Sunday, June 11, 2023

The Priests Go First

When Malachi condemns the people of Israel for their unfaithfulness, he starts with the priests.

Hmm. That may seem a little unfair. After all, the priests in Israel had limited control over the minds and hearts of the people. When Israelites chose to bring blind, lame and sick animals to offer their God, it could hardly be said to be the priesthood’s fault.

Could it?

The Road to Repentance

God certainly seems to have thought so. In spending two chapters of Malachi’s prophecy condemning the Israelite priesthood, its practices and attitudes, he seems to strongly suggest that the road to repentance begins with those who have failed to take responsibility for the sinful behavior occurring around them. The priests go first, and are very much accountable.

Not everything that happened in Israel may legitimately be taken as an allegory or picture of what goes on in churches today, but where the Holy Spirit draws attention to similarities between God’s chosen people, the nation of Israel, and modern Christians who also have been chosen by God, we probably ought to pay attention.

Specifically, we are told in the New Testament that ALL believers are priests, though it is a truth often ignored in Christendom, which tends to default easily into the well-worn ruts and grooves of sacerdotalism. But if the priesthood analogy is at all meaningful, the accountability for the failure of Christian churches — a load we might prefer to dump on pastors or elders — belongs squarely in our own court.

I hate to say it, but “with great power comes great responsibility”. Thanks, Stan Lee. If we are all priests, then we all have a level of accountability for the worship and service of those around us. We cannot pretend that when things have gone wrong and the people of God have failed him, it’s not “on us” in any way.

Malachi’s prophecy gives each of us three good reasons to step up when we observe that faithfulness around us is on the decline.

1/ Unfaithfulness Affects How the World Perceives God

“Where is my honor?” says the Lord. “Where is my fear?”

Testimony is the first major casualty of a breach in the relationship of God and his people. When those who proudly wear the title “people of God” undervalue and shortchange him, they publicly demonstrate their own lack of respect. Malachi describes those who offered blind, lame, sick animals to God while watching the best being held back by the worshipers, but then have the gall to brazenly ask, “How have we despised your name?

Such disregard is not merely between the false worshipers, the priesthood and God. It is not a private affair: Malachi says that in knowingly offering inferior sacrifices, the priests “profane” God’s name. Such behavior makes God out to be inconsequential, his service insignificant and his anger a matter of no concern. Paul tells the Jews who boasted in the Law of Moses while consistently dishonoring the God of Moses that “the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you”.

Treating the name of God as if it were common or inconsequential is an infectious habit God cannot and will not ignore. It is as dangerous today as it was in the days of Malachi. The notion that God has no standards of purity of any consequence, and that he may be approached any old way is as ancient as the story of Cain, and as potentially disastrous to Christians today as it was to Nadab and Abihu when they attempted to offer unauthorized fire.

Christians today are awfully concerned about what the world thinks of us when what is vastly more important is what Jesus Christ thinks of us.

2/ Unfaithfulness Does Not Materially Impact God

This is not generally true of you and me. We are easily impacted by unfaithfulness. It is the rare individual indeed who remains untainted and unaffected by the betrayal of a loved one. When people despise us, we most often respond by despising them right back.

Alternatively, we may collapse, becoming pitiful and plaintive. When a husband and wife part ways, each may attempt to spin the narrative for others in an effort to gather allies and sympathizers among mutual friends. It is rare for one or both parties to maintain their dignity and integrity in the face of obvious rejection.

It is important to realize that however many professing Christians fail to honor Christ; however many apostatize, fall away or give evidence of false profession; however many sport nothing more than a transparently phony religious veneer, the unfaithfulness of God’s people does NOT change God’s character in any way. He does not become someone unrecognizable in the face to betrayal or rejection. He remains exactly who he has always been:

“For from the rising of the sun to its setting my name will be great among the nations, and in every place incense will be offered to my name, and a pure offering. For my name will be great among the nations, says the Lord of hosts.”

Some people profess to be believers in Jesus Christ, attend church and continue to mingle with the people of God for years, all the while living their lives and making all their important choices primarily for their own satisfaction, just like the worshipers in Malachi. It happens all the time. By their ongoing conduct they display a disregard for Jesus Christ similar to that which the Jewish people of Malachi’s day displayed toward YHWH.

But that changes nothing about God. He is not diminished in any way by unfaithfulness. When we are dishonorable, he remains honorable. When we show a lack of integrity, his nature is unchanged. Our testimony may be damaged and we may cause others to stumble, but there will always be those who appreciate and value our Savior, and who recognize his worth. “My name will be great among the nations”, he says. Nothing and nobody can change that.

In short, while God cares what we do, the big losers when we fail to serve and worship as we should will always be us.

3/ Unfaithfulness Does Not Affect God’s Love for Us

Amazingly, even when his people act like something far baser and lower than we should ever become, God’s love for us is undiminished. His commitment to perfecting those of us who have truly believed in the Lord Jesus Christ is unaffected, though it may be that he has to discipline some of us quite severely to wake us up to this fact.

Not without reason does Malachi’s prophecy begin with this statement: “I have loved you”. Before the condemnation, before the reproaches, before the criticism and the threats — and yes, there are threats, or perhaps we prefer to call them the promise of consequences — God makes it abundantly clear to his people that he loves them.

When someone really loves you, and especially when that someone is God, it guarantees that he will not leave you alone.

If your church is failing to live up to its purpose, and if there are any in your midst who are genuinely faithful and calling upon the name of their God, rest assured that you will not be left in despair to watch the place fall down around you as your fellow congregants drift back into the world. The Lord Jesus promises in Revelation that when he knocks, those who answer that knock will enjoy fellowship with him, even if nobody else hears him at the door.

Further, if it is necessary one day that the candlestick of testimony in your church be removed for unfaithfulness, it is never without warning, and it is never a merely incidental thing. When the Lord tells the Ephesian church that “I will … remove your lampstand … unless you repent”, he says this first: “I will come to you.”

Love does not walk away casually. Do not expect the Lord to abandon your church without making his displeasure very evident first.

Stepping Up

What could the priests in Malachi’s day have done about the attitude of those around them? Well, they could certainly have spoken out. They could have refused to participate in a pretence of worship that was perfunctory, insincere, polluted and phony to the core. They could have fallen on their faces to plead for the mercy of God on their presumptuous brethren rather than willingly or even reluctantly participating in their sins. The could have called sin what it is, rather than excusing it.

They could have stepped up. Because the priests come first. They bear the accountability for what goes on among the people of God. That’s not your pastor, your elders or your board of directors.

That’s you, and that’s me.

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