Staying the Course

Rebecca Van Noord

Proverbs 4:18–27

“May your eyes look forward and your gaze be straight before you. May the path of your foot be balanced and all your ways be sure. Do not swerve right or left; remove your foot from evil” (Prov 4:25–27).

These verses reflect someone who has incredible purpose. I imagine an acrobat walking a tightrope—knees bent, one foot carefully placed in front of the other, and nothing but a slender rope keeping him from plummeting to the ground. Such efforts would require incredible calm, effort, and focus—especially focus. The body naturally follows the path of our eyes, which is detrimental if we’re focused on the wrong thing.

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The idea of staying the course illustrates God’s path and purpose for us. When we act, speak, and follow that path, we are carrying out His will for our lives. But there’s a problem: We can’t. All of our efforts are tainted. Our knees are bound to buckle, we’re sure to misstep, and it’s just a matter of time before we swerve to our own disadvantage.

Before we lose hope, though, we can remember God’s sacrifice. Jesus’ work of redeeming us has reversed our fate. The threat is gone—and that changes everything. Our lives are infused with the incredible purpose of His costly death. We have a renewed sense of hope because of His resurrection.

The cross puts everything in perspective. It is the new focus of our gaze. From His sacrifice to the time when redemption is complete, we are meant to live intentional lives that reflect His purpose. Keeping our eyes on Him helps us to stay on the path.

How are you staying the course?

This article was originally posted in Connect the Testaments: A One-Year Daily Devotional with Bible Reading Plan.

Shelf Life Book Review: The World of the New Testament

Elliot Ritzema

The World of the New Testament: Cultural, Social, and Historical Contexts
Baker Academic, 2013

The New Testament was written in a culture vastly different from our own. If we want to understand what the New Testament writers intended to say, we must understand the context in which they lived and wrote.

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Joel B. Green and Lee Martin McDonald have gathered a cast of contributors to illuminate the cultural background of the New Testament. The 44 essays that compose the book fall into five sections: Jewish heritage, Roman Hellenism, Jewish people in the context of Roman Hellenism, literary context and geographical context. Notable essays include the following: McDonald on the chronology of the New Testament, Green on healing and healthcare, Nicholas Perrin on the imperial cult, Ben Witherington III on education in the Graeco-Roman world, Larry R. Helyer on apocalypticism, David A. DeSilva on Jews in the Diaspora, and Michael F. Bird on Josephus and the New Testament. Many of the essays feature maps, pictures and diagrams.

Each essay is a self-contained primer on a subject. Unlike many dictionaries, the essays are not simply about a subject in general; they focus on how each subject relates to the New Testament. This book is a welcome resource for anyone who wants to learn more about the world in which the New Testament was written.

Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Faithlife Corporation. Originally published in print, Vol. 6 No. 3

Tithe and You Shall Receive?

Douglas Magnum

“God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor 9:7) might sound familiar if you’ve heard a sermon on tithing lately. Many such sermons focus on this type of New Testament passage. But recently, I heard a pastor read Malachi 3:8–10, where God scolds Judah for robbing Him by neglecting to tithe ten percent of their produce. Then came the startling words that the pastor claimed as a promise for us today.

Test me in this … and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it (Mal 3:10).

The Bible says that if I give the church a full ten percent of my income, then God will bless me beyond my wildest dreams. Or at least that was the impression I got from the sermon.

Context

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The message that I would get only if I would give troubled me. It conflicted with everything else I had been taught about giving—that it should be willing, not coerced (2 Cor 9:5), and that it was more about the attitude than the amount (9:7). This “give and you shall receive” concept seemed uncomfortably like the rhetoric of those who promise worldly prosperity in return for contributions.

As I studied the text of Malachi, I realized this claim does not fit the historical and literary context of the book. Malachi was writing to the community of Jews who had reestablished themselves in Judah after the Babylonian exile. They had rebuilt the temple and Jerusalem at the prodding of the prophets (see Ezra–Nehemiah; Haggai). But there was one problem: The beautiful picture of restoration and God-given prosperity those prophets promised had not materialized. 1

Promised Prosperity

Malachi explains why this vision had not yet become reality: While the people had returned physically, they were still far from God spiritually. They had not kept their covenant with Yahweh. Yet they blamed Him for their situation: Clearly, He had changed His mind and decided not to bless them after all. God answers that charge in Malachi 3:6–7:

For I, Yahweh, have not changed, and you, O children of Jacob, have not perished. From the days of your ancestors you have turned aside from my rules, and have not kept them! Return to me and I will return to you.

God had not changed but neither had they. Before the exile, the prophets told the people of Israel they would be punished for their sin, but repentance could stop that judgment (e.g., Jer 9:12–16, 17:19–27). Their lack of repentance resulted in exile (Lev 26:33; Deut 28:36). Even now their restoration was the result of God’s mercy, not His response to their repentance (Isa 43; 48:9–11).

