Discipleship and the “Malachi Test”
Pastor Douglas Shearer
Preached February 20, 2005
Let me begin this morning with a story. When the American Civil War broke out in 1861 with the shelling of Fort Sumter by the Confederates on April 10th, the Union Army was in pitiful shape – both the enlisted ranks and the officers corps.
The Union Army had not been engaged in battle for close to twenty years – not since the Mexican-American War in the 1840s. And during those twenty years, the army had been left to atrophy. The congressional appropriations supporting the army had been kept to a bare minimum. The army’s equipment was old and worn out – some of it dating back fifty years to the War of 1812.
The low pay for both the enlisted ranks and the officers corps did not attract the best and the brightest from America’s manpower pool. And to make matters worse, many of the few good men serving in the army, both officers and enlistees, were from Virginia, including four of the most outstanding generals of the Civil War, Generals Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, George Pickett, and Jeb Stewart; and they threw in their lot with the Confederacy. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was by all accounts the best of all the commands fielded during the war – at least until 1864 when attrition began wearing it down.
Following the outbreak of war, the Union rushed to enlarge its army. A vast recruiting effort was undertaken – and hundreds of thousands of men signed up. But there were very few officers to lead them. The solution hit upon was an old one: the officers ranks were filled either by (1) election from the enlisted ranks – a kind of popularity contest, or (2) by the political appointment of men drawn from wealthy families of high social standing. Little, if any, consideration was given to aptitude and training. Popularity and social standing – those were the two criteria governing the selection of the Union Army’s officer corps.
The men who began filling the ranks of the Union Army in May and June of 1861 were all supplied with bright sabers, brand spanking new uniforms with polished brass buttons – all well tailored and very sporty; and, to complete the ensemble, the officers were given high-stepping ponies – very eye-catching.
At the end of June, a parade was organized outside the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. The troops marched past President Lincoln in full regalia. What a splendid sight! The Union Army certainly looked good. And if “looking good” meant the Union Army was ready for battle, then, indeed, the Union Army was ready for battle – that is, if “looking good” meant anything.
Two weeks later, the Union Army marched south to engage General Johnston’s Confederate Army of the Shenandoah in The First Battle of Bull Run. Thousands of Washington’s social elite followed the Union army to witness what they expected to be a resounding victory. They casually spread their blankets out on the hills overlooking the battlefield near a small railroad junction just outside Manassas, Virginia – and broke out their lunch baskets.
But within a few short hours the battle began to turn decisively against the Union – and soon it disintegrated into an unmitigated disaster. The Union army was routed. Thousands of Union soldiers were killed – sprawled out dead no more than a few hundred yards from where, just a few hours before, Washington’s social elite had been enjoying lunch.
The Union Army – though it had looked so good on parade just weeks earlier – wasn’t ready for battle. The Union soldiers – with their shiny black boots, with their brand spanking new uniforms, with their polished brass buttons, with their gleaming sabers, with their officers mounted on prancing ponies – were abysmal.
They looked good; but they weren’t good. And that’s because the ranks of the Union Army were filled with recruits, not with veterans. Both are soldiers – recruits and veterans; but recruits are fresh faced novices – untrained and untested, whereas veterans are both well trained and battle hardened.
No army composed primarily of fresh-faced recruits will hold together in the heat of battle. It will either cut and run or be ground up and destroyed.
And the same holds true of a church. A church is composed of two kinds of Christians: (1) mere believers who haven’t pressed on to become disciples – either because they’re newly redeemed or because they’ve been unwilling to pay the price discipleship requires; and (2) believers who have pressed on to become disciples. Both are Christians, but…
Two obvious parallels can be drawn…
The Union army in the late spring of 1861 looked good on parade – with its gleaming sabers, its men resplendent in pressed uniforms and shining brass buttons, and its officers riding on high stepping ponies.
And that’s true today of the church here in America. It looks good on parade – with its spacious sanctuaries, its cavernous and well appointed fellowship halls, its seniors programs, its teen programs, its marriage programs, its counseling programs; and its well prepared, entertaining, but not too challenging, don’t-rock-the-boat, seeker-sensitive Sunday morning sermons.
We look good. But just how good are we? Are we really ready for spiritual warfare? Are we really ready to engage the devil for the souls of the men and women he holds captive to sin?
Let me ask you, “Does the church here in America really make a difference in the lives of the men and women who attend its Sunday morning services and mid-week Bible studies.” If happy, joy-filled marriages are a measure of the church’s effectiveness, then the answer is “No” – because there’s no difference between the divorce rate of Evangelical Christians and the general population.
