Leading Others Upward
May 11, 2003 | Brian Bill
There are some things that only a mom can teach…
My mother taught me about anticipation:
“Just wait until your father gets home!”
My mother taught me about medical science:
“If you don’t stop crossing your eyes, they’re going to stay that way.”
My mother taught me about genetics:
“You’re just like your father.”
My mother taught me about justice:
“One day you’ll have kids and I hope they turn out just like you.” (I heard that one a lot)
I want to mention at the beginning that this sermon will not be a “typical” Mother’s Day message. A couple months ago, after deciding to begin a book study for the spring, I asked my wife to survey the Women’s Ministry Leadership Team to see whether they thought I should devote this Sunday to a message for mothers like I’ve done in past years. I was surprised by their answer. They felt that it was not necessary to dedicate an entire sermon to mothers and preferred that the sermon series continue with an application to mothers. So that’s what I’m going to do. You can never go wrong listening to mothers about Mother’s Day!
Actually, I shouldn’t be surprised that people in a Bible church want these kinds of messages. After all, Bible is our middle name! As I mentioned last week, believers here want sermons that “bring it on” so that we can all step it up spiritually. Bless you for your bold beliefs and for your voracious appetite for the Word of God! Two weeks ago we were reminded that even though there are many ways in which we fall short, we can always count on God’s unconditional love. Last Sunday our focus was on giving God our best by embracing an authentic faith, giving God priority over our possessions and by grasping His greatness.
I want to share with you something that happened after the second service. As I made my way to my desk to pick up some things to take down to “Pizza With the Pastors,” a gentleman followed me into my office (By the way, he gave me permission to share this). He’s been attending here for a couple months and rededicated his life to Christ during an invitation about six weeks ago. He looked at me with a very serious look on his face and started taking off his watch. I’ll admit that I was distracted and in a bit of a hurry to make it down to the Family Life Center because my stomach was growling. When he got his watch off, he said, “Here, I want you to have this.” I told him thanks but I already had a watch and then invited him to come down and have pizza with us.
He stopped me, looked right into my eyes and said, “This watch is all I have. I’m giving it to God. Please take it. It’s my offering to the church.” I held out my hand and he gave it to me. His eyes were filled with tears at this point and so were mine. He then turned around and left. As I stood there with his offering in my hand, I realized that he had just given the best that he had at great cost to himself while I had been locked into lunch and fixated on food.
I can’t wait to see what God is going to do in each of our lives as a result of our text for today. Please turn in your Bibles to Malachi 2:1-9. As you’re turning there, let me say that I’m going pick up the pace because this passage contains a spiritual smorgasbord. I’ll need to talk fast to make sure we get to the dessert bar at the end. If you miss something I encourage you to pick up a tape or a manuscript in the hallway, or go to our website to listen to the audio file or download the text. Are you ready?
Let’s begin by looking at verse 1 together: “And now this admonition is for you, O priests.” Some of us might be tempted to check out at this point because this passage is obviously not for us, or is it? The connecting point is the term “priest” because it was not only used to identify a certain group of people in the Old Testament, but is also used to describe every believer in the New Testament. In the Old Testament, priests were descendants of Moses’ brother Aaron, who was from the tribe of Levi. They were called Levites and their job was to serve in the Tabernacle and later in the Temple. They were set apart for two primary purposes: to sacrifice animals and to serve God.
Under the New Covenant, Jesus, the high priest, who offered Himself as the final sin sacrifice, fulfilled this office. We see this in Hebrews 4:14: “Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess.” Hebrews 7:23-25 makes clear that because Jesus has become a permanent priest, the Old Testament priesthood is now obsolete. Verse 27 states that sacrifices are no longer necessary because He has paid the price with His life: “Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself.”
