Picture in your mind a line of bouncing, giddy preschoolers following behind an adult, doing whatever she did. If she hopped, they hopped. If she ran, they ran. If she sat, they sat. They perfectly followed every move she made. But, this adult leader was disobeying the instructions of her partner. So, he would say, “walk in a circle,” but they would sit down. He would say, “jump up and down,” but they would walk in a circle. I’m sure the parents of these preschoolers really appreciated us leading them to disobey!
It really was a strange sight to see so many children simultaneously obeying and disobeying. They were following the actions of their line leader, yet disobeying the clear instructions of the one giving directions. They did this because we all follow our leaders, especially if they are charismatic, fun, energetic, and compelling. Even though the children were rightly following their leader, they were literally walking in disobedience precisely because they were following a bad leader. The lesson we were teaching the preschoolers was that bad leaders bring culpability on and consequences to everyone they lead. In other words, bad leaders make bad followers.
The impact and influence of leaders cannot be understated. When leaders succeed, so do their followers. When leaders fail, so do their people. And the consequences of a leader’s failure is felt not only by him or her, but everyone around and under his or her authority. We see this dynamic in families, businesses, sports, schools, nations, and churches. There is a disastrous trickle down effect from leaders to followers when leaders fail. Wicked kings of Israel created wicked people and a wicked nation. Bad leaders make bad followers.
Every decision a father makes impacts his children. Every decision a principal makes impacts her teachers and students. The same is true for presidents and pastors. Character is maybe the most significant qualification for leaders. The sobering truth for spiritual leaders in particular is that moral lapses, spiritual apathy, and downright disobedience in his own life leads to moral lapses, spiritual apathy, and disobedience in the lives of his people.
Maybe the most frightening aspect of the priests’ failures in Malachi’s day is the fact that they weren’t ignorant of the Law. They knew what God required of them in their duty as priests. They were technically fulfilling their role by offering sacrifices. They were going through religious motions, which meant they knew the proper forms of worship. However, their right knowledge of God’s word wasn’t leading to obedience in their lives. Their knowledge of the Law only heaped more guilt on their heads. There was a serious disconnect between the priests’ heads and their hearts.
We learn much from others’ failures. The priests’ in Malachi’s day were not following the example set by Levi, the father of the Levitic priesthood. Unlike Levi, they were faithless, ungodly, and silent with God’s word. They weren’t fulfilling their roles of representing God to the people and the people before God. And their moral lapses led to moral decay and chaos in Judah. The priests teach us that biblical knowledge on its own is not enough to save or sanctify us. Beware of vain or empty biblical knowledge. What we do with our biblical knowledge is everything.
Although the priests were faithless to both the Levitic and Sinai covenant, God will forever remain faithful to his promises and his people. God’s desire to grant his people life and peace will not be frustrated by the failures of their earthly representatives. His people need a perfect priest who will offer right sacrifices on their behalf and teach them the law accurately and fairly.
We have such a priest in Jesus. He perfectly revealed God’s will to us and offered himself as a sacrifice for sin. With the coming of Christ, the Levitical priesthood has ended because Christ once for all offered himself on the altar of God for our sins.
Mathew Gilbert is Associate Pastor for Children and Preschool at The Church at Trace Crossing in Tupelo, MS. He is a student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and the author of Come to the Well: 50 Meditations to Fuel Your Joy in God. Mathew and his wife, Erica, live in Tupelo with their two boys, Jude and Jack