A Picture of Failed Word Ministry
Let’s think about the picture Malachi paints, first of all, of a failed Word ministry. It’s a sobering picture. And there’s an event that occurred earlier this year, really a tragedy, that I think serves as a helpful metaphor for the message of this part of chapter 2.
Just before seven o’clock in the morning on February 9th this year at a bend in the tracks about thirty-seven miles southeast of the German city of Munich, two passenger trains carrying about a hundred and fifty passengers collided head-on at a speed of about sixty-two miles per hour. Because of the curve in the track, the two drivers did not see the oncoming train and were unable to take action until it was too late. One train report said, “drilled into the other, completely dismantling a carriage.” A week later, Wolfgang Giese, the senior prosecutor for the case, announced the cause of the collision was human error. A dispatcher signaled the two trains coming from opposite directions to travel on the same track. The dispatcher gave the wrong instruction and the result was one of the worst train crashes in German history.
That, I think, is a useful metaphor for what has taken place in the life of the people of God in Malachi 2:1-9. The priests, whose task it was to give instruction to the people, have failed in the ministry of the Word and the result was a spiritual train wreck in the life of God’s people of devastating proportions. We saw something of the scale of the spiritual disaster back in chapter 1 verses 6 to 14, didn’t we? The people of Judah have descended into half-hearted indifference towards God. And Malachi was clear that the primary fault lay with the priests. Look at verse 6 of chapter 1 for a moment. “A son honors his father and a servant his master. If then I am a father, where is my honor? And if I am a master, where is my fear? says the Lord of hosts, to you, O priests.” It is the priests who bear the great responsibility for the condition of things among God’s people. In other words, behind the spiritual train wreck, the catastrophe of spiritual decline happening in the church of the Old Testament scriptures at this point in salvation history, stands the failure of the priests to teach the Word of God in faithful obedience to the call of God.
The Consequences of Their Failure
And if you’ll look at chapter 2, verses 1 to 9, you will notice how the whole passage is bracketed, the first two verses and the last two verses, with a commentary on the failure of the priests. In verses 2 and 3, you see the consequences of their failure unpacked for a few moments. God is going to shame them. The dung of their debased sacrifices will be spread on their faces and they will be taken away like garbage along with it. The consequences of their failure.
The Contours of Their Failure
And then in verses 8 and 9 on the other side of our passage we see the contours of their failure. Look at verses 8 and 9 with me! The priests, we are told, did four things. First, they themselves strayed from the path of obedience to God. Verse 8, “You have turned aside from the way.” Their own lives were marked by a failure to follow the path of godliness. And that’s so often the root of failure in the pulpit, you know – a failure to preach truth truly. Again and again, error and defection from the Word in proclamation is preceded by error and a failure to obey the Word in the details of the life of the minister. Godliness matters for the effectiveness of a preaching ministry. They strayed from the path, Malachi says. And secondly and almost inevitably, as a consequence of their own wandering, they cause others to stumble right along with them. Do you see that in verse 8? “You have caused many to stumble by your instruction.” The dispatcher was giving wrong instructions to the train and a collision was the inevitable result. That’s what Malachi was saying. The wandering priests led others to wander from the way right along with them.
They Perverted the Plan of God
And then thirdly, notice they perverted the plan of God. They “corrupted,” Malachi says, “the covenant of Levi.” That is to say, the pattern of faithful ministry given to the Levitical priests in the Law of Moses has been distorted and debased and disregarded. They have twisted their divine marching orders in order to accommodate their own wayward lifestyle and to justify their rebellion and disobedience. And then finally, Malachi says they were showing partiality. Verse 9, “You do not keep my ways but show partiality in your instruction.” They were inconsistent, playing favorites. They applied the principles of the Torah in a way that gave preferential treatment to some while ruthlessly condemning others. They distorted the pattern of faith and life that God had given in His Word for their own selfish gain. And the result of all of that, of these four marks and features of the priests’ failure, was that the ministry of the Word came to be held in widespread disrepute. Do you see that in verse 9? “So I will make you despised and abased before all the people.”
That surely is a warning for our time, wouldn’t you agree? The widespread rejection of preaching and the widespread suspicion of preachers, so normal in our culture, isn’t simply a symptom of general, spiritual decline out there in the world. It is a fruit of the failure of faithful ministry in here in the church. There are charlatans on our television screens promising health and prosperity while they get rich on the misguided generosity of the most desperate and the needy. There are mitered bishops and high church officials meeting in synods and councils to declare in their vaunted wisdom that the Bible is no longer trustworthy and that homosexuality is perfectly morally acceptable, not noticing all the while that the people are leaving their churches in the tens of thousands every year. Others have exchanged their lofty calling to proclaim the unsearchable riches of Christ for a political soapbox or a social agenda, while still others who formally preached the truth faithfully, use it nevertheless as a means for godless gain seeking to climb the ecclesiastical ladder or pursue celebrity. And so the people are made to stumble, and the world holds the pulpit and the preaching of the Word in contempt.
Don’t we need to remember the word of James, the brother of our Lord, who warned us that “not many of you, my brothers, should become teachers for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” To preach the Word is not a profession; it’s not a job among other jobs. It is a divine calling upon the faithful discharge of which rests the health of the flock of God. And so Malachi paints a sobering picture of what happens when there is a failure in the ministry of the Word in the life of the church. The church itself is sent on a tailspin, a downward spiritual into moral and spiritual decline. It’s a sobering picture of the failure of the ministry of the Word.