Amazingly, the Bible teaches that you and I are priests. We are set apart to be involved in wonderful worship and sacrificial service. 1 Peter 2:9: “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” John put it this way in Revelation 1:6: “And has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father…”
Here’s how this passage percolates into our lives today. Every believer is a priest and as such is set apart for worship and service. And, just as priests in the Old Testament were to point people to God, each of us is called to lead others upward today. Unfortunately, it’s easy for us to forget our function as followers of Christ and default to seeing our duty as drudgery rather than a delight.
I want us to first look at five fatal flaws that contributed to the spiritual slide of those who should have known better in verses 2-3 and verses 8-9. Sandwiched in between, in verses 4-7, are five leadership lessons that we’ll close with.
Five Fatal Flaws
This past week we’ve heard about the basketball coach at Iowa State and the football coach at Alabama who lost their jobs because of “inappropriate behavior.” In commenting on their exploits, Randy Kindred, a sports columnist from the Pantagraph writes perceptively that they “…had money, urges and an air of invincibility—a dangerous combination” (The Pantagraph, 5/7/03). It also came out this week that the author of the Book of Virtues has an $8-million gambling habit. H.B. London, from Focus on the Family, hits it on the head when he states: “Each of these men has embarrassed himself by exhibiting conduct unbecoming to his profession” (“The Pastor’s Weekly Briefing,” 5/9/03, email@example.com).
As we look at Malachi 2, we’re introduced to a group of leaders that exhibited conduct unbecoming to their profession. And, they did it with an air of flippant invincibility.
1. They dishonored God’s holiness (2-3). The first step down the slippery slope of superficial religiosity is that these leaders totally dishonored the holiness of God. It always starts here. It was A.W. Tozer who said, “What you think about God is the most important thing about you.” These priests no longer honored God, which means that they did not consider Him to be weighty or heavy. Notice in the first part of verse 2 that because they didn’t honor God they didn’t bother listening to Him: “If you do not listen, and if you do not set your heart to honor my name, says the LORD Almighty…” The word “listen” means to “hear intelligently with the implication of obedience” and to “set your heart” refers to an active decision of the will. We know from chapter one that they didn’t honor God because they were giving Him garbage for sacrifices.
We see again that God refers to Himself as “Lord Almighty” four times in this brief passage. This is the strongest possible title that He can use to communicate that He is “the self-existent One with a Host of Angelic Armies” ready to do His bidding. But they didn’t care. They were bored with it all. They yawned in the face of Yahweh. And yet, because of God’s love and grace, He offers them a chance to return. Look at the very first word of verse 2: “If.” God is giving them a condition. If they persist in sliding south in sin, then He will punish them. This is very similar to Jeremiah 13:16, where we read: “Give glory to the LORD your God before he brings the darkness, before your feet stumble on the darkening hills.” On the other hand, if they give glory to God and set their hearts to honor His holy name, He will unleash His blessings.
It becomes very graphic at this point. If they don’t grasp God’s greatness and honor His heaviness, then three things will happen.
- Rebuke. In the second half of verse 2, God declares that He will send curses upon them. We don’t hear much about this word anymore. It’s more than just wishing something bad on someone. A curse was considered to possess an inherent power of doom and destruction. The word, “send” means “to hurl” or “let loose.”
When God says that He’s going to “curse their blessings,” He’s saying that sin and rebellion are not just washed away by some benediction or religious service. In other words, they can’t bless themselves out of the mess they’re in. Verse 3 begins with some tough words that are aimed at their children and grandchildren: “Because of you I will rebuke your descendants.” The way they are living today will affect their children tomorrow. We probably need to think more about this than we do. Are you living in light of the legacy you will leave for your kids and your grandkids?
- Rejection. I hope you haven’t just eaten because the middle part of verse 3 is among the strongest statements you will ever find in the Bible: “I will spread on your faces the offal from your festival sacrifices…” We learned last week that the priests were accepting sick sacrifices from the people and offering them to God. When the priests sacrificed animals they would lay them on a table and slaughter them, keeping the intestines and organs separate so they could be thrown away. This was a messy job. I have memories of “field dressing” a deer when I would go hunting with my dad. I watched him do it once and then he made me do it the next time, and the next time, and the next time (that’s a parental prerogative, you know). The idea was to get all the “guts” and the other gross stuff out of the deer before we dragged it out of the woods.