So are we just kidding ourselves? Instead of being a church, are we merely playing at church – the way we played army or “cowboys and Indians” when we were kids?
It’s easy to fooled – just as the Union Army was fooled before the First Battle of Bull Run. The officers and men who marched south into Virginia to engage the Confederates were convinced they were ready for battle – convinced that they would rout the rebels in short order – and with very few losses. Their shiny black boots, their sporty uniforms with their shiny brass buttons, and their gleaming sabers – wasn’t that sufficient proof?
I’m reminded of what happened to us here at New Hope three years ago. Let me tell you another story. And allow me be brutally frank with you. In the spring of 2000, many of us here at New Hope decided we were ready to challenge the devil on his own ground.
For years we’d been preaching and teaching about the meaning of the church – that the church is a community of believers in love with God and in love with one another; and that our love for one another is perhaps the single most potent weapon we can deploy against the devil. Why? Because the Gospel of John tells us: “they shall know we are Christ’s disciples because we love one another.”
We wanted to make that truth concrete and tangible – not just a truth we pay lip service to, but a truth we actually live out. So, about sixteen families here at New Hope purchased a large parcel of property not far from here – off of Madison Avenue and began building new homes – a community of Christians putting their love for one another on display – and, in so doing, lifting up Christ for everyone to see.
By April of 2001, the project was far enough along that it had attracted a lot of attention – so much so that the Sacramento Bee sent out a reporter, Mary Lynne Vellinga, to interview us on a Sunday morning here at the church. And two days later, there we were on the front page of the Bee. The article was well written and very positive. You can down-load it for yourselves from the archives of the Sacramento Bee. It’s dated April 17, 2001.
Just six months later, we developed a plan to attack the devil on a second front – we decided to take the gospel of Jesus Christ to the Sacramento Jewish Community – and, in so doing, live out the truth of Romans 9–11 – that Jewish evangelism is top priority for God. And, in May of 2002, we put our plan into effect: we organized four consecutive Sunday services to which we invited a Jewish rabbis to preach – four different rabbis in all; at each of the services a rabbi preached half the service while a New Hope pastor preached the second half of the service.
We asked the rabbis to bring members of their congregation along – and they did so. On one Sunday, half our sanctuary was filled with Jews from Mosaic Law Synagogue.
The rabbis were invited to tell us why they didn’t believe in Jesus; and we, in turn, preached to them why we did. What a powerful witness! Never before had some of those rabbis heard the gospel preached with such conviction and power – nor had the congregants they brought along with them. We held nothing back. We were polite and loving, but we didn’t compromise the truth – that Jesus alone is the way to the Father; that no man can come to the Father but through the Son. I’ll put the message I preached on the New Hope web-site so you can down-load it and read it for yourselves.
Imagine! Within a single year, we’d opened up two fronts against the devil –
And all with hardly a murmur of protest from the devil! We’d expected some sort of counter attack; but none had been forthcoming. Had we frightened the devil off? Had we swept him and his minions from the field?
No, the devil hadn’t been swept from the field; nor had he failed to take notice of our challenge – and four months later in September he counter-attacked – with a ferocity and cruel vengeance none of us had anticipated. Nothing was off limits. He attacked long-time friendships; he attacked reputations; he stirred up petty jealousies; he stirred up hurt feelings; he stirred up doubts and misgivings; and so on and so forth.
His attack was ruthless and unrelenting.
The church began to unravel. We had thought ourselves prepared for whatever the devil might throw at us; but we were wrong.
For the next two years, we reeled under the devil’s counter-attack – and with every new onslaught we became more convinced of how few of us were real disciples. We had looked so good on parade; but we were melting in the heat of battle.
Any church can launch an attack against the devil; but to hold the line against the devil’s counter-attack – that’s another story. A church comprised primarily of believers can launch an attack; but only a church comprised primarily of disciples can hold the line against the counter-attack that will surely follow.
Have we learned our lesson here at New Hope? Are we now becoming a church comprised mostly of disciples – or, at the very least, believers on their way to becoming disciples? Or are our ranks still filled primarily with believers only – believers who haven’t yet submitted themselves to God to be trained for warfare – to be trained in discipleship? Which is it? And how can we tell? That’s the key, “How can we tell?”
The Book of Malachi provides a simple five question test that will give us the answer. Malachi is the last Book of the Old Testament – and, in a sense, it’s a prelude to the First Advent. As such, it was written to warn the Jews to prepare themselves to meet their Savior. But it goes on to tell them how to prepare themselves – and, most importantly, how to know that they’re prepared – how to know they’re ready.
