A Covenant Of Life And Peace
Key Verse 2:7
“For the lips of a priest ought to preserve knowledge, and from his mouth men should seek instruction— because he is the messenger of the Lord Almighty.”
Malachi began his word of prophesy to God’s people with a message of love. “I have loved you, says the Lord”. (1:2) “I have loved you, and do love you, and will always love you” as the Lord would say. What did God want from them? In 1:6 he tells them exactly what he wanted from them. “If I am a father, where is the honor due me? If I am a Master, where is respect due me”? God wanted them to honor him as their father. He wanted them to respect him as their master. This was the burden of the Lord’s word to his people through Malachi. And out of his great love for them, he tells them this at the time of their sin and at the time of their neglect of him. They needed rebuking because they forsook their first love for the Lord and because they neglected their calling to be his devoted servants. It bothered the Lord that they had forsaken him in their hearts for the love of other things. It bothered him that they were barely maintaining a relationship with him and faking it through ritualistic worship and sacrifice, none of which came from their hearts. They needed to be reminded of the terrible spiritual condition they were in. They needed to be warned that a time is coming when God would discipline them in the furnace of his fire if they did not take this warning to heart— if they didn’t turn from their sin— and if they didn’t give their hearts to him again as they should. They had many sins to deal with and God wasn’t going to overlook any of them, even if they didn’t have the discernment to recognize their sins any more.
One of their sins against God had been to sacrifice defiled and sub-standard offerings to the Lord, expecting the Lord to graciously accept them, even though they were worthless. They had withheld their best offerings from him thinking they could get away with it. They were offering the Lord their sick and lame animals, offerings they wouldn’t dare give to their governor. But it wasn’t their sin alone. The greater blame fell on their priests who didn’t point out their sins to them, but received these defiled and worthless offerings from their hands and offered them on the sacred altar. The priests were to blame not only for allowing the people continue in their sins, but also to influence the people in a bad way. Moreover, listen to what they said about their service to the Lord: “What a burden” they said. And they “sniffed at it contemptuously”. Their calling to serve the Lord was a privilege the King of heaven had entrusted to them, as he does to every person he calls into service. But they despised their calling and service to the Lord, and complained about all the work they had to do. (13) So, let’s see what God had to say to these priests.
Look at verses 1-3. “‘And now this admonition is for you, O priests. If you do not listen, and if you do not set your heart to honor my name,’ says the Lord Almighty, ‘I will send a curse upon you, and I will curse your blessings. Yes, I have already cursed them, because you have not set your heart to honor me. ‘Because of you I will rebuke your descendants; I will spread on your faces the offal from your festival sacrifices, and you will be carried off with it.’” They should have honored the work they were called to do as priests. But they didn’t regard their responsibility as they should, with the seriousness that it demands. And for this reason God was going to judge them more severely than those whom they were serving. Why? In part, because they were largely responsible for the terrible spiritual condition that existed among the people. They were shutting their eyes to the fact that people were offering defiled and worthless sacrifices to the Lord. So God promised to send a curse upon them and upon their blessings— curses that would severely impact their lives and their livelihood— curses that would humiliate them before the very people they were serving. (9) Every blessing comes from God, whether foods or jobs or rain or shine. And when the blessings are cut short or all together removed, what is left but the curses! God would not overlook their sins. But how can we understand the fullness of their sin— what they had done— which called for such drastic measures?
Look at verses 4-7. “And you will know that I have sent you this admonition so that my covenant with Levi may continue,’ says the Lord Almighty. ‘My covenant was with him, a covenant of life and peace, and I gave them to him; this called for reverence and he revered me and stood in awe of my name. True instruction was in his mouth and nothing false was found on his lips. He walked with me in peace and uprightness, and turned many from sin. ‘For the lips of a priest ought to preserve knowledge, and from his mouth men should seek instruction— because he is the messenger of the Lord Almighty.’” Listen to what it says again: “For the lips of a priest ought to preserve knowledge, and from his mouth men should seek instruction— because he is the messenger of the Lord Almighty.’”
