"Return and I'll Return"

"God looks for born-again men, sanctified men, fruitful men—in that order—and a balance between the three."

A. E. Cook is Ministerial secretary of the Trans- Africa Division

 

WE CALL him Malachi. The He brews did the same. It's because we have not translated the word. If we did, we would say "My Messenger." Back in Bible days this may have referred to his position and office and work rather than to his actual name. However that may be, it is the message that counts, not the name or even the messenger.

"Return unto me, and I will return unto you, saith the Lord of hosts. But ye said, Wherein shall we return?" (Mal. 3:7).

What an invitation! What a promise! But what a miserable response!

Appeal to Priesthood

The real value of the prophecy of Malachi to clergymen today arises out of the fact that it contains a tremendous appeal to the priesthood. The messenger calls them "the sons of Levi" and "the messenger of the Lord of Hosts" (chap. 2:7). I noticed the Living Bible goes a step further and says, "the Levites—the ministers of God" (chap. 3:3, T.L.B.).*

Israel was far from God—the people were in apostasy. But the prophet asserts that the priests were really to blame. The very men whose work was to lead the nation to God were at best negative and in many ways a source of evil rather than an example of righteousness.

So the message of the messenger, while addressed to all Israel, is directed to the priests in particular. The messenger holds up the ugly picture of national apostasy. But he blasts the religious leaders and cries out in God's name, "Return—return unto Me."

The ancient priesthood is no more. But they doubtless represent God's ministry now. What God wanted from His priests back there is what He looks for in His ministers today, for Malachi asserts, "I am the Lord, I change not" (Mal. 3:6).

Let's look now at the ideals of the ministry as portrayed by the messenger. These are not abstract ideals. They are embodied in a Person. That's where ideals are most meaningful. That way people can comprehend them. It was when the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us that men saw God best. And it's the same today. Truth is still best revealed in the life of a person.

Levi was one man who made the grade. He actually met the standard. He pleased God and is held up before us as the kind of servant God was looking for. "My covenant was with him of life and peace; and I gave them to him for the fear wherewith he feared me, and was afraid before my name" (Mal. 2:5). The New English Bible takes the fear out of this passage and injects something more true to the meaning: "I laid on him the duty of reverence, and he revered me and lived in awe of my name."

Reverence is the very soul of true worship and it's of first importance here. God placed it first because that's where it belongs. We today have re placed "the high and lofty One who in habits eternity," whose "name is holy and reverend," and the One in whose presence sinful men fall on their faces with "Somebody up there likes me" a "buddy beyond the blue."

But Levi was a reverent man. "The law of truth was in his mouth, and iniquity was not found in his lips: he walked with me in peace and equity, and did turn many away from iniquity. For the priest's lips should keep knowledge, and they should seek the law at his mouth: for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts" (Mal. 2:6, 7).

The priest needs to be this kind of man. Men hang upon the words of the priest, and seek knowledge and instruction from him, because he is the messenger of the Lord.

There Is a Difference

The people expected something from their priest—so did God. God expects something of His ministry today. In this democratic age this isn't very popular. People want everyone to be the same, and the idea has a strong appeal. But when a man is called to lifelong service for God, as Levi was, there is a difference.

When Levi was called, the idea was already abroad that there was no difference, and God met it and answered it once and for all.

Numbers 17 records the story, and every man here must know it quite well. A rod for each tribe was laid up over night in the sanctuary of God. In the morning Levi's call to a special ministry was vindicated by three specific evidences: (1) it budded—there was life there new life; (2) it blossomed—it was a special kind of life with its own character and an evident beauty (theologians would say a sanctified life); (3) it bore almonds—the end result was fruitfulness.

God looks for born-again men, sanctified men, fruitful men—in that order—and a balance between the three. There must be a blending of the spiritual with the practical—a rich and deepening spiritual life within that motivates the man to service, and service for men that sends him back to the spiritual sources that sustain the worker for God and make his efforts fruitful. All true ministry will issue in fruitfulness—not in mere words.

In high school in Australia, we were obliged, like most British children, to study some of the works of William Shakespeare in our English course. One term it was Henry V and, of course, the Battle of Agincourt. Since the battle is celebrated in our literature you will have guessed that Henry came out victorious.

King Henry had some very brave and efficient generals but none quite like Fluellen, the Welshman who was the very salt of the earth. Being an honest man himself, he believed all things and took life at its face value.

After the battle he approached the king, saying, "Your Majesty, I have a soldier for a citation."

"Fine, and what is his name?" asked King Henry.

"Pistol, Ancient Pistol," Fluellen re plied without a smile.

"Aye, sir, and what has Ancient Pistol done?" Henry demanded. "How many enemy has he killed?"

"Don't know that he has killed any enemy," Fluellen admitted.

"Then prisoners? How many prisoners has he taken?"

"Didn't see any prisoners," the honest Fluellen conceded.

"Has he suffered grievous wounds, shed blood in the battle perhaps?"

"Didn't notice any blood."

"Then, Sir, please tell me, what has Ancient Pistol done?"

"Your Majesty, with my own two ears I heard Ancient Pistol uttering the words, 'For the bridge,' during the battle."

There was no citation awarded. No medal for that!

Disturbing reality, the sons of Levi had come to about that stage—their service issued in words and formalities, the letter without the spirit. And it is against this background that the Lord sent His messenger to cry, "Return unto me, and I will return unto you."

