God is faithful to His covenant

Malachi 2:17-3:12

21 January 2005

Cornhill Training Course

Sermon practice class


A law that is never enforced might as well not exist at all. Isn't that right?

I was thinking about this on my way up to London on the train this morning. I noticed that my ticket is almost never checked, and began to wonder if, in the light of this, it was worth my bothering to get one at all. Certainly South West trains don't seem to care if I have a ticket or not.

Or, when everyone else is driving at 90 miles an hour on the motorway and getting away with it, it's not surprising that I find my speed creeping up as well, is it? After all, the police don't seem to care, so why should I?

A law that is never enforced might as well not exist at all.

We see the same sort of attitude at work in the church. For example, we live in a world that regards blasphemy as legitimate entertainment. The recent broadcast of Jerry Springer, the Opera, on BBC2, being just one instance.

As far as I know, no-one has been struck down by lightning for showing it. As far as I know the BBC is still broadcasting happily. Where is God? Doesn't He care about this? Apparently, he does not.

So, if from this we, the church, conclude that God doesn't care about blasphemy, then we're not going to care about it much either, are we? And the same goes for all the other sins we see going unpunished in the world around us. If God doesn't appear to care about sin then why should we?

That's the state of much of the church today; and God's people in Malachi's time are in a similar place.

The historical setting is that the remnant of Israel have begun to return from exile. They have rebuilt the temple and the Priests have started ministering again. But there is something missing: where is the glory of God that Ezekiel had foreseen? I looked, and behold, the glory of the Lord filled the temple of the Lordref.

What's more, the returning Israelites were being hard pressed by the nations around, and God was ignoring it. Where was God? Why wasn't He enforcing the covenant he had made with Israel, the promise he had made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob that he would be their God and they would be his people? Why wasn't God cursing the wicked and blessing the righteous as he'd promised?

If God didn't care about his covenant, then why should they? So we saw in chapters one and two how unfaithfulness was spreading amongst the people, and in particular the priesthood. In chapter one, we saw how their lack of reverence for God had led to a cost-free worship; in chapter two how their lack of regard for the covenant led to faithlessness in teaching, and faithlessness in relationships. If God didn't care about his covenant, then why should they?

A covenant that is never enforced might as well not exist at all.

And that brings us into our text at verse 17. 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?"ref

Malachi has exposed the roots of their problem. Their question was, "where is the God of covenant justice?" , and their conclusion was "since we don't see God enforcing his covenant he clearly doesn't really care what we do. So let's do evil like everyone else."

But the message of our entire passage today is God is faithful to his covenant. That's the take-home message, and if you want to remember only one thing, remember that. God is faithful to his covenant.

Although there is one message it comes in two parts, which are the the two prophetic units (or oracles) that Malachi gives us starting at chapter 2 verse 17 and chapter 3 verse 6. Each more-or-less follows the same statement, question, explanation, conclusion (or s.q.e.c.) structure that Chris introduced us to in chapter one.

The theme of the first oracle, chapter 2:17 to 3:5, is God is faithful to his covenant, but unfaithfulness in the church invites God's covenant judgement.

The first oracle: covenant judgement

Malachi's hearers had forgotten that just because judgement is postponed doesn't mean that judgement isn't coming. And in chapter 3 verse 1 God is announcing through Malachi that judgement is indeed coming. The Hebrew name Malachi means "my messenger", and Malachi's preaching is preparing the way for the Lord himself at last to come to his temple and enforce his covenant.

This is the moment they have been waiting for: at last the glory of the Lord will fill the temple; at last the covenant will be enforced, the nations cursed and Israel blessed.

However, Verse 2 starts with the word "but" and that signals an enormous surprise. The Lord will indeed be enforcing the covenant: but not first upon the nations; first with the priests. And, startlingly, far from the covenant blessings they were looking for instead they would be subject to covenant judgement.

