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“Purity, Perception, and Partnership in the Good News”

Dec.9/12 Mal.3:1-4; Php.1:3-11


In the matter of giving and receiving, we have a lot to learn. As we mature, we realize the blessing of pausing to be thankful for what we’ve received – a pause that prompts us to share in turn.

    Two little boys were each given a box of chocolates by their grandfather. The first boy took the package into his bedroom, tore into it, and stuffed the candies into his mouth until he was one big mess of smeared chocolate. The other boy unwrapped his package there in front of his grandfather. He opened the box and looked at all the candies. Then he raised the box to his grandfather and said, “Thank you for giving me this candy.Here – you have the first piece.”

    Which boy would you say does it seem appreciated more his grandfather’s gift? The one that offered it back to him. The Bible says,  “Honour the LORD with your wealth, with the firstfruits of all your crops...” (Pr 3:9) In today’s scripture readings we encounter two different groups of people not unlike those two little boys. One group showed contempt to God by their response to Him; the other honoured Him by partnering in His work, and offering their possessions sacrificially for the spread of His Good News.


The prophecies of Malachi were written about 100 years after the Jews returned from captivity in Babylon. The second temple had been rebuilt under Zerubbabel – a pale shadow of Solomon’s magnificent edifice. Unlike the Tabernacle in the wilderness and the first Temple, the Lord’s Shekinah glory had not miraculously appeared and filled the second temple. As the decades passed, the attitude of the religious leaders and the people became contemptuous toward the things of God. So when Nehemiah returned to Persia for half a dozen years about 432 BC, people were taking liberties in their religious practices. In Malachi 1:6ff God says the people have been showing contempt for His name by bringing animals to sacrifice that are blind, crippled, and diseased. 1:13 mentions that they say of the Lord’s table and their offerings, “What a burden!” and they sniff at it contemptuously. 3:5 lists other sins they’re committing:  “I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive aliens of justice, but do not fear me," says the LORD Almighty.” When Nehemiah the governor returns from Persia, we see him harshly rebuke the people for intermarrying with non-Jews, breaking the Sabbath, and failing to bring the required offerings for the temple service (Neh 13).

    Malachi’s prophecy is a warning that the Lord will refine His people. 3:2-3a,  “But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap.He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver.” When our obedience is faulty – when we’ve sinned and are dishonouring God – we need refining, purifying. The language is that of metallurgy, where ore from mines is heated until the slag can be removed from the pure gold or silver. Proverbs 17:3,  “The crucible for silver and the furnace for gold, but the LORD tests the heart.” Later in Malachi, the Lord also refers to His purifying as a bruning, 4:1:  “"Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace.All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and that day that is coming will set them on fire," says the LORD Almighty.”

    When Jesus came, He did purify the temple and religious leaders; John 2(14-16) records His driving out from the temple courts the moneychangers and those who sold cattle, sheep, and doves, exclaiming, “How dare you turn my Father’s house into a market!” And Matthew 23(13-35) records a long list of His rebuke to the Pharisees for their hypocrisy. “Woe to you...full of greed and self-indulgence.Blind Pharisee!”

    The apostle Paul uses similar language to warn us even believers’ deeds will be tested by fire at judgment day. 1Cor 3:13ff,  “his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light.It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work.If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward.If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames.”

    Besides refiner’s fire, another analogy the Lord uses through Malachi is that of a launderer’s soap (3:2): this would be a strong alkali used to make sure stains come out. Perhaps for us a parallel would be strong bleach like Javex – something that will get those whites really white! In Revelation 19(8) the bride of the Lamb is given “fine linen, bright and clean” to wear; John adds, “Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of the saints.”

    The priests in Malachi’s time had become complacent and corrupt. The ordinary people too were sinning greatly, inviting God’s judgment; John MacArthur comments, “Occult practices were clearly forbidden...but continued into NT times...Adultery also violated God’s Law, as did perjury, extortion, and oppression.”

    Do you find yourself indifferent to God at times? Are your thoughts meriting rebuke and refinement? Do we brush off adulterous thoughts or entertain and coddle them? Do we check our horoscope, thus honouring the occult? Are we absolutely truthful in what we tell others? You may not think you’re oppressing anyone, but can you be sure the clothes you’re wearing were made under fair and just conditions? A family member was posting on Facebook this week cautioning people not to buy from The Gap because so many workers in other countries had lost their lives due to fires at crowded sweatshops. Quote: “Since 2006, more than 600 garment-factory workers have died in sweatshop fires while sewing clothing for some of the biggest US retailers -- Walmart, H&M, JC Penney, Abercrombie & Fitch, Gap, and more.” BusinessWeek reports a Nov.24 fire at a Bangladesh factory claimed the lives of 124 workers; there were no emergency exits, and people were jumping from the 8-story building trying to escape the flames. Perhaps we suppose we’re decent folk - we keep all our oppression at arm’s length!