Are we ready here at New Hope to meet God – to be used of God? Are we really his disciples? Or are we only fooling ourselves? Malachi’s five question test will give us the answer.
The first test Malachi administers is found in Chapter One, verse 2
I have loved you, says the Lord. But you say, In what way have you loved us?
Do you ever find yourself asking that question, “In what way have you loved us, Lord?” If so, you’re not very far along the road toward becoming a disciple. You may indeed have decided to travel down that road, but you’re not very far along.
The question – “In what way have you loved us, Lord?” – reflects a lack of trust in God; but, even more poignantly, it reflects a lack of intimacy with God. The plain and simple truth is that you don’t know God. You may be believer and, therefore, you’re genuinely redeemed – genuinely a child of God; but though you’re redeemed and a child of God, you don’t actually know him.
Anyone walking close to the Lord – anyone who has drawn up alongside of God doesn’t ask such a question. There’s no doubt in his mind that God loves him.
In fact, not even the newly saved will ask such a question. They’re in love with God – they’re thrilled with his love – stunned by his love. “I’m forgiven!” That’s the one thought reverberating through their hearts and minds. “I’m forgiven. I’ve been delivered from the penalty of sin. My sins have been washed away.” They’re staggered by the thought that God sent his own Son Jesus Christ to die in their place.
Christians walking close to God are filled with gratitude. Is your heart filled with gratitude? Can you exclaim with no hesitation whatsoever, “Yes, Lord, I know you love me – and I’m so very thankful for the mercy you’ve lavished upon me.” If not, you don’t pass Malachi’s first test – meaning you aren’t far very far down the road toward becoming a disciple – and you certainly aren’t ready for spiritual warfare. You’re a recruit, not a tested, battle-hardened veteran.
The second test Malachi administers is found in Chapter One, verses 6 – 8.
A son honors his father, And a servant his master. If I, then, am your Father, where is my honor? And if I, then, am your Master, Where is my reverence? says the Lord of hosts to you priests who despise my name. Yet you say, “In what way have we despised Your name?”
You offer defiled food on my altar. But say, “In what way have we defiled You?” By saying, “The table of the Lord is contemptible.”
And when you offer the blind as a sacrifice, is it not evil? And when you offer the lame and sick, is it not evil? Offer it then to your governor! Would he be pleased with you? Would he accept you favorably? says the Lord of hosts.
Are you giving God the left-overs – and reserving the best for yourself? That’s the question God’s asking here. God warned the Jews that he wanted the best of their flocks, the best of their herds, and the best of their crops. Second best wouldn’t do. He didn’t want the sick and lame of the flocks – the sick and lame of the herds – the spoilage from the crops. That’s dishonoring. And so God challenges the Jews here in this passage of Scripture:
We pursue our studies and our careers with care and diligence. We give our very best. But that’s not true of God. We give God what’s left over – left over time and left over effort. And, in so doing, we dishonor him. He deserves our best, but we give him second best – if even that.
And why? Because we’ve given the best of our time to our jobs, our careers, and, yes, to our families. And, in so doing, we’ve dishonored God. God won’t be relegated to second place in your life. If you relegate God to second place, you may be a believer, but you’re certainly not a disciple. You’re a recruit, not a tested, battle-hardened veteran able to wage spiritual warfare; able to hold your ground when the devil attacks the church.
Do you pass Malachi’s second test?
The third test Malachi administers is found in Chapter Three, verse 7.
Return to me, and I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts. But you say, “In what way shall we return?”
Are we attuned to the need for repentance? When God asks us to repent, do we have ears to hear? Or, when someone corrects us, do we throw up our defenses and bristle with indignation, “How dare you correct me. I never gave you permission to do that. I didn’t come to this morning’s service to hear you tell me that what I’m doing is wrong. I came here to be comforted and consoled.”
Can you handle a rebuke? Do you welcome correction? Or are you constantly defensive? If so – if you’re constantly defensive and can’t handle correction – you can be sure you’re not a disciple. You may indeed be a believer, but you’re certainly not a disciple. You’re a recruit, not a tested, battle-hardened veteran able to wage spiritual warfare – able to hold your ground when the devil counter-attacks the church.
Do you pass Malachi’s third test?
The fourth test Malachi administers is found in Chapter Three, verse 8.
Will a man rob God? Yet you have robbed me! But you say, In what way have we robbed you? In tithes and offerings.
Money – what we think about money and how we spend it – always reflects the true condition of our heart, doesn’t it? Are you so filled with fear that you can’t give a mere 10% of your income to God? Or do you make excuses? “I can’t afford to give 10%. I’ll give later when I can afford it.”
