What does faithfulness look like to you? God’s faithfulness? Human faithfulness?
What role does faithfulness play in our relationship with God? With Others?
What hurts faithfulness the most?
When you think of the prophet Malachi, are these the questions that immediately come to mind? Not for me (Michael). I have mostly heard Malachi referenced when people want to talk about hot button issues, like divorce or tithing. There is a good reason for people to go to Malachi for proof texts for these difficult topics, because the book speaks to them. Despite that, when I taught Malachi a few weeks ago, I opened my lecture not with questions about divorce or tithing, but with the above questions – questions about faithfulness. Why? Well I’ve been on a journey lately in my teaching to make the main thing the main thing. It can be so much fun (I say that with more than a hint of sarcasm) to dig into things that are mentioned briefly in Scripture, which have historically created a lot of discussion within the church; but the question I have as someone who teaches books of the Bible in context, is whether the author intended these things to be the focal point we have made them today. Was Malachi chiefly setting out the standard by which we are to measure how we are to give to the church? When divorce is mentioned, was his purpose to set up the exact line we are not to cross when it comes to this issue? Or are these two issues symptoms of something greater going on in the hearts of the people of God in the 5th century BC, when Malachi lived and wrote?
It was seeing how Malachi structured the record of his prophesies that led me to focus on faithfulness in my lecture. “The medium is the message,” as Marshall McLuhan said, and that includes the structure of the medium. If you want your audience to really retain your message, you will structure it to emphasize your main point; often that is done by repetition. The structure of Malachi can be viewed a chiastic, which is when there is an ABCDCBA type of format. In Malachi that goes: A 1:2-5 – God’s expressed love to His people; B 1:6-9 – priests who have cheated God; C 2:1-9 – Levites as messengers of God’s covenant; D 2:10-17 – faithless Judah and a call to faithfulness; C1 3:1-5 – future messenger of the covenant; B1 3:6-15 – people who have cheated God; A1 3:16-4:6 – God’s expressed love to His people. At the center of Malachi is marriage as a metaphor for the faithlessness of the people of Judah, but at each level of the structure faithfulness plays a role in what is being done right or wrong. God’s faithfulness is expressed in His love and vindication of the righteous. The people’s lack of faithfulness is expressed in the attempts to cheat God in sacrifices and tithes. Nothing speaks more to faithfulness than the image of covenant, whether covenant between God and His people, or between husband and wife. As Malachi makes this the centerpiece of his book, I think it is safe to say that the “main thing” for Malachi is faithfulness, so let’s keep the main thing the main thing.
Faithfulness was paramount for Malachi’s audience, but how does it apply to you and me? At the most basic level, faithfulness is about identity and integrity. When I asked what hurts faithfulness the most, the first thing that came to mind was dishonesty or a lack of integrity. It’s so hard to be faithful to someone who has no integrity. Integrity has been a big deal with me lately. Not in the sense of lying or stealing, but in the sense of trying as best as I can to have what I say I believe, line up with what I do. If I say I believe in an all-knowing, all-powerful God, what does that mean for how and why I pray? This is a question I am wrestling with daily, because I want to live out of a place that attempts to connect with what I believe. All this leads to identity. The covenant Israel had with God in the Old Testament was always meant to identify them as the people of God. If they kept the covenant stipulations, they were bound to look different from the nations around them. By not being faithful to the covenant, they let the nations around them form their identity and they destroyed their witness. For me this connects back to my attempt to have integrity in what I say and do. My identity will come from that place – maybe not my internal identity, but who people see me to be. I want that public identity to be consistent, maybe not perfect, but at least consistent. This might mean confessing when I have been inconsistent. Like when I say I follow a God of grace, but find it hard to show grace to others. I need to own that trespass, that missed step.
Where is God calling you to faithfulness? Maybe, like me, it’s in the area of integrity. Maybe it’s in the area of living out who you say you are. As I studied to teach Malachi, I didn’t expect to end up in a lesson on faithfulness, but God is faithful to provide the lessons I need, when I need them. Maybe this is a lesson for you today, too.