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The terms of the Levitical covenant

A sermon on Malachi 2.5-7


by Tim Gallant

Congregation of Christ,

Throughout our study of the book of Malachi, we have seen God's concern for His honour, His glory, His name. The fundamental sin of the people in chapter 1 is that they are not honouring Him. The fundamental sin of the priests, both in chapter 1 and here in chapter 2, is that they are not honouring Him.

And God's jealousy for His glory means that He will defend it with the curses of the covenant. We see that in verse 14 of chapter 1: the deceiver who brings less than what he vowed to offer to the Lord is cursed. And likewise, we saw it last time when we looked at verses 1-4 of chapter 2: the priestly ministry, the priestly lineage, and the priests themselves are under a curse. God defends His covenant by defending His glory, and if need be, He does so by cursing His covenant partners.

But that, of course, is an extreme remedy. The covenant, after all, is first of all about blessing, not cursing. And so we need to ask: if God's central concern indeed has to do with His glory, His honour, by what means does He seek to maintain His own glory?

And this is where the calling of the Levites and priests comes in. The passage we are looking at this morning tells us just how they are called to promote His glory. Here, God defends the covenant of Levi by expounding its terms. We take note here of the gracious foundation of this covenant, in verse 5; the good beginning of this covenant, in verse 6; and the God-given mandate of this covenant, in verse 7. God is reminding His priests of the bottom line, reminding them that they themselves are meant to be instruments in promoting and defending His glory.

1. The first thing we notice when God defends the covenant of Levi by expounding His terms, is that He reminds the priests of the gracious foundation of this covenant. Verse 5 reads, "My covenant was with him [- that is, with Levi -], one of life and peace. And I gave them to him that he might fear Me; so he feared Me and was reverent before My name."

The covenant is founded in grace. Before we can understand anything else, we must understand that it comes upon God's own initiative. Man doesn't negotiate a fair deal with God. Nor does God come with mutually beneficial terms, so that there is a fair exchange: God gets $100 value from the covenant, and man gets $100 value.

That's not it at all. God says, "My covenant." The component parts of this covenant, God says, were things that I gave. It is all of My making, My giving, My design.

This is the way it must be. God is all-sufficient in Himself. He doesn't need man. He doesn't need us. We're slow to accept that. But it's a fact. Look in the mirror today and confess this: "God doesn't need me. There is no lack in Him, and no supply in me. God doesn't need me."

It's only when we recognize that, that we can have some appreciation of the nature of divine grace. It is a gift. The covenant with Levi was a gift. God didn't have to do this. But He did, because He is good, an overflowing fountain of all good, and He overflowed with that goodness and poured it out upon the sons of Levi.

What Levi was given, then, was not something he took upon himself. We learn as much quite directly from Hebrews 5:4: "No one takes this honour - that is, the honour of priesthood - to himself, but he who is called by God, just as Aaron was." The covenant is an honour, and it is a gift, a gracious gift of God.

Now, who is this covenant made with? In verse 5, God says, "My covenant was with him." Well, with whom? Is God talking about the entire tribe of Levi, which we might derive from the very name of this covenant, the covenant of Levi? Or is God talking specifically about a narrower group? After all, God here is addressing the priests in this passage, as we see in verse 1 and verse 7 - and not all Levites were priests. Complicating matters even further, we could ask if this covenant is narrower still. The language of "covenant of peace" is what we find with reference to Phinehas, way back in Numbers 25. That is, I believe, the only explicit reference to a special covenant among the Levites or priests. And Phinehas was an early figure in the high priestly line, and the Zadokites descended from him. In other words, that covenant might seem to us to refer to the high priesthood, or at most, the family of the high priest.

Without getting too far into the details, I think it is fair to say that God here is dealing with the priests as a whole. Certainly the concern is not merely with the high priest, since the word priests is in the plural. Perhaps the Levites are included too, but it must be remembered that at the return from Babylon, according to Ezra 2, the overwhelming majority of the the Levites who returned with Zerubbabel were priests - over 4000 of them, compared to less than 350 of lower-order Levites. And something similar can be said of Ezra's own company in Ezra 8: nearly 1500 priests and only a handful of regular Levites. So in point of fact, almost all of the Levites in Malachi's time were probably priests, anyway.