Don’t you know what you’re telling God when you engage in that kind of thinking – that kind of behavior? Your telling God you don’t trust him. You’re telling God he’s not worthy. You say to yourself, “God will understand.” Well, I’ve got news for you: God doesn’t understand, nor does he excuse it. He certainly didn’t excuse the Jews; nor does he excuse us.
I’ve heard Christians I counsel tell me, “But, Pastor Doug, isn’t it wrong not to pay my bills.” Do you really think that washes with God? It’s all a matter of honoring God. You dishonor God when you push him into second place – regardless of the apparent consequences you’ll incur. Have you never read the story of the “Widow’s Mite”? It’s a story of a poor widow who puts her last penny in the temple treasury box – and Jesus, watching her do it, commends her to his disciples. He doesn’t rebuke her – warning her that she’s being foolish – that she should take care of herself and her baby first; that she can’t afford to donate to the temple treasury. He commends her.
Yes, it’s wrong not to pay your bills; but it’s worse not to honor God – which is what we do whenever we “give to God off the bottom,” rather than “off the top.” Part of the reason you can’t pay your bills is that in dishonoring God by not putting him first on your list of monthly payments, you’ve invited the devourer into your home – and the more you try to dig yourself out of debt, the deeper into debt you fall. Listen to what God says in Malachi 3:10-11.
Bring all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house, And try me now in this, says the Lord of hosts, If I will not open for you the windows of heaven and pour out for you such blessing that there will not be room enough to receive it.
And I will rebuke the devourer for your sakes, and he shall not destroy the fruits of your ground; neither shall your vine cast her fruit before the time in the field, says the Lord of hosts
We’re clearly warned here that a child of God who refuses to “give off the top” is unable to hold “the devourer” at bay. The devourer invades his home and destroys his wealth and possessions; but if we do put God first and honor him with our tithes and offerings, he rebukes “the devourer.”
Indeed, God encourages his people to test him – to prove his faithfulness: “Put me first,” God says, “and I will watch over and bless your wealth and your possessions. I will turn back the devourer” and provide for all your needs.”
If you’re having trouble putting God first on your monthly payment list, you can be sure you’re not a disciple. Again, you may indeed be a believer; but you’re most certainly not a disciple. You’re a recruit, not a tested, battle-hardened veteran able to wage spiritual warfare – able to hold your ground when the devil counter-attacks the church.
Do you pass Malachi’s fourth test?
The fifth and final test Malachi administers is found in Chapter Three, verses 13 and 14.
Your words have been harsh against me, says the Lord. Yet you say, What have we spoken against you?
You have said, It is useless to serve God; what profit is it that we have kept his ordinance, and that we have walked as mourners before the Lord of hosts?
Cynicism and disbelief. Have you become cynical? Once your love of God was vibrant and full; but now you say, “It’s useless to serve God. There’s no profit in it.”
Is that what’s become of your faith? Down deep inside – in your heart of hearts – you’ve become cynical. You’re still perhaps “going through the motions” of being a Christian, but your heart is dead to God. You look elsewhere for comfort and relief.
If that’s the state of your heart, for sure you’re not a disciple. Once again, you may be a believer – genuinely redeemed – genuinely a child of God, but you’re certainly not a disciple. You’re a recruit, not a tested, battle-hardened veteran able to wage spiritual warfare – able to hold your ground when the devil attacks the church.
Do you pass Malachi’s fifth test?
We live in tumultuous times – dangerous times. Confusion and turmoil are all around us. That’s the bad news! The good news is that confusion, turmoil, and danger soften peoples’ hearts – and opens them to the gospel message.
But only churches filled with disciples will be able to harvest those souls. Why? Because churches filled primarily with believers, not disciples, will be caught up in the very panic that grips the unsaved. Instead of seeing an opportunity, they’ll see only hardship and heart-ache.
What do you see out ahead?
It all depends on whether you’re a disciple or only a believer.
Make the choice today to commit yourself to becoming a disciple. God will supply the grace if you’ll but supply yourself - just as you are. God will take you with all your fears and anxieties, all your unsanctified habits – and he’ll transform you into a tested, battle-hardened veteran able to wage spiritual warfare.
And that’s what you want deep down inside. That’s what we all want –
to hear him whispering, “Keep it up; just beyond is the finish line – where I’ll crown you with a laurel wreath of victory and pronounce you an overcomer before all the heavenly hosts – where I’ll declare, Well done, enter into the joy of your Master.”