But in his letter to the Philippians, the apostle Paul is addressing people who are committed to God, not indifferent. They have proven they’re willing to throw their support and resources behind the Lord’s projects. In Acts 16, when Paul first preaches outside the town, Lydia - an enterprising and wealthy woman dealing in purple cloth - believes and is baptized, then prevails upon Paul and his companions to make her residence their headquarters. In 4:15ff of this letter we see evidence the Philippians have repeatedly sent financial gifts and personnel to help Paul in his missionary work:  “...in the early days of your acquaintance with the gospel, when I set out from Macedonia, not one church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you only; for even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me aid again and again when I was in need...I am amply supplied, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent.” So we see in 1:5 Paul refers to “your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now...” Then 1:7, “all of you share in God’s grace with me,” literally, “my co-sharers in grace”. Paul definitely felt they were “on his team” having repeatedly supported him through material gifts.

    Note the ATTACHMENT that is evident between Paul and the Philippians. 1:3 “I thank my God every time I remember you;” 1:4 “In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy...” In fact the term “joy” occurs more often in this letter than any other, 15 times! These people turned Paul’s crank in a VERY good way. 1:7 “I have you in my heart” - now there’s a term of close attachment! 1:8 “God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus.” Literally, the ‘bowels’ of Christ Jesus, the seat of inward affection, as in our stomach being upset by strong emotion, we’re “deeply moved” to our gut-level. Paul senses it is Jesus Himself putting such affection for the Philippians within him. Commentator Alford has said, “All real spiritual love is but a portion of Christ’s love which yearns in all who are united to Him.”

    They are ATTACHED – and ATTUNED. All these warm fuzzies don’t just dissolve into mush! Look at Paul’s prayer for these people he loves so much in vv9-10:  “And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ...” Let’s look at this in detail. Love abounding or overflowing in - what? More emotion? No, abounding “in knowledge and depth of insight...” The Greek word here means “perception, not only by the senses but by the intellect; cognition, discernment; of moral discernment in ethical matters.” That’s interesting – love and affection bolstering one’s thinking / perceiving / discerning faculties. Heart stimulating the head. Robertson comments on ‘love abounding’ - “may keep on overflowing, a perpetual flood of love...but with necessary limitations (river banks) ‘in knowledge and all discernment’.” You may be a very loving person, but is it “channelled” well in harness with knowledge and insight? Do you let your head inform your emotional outlay, or do you just gush?

    Paul continues in v10, “so that you may be able to discern what is best...” Originally, “test the things that differ.” The verb was used for assaying metals - is it high-grade ore? Is it 24-karat gold? This is quite interesting in context. We saw how Malachi prophesied about a refiner using fire to burn the dross out of gold or silver. Philippi the city had gold mines nearby! Paul may be consciously using a word from their local mining vocabulary to describe the “discernment” / testing / proving or examining ability God wants to develop in their lives. Perhaps similar to Hebrews 5:14,  “But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.” Discernment; testing; choosing this, not that.

    Robertson comments, “the first step is to distinguish between good and evil and that is not always easy in our complex civilization.” It doesn’t help when some churches muddy the waters. Kevin Flatt is an assistant professor of history at Redeemer University College in Hamilton who earned his doctorate studying the “survival and decline of the evangelical identity” of a major Canadian mainline denomination which has seen a major drop in membership numbers. A ChristianWeek article quotes Flatt: “Churches which grow tend to be those that have a very clear idea what they are about, and what distinguishes them from the dominant secular culture.” “Churches who downplay their distinctiveness seem to be struggling the most.People assume that if churches become less different from the dominant secular culture it will make them more popular.But the evidence doesn’t bear that out.” Mainline churches that pursue a strategy of accommodating themselves, and either “downplayed, loosened, or abandoned” things which were in conflict with dominant culture tend to lose members. Flatt adds, “If all churches are offering is an echo of what is offer[ed] in society or a nice time to get together with friends, those who are looking for something more – looking for meaning – are going to pass those churches over.”