As we saw in chapters one and two the priesthood—the Levites—had been particularly unfaithful to God. Although they pointed the finger at others God is now pointing his finger at them. God is coming first to his temple, and which of the priests will be able to endure the white heat of his holiness?

But note that this will not be a blanket condemnation of the priesthood. It is a refining and a purifying. God will not wipe out his priests en masse because he is a faithful, covenant God, and there is always a faithful remnant among his people.

It is, however, a judgement on those who are not faithful. The images of refining and washing are images of separation. The furnace heat of the refiner's fire will separate the dross to be discarded as slag, leaving pure metal behind. The vigorous washing of cloth will separate out the dirt and scum to be poured away, leaving a clean, white garment.

Incidentally, the fullers' soap Malachi mentions here wouldn't really have been soap at all, but a substance called lye, which was the highly reactive product of wood ash soaked in water. When used for washing it would generate heat and could burn skin; it can apparently dissolve some metals!

The point is that whether by furnace or washing the heat was going to be turned up on the priests until the unfaithful were driven out and discarded, leaving a purified band of faithful priests to do God's work in righteousness. A complete reversal of the dismal situation of chapter one.

Furthermore, in verse 4 we learn that although the refining will begin with the priests it will eventually encompass all of God's people in Jerusalem and Judah.

What is it that God will purify them from? Verse 5 gives a list of covenant-breaking sins, which is not intended to be comprehensive but representative of the whole covenant unfaithfulness of the people: sorcery, adultery, false testimony, injustice to workers, oppressing the vulnerable, and inhospitality to strangers.

By coming in judgement to purify his people from all these things and more God is demonstrating that he is faithful to his covenant.

Now, it's legitimate for us to ask, when did all this happen. When did God come and purify his people?

I said earlier that the messenger preparing the way in verse 1 was Malachi himself, and perhaps that is how he saw things. But look over to chapter 4 verse 5 and we see that Malachi anticipating another prophet who would come before the day of the Lord, and who would be in the mould of Elijah, the very epitome of the prophetic ministry.

Well, the New Testament is unequivocal on this. In Matthew chapter 10 Jesus is clear that the messenger preparing the way in Malachi 3 is John the Baptist. And clearly the Lord, the messenger of the covenant is Jesus himself.

Jesus' coming is a fulfilment of Malachi's prophecy. In establishing his kingdom under the New Covenant Jesus created a new community of God's faithful people. Not the faithless kingdom of Israel, but the faithful kingdom of heaven. As Paul puts it in Titus chapter 2, our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good worksref.

But we're deluded, aren't we, if we imagine that this means that our churches are now free of sin, and all the behaviours that Malachi was speaking against. Far from it! As I suggested in the introduction our church in this country very much resembles the situation in Malachi's day: a people thoroughly compromised with the world. How can this be?

Jesus tells a parable in Matthew chapter 13 that can help us. The parable of the weeds. I'll read the relevant bit.

The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field, but while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also... But the man said, "Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn."ref

Does that sound familiar? The parable tells us that the complete fulfilment of Malachi's prophecy is yet to come. There will be a final day when the God will finish the purification of his people. Meanwhile, the church, like Malachi's priesthood, will continue to be a mixture of the faithful and unfaithful.

What can we conclude? Well, we can conclude that attending a church however regularly, being on the PCC, organising the flower rota, even being a clergyman: none of these things automatically make us safe from the judgement of God, any more than the priests of Malachi's time were safe. God is faithful to his covenant, but unfaithfulness in the church invites God's covenant judgement.

If we want a guarantee of escape from condemnation at the judgement then we need to look elsewhere. And that's where Malachi takes us next.

The second oracle: covenant blessing

As we move on to the second oracle in chapter 3 verse 6 we find Malachi re-iterating that God is faithful to his covenant. But his message now is not a message of judgement, but a message of grace: God is faithful to his covenant, and a return to faithfulness by his people secures God's covenant blessings.