So God graciously gave these men the priesthood. It is His gift, and it is a covenantal gift. God tells us here in verse 5 just what was involved in this covenant.

"My covenant was with him, one of life and peace." Here God is reminding the priests of what He Himself had committed to providing for this covenant. God's "responsibility" was to give life and peace. In the original, these words are definite: the life and the peace.

These are very rich words. When God promises the life, He is not merely promising that you will exist. He is promising the blessings of His presence and fellowship. We are reminded of the life from which Adam and Eve were barred after they sinned. Even as God began to restore that life, already in Adam and Eve's lifetime, God promises to the priests that He will continue to restore it for them. We see this already in the fact that they serve in the temple, in the presence of God. Writers such as James Jordan have shown that the temple is modelled upon the Garden of Eden. The temple bears witness to God's program to restore the blessings of life which were lost when Eden was barred to men. And that is why it is such a privilege to be called to be a priest, because not everyone had equal access to the temple. There were various levels of access to God under the law, with the high priest at the highest level, and the rest of the priests next, and the remainder of the Levites just below them. You might say that under the shadows of the law, it was these men who in the old covenant had access to God in the cool of the day, to borrow the language of Genesis 2.

Like Adam and Eve, the Levites were given Garden tasks. The Hebrew words translated tend and keep in our Bibles are found in both Genesis 2:15 with reference to Adam, and in Numbers 3:7 with reference to the Levites. The priests and Levites were the ones given the task to tend and guard the temple, even as Adam and Eve were given the task to tend and guard the Garden. And that task was one of life, life of the highest order of blessing.

God also promised the sons of Levi the peace. The word commonly translated peace in our Bibles is shalom, a Hebrew word which is so common that even many of us English-speakers are familiar with it. Here again we have a rich word. It refers to much more than a mere absence of war or violence. It refers to health, wholeness, comprehensive well-being. In giving the covenant, God promises to take care of His priests on every level.

So that's what God gives. But in those familiar words from our baptismal form, "every covenant has two parts." God's side is life and peace. Notice what the covenant entails for His covenant partner: "And I gave them to him that he might fear Me." A more literal translation of this verse is: "My covenant was with him, the life and the peace, I gave them to him, and fear." Fear is set off from life and peace to indicate that this is the priestly responsibility, rather than God's, but it is included within the word them: it is part of the covenant which God gave. It is the part that God places upon the priests to fulfill.

So here we come again to the issue of God's glory, His honour - or, what is the same word - His weight. The priestly side of the covenant is to give God His due weight. That was Adam's calling in the Garden: to recognize the glory of God and fulfill his various duties with reference to that glory. And that is the centre of the priestly calling as well.

Ministers are not priests, but they too have this calling. The fundamental defining feature of the gospel ministry is the responsibility to walk in the fear of God. The office is a gracious gift, and the response required is to promote the glory of God. Preaching and pastoral ministry that is weightless, or that is man-centered, is at fundamental variance with God's own purposes for the pastoral ministry.

But then we must go further, because, as you know, by baptism we have been made a nation of priests. The closest thing that you will find in the Old Testament to water baptism is in fact the washing rite associated with the ordination of the priesthood. Consequently, we find, for example, in 1 Peter 2:9, that we are "a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own special people." Why? So that we may proclaim the praises of Him who called us out of darkness into His marvelous light. We have been made priests in order to proclaim the praises of God. In other words, in order to glorify God, to give Him His due weight and honour. Thus the fear of the Lord is in a real sense the defining responsibility of the Christian life. That responsibility, according to Peter's language, is a gift. It is a sign of God's choice.

So it is that the covenant of Levi is fundamentally a divine gift. Its foundation is gracious.

