[June 30]—Robbing God, Part One

Malachi 3:6-12

            OK, I’m sure I’m going to end up regretting this, but I really don’t have much of a choice here. We’ve come to a passage which talks about tithing, and this has generated a lot of controversy here.
            Let me first put out the disclaimer I’ve used a lot of times before: There are a lot of Christians I have complete respect for, fellow believers who have as much regard for the Bible as I have, who disagree with me. I hope that people know me well enough that they don’t accuse me of being unfaithful to Scripture. Also, let me apologize in advance of what’s a much longer post than I usually submit. I have a lot of friends who disagree with me on this, so I have to take a little longer to make my case. I have to tread carefully and explain myself thoroughly, and that takes space.
            On one side of the issue are tithe. . .literalists I could call them. It’s a neutral term, I guess. I take the whole of Scripture as literally as the context dictates. I don’t take poetry or apocalyptic visions literally, for example. But in this context (on the topic of tithing in general and this passage in particular), I use this term because they take this passage quite literally. So this is my understanding of what they believe: Believers under the New Covenant are still under obligation right now to give 10% of their income (off of gross, not net) to the church (not a para-church ministry or to a missionary service, but only to the local church). If they do so, God will financially bless them: The promises of vss. 10-12 will be literally fulfilled in their lives. If not, if they fail in any of the particulars above, they’re robbing God and are thus under a financial curse. If a believer’s going thru any financial difficulties at all, this passage is the first place they look for an explanation.
            On the other side are what I’d call non-literalists (for lack of a better term). They disagree with the above propositions in one particular or another. That of course raises the obvious question: “So what are Christians today obligated to give?” The answer from most—that I’ve heard—seems to boil down to “Whatever the Lord leads you to give.”
            I have a few problems with both sides. We’ll dialogue with the first group today, and we’ll deal with the second group tomorrow. My questions to the literalists: If you believe in progressive revelation—in other words, we interpret Malachi in the light of Paul—then how do you deal with Paul saying “Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”? Telling people “Either you give at least 10% to the church (gross, not net) or the Lord will financially curse you” doesn’t sound like “not under compulsion” to me. They can answer “Well, Paul in that case was talking about a special offering for a specific charity project, not the week-to-week expenses of a church.” Point taken. But I don’t find explicit instructions--anywhere in the N. T.--for keeping up with the ongoing expenses. This is the only passage I see—post Resurrection—where Paul or any epistle-writer talks this specifically about giving. This seems to be all we have on this topic.
            The literalists might answer: “OK, Jesus himself when he was talking to the Pharisees said ‘Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.’” They point out “Jesus specifically said 'You should have practiced the latter,' meaning tithing.” This means he’s telling them (and us) that people should tithe.
I guess they have a point, but it seems like the tithe literalists, quite frankly, are playing a little fast-and-loose with the book of Malachi themselves. Malachi later tells us “Remember the law of my servant Moses, the decrees and laws I gave him at Horeb for all Israel.” Every believer in Jesus who eats pork products (mmmmm. . . bacon) understands that the rules for the New Covenant are (at least slightly) different than those under the Old one, so we’re obviously not going to take 4:4 as literally as we do 3:6-12. Now, were the Pharisees to whom Jesus spoke under the New Covenant, or under the Old one? Most people would say “The Old one.” They were still performing animal sacrifices at the temple, as well they should've been. If any of them had eaten any bacon or sausage, that would've been a sin for them. So let’s please take that in consideration when we look at Jesus’ conversation with them.
Also, I need to ask the literalists another question: “With all respect, where do you see the words ‘local church’ in the Malachi passage?” In order to get to your interpretation, we have to translate “storehouse” into “the local church.” Not “storehouse” into “para-church ministry” or “supporting a missionary.” Why “local church” and nothing else? For someone taking this passage literally and in full-force for believers today, it seems like a bit of a stretch. With respect, I’m just sayin’.
And finally, do you really believe that if I tithe correctly, I’m guaranteed that God will bless me financially? Oddly enough, the ones who’ve told me this tend to be quite critical of the “Health and Wealth” Gospel, a heresy (and yes, I use that term purposefully) that teaches that A) Every believer has the right to perfect health and plenty of financial wealth, and B) If you’re suffering a deficiency in either, then something’s wrong with your faith or obedience.  I wholeheartedly join with everyone who rejects this teaching for the heresy that it is. But assuming the literalists join me in rejecting it, how exactly does someone reconcile doing so with a literal reading of the promises in vss. 10-12?
So how do we apply passages like this, and how do we approach the issue of tithing? We’ll get to the second question tomorrow, but for now, let me say this: Our dogmatic adherence to a doctrine should be in direct proportion to how often and clearly the Bible talks about it. Christians who thoroughly believe in the complete inspiration of Scripture still disagree over this issue. As I once heard, “In essentials, unity; in doubtful matters, liberty; in all things, charity.”
In this spirit, let me say a brief word in defense of the tithe literalists. Even assuming that they’re totally wrong and I’m totally right on this, I feel really weird arguing with them on it. The giving of most believers in America is pitiful. I’ve heard statistics which say that Christians typically give at most 1-2% of their income to their local churches. If believers did tithe regularly, that would take care of all the necessary expenses of the church with much to spare. When the literalists are fighting against a stinginess that smacks of antinomianism, I want to stand shoulder to shoulder with them, if they’ll have me. Even if I disagree slightly with them on their interpretation of the binding obligations of the Old Testament on New Testament believers, this certainly--as far as I’m concerned--is not nearly important enough to break fellowship with them.
Heaven knows the main enemy of the Church in America today is not legalism but antinomianism. In taking a stand against what—quite frankly—has just a whiff of legalism, I almost feel like someone putting a lot of effort into a campaign of fighting polio. Polio’s a horrible disease to catch, but it’s not really a clear and present danger. Someone might rightly tell me “You know, if this was during the Protestant Reformation, you might have a point in fighting legalism. But that’s not the problem right now in America.” Once again, I hear you. But I can’t stand silent when I disagree with someone’s interpretation of Scripture, no matter what the cost. As the Germans might say, Warheit Uber Alles: Truth above everything.
Once again, I apologize for the long post. I understand that I might have lost some of you, either through boredom or by driving away Bible-believers who disagree with me strongly enough to stop reading. But I couldn’t in good conscience do anything else. I would ask that you read the next post and hear me out on the rest of my thoughts on it. May God bless all of us as we seek his leadership and guidance.

Father God, the dead last thing I ever want to do is lead anyone into disobedience. May your church truly come together on what’s important to you, and may we all be led away from stinginess and carelessness concerning your standards, and further into love, obedience, and gratitude.

[June 29]—Hope In No Change

Malachi 3:6

            We already talked about the first verses of Malachi chapter 3 before, and I really don’t have that much more to say about it. Just to summarize: The Messiah was coming (and as we know from the N.T. perspective, there are two comings, and we await his second one) and would come as the ultimate cleansing agent. The first time he came to cleanse his people from their sin, and the second time he’ll come to cleanse the earth of sinners and quarantine them forever in a place called Hell. To put it bluntly, you’re going to be involved in one cleansing or the other. The prophet asks “[Who] can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears?” This is a rhetorical question. The answer is “No one.”
            But then we come to today’s verse, and I submit that pound for pound, this is one of the most poignant and meaningful verses in the entire Bible. In this one verse (fifteen words in the NIV translation, ten words in the Hebrew), there is so much packed meaning. Let’s unpack it.
            In the first words here, the Lord (speaking thru his prophet) tells us that he does not change. This is so important. I really don’t think I can overemphasize this. The theological term is immutability, and it’s a good word to know.
As always, we need to be careful in our thinking about him. This means he’s not affected in his nature by anything outside himself. However, he responds to what’s outside himself. For example, his behavior towards us is determined by our behavior towards him. When we sin, he responds. When we confess and repent and believe, he responds to that as well. He’s not unaffected by what goes on in his creation. Contrary to deism in all its permutations, he takes an active role in the created universe. He didn’t create it and walk away. He’s more than the “Unmoved Mover” that some philosophers picture him as.
But in his nature, in what he is in and of himself, he doesn’t change. What he was in himself in the moment before he first said “Let there be. . .” he still is and forever will be. In order to understand this, let’s contrast this with ourselves. A great illustration of this which I’ve heard is a wave of the sea. A wave looks basically the same as it rolls forward. But as it does so, it’s constantly changing in ways visible and invisible. It gets bigger or smaller, which is visible to the naked eye. But it’s also changing on the inside as well: The water of which it's made up has changed. We’re like that. To the naked eye, I’m pretty much the same person I was a year ago. But inside, I've really changed in ways you can’t even see. And of course I’m always susceptible to changes which are immediately visible. If I was in a serious car accident, for example, there would be immediately visible changes.
But in his nature, in who and what he is, he doesn’t change. He's completely true to his word. He’s the three “O’s”: omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent. He hated sin before creation, and he hates it just as much now, and he always will.
And here’s where it gets practical. Remember, I’m a practical theologian, because the Bible isn’t there to satisfy our idle curiosity about God or anything else. If it tells us a fact about the Lord or anything else, there’s a practical reason.
The Lord tells us here that he doesn’t change, and therefore “you, the descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed.” Again, there’s a lot of meaning in just these few words. He doesn’t change, therefore he’s still patient with--and forgives--sinners. Please notice how he addresses them. There’s a reason he calls them “descendants of Jacob” (please see here for more on the significance of his name). Jacob, the child of promise, was far from a picture of godliness most—if not all—of his life. He was the consummate con-man, meaning he was an expert in cheating people and lying to them. He was a coward, liar, thief, and mostly self-absorbed most of his life. But God still was patient with him and still forgave him his sins (which were multiple and egregious).
This is why this immutability stuff is so important. Let’s do a thought experiment. Let’s say the Lord could change. Let’s say that one morning he announced “You know, I think this ‘salvation by grace through faith in my Son’ paradigm isn’t working out. Starting today, we’re going onto a ‘salvation by works’ model. Let’s try the ‘Give them immediately what they deserve’ model for a while." How would that work out for you? To borrow the words of the prophet, if that happened, “Who could stand?”
But he doesn’t change. The blood of Jesus cleanses us from sin. He forgives the instant we confess and repent. We are his children the moment we believe in Jesus, and as such are co-heirs with Christ. Our Savior has gone away to prepare a home for us, and he’s returning to take us to be with him so that we also may be where he is. And because he doesn’t change, we can count on that and every one of his promises (as well as the threats).
So do you see why this is so important?

Father God, I certainly act sometimes like a spiritual descendant of Jacob: sinful, deceitful, ungodly, totally undeserving of anything but judgment but receiving grace upon grace upon grace. I thank you that you don’t change, and you never will. 

[June 28]—Wearying God (?)

