Sunday School Lesson

August 30

Lesson 13

 A Plea to Return to God

Devotional Reading: Psalm 25:4-11

Background Scripture: Malachi 3:1-12; Matthew 7:12

Malachi 3:1-10

1 Behold, I will send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me: and the Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his temple, even the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in: behold, he shall come, saith the Lord of hosts.

2 But who may abide the day of his coming? and who shall stand when he appeareth? for he is like a refiner’s fire, and like fullers’ soap:

3 And he shall sit as a refiner and purifier of silver: and he shall purify the sons of Levi, and purge them as gold and silver, that they may offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness.

4 Then shall the offering of Judah and Jerusalem be pleasant unto the Lord, as in the days of old, and as in former years.

5 And I will come near to you to judgment; and I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, and against the adulterers, and against false swearers, and against those that oppress the hireling in his wages, the widow, and the fatherless, and that turn aside the stranger from his right, and fear not me, saith the Lord of hosts.

6 For I am the Lord, I change not; therefore ye sons of Jacob are not consumed.

7 Even from the days of your fathers ye are gone away from mine ordinances, and have not kept them. Return unto me, and I will return unto you, saith the Lord of hosts. But ye said, Wherein shall we return?

8 Will a man rob God? Yet ye have robbed me. But ye say, Wherein have we robbed thee? In tithes and offerings.

9 Ye are cursed with a curse: for ye have robbed me, even this whole nation.

10 Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be meat in mine house, and prove me now herewith, saith the Lord of hosts, if I will not open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it.

Key Verse

All things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets. —Matthew 7:12

Lesson Aims

After participating in this lesson, each learner will be able to:

1. List some indicators that the people of Mal-achi’s day had broken God’s covenant.

2. Explain Malachi’s rebuke of the people’s breach of the covenant in the context of the coming day of the Lord.

3. Examine his or her fidelity to the new covenant and commit to greater faithfulness.

Lesson Outline

Introduction

A. Tithing Today

B. Lesson Background

I. What to Expect (Malachi 3:1-5)

A. My Messenger and the Lord (v. 1)

The Lord Is Returning!

B. Fire and Soap (vv. 2, 3a)

C. Good and Bad (vv. 3b-5)

II. How to Prepare (Malachi 3:6-10)

A. Problem (vv. 6-9)

Robbing God Today

B. Solution (v. 10)

Conclusion

A. Leaving a Legacy

B. Prayer

C. Thought to Remember

Introduction

A. Tithing Today

While visiting Ely Cathedral in England, I also saw a former home of Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658), who became the Lord Protector of the commonwealth of England, Scotland, and Ireland. This structure, dating to the thirteenth century, had been the cathedral’s “tithing house.” Cromwell lived there for about a decade as he served as the agent to collect tithes from local farmers and store them in the nearby “tithing barn.”

This tithe was a levy of 10 percent on farmers’ produce, the most practical way to receive tithes in a largely cashless society. Not only was tithing obligatory in those days, it was enforced by a quasi-governmental system. This seems very foreign to us today, yet the issue of tithing has been a source of controversy in several churches I have served. Should the church expect all members to tithe (give 10 percent)? Should the church require this? If so, how should it be enforced? Should the tithe be on gross or net income? Should all the tithe go to the local church, or does money given to other charitable organizations count as part of the tithe? So many questions!

Despite the system of Cromwell’s England and traditions of many churches today, there is no direct New Testament teaching that requires tithing. Paul taught the Corinthians to give willingly, generously, and cheerfully (2 Corinthians 9:5-7) in proportion to what one has (1 Corinthians 16:2), but he did not specify a percentage.

Any biblical doctrine of tithing is therefore based on Old Testament passages, and many Christians do not see these as binding in the church. However, Old Testament teachings about tithing are important for they reveal how God views the purposes of giving. Perhaps the most famous passage about tithing is found in the book of Malachi, the source of this week’s lesson.

