Malachi 3:13 “Your words have been arrogant against me,” says the Lord. “Yet you say, ‘What have we spoken against thee?’ 14 You have said, ‘It is vain to serve God; and what profit is it that we have kept his charge, and that we have walked in mourning before the Lord of Hosts? 15 So now we call the arrogant blessed; not only are the doers of wickedness built up, but they also test God and escape.’” 16 Then those who feared the Lord spoke to one another, and the Lord gave attention and heard it, and a book of remembrance was written before him for those who fear the Lord and who esteem his name. 17 “And they will be mine,” says the Lord of Hosts, “on the day that I prepare my own possession, and I will spare them as a man spares his own son who serves him.” 18 So you will again distinguish between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves God and one who does not serve him.
This section begins with what has by now become a familiar theme in Malachi: the disillusionment of Israel with God and his apparent failure to send the Messiah in response to the rebuilding of the Temple. It shows us once again her spiritual cynicism and jadedness, as she concludes that worshipping God is just not worth the trouble. Just look around you! The wicked are not punished, and in fact seem to be better off than the righteous. But this section concludes with a real turning point in the book: It is the first mention of a remnant faithful to the God of their fathers, and it has a message for them not of judgment, but of hope.
In order to understand that hope, we must first set it into the context of a sequence of events that took place in Malachi’s time and may take place again in ours. In the midst of the nation’s (or a church’s) outward orthodoxy but inward apostasy, she proceeds from bad to worse. She starts by offering lame, blind, half-dead sheep and looking at her sundials during the service, thinking “My, how tiresome it is” (1:13). Then she goes on to saying it outwardly and to robbing God by skimping on her tithes and offerings, even more by failing to consider that all she has belongs to God and is entrusted to her as his Steward. She then goes on to ever more overt and serious blasphemy. By the end of chapter three, she is applying Solomon’s charge of vanity not to learning and pleasure but to the very worship of God itself. Why bother? He obviously isn’t paying attention. If he was, the wicked would not be prospering. The fool hath said in his heart, there is no God—or there might as well not be. Thus nominal belief shades into nefarious blasphemy and a mere going through the emotions into despising the very One that all the motions were originally about.
In response to this dire spiritual situation, the true believers begin to wake up, to realize what is happening, and most significantly to find one another. As they identify one another as those with whom they have true fellowship, unlike the apostate masses, God responds to this awakening with a threefold promise: First, “They will be mine.” These are my true people. Second, “I will spare them.” Their sins will be forgiven. And third, a time is coming when the difference between them and the rest will become obvious, when people will no longer be able to say with any plausibility that God treats his own no differently from the wicked.
The fact that this sequence of events leads to a promise signals the fact that it contains a principle: the importance in times of apostasy that God’s true people find one another. This indeed is how every revival that I have ever studied began. As nominal Christianity, going through the motions, and business as usual lead to more blatant forms of apostasy, one person says, “Hey—this is all nonsense—and I’m not going to go along with it any more!” (The “then” of verse 16 implies a relationship between what happens there and the things that were being said in verses 14-15.) When someone actually stands up and says that, then someone else hears it and says, “Me neither!” Then they get together and start praying and encouraging one another, and as a result their witness together is more powerful than it was separately. These two find a third; those three convert a fourth; a fifth is emboldened by their example to come out of the woodwork; and then they are off to the races; and, before you know it, a full-scale revival is on.
I’m not just making this up. The First Great Awakening in America started with William and Gilbert Tennent and their “Log College” (a log with a teacher on one end and a student on the other) as an alternative to the nominal faith that even then was taking over Yale and Harvard. You’ve never heard of them? Among the others that they “found” were names like Whitefield and the Wesleys, who came over to help from England, and Jonathan Edwards. The modern missionary movement started with Adoniram Judson and one other student taking refuge from a thunderstorm under a haystack. That famous “Haystack Prayer Meeting” led to the greatest push for world evangelization since the First Century. The “Business Men’s Revival” started when one man, Jeremiah Calvin Lamphier, rented a room to hold a prayer meeting for business men on their lunch hour. The first several weeks nobody came. Then came one, a few, and it became one of the greatest revival movements of the Nineteenth Century. You might not have heard of it, because it got swallowed up by the next great social upheaval to fill our history books, the War between the States. Many of the men who were saved as a result of that effort went on to inspire great revivals in both armies during that tragic conflict, and as a result, many of the young men who died ended up in Heaven rather than Hell—all because of the faithfulness of one man who went looking for others of like-minded faith.