Malachi 2:17

            The first half of the book (which is what we’ve discussed up till now) is done. Now we come to the second half, in which the prophet deals with some other topics. But before we get to that, the verse above introduces it.
            First off, let me remind you of a term theologians use which is good for you to know: anthropomorphism. In terms of studying the Bible, it’s referring to talking about God using human terms which we know are an incomplete picture of him, and which (if taken completely literally) isn't compatible with his nature or being. For example, the Psalmists repeatedly talk about the Lord as if he has hands which saved them or with which he works (for example, here). God is spirit. He doesn’t have literal hands like we do. This is an image of his saving or creative power on behalf of his people. Even using the word “power” is a bit of a misnomer, since it evokes an image of energy like electricity. As an illustration, if you went to a native in Africa who'd never been exposed to anything in the modern world and tried to explain to him an airplane, you might try using something he’s seen and is familiar with, like a bird. He might ask, “So this ‘plane’ flaps its wings like that bird over there?” “Um, no.” “Well, is it like a bird, or not?” So then you have to go into detail with him and try to get it thru to him that a plane has some characteristics like a bird, but it’s different in a lot of ways. It’s metal, while a bird has feathers, etc.
            That’s what we have to keep in mind with anthropomorphic images in the Bible. These images tell us something about him, but this doesn’t mean the authors had a shallow view of him. Every image we have of God is going to be inadequate and inaccurate to some degree at best.
            The reason I bring this is up is so that there’s no misunderstanding about this verse telling us that God is “wearied” by their complaining. He doesn’t get tired or irritated or impatient like we do. When he was done creating the entire universe, he had as much “energy” at the end as he had at the beginning—that is to say, an infinite amount. He rested because his work was done, not because he was tired.
            With this in mind, what was it that they were doing which was “wearying” him, which was trying his patience and which was inviting his judgment?
            It had to do with questioning his justice. There were two aspects of this, and there are two distinct traps which we need to avoid. First, they were saying that the God of justice was “pleased” with evildoers. They didn’t see him openly destroying sinners in front of them, so they assumed that he wasn’t watching or didn’t care.
            This led to a complacent lifestyle, as demonstrated by the quality of their offerings and their personal lives, especially in their marriages. Again, the main issue wasn’t the offering itself, as if God needed to eat their sacrifices, like the pagan gods supposedly did. The disease was their heart attitude towards him, and their sacrifices were a symptom.
            The second trap, as illustrated by the second question, led to discouragement among the godly. They were asking “Where is the God of justice?” In other words, he hadn’t openly shown his power lately, so what use was it to try to follow his ways? I think these two traps—complacency and discouragement—were intertwined with each other and fed off each other.
            Both of these traps were rooted in a faulty premise: God hasn’t openly shown himself lately, so he doesn’t know or care what’s going on. As the prophet was telling them, however, he does see. He does care. Don’t be discouraged, and above all don’t let your discouragement lead to complacency in your relationship with him. Either of these demonstrates a lack of trust, and this tries his patience and invites judgment (or corrective discipline, if you prefer).
            Don’t try his patience. You’ll regret it, I promise.

Father God, it does get difficult sometimes to trust and obey. I can only do this by your empowering grace. Please, give me more. 

[June 27]—Unfaithfulness, Divorce and Violence

Malachi 2:10-16

            OK, Malachi spent most of his ammo on the priesthood, the spiritual leaders. But in today’s passage he delivers a verbal broadside against his entire culture, the commons sins of the common men. In a nutshell, they were being unfaithful to the Lord and blatantly disregarding his standards. Like today, a lot of it had to do with sex.
            What was the problem? Today’s passage deals with two main problems: Idolatry and divorce.
            Idolatry was a danger to Israel’s spiritual health and even its existence since its inception. One interesting theory/explanation I’ve heard about the whole “Going-into-Egypt” scenario is that Jacob and his family probably were brought into Egypt (out of Canaan) so that they could become a distinct nation under the Lord. In Egypt there were many (existential) dangers, but assimilation was not one of them, considering the Egyptians wouldn’t even eat with them. But Moses—again and again and again—warned his people not to fall into the trap of idolatry.
Now, we need to be careful here. There are two points to consider: 1) The people of Israel, under their covenant, were under the marching orders not to associate with the pagans around them, Canaanites in particular. But we're under orders to take the Message of Jesus to the ends of the world, to share the Good News with everyone.
Also, we need to be absolutely clear about this: The problem with intermarriage was not racial or ethnic. Moses married a Cushite--very likely a black woman--and there’s no condemnation of this. The problem was religious. Mixing worship of the true God with worshiping anything else will only work to the detriment of the former. This is why they weren’t supposed to marry pagan women (which brought, for example, the downfall of Solomon).
Then we come to the thorny issue of the next problem: Divorce. Some men were marrying pagan women, while others were cavalierly divorcing Israelite women. From the description of their wives as “the [wives] of [their] youth,” it appears that these men (and I use the term very loosely) were divorcing their older wives--the ones who had supported them and loved them and had grown old with them--for a younger woman.
Now I need to be completely open about vs. 16. The traditional reading of it quotes God as saying “I hate divorce.” There are, however, some translational difficulties with this. It is possible, as the NIV renders it, to translate it as “The man who hates and divorces his wife . . . does violence to the one he should protect.” Other modern translations, like the NASB, NET Bible, and NLT render it the traditional way, quoting God as saying “I hate divorce.” I know this might ruin some sermons (I’ve heard multiple sermons on how God hates divorce), but I have to be careful about what the Scripture says, and be up front about questions like this. I have to be extremely meticulous about this sort of thing.
But does the alternate translation (per the NIV) change my theology at all? NO. I thoroughly believe, based on what the whole of Scripture teaches, that God does hate divorce.  When Jesus was asked about the supposed command of Moses to give an estranged woman a “certificate of divorce,” he brought the whole conversation back to the original plan of God found in the first two chapters of Genesis: One man united with one woman for life. That’s the standard, and the further we deviate from it, as a nation or as individuals, the worse we’ll end up.
And please notice how the Lord sees divorce here: Violence against women. The Lord always has had a soft spot in his heart for the underdog, and women—yes, more than men—usually end up with the short end of the stick in divorce, most especially in a highly patriarchal society like in the past. There are a lot of reasons why the Lord created marriage, but one biggie is the protection of women, especially in a society in which they’re routinely treated like second-class citizens (at best). As women get older and their physical beauty fades, the easiest thing in the world is for a man to "trade up" his older wife for a younger model. Valuing marriage and discouraging divorce protects women. 
            But let’s move past the negative command (“don’t be unfaithful to the wife of your youth”) to the positive command hiding behind it. To all the married men reading this, I call upon you to cherish “the wife of your youth.” Protect her. Love her as Christ loved the church, giving himself up for her. Listen to her. Serve her. Your Father’s watching.

Father God, I love my wife, but not nearly as much as I should. Please love her through me. And when my heart begins to stray, to even move one inch towards unfaithfulness, pull me back as hard you need to. 