If you’re squirming now, you better squeeze the hand of the person next to you because its about to get worse. The word “offal” refers not just to the intestines but also to “dung” or “manure.” This was awful offal. God is saying that because His priests have not honored His holiness, He is going to give them manure makeovers! He is going to take the excrement from the sick animals and smear it on them. I’m sure you’ve heard about the horrible hazing that took place among students from Glenbrook North High School last weekend. The video of this was gross, repulsive and difficult to watch. Apparently, some of the senior girls forced a bunch of juniors to eat dirt, fish guts and pet food. Some had human excrement shoved into their mouths.
As terrible as this was to see on TV, and those responsible should be held accountable, what God is going to do to His priests who are just pretending to love Him is far worse. Imagine these self-righteous religious leaders with their faces filled with feces. God will not stand for wimpy worship or sloppy service. It’s similar to what He says in Nahum 3:6: “I will pelt you with filth, I will treat you with contempt and make you a spectacle.”
- Removal. The rebuke led to rejection, which finally leads to removal. When the priests cleaned out the offal, they were supposed to throw it over the wall and have it burned because it was unclean. But now, since their faces were covered with dung, they too were unclean and unworthy to serve. The last part of verse 3 says that they “will be carried off with it.”
Friends, God is not passive about how we treat His name and He will not allow anyone to prosper for long in any form of rebellion to His known will. Why? It goes back to Malachi 1:2: “I have loved you, says the Lord.” He loves us too much to let us keep living like we are. We must come back to a proper understanding of His holy love.
2. Departed from the way (8a). The first step south is always a disregard for the weightiness of God. That then leads to a departure from what we know is right. Drop down to the first part of verse 8: “But you have turned from the way…” The New Living Translation puts it like this: “You have left God’s paths.” Once a leader stops walking with God, they must get back in step with Him, or their ministry is really over.
3. Destructive to others (8b). When we depart from the way we usually end up taking others with us: “…and by your teaching have caused many to stumble.” Since we all influence someone, when we grow cold, others will ice over too. 1 Corinthians 15:33 says, “Bad company corrupts good character.” The priests were not walking with God and because of that their words made people waver. Instead of pointing people upward they were tripping them up. God said it strongly in Isaiah 9:16: “Those who guide this people mislead them, and those who are guided are led astray.” Jesus had no tolerance for this in Matthew 18:6, when He said: “But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.”
4. Desecrated the covenant (8c). God had a special rapport with the priests that can be traced all the way back to Levi: “You have violated the covenant with Levi, says the LORD Almighty.” They were allowing religious ritual to rupture their relationship with God. The purpose of the covenant was to produce a love from the heart between man and God and they had violated it. That word “violate” means to decay, destroy or corrupt and is used in Genesis 6:12: “God saw how corrupt the earth had become, for all the people on earth had corrupted their ways.”
5. Despised by the people (9). It’s ironic that the priests were accepting substandard sacrifices in large part because they didn’t want to get the people mad at them. They valued what the people thought more than what God did. But because they were in a spiritual freefall, they ended up being rejected by the people: “So I have caused you to be despised and humiliated before all the people, because you have not followed my ways but have shown partiality in matters of the law.” The sham was over. Their gig was up. Friend, listen. When we don’t take our relationship with God seriously than no one else will take us seriously either. People have seen enough Sunday religion to repel them from wanting a relationship with God.
Don’t you think that’s enough bad news? Let’s move now to some positive steps we can take to lead others upward.