B. Lesson Background

The name Malachi means “my messenger.” It may be that this is a title rather than a personal name, for essentially the same Hebrew word occurs both in Malachi 1:1 (translated “Malachi”) and 3:1 (translated “my messenger”). We have little definitive knowledge about this man or his prophetic ministry. The issues he addressed seem to parallel those of Ezra and Nehemiah, which would place Malachi in the mid-fifth century BC. For context, this dating means that the rebuilt temple had been in operation for over half a century and that most of Malachi’s audience had grown up with this institution being fully functional.

Malachi addressed a variety of issues, but his core complaint was that the people no longer honored or respected the Lord (see Malachi 1:6a). The worst offenders seem to have been the temple priests themselves, who were guilty of using defective animals as sacrifices (1:6b-8). Malachi told them that it would be better to shut down the temple than to operate in such a shameful manner (1:10). He prophesied terrible judgment for the priests, a curse to span generations (2:2, 3).

But the future was not entirely bleak for Malachi, and he promised a renewed presence of the Lord. It is the fulfillment of that promise that is especially important for us today.

I. What to Expect

                                                                  (Malachi 3:1-5)

A. My Messenger and the Lord (v. 1)

1. Behold, I will send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me: and the Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his temple, even the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in: behold, he shall come, saith the Lord of hosts.

This can be a confusing verse, because at first glance it may seem to refer to four individuals: (1) my messenger, (2) the Lord, whom ye seek, (3) the messenger of the covenant, and (4) the Lord of hosts. The first refers to a specially designated future messenger of the Lord. The last three are different ways to refer to the God of Israel.

Let’s break this down a bit further. The given purpose of the first individual is to prepare the way before the Lord. The nature of this preparation is not explained. But presuming that the preparation is not conducted in secret, we can safely assume that it includes at least an announcement of the Lord’s coming, whose arrival at and appearance in his temple will be sudden.

The word suddenly may include the idea of “unexpectedly” (as in Numbers 6:9; Isaiah 47:11) for those who don’t pay attention to the preparations to be made by the messenger. Malachi’s audience is in for an unwanted surprise if they don’t repent (see the Lesson Background).

On the other hand, the Lord’s arrival will be a welcome time for those who anticipate His coming. Malachi pictures the Lord as a messenger concerned with His covenant with Israel; thus the second and third individuals are one and the same. Since this prophecy originates directly from the Lord of hosts, its fulfillment is guaranteed. The Lord of hosts is the Lord God Almighty (see Revelation 4:8), the author of Israel’s covenant, the one whose glory has filled the temple in the past (1 Kings 8:11).

The facts of history establish Malachi’s words to be predictive of John the Baptist as the messenger of the Lord, and Jesus Christ as the Lord who comes to His people. Jesus quotes Malachi 3:1 in identifying the role of John the Baptist as Jesus’ forerunner (Matthew 11:10; Luke 7:27).

What Do You Think?

How did others help “prepare the way” for you to receive Christ? How can you do so for others?

Talking Points for Your Discussion

Regarding lifestyle modeled

Regarding conversational patterns

Regarding informal teaching opportunities

Other

The Lord Is Returning!

With the Lord’s first coming now a fact of history, focus rightfully shifts to His promised return (Acts 1:11; etc.). Even so, most Christians know all too well the pitfalls of being obsessive about signs and calculations in this regard.

But some never seem to learn! Some prognosticators saw proof of the end approaching when a giant meteor exploded in the sky over eastern Russia on February 15, 2013, the same day asteroid 2012 DA14 passed very close to Earth. End-time significance was also seen in the names of the constellations through which comet C/2012 S1 passed in the fall of 2013.

Unlike modern false prophets, Malachi left the timing up to God. Far more important than ascertaining the time of the Lord’s coming—whether of the first instance in Malachi’s prophecy or the second in our day—is letting the world know that it will happen! Do we need to spend our time more wisely in that regard?—C. R. B.

B. Fire and Soap (vv. 2, 3a)

2. But who may abide the day of his coming? and who shall stand when he appeareth? for he is like a refiner’s fire, and like fullers’ soap.

