We Christians enjoy being reminded that God has called us to be “a chosen people, … royal priests, a holy nation, God’s very own possession.” (1 Peter 2:9 NLT) We say we stand in the line of Israel, God’s chosen people, which the Lord called to be a “kingdom of priests.” (Exodus 19:6)
But do we understand what it means to be priests? Do we take to heart the responsibility of the priest before God?
The Lord told Malachi the purpose of his covenant with the priests was to bring life and peace to the people. This required them to live good and righteous lives in reverence for God, to pass on the truth of the Lord’s instructions, and to turn many from lives of sin. (Malachi 2:5-6)
We may be priests before God, but we have broken this covenant — not only those of us who are pastors and teachers, but those of us who stand in the rank and file of God’s kingdom of priests.
We preach against “abominations,” but turn a blind eye toward sins church people find more acceptable. We teach about the dangers of tobacco, alcohol, and harder drugs, but we fail to confront materialism, self-indulgence, and distraction from the mission Jesus gave us. We tell our people they will live forever in heaven, in spite of the fact they think and act just like the unregenerate world around them. Even many of the “good” churches — the ones with a heart for the lost and a passion for the nations — fail to mention the crucial detail that God turns his back on his people when they ignore the cries of the poor and refuse to do justice for the oppressed.
What was the Lord’s warning to his priests?
“Listen, you priests — this command is for you! Listen to me and make up your minds to honor my name,” says the LORD of Heaven’s Armies, “or I will bring a terrible curse against you. I will curse even the blessings you receive.” (Malachi 2:1-2a NLT)
“I will curse even the blessings you receive.” How else do you describe the wealthiest church in history, with the finest facilities, most uplifting services, largest seminary enrollments, and most numerous missionary force ever — that yet is declining in numbers and mobilizing fewer resources for the Kingdom of God?
When the priests had corrupted the covenant and failed to teach the people that God requires them to walk in his ways, God sent his watchmen — bold truth-tellers like Malachi … and Ezekiel.
The Lord warned Ezekiel the people would not listen to him, because they were hard-hearted and stubborn. “But look,” the Lord said, “I have made you as obstinate and hard-hearted as they are. I have made your forehead as hard as the hardest rock!” (Ezekiel 3:8 NLT)
The Lord placed great responsibility on the prophets he sent to Israel. Ezekiel was told that if he refused to warn the people immediately, he would be held responsible for those who died in their sin. Not only would he be guilty of the blood of the unrepentant wicked, he also would be held accountable for righteous people who turned away from righteous behavior. (Ezekiel 3:17-20)
“If righteous people turn away from their righteous behavior and ignore the obstacles I put in their way, they will die,” the Lord said. “And if you do not warn them, they will die in their sins. None of their righteous acts will be remembered, and I will hold you responsible for their deaths. (Ezekiel 3:20 NLT)
Not only would Ezekiel be held accountable for their deaths, but righteous people would die in their sins.
Righteous people dying in their sins? How can that be?
Though they were God’s chosen people, most Israelites did not walk day by day in the Lord’s paths. They participated in worship with great piety, observing the holy days and offering the required sacrifices, but their hearts were hard. Many of them tolerated or engaged in corrupt business practices. As a people, they turned a deaf ear to the cries of the widow and orphan and did not reach out in compassion to the stranger in need.
In Jesus’ words, they loved God and themselves, but not their neighbors.
Through Isaiah, the Lord declared, “These people say they are mine. They honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. (Isaiah 29:13a NLT) Jesus repeated the charge: “You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you, for he wrote, ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.’” (Mark 7:6 NLT)
The vast majority of American Christians today are no different than those Israelites. We worship with great piety, even intense emotion, and drop a few dollars in the offering plate. We bring a can of beans or old clothes for the church’s benevolence ministry, but we spend our time, talent, and treasure on ourselves. We shake our heads over stories about starvation in Mali or sex trafficking in Cambodia, then we go back to our daily routines. We look away from the gaggle of unemployed young black men on the street corner and the homeless camp under the highway overpass.
We have problems of our own to deal with.
What if those problems are God’s judgment on us for our apathy about injustice, our complacency toward the poor and oppressed? What if the Lord has cursed even the blessings he has poured out on us?
Are you a priest? If you are a born-again believer in Jesus Christ, the answer is yes. Do not fail to live a good and righteous life. Love your neighbor as yourself. Pass on the truth of the Lord’s instructions and turn other Christians from their sinful lives of materialism and self-absorption.
Are you a watchman? Do not shrink from speaking the truth, in love, to your brothers and sisters. Listen to the Lord’s promise to Ezekiel: “If you warn righteous people not to sin and they listen to you and do not sin, they will live, and you will have saved yourself, too.” (Ezekiel 3:21 NLT)
No, this is the kind of fasting I want: Free those who are wrongly imprisoned; lighten the burden of those who work for you. Let the oppressed go free, and remove the chains that bind people. Share your food with the hungry, and give shelter to the homeless. Give clothes to those who need them, and do not hide from relatives who need your help. Then your salvation will come like the dawn, and your wounds will quickly heal. Your godliness will lead you forward, and the glory of the Lord will protect you from behind. (Isaiah 58:6-8 NLT)
Mark Kelly is editor of Multiply Justice. Copyright © 2012 Kainos Press