    In Paul’s language, mature Christians are those who are “able to discern what is best” - not just what’s popular in culture; “to distinguish good from evil.” (Heb 5:14) That will quite likely result in you landing with a DIFFERENT set of values and mores than the people up the street.

    V10 continues, “(so that you may be able to discern what is best) AND may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ...” The word “pure” can derive from “to judge by sunlight” or “to sift by rapid rolling.” Again, given the context of gold mines in the region near Philippi, makes me think of “panning for gold” - sifting and squinting to look for shiny specks in the sunlight. The King James Version translates “pure” as “sincere”, i.e.genuine. MacArthur comments, “In the ancient world, dishonest pottery dealers filled cracks in their inferior products with wax before glazing and painting them, making worthless pots difficult to distinguish from expensive ones.The only way to avoid being defrauded was to hold the pot to the sun, making the wax-filled cracks obvious.Dealers marked their fine pottery that could withstand ‘sun testing’ as sine cera - ‘without wax.’”

    Does your faith stand ‘testing by sunlight’, is it sincere, genuine? Are there cracks in your Christianity – little imperfections you try to cover up, glaze over, hoping you can slip by under the radar? Titus 2:14, Jesus “gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.”

    Have you heard the expression in culture, “Love is blind”? John MacArthur notes, “Love is not blind, but perceptive, and it carefully scrutinizes to distinguish between right and wrong.”


Malachi is addressing those who are indifferent to God; Paul is writing to those who are passionate for God. In both passages, the desired outcome or goal is a right and fitting response to God’s grace. Malachi 3:3b-4,  “Then the LORD will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness, and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the LORD, as in days gone by, as in former years.” Php 1:11 “filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ – to the glory and praise of God.” Granted, as Paul will elaborate in chapter 3(9), it’s not a righteousness of my own through works of the law that makes me acceptable to God, but the righteousness of Christ who paid the penalty for my sin at the cross, His righteousness that I appropriate through faith, receiving and trusting what He’s done for me. But my response to such undeserved grace becomes what Paul calls “the fruit of righteousness.” That extends to how we use our energy and our resources.

    Note the terms Paul uses to describe the church’s financial gift to him in 4:18:  “...I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent.They are a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God.” How does another apostle, Peter, describe Christians and what we’re to be about? 1Pet 2:5,  “you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” Are we the “refined Levites” Malachi was talking about, presenting acceptable offerings?

    Offerings can be of various kinds. Hebrews 13(15),  “Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise – the fruit of lips that confess his name.” What we do with our lips can be an “offering” if we’re praising God; particularly if it’s a “sacrifice”, perhaps things are going wrong and others would be tempted to swear. Hebrews 13(16) continues,  “And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.” Offerings can be both melodic (singing / praising God with our lips) and material, sharing financially with those in need.

    Opportunities abound at this season to share with neighbours in need through the Christmas Bureau, Food Share, Salvation Army, etc. It can seem a little overwelming. But did you notice the great promise that comes right after Paul talks about the “fragrant offering” / “acceptable sacrifice” of the Philippians’ gift? Php 4:19  “And my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus.” That’s the context for us. The people at Philippi had the context of gold mines in the neighbourhood. We have the context of God’s grace, “His glorious riches in Christ Jesus.” When we honour Him by our offerings, He promises to supply all our needs.

    An offering can be material, giving money. You’re probably familiar with the Salvation Army’s kettle campaign: last year, donors across Canada gave more than $21 million through nearly 2000 kettles; these funds were used to support programs that assist more than 1.8 million people across our nation.

    But your offering may not be material; it may be something you say, sharing with others Good News in Christ. In Indiana in 2005, Diane Stark was moved by the compassion of a Salvation Army bell-ringer when she told him tearfully she had nothing to give. Just a few days earlier (ChristianWeek says), Stark’s husband had asked her for a divorce, and she nearly broke down when the bell-ringer encouraged her with kind words. She says, “The 2005 Christmas season was the most difficult time of my life.I was scared and without hope, and that bell-ringer’s kindness meant more to me than he will ever know.He reminded me that I wasn’t alone and I still had something to offer.” She never forgot that meaningful encounter, and in 2007 she and her children began volunteering for the Christmas Kettle Campaign. She adds, “It wouldn’t be Christmas without it now.It feels good to give back and I think it’s important to teach my children that helping others is something God expects of us as Christians.And we think it’s fun!”

    Sounds like what happens when love discerns what is best and overflows with the fruit of righteousness! Let’s pray.