Malachi prophesies the coming of the Lord in terms of judgment. The implied answer to his two rhetorical questions is “no one,” meaning that all are subject to judgment. The effect of the judgment to come will be like a refiner’s fire, which burns away the impurities in the ore of a precious metal (see more on this in v. 3, below).

What Do You Think?

How have life experiences served as “a refiner’s fire” regarding your commitment to Christ?

Talking Points for Your Discussion

Health problems (illnesses, accidents, etc.)

Financial setbacks

Loss of loved ones

Other

Malachi also compares this judgment with fullers’ soap. The Hebrew phrasing behind this occurs only here and in Jeremiah 2:22. A fuller is a launderer or one who dresses cloth. The soap used in such a trade is not the gentle soap for washing clothes as we use today, but is strong lye soap. It can turn linen or wool from brownish to intensely white (see Mark 9:3). Jeremiah 2:22 notes the impossibility of sinful Israel’s using such soap to cleanse itself from sin. But here in Malachi, such cleansing is possible from the Lord.

3a. And he shall sit as a refiner and purifier of silver: and he shall purify the sons of Levi, and purge them as gold and silver.

Refining fire purifies gold and silver in a brutal process that separates the metal from contaminants. As applied to people, this happens in terms of three distinctives. First, the Lord shall sit as He refines, intending perhaps a double image of a judge seated on a judgment throne as well as a metallurgist at work in a forge. Second, the special objects of refining judgment are the sons of Levi, the priestly class that is corrupting the temple (Malachi 1:6; 2:1-9). Third, the intent of this judgment is not annihilation but purity (see the next verse).

C. Good and Bad (vv. 3b-5)

3b. That they may offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness.

The result of the purification is that these sons of Levi will be able to give an offering in righteousness. The correction in the temple’s sacrificial practices will be a sign that the covenant is restored, but we must not understand this apart from the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. His crucifixion in close proximity to the temple was the perfect, righteous sacrifice for all time, making an eternal covenant (see Hebrews 13:11, 12, 20).

4. Then shall the offering of Judah and Jerusalem be pleasant unto the Lord, as in the days of old, and as in former years.

Having looked to the future, Malachi takes a glance at the past. Proper sacrifice will not be a new development but a return to the days of old. The priestly system of sacrifices has been part of Israel’s history for perhaps a thousand years by Malachi’s day. That system has been defiled often over the centuries, but the future renewal will be pleasant unto the Lord. This indicates reconciliation between God and His people.

What Do You Think?

How has your understanding of giving grown over the years? What or who influenced that growth?

Talking Points for Your Discussion

During various stages of childhood

During various stages of adulthood

5. And I will come near to you to judgment; and I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, and against the adulterers, and against false swearers, and against those that oppress the hireling in his wages, the widow, and the fatherless, and that turn aside the stranger from his right, and fear not me, saith the Lord of hosts.

Now we learn that the judgment of God is not just against the corrupt and cynical Levites. It is also against a long list of those whose sins are being tolerated in Malachi’s day, perhaps as such people are favored by the priestly class (“the sons of Levi,” v. 3). Malachi’s list of evildoers, one of the most comprehensive in the prophets, identifies sorcerers (those engaging in occult practices), who are condemned in Isaiah 47:9, 12; adulterers (those breaking the Seventh Commandment), who are condemned in Malachi 2:14; false swearers (those violating the Ninth Commandment), who are condemned in Leviticus 6:1-6; and those who oppress the most vulnerable, oppressors condemned in Zechariah 7:10 (last week’s lesson).

The blanket description of all these folks is that they do not fear the Lord. They view the requirements of God as irrelevant. The Lord will be a swift witness against these wrongdoers! The perversion of justice in Malachi’s society is abhorrent and intolerable to the Lord. Such injustice is a frequent target of His prophets (see Isaiah 59:15, lesson 9; Jeremiah 7:5-11, lesson 10; Amos 5:7, 24, lesson 2; Micah 3:9, lesson 6; etc.). If humans do not enact God’s justice, then God himself will act to do so.

What Do You Think?

How can Malachi’s words help form a Christian viewpoint on various social issues today?