2. But there is more. As God defends the covenant of Levi by expounding its terms, He reminds His priests of the good beginning that this covenant enjoyed. He gives them a history lesson.

This is what we find in verse 6. "The law of truth was in his mouth, and injustice was not found on his lips. He walked with Me in peace and equity, and turned many away from iniquity."

What we learn here is that the requirements for Levi that God has set forth in His covenant are attainable by grace. The priests cannot protest, "But we're imperfect, so of course we cannot fulfill your requirements." Because the fact of the matter is, the sons of Levi have previously maintained these requirements. They have lived them out.

Scripture says that the fear of the Lord is beginning of wisdom. And we all know that there is indeed such a thing as wisdom. Genuine godly wisdom is indeed possible in this life. And if that is so, then the fear of the Lord must necessarily be attainable.

But we also stress that these requirements are attainable by grace. Covenant-keeping isn't something that simply belongs to us by nature. The order of Adam is covenant-breaking. Nonetheless, God overcomes our corruption to the extent that He equips us with faith and faithfulness. He did so with Adam and Eve themselves, and He does it throughout covenant history.

The fulfillment of the requirements of the covenant are attained by grace, and specifically, by grace in Christ. As we've stressed, the fear of the Lord lies at the heart of man's covenantal responsibility, and the fear of the Lord is the beginning, the foundation, of wisdom. And what does Paul write in 1 Corinthians 1:30? That Christ has become for us, through God's work: wisdom, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption. The wisdom that is the fruit of the fear of the Lord is granted to us in Christ.

The point that we need to see, then, is that we cannot think of covenant-keeping in the abstract. It is not about our powers and the bare requirements of the deity. It is about our relationship to Christ. In Christ, we find the path and place of covenant blessing. In Christ, we have the One who teaches and embodies the fear of the Lord.

We're not accustomed to talk that way; yet that's precisely what Scripture says. Listen to Hebrews 5:7-8: "in the days of [Christ's] flesh, when He had offered up prayers and supplications, with vehement cries and tears to Him who was able to save Him from death, and was heard because of His godly fear, though He was a Son, yet He learned obedience by the things which He suffered."

Christ, our Mediator and our Lord, was heard by the Father because of His godly fear. It is in this way, the writer of Hebrews continues, that He became the author of eternal salvation to all who obey Him, called by God as High Priest according to the order of Melchizedek [Heb. 5:9-10].

So it is that the fear of the Lord is found in Christ. We cannot give glory to God apart from Christ. We cannot have the beginning of wisdom apart from Christ. We cannot keep covenant apart from Christ. He is our wisdom, our sanctification, our redemption. His powerful Spirit unites us to Himself and causes us to partake of the rich nourishment of the vine.

God had graciously caused the priesthood to walk before Him. He had empowered generations of priests to maintain the fear of the Lord. Consequently, God can address these wicked priests in Malachi's time, and point out to them that their forebears walked faithfully with Him.

How was this faithful walking made evident? God says, "The law of truth was in his mouth, and injustice was not found on his lips. He walked with Me in peace and equity, and turned many away from iniquity."

The law of truth was in his mouth. In other words, Levi in the time of his faithfulness was not guided by his own personal opinions, or the sway of others. The Word of God was his norm, and he was ready to speak it.

Injustice was not found on his lips. This was his "negative holiness." He did not pervert justice. The law of truth in his mouth prevented him from departing into injustice. God's Word is a safeguard against wicked and unjust actions against our neighbour.

He walked with God in peace and equity. He walked with God, even as it is said of Enoch and Noah. His life was a life of fellowship with God; he was aware of his calling and his place as being before the face of God. And as he walked with God, he did so in peace and equity. Even as God gave him a "covenant of life and peace," it was his goal to "live out" that life and peace, to spread the blessings of the priesthood into the covenant community. This is how a priest who fears God lives. Walking with God is very intensely personal, but it is not private. It grants him a living knowledge of the glory of God, and the more he knows that glory, the more he wants to proclaim it and spread it, and the more he wants God's people to partake of its blessings.