Blessings and Curses

So what exactly was God saying in Malachi 3:6–10? Would repentance result in overflowing blessing? That depends on how we understand the last few words of the passage. Many English translations say something like “overflowing blessing” (LEB; NRSV), “blessing until it overflows” (NASB) or blessing “without measure” (HCSB). Others take the phrase as a reference to meeting needs, like “blessing until there is no more need” (ESV; CEB; NCV). That idea of sufficiency and contentment aligns much better with the New Testament attitude toward wealth and giving (see 2 Cor 8:3; Phil 4:11), but the idea of “overflowing blessing” also fits the Old Testament context for understanding Malachi 3:10.

We can better understand this concept of “overflowing blessing” by looking at the biblical law codes found in the Pentateuch. These codes end with warnings about the conditions attached to the Israelites’ covenant with God (Lev 26; Deut 28). Disobedience would bring punishments such as famine, disease and invasion (Deut 28:15–68). Obedience would bring blessings such as agricultural abundance, fertility and military victory (28:1–14). The promised blessings describe a similar result as that described in Malachi 3:10–12. However, the conditional nature of these promises can easily be lost if we read only isolated fragments that say God will “make you successful and prosperous” or will defeat your enemies or will bless all your hard work.

We can work hard at obeying the letter of the law for the wrong reason, like tithing because the pastor says God promises to bless us if we do, and miss the reality that our attitude and intent are just as important as our actions. The prophets repeatedly call Old Testament Israel to a repentance that goes deeper than external obedience (Isa 1:11–17; Micah 6:6–8). Jesus also criticized the religious leaders of His day who similarly overemphasized externals and missed “the more important matters of the law—justice and mercy and faithfulness” (Matt 23:23).

Malachi 3:10 likely draws on the language of the covenant blessing in Deuteronomy, “Yahweh shall open for you his rich storehouse, even the heavens, to give the rain for your land in its time and to bless all of the work of your hand” (28:12), but the tithe represents the bigger issue of obedience to the covenant. Malachi’s audience still lived under the covenant based on obedience to the law. Their failure to tithe represented a continued failure to return to God. By alluding to Deuteronomy 28, the prophet was reminding the Jewish exiles otf their covenant relationship: You keep your part, and God will keep His. This covenant represented salvation and the restoration of their relationship with God—the ultimate overflowing blessing eventually provided to all through Christ.

In context, the passage in Malachi is about obedience and faith in God. Malachi 3:10 challenges Israel to test whether God will really keep His word. Bringing in the full tithe was a test of their faith. For Christians today, tithing should reflect faith and trust in God despite doubts over our own finances. We shouldn’t simplify Malachi 3 to a formula for “give-and-ye-shall-receive.” We’ll give for the wrong reasons—all the while missing out on the real message of Malachi.

Read more about Malachi in The Prophets as Preachers by Gary V. Smith. Go to Logos.com/BSMSmith

Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version (ESV).

Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Faithlife Corporation. Originally published in print, Vol. 6 No. 3


1. See also Isaiah 2; 11; 35; 49; 66; Ezekiel 36; 47; Joel 1–3.

The High Cost of Sibling Rivalry

Stephen Witmer

During my years in pastoral ministry, I have discovered a strange reality: It seems more conflicts occur within the church than without. This dysfunctional church-family dynamic is a far cry from the Apostle Paul’s admonishments to “Love one another with brotherly affection” (Rom 12:10). Shouldn’t people who have the Holy Spirit living inside them get along better?

The book of Obadiah offers a stark reminder of the rifts that can form when family conflict goes unchecked—and why it is so vital that members of God’s family treat each other with love.

Obadiah, the shortest book in the Old Testament, was written after the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem in 587 bc. It’s an oracle of doom against the nation of Edom. Judgment will fall upon Edom through a coalition of other nations, but the ultimate indictment will be from God Himself (Obad 2; see also Lam 4:21–22). And His punishment will be remarkably severe (Obad 5–6).

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Why such harsh judgment? Obadiah 10–14 tells us Edom had not only failed to intervene in the Babylonians’ destruction of Jerusalem—they had encouraged it and rejoiced over it (Psa 137:7; Obad 11–12). Taking advantage of the situation, Edom had looted Judah’s wealth and captured Judaean fugitives (Obad 13–14). On their own, these crimes against God’s chosen people would deserve a curse from God (see Gen 12:3). But Obadiah pinpoints another factor that makes Edom’s transgressions even more intolerable: Edom treated Israel like a stranger even though Israel was Edom’s “brother” (Obad 10, 12).

The nation of Edom was descended from Jacob’s brother, Esau (Gen 25:19–28). Though Edom was not part of God’s covenant people, God nonetheless continued to bless and provide for them (Deut 2:22). Because of their common ancestry, Israel and Edom were like “brothers” (Deut 2:4–5, 8). But the two nations did not act like siblings. They engaged in constant antipathy and war, with Edom revolting against Judah’s rule and each nation hating the other (2 Kgs 8:20–22).

For Obadiah, this “brotherly” relationship between Israel and Edom heightened the wickedness of Edom’s actions. The prophet Amos similarly noted that God judged Edom fiercely “because he [Edom] pursued his brother [Israel] with the sword and cast off all pity” (Amos 1:11, my emphasis). Apart from the superpowers of Egypt, Assyria and Babylon, Edom is condemned more often in the Bible than any other enemy nation, likely because it broke bonds of brotherhood and kinship. 1

As Christians, we’ve been adopted into God’s family. If God held Edom responsible for treating Israel with care, how much more are we responsible for loving other members of the body of Christ? The New Testament encourages us to love our brothers and sisters in Christ (1 John 3:16–18) and to do good to everyone—“especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Gal 6:10).

