Or think about the Sermon on the Mount. That’s where Jesus said he did not come to abolish the law, but fulfill it. He went on to give and explain many laws of God. Think of the setting. Like Moses, a Levite who gave God’s law from a mountain. In that sermon, Jesus again gives the law of God from a mountain. And the sermon ends noting Jesus’ authority. He taught different than the teachers of the day. He taught as one with authority.
And so Jesus fulfills the ideal priest in the best way, including his teaching ministry. And in Jesus, he brings about a new, even better, era for the priesthood. In the Old Testament, there was the hope that somehow all God’s people would be priests. That is something that has been brought about in Christ. The New Testament records that in Christ, all believers are now a priesthood. 1 Peter 2:9 for example. Now he is writing his law on the hearts of all believers. Of course, pastors in the church especially carry on the role of a priest, within the context of the new covenant. They administer Word and Sacrament. Their job is especially a teaching ministry as we see here for the Levites. And of course, Scripture says that pastors and teachers are a gift from Christ to benefit the church. The point is that this is how Christ has kept the priesthood going in the new covenant. He’s made us a kingdom of priests, and also given certain ordained servants to carry on the ministry of Word and Sacrament.
And so we are a part of this as we become united to Christ in faith. Verse 6 commended the priests of old for how they turned many from their iniquity. That is what Christ the ideal priest has done for us. He has turned us from our sin. He’s turned us from our sin in the sense of atoning for our sin on the cross. He satisfied our sin so we could be justified. And he also has turned us from our sin by working in our lives repentance and faith. That we would begin to walk with God in righteousness, just as Jesus walked in righteousness. That we’d walk in the way of God’s holy laws. That in all this we’d find the blessing of peace and life. This we have through Jesus Christ who turns us from our sin. That we can now draw near to God as his holy priesthood.
Brothers and sisters, on this Reformation Sunday, God would have us to hear and take the challenge of this passage to heart. In the midst of Christ’s work to purify a people of priests, we recognize that he’s not finished with us yet. We recognize that part of what this passage calls us to is to see that he is still at work to refine his church. His refining fire carries on now through his Word and Spirit. But he also uses the ordained leaders of the church especially in leading in this area. Yes, especially pastors as they lead in both Word and Sacrament.
And yet on Reformation Sunday, we are reminded that the church has had many pastors and leaders who have led the church away from God’s Word and sound theology. That was the problem back then with the priests. That was the problem addressed during the Protestant Reformation. This passage would have us to continue to look with wisdom at the state of the church and its pastors.
At any point if you find yourself in a church where the pastor is not teaching the Word of God, it’s your privilege and dare I say obligation to call them lovingly to account. Call them to hear and take the heart the exhortation from passages like this. That they need to be teaching the Word. And they need to be walking in the teachings of the Word. And that’s what they need to be exhorting the people to be doing. If they won’t hear you out, then bring it to the church and denomination. If still they won’t hear you, then that is the time to leave that church and unite with one that is faithful to the Word. Realize that leaving a church should be the last resort. When Martin Luther started, he wasn’t trying to leave the church. He was looking to reform it. He got ran out of the church. When the founders of our denomination started the OPC, it wasn’t because they just left the mainline church. No, they were ran out for the ways they were standing up for the gospel – deposed from ministry by the erring courts of the mainline.
Sadly many so called churches around Marin and the world likely have pastors that aren’t even true believers, let alone walking with God and his laws. Let us be praying for and seeking reform in the church. Pray for the pastors that you are in contact with, for their faithful service. That they would teach the Word. But that they’d also zealously live it out. Look to practice what they preach, even as they call others to do as well. And may we too, as part of this priesthood of believers share God’s Word with others and look to walk with God all our days. Amen.
Copyright © 2011 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.