[June 26]—Foul-mouthed Priests

Malachi 2:1-9

            God’s system of leadership and authority is really really different from the way the world and other religions work. For example, I’d like to contrast the God of the Bible with Allah of the Koran. Mohammed was his prophet, so over and over you see in the Koran and in other stories how Allah told him that he (Mohammed) wasn’t under the same rules as the rest of humanity. For example, Muslims are officially restricted to (at most) four wives, but Mohammed—so conveniently—was told by Allah that he could have as many wives and concubines as he wished.
            This is completely the opposite of God’s system as stated in the Bible. Nowhere do you see leadership given special privileges. Nowhere do you see leaders given a pass under a different standard from what the hoi polloi are under. Quite the opposite: Over and over and over God makes it clear that his standards for leaders are far more stringent than for the common people. I could cite dozens of examples, but here’s one you might have missed. I have to give R. C. Sproul credit for this one. In the Torah God accuses the people of Israel of rebelling against his directions and leadership “ten times”—which might be literal or just a way of saying “too many times to count.” For these crimes, they were excluded from entering Israel and were sentenced to die out in the desert. Moses, their leader, is recorded to have screwed up one time. One time he lost his temper and flagrantly disobeyed the Lord’s express command. For this one screw-up, he was also sentenced to never enter the Promised Land, to die 40 years later on the very borders. For this one transgression, he was given the same punishment as the people who'd transgressed on multiple occasions.
            That’s illustrated in today’s passage. Malachi—under the inspiration of the Spirit—has a lot to say in condemnation of his society. The entire nation—or the majority of them—were turning away from the Lord. But first off he starts with the priests. These were the spiritual leaders. They were the main representatives for the people before the Lord. But more than this, they also, in a sense, represented the Lord before the people. They were expressly commanded to teach the people his ways, his teachings in the Torah. They were to pronounce the official blessings of the Lord on the people in his name.
            But they were completely failing his expectations. As such, the Lord said that he would “send a curse” on them, and “curse [their] blessings.” If a leader screws up, the blessings he’s supposed to convey turn into curses. What were they doing wrong?
            By implication (in contrast to their ancestor Levi), they weren’t teaching the people God’s ways. We already know from the 1st chapter they were accepting unacceptable sacrifices from the people. This showed a disregard, a total despising of God’s name, in stark contrast to Levi who revered the Lord and “stood in awe of [his] name.” Levi “turned many from sin.” They “caused many to stumble.” Levi believed and followed God’s standards, which apply equally to the king all the way down to the lowest peasant or slave. They showed “partiality in matters of the law.”
            And the Lord was very very angry at this. They had publicly flouted his standards, and he would return the favor by publicly humiliating them. They would learn to regret playing these games with the Almighty. As we mentioned yesterday, “God cannot be mocked.”
            So what should we take from this? I think this passage says something to leaders. If anyone reading this has been called into a position of spiritual leadership, take care. His standards for you are, if anything, higher than for those you lead.
            But if you’re saying “But I’m not called to any type of leadership in the church,” then number one I’d question that premise. I’m pretty sure God’s called you into some type of leadership in some area. But leaving that aside for a moment, if you are a believer in Jesus, you are a priest. Peter said so: “[You] also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” Every true believer represents God before men, and men before God. So all this stuff we’ve talked about? Yes, it applies to you too.

Father God, it is an awe-inspiring, rather frightening responsibility to which you’ve called me. I so desperately need your empowering grace here. Please. 

[June 25]—Shut the Doors!

Malachi 1:10-14

            It’s a sad thing, of course, when an evil government shuts the doors of a church. If you keep informed of how believers are persecuted in countries around the world, you ought to know that this is one of the most obvious signs of a crackdown.
            But what if God were to tell us to shut the doors of a church? Or if he called upon volunteers to shut them? If you’ve read today’s passage, you might have been startled by the first few words in it. The Lord is asking for someone—anyone—to have the guts to go ahead and shut the doors of the temple!
            Why would he do this?
            Once again, this calls for thinking clearly. We need to be careful here. Outside of Christ, none of our offerings or worship is acceptable to him. Everything we are and do is tainted by sin. It infects everything, including our worship. And the God we want to worship and with whom we want a relationship is completely holy. He can't abide the presence of sin, and he can’t accept the worship of sinners. Our offerings and worship are only made acceptable by going through Jesus.
            But that wasn’t the issue here. This wasn’t a case of imperfect sinners trying to worship the Lord as best they could under his grace (which is what we’re trying to do). Like we mentioned yesterday, they were playing games with the Almighty. They were flouting his commands, which openly demonstrated their attitude towards the whole enterprise.
            This attitude was also expressed in their murmurings. When it was time to offer sacrifices again, they would sigh to themselves and say “Well, time to get it over with. Again.”
            Why was he taking this so seriously? Why was this so important to him? Well, his Name deserves all the glory and honor. In Heaven, where every person or angel there will render perfect worship and ascribe all glory, honor, praise, thanksgiving, etc., to the Lord, that will only be what he deserves. He deserves the best. Quite frankly, he deserves better than our best.
            But there’s more at stake here than we realize. One day—hopefully I’ll live to see it—the Lord’s name will be worshiped all over the world. God promised it here: “My name will be great among the nations, from where the sun rises to where it sets. In every place incense and pure offerings will be brought to me, because my name will be great among the nations.” The apostle John echoed this—In his vision of Heaven, he saw assembled before the Throne “every nation, tribe, people and language.” It will happen.
            How will it happen? What’s God’s timetable for this? I don’t know.
            But I know one thing: When the Lord's people treat his Name with contempt by offering half-hearted worship, that’s not the way to do it. That’s a very large reason why he cares so much about this.
            His plan is to literally take over the world. He will not rest until all his elect come to saving faith in him. And remember the insight I got from John Piper: Missions and evangelism exist because worship doesn’t. When you’re sharing the Message of Jesus with people who don’t know him, in a very real sense you’re recruiting worshipers to join you.
            He will be glorified--one way or the other--among the nations. And if he has to salvage his reputation by shutting the doors of a church, he'll do it. Apparently as far as he’s concerned, no worship is better than half-hearted or hypocritical or going-thru-the-motions worship.

Father God, your Name is very important to you. I want it to be important to me. I don’t want it to come to the point of you shutting doors. Let’s not get to that point, shall we?