Talking Points for Your Discussion

Regarding aid from the government vs. aid by the church vs. seeing giving of aid as “enabling”

Regarding governmental economic policies

Regarding immigration policy

Other

II. How to Prepare

                                                                 (Malachi 3:6-10)

A. Problem (vv. 6-9)

6. For I am the Lord, I change not; therefore ye sons of Jacob are not consumed.

With injustice and evil rampant, where is the justice of the Lord? Malachi answers this implied question with a brief but profound assertion from God: I am the Lord, I change not. In other words, God is not subject to human expectations. That was God’s reply to Job when that man demanded answers of the Lord for his suffering (Job 38:4). God is not answerable to us or to our questions about His plans. It is His decision that for the present the sons of Jacob are not consumed.

7a. Even from the days of your fathers ye are gone away from mine ordinances, and have not kept them. Return unto me, and I will return unto you, saith the Lord of hosts.

To stray from the covenant is not a new thing for Israel, the covenant people. They have sinned willfully from the earliest days (example: the notorious golden-calf incident of Exodus 32).

The invitation return unto me means repenting—rededicating hearts to the Lord while renouncing a sinful path. Return is a directional word, recognizing that a course must be reversed. A picture found often in the Bible is that of the heavenly Father waiting and longing for people to return to Him (compare Luke 15:20). The act and response Return unto me, and I will return unto you reminds us of James 4:8: “Draw nigh to God, and he will draw nigh to you.”

7b. But ye said, Wherein shall we return?

The question Malachi anticipates from his audience may imply a rebellious state of mind as the people respond, “We don’t need to turn to God. We are just fine. Go away and leave us alone.” On the other hand, the question Malachi anticipates may imply sincere bewilderment as in, “We’re already with God. How can we return to Him when we’re already there?” Either way, Malachi is about to describe something specific that the people must do to begin their return to the Lord.

8. Will a man rob God? Yet ye have robbed me. But ye say, Wherein have we robbed thee? In tithes and offerings.

The chosen issue has to do with one of the covenant obligations of the people, the matter of tithes and offerings. The Law of Moses features extensive regulations concerning tithes. Studying these yields an important principle: the tithe belongs to the Lord. In a flock of sheep, for example, every tenth animal is God’s (Leviticus 27:32). This is not a matter of the flock’s owner being generous by giving valuable sheep to the temple. Rather, it is yielding to the Lord an asset under one’s oversight as one realizes that the asset is already the Lord’s by right.

When we give an offering at church today, we may be tempted to view it like a parent giving a child an allowance, or like a taxpayer dutifully writing a check to the government. Malachi’s understanding flows in the opposite direction: all the sheep are God’s to begin with, yet He claims only one-tenth. For an ancient Israelite to tithe was God’s permission for them to keep the other nine-tenths. Therefore, to withhold the tithe was not a lack of generosity but outright thievery—a taking of that which belonged to another.

What Do You Think?

What can one’s giving practices say about the condition of his or her relationship with God?

Talking Points for Your Discussion

Regarding consistency in giving

Regarding preparations to give

Regarding reasons for giving

Other

Robbing God Today

By one estimate, the average churchgoer puts only about 3 percent of his or her income in the offering plate. Another study claims that if this would rise to 10 percent, then American Christians “could evangelize the world, stop the daily deaths of 29,000 children younger than 5 worldwide, provide elementary education across the globe and tackle domestic poverty—and have $150 billion left over annually.”

How those figures were calculated is not clear, but the claimed outcomes would indeed be impressive! More conservatively, however, think what would happen if that 3 percent level of giving increased only to 4 percent: funding for ministry would go up by a whopping one-third!

But all this talk of percentages may be missing a key element of the bigger picture: God is interested in much more than a formulaic relationship with His people. His call for purity of life indicates there is more to being godly than giving a specified percentage of one’s income.

Are there ways we rob God other than by being stingy when the offering plate is passed? Perhaps the time and effort I pour into furthering my career is robbing God of my service for His kingdom. Perhaps my leisure activities are robbing God of the attention He wants me to give to my family on His behalf. What other areas of potential robbery come to mind?—C. R. B.