Form of Religion

The people had returned from exile, the city was rebuilt, the Temple raised up, the services restored, offerings were being offered—such as they were. The fasts and feasts and services were fol lowing the schedule.

There was a mechanical outward observance. The machinery was in place and turning over, side by side with spiritual failure and terrible evils. Malachi pictures a people having the forms of religion without its power, fulfilling external requirements without the internal experience, repeating the symbols while destitute of the graces that the symbols represented.

God's message was: This whole thing is meaningless because it is not leading men to Me. "Return unto me, and I will return unto you."

Israel lost their contact with Jehovah. Their position was pathetic, and yet, the prophet's first assertion is: "The burden of the word of the Lord to Israel by Malachi. I have loved you, saith the Lord. Yet ye say, "Wherein hast thou loved us?" (Mal. 1:1, 2).

Because they had lost their love for God, the assertion of His love for them was incredible. It takes love to respond to love—and only love really recognizes love. Only a sincere return to God could put things right. Without love for God we may search the universe in vain for evidence of His love for us. If we truly love Him, then every stone is an altar, every tree a burning bush, and every twig is aflame with God and the divine love.

Seven times in this short book those addressed respond with hurt tones challenging God with "Whereins."

"Wherein hast thou loved us?

Wherein have we despised thy name?

Wherein have we polluted thee?

Wherein have we wearied thee?

Wherein shall we return?

Wherein have we robbed thee?

Wherein have we spoken against thee?"

 

The dead are always insensitive, whether it be physical death or, as here, spiritual. They were unconscious of any need. That's why they repeated, "Where in?" They were living in self-righteous security.

God's first work is for His ministers— the sons of Levi. And His first concern is that they may be purified. No doubt He wants them to be efficient, organized, educated, active, powerful, healthy—but first and foremost, He wants them clean. Only through purified, clean vessels can the power flow and God's will and work be done.

This process of being made clean may be more pleasant to preach or write about than to experience. If we submit we may be in for anything. He will sit and watch as the dross is burned away; that is, "Return unto me, and I will re turn unto you," and I'll turn on the heat because I mean at all costs to make you clean—if you are willing.

The Biggest Issue

That's the biggest issue. Are we willing to let God have His way? Are we prepared to face the cost of full surrender—total acceptance of the will of God and whatever may be involved?

A few years ago I cut from the news paper the story of a man who had lived for long years hidden in an attic room in appalling discomfort because of certain dangers. I'll not waste time describing his pitiable condition. Let's go straight to the punch line. Asked what he wanted to do next, the man whimpered, "I want to go back in." His tragedy was that he had become comfortable in his squalor. Sunshine and fresh air and freedom had lost their appeal.

Jesus wants His ministers to be clean, "that they might offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness." Righteousness—that is doubtless the biggest issue facing this movement to day.

Notice the New English Bible rendering of Malachi 3:3: "He will . . . cleanse them like gold and silver, and so they shall be fit to bring offerings to the Lord" (N.E.B.).f I like this. It goes to the heart of the matter. If the man is right with God, the service will be right and acceptable. The service of an unrighteous man can never be right or accept able.

"Return unto me, and I will return unto you," and the end result will be righteousness and not just fit service but fitness to serve. This is the real need, and this is our glorious possibility in Christ, for righteousness is the gift of God in Christ to the truly penitent.

It comes by Christ alone—through faith alone—and by grace alone. But let us never forget Christ and faith and grace never dwell alone. They lead inevitably to obedient Christian living.

"Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled" (Matt. 5:6). This is just another way of saying, "Return unto me, and I will return unto you." Are you hungry? Are you thirsty? Then you're in the place of blessing, and thank God, you will be filled.

The Thirst Sign

Not long ago, down in the dry center of Iran (that's ancient Persia), I was re turning from a thrilling visit to the tomb of Cyrus the Great when our driver suddenly applied the brakes, and our bus screeched to a halt. I kept going—till I hit the back of the seat in front of me, that is—because I was watching a shepherd leading his flock, not in green pastures or by still waters, but along the barren hillside.

Now the man came running down to the bus. Our driver opened his door, took the water can and filled a large cup with water. Then he handed it to the shepherd in silence. The old man gulped the water down eagerly, then another, and then like Elijah, he did it the third time. Thirst sated, he bowed a polite Thank you, and returned to rejoin his flock.

Soon we were speeding down the high way again. I moved forward to ask the driver some questions about the incident: "Was that old shepherd a relative?" "No." "A friend?" "No." "What was his name?" "I don't know." "Do you always stop for strangers and give them a drink in this part of the world?" "No." "Then, tell me, please, how did you know the old man was so thirsty, and why did you stop for a stranger?" "That's easy," he said. "Didn't you notice?" "No, I saw nothing unusual." "Ah, it's be cause you don't understand the sign language of the desert. He gave the thirst sign. We never pass a man when he gives the thirst sign."

The One at the controls above is like that. He left the ninety and nine and went to seek for the one lost sheep—thirsty, hungry, and cold. If He did that for one lost sheep, what will He not do for a shepherd of His flock if the shepherd sincerely signals the thirst sign?

*  Texts  credited  to T.L.B.  are  from  The  Living  Bible,  Paraphrased (Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers,  1971) and are used by  permission.

+Texts  credited  to N.E.B.  are  from  The New English  Bible.  The  Delegates  of  the  Oxford  Uni versity  Press  and  the Syndics  of the Cambridge University  Press  1970. Reprinted  by  permission


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A. E. Cook is Ministerial secretary of the Trans- Africa Division

June 1976

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