[June 24]—Contemptible

Malachi 1:6-9

            Like I’ve mentioned before, I’m a big fan of Dennis Prager, a practicing Jewish talk-show host who discusses a range of topics. One of his pet peeves is people who refuse to dress up for church: They wear shorts, tank tops, flip-flops, etc. Here’s his argument against it: If you were meeting the President of the U.S., would you dress like that? So why do you feel comfortable meeting the Lord of the universe so dressed?
            Now, I see his point, even if I disagree in the particulars. If our Lord wanted us to dress a certain way to come into his presence, that’d be interesting, since I believe we’re always in his presence. What we’re doing on Sunday is meeting together as an expression of the Body in corporate worship. But I find nothing in Scripture that talks about a certain style of dress when we meet together.
            But I think his overall point is well-taken on a deeper level. I don’t think the Lord's interested as much in our outward dress (as long as it’s modest and not distracting) as much as he is in our heart, our personal relationship with him. In that area, how are we doing? How well are we expressing our love for him in obeying him and serving him, in imitating Job in fearing God and shunning evil?
            I promise this isn’t a rabbit trail; it actually has something to do with today’s passage and topic. Malachi was about to spend four short chapters verbally ripping into the people of Israel. And surprise surprise—the spiritual leaders are the first in his crosshairs! The priests were supposed to be the first in devotion and in providing a godly example. They represented the people before God, so if they weren’t doing their job properly, the people were hopeless.
            He (the Lord speaking through his mouthpiece) started out with a question of respect: In that society, fathers and masters of slaves got respect. The Lord was their Father and their Master (supposedly), so where was the respect due him? And first and foremost of those not giving him respect were those in the priesthood.
            The problem (ostensibly) was that they were offering imperfect animals: “lame or diseased.” This was specifically forbidden by the Law. Why did the Lord forbid this? Does the Lord need animals? Is this his literal food, like it was for the gods of the pagans? To ask that question is to answer it. So no, he doesn’t need the sacrifices. My friend, those sacrifices they were offering were for the sake of the offerer, not him.
            But to offer an imperfect animal shows the condition of your heart. The quality of your sacrifice demonstrates where your priorities are. That’s the issue here.
            And that brings us to the illustration I discussed at the beginning. He asks a great question: Would your governor take an offering like that? Of course not. So why do you feel comfortable offering a sub-par sacrifice to the Lord God of Israel? Again, I don’t think the issue is the offering itself. By doing so, they were showing contempt for the Lord’s table, a visible symbol of their relationship with him, how much they valued him. They were playing games with a nuclear bomb.
            This was really important to him. And what goes around comes around. They showed contempt for the Lord, and 2:9 (“despised,” same word in Hebrew) says that the Lord would cause them to be shown contempt in public. If you’re in a position of spiritual leadership, know this: He takes his representation very seriously. If leaders among his people show contempt for the Lord and don’t repent, their comeuppance will likely be public. It won’t be pretty.
            Look, our God is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love and faithfulness. But the same Bible that tells us this also tells us that he won’t be mocked: If a believer—especially a leader in his church—is playing games with the Lord, he’ll end up regretting it. Count on it.

Father God, I can never offer anything of myself that’s not contemptible. It’s only your Son that makes me acceptable. But I want to be a living sacrifice—holy and pleasing to you. By your grace. 

[June 23]—God’s Hate (?)

Malachi 1:1-5

            I know we looked at this passage before, but it really bears a closer look. We know that God loved(s) Israel, just like he loves us. So what does it mean when it says he has “hated” Esau? Does God really hate people? Doesn’t he love everyone?
            Like most good questions, there’s no simple “yes” or “no.” On the “yes” side we have declarations of God’s universal love, such as the famous John 3:16. The self-proclaimed atheist who announces that he hates God, at least in some sense enjoys the Lord's blessings: the sunshine, air to breathe, food to eat, pleasure in life, etc. And in some sense God gave his Son to that person who hates him. Salvation is offered to everyone, and the Lord turns no one away who receives and believes in Jesus.
            But what about the “hatred” he had for Esau? This is where the NIV—quite  frankly—is not the best translation out there. Literally, yes, it is “hated”; but this leads to misunderstanding, because when we say we “hate” someone, it usually means we completely despise them, and even desire them harm.
But that’s not what’s meant here at all. Did the Lord just despise the Edomites, wishing them harm? Did he just “have it in” for them because of something that Esau did? As Paul points out, this divine “hatred” started out when they were sharing a womb, neither one having done anything good or bad. So this wasn’t based on anything Esau had done.
This is where I think the NIV (along with most translations) is sort of misleading with its translation here. Yes, literally it’s “hate.” But there’s a good reason why the NET Bible and the NLT both render it as “rejected.” That’s the key. God didn't “hate” Esau or the Edomites in the sense of wanting to do them harm with no basis in their behavior. He doesn’t just arbitrarily punish either people or nations for no reason. We know better than that, or at least we should.
But he did reject them in the sense of choosing Jacob over Esau for his own purposes, to carry out his plan. He chose Jacob/Israel (both the man and the nation) for a unique purpose, and he didn’t choose Esau for this. This isn't commenting on Esau’s personal salvation (although we have good reason to doubt it), nor is Malachi talking about the personal salvation of individual Edomites, although—once again—we might doubt that there were very many among them who had a personal relationship with the Lord.
No, what Malachi was talking about God’s purposes for the nations. And if he chose Israel instead of Esau, why did he do so? Or why didn’t he choose some other group of pagans? Was it because of Israel’s goodness? Um, no. Even if we didn’t have the sordid history of Israel’s repeated failures laid out for us in stark detail, the Lord himself specifically refuted this notion. If Malachi was the only book of the Bible, misinterpretation would be more understandable, but Malachi’s not the only one: We need to interpret hard to understand passages in the light of the easier ones.
The Lord chose Israel to use it to redeem the rest of the world. That’s you and me. We were the spiritual heirs of the Edomites: “excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world.” But at the very beginning of the Covenant with Abraham, the Lord told him that, yes, God would bless him, but also that “all peoples on earth will be blessed through [him].” Abraham was chosen so that through him the Lord could bless the world. And of course the ultimate fulfillment of this was the arrival and work of our Savior.
So now that we’ve gotten past the notion that God arbitrarily hates someone (in the usual sense of the term), how can we apply this? Well, the whole thing that started this line of thought was the cynical, bitter questioning of God’s love for his people. In response the Lord pointed them to the original covenant under which Jacob was chosen and they had already been blessed beyond measure, with much more to come. And he also pointed to how he'd punished and would continue to punish those who attacked his people and who proudly boasted against him. They would eventually see with their own eyes the difference between God’s people and those who aren’t.
In the meantime, we can trust and obey. We might not see—right now—God’s endgame and the final disposition of those who are his people versus those who aren’t. But we will.

Father God, you do all things well. I thank you that although I was a spiritual heir of Esau, excluded from citizenship in Israel and a foreigner to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without you, you’ve brought me who was far away into your presence, brought near by the blood of Christ. 

[June 22]—God’s Love

Malachi 1:1-5

            If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know I place a great importance over the final words that someone speaks. I attach a lot of significance to the last recorded words of Jacob/Israel, David, Jesus, and Paul. When you know that the door is rapidly closing on your opportunity to speak with someone, you don’t indulge in much idle chit-chat.
            It’s the same principle here. This is the final recorded words of the God of Israel for over 400 years. Now, is it possible that the Lord spoke directly to someone, and it’s not recorded? Sure, it’s possible. But to our knowledge, these are the last words he spoke to the nation until the arrival of John the Baptist just before the arrival of the Messiah. So this is incredibly important.
            Here’s a little background. Malachi’s name means “my messenger.” He probably presented his message and preached during the 4th century B. C., during the time of Nehemiah but about a hundred years after Haggai and Zechariah.
This was a time of discouragement. The prophets had promised that the Messiah would come and set everything right. For example, Zechariah’s last chapter had predicted that Israel’s enemies would lick the dust, and everyone in the world would worship the Lord with Jerusalem as its capital. They'd rebuilt the temple like God wanted. There was a nation-wide revival under Ezra and Nehemiah. Now a hundred years after those days, there were no signs of any change. They were still under the heel of a foreign power, living and dying at the whim of a foreign king. Where was the Lord now?
Another enemy that Malachi faced was related to discouragement: complacency. If the Lord’s not going to keep his promises, why should I put so much effort in obeying and pleasing him? Times are tough. Maybe I can get away with half-hearted worship, and let my lifestyle slip into the way I like to do things. What difference does it really make?
Onto this scene steps Malachi, God’s messenger. In this short book he lists some cynical questions and objections which the people were murmuring, either publicly or privately. And then he gives the Lord’s response to it. I promise that these questions and the Lord’s answers have a special relevance for us as believers today.
The first question/objection/accusation which Malachi addresses is concerning God’s love for Israel. From a human perspective, it sure looked like the Lord had abandoned them. So where was his love? How had he shown them he loved them?
The answer: He had “loved” Israel and “hated” Esau. There is a reason why I used those words in quotation marks, since they can easily be misunderstood, and beg for a little explanation.
Let’s take the easier term first, and then we’ll tackle the somewhat more difficult one tomorrow. Anyone who’s read the Old Testament can see how the Lord loved Israel. He chose Abram/Abraham, and then his progeny. He redeemed them out of Egypt, cared for them in the desert, forgave them their flagrant disobedience time after time after time, etc. Like us, he owed them nothing but judgment and had showed them incredible love and compassion.
Like I said, we’re going to tackle the issue of the Lord “hating” Esau tomorrow, since I can’t do it any kind of justice in a paragraph. In the meantime, how about you and I take stock in our level of gratitude? Yes, I have lots of problems in life, but—once again—he owes me nothing but judgment, and he’s shown me nothing but love, mercy, kindness, compassion, grace, and blessings. If I’m asking questions like “How has God loved me?” then something’s desperately wrong. Whatever it is, we need to deal with it.

Lord Jesus, I don’t feel that right now, but I admit I’ve questioned that sometimes. When it happens, please draw me quickly back into your Presence, where all questions fade into insignificance. 

[June 21]—Name Brand

Zech 14

            OK, I didn’t want to do this. I didn’t want to get that much into my interpretation of the “End Times.” To go into much detail on this was really beyond the purview of a devotional. But I can’t really finish up the book of Zechariah without at least touching on the subject, and giving some reasons for what I’m saying.
            Again, I have to make this disclaimer: How you interpret the eschatological passages of the Bible is by no means the most important aspect of Scripture. As one of my favorite pastors Alastair Begg put it, “The main things are the plain things, and the plain things are the main things.” I have whole branches of Christian thought that disagree with me on this, people who are a lot smarter than me, people for whom I have a ton of respect. On the other hand, there are lots of people who are a lot smarter than me who agree with what I’m about to say.
            Here’s my basic philosophy: I tend to interpret eschatological passages in the plainest way possible. I use Occam’s razor a lot here: All other things being equal, the simplest explanation is usually the best. Using that principle, I take passages like today's as literally as I can. I don’t think it’s spiritually referring to the Church.
As noted before, there are people who disagree. They think this is mostly talking about the Church in this age. They tend to interpret passages like this symbolically. The Lord Jesus “landed” on the earth in the Incarnation and split open the earth so that God’s people could escape the deadly danger they were in. After his deliverance of his people, the nations of the world bring their treasures into the Kingdom (meaning the Church); otherwise, they’ll be judged.
To be brutally frank, to try to interpret vss. 12-21 as somehow being spiritually fulfilled right now. . . just doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. I’ve only heard a few people who think it’s talking about the Church try to explain how they do it, and I’ve found their arguments less than convincing. And—again, I have to be quite frank here—most people who disagree with me on it tend to avoid talking too much about passages like this. Because—again—Occam’s razor seems to be on my side here.
            Now, having said all that (and probably losing most of my audience), we can tackle what this is talking about. Instead of focusing on the details about today’s passage any further, I’d like to look at the last few verses.
            This is an ideal society. The Lord is in charge, openly and publicly given the praise, honor, and worship he deserves. His enemies are in complete subjugation before him and his people are safe. But what really strikes me is what we see in the last two verses.
            Does the phrase “Holy To The Lord” sound familiar at all? It should: It was what was engraved on the gold plate worn on the high priest's turban. Have you ever heard the phrase “tattooed on his forehead”? That’s the idea here. That phrase on his forehead symbolized and epitomized everything the priesthood represented, everything the priest was and did. Remember, “Holy” means “set apart.” The priest was set apart for the Lord’s service. That priest belonged to the God of Israel, and everyone who saw it--and could read--knew it.
The Law was all about separation. There were clean and unclean foods, houses, animals, and people. There was also “holy” which belonged to the Lord, and “common” things which ordinary people used in their daily lives. But that will all change when things become what they should be. When things are what they should be, everything is branded with his mark of ownership. The most mundane and everyday items: The bells of the horses, the pots that people cook in. That’s the point of the last two verses.
            That’s a great lesson for us, because that’s actually the way it should be now. Today. Whatever validity it ever had, the dividing line between “sacred” and “secular” became totally obsolete when Christ came into the world. When the Incarnate Son of God (divine and human in the same body) ate a piece of bread, that bread was made holy by his presence. When he slept on a mat, that mat was made holy. Nothing he ever did or touched was not holy.
            And that’s how it’s supposed to be with us. Let’s say I enjoy activity X. For example, I like a good hockey game. If I couldn’t do X with Jesus standing next to me, I shouldn’t be doing X.  This doesn’t mean that I should only be doing “church” stuff, or that doing non-“church” stuff is wrong. Quite the contrary. The Holy Spirit lives inside me, and his presence envelopes everything I do and everywhere I go. For a believer in Jesus, there’s no such thing as “secular.” There’s “sin” (and by that I mean things which are explicitly forbidden by his word), and there’s “sacred” (even non-“church” stuff like sports or hobbies or eating with friends or intimate times with my wife).
            Make sense?

Lord Jesus, I long for the day in which the bells on horses have your name brand on them. I look forward to seeing it in the future, and I want to see that more and more in my life, right here and now. 

[June 20]—Strike The Shepherd

Zechariah 13:7-9

            As we discussed yesterday, the most probable interpretation of vss. 1-6 is that they’re referring to a future time in which idolatry and false prophecy will be stamped out in Israel after the Messiah returns. In this age, out weapons are spiritual: prayer, proclaiming the Message of Jesus as found in the Bible, persuasion, etc. What doesn’t work with those methods, we leave between a person and the Lord. But in that Age, after Christ returns, there won’t be any room for doubt and no room for worshiping any God but the true one.
            Now we come to a shift in the focus. 11:15-17 talked about a false shepherd, one with whom the Lord was disgusted. This false shepherd only cared about himself, not his sheep or his responsibilities. But this Shepherd is the “man who is close to” the Lord. This is talking about the Good Shepherd, the One who will lay down his life for his sheep. So what’s this passage talking about?
            This, once again, is a great case to be made for the “partially then/complete in the future” motif we’ve been seeing a lot. It was definitely at least partially fulfilled in the First Coming. Jesus said that verse 7 was fulfilled at the Last Supper, and he applied it later when his disciples fled in a panic and were scattered at his arrest.
            You might be wondering about the last part of vs. 7: The Shepherd will be struck and “I will turn my hand against the little ones.”? What? Well, it is true that it’s possible to translate “against” here as “upon”; in other words, the Lord will put his hand “upon” (as in protecting) the little ones. But quite frankly, most seem to translate it as “against” based on the context. This is talking about the Lord’s sovereign plan, which is to strike the shepherd and “strike” the “little ones.” It’ll look like they’re abandoned. Of course we know from the rest of his word that he'll never really leave nor forsake his children.
            But the rest of the passage makes very little sense if you believe it was completely fulfilled at his first coming. You might try to claim that the destruction of the land (in vs. 8) was fulfilled when Rome destroyed it in A.D. 70. And Jesus said that this would be a direct result of Israel’s rejection of their Messiah. There was certainly a lot of loss of life there—probably not a full two-thirds of the population, but a lot.
            But verse 9 makes a wonderful promise, which has definitely not been fulfilled in any way yet that makes sense. It says that the all the remaining one-third who survive the destruction of verse 8 will turn wholeheartedly back to the Lord:
“They will call on my name
    and I will answer them;
I will say, ‘They are my people,’
    and they will say, ‘The Lord is our God.”
            In no way has this been fulfilled among Israel since the days of the first century. Thank the Lord, there’s been a remnant chosen by grace that have turned to the Messiah. But their numbers, regrettably, are nowhere near the majority or even a significant plurality.
            So assuming that it’s “then partial/future complete,” then what can we learn from it?
            I think first and foremost this is a great reminder of how much we desperately need our Shepherd/Savior. When our Shepherd was “struck,” all of his followers folded like a house of cards in a windstorm. The wonderful news is that that was a one-time affair. But we should keep in the forefront of our heads: “Apart from me you can do nothing.” If he ever did turn his back on us, or if by some crazy set of circumstances he ever was taken away from us by force, that would be it for us. Without the Shepherd, the sheep would not only be defenseless but dead.
            It also reminds me that everything does have a purpose. There is no such thing as purposeless suffering. To say that these folks are going through a terrible time is to really understate it. But the Lord will bring them out to the other side of it all, and both they and he will say in the end “It was worth it. To bring us to this point of intimate communion, it was worth it all.”
            Aren’t you glad?

Lord Jesus, I know full well what I can do without you. And I know what would happen if you ever did leave me or forsake me.  But you won’t. Never ever ever. Thank you. 

[June 19]—National Cleansing

Zech 13:1-6

            Verses one and two in today’s passage present a beautiful image of what will one day happen to Israel, or so I’ve interpreted it. I tend to take prophetic passages as literal as I can, and I believe that there will come a day of national repentance and cleansing for Israel.
Some claim that this was fulfilled during the First Advent. It all really hinges on who the “prophet” is vss. 4-6. Is it referring to Jesus? At first glance, you could say that: Who else was “wounded at the house of [his] friends”? That would be rather poignant, since our Lord was definitely wounded where he should've expected love and friendship, among his own people. I’ve even heard a moving sermon about how—even today—Jesus is still being wounded “at the house of his [supposed] friends.” But quite frankly, that interpretation doesn’t really jibe with the rest of the passage. The Lord certainly hasn't yet banished all the names of idols from the land. Prophecy is also completely banned from the land, which didn’t happen in the 1st century at all. And Jesus, to our knowledge, never was a farmer. He was a carpenter (or some say a stonemason), not a farmer.
With all due respect to those who disagree, this is the best interpretation I’ve heard. When the Lord returns, he'll initiate (through the Holy Spirit, as we saw yesterday) national repentance, mourning, and cleansing. Millions—the vast majority—of Jews will come to faith in the Messiah. And all the names of idols will be banned from the land. Also prophecy will be banned, on pain of death; there'll be no need for prophecy, since the Lord will be right there to personally consult.
That’s the key to understanding this passage, I believe. If someone is still a “prophet,” then ipso facto he’s a false one. And in God’s system, loyalty to him overrides even a parents’ love for their child. If they find out that their own child is a false prophet, they’ll kill him.
In the system that we’re seeing in this passage, if someone is worshiping another god, he’s doing it in private, hiding it from everyone else. They won’t walk around in a prophet’s clothes (like John the Baptist). If anyone asks him “Are you a prophet?” they’ll wisely answer “No! I’ve been a farmer for all my life! From when I was a boy!” And if someone asks him “What about those wounds on your hands? Are those self-inflicted wounds, like in a pagan ceremony?” they’ll tell the questioner “Oh, no. It’s not what you’re thinking. I didn’t inflict any wounds on myself. Nosiree! No, I got these wounds in a fight in my friend’s house. Those crazy friends of mine!”
Now, let’s get something very clear. If you’re horrified at the thought of parents killing their child who’s worshiping another god, you have to keep it in context. In this age, the Church Age, our weapons are not of this world: Instead of bullets and bombs, our weapons are spiritual, such as the Good News and prayer. What we can’t accomplish through prayer and persuasion, we leave alone to be between a person and God.
But when Christ returns, that'll be the end of questioning and religious plurality. He'll rule with an iron scepter, not a paper one. It will be the Kingdom of God, not the Democracy of God. And this Kingdom won’t have a figurehead like Great Britain today.
But just because our methods are spiritual, that shouldn’t in any way lessen our zeal for his glory, his renown. We should be no more tolerant of false religion and false prophecy than we will be then. To see our Lord being deprived of any of the glory that belongs to him should really bother us, probably a lot more than it does.
That’s the result of being cleansed from sin and impurity. Just as Israel’s cleansing will one day lead to zeal for his glory like we read today, our personal cleansing in this Age should lead to the same.
Does it?

Lord Jesus, when I see someone (including myself) not giving you what you deserve, it should drive me to my knees and put a loving warning in my mouth. By your grace. 

[June 18]—Mourning and Rejoicing

Zechariah 12

            I’m really glad that chapter 12 follows chapter 11, aren’t you? It’s a lot more positive. The first part of the chapter (vss. 1-9) we’ll pass over very quickly. It tells of how the nations surround God’s people, and at the last moment he'll swoop in and destroy those would attack them. Jerusalem looks like it’s on the ropes: Surrounded by enemies which vastly outnumber her, and all seems lost. But like the Arameans who dared to attack Elisha, the nations will discover the hard way that it only looks like God’s people are outnumbered and under siege. It will again be demonstrated before the world that “Those who are with us are more than those who are with them.”
            But let’s take a closer look at the rest of the chapter, vss. 10-14. When will this take place? Well, John in the description of the Crucifixion in his Gospel quotes verse 10: “They will look on me, the one whom they have pierced.” So apparently it was at least partially fulfilled at that time. But the rest of the passage doesn’t seem to fit the First Advent. The passage in 10-14 seems to best fit a nationwide revival and turning to the Lord, which didn’t happen in the 1st century. Once again, I know that there are scholars who don't agree with me, but there are others who do. My conclusion is that once again we have a “Partial then/Complete In The Future” situation. It was partially fulfilled back then, and will be completely fulfilled when he returns.
            What’s going on here? Apparently in the Last Days the Lord will pour his Holy Spirit on Israel, and there will be national mourning. The Spirit will complete his function by being the Spirit of grace and supplication. His grace will bring them back to himself, and they will cry out for mercy and salvation. Their mourning will be like the “weeping of Hadad Rimmon in the plain of Megiddo,” which is where King Josiah died in battle, a national calamity. There will national mourning led by “David” and his son “Nathan” and by “Levi” and “Shimei” (Shimei was the grandson of Levi); therefore both the political and religious leadership are represented. From the top down to the bottom, with all the elites represented, there will be mourning.
Why will there be mourning? It looks like there’s a national deliverance from her enemies in vss. 1-9. That would lead to a celebration, right? You’d think. But this is mourning like what James is talking about: “Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.” It’s mourning for one’s sins.
Specifically this is mourning as Israel realizes that all this time, she’s been rejecting her Messiah, and she’s been wasting her time for all these thousands of years. She’s offended her Lord, the One who’s been taking care of her and provided for her and held out his hand to a stubborn and rebellious people for so long.
This is a great picture of us, especially those of us who’ve received Jesus as Savior later in life. We certainly rejoice because of his incredible deliverance. We celebrate his salvation and all that entails. But there’s an element of mourning as well. So many years wasted in sin and rebellion, kicking against the goads.
But there’s good news on top of good news here. The type of God with whom we’re dealing—He not only forgives the sin, he “pays you back” for “what the locusts have eaten.” Yes, we start out by mourning our sin, but the last word for us is not “mourning,” but “dancing.” He can’t bear to see his children mourn for long before he turns their “wailing into dancing,” and “[removes our] sackcloth and [clothes us] with joy.” What good Father enjoys seeing his children cry?

Father God, even though you claimed me pretty early on, I regret every moment I haven’t spent serving you. I thank you that you do “pay me back” for the years that the “locusts have eaten.” Certainly I can join with the Psalmist that you’ve turned my mourning into dancing, that you’ve removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy. Wow.