9. Ye are cursed with a curse: for ye have robbed me, even this whole nation.

Stealing from God? Bad. Very bad. It is so bad that Malachi portrays it as a curse, something that affects the prosperity of the whole nation. The miserly, thieving heart misses out on the blessings of God. If the love of money and possessions is so consuming that a person chooses not to release even a small percentage of them, there will be strong motivation for the social injustices already condemned (Malachi 3:5). The result will be a society where wages are withheld without cause, where widows and orphans will be destitute, and where foreigners will be denied basic human rights. Such is the bitter yield of selfishness!

B. Solution (v. 10)

10. Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be meat in mine house, and prove me now herewith, saith the Lord of hosts, if I will not open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it.

God promises to bless those who give freely and in full measure. This verse, used in countless offering meditations for decades, does not have the mechanical, legalistic application for Christians and churches that it is sometimes given. But it does establish at least two wonderful and important principles.

First, God promises that when the community is a giving community, there is meat in mine house. Under the old covenant, tithes and offerings go to Levites as their livelihood for their work in ministry (Numbers 18; Nehemiah 10:36-39). Failure to provide for Levites in this way results in decreased functioning of the temple (Nehemiah 13:10-13). The needs of the family of God are being met by the generosity of its members.

Giving in free and full measure today means that the necessary budget of the church is met by the church membership. Our contributions provide for and maintain church facilities as well as salary for church staff members who devote themselves to ministry as a vocation. In the context of Malachi, generosity also includes assistance for the needy, and this obligation is ours today as well (2 Corinthians 8:1-15; etc.).

Second, the giver will be blessed. In a beloved word-picture, Malachi promises that the windows of heaven will be opened for generous people. Normally, we are not to tempt or test God (Deuteronomy 6:16; Matthew 4:7). But here God invites His people to test Him: prove me now herewith. The blessings of God will far exceed the sacrificial giving of the generous person.

We should not necessarily anticipate these blessings in tangible ways, although that may be part of it. Generosity is its own reward as our hearts are warmed when we know our gifts make a difference in the lives of others. Whether those gifts mean providing for our minister, supporting a homeless shelter, or helping purchase a cow for subsistence farmers in Africa, there is satisfaction in having done as God desires.

Visual for Lesson 13. Use this visual as a backdrop for discussing how returning, repenting, and giving are interrelated.

Conclusion

A. Leaving a Legacy

Not long ago, I spoke with an elderly friend who had a vexing problem. He had spent most of his life becoming rich. He had done this by sacrificial saving, careful investing, frugal living, and hard work. At the end of his life, he had far more money than he would ever use. What should he do with all his money? He was reluctant to leave it to his children, because they were all doing well themselves.

I had suggestions for him, but the situation also made me ponder what plans we Christians should make for our assets. We are motivated to save for the future and often warned that we can never save too much. But it seems to me that we are missing a blessing if we do not begin to release our assets before we die. Wouldn’t I enjoy increasing my support for my favorite Christian ministry now rather than designate a substantial gift in my will?

The answer to this sort of question will depend on one’s financial position, needs for retirement, etc. Perhaps, though, the teachings of Malachi may spur us to giving generously so that the windows of Heaven will open for blessings long before we are actually in Heaven!

B. Prayer

Father, help us to be more like You as we seek to live lives of generosity. We thank You for the blessings we have received from Your bounty and for those You have planned for our future. We pray this in the name of Your generous Son, Jesus; amen.

C. Thought to Remember

God still blesses generosity.

How to Say It

Ezra Ez-ruh.

Isaiah Eye-zay-uh.

Jeremiah Jair-uh-my-uh.

Malachi Mal-uh-kye.

Moses Mo-zes or Mo-zez.

Nehemiah Nee-huh-my-uh.

Zechariah Zek-uh-rye-uh.


Standard Lesson Commentary 2014-2015 (KJV).

"Suggestions for families are taken from Standardlesson.com,

Standard Publishing Group, LLC. Used with permission. More resources for families are available at Standardpub.com.


God Bless