Although we might bicker like siblings, the Bible points us to a better way: family love within God’s family. As brothers and sisters in Christ, we are to be known by our love for one another (John 13:34–35).

Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version (ESV).

Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Faithlife Corporation. Originally published in print, Vol. 6 No. 3


  1. See Jeffrey Niehaus, “Obadiah,” in The Minor Prophets, ed. Thomas Comiskey (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 496.

Malachi as Cliffhanger

Eli T. Evans

The hero dangles by one gloved hand from the wall of a steep ravine. The heroine, lashed to the railroad tracks, struggles to escape as the train rushes toward her. The villain looks on gleefully, twirling his mustache. Will the hero fall? Will the heroine be crushed? Will the villain get away with it all? You’ll find out—in our next installment!

The cliffhanger, so named for melodramatic scenes such as this, is used to ramp up suspense and dramatic tension just before a break in the story. Cliffhangers tend to bring the conflict into sharp focus, sometimes by putting the main characters into impending danger, other times by suddenly revealing a plot twist or introducing a new character. The point is to keep the audience guessing about what happens next.

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Malachi is the cliffhanger to the Old Testament—not that the period between the Testaments is completely silent. (Many Christian communities recognize books that were written in the 400-odd years between Malachi and Matthew as Scripture.) Rather, Malachi is the last book of the “thus sayeth the Lord”-style of discourse that typified the golden age of Israelite prophecy.

Malachi sets a scene of impending doom: The people have returned from exile in Babylon, Israelite society is being painfully rebuilt and the temple worship is functioning once again—or would be, except that the priesthood is desperately corrupt. Malachi demonstrates how low the Israelites have sunk by putting a series of petulant questions into their mouths:

“How have you loved us?” Israel’s first failure is that they have forgotten the nurturing and preserving hand of Yahweh (Mal 1:2). “How have we despised your name?” By offering polluted food on the altar (1:6). “How have we polluted you?” By offering blind or lame animals as if they were acceptable (1:7).

At this point, the priests protest, saying “What a weariness this is!” (1:13). They apparently see no use in serving Yahweh in the proper way. Later, Malachi has them say that “It is vain to serve God. What is the profit of our keeping his charge or of walking as in mourning before the Lord of hosts?” (3:14). The fundamental issue in Malachi is a lack of real respect for God—the façade of the temple worship is there, but there’s no substance behind it.

The protests continue: “Why does he not [accept the offerings with favor]?” (2:14). “How have we wearied him?” (2:17). “How have we robbed you?” (3:8). The cumulative effect of these “hard words” against Yahweh is startling: When confronted with their sin, the priests stubbornly respond with slander, blasphemy and demands for more evidence.

The sins we see in Malachi are no different from those in Jesus’ day: cheating with the sacrifices, mishandling the tithes, profiteering, oppressing the poor and rampant divorce. “For the lips of a priest should guard knowledge, and people should seek instruction from his mouth, for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts. But you have turned aside from the way. You have caused many to stumble by your instruction. You have corrupted the covenant of Levi, says the Lord of hosts.” That’s Malachi 2:7–8, but it could just as easily have come from one of Jesus’ tirades against the “blind guides” who “shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces,” as in Matthew 23:2–36.

As Malachi comes to a close, all hope appears lost. The should-be-heroic priests are playing the villain while the fledgling nation of returned exiles dangles over the precipice by its fingertips. Will the priesthood remain corrupted? Will Israel and Judah join Edom as “the people with whom God is angry forever” (Mal 1:4)? Find out in our next exciting episode!

Just as the peril reaches its peak, the plot shifts, and a new character is introduced: “For behold, the day is coming” when the tables will turn and “the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings” (4:2). Malachi doesn’t say who this “sun of righteousness” is, but he does tease us with something to look forward to: “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before that great and awesome day of the Lord comes” (4:5).

Malachi’s cliffhanger ends abruptly with both imminent danger and two mysterious new characters. After a prophetic intermission of four centuries, a lone preacher appears in the desert, dressed in a hair shirt and belt, proclaiming repentance and prophesying like a man from another time. For someone who claims not to be Elijah (John 1:21), John the Baptist certainly dresses, speaks and acts just like him. John’s protestations notwithstanding, Jesus confirms that John is the prophet promised in Malachi 4:5—if we are “willing to accept it” (Matt 11:14). John the Baptist, “one like Elijah,” prophesies of this Jesus, this “sun of righteousness” (Mal 4:2). Thus the cliffhanger is resolved by the arrival of the only true hero in the story. There’s a new sheriff in town, stirring up trouble, ready to pardon any villains who will lay down their arms and follow Him, putting life and limb on the line to pull us all back from the brink.

Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version (ESV).

Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Faithlife Corporation. Originally published in print, Vol. 6 No. 3