God's unchanging relationship with his covenant people is spelt out in verse 6, "I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed"ref. The children of Jacob are Israel, the covenant people. Many times God in his righteous anger must have been tempted to annihilate them for their obscene disobedience: verse 7 From the days of your fathers you have turned aside from my statutes and not kept themref. But his faithfulness to his covenant love does not allow him to do so.

The people deserve judgement, but God offers forgiveness and restoration, Return to me, and I will return to youref.

Do you feel far from God? How confident are you that on the day Christ comes to judge the church you will survive the refiner's fire? Perhaps you once knew God's steadfast love, but now you are aware of some persistent sin that keeps you from God and keeps God from you. Well, this promise is for you. Our unchanging God still says, Return to me, and I will return to youref.

But how do we return to God? Malachi's hearers don't seem too sure, How shall we return?ref they ask.

God's message to them was that true repentance is demonstrated in the putting right of the things that keep us from God; by returning to covenant faithfulness. In their case, their broken relationship with God was demonstrated in their negligence in the matter of tithing. The tithe was the means by which the Levites were supported. Each Israelite was required to bring to the temple one tenth of his produce in terms of livestock or harvest. But like the priests' inadequate sacrifices of chapter one, the people had clearly been deficient in bringing the tithe. As a result, in verses 8 and 9 God declares that they are robbing him. Their negligence in the tithe was not simply a matter of depriving the Levites of their due, it was stealing from God himself.

God wasn't so much interested in their crops—after all, he could create them from thin air if he so wished—but he was passionately interested in the covenant faithfulness that the tithe demonstrated. And this is what they were robbing him of: not of cash, but of obedience.

The Christian's covenant relationship with God is through the death of Jesus Christ. Without him we can never put right the wrongs we have done to God; only in him can our relationship with God be restored, because only his death could atone for God's anger at our disobedience. We return to God when we come to Christ to confess our sins and say with sincerity "Not my will, but yours" .

But, like Malachi's hearers, our covenant faithfulness will inevitably be demonstrated in what we do as a result. True repentance is not cost-free; true repentance will lead to a heart desire to try to live out our covenant faithfulness to God.

In Malachi's day the barometer of the spiritual health of God's people was their giving. And I think the same is often true today. It's clear from the New Testament that we are free from the legalistic requirement to tithe our money to the church. But I do think that probably the closest thing to a faith-o-meter that we can have is the level of our cheerfulness in giving. If you want to do a quick and crude spiritual health-check, have a look at your joy and willingness in giving.

Perhaps you find that you are a reluctant giver, that God gets only your leftovers, if those. If so then take it as a prompt that maybe you need to return to God in covenant faithfulness.

Perhaps you find yourself asking questions like "should my 10% giving be out of my gross income, my net income or my disposable income?" If so, then you are suffering from legalism and you need to return to the grace of God's covenant.

To be completely clear: we cannot contribute in any way to our salvation by the amount we give, however sacrificially. But the nature of our giving may well be a helpful indicator of the quality of our covenant relationship with God. If your giving is deficient perhaps God's invitation is for you: Return to me, and I will return to youref. He doesn't need our money, but he longs to have our obedience.

God's promise, then, in verses 10 through 12 is that if his people will return to covenant faithfulness, then they can at last enjoy the covenant blessings: abundant rain, pest-free crops, fruitful vines and the much-longed for respect of the nations.

God's covenant blessing for us is eternal life in the new earth, enjoying his presence forever. God is faithful to his covenant, and a return to faithfulness amongst his people in trusting and obeying Christ alone will ensure that the covenant blessings are for us.


To summarise, then, the two points. Malachi's message is that whatever the world and church look like God is faithful to his covenant. If we want him judge the world in justice, he must first judge the church. And if we return to him in covenant faithfulness we can be sure that he will bless and and not destroy us.

There is some evidence in chapter 3 verse 16 that at least some of Malachi's hearer's did heed his warnings and took advantage of God's covenant faithfulness to secure their destiny. What are we going to do about it?