Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – Malachi

Chill the champagne for when you’ve read this: we’ve done the OT! Sadly it’s downhill from here on as we tackle what my OT tutor at college used to call ‘The Appendix’. But first, what about Malachi? His name means ‘My messenger’ and it may be that 3:1, rather than being a prediction of John the Baptist, he sees himself in this role. He provides the final warning before the God whom the people say they want to meet actually turns up, but with judgement.


The OT ends with a whimper, not a bang, as Malachi, who appears to have ministered after Haggai and Zechariah, paints a picture of a nation in the doldrums. The building work may have been completed, but the hearts of the people and their leaders alike are far from God. In a series of condemning paragraphs the prophet challenges the people because they are casting doubt on God’s love for them, offering blemished sacrifices, getting divorced, dealing unjustly, holding back tithes, and speaking arrogantly about God. The priests particularly are condemned for their slipshod ministry and lack of reverence. It is a hugely disappointing picture after the high hopes for renewal expressed by earlier prophets. Has the nation really come to this?


The purple passage, much loved by Diocesan Stewardship Advisors, is the bit about tithing in chapter 3, but this particular failing has to be set in the bigger context of a nation whose hearts are far from God and whose behaviour shows it clearly. It isn’t surprising that money, which Jesus clearly warned us about as a rival god, is just one symptom of a deeply sick society, as it often is of a deeply sick church.


And yet this book is not one of blanket condemnation with no hope: there are clear pointers to courses of action which will bring health and renewal. Fear God’s name (1:14), teach knowledge (2:7), stay faithful in marriage (2:16), tithe properly: all these are ways out of this mess the nation is in. Common sense really: God has identified exactly what you are doing wrong, so just stop it!


But human effort alone is not going to save things. The other famous passage is 3:1-4, seen as having been fulfilled in John the Baptist and Jesus. After a herald proclaiming his coming, the Messiah will come to purify the nation’s leaders in a process described in terms of metal refining, where impurities are burnt up leaving only the precious metal. Those who are faithful to God (3:16ff) will be loved and treasured by him, while those who are not are ripe for a good burning. A key, and very challenging verse, is 3:18: ‘You will see again the distinction between the righteous and the wicked, between those who serve God and those who do not.’ The OT ends with a reminder that there is a black and white distinction between God’s people and those who are not, a theme which continues through the teaching of Jesus but with which we are most uncomfortable nowadays. Our job meanwhile, like that of all the prophets, is to call people to a knowledge and a recognition of who God is, what he demands of us, and how we may be purified to live and worship in holiness.

Reflections on Discipleship – Just do it!

My job at the moment is developing discipleship in one Anglican diocese, so as you can imagine I do quite a bit of thinking about what discipleship is, what it means, and what it looks like. Here are some random thoughts, gleaned from my reflection on the Bible and current thinking …

I love the quote from American philosopher Dallas Willard that

‘Discipleship is the conviction that Jesus knows how to live my life better than I do’.

If that’s true, it follows that obedience is just about the greatest and most helpful spiritual discipline there is. Yet in a society marked by an anti-authority mood, and a sense of my divine right to do just whatever I like, we find it so difficult just to submit and do what God tells us.

Enamel plaque Naaman BM.jpg

I was reading recently the story of Naaman, the proud but sick warlord of Aram, who heard that there might be a chance of healing if Elisha the prophet would pray for him. You can read the story in 2 Kings chapter 5. Naaman finally finds Elisha’s house, and of course expects to be treated with the respect and deference due to his exalted status as an army general. So to have a servant come and tell him to jump into the river Jordan seven times puts his back well and truly up. He goes away angry, presumably preferring the inconvenience and stigma of leprosy over the indignity of washing in a foreign river. But his servants, who are clearly devoted enough to their boss (and address him as ‘Father’), and feel able to help him to rethink, ask him if this is really a wise course of action. If the prophet had asked him to do some great heroic deed in order to get healed, would he not have jumped in with both feet? So why is the river Jordan such a problem? You never know: incredible as it sounds, it just might work. So he does, and it does, and he goes home cleansed, healed, and committed to the God of Israel.