1. Respond to God in obedience (2a). God desires for us to listen and to set our hearts for obedience. It’s one thing to believe something is true; it’s another thing all together to obey it. I like how James 1:22 is translated in the Message: “Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you are a listener when you are anything but, letting the Word go in one ear and out the other. Act on what you hear!” I love the model we have in the young boy named Samuel. After hearing the voice of God in the middle of the night on three different occasions, he responded in obedience: “…Then Samuel said, ‘Speak, for your servant is listening” (1 Samuel 3:10). Can you say that to God right now? Are you listening to the Lord? The litmus test of listening is whether or not you are living out what you know to be true.
2. Revere God as awesome (4-5). In verse 4, God is longing for His covenant with Levi to continue. Levi was the third of Leah’s sons born to Jacob. His name literally means, “to adhere,” or “be joined to.” Leah was hoping that with his birth, her husband might be drawn closer to her: “Now at last my husband will become attached to me…so he was named Levi” (Genesis 29:34). This reveals a universal desire of wives everywhere. They want their husbands to be locked into them. Men, on this Mother’s Day, let’s recommit to reattach ourselves to our wives. More about this next Sunday.
What’s interesting is that the making of the covenant with Levi is not formally recorded. In fact, there are not many complimentary things said about this man. Even his own father had some harsh words for him in Genesis 49. What made the followers of Levi so special? We have some clues in Exodus and Numbers.
The fact that Moses and Aaron were descendants of Levi gave the tribe some prominence. When Moses came down from the mountain after meeting with the majestic God, he threw the stone tablets containing the 10 Commandments to the ground because the people were worshiping the golden calf. Moses saw that all the people were running wild and so he stood at the entrance to the camp in Exodus 32:26 and declared, “Whoever is for the Lord, come to me. And all the Levites rallied to him.” Moses told the Levites to clean shop by wiping out those who worshiped the calf and then declared a blessing on them in verse 29: “You have been set apart to the LORD today, for you were against your own sons and brothers, and he has blessed you this day.”
God was establishing a priesthood that revered His name and put Him first. Later, in Numbers 18:2, there is a play on Levi’s name when direction is given that the tribe of Levi be “joined” with Aaron in the ministry at the Tent of Meeting. That’s why God was so grieved in Malachi’s day when the priests sniffed at the sacred and rejected His awesomeness.
Malachi 2:5 describes this covenantal relationship: “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.” This covenant of “life and peace” is a reference to what Phineas did in Numbers 25 when he took a stand against evil. The men of Israel were indulging in sexual immorality, which involved the worship of a false god named Baal.
God’s anger burned against the people and so he told Moses to have those committing such abominations destroyed. Unbelievably, even after many were wiped out, in broad daylight, an Israelite named Zimri brought a Midianite prostitute named Cozbi into his tent and committed fornication with her. When Phineas the priest saw this, he jumped up, took a spear and drove it through both of them. This stopped the plague against the Israelites, but not before 24,000 people were killed.
God was very moved by what Phineas did and said in Numbers 25:11-12 that because “He was as zealous as I am for my honor among them…therefore tell him I am making my covenant of peace with him.” Verse 13 summarizes this covenant of peace that is referenced in Malachi 2: “He and his descendants will have a covenant of a lasting priesthood, because he was zealous for the honor of his God and made atonement for the Israelites.” With someone like Phineas in their family tree, it’s an anomaly that the priests in Malachi’s day could commit such abominations.
Let’s be honest about something. Many of us are playing little church games, compromising, disobeying whenever we feel like it, right in the face of a holy God. If we would revere God as awesome, we would be changed forever. No question about it. You see, many of us are bored with God because we don’t understand who He really is, and because we don’t always honor His holiness, we lose sight of what is really important.
3. Resolve to lead yourself (6a). After responding to God and revering Him as awesome, the next step is to lead ourselves. What I mean by this is that we need to make sure the spiritual is real in our own lives. Look at the first part of verse 6: “True instruction was in his mouth and nothing false was found on his lips. He walked with me in peace and uprightness…” If we want to lead people upward we must make sure that God’s Word penetrates our own personhood. We must concentrate on our walk with Him more than anything else.