And finally in verse 6, he turned many away from iniquity. That's what Phinehas did. He slew a Simeonite man and his lover in their beds for the sake of the glory of God. This taught Israel very vividly the seriousness of making light of God's requirements.

And it's also what the Levites did when Moses came down from the mountain and found all Israel engaged in idolatry. Moses said, "Who is on the Lord's side?" And the Levites lined up beside him and proceeded to kill 3000 men. This was divine justice, and it was heavy, but it was designed to turn the whole people of Israel away from their sin. These are the servants whom God commends: those who will not look to the countenance of their brothers, their families, their friends, but rather will look to the countenance of God, and fearing that countenance, will take extreme measures in order to lead God's people back into the way of holiness.

3. That was the good beginning of the covenant of Levi. In verse 7, God builds on this by reminding the priests of the God-given mandate of this covenant. "For the lips of a priest should keep knowledge, and people should seek the law from his mouth; for he is the messenger of the LORD of hosts." Here is the basic outline God Himself gives concerning how the fear of the Lord is to play out in the priestly ministry.

The priest is to keep custody of knowledge. He is to guard it, like a treasure. He is a custodian of truth.

We must understand, congregation, that like the priest, the pastor too is much more than a church-paid "friend to everybody." Pastors have responsibility to be personally involved with the flock, to be sure. But that personal involvement has a context, and it has content. The pastor must keep knowledge. This means he has a duty to guard the truth, to protect it. 1 Timothy 3:15 says that the church is the pillar and ground of the truth. Consequently, it is not surprising that pastors must exercise their office in terms of guarding the truth.

What this means also, is that the pastor must be serious about the truth himself. I've known pastors who were relatively indifferent toward anything theological, and were not all that devoted to putting the pieces together in their handling of the Scriptures. But it should be obvious to us that what is unknown cannot be guarded. In light of that, it is the duty of the congregation to give the pastor room to pursue the knowledge of God's Word, to give himself to it.

But this guarding is not a private activity. It involves proclamation. That's why God says that the people should seek the law from his mouth. God's minister is known not only as one who has biblical knowledge, but as one who is ready and willing to communicate it. The treasure which he keeps is not his own. He has been appointed to keep it pure in order to give it to the people.

Why? Because "he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts." He is not his own man. And although it is indeed correct to speak of him as a "servant of the people," that doesn't mean that the people are the boss. No, he serves the people by serving the real boss; his service to the people is only faithful by acting faithfully to his Sender. And that means that he must become the voice of God to the people of God. Not that he has to take this to himself. It goes with the territory. As he lives in the presence of God and pursues the Word of God as a treasure, and guards that treasure. It is there that he becomes equipped to be sent back to the people by God. And it is only by being faithful to the message he hears from God that he can possibly serve the people in any fruitful way.

The priest in the old covenant, and the pastor in the new covenant are both to be viewed as messengers of the Lord of hosts. When Pastor Barach comes, you must not expect him to be an unschooled "man of the people" - the whole matter of ministry is involved with knowledge - knowledge of the Word of the most high God. But neither ought you expect him to be an accurate ivory tower theologian. He is a messenger, and the Word that he proclaims is a Word he is commissioned to proclaim.

Sometimes the shoe will pinch. Sometimes you may wish the minister would stop talking. Sometimes you may prefer to be left alone. But it is the mercy of God that He does not leave you alone. He sends you a messenger.

And again this returns us to the idea of the fear, the glory, the weight of the divine Sender. Pastor Barach's calling among us is to be the messenger of a glorious God. And being such a messenger means affirming the "weight" of God. It means promoting that weight among us, the people of God. As we look forward to that ministry, let us prepare ourselves to reckon with the glory of God - a glory that is bigger than us, that challenges us. Let us more and more learn to love the Word of God, the Word which confronts us with our sins, the Word which confronts us with God's glory. Let's prepare ourselves to hear the Word of God and do it.

Amen.

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