That’s how God views the priesthood. It’s what God’s expects of his priests! The priests are those who have been entrusted with the knowledge of the word of God. But more than that, they are the ones who should keep it. They should walk in it. They should be obedient to it. The priest should personify and exemplify the knowledge that he holds in his heart— which the Lord has passed on to him as a sacred trust. What about the people? They should seek that knowledge from his mouth. They should seek instruction from his lips. Why? Because according to the Lord, he is the Lord’s messenger! More than that, he should also instruct them in the will of God. But his instruction and teaching should not be as one who merely possesses the word of God in theory but one who possesses it in practice— as one who is himself living by the very word he teaches and instructs. This is the standard, the ideal, the model! This is what God intended for the priests to do— those messengers whom God called and appointed to serve the people with the Word of Truth. This is what God expected from all his priests in any generation, whether they were the priests of Malachi’s time or those of the new priesthood established and ordained by the Lord Jesus through the Spirit. Let me remind you that if you are a confessed Christian, born again of the Spirit of God, you are a priest. And this is also your duty before God. “For the lips of a priest ought to preserve knowledge, and from his mouth men should seek instruction— because he is the messenger of the Lord Almighty.’”
What then did the prophet have to say to the priests? What was their crime? Read verse 8. “But you have turned from the way and by your teaching have caused many to stumble; you have violated the covenant with Levi, says the Lord Almighty.” Now, what this teaches us is something very important! It teaches us that at the heart of the people’s corruption was the corruption of the priests themselves. The reason the people failed to fulfill the will of God— the reason they failed to offer the best of who they are and the best of what they have to the Lord, are the priests themselves! The priests didn’t instruct the people in the truth of God nor hold to the truth themselves. And if they did, they did it carelessly and with laxity. Does this mean that one can blame their own sinfulness, failures and corruption on someone else for lack of teaching or for faulty or sub-standard teaching? Not at all! The Bible teaches that every one of us is responsible for his or her own sins and actions or even lack of actions, and no one can blame another for their own sins. But God does hold responsible those of us who have been entrusted with the word of God to serve the word of God and to live by it, lest others stumble because of us. God then surely blamed the priests for the corruption of the people. Why were they to blame? As the Lord says, By turning from the way of truth; By causing many to stumble through their teaching; By violating the Covenant God instituted with their ancestor Levi, the father of the priesthood.
Who is this Levi, and what covenant did God make with him? Look at verses 5-6. “My covenant was with him, a covenant of life and peace, and I gave them to him; this called for reverence and he revered me and stood in awe of my name. True instruction was in his mouth and nothing false was found on his lips. He walked with me in peace and uprightness, and turned many from sin.”
Here, God is referring to the tribe of Levi, one of the twelve tribes of Israel whom God had instituted to act as priests for the people. Their main work as priests was to minister to all the people of God— to uphold the covenant which God made with his people— the covenant of Law— the Word of God— which God gave Moses for the people to uphold and to live by. For generations, that tribe kept the word of God alive in people’s hearts and served the word of God wherever they were scattered as priests among the people of God. They served as covenant bearers as best they could. They taught the Bible to their people and helped them obey the word of God. They devoted their lives to helping the people remain faithful to God’s covenant with them. Of course the people failed many times to obey the word of God and broke faith with God. They couldn’t remain faithful to God nor to the covenant which bound them to God as his people. Often, generation after generation they lost their hearts to the world and to its idols; they lost their hearts to all the things that glitter and tempt people’s souls. It was the priests’ duty to teach truth, to lead to repentance, to recover faith, to show the way back to God. But whether they were successful or not, God himself never broke faith with them— he remained faithful to them. How? He disciplined them time and again to help them return to him as his very own covenant people. Malachi was expressing God’s broken heart over this. At the time of Malachi, the people had again broken faith with God. Their priests had broken faith with God. None of them was faithful to the Lord. Though they went though all the rituals of covenant worship, they were far from God in their own hearts.
Look at verse 5. God calls it “A covenant of life and peace”. God’s covenant with us today is also a covenant of life and peace, even though it is different from the original covenant. It is a covenant of peace because it offers us eternal forgiveness for sin, turns aside the wrath of God from us, and reconciles us to God forever. It is a covenant of life because through it we live eternally in the grace and mercy of God. In the olden days, this covenant— this word of God— was written on tablets of stone. They were to obey it, and if they failed, they needed to seek the Lord’s forgiveness through shedding the blood of sacrificial animals which they needed to do over and over. But now we have that Covenant— the word of God— written not on tablets of stone, but on our very hearts and minds. (Hebrews 8) In other words, the word of God is etched within our hearts and minds, that we might obey it lovingly, willingly and wholeheartedly. And while the old covenant of life and peace was sealed with the shed blood of animals, the new covenant of life and peace that we now have is sealed in Jesus’ own blood. Jesus sacrificed his life to make a life and peace covenant with you and me. He shed his blood to make us his sons and daughters, and to live in us through his eternal Spirit. This covenant guarantees that we are forever bonded to the Lord in love and faithfulness. But what this covenant does not guarantee is our faithfulness to God and to the new covenant he has with us. What it does not guarantee is what we will do with this precious covenant of life and peace which God has given us. How do we live our lives? Do we honor and respect God our Father and strive to uphold his word in our hearts, or do we abandon that which he has pressed upon our hearts and follow after idols of the heart, despising and ignoring this sacred trust! The new covenant does not force us to live holy lives wholly devoted to God. It paves the way. We are priests of the new covenant of life and peace. We have a tremendous responsibility to uphold this covenant and to influence others towards it. How we live— how we honor the word of God— how we show faithfulness to him as ministers of this covenant— is our own choice!
To understand what faithfulness to the covenant of life and peace is, there’s a story in the book of Nehemiah. After rebuilding the temple and reinstituting the priesthood and entrusting them with the Covenant word, Nehemiah returned to Persia. But when he later returned to Jerusalem, he found something very disturbing at the temple. Let me read his own words to you: He wrote: “One of the sons of Joiada son of Eliashib the high priest was son-in-law to Sanballat the Horonite. And I drove him away from me. Remember them, O my God, because they defiled the priestly office and the covenant of the priesthood and of the Levites.” (Nehemiah 13:28-29) There you have it! A perfect example of the unfaithfulness of the priests to the covenant and the Nehemiah’s faithfulness to it. Apparently, one of the sons of the high priest, who was a priest himself, had married the daughter of a man called Sanballat— a foreigner, a none believer, and an enemy of the Lord and to all that the Lord stood for. Sanballat had no love for the Lord God nor for his word, nor did he care much about honoring and respecting God. How could such a man end up living in the temple of God? Nehemiah found out that it happened when the high priest’s son desired Sanballat’s daughter, then he married her and moved her family including her father to the holy temple of God. The high priest’s son had not only made a mistake following his own passions, but he had violated the word of God and the covenant which forbade God’s people to intermarry with none believers! What this priest did was an abomination, a blatant disrespect for God and his holy covenant. We will discuss this issue more fully next time and in detail. But for now, I want you to see what Nehemiah did. Nehemiah chased him away. He drove him out of the temple. He kicked him out of God’s house. Does it seem a little harsh? Maybe, but it was not as harsh if you consider the seriousness of the priest’s sin before God! He was supposed to uphold the covenant, honoring and respecting the Lord. But he broke faith with God and entertained a godless enemy of the truth within the temple walls. It’s not that harsh when we know that the priest who should be faithful was treating the Lord and his word with utter contempt and unfaithfulness.
If you ask Nehemiah, why did you chase him away? Why did you kick him out? He would answer like this: Because “he defiled the priestly office and the covenant of the priesthood and of the Levites.” Malachi says the same thing when he tells the priests: Because “You have turned from the way and by your teaching have caused many to stumble; you have violated the covenant with Levi,’ says the Lord Almighty.” Instead of keeping the word of God, the priests turned from the way. They had taught the word of God— they had spoken the Word of God— they had instructed people in the Word of God’s law— they had proclaimed it as the absolute law— and then, they had defiled it themselves. The covenant was corrupted by the way of the priesthood. Jesus says the same things to the priests of his own day when he says: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them … Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.” (Matthew 23)
What was the priesthood for in the first place? The only reason it existed was because God wanted them to guard the word of God’s covenant. But as we said before, what corrupted and defiled the people was the priesthood itself. The teachers of the people, the messengers of the Lord themselves had done harm to the covenant and the word of God. How? Now this is the issue. How did they do harm to the covenant and the word of God? In what way were they bad influence? By proclaiming it as truth, yet at the same time, denying it in their own hearts and through their own lives; By preaching it as truth, but denying its very life and power. There is a word of God in 2 Timothy which explains this very well. It says: “Having a form of godliness but denying its power.” (2 Timothy 3:5) This is what this means. That it looks like godliness on the outside, but there’s nothing on the inside to support it. He looks and acts as if he is godly, but his heart isn’t right with God. He speaks godly words, but to him the words spoken have no power, because they don’t reflect the very words he speaks. He speaks well, he teaches well, he can preach, he says all the right things, but he has never experienced the power of the word of God that he speaks.
This is a very serious issue for the people of Malachi’s time. It was the spirit of the age. There was so much seeming godliness, but everything was done mechanically, formally, ceremonially, ritually. There was much outward observance, that they seemed pretty godly. But when the prophet voiced to them God’s complaint that they were faithful in appearance but were unfaithful to God and to his Covenant word at heart, they were astonished, they were angry. They were brazen and they were insolent. They looked straight at him and said: “We don’t see this at all. We don’t know what you are talking about.” And all this, why? Because God’s appointed messengers, God’s priests and those who were entrusted with his word were corrupted themselves in word and in actions, until even the people had become blind to the seriousness of their condition. They were not doing their job! They were not living according to the word of God. Their lives as messengers of the Lord were a sham. They were priests by name but when it came to action, they were worse than non believers, having a form of godliness but denying its power!
This is happening today as well. People have no fear of God because the servants of God have no fear God. They proclaim the gospel as it is but they don’t live out the gospel as they should. The people who observe them and are influenced by them feel comfortable that they are surrounded by the Word of God, but in their hearts they are far from God, while the whole time thinking they are spiritually sound— when they’re not! There’s no danger greater for today’s Christians than this danger— “having a form of godliness but denying is power”. What does it mean practically? It means that they have the truth of God but don’t believe a word of it! It means that they uphold and teach the word of God, but they have no personal experience of its true worth and power. I’m in the process of examining my heart to see if my life has a form of godliness but occasionally denying its power— not believing it, not living according to it, not honoring it as I should. Are you examining your own heart? Do you and I believe that God is Almighty but we don’t believe he can change our hearts? Do we believe that Christ rose from the dead but we live as if he hadn’t? Do we believe in heaven but all our treasures are stashed here on earth? Do we believe that God is love but we don’t live in self denial and in self sacrifice? That’s the “form of godliness” we’re talking about but negating its power! If we don’t live what we say we believe, or what we preach, then there’s a chance that we too have become blind to our own spiritual condition, and need to go on our knees and ask God’s forgiveness in repentance until we have turned our hearts back to him, to honor and respect him as our Father and Master.
A man may have the very foundation of godliness, he may hold the truth, he may be very devoted to his rituals and ceremonies, and yet in all that, he may be denying the power of God’s word in and through his life and actions. This is the danger of today’s half hearted faith. They can give you a good reason why you should belong to a church, they may have some purity in their lives in response to some of the Bible’s words they know, they seem to maintain an outward form of godliness, yet at the same time, their lives do not correspond to what they hold to be truth and to what they often preach and teach. And if you tell these people that God would have their hearts instead of their works, that God would have their self denial, their repentance, their humility, and the laying down of their lives, they would say: “How. How can you say this to us? What do you mean? Aren’t we doing all these things? Don’t we hold the truth? Are we not good Christian people? What’s at the heart of this attitude? A corrupting of the priesthood, a corrupting of the covenant of life and peace, to which we all have the responsibility to live by and to experience in every way it’s glorious power. When God says “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33), instead of saying “How?”, we ought to devote what belongs to God to God first in our hears and lives, and we ought to do so practically, making God and his kingdom a priority in our lives and hearts. And then we would experience the power of his promise taking form in our very hearts and lives— and so living and acting as the priests God called us to be. We cannot influence others towards God and his kingdom unless we ourselves have tasted the power of God working in our own lives. The life of a Christian minister is not in what he or she says, not even in what they believe, but in how the Covenant Word of God reflects in and through their lives. Let’s humble ourselves before the Lord today and ask for his mercy and power to live as priests who can influence others in the power of God’s word. Amen.