I thank God for those servants who had a much better sense of perspective than their master. Reading the story made me ask myself about those times when I have simply gone off in a huff and refused to do what I know God is calling me to, and wondering what I might have missed out on because of my stubbornness. Thank God for people around me who have had more sense than I had, or who could retain perspective because they managed not to feel as affronted as I did.

In our Diocese we’re about to begin a major piece of work on stewardship, or ‘Generous Living’ as we’re going to call it. As an ex diocesan Stewardship Adviser I know how much hassle this is going to cause, and how resistant people are to the conviction I and many Christians have that I can live better on 90% of my income than on 100%. I know the financial gymnastics people will embark upon to tell me that we should give after income tax and not before it, or that daily newspapers and coffee in Starbucks are legitimately deductible from their tithing assessment. Disciples are those who have learnt, or are learning, that to ‘just do it’ will bring, as it did for Naaman, blessings which humanly do not seem possible.

Finance is of course only one example of our reluctance to obey, but it is one which Jesus spoke very strongly about. But if he really does know how to live my life better than I do, I’d better listen and obey. Who knows what I might lose out on if I don’t?

Reflections on Discipleship – Surprised by Generosity

My job at the moment is developing discipleship in one Anglican diocese, so as you can imagine I do quite a bit of thinking about what discipleship is, what it means, and what it looks like. Here are some random thoughts, gleaned from my reflection on the Bible and current thinking …

Is it just me, or do you sometimes get a bit despairing about Church as a whole? On a really bad day as my mind wanders I look around from my office desk and see thousands of ancient and often crumbling buildings populated by a handful of people in their 70s, whose only hope is for survival and whose only vision is for keeping the show on the road somehow? I see clergy worn out by the demands of up to a dozen, often fiercely independent parishes, each with its individual set of PCCs and other committee meetings. I see worship which often lacks the most basic of resources, and can feel flat and uninspiring. What on earth do I think I’m doing? I sometimes ask myself. What’s the point? As my Dad used to say ‘I don’t think church will ever catch on!’

But then I get up from my desk and get out and about around the Diocese. At the moment we’re in the middle of a set of roadshows around the Diocese, running study days around discipleship themes, and based around what it means today to live out Acts 2:42-47. You might think that actually to go out and meet all this deadness face to face would be a depressing experience. But to my surprise my perambulations have had exactly the opposite effect, as, to my shock and shame, I have encountered many real life disciples who really do get it.

Of course it is true that diocesan roadshows are a bit self-selecting, and you would expect the keen people to rock up for a day of study and learning. But I have been so encouraged by what I have seen and heard, and I have come to realise that, as he did in the time of Elijah, God still has those who really are his and remain faithful to him and hungry for him. It is a bit sad that for some people their discipleship is being lived out in the context of a church and under leadership who seem bent on doing all they can to prevent it, but I have been pleasantly surprised and excited to know that faithful followers of Jesus are still going for it.

People, it appears, genuinely do want to learn how to pray, how to serve, how to understand the Bible better, and so on. One lovely story came from a man I met at one of the roadshows who had been in a pretty well-paid job and who, in response to prayer and a call from his diocesan bishop years ago, had got into the habit of regular proportional giving. When he took early retirement and had to live on his pension his immediate plan was to continue the same proportion of giving but at the new significantly lower rate. But as he was praying he felt challenged by God to maintain his giving at the old rate. He decided to try this for a month or two, but expected that he would have to reduce it before too long. But, he told me with excitement in his eyes, we’re still managing fine, and happily giving on what his salary had been.


I love this story because it isn’t just about giving, good thermometer of our spirituality though that is. It’s actually a story of commitment, of prayer, of listening to God and obeying, and above all of the discovery of the joy which comes from full commitment to Jesus.

So with people like him around, I’m optimistic. And I’ve learnt that we see better from in among the people than we do from a desk.