I’ve been challenged by Bill Hybels’ excellent book called, Courageous Leadership in this regard. He makes the point that while we are called to lead those over us, those next to us, and those under us, our toughest leadership challenge is the one in the middle. He suggests that unless we are squared away internally we have nothing much to offer anyone else: “We would rather try to inspire or control the behavior of others than face the vigorous work of self-reflection and inner growth” (Page 184). He further states that we should be devoting 50% of our time and abilities to leading ourselves and the remaining 50% divided between leading up, leading down, and leading laterally.
4. Repel people from sin (6b). The last part of verse 6 challenges us to do whatever it takes to turn “many from sin.” When we see someone straying we may be tempted to turn the other way. James 5:19-20 exhorts us to not disengage from this task. If we’re serious about leading others upward sometimes we have to go get people out of the mud: “My brothers, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring him back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins.” Is there anyone you can think of right now that is deliberately disobeying God? Do you need to make a visit or a phone call?
5. Represent God to others (7). One of the roles of the priest was to represent God and reveal His will to the people. We see this in the first part of verse 7: “For the lips of a priest ought to preserve knowledge…” The word, “preserve” means to guard against perversion. And, in order to proclaim His message accurately you and I must remain in His presence. It all goes back to responding and revering, doesn’t it? When I prepare to preach, I like to keep in mind the model that Ezra sets: “For Ezra had devoted himself to the study and observance of the Law of the LORD, and to teaching its decrees and laws in Israel” (Ezra 7:10). First, he was devoted. Second, he studied. Third, he applied what he had studied. And finally, he taught others. That’s a good formula for each of us to follow.
Notice the second part of verse 7: “…And from his mouth men should seek instruction-because he is the messenger of the LORD Almighty.” People should want to hear from us. That leads to a question, doesn’t it? Are you making people thirsty for God? Do people come to you for answers? If we’re living our faith out loud, people will notice and they will seek instruction from us. If no one has asked you why your life is different, then maybe it really isn’t. 1 Peter 3:15: “But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.”
1. Let me list the leadership lessons again and ask you to assess your life as it relates to each one.
- Respond to God in obedience. What one thing can you do this week to obey Him? Is there something you’re doing that you know you should stop?
- Revere God as awesome. Read the Book of Malachi or the Book of Isaiah. ?
- Resolve to lead yourself. Are you growing in grace? Are you walking with Him daily?
- Repel people from sin. Think of one person who is sliding into sin. Determine to make a contact this week, no matter how difficult it is.
- Represent God to others. Speak about Jesus to your friends. Don’t back away when you have an opportunity.
2. Since we all lead somebody, who is that you want to do a better job leading upwards? Mothers, you are esteemed for your strategic role in the life of your children. Some of you might not feel like you’re doing a very good job. Remember that Levi felt like a loser until God got hold of him. There’s always a fresh start and a new beginning available to each of us – if we’ll but ask for it. How can you leverage your position as a mother to lead your children to the next level?
I want to close with a question. Does God have all of you? If not, why not? I was very moved this week by the story of Aron Ralston, the Colorado climber who cut off his right arm because a 600-pound boulder had trapped him for four days. He resorted to something severe because he knew that he would die if he stayed where he was. I’m reminded of what Jesus said in Mark 9:43: “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off.”
Friend, you may be in the same spot and you just don’t know it. You feel like a boulder of sin has trapped you. You can’t think of a way out. Maybe you’re just going through the motions as a Christian. It’s time to get out the sword of the Spirit and do whatever it takes to regain your first love. Don’t play church with God anymore. He wants you back on your feet so that you don’t get wiped out by your fatal flaws. And He wants to use you to lead others upward. Are you willing to let Him do that through you?