“Then those who feared the Lord spoke to one another.” That is how every great revival in history has begun. But even if it does not lead to the kind of nationwide or even worldwide revival that makes it into the church history books (It did not in Malachi’s day), it still leads to great blessing for the church. Why? Because even if nobody else notices, God does. “Then those who feared the Lord spoke to one another, and the Lord gave attention and heard it, and a book of remembrance was written before him for those who fear the Lord and who esteem his name. ‘And they will be mine,’ says the Lord of Hosts, ‘on the day that I prepare my own possession, and I will spare them as a man spares his own son who serves him.’ So you will again distinguish between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves God and one who does not serve him.”
First, God takes particular notice of this finding of one another on the part of his true children. The New-Testament version of this same idea is Jesus’ statement that where only two or three are gathered together, he is there in their midst in a special way. Second, it cements the ties not only between God’s people and one another, but also the ties between God himself and his people. “And they will be mine,” says the Lord of Hosts (verse 17a). Third, this unleashes the spiritual dynamic that leads to a reassertion of the difference between the church and the world. Indeed, the church cannot function properly without it. “Speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into him who is the head, even Christ, from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by that which every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the whole body for the building up of itself in love” (Eph. 4:15-16). If you want to see how that works, read the treatise on spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12:1-12. Each one contributes something for the growth of the whole body. That is why the author of Hebrews urges us not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together in Hebrews 10:25—not simply to lay a guilt trip on those who skip church, as too many preachers do, but because in verse 24 they were to “consider how to stir one another up to love and good deeds.”
When you cannot take your comradeship in the cause of Christ with your fellow professing believers for granted, yet that cause is the thing that consumes you, then you come to appreciate in a new way those faithful fellow believers in whom the same cause burns. They become important to you to the extent that the cause of Christ is important to you, and so you begin to seek each other out. The result is real Christian fellowship, and that is the engine that God uses in his grace to drive the train of revival.
Well, this makes Christian fellowship extremely important. It is not just one of the nice fringe benefits of being part of the church. It comes closer to being essential to the church’s very existence, not to mention its health and its faithfulness to its mission. We had better be clear therefore about what real Christian fellowship actually is. It is what happens when God’s true children find one another in the way that Malachi lays out here. What does that imply?
It implies first what true Christian fellowship is not. It is not just being together with other professing Christians, or even other real Christians. This is a good thing, and indeed a prerequisite to the real thing, but it is not Christian fellowship in itself. It is not just having church parties and outings. That is not a bad thing, and indeed may help facilitate the real thing, but it is not Christian fellowship in itself. It is not necessarily something that can be “scheduled” as part of a church program. In Malachi’s case, it seemed to be something that was happening in spite of the official program of organized Jewish religion!
What then is it? It is being pulled together with fellow believers because of your common love of Christ, which creates a bond you simply do not and cannot share with the unbeliever or with the merely nominal believer, a bond that transcends anything that might keep you apart and forces you together because it is the most important thing in your life. In Malachi’s language, that bond was that they “feared” the Lord, though they were surrounded by people who claimed to fear him but didn’t. It is being drawn together with a common agenda for mutual encouragement and support because you are focused on spiritual things: love for the Lord, commitment to his Truth, devotion to his cause. It is being drawn together with a common agenda for mutual encouragement and support because you are focused on spiritual concern for a wayward church and a lost world. What are we (together) going to do about it? It is focused on edification, which means not primarily what makes you feel good but what equips you for ministry. It leads to prayer, commitment, and action; it causes us to stir one another up to love and good deeds. It is the unleashing of a spiritual dynamic that pulls you and others closer to God. That is what happens when those who fear God begin to speak to one another in the way that Malachi has in mind and Paul works out in such detail. This is true Christian fellowship, and it is the great and critical need of the hour, no less now than it was in four hundred BC.
Why is real Christian fellowship the great need of the hour? Because it brings us closer to God and because it therefore makes the saints stand out as different from the world, in a way that encourages true spiritual seekers to look for answers among them. Lambert Dolphin became an atheist because he could explain everything that happened in the church as he knew it based solely on human secular psychology and sociology. I guarantee it was not a church that knew real Christian fellowship and the spiritual dynamic it unleashes! He was later converted to Christ by reading the Bible and met some Christians who were different from the world. Well, the Bible is still a powerful sharp two-edged sword. But make no mistake: Most people today are not going to read it at all unless they first see some difference between Christians and the world. In our day of lukewarm Christianity, compromised lives, vague doctrine, and going through the motions, the world—and the church—need desperately to see that difference once again. What is the key to their being able to see it? At least one important one is found in Malachi 3:16. “Then those who feared the Lord spoke to one another, and the Lord gave attention and heard it, and a book of remembrance was written before him for those who fear the Lord and who esteem his name. ‘And they will be mine,’ says the Lord of Hosts, ‘on the day that I prepare my own possession, and I will spare them as a man spares his own son how serves him.’ So you will again distinguish between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves God and one who does not serve him.”
May God make it so in our midst.
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams