Minor Prophets with a Major Message: Malachi (My response to the Prosperity Gospel)

No one likes to hear a sermon on giving.

But this sermon will be different than what you might be expecting.

When Malachi steps onto the scene a lot has happened over the last few centures:  Israel has, due to widespread spiritual rebellion, exhausted God’s patience, suffered punishment in way of being conquered by neighboring nations, taken into decades-long exile, and finally been released to return to their homeland in and around Jerusalem.

In the book of Malachi, a century has passed since they were allowed to return home.  Unbelievably, they were given permission to rebuild their destroyed temple.  They started out in a blaze of glory.  But, discouragement became complacency which became apathy which led down the proverbial rabbit hole of “Devotion to God is a complete waste of time.  From now on, I’m looking our for No. 1.”  As one scholar observed, their sin and rebellion against God was worse now than it ever was before they were taken into exile.

People seem to never learn.

Malachi’s job was, like all ancient prophets, an unpopular one.  He was to call Israel to account, pointing out how arrogant and self-absorbed they’d become.  They had become quite okay with telling God, in essence, to shove off – you’re just in the way.  (This would be the same God who had, throughout history, saved them over and over again from their own idiocy, as well as from enemy nations.)

As God, through Malachi, began listing all the ways Israel had abandoned their devotion to him, all they could do was, like spoiled children, smart off back to the prophet.

The book of Malachi is a fitting ending, actually, to the age of the prophets.  Following Malachi would be 400 years of seeming silence from God.  The next prophet would be John the Baptist, the one who would prepare the way for the true king, Jesus Christ.

One of the indictments handed down to Israel was that they had been “robbing God” by withholding their best while offering to him their leftovers (“Maybe God won’t notice?”) The issue was not about “amount”, but rather “attitude.”

In the only time in scripture where God gives us permission to put him to the test, he says,

“Should people cheat [rob] God? Yet you have cheated [robbed] me! “But you ask, ‘What do you mean? When did we ever cheat you?’ You have cheated me of the tithes and offerings due to me. You are under a curse, for your whole nation has been cheating me. 10 Bring all the tithes into the storehouse so there will be enough food in my Temple. If you do,” says the Lord Almighty, “I will open the windows of heaven for you. I will pour out a blessing so great you won’t have enough room to take it in! Try it! Put me to the test! 11 Your crops will be abundant, for I will guard them from insects and disease. Your grapes will not fall from the vine before they are ripe,” says the Lord Almighty. (3:8-11)

Now, here’s the sermon you might not have been expecting.

There is a not-so-subtle heresy today commonly termed the Prosperity Gospel.  It’s tenet can be summed up in the words of one of its modern champions:

In short:  God’s will for your life?  Wealth & health.

I have no interest in critiquing the man who is Joel Osteen, or others like him, in this blog – only their interpretation of scripture on what God says about giving.  The Prosperity Gospel Preachers understanding of basic biblical teaching on this particular doctrine is embarrassingly incomplete.  It would behoove them and to preach the “whole counsel/will of God” and include the other side of this doctrine.

If the passage from Malachi (printed above) were the only passage God chose to give us regarding giving, Osteen and the like would be spot-on.  But it’s not.  The preachers of the Prosperity Gospel don’t insinuate – they boldly proclaim the following axiom:

Are you healthy, successful and financially prosperous?  You’re giving God your best.  Are you languishing in financial bondage?  Barely living paycheck to paycheck?  Something’s wrong and you are not giving God your best.

But, as with any half-truth being preached from a pulpit, anyone with a halfway intelligent understanding of the Bible immediately begins thinking in response: “This sounds sorta right, but not all right.  Something’s wrong with this picture.”

Clearly, according to the Prosperity Gospel – the apostles, the early church fathers, persecuted Christians both ancient & modern (Sri Lanka) have done something wrong.  For, if God wants us to prosper in health and wealth – and God never changes – then logic dictates that the followers of Christ, both ancient and modern, should enjoy happiness, health and affluence.  But, nothing could be further from the truth:

Once again, Prosperity Preachers trumpet, “God’s will for you is happiness, health and financial prosperity!” So, how does that jive with actual scripture?  Glad you asked 🙂

Job 1:8, 12 – The Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant, Job?… everything he has is in your power.”

Isaiah 53:10 – “Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush [Christ] and cause him to suffer.”

John 9:1-3 – As [Jesus] went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.”

2 Corinthians 12:7-9 – …in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

According the Prosperity Gospel, here are the implications of these passages:

  • Job, whom God had just described, in vs 8, as the “most righteous man on earth” had apparently not given God his best.  Why else would God give Satan, himself, permission to destroy Job’s life?
  • Jesus, the subject of Isaiah’s prophecy, would suffer greatly as a result of God’s perfect will.  Clearly, for God to make his own son suffer so greatly, Jesus must not have given God is best, right?
  • The ancient misunderstanding was, “If a person was born blind or lame or deaf, etc., there must be great sin somewhere in his family.”  Sound familiar?  But, Jesus explained to the biblically myopic disciples that the man’s blindness had been given him by God to bring glory to God.   I keep trying to find the verse in this passage where Jesus says, “The man had not been giving his best and was cursed with blindness.”  Alas, it’s not there.
  • Finally, Paul, writer of a full third of the New Testament was, like Job, tormented by Satan, himself.  And, to make matters worse, when Paul begged God to remove his “thorn in the flesh”God said no. (No one knows what pain this was in Paul’s life but it was debilitating enough for Paul to beg God to remove it.)  According to the Prosperity Gospel, Paul had not given his best.

And we haven’t even mentioned the pain and persecution threaded throughout the rest of both the Old and New Testaments.

Bottom line:

  • Make no mistake: God’s words through Malachi are certainly true, as are Jesus’ words in Luke 6:38.  Giving God our best (whether its money, our time, our resources, etc.) will always, in return, receive a blessing. But, as you well know, the way God blesses is often different from how he thought he would bless us. (I asked God to make me a more patient driver, so he put me behind slow drivers 🙂  I asked God to help me be more compassionate to the hurting, so he hurt me deeply.) God’s blessing for us may well be new wisdom and discernment regarding the managing and stewardship of all with which God has entrusted us. (I always tell musicians/artists that their talent is merely on loan from the Lord.) It may be his peace that passes human understanding to help us get through a difficult time.  Or, it may actually be material blessing.  Regardless of how God blesses, it will be provide all that we need.
  • Almost always, a financial windfall is not in the cards. This doesn’t mean that’s never part of the Lord’s will.  But not usually. Think: the manna/bread provided for ancient Israel after the Exodus.  Israel was never in want of what they needed.  But God gave only enough for what they needed for the present time.  In the most familiar psalm, David wrote, “I lack nothing.” God’s definition of “prosperity” for some may be living paycheck to paycheck, giving us opportunity to trust him in tenuous times. (“Consider it pure joy when you encounter various trials…”)
  • And, finally, you may give your very best – and still return home to a busted water heater, or have your car’s alternator go out the following week.  Does that mean you are somehow amiss in your giving?  Not according to God, who is Yaweh Jireh –  יְהֹוָה יִרְאֵה  – our Provider.

Soli Deo Gloria, Nick

 

Minor Prophets with a Major Message: Zephaniah

Humility these days is in short supply.

I’m certainly no model of humility.

Zephaniah preached to, and admonished, a complacent people who had grown repulsively stagnant in their devotion to the very God who had, over and over again, blessed them materially and rescued them from their enemies.

Making things worse, Israel had lost their healthy fear and reverence of God, no longer worrying about him ever punishing them for their sin or, for that matter, interfering with their comfortable lives at all.  Through Zephaniah, God mocks their blatant arrogance:

“They think the Lord will do nothing to them, either good or bad.”

God knew Israel needed a heavy dose of humility, which is why he instructed Zephaniah to say to them:

“Seek the Lord, all who are humble, and follow his commands. Seek to do what is right and to live humbly.”

I’m fairly certain Zephaniah was thinking to himself, “What part of ‘be humble’ do you people not understand?”

As I thought about the pervasive arrogance and entitlement so evident in our North American culture, I was quickly reminded of how much value God places on humility.  Consider the following few examples from scripture:

2 Chronicles 7:14 – if my people who are called by my name humble themselves,…

2 Samuel 22:28 – You save a humble people, but your eyes are on the haughty to bring them down. (cf. Psalm 18:27)

James 4:6 – Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”  (cf. Proverbs 3:34)

James 4:10 Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.

It was C.S. Lewis who once quipped,

“Humility is not thinking less of yourself; it’s thinking of yourself less.”

Need a solid example of humility?

Look no further than Christ, who offered the ultimate form of humility…

Soli Deo Gloria, Nick

 

 

 

 

 

Minor Prophets with a Major Message: Habakkuk

The sound of silence… can be deafening.

Ever felt like God’s “stepped out of the office” and forgotten about you completely?

You’re not alone.  The “heroes of the faith” felt the same way.

Habakkuk begins his story with,

O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear?

In Psalm 13, David lamented the same thing:

How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
    How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
    and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
    How long will my enemy triumph over me?

While the enemy hisses his lie, “God doesn’t care,” the biblical truth is this:  God may seem like he’s not paying attention to our struggles and pain, but God’s own Word says otherwise.

Jesus, himself, said,

“My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working.” (emphasis mine)

God’s answers to our cries have always been: “yes”, “no” or “wait a while.”

It’s the “wait a while” that is most frustrating and even painful.

The Scottish theologian, Oswald Chambers, offers us a paradigm shift regarding this particular topic.  He wrote,

Does God seem silent in your life right now?

Trust him.  “He is bringing you into the great run of his purposes.”

Soli Deo Gloria, Nick

 

Minor Prophets with a Major Message: Nahum

In the mid 7th century B.C., Jonah reluctantly went to Nineveh (the capital city of Assyria) and warned them of God’s coming judgment if they did not repent of their heinous cruelty and off-the-chart depravity.

They repented.

Fast-forward one hundred years.

By this time, Nineveh had systematically declined as a city right back into the proverbial gutter they had created a century earlier.

God could have just killed them.

But, because God longs to forgive more than punish, he sent yet another prophet to warn them of God’s coming judgment if they did not repent.

This time they didn’t listen.

So Nahum opens up with this foreboding announcement:

The Lord takes vengeance and is filled with wrath… The Lord is slow to anger but great in power; the Lord will not leave the guilty unpunished. (1:2-3)

They still didn’t listen.

This reminded me of a story of a similar time in history, albeit more recent. Travel with me back to 18th century, picturesque New England.

During the Great (Spiritual) Awakening of 1734-35, thousands of people were coming to Christ and getting right with God.  Nonetheless, there was one church, in Enfield, Connecticut, that had no interest in repenting.  Due to deeply-rooted spiritual complacency, they were far too comfortable with the lifestyles they had chosen – void of biblical truth.  They had a good thing going (so they believed.)  And, just like ancient Nineveh, they had no interest in God interfering.

Since God had used Jonathan Edwards, a graduate of Yale, so mightily to spark this Great Awakening, the pastor of the  Enfield church invited Edwards to come preach, hoping and praying God would use Edwards’ preaching to wake the church up out of their spiritual slumber.

So, on July 8, 1741, Jonathan Edwards stood in front of those unsuspecting people and preached America’s most famous sermon:  “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”

Edwards passionately preached:

“Below you is the dreadful pit of the glowing flames of the wrath of God; hell’s mouth is wide open;… You deserve the fiery pit;… The Devil is waiting… hell is gaping;… The pit is prepared, the fire is made ready; the furnace is now hot, ready to receive you.  The glittering sword is whetted and held over you,…

The bow of God’s arrow is bent; the arrow is made ready; and justice bends the arrow at your heart, and strains the bow…

You have no refuge, no security, nothing to take hold of.

All that preserves you is the sovereign forbearance of an angry God.”

Testimony of the event bears witness that “Edwards was interrupted many times before he finished his sermon by people moaning and crying out, ‘What shall I do to be saved?”

We don’t hear sermons like that anymore.

But, we should.

The author of Hebrews warned,

It is a fearful and terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God [incurring His judgment and wrath]. (10:31)

God tried to get, both, Nineveh’s and the Enfield church’s attention by sending prophets. 

Enfield listened.  Nineveh didn’t.

As a result, in 612 B.C., God used Babylon to wipe Nineveh off the face of the earth.  So decimated was the city that the site was not rediscovered until 1842 A.D.

Do you find yourself complacent about your faith?  Has God been trying to get your attention?

Heed his warnings before it’s too late.

Soli Deo Gloria, Nick

 

 

Minor Prophets with a Major Message: Micah

When we think of the Old Testament prophet, Micah, we commonly think of one of two passages.

Either his prophecy of the exact birthplace of Christ (which wouldn’t take place for another 750 years):

“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.” (5:2)

Or,…

“…And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (6:8)

But I would like to draw your attention to a nuance of the book that haunts me.

In chapter 6, vs 12, Micah lets Israel know just how far off course they’ve strayed:

“Your citizens are so used to lying that their tongues can no longer tell the truth.”

I’m fairly certain the people of Israel didn’t wake up one morning and decide, “Hey – I think I’ll become a pathological liar today.”

This didn’t happen over night.

Satan is smarter than that.  Much smarter.

His strategy is – and always has been – to slither around unnoticed, systematic and methodical in his efforts to inflict pain.  I heard a preacher once say, “Satan will take years, if necessary, to set you up for a fall.”

That said, Israel’s apathy and complacency regarding their devotion to God was a slow and calculated process.

The old saying has been proven true over and over again:

“Sow a thought, reap an action; sow an act, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; so a character, reap a destiny.”

Whether we choose to ruin our lives in the coming weeks or the coming years matters not to our enemy. 

Time is irrelevant to him as long as his objective is accomplished. 

As I thought about the insidious manner in which ingrained habits of sin can take us over, I recalled an arresting quote by one of my professors during my graduate studies in Christian Apologetics (defending the Christian faith.)

Dr. Michael Ward is a professor at the University of Oxford in England.  He made an enormous impact on my life.  Once, in an online class thread about this very topic of sin’s systematic infection, he wrote the following:

Compromise – even the tiniest amount – seems innocuous at first.  And that’s exactly the way Satan prefers it.

Be on your guard.  Find friends who love you enough to lovingly confront you if/when they see a slow, steady “straying off course.”

And, be careful to abide in the Lord, so that you don’t let the serpent into the garden.

Soli Deo Gloria, Nick

 

 

Minor Prophets with a Major Message: Jonah

Like other Bible stories we were told as children, we can almost quote the major points of the book of Jonah in our sleep:

  1. God tells Jonah to go to the city of Nineveh
  2. Jonah says no and runs the other way
  3. Jonah gets swallowed by a huge fish
  4. Huge fish spits Jonah onto dry land
  5. Jonah decides to obey God this time and go to Ninevah

The old saying is that “familiarity breeds contempt.”  In this particular context, we might say that “our familiarity with the story of Jonah makes us complacent when challenged to dig deeper and wrestle with all God wants to show us through this book.”  Why?  Because we tend to believe there’s nothing else in the story we haven’t heard before.

Like speeding through a beloved vacation site or national park, the story of Jonah must be slowed down –way down, allowing us to see everything we’ve missed due to traveling too fast.

What we discover, when we slow down, is that the story of Jonah is replete with nuanced biblical principles and truth.

Permit me to share with you just one.

In chapter 1, we find Jonah in a boat headed for Tarshish with a bunch of sailors who have no idea that he is trying to run from God (which is futile.)  In response to Jonah’s blatant disobedience, God sends a tempest over the Mediterranean Sea that causes these seasoned sailors to fear for their very lives.  (side truth: our sin never only affects just us.)

Verse 5 states,

“All the sailors were afraid and each cried out to his own god. And they threw the cargo into the sea to lighten the ship.”

Tossing their supplies overboard didn’t help.

The 4th century theologian, Chrysostom, made the following piercing observation:

When I read that I paused – and my heart constricted.

Almost immediately, I found myself replacing Jonah’s name in Chrysostom’s quote with my name.

And I thought deeply of the weight Jesus bore on the cross – for my sin.

Lord, no one in history could bear the weight of my sin and depravity. 

You could. 

You did.

Thank you, my Lord.  Thank you.  Thank you.

Soli Deo Gloria, Nick

 

Minor Prophets with a Major Message: Obadiah

The shortest book in the Old Testament, Obadiah’s message is directed toward Israel’s neighbor – and “brother”Edom.  But, even though the book comprises a mere 21 verses, it is not surprising to see how many vital truths, principles and warnings God gives through  this prophet.

For instance, for centuries, Edom had mocked Israel’s failures, gloated over their misfortunes and refused to help them in times of need.  In response, God, through Obadiah, says to Edom:

“You should not have gloated when they exiled your relatives to distant lands. You should not have rejoiced when the people of Judah suffered such misfortune. You should not have spoken arrogantly in that terrible time of trouble.”

Haven’t you, at one time or another, celebrated when someone who’s hurt you is suffering?  Me too.

But I’m reminded of Jesus’ hard teaching:

“Love your enemies! Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who hurt you.”

“Well, that’s my favorite verse in the Bible,” said no one ever.

Ambrose was a 4th century theologian from Milan.  He also knew how hard this teaching is – which is why he pleaded with God to give him a compassionate heart for his enemies:

Translation: Ambrose is simply praying, “O God – may i never become numb and callous to the sheep you’ve called me to shepherd. Keep my heart soft and attentive that I may rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.”

Application for pastors/church leaders/small group leaders: I get it. For 36 years I’ve been doing it.  Pastoring/shepherding is hard work. Because it’s relational. (By the way, if you don’t like people – and you’re a pastor – find a new career.) And sometimes – me included – you just want to disappear. You’ve run out of patience, empathy, etc.,… the well is dry. It’s at those “moments of truth” we have to take a deep breath, take inventory of our lives, and refocus on Christ and how he loved people. No pastor in history has been more in demand than Jesus. Yet Jesus maintained his intimacy with the people by means of maintaining intimacy with the Father.

You can’t give what you don’t have. Even Jesus knew that.

In the words of the great theologians, The Righteous Brothers, don’t lose “that lovin’ feelin